fear

love conquers, fear abandons

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  That’s a question addressed by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century book, The Prince.  He deals with other issues, but that’s the one which is considered to be the most intriguing, the one which is the most discussed.  According to Machiavelli, if a political leader is able to be both loved and feared, that is best, but the two don’t easily go together, if at all.

1 1 jnThe problem with being loved is that people will eventually take advantage of you.  Perhaps Machiavelli is sadly accurate in his assessment of human nature when he says if a leader shows too much compassion, the people will want more and more.  They will begin to throw off restraint.  Thus, the need for a firm hand.  Being feared is safer.  If people know they better toe the line or else face, let’s say, unpleasant consequences, it’s an effective way to maintain order and to eliminate dissent.  It’s the rather cynical, “you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet” approach to life.

On the other hand, it’s important to not take it too far.  Excessive fear can turn into hatred, which can lead to open rebellion.  For one in authority, that spells danger.  Actually, that spells danger for those not in government.  It’s not good for those in business, in the school system, in the church!

Unfortunately, I think we know what rebellion in the church can look like!

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  Some might say the opposite of love is hate.  We’re told love and hate cannot co-exist.  However, I might respond with the reality of a love-hate relationship.  Love and hate, as emotions, are powerful and passionate.  However, there is a thin line between them.

The epistle reading in 1 John suggests the opposite of love is fear.  “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” (4:18).

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

Let me expand on my original question, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”  I would say those who want to be feared are filled with fear themselves.  They sense an insecurity within, an inner dread, perhaps a feeling of worthlessness, and they feel the solution is to command respect, twisted though it may be, which is produced—which is created—by the fear from others.  Is it out of line to suggest that all the weapons we invent, especially the really powerful ones, demonstrate not how strong we are, but how scared we are?

Let me quickly add I’m not saying everyone who is filled with fear demands to be feared.  That is not at all the case.  In one way or another, we all deal with fear.  At the same time, those who desire to be feared are at heart seeking love; they seek affirmation.  We have been created for love by the one who is love.  As we read in verse 16, “God is love.”

If God is love, then why are we so fearful?  Here’s an interesting example.  Whenever angels appear in the scriptures, they are not the cute, warm, and fuzzy creatures we like to imagine.  They are fierce, and yet they often say something along the lines of, “Fear not.”  In fact, that’s one of Jesus’ favorite lines.

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment” (v. 17).  Love has been perfected.  The Greek word (τελειοω, teleioō) has the meaning of “has been completed,” “has been accomplished.”

Fear has to do with punishment.  We might want to avoid punishment, or at least lessen it, if we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

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With that in mind, I have a little story from when I was a small boy, maybe four or five years old.  If I did something I knew I shouldn’t have done, on occasion I would rat myself out to my mother.  I would confess my crime.  I figured if I came forward before my misdeed had been discovered, I would gain leniency.  And it always worked!

There were times, though, when my transgression went undetected.  I got away with it, or so I thought.

One day when we were living in California, the door to our garage was locked.  I didn’t have the key, so I came up with the idea of getting a stick and pushing it into the lock.  I imagined the wood molding itself to the inside of the doorknob, thus becoming its own key.  When I turned the stick, it broke loose, leaving the lock filled with wood.

I don’t remember if it was my mom or dad who later wanted to get into the garage.  Lo and behold, something was blocking the key!  Upon interrogation, I decided to pin it on my sister.  Despite her protestations of innocence, she received an undeserved spanking.

I don’t recall if it was months or years later, I finally admitted she had not committed the crime.  By then, the statute of limitations had expired.  I was spared punishment.  (For many years after that, my mom would remind me of my false testimony.  Of course, my sister had known the truth all along.)

Fear has to do with punishment.  Dare we say we have a guilty conscience?  But if love is perfected, we have boldness on the day of judgment.

4 1 jn Rudolf Bultmann, one of the noted German theologians of the twentieth century, said of the human race, “the eschatological hour is first of all an hour of dismay.”[1]  The word “eschatological” refers to the end times, the end of the world as we know it.  When the bell tolls, so to speak, it is an hour of dismay.  It is a time of alarm.  The reason for that is because we know we haven’t been perfected; our love isn’t complete.  We have fallen short.  Love is perfected because of Christ.

