enemy

Jonah, where is the love?

I said a couple of weeks ago that sometimes events happen during the week that must be addressed on Sunday.  Sometimes it works in reverse.  On Wednesday, Inauguration Day took place in an atmosphere of a, let’s say, rather argumentative transfer of power.  And look at who’s featured in today’s Old Testament reading.  It’s none other than that argumentative prophet, Jonah.  I don’t think he set out to be a curmudgeon, but that’s how he wound up.

1 jonI will connect the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah in a few moments.

Those who know nothing else about him remember that he’s the guy who got swallowed by a fish.  (Or was it a whale?  Whales aren’t fish!)

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah.  (I didn’t start going to church in earnest until I was in my twenties.)

Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those images that cling to a felt backboard.  Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me.  How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature?  He was there for three days and three nights!  How could he breathe?  Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

It really doesn’t work to just talk about chapter 3 without telling the rest of the story.  And what a story it is!

The book of Jonah has plenty of satire.  There are numerous places where the humor breaks through.  If you want a story filled with zany and sarcastic images, this is the one for you.  The first word of the book in Hebrew (וַיְהׅי, vayehi) means “and it happened.”  Once upon a time.

The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their wicked ways.  Something to understand about Nineveh is that it is a bitter enemy of Israel.  It might be the least likely place Jonah would want to visit.  He buys his ticket, but it’s for a ship sailing in the opposite direction.  It’s headed for Tarshish.  It’s thought to have been a city in modern-day Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

So basically, God tells him to go to one place, and he heads off for the other side of the world.

I don’t suppose anyone can relate to Jonah, that is, sensing God would have us do something—and our really not wanting to.  It’s “really not wanting to” to the point of running away as far as possible.

Very briefly, a storm breaks out, and the sailors are doing their best to handle it.  While the tempest is raging, Jonah is down below snoozing; he’s taking a nap.  They wake him up, and he winds up telling the crew to throw him into the sea, and the storm will cease.  Jonah is ready to die.  Anything is better than setting foot in that horrible city.  Even spending time in a fishy gullet beats it!

Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (Mt 12:38-41).  He sees himself in Jonah’s three-day tour of the deep.  The ancient Hebrews spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster dwelling in the watery depths.  Jonah prays, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2).  This is a picture of death.  When that critter upchucks the prophet—that must have been a serious case of indigestion—Jonah, figuratively, goes from death to life.  And just as Jonah emerges from the grave, so does Jesus.

I’ll jump ahead to chapter 4, which is after we find out his message has done its job.

This is not what Jonah wanted.  He was hoping they’d shake his hand, say “nice sermon,” and then go right back to their deliciously evil stuff.  Unlike Abraham, who didn’t want Sodom destroyed, Jonah’s already got a spot in mind with a good view of the city.  He’ll set up his lawn chair, kick back, and get ready to watch the fire fall!  Okay Lord, smite them, O mighty smiter!

Unfortunately for Jonah, God has the best interests of the city in mind, and Nineveh is spared.  This is where we’re treated to some of that argumentative character I mentioned at the beginning.  In verse 1, the Hebrew word for “displeased” appears twice, and the word for “angry” (חׇרׇה, charah) literally means “hot,” “to burn.”  One might say Jonah is blazing with fury.

Here’s where I connect some of the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah.  He would rather die than have things work out for the Ninevites.  Does that sound familiar?  When we watch the news networks, when we peruse social media, it seems like it would kill some people to say something good about “the others.”  I would rather die than give them a thumbs-up!

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As for Nineveh, things work out so well that when the king hears Jonah’s message, he not only repents but he also issues a decree.  “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7-8).

Even the animals have to repent!

Maybe it’s clear by now that Jonah is a bundle of contradictions.  He senses his God-given duty, but he fights like the devil against it.  He sets off on the longest journey he possibly can and finds himself back at square one.  The thing that he believed would destroy him becomes the vehicle of his deliverance.  The message of the grace and forgiveness of the Lord becomes in him an occasion for anger and bigotry.

Jonah almost literally has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his job.  He’s successful in his God-given task, and you better believe, he’s mad as a wet hen about it!  And yet Jesus sees in Jonah a lesson for others.  That’s the power of grace in action.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us.  Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up.  He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city.

There is another connection between Inauguration Day and Jonah, and it’s a contrast, thanks to Amanda Gorman.  At 22, she is the youngest poet in US history to appear at an inaugural event.  Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” begins with these words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast.” [1]  Maybe Jonah can relate to that.

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["There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."]

She also references words from the prophet Micah.  Speaking of the vision of the Lord’s embrace of all peoples, we hear, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mi 4:4).  Vines and fig trees are signs of prosperity.

What a contrast.  Micah speaks of hope and courage, and Jonah sits under a bush, stewing with anger!

Still, we hear the words of Jesus.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Inauguration Day was four days ago.  How are we doing with loving our enemies?  Must we regard each other as enemies?

(By the way, the last verse in that passage, verse 48, has created plenty of confusion.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless.”  Rather, it means “complete.”  Jesus is saying we are to be completed, we are to be perfected.  In the same way, the US Constitution’s “a more perfect union” doesn’t mean a flawless union.  If that’s the case, Lord help us!)

Now, back to love!  Danielle Kingstrom speaks about love, saying, “Love is…not an easy phenomenon to engage.  It comes out of nowhere and rams into you like a semi-truck on the freeway.  It smashes all your senses and discombobulates your reason.  Of course, people are afraid of it!  It’s an explosion of accident and attention all at once.  What the heck do we do with energy like that when it surges?”[2]

Here’s a lesson for Jonah, and here’s a lesson for us.  She adds, “Love doesn’t have to decide what to ‘do’ about certain groups of people until love is face to face with the person.”  We can be face to face with people in a way that exudes disgust and disdain and dread.  So Jonah, where is the love?  (The Black-Eyed Peas asked that same question.)

“Love is like a mirror…  It shows you where you need to grow…  The thistles and thorns will stick us—it’s challenging to see a reflection of ourselves that we hadn’t expected.  But love is unexpected like that.”  It’s so easy to simply dismiss someone as lacking comprehension or lacking character.

And here’s a crazy thought: even if we hang on to those attitudes, even if we still look on them as enemies—even if we’re still not yet ready to make that step toward freedom—we come right back around to Jesus.  Love ‘em anyway!  Let’s take the actions, and refrain from the actions, that make life harder for them.  We don’t have to wait until bad stuff happens to us.  We can help each other walk a silver, if not a golden, path on this planet.

It’s like the question God poses to Jonah at the very end of the book.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).  I like the way the natural order is included in God’s concern.

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  At least, we’re not told the answer.  What is our answer?

As we enter a new political landscape (and they do come and go), let’s learn a lesson from Jonah—and from Jesus.  When we love our enemies, we must first deal with the enemy within.  (I need to learn this as much as anyone else.)  To the extent we have division and fear inside ourselves, we project division and fear outside into the world.

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We need to realize that we are worth loving.  We need to realize that we are loved.  We are loved by our Lord, but to really experience it at the flesh and blood level, we need love face to face.  There are those who never see that.

Let’s love our neighbor and love our enemy.  Who knows?  We might find they’re one and the same!

 

[1] www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35268337/amanda-gorman-the-hill-we-climb-poem-biden-inauguration/

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/daniellekingstrom/2021/01/no-love-let-us-remember-that-we-know-love/


light, an epiphany

As we learn more about the frightening arsenal that was present at the Capitol building, in and around it, we realize what a “bullet” we dodged.  As horrendous as the loss of life was—and even one is a deplorable tragedy—it could have been much worse.  Many of the rioters were carrying firearms.  Someone even had several Molotov cocktails on hand!

The fact that the attack occurred on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord has not been lost on many.  Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation,” is usually illustrated by the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.  It speaks of the light of Christ shown to the Gentiles, to all the nations.

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I have developed a new appreciation for Epiphany and the season of Epiphany.  I’m not speaking of magic, but the reality and power of that light, with the prayers of the people, had to have some salutary effect.

Is there a lesson to be learned?  Without a doubt, justice must be done, but if we stop there, we cheat ourselves.  Laying aside the violence at the Capitol (and the threats that continue), our country still suffers deep divisions.  Like it or not, we have to live with each other.

Does compassion have anything to say to us?  “Hold on now,” some might say, “how dare you suggest that?  These are enemies, despicable enemies.  And we know we’re right!”

Now look into a mirror.  What do you see?

Compassion is not weakness.  It is not surrender.  It does not ignore crimes.  It takes a great deal of strength.

(On a side note, here’s a question.  Does compassion correlate to anything physical?  Can it be measured?  There is an episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, “The Cosmic Connectome,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that might touch on that.  At the 3:30 mark in the trailer there’s a hint of what the episode says about such things.)

One of my favorite poems on light was written by Brian Turner in his book, Here, Bullet.  He is a US veteran who served in Bosnia and Iraq.  Turner speaks of Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.)  One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.  The poem is titled “Alhazen of Basra.”

2 blog“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldnt ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the minds great repository
of dream, and whether hes studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

We have much to learn from Epiphany light.


good guys and bad guys

When we’re little kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms, at least I did.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and in my opinion, rather cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize it’s not simply a question of black and white, but shades of gray.

To be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  Life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were small.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

It seems like we fall back into a childish view in every election season.  I love the way commercials are designed.  (That is, love in a sad way!)

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Here’s a template on how to make your opponent look like a jerk.  First of all, portray them in black and white images, or maybe use muted colors.  An ominous sound effect is a nice touch.  Make sure they are speaking in slow motion.  That really looks sinister.  Equally effective is taking their words out of context, so it seems like they’re agreeing to something terrible.

Also helpful is a voiceover going along the lines of, “If So-and-So is elected, this is what you can expect.”  In the background show a car engulfed in flames.  Perhaps use a distraught family who can’t pay their medical bills.

If your commercial includes the candidate you’re promoting, change to bright, shining colors.  Include happy and triumphant music, people smiling and hopeful.

I think that’s a sufficiently cartoonish way to produce a commercial.  It is also depressingly cynical.  Clearly, there will be policy differences, but if you could speak to the person alone—with no cameras, no listening, in complete confidence—I think you’d find no one honestly believes their opponent favors the horror show we’ve just seen.

Why begin with these stark portrayals?  Hold that thought.

The author of the Third Letter of John calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is very likely someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, we could also call him the “Presbyterian.”)

He praises Gaius and Demetrius, but he castigates a fellow named Diotrephes.  In verse 11, in a back-handed sort of way, he suggests he is “evil.”  If we were to read 3 John in a quick and superficial manner, we might think we’re getting one of those two dimensional renditions of human behavior.

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[This fellow with the dreamy green eyes wants to know.]

Certainly, there’s a lot more to it than that.  We shouldn’t think the conflict pictured here is just a question of clashing personalities.  Even though 3 John only has fifteen verses, there’s plenty going on below the surface.  There are issues of love, hospitality, and power.

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First, he wants to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!

Unfortunately, there’s something else that has compelled John to write the letter.  He feels the need to issue Gaius a warning.  As I just said, he alerts him about Diotrephes.  John’s relationship with Diotrephes has become, let’s say, “problematic.”  Gaius needs to keep his eye on him.

He says, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9).

Here’s a question. “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  There was a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escaped me at the time, decided I would be a good person with whom to, let’s call it, display unfriendly behavior.  He never challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive responses.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

In retrospect, I understood he fit the profile of someone who was bullied at home, maybe by an older brother or a father.

It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.

Although, we’re told “bully” originally had a very different definition.  “‘If you called someone a bully in the sixteenth century, you were crushing hard on them.  The word bully was initially a term of endearment.  Bully comes from Dutch boel “lover” and evolved to mean sweetheart.  But it came to mean “blusterer” or “harasser of the weak” by the seventeenth century.’  So next time you get trolled, just tell your bully sweetheart that you love them too.”[1]

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In any event, John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[2]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

“Are you going to do what I say and tell these people to hit the road?  If not, you might find yourself hitting the road!”

We need to see this in context.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  The church is becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.[3]

It’s likely the conflict pictured here isn’t an isolated event.  It seems almost inevitable that when a movement enters into second and third generations, its nature begins to change.  Questions of authority arise.  Who has the right to do what?  Questions of identity arise.  Who are we?  Who are we not?

In verse 9, John gets to the business of naming names.  He does not say, “There’s a certain person I’m thinking of.”  No, it’s “Diotrephes, that low down dirty dog!”

This is where it might be helpful to hear Diotrephes’ side of the story.  It may or may not be convincing, but at least his voice would be heard.  And there are those who say he’s not completely out of line.[4]

In any event, this speaks to a problem with our own culture.  We have a tough time in listening.  We’re slow to listen and quick to speak.  We’re slow to listen and quick to judge; we’re quick to put labels on people.  It’s difficult for us to pray because we don’t want to listen.  We drown our spirits with noise.

Now, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first,” to shove people out of the way.  He spreads “false charges,” and keeps others from making friends with those he doesn’t like (vv. 9-10).  He actually is the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates to support our sisters and brothers who want to work with the truth (see v. 8).