Chapter 4 ends by telling us we can’t claim to love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters—indeed, if we actually hate them.  By framing my sister, I was not showing hatred, but I certainly was not showing love either!

Fear is suspicious.  Fear keeps us from opening our hearts to each other.  Fear keeps us stuck in the way things are.  It robs us of creativity, to imagine other possibilities.

We can sense that in the ways John uses the word “world.”  In Greek, it is the word κοσμος (kosmos), where we get our word “cosmos.”  One way he uses “world” is by speaking of God’s good creation, our material planet and everything that praises the Lord.

However, “world” can have a sinister meaning.  It’s the world as under the sway of “the evil one” (5:19).  Michael Rhodes says, “John tells us all is not well in God’s good world…  The kosmos has become a battlefield, and all humanity is caught up in the conflict.”[2]  It’s the place where fear reigns over love.

I’m reminded of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface, when his character, Tony Montana is asked by his partner what he expects: “The world, chico, and everything in it.”  In designing a cheesy statue that fits a wannabe dictator’s dreams, he takes inspiration from a blimp he happens to see that says, “The world is yours.”[3]

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Do I need to say, he wasn’t a guy noted for spreading the love around?

Fortunately for us, God isn’t content with leaving the world as it is.  Rhodes tells us, “For John, the world is finally and fully the world that God so loved that he sent his only Son as a ‘Savior of the kosmos’ (4:14).  In Jesus, the Creator has returned to reclaim what is his—a rescue operation that has required him to ‘destroy the works of the devil.’”  He envisions an action movie!

“To be a disciple, then, is to find oneself transferred from the kosmos under the control of the devil and into the realm of the God who is Light.”[4]

If one is under control of the devil, it is difficult, to put it lightly, to be a disciple of the Lord.  Now it has become “a glorious possibility for us as those born again by the Spirit of God.”

He tells us something I think we’re all going to love.  As the church, “because every child of God began life in enmity to God under the influence of the demonic, such a community is also always intrinsically missional.  The doors of the church are always open to any and all of the devil’s children who are willing to come in and be reborn.”[5]

Again I ask, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”

The word “world” (kosmos) has another meaning, which is “system.”  As before, it can have a positive connotation, but John is here using it in a negative sense.  It is the system as trapping us, working against the Spirit of God.  It is the system as robbing us of our freedom, quenching the liberating Spirit.

Bultmann says this: “Again and again the world seems to conquer, and again and again the disciple wavers and seeks refuge in his native haunts, in the world, leaving Jesus alone…  In fact he is not abandoning [Jesus] to the world, but by imagining him to be so abandoned and by despairing of him he is rather abandoning himself.”[6]

Let’s ask ourselves: how often do we abandon ourselves?  How often are we conquered by the world?

6 1 jnStill, all is not lost, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (v. 4).  On a side note, you already know the Greek word that “conquer” and “victory” come from: νικη (nikē), which we pronounce like the shoe, Nike.

The conquering—the overcoming—goes on, because “in [Jesus] the Father is at work, the Father with whom he is one, and therefore…in his apparent defeat he is in fact the conqueror.”[7]  One of my favorite scriptures in the entire Bible comes in the gospel of John, when Jesus is about to leave the upper room and go into the dark, to face betrayal and arrest.  He tells the disciples, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  His defeat sure doesn’t look like victory.

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[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

So we have the joyful question, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v. 5).  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God means many things.  Jesus as Son of God brings freedom, not compulsion.  Jesus as Son of God means clarity, not confusion.  Jesus as Son of God is indeed courage facing persecution.  Jesus as Son of God is light in the dark.

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 592.

[2] Michael J. Rhodes, “(Becoming) Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Discipleship as Gift and Task in 1 John,” Word & World 41:1 (Winter 2021), 24.

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAlTJ8gPJ3M

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


memento mori

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.

This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever.  By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave.  I wonder how that worked out?  The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.”  Long ago, the head fell off.  “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”  The face has been smashed.  There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  However, who is there to look on his works?  “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently.  Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts.  The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens.  It’s true of your house.  It’s true of planet Earth itself.  In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit.  (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.)  Bye-bye, Mother Earth!

2 psMemento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”[1]

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”?  Well, here’s another one.  “You can’t take it with you!”