How do we support each other?  Obviously, there are lots of ways: with words of loving encouragement—and with words of loving correction.  We support each other with open hearts and with open wallets, to the extent we can.  We don’t give to the church simply to pay salaries and pay the bills.  We give because we love God.  And here’s a crazy thought.  We give in order to support ministry and mission beyond our walls.

The spirit of “Diotrephes” is portrayed as willful and pushy.  The spirit of “Gaius” is portrayed as open and unpretentious.

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[5]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

“The little river said, ‘I can become a big river.’  It worked hard, but there was a big rock.  The river said, ‘I’m going to get around this rock.’  The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

“Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall.  Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through.  The growing river said, ‘I can do it.  I can push it.  I am not going to let down for anything.’

“Then there was an enormous forest.  The river said, ‘I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.’  And the river did.

“The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down.  The river said, ‘I’m going to go through this desert.’  But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river.  The river said, ‘Oh, no.  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to get myself through this desert.’  But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

“Then the river heard a voice from above: ‘Just surrender.  Let me lift you up.  Let me take over.’  The river said, ‘Here I am.’  The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud.  He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

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“There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves.  But there is the voice that comes, ‘Let go.  Surrender.  I will make you fruitful.  Yes, trust me.  Give yourself to me.’

Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.

We can see Diotrephes as the river when it wasn’t ready to listen and Gaius as the river when it’s receptive and wants to work with, rather than to work against.

So we all have the spirit of Gaius and the spirit of Diotrephes within us.  And Jesus Christ welcomes all of us, that is, everything within us.  We present our willfulness and pushiness to Christ, the one who welcomes those good guys and bad guys.

For those in our lives we deem as “good guys and bad guys,” as people of the new creation, we are called to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ep 4:32).

 

[1] medium.com/exploring-history/10-shocking-origins-of-some-common-words-489c0b987a76

[2] Revised English Bible

[3] Georg Strecker, The Johannine Letters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 262.

[4] Strecker, 262.

[5] www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html


peace able

On Thanksgiving (while watching my beloved Dallas Cowboys put in another lackluster performance—this time against the Bills!), a Target commercial was aired several times with the wonderful news that Black Friday would start at 5pm.  Mind you, this was on Thanksgiving.  Banu and I were surmising how lucky those employees were to have the privilege of working on a holiday in order to make their corporate overlords a few more dollars.  (Well, in all honesty, she said nothing about “corporate overlords.”)

But then there was more good news: twelve hours later, many employees had the privilege of opening their doors at 5am.  Banu wondered who would get up that early just to go shopping!

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Of course, that’s not the worst of it.  Maybe you saw some advertisements proclaiming Black Friday sales running throughout the entire month of November?  We invented a holiday dedicated purely to the acquisition of money (going from “in the red” to “in the black”), and predictably as these things go, it metastasized.

(Still, Black Friday has darker meanings.  For example, there were the crazed crowds in 1950s Philadelphia who came into the city for the Army-Navy game on Saturday and did some shopping the day before.  Many of them took advantage of the commotion and helped themselves to a “five finger discount,” to the extreme annoyance of the Philly cops.)

I asked Banu about her first reaction to Black Friday, and she described it as “suffocating” and “a black hole.”

Why do I start with Black Friday, since it has come and gone?  It seems to me that it symbolizes the way we think of Advent—if we think of it at all.  We too often fill our lives with that which really isn’t very important.  Indeed, the very mention of Advent often elicits yawns and sometimes, actual irritation.

(There have been times in our ministry when, in the context of worship and other events, Banu and I have had—I’ll say—“snarky” questions posed to us, such as, “Is this Advent-y enough?”)

Here’s something from A Child in Winter, a book of devotionals by Caryll Houselander.  It covers Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[1]

She speaks of those who fill up their lives with “trivial details.”[2]  She says, “They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support.  They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death.”  (Yikes!  There’s a pleasant thought.)

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I wonder how often we fit that description.  We too often dread the things that make for peace.  We run hither and thither (if not with our bodies, then at least with our minds).  With all of our scurrying, we ignore—we are unaware of—the luminous holiness all around.  Trust me; I am directing this to myself more than to anyone else.

The prophet Isaiah knows a little something about people scurrying around, turning from the things that make for peace.  He is active during the last part of the 8th century BC.  At this time, the Assyrian Empire is gobbling up much of the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel gets gobbled; the folks in the southern kingdom of Judah are nervous.  They don’t want to be gobbled!

The way chapter 11 begins doesn’t seem to let us know of these things, that is, Assyria and its ambitions.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1).  This business of stumps and branches and trees goes back to chapter 10, where God tells his people, “do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod” (v. 24).

The chapter ends on this note: “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall” (vv. 33-34).  So there’s part of the background with Isaiah and the Assyrians.

Why get into this stuff about a shoot, a tiny little stalk, emerging from a seemingly dead hunk of wood?

When I was a teenager, my dad chopped down a tree in our yard.  It was a hedge apple tree.  If you’re familiar with those trees, you know the hedge apples they produce wind up being the size of softballs.  You don’t want someone throwing them at you!

3 isAnyway, I thought the stump that was left would behave like most stumps—just sit there and do nothing.  However, within a couple of weeks, I noticed a little green sprig appearing just inside the bark.  Soon, there were other sprigs, and they continued to grow.  Eventually they became stalks, and in time, the stalks developed into little bushes.  In a matter of months, the bushes had intertwined and kept reaching skyward, well over my twice my height by then.

If I was surprised by the way new life emerged from that stump, imagine the surprise generated by Isaiah’s poem.  The biggest part of the surprise is that the shoot comes from the stump of Jesse.  That is Jesse, mind you, the father of David—the David who would be king.

In the following verses, we see that this shoot, this branch, will be a ruler like none other.  This ruler will possess and exercise wisdom like none other.  Here’s a thumbnail sketch of this leader’s qualities (vv. 2-5): “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord…  with righteousness he shall judge the poor…  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.”  All of that sounds like expectations of a David-ish nature!

So what’s all this with Jesse?

Walter Brueggemann talks about this.  “David’s family and dynasty run out in failure, no king, no future, no royal possibility, only a stump.  But, says the poet [and prophet Isaiah], the stump will produce a shoot, a shoot of new life that was not expected… the new David, the new possibility of shalom,” a new kingdom, a peaceable kingdom.[3]

4 isBasically, the Davidic line has all but died.  The lofty goals have not materialized.  So let’s start from scratch, so to speak.  Let’s go back to Jesse.  And for the sake of fairness, let’s include David’s mother, who unfortunately, the scriptures leave unnamed.  However, Jewish tradition says her name was Nitzevet.[4]

This new David, this new sovereign, will reign in an era of harmony and serenity.  What does it look like, this peaceable kingdom?