That seems to be the message of Psalm 49.  We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.”  It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth.  The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting.[2]  It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament.  It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time.  It means “transient” or “fleeting.”  It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it.  I’ll just mention a few points.  I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.

That’s some shaky ground.  We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever.  Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.

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The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9).  Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely.  There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road.  And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen.  The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16.  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.”  We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence.  Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.”  (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)

Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight.  But resistance is futile.  (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg.  You will be assimilated.)  Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown.  If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”[3]

Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention.  It is a repeated thought.  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”  We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor.  I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal.  We don’t last long.  Like our dogs, we age and weaken.  And die.”

I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie.  I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”[4]  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned.  “Please forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).

I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death.  We are routinely reminded of the Covid count.  In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear.  However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.”  Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] medium.com/@julesevans/the-memento-mori-f588311adce0

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

[3] medium.com/illumination/an-existentialist-and-a-christian-walk-into-a-bar-91f713d5e5f0

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/a-grateful-death


presence among us

I want to begin with a confession.  I think I might be improving in this particular regard, but I still have a long way to go.  I too often feel like I need to air my opinions, especially on controversial subjects.  I fear I am far from alone in that.  Go to Facebook or scroll down through the comments on almost any article, and you’ll see what I mean.  Watch what passes for news in our country.

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

And it’s in the church—sometimes it feels like the church has turned fighting into a fine art.  We ask, “How can you be a Christian and think that?  How can you be a Christian and support him or her?”

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When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches. (Not that their being Episcopal Churches had anything to do with it.  I love the Episcopal Church!)  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it, perhaps plotting some ever so slight retribution!

I’m trying to give an example of what Jesus references in Matthew 18 when he speaks of the offenses, the sins, that go on in the church.  When I mentioned this before, I jokingly said some might consider this to be a matter of life and death.  Due to this coronavirus craziness, that has taken on a nature which is quite disconcerting, bordering on the truth!

Jesus starts this off by saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (v. 15).  (The NRSV has “member of the church” instead of “brother” or “sister.”)

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

That’s a good example of being unwilling to “own” your complaint, a refusal to accept responsibility.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.  If we meet with them alone, there’s less chance of an automatic defense reaction—especially if the person doesn’t want to lose face in front of his or her crowd.  Actually, that could wind up being dangerous, depending on how prone to violence the crowd might be!

The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

2 mtI want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is never a wise course of action.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is likely a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to…”  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Confidentiality honors and builds respect; secrecy dishonors and destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[2]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

On a related issue, sometimes we need to check our sense of humor.  Understand, I’m not talking about a really serious matter.  Still, being able to laugh at oneself can take the sting out of an intended slight.  It takes away all the fun of insulting someone if they don’t get offended!  (I know, I know—I remember how I started the sermon.)

Back to the main point.  What if a meeting with one or two others present doesn’t work?  What if there is no peaceful resolution?

Jesus says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  It can take many forms, some helpful and some absolutely horrific.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

It’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

It’s the duty of every church member prayerfully and seriously!  That’s a high bar.

However, what’s the deal with considering someone to be like “a Gentile and a tax collector”?  That seems a bit harsh.  Some have tried to soften the blow by focusing on Jesus’ commandment to love, and not indulging in such offensive behavior.  It’s been pointed out that what is meant is such a person should “be regarded as outside the community.”[3]  It’s a decision made by the person themself.

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Having said that, we should be careful about watering down Jesus’ words.  Sometimes they should hit us in the face like a bucket of cold…water!

Then he gets into the subject of binding and loosing.  There have been all kinds of meanings attached to this.  Some traditions speak of “binding the devil” or “binding Satan.”  One day in class at the Assemblies of God college I attended, a fellow student said that very thing—we can bind the devil.  Our professor stopped and said, “Then do it.  Bind the devil.”  There was an embarrassing silence.  I guess he wanted us to figure out what binding the devil actually meant.

Binding and loosing really refers to a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it didn’t apply.

The passage ends with verse 20, with the well-known words: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The verse is almost always used in the contexts of worship and prayer, and it is appropriate for that.  However, that is not how it is used here.  The “two or three gathered in my name” appears in the context of discipline.  The presence among us is about confronting or challenging.

They are words of wisdom, based on the requirement in Deuteronomy 19: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing….  Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (v. 15).  The concern is to avoid relying on a false witness.