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Everything in creation “will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (vv. 6, 9).

Here’s Brueggemann again: “The old enmities, the old appetites of the food chain, the old assumptions of the survival of the meanest, all of that is subverted.  The wild will not stay vicious, because the coming one, marked by righteousness and justice, will overrule raw power in the interest of new possibility.”[5]

As Christians, we see the coming one as the true messianic figure, the ultimate Son of David, Jesus the Christ.  That’s what the Advent season is all about.  Advent means “coming,” and so we celebrate the one who has come, the one yet to come, and the one who is always coming, who is always arriving, in our lives right now.

As for Isaiah, his message is one of assuring the people.  But it is an assurance that will cost.  “We must repent,” he says, “to turn around, and to hold on.  The Assyrians are threatening.  But stand fast.  The peaceable kingdom is on the way.  We will have to wait in the darkness before the light arrives.”

5 is

[Holy Darkness: Formless and Void]

We have a similar message during Advent.  Our enemies might not be an invading empire, but we do have enemies, nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s largely true that our enemies are within, the struggles we face—the struggles in which we engage.  As noted before, we don’t like that uncomfortable space, that uncomfortable silence.  We want to jump right over it, to get it in our rear-view mirror.  But that’s not what Advent is about!

“This is the intention of Advent,” says Jonas Ellison.  “It’s a sacred stillness in the darkness before the triumphant joy of Christmas.  It’s where we sit in the ‘blueness’ apparent in this oft broken world and human experience.  When we grow up, we become more attuned with the suffering in the world—and in our own lives.  We can’t override this.  When we do, it festers.  Advent is the season [in which] we sit calmly in the darkness as we await the light.”[6]

He mentions growing up.  (“When we grow up.”)  That fits with the title of his article, “Advent Makes Christmas Something that Kids Can Mature Into.”  Ellison wonders about an idea I imagine we’ve all heard, that “Christmas is for kids.”  He reflects on the surface-level and theologically shallow way we so often celebrate the season.  Please don’t get the wrong idea—he treasures and finds joy in the festivities and gifts and mistletoe.  (Okay, I added the “mistletoe”!)

Yet, he dreams for his daughter.  “I hope to give my daughter a meaning of Christmas that she can mature into as she grows older and experiences the weight, depth, and density of life.”  (I’m intrigued by that term “density of life.”)  He continues, “I pray that Christmas isn’t an extended time of consumerism in order to attempt to cover up her wounds wrought from this oft broken human experience.  I pray she can sit in the darkness with herself knowing she’s not alone.  Knowing that others are sitting in that very same place and God is embracing us all even before the ‘light’ comes.”

We don’t like to wait—especially waiting in the darkness, even if it is holy darkness.  The massive weight of our society and economy shout, “Why wait?”  It’s hard for Advent to compete with that.  There’s a tidal wave that would prevent us from pausing long enough to do the “Advent” thing of reflecting, and as Isaiah would hope for, of repenting.  That means to stop, to look around, and to set ourselves on the path of active expectation.  (Or perhaps more to the point, to allow ourselves to be set on the path of active expectation.)  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).

“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

 

[Here is the artist’s description of his work, “Holy Darkness: Formless and Void”]

This sculpture is number 1 of 3 in the חשך קדוש series and is based off of the phrase תהו ובהו (prounounced tōhū vābōhū) - which is translated as "formless and void" in Genesis 1.  "תהו ובהו" is written on both side walls of the drawing in a mixture of acrylic paint and gel medium, with the name יהוה (the Divine Name of God in the Hebrew Bible generally vocalized as Adonai or HaShem) written in blue on the back wall.  The very simple statement that the sculpture makes is "Even in the formless and void places of life, God is still there." The sculpture is meant to give the sense of being under water, with a bit of light coming through the surface of the 'water' from above.

 

[1] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[2] Houselander, 9.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Poem: Subversion and Summons,” Journal for Preachers 35:1 (Advent 2011), 33.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm

[5] Brueggemann, 34.

[6] medium.com/graceincarnate/advent-makes-christmas-something-that-kids-can-mature-into-cd5b5503687e


to know me is to love me

How many of you have ever played “truth or dare”?  (That might serve as a question for “truth”!)

Let’s first start with “dare.”  Depending on who you’re playing with, it might require setting some guidelines, such as not daring someone to do something illegal—well, at least not too illegal.  In addition, if members of the opposite sex are present, that also might require some guidelines!

Now, for “truth.”  When we played, anything was fair game.  Anything.  Someone might begin with “truth,” but after being forced to answer the question, from then on, the selection would be “dare.”  That might seem a little less risky.  You know, we don’t want to give out too much information.  Sometimes there’s a fear of exposure.  We don’t want a light shined on just anything!

There are other examples of not wanting to be known too well.

Sometimes it might involve a child, who upon discovering the door to the garage locked, decides to take a piece of wood and jam it into the lock, hoping the substitute key would do the trick.  It might involve the sister of the child being blamed for the misdeed and suffering the sanction of being spanked.  It might involve the guilty child finally coming clean well after the fact and suffering no retribution, since by that time it’s but a distant memory.  By then, it’s okay to be known too well.

1 ps 139
Beth LaNeel Turner

Of course, that doesn’t sum it all up, but there is the basic thought of being known to an uncomfortable level.

In Beth Tanner’s The Psalms for Today, she states, “A psalm is a whole thought, even if it is lengthy.”[1]  So if we go along with that, Psalm 139 would be no different.

In fact, we can see that whole thought in a nutshell right in verse 1.  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”  Period.  Another version says, “Lord, you have examined me and you know me” (Revised English Bible).  The Hebrew word (חׇקַר, chaqar) for “search” can also mean “investigate” or “explore.”  The psalmist is saying, “Lord, you’ve done a pretty thorough job in taking inventory of me.  I think it’s safe to say: you know me, warts and all!”  The rest of the psalm is taken up with unpacking, or laying out, that verse.

There isn’t any one way to divide up the poem, but I’ll lay it out in unequal sections.

The first eighteen verses look at being known by the Lord in different ways.  The next four verses take a decidedly different turn.  We are treated to a startling searching and knowing of a vile nature (to say the very least).  The final two verses serve to encapsulate all that has gone before.  The psalmist finally makes a request of God, a plea of protection.