When Jesus says, “I am there among them,” he’s drawing on a rabbinic principle, which holds “two that sit together and are [studying] words of Torah have the Shekinah [the glory of God] among them.”[4]  Jesus is the glory of God.  Jesus is the presence, the glory of God among us when we gather in his name—when we gather in his authority.

As already said about correction by the church, considering the presence of Jesus in discipline can be tricky.  And understand, “discipline” is far more than simply enforcing rules.  It is about training, getting into shape.  Discipline can be intimidating.

Karen Chamis, who is our presbytery’s Resource Presbyter, notes the fear that would hinder us from helping each other on the path.[5]

“Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be,” she says, “and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.”  She speaks of those who thrive on intimidation.  “It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm.  Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

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[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

“And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations.  We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle.  We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution…  We forget who we are.  We forget Whose we are…because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.”

That presence among us is present in worship.  It is present in prayer.  It is present in discipline.  And today we are reminded that the presence of Christ is present in sacrament.  It is present where love is unleashed, and to borrow a word from Chamis, it is “fierce.”  Maybe that’s why love itself, in its unbridled power, can be very intimidating!

“Where two or three are gathered…”  The presence in worship, in prayer, in discipline, in sacrament—the presence of Christ means fear has been defeated by love.  We are given the courage and grace to help each other walk the path, even if means correcting each other—in love.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 6.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 220.

[4] sacred-texts.com/jud/sjf/sjf05.htm

[5] cayugasyracuse.org/index.php/blog/e-newsletter-presbytery-matters-september-3-2020/


fear the poor

When I was a little kid, the epistle of James held a special attraction for me.  (Can you possibly guess why?)  Please understand, the fact that I found it interesting doesn’t mean that I really knew what it was about.  I didn’t understand it any more than I did the rest of the Bible.

If we have to think of a term that sums up James’ message—or a category that we might use—it would be “wisdom.”  Other books in that category are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  James is a fount of wisdom.  In chapter 1 he counsels us, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (v. 5).

1 jaToo frequently, I find myself in that category: “lacking in wisdom.”  I need help in choosing wisely.  In Biblical thinking, wisdom is more than a measure of intelligence; it also involves character.  It’s a question of what someone values, where someone’s heart is leading them.  In that regard, it also involves courage.

I imagine we all can think of cases in which even a Ph.D. education fails to include some common sense, as well as a decent, compassionate spirit.  And on the flip side, there are those who cannot read or write, but who have an understanding and perception that just astonishes.  These are people who are truly centered.  They use the wisdom that comes from the God who created them.

James isn’t very impressed with those who believe something in theory, but never put it into practice.  I’ll confess that that’s one of my struggles.  Sometimes I have a great idea but translating that into meaningful action is a totally different thing!  (Banu often helps me in that regard!)

A good example can be seen in James 2.  I like the way the Revised English Bible puts it.  Here’s how it begins (vv. 1-4):

“My friends, you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ who reigns in glory and you must always be impartial.  For instance, two visitors may enter your meeting, one a well-dressed man with gold rings, and the other a poor man in grimy clothes.  Suppose you pay special attention to the well-dressed man and say to him, ‘Please take this seat,’ while to the poor man you say, ‘You stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my footstool,’ do you not see that you are discriminating among your members and judging by wrong standards?”

We’re presented with the age-old problem of favoritism of the rich over the poor, as well as judging the book by its cover.  We may say, “Of course, everyone should be treated equally.  Who would disagree with that?”  But when we’re put to the test, a whole other thing might be the result.

Other religious traditions have similar stories.  Here’s one from 15th century Japan:[1]

“Once upon a time, the Zen masters teach, wealthy donors invited Master Ikkyu to a banquet.  The Master arrived there dressed in beggar’s robes.  His host, not recognizing him in this garb, hustled him away: ‘We cannot have you here at the doorstep.  We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu any moment.’  The Master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his host’s doorstep where he was received with great respect and ushered into the banquet room.  There, he took off his stiff robe, sat it upright at the dinner table and said, ‘I presume that it is my robe you have invited since when I first arrived without it a little while ago, you showed me away.’”

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[Ikkyu, 1394-1481]

No one is eager to admit to being apprehensive when confronted by someone in shabby clothes.