I won’t go through these in exhaustive detail; I’ll deal with them in a selective fashion.  And of course, I don’t have the final word on this!

Verses 2 to 4 deal with thoughts and words.  The poet says to God, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”  Even before speaking, “before a word is on my tongue,” Lord, you already know what I’m going to say! (vv. 2, 4).  There’s no point in playing the game, “Guess what number I’m thinking of.”

Verses 5 to 10 show the utter futility in trying to hide from the Lord: even if the psalmist “[takes] the wings of the morning and [settles] at the farthest limits of the sea” (v. 9).  If you remember the story of Jonah, the disobedient prophet, he was told to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.  However, since Nineveh was an enemy of Israel, he wanted God to destroy them.  So he booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, at the other end of the Mediterranean, basically, the end of the world.  But God found him anyway.

2 ps 139

Please understand, we don’t have to see the poet being upset that the Lord’s knowledge is everywhere!

Then we come to verses 11 and 12.  Not even the darkness provides cover.  I imagine we can see this in different ways.  The psalmist could either be grateful or grieved that “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [the Lord]” (v. 12).  We’re not sure about our writer’s intent; we need some light shed on the matter.  When we deny knowledge to someone, we indeed keep them in the dark.

Something these verses speak to is the matter of secrecy.  Secrets are tricky little boogers.  On the one hand, it’s definitely necessary to keep plenty of things secret.  Giving out too much information (like we saw earlier) can do tons of damage.  In addition, it can just be an annoyance.

On the other hand, secrets can be harmful, even deadly.  Secrets have a way of infiltrating themselves into systems: systems of family, of congregations, of the workplace, whatever.  There can be a dark secret, never exposed to the light, which can take up residence and thrive.  It can even pass from one generation to the next and continue down the line.

Still, darkness is not always bad.  Madeleine L’Engle wrote about this in her book The Irrational Season.  “When we deny our wholeness, when we repress part of ourselves, when we are afraid of our own darkness, then the dark turns against us, turns on us, becomes evil.  Just as the intellect when it is not informed by the heart becomes vicious, so the intuition, the subconscious, when it is forcibly held below the surface, becomes wild, and until we look at it and call it by name, our own name, it can devour us.”[2]

3 ps 139I’m reminded of Jesus in Mark 5 when he encountered a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus asked for a name, and the reply was, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (v. 9).  Jesus rendered them powerless and the man was delivered from them.  They were no longer able to devour him.

Whatever dwells in the dark needs to be named.  It needs to be brought to light.  It needs to be “searched”; it needs to be “known.”  But it also needs to be searched and known by God.  If we’re doing this by ourselves, we can do a lot of damage!

Moving on, I said I wouldn’t go into great detail, so I’ll say about verses 13 to 16 that the psalmist is fascinated and celebrates being “wonderfully made” (v. 14).  Being known by the Lord to the very core of one’s being is an occasion for praise.  Verses 17 and 18 speak of the impossibility of fully grasping the mind of God.

And so, we come to verses 19 to 22, and all I can say is, “Here we go!”  The psalmist does an imitation of my dog when he shows his teeth.  At such times, he is not in a charitable mood.  It’s time for growling, much like the language we hear our friend using.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me” (v. 19).  What on earth has happened to this psalm?  We’ve gone from acknowledging and celebrating the all-knowing and ever-present God to a call for vengeance to be exacted.

Eric Peels, Old Testament professor in the Netherlands, talks about it.  “Among the offensive passages from the Old Testament with prayers for the downfall of the adversaries [these verses are] unique.  Nowhere else is the hatred against enemies expressed so directly and wholeheartedly…  If Psalm 139 had ended with…verse 18 it would have been one of the most beautiful songs in the Book of Psalms.”[3]

(And just in case you were wondering, the lectionary reading does indeed end at verse 18!)

4 ps 139

So what do we make of it?  What do we make of the abrupt transition to “I hate them with perfect hatred”? (v. 22).  In Hebrew, it’s literally “with complete hatred I hate them.”  Our friend Eric continues, “By hating God’s enemies the poet relates to God’s own hatred of the wicked and his curse on them.  By completely taking a stand for God the poet chooses a world of blessing and goodness, of truth and justice.”[4]

God’s enemies are my enemies.  True enough, but this isn’t about any actual feelings of fury, either on God’s or the psalmist’s part.  It’s about choosing a life of integrity or iniquity.

Having said that, there’s the danger of reversing the order into “my enemies are God’s enemies.”  (But that never happens, does it?)

So now we come to the end of the psalm.  Verses 23 and 24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  We’re back to “search me” and “know me,” but now it’s a request; it’s a plea.  As said before, our writer is taking all we’ve heard and putting it before the Lord.

Spare me from wickedness and all the madness that comes with it.  Something like, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The psalmist is truly at peace with being known well by God.  It is life itself.  No matter what secrets the psalmist has, no matter what enemies, confidence in the love of God is boldly affirmed and cherished.

That’s true for us.  No matter what secrets we have, no matter what enemies we have, we have confidence in the love of God.  That love has especially been revealed through our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The all-knowing and ever-present God is love.  Without a doubt, we can say “to know God is to love God.”  That love is imparted to us, and so each of us can say “to know me is to love me.”

Wouldn’t that work well with either truth or dare?

 

[1] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 213.

[3] Eric Peels, “‘I Hate Them with Perfect Hatred’ (Psalm 139:21-22),” Tyndale Bulletin 59:1 (2008): 35-36.

[4] Peels, 47.


no fear

Were any of you bullied when you were in school?  It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone tried to pick fights with you (or maybe did pick fights!).  Among girls, bullying rarely ends in fisticuffs.  But I won’t speak for my sisters; you can recall your own experiences!  We can think of many different ways someone can be bullied.

1 1 jn 4There was a particular fellow in high school, who for some reason I never figured out, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never overtly tried to pick a fight, but when he was baiting me, I knew if I responded in an aggressive way, it would be something that he welcomed.  Kind of like a “make my day” sort of thing!

I’ll admit—I was intimidated by him.  I was afraid of him.  Still, aside from that, I just wasn’t interested in fighting, period.  I wasn’t interested in fighting anybody.  Maybe it had to do with being raised in a loving family.  Our home was not a fearful, violent place.  It was a safe place.  I don’t know about my friend from high school.  I don’t know what his home life was like.

Fear can be a controlling factor in our lives.  Sometimes it hides behind other emotions, for example, anger or despair.  Bullies are people filled with fear, and they project that fear out into the world.  A bully who’s been given authority—especially great authority—is a dangerous thing.

In her book, The Scent of Jasmine, Patricia McCarthy, changing the focus to faith, says, “There is no place for fear in the Christian life, not because we manipulate our emotions, but because we trust our risen Lord.  We choose to trust rather than to fear.  We choose to let God protect us, rather than defend ourselves.”[1]

The idea that we choose to fear, given what I just said, probably sounds strange.  We might object, “I just can’t help it!”

It might be useful to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fear.  Fear of fire…fear of wolves encircling you, growling and showing their teeth…fear of your wife—that’s healthy fear!  Fear of going outside…fear of taking risks…fear that keeps you pinned down—that’s unhealthy fear!

Clearly, every person has her or his own story, and there isn’t one easy remedy, but it seems that, in some way, we do choose that latter kind of fear.  Several times in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not fear.”  And in today’s epistle reading, we see that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18).

2 1 jn 4

Much of our fear deals with being left out, with being rejected, or with being denied the material necessities of life.

When he was a pastor in Clinton, Mississippi, Stan Wilson wrote about that kind of fear.  He said their church had “an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need.”[2]  Whether it’s someone out of work, someone with a medical need, whatever, they would come together and find ways to help.  It might have been through a benevolence fund, churchwide garage sale, or some other creative means.

During a Bible study one time, Wilson asked the people there, “Why not make it official?  Why not state out loud that no matter how bad it gets, we will be there for one another?”

He says, “I didn’t get an answer at the Bible study.  In fact, the very mention of the subject seemed embarrassing, as if I had violated a taboo and uttered that which must not be spoken.  I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other.  We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level: our bank balance.”

(Actually, I can think of other more intimate, private levels, but for the moment, I’ll go along with Wilson!)

3 1 jn 4

The author of 1 John deals with this very thing.  In chapter 3, we’re asked the question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv. 17-18).  And in today’s reading, we’re reminded, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 8).

Wilson said he didn’t doubt that the members of his church loved each other.  He just wanted them to publicly proclaim it.  Unfortunately, in our society, we tend to have a fear of commitment.  In fact, our culture runs on fear and disordered desire.  And that stuff infects the church.

But the church, when it embraces its identity, is counter-cultural.  He wonders, “What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another?”  I wonder about that myself.  What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?  This congregation does that better than some others, but what would it look like to take it even further?

“We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

“With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves.  We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order.”

4 1 jn 4How can we do that?  For example, how can we break the grip of what Jesus calls “Mammon”: money and possessions, that become an idol, a false god?  Again, there isn’t one easy remedy.

Matthew and Mark tell us of a rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking about eternal life.  Drawing on the targeted advice Jesus gives him, there is one good way to deal with Mammon.  Just give it away!  That helps prevent wealth from setting up shop in our hearts.  (If you ask me if I practice what I’m preaching, I might need to respond, “Are you asking me how often I do that?”)

Recall the reaction of the young man.  Mark 10:22 says, “When he heard [what Jesus said], he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  He was used to the advantages his wealth provided him.  It had become part of his identity.

Something that’s part of my identity is white privilege.  It enables me to avoid the day-to-day crap that my black brothers and sisters deal with.  Sam McKenzie, Jr. talks about “racial wealth.”[3]  The rich young man has financial wealth.  Too often, I’m oblivious to the wealth I have.

A couple of weeks ago, on the way back home from our trip to Tennessee, I was pulled over by the police not very far from home.  The officer said my taillights weren’t on.  (Which was true.)  I gave him the registration for our rental car, and he went back to his car to check things out.  He came back and said he would let me go.  After driving away, I asked Banu, “I wonder what would have happened if I were black?”  I honestly don’t know.

Recognizing our privilege can be fearful, because it calls us to action.  It calls us out of our comfort zone.  It calls us to hear stories that we possibly would rather not hear.

We have to confront our fears, and we have to do it with love.  That is, we must do it with love if we are to be Easter people.  Otherwise, we deny the resurrection power Jesus gives us.

5 1 jn 4The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi, who “was afraid of lepers.  One day he kissed a leper and the fear vanished.  It is important to note that the fear vanished after he kissed the leper, not before.  Before the fear left him, Francis had to take the risk of loving…

“There is a mutuality here in terms of cause and effect.  It is necessary to work against fear if we are to try loving our enemies, and it is absolutely necessary to risk loving our enemies if we want to be free of fear.  Like St. Francis, we need to risk acts of love before we experience feelings of love.”[4]

Why, at this point, do I bring in love of the enemy?  Besides the fact that Jesus stresses the need for it, “love of the enemy” speaks to so much of what we fear.  It is so darn hard to love those we consider enemies, whether consciously or subconsciously.  It requires a setting aside of self.

According to our scripture reading, the remedy for fear is love.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (v. 18).  Earlier I asked, “What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?”  Can we take that one step more?  How do we translate that love among us to the outward community?

How do we go from the church father Tertullian, who famously reported the saying about Christians, “See how they love one another,” to living that here and now?  How do we live the call, and loving encouragement of Jesus to live a life of no fear?  Are we plagued by an inner bully, a bully who needs to hear again the warning—and the reassurance, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

I imagine we can see how that is warning.  It does sound stern.  However, can we see it as reassurance?  I sure need to.  Sometimes my love grows cold.  I need the fire of the Holy Spirit to set me aflame.  When I am floundering and drifting, when I do not know God, God is merciful, for God is love.

6 1 jn 4

Verse 13 says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”  (I’m going to draw on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, those blessed Pentecostal folks!)  Do we yearn for the Spirit to fire us up again, to burn with holy love?

By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, we will tell those bullies, “We have no fear, because we live in love.”

 

[1] Patricia McCarthy, The Scent of Jasmine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 46.

[2] www.religion-online.org/article/ties-that-bind-1-john-316-24-john-1011-18-acts-4-12

[3] medium.com/@SamMcKenzieJr/white-privilege-its-stuck-in-the-pages-of-the-bible-764dea10aaa5

[4] McCarthy, 60-61.


church as frenemy

We’ve all heard the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  Actually, some people fuse those two words together and come up with “frenemies.”  We can have a love/hate relationship.  Unfortunately, the church is not immune to that.

Of course, we see in the news the scandals of sexual and financial misconduct in the church.  It seems to be an almost routine story, whether it’s something fishy going on in the local congregation, or at the hierarchical level.  I’ll admit to becoming somewhat desensitized to it.

1 frenemy

Henri Nouwen, a beloved spiritual leader who died in 1996, had many thoughts on this very issue.[1]

“When we have been wounded by the Church,” he says, “our temptation is to reject it.  But when we reject the Church it becomes very hard for us to keep in touch with the living Christ.  When we say, ‘I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,’ we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too.”  There’s the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water.

He goes on, “The challenge is to forgive the Church.  This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness.”

I definitely agree with him on that.  And worse than that, far from asking our forgiveness, sometimes the church reprimands those who point out its errors.  Often it does it in ways using intimidation, shame, and even physical violence.  It must leave Jesus weeping tears of sorrow.

So we don’t have to look very far to find our own frenemy.  I’m sure we can easily find those who think of us that way!

We find such characters in our gospel reading.  In Mark 12, Jesus is teaching in the temple, and not everyone is happy with what they’re hearing.

Jesus turns his attention to the scribes.  These were people who were primarily teachers of the law.  When reading the New Testament, we might get the impression they all were a bunch of bad guys.  That isn’t the case.  It’s true many of them did question Jesus about what he was doing and teaching, but they all didn’t have the same motivations.

Like the fellow in verse 34, who sees the wisdom in what Jesus is saying, some of the scribes do their job with sincerity.  Then we have the scribes we meet in today’s reading.  There are always some who give the rest a bad name.  That’s often true, no matter what group we think of.

2 frenemy
Henri Nouwen: “The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness.”

Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (vv. 38-39).

Please note: the focus is not on the actions themselves, but on the fact they like displaying themselves while they do them.  It’s not about walking around in long robes, but being a show off.  It’s not about being greeted with respect in public, but the sense of entitlement that gives them a feeling of being better than others.

Listening to Jesus, what expressions are on the people’s faces?  Are they shocked?  Are they thinking, “What has he done now?”  Or are they smiling?  Are they laughing?  Does Jesus act out “walking around in long robes” and “being greeted with respect”?  In the verse right before this, Mark has just told us “the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (v. 37).

Whatever the case, in verse 40, things really do get serious.  Jesus says of the scribes, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”  If those boys don’t shape up, they’re going to be in a world of hurt!

We don’t know precisely what that bit about “devouring widows’ houses” is about.[2]  Some say he’s talking about a function of the scribes in which they serve as trustees of widow’s estates.  (The idea being widows can’t be trusted with their dearly departed husband’s property!)  For their service, the scribes get a percentage of the assets.  And surprise, surprise—embezzlement often occurs.

Other people say Jesus is addressing the religious system itself.  Funding for the temple is an economic drain on the widows—and on all of the poor.  Nothing gets Jesus quite as ticked off as robbery disguised as piety.

After this, the story we hear about the poor widow is the perfect illustration of the system sticking it to the helpless.

But what really tops it off for Jesus is “for the sake of appearance [they] say long prayers.”  In the previous chapter, Jesus exposes the greed behind the system of sacrifices when he goes into the temple.  He tosses out the moneychangers (who rip people off with unfair exchange rates); he knocks over their tables.  That’s the point of his protest.  It’s not because they’re selling things; it’s because they’re cheating people.

But I like the way he specifies “for the sake of appearance [saying] long prayers.”  In Matthew 6, right before what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns against “[heaping] up empty phrases” with “many words” (v. 7).  Actually, any prayer done for the sake of appearance is messed up.

Still, that emphasis on long prayers can be quite liberating.  God is far less interested in any eloquence we might think we have than what comes from the heart.  And incidentally, the mere fact that I’m a minister doesn’t mean God cares about my prayers any more than anybody else’s.  (Including being called on to pray at public events!)

One of the primary documents of Christian monasticism is the Rule of Benedict.  Written in the sixth century, it includes this about prayer: “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.  Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.  In community, however, prayer should always be brief.”[3]  Notice it says, “in community.”  If you’re all by yourself, pray as long as you like.  In those moments, you’re not performing for anybody; it’s just you and God.

3 frenemy

Those warnings about prayer help to keep us from using faith as a cover for less honorable motives.

So, to that point, who has been hurt by the church?  I began by talking about sexual and financial misconduct.  There are other ways: being ignored, disregarded, being the object of gossip.  Pope Francis spoke about “the terrorism of gossip.”[4]  He half-jokingly added, “which is even worse than an occasional physical confrontation.”  All of these things corrode our relationships as the body of Christ.

And yet, as Henri Nouwen reminds us, we are called to believe in the church.[5]  He says, “The Church is an object of faith.  In the Apostles’ Creed, we pray: ‘I believe in [among other things] the holy Catholic Church.”  (The Nicene Creed says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”)

The creeds do not “say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

“Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God.  But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers.  God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.”

I won’t deny believing in the church, loving the church, forgiving the church, can be a really tall order!  Especially for those who’ve been hurt by the church, that can sound like a slap in the face.  And to be honest, I’m not sure I agree with everything our friend Henri says about this.

I remember when Banu and I were at our first church; this was in Nebraska.  We met a group of people who were part of the Baha’i faith.  (By the way, I agree with much of what they teach.)  Some of them had had bad experiences with the church.  A couple of them referred to “churchianity.”  They found in the Baha’i faith the acceptance and spiritual connection they did not find in the Christian church.

4 frenemyOf course, the terrible, bitter irony is that the church is the creation of Jesus Christ.  The church is the body of Christ now in the world.

As we are the church in this place and in this time, what are some ways in which we can check ourselves?  What are some ways in which we can act—and not for the sake of appearance?  Where are we on that strange continuum of “frenemy”?  No doubt, sometimes we’re more “friend,” and other times, we’re more “enemy.”

As those who Jesus calls friends, may we be there for others who have been hurt by the church.  Let us be a living example of God’s love, grace, and peace.

 

[1] henrinouwen.org/meditation/forgiving-the-church

[2] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark12x38.htm

[3] from Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 90.

[4] www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/11/07/pope-francis-urges-religious-to-crack-down-on-terrorism-of-gossip

[5] henrinouwen.org/meditation/believing-in-the-church


the state of the union, imho

I checked, and the title of my sermon this time last year was “Independence Day Theological Reflections of One American.”  Quite a mouthful.  This year, “The State of the Union” is a bit shorter.  And if delivering a “state of the union” address means I’m getting too big for my britches, I do add “in my humble opinion.”

1 independence

Right away, I freely admit hearing the prophet Jeremiah chew people out at the temple and hearing Jesus telling us to love our enemies is not your typical Independence Day sermon.  However, I do have an explanation.  But we’ll get back to it in a few moments!

I can’t resist tossing something in about paying your taxes.  Did you know it’s a spiritual discipline?  Well, sort of.  In Romans 13, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 7).  And that, coming from a guy who knew all about being persecuted by the government!

So there is that political dimension, which makes sense.  Words like “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr), in the first century, are not just theological, but they’re also political.  The terms “Lord” and “Savior” are titles attributed to the emperor of Rome.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues (which are qualities bullies possess), are especially insistent about it.  They crave adoration with a vengeance.

2 independence

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on Facebook and hope that you’ll get plenty of “likes.”  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

Neither the northern kingdom of Israel nor the southern kingdom of Judah had empires.  Still, like most countries, they had their own brands of patriotism.  Banu has told me on several occasions when she was growing up she was taught, “There’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!”

Jeremiah faces a situation in which the temple is being used as a tool of the state.  It has been co-opted by patriotism gone wild.  The temple has been turned into an idol.  The threat of the Babylonians, who have been gobbling up countries right and left, has the people of Judah fearing for their lives.  And that’s understandable.  But in times of fear, even paranoia, the temptation to grab easy answers can be almost irresistible.

That is what’s going on here.  There is a belief that God will not allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed.  In the midst of uncertainly, while the winds are howling, there’s a safe haven in the storm—and it’s the symbol of national pride and where the priests do business.

Unfortunately, as the prophet points out, if your conduct is criminal, if you disregard the distressed, if you neglect the needy, the temple won’t protect you.  But talk like that flies in the face of the official line.  Jeremiah is tired of the propaganda, the empty slogans, and he makes fun of them.  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).

3 independenceAnd he’s saying all of this at the temple of the Lord!  The prophet calls out the political and religious powers-that-be, and he does it in plain sight.  (Or as my mom told me when I was a kid, “Before God and everybody!”)  He issues his protest, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (v. 8).

As you might expect, Jeremiah is labeled a traitor, and all kinds of bad stuff happens to him—but we can leave that for another day.

Distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be a tricky thing.  Love of country is part of the love of God’s good creation, though caution is warranted, lest it divide us.  Loving the gift of God is right and praiseworthy.  Still, too often we love the gift more than the Giver.

We might put some questions to the fellows we just looked at.  Do we go along with Paul and pay taxes, even if they’re used for an evil purpose?  The Romans ruled with an iron fist.  Of course, Jesus also paid taxes, and he wound up getting the death penalty.

What about Jeremiah?  Is he a whistleblower, or is he endangering the country?  Is he a precursor to Edward Snowden—though not many people would call Snowden a prophet!

I think there are more questions than answers when we look at this stuff, but questions are a good thing.

I just said distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be tricky.  For those of us who would maintain that Christ and Caesar are not the same thing, we do have to tread carefully.  An Independence Day sermon can be tricky!  Choosing to do one can be tricky.  Talk about treading carefully.

Something that came to mind this past week was an experience in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was beginning.  My pastor made it quite clear he was in favor of the war.  I was not, but that’s really not my point here.  The Sunday after the war started, I knew it would be the theme for worship.  And I knew I would be miserable, so I attended church elsewhere.  At the big Methodist church in town, the war was mentioned in prayer, but that was it.

I went back to my church during the week, and the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the stage was still there.  I thought it looked more like an election campaign headquarters than a church.  Recognizing the difference between Christ and Caesar can indeed be difficult.

4 independence

The apostle Paul says paying taxes is an act of faithfulness.  At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah speaks truth to power.  Now, here comes Jesus, with his call to love our enemies.

Melissa Bane Sevier has interesting thoughts on the matter.[1]  She notices how Jesus expands on loving our enemies, especially in verses 46 and 47.  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

5 independenceShe says, “I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right?  Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.”  That must be it!  Problem solved.

Still, she continues, “Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus.  I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not.  And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be.  That’s more difficult than I thought.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I believe she is speaking to me.  I believe Jesus is speaking to me.  And it is something I recognize.

I’m no fan of the big cable news networks.  They’re more interested in entertainment than journalism, in my humble opinion.  That’s a reflection of our society and its dualistic, simplistic view of reality.  It’s us and them, winners and losers, black and white.  To be honest, it’s too often a reflection of the church.

Greeting those with whom I disagree is more than not getting into an argument.  It actually involves engaging with them, even if it seems so tiresome!

6 independenceSevier notes, “Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them.  Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.”  And it’s not simply praying for their hearts to change.  I’ve been guilty of that one!  When we pray for our enemies, it’s most of all, our heart that changes.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Your enemy is your best teacher”?

She concludes, “Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat…

“For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed…and pray for that person.  I expect I will be changed.  Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.”

Imagine the state of the union if that were our measure of faithfulness.

Imagine the state of the union among us if that were our measure of faithfulness.

7 independence

[1] melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies


can conflict be a gift?

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  That tends to happen when one frequently moves from one place to another!  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Two decades later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s something I still need to work on.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a long way to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from the reading in Matthew that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”  It appears three times in the law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21).

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of its context.

It’s been said, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude [in modern times, we can compare it with the outlawing of slavery]; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.[1]  The idea was that, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours—and then, it would escalate from there.

Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”[2]  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything that Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[3]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is:  the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it’s especially true for those in the church.  We have a tendency to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[4]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis.  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[5]

The truth is, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[6]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict…out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict [when it is stifled].  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

This is the first Sunday since the presidential election.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter what your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that this past year has had a distinctly different feel.  I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one, and doing that with all our might and means.

The “other ones” who have been insulted and verbally attacked for over a year from on high have found a green light, permission has been given, implicitly or explicitly, for them to be physically attacked, to have fear instilled in them.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[7]  (I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably work any time.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[8]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?

Steinke goes on, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be corrected.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, returning insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Beare, 158.

[3] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD:  The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[4] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict:  The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 56.

[6] Westerhoff, 57.

[7] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[8] Steinke, xv.


enemy in the mirror

Enemy+in+the+mirrorOne of the problems with “Living in a World We Broke”—which is Beth Tanner’s chapter featuring Psalm 51—is that we have to ask some hard questions.  In this chapter of her book, The Psalms for Today, she says that “the focus will be on prayers when the enemy is us.  If those who hurt and cause pain live in our community, then it is just a matter of time until the enemy becomes ourselves.” (70)

 
I can see why some people would reject such a notion.  Just because my neighbor, or my fellow church member, or my fellow American, does wrong, why am I implicated?
 
If the idea is that we are equally blameworthy due to the wrong that others in our group have committed, then I would disagree with that.  Ultimately, we each make our own decisions.  Still, we also have to admit that we have benefited from the crimes of others in our group.  To use an often-cited example, Americans today benefit from the forced dislocation of the native nations who were here before the Europeans arrived. 
 
To bring it closer to home, there is a sense of being our brother’s and sister’s keeper—even when they do wrong.  There is a sense of the interconnectedness of all beings.