Still, it’s a role we play all the time.  I know I have played it too often.  When we lived in Jamestown, there was a certain lady I noticed walking through our neighborhood.  Even in warm weather, even hot weather, she would be dressed in a winter coat—and it was a grungy winter coat.  She looked “different”; she was the kind of person we’re “supposed” to avoid.

One time, as I was walking our dog, he noticed her and went right up to her.  She was very kind to him (and to me), and I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to speak to her before.  To my great shame, I must say I had made some pre-judgments concerning her.  Maybe I thought she would respond in some crazy fashion, or that she would ask me for money.  What a horrible thing that would be!

No, what our society tells us to do is to avert our eyes, to turn away from the poorest of the poor.  (When I say “us,” I’m especially referring to us proper, middle-class types.)  But when we give in to that temptation, we behave like the people James addresses in his letter.  What’s going on with that?  What’s behind the reluctance to engage with the poor?

Why do we too often suffer from aporophobia, fear and loathing of the poor?  (The Greek words for “poor” and “fear.”)

I’m reminded of a story that’s been told about Mother Teresa.  I don’t know how accurate it is, but it does reflect the way she lived her life.  Apparently, one day she was washing the wounds of a leper.  Someone who was watching said to her, “‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.’  To which Mother Teresa replied, ‘Neither would I.’”[2]

3 jaSometimes I think that hesitation is similar to the reluctance we often feel in facing our own mortality.  (I don’t know about you, but in the dinner parties I’ve attended, death is rarely one of the topics for the evening’s conversation!)  Poverty reminds us of our limitations.  And we should be aware that poverty is about more than the lack of money, the lack of wealth.

The late Henri Nouwen did a good job of describing it:[3]

“When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs.  The Christ who lives in our own poverty recognizes the Christ who lives in other people’s.  Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others’.  We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people’s pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness.”

We all have a place of poverty.  We all are poor in some way.  To be honest, we are poor in many ways.  But it can be difficult to see it or to admit it.

Nouwen continues, “By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us.  But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.”

I find that last thought to be really compelling.  When we discover God in our own poverty, we lose our fear of the poor—and that is where we find God.  This seems to be so upside down, but God is rarely found in our successes.  There is too much of “us” in the way.

I’m talking about the God of Jesus Christ, whose life, by any reasonable accounting, wound up as a complete failure.  He was executed in a way reserved for the most despicable, most contemptible of criminals.  His disciples fled (that is, his male disciples fled.)  He was dead.

We fear the poor, because they represent all the stuff that we don’t want.  It sounds so backward, but that’s often the way that wisdom works.  The stuff that we try to deny and hide is where God longs to be found.  We’re asked in verse 5: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith,” and furthermore, “to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”

James gives the scenario of finding out that someone is in need.  Speaking fine words like, “Go in peace!  Stay warm!  Make sure you get plenty to eat!”—but not taking steps to make that happen—is useless.  We can look at that from a different angle.  We can ask, “If our church were to disappear, would the community miss us?  Would our community be worse if we weren’t here?”

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Especially now, is the community missing us?  How are we reaching out to those who are alone, lonely, disabled, missing human touch?  How will we be “the community” in this new normal?  I shared last week that it’s said we cannot go home again.  How can we create a new home—new sanctuary, both physically and virtually?  How can we present our poverty to result in an abundance of riches?

Even the smallest of steps—the most bumbling and clumsiest of steps—if it is done with the blessing of God, accomplishes far more than we can ask or imagine.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 163.

[2] www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10216

[3] henrinouwen.org/meditation/meeting-god-poor


it seems so irrational

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) has been applied to this strange new world of pandemic.  Do an internet search with her name and “pandemic” or “coronavirus,” and you’ll see what I mean.

1 blogQuick note: the five stages were never intended to follow each other in some chronological fashion.  They overlap, but I won’t go into detail on that.

It is important to understand that we are in fact grieving.  I think I can relate to all of the stages, some more so than others.  It hits me in so many ways.  It seems so irrational.  We’re not even supposed to shake hands!

We’re familiar, of course, with the refusal to wear protective masks, do physical distancing, sanitize stuff, and so on.  Again, I won’t claim to be immune to those impulses.  It seems so irrational!

We’re also familiar with the ways anger is played out.  For example, when asked to put on a mask while entering a store, many people simply walk by, berate the unfortunate employee making the request, and some even resort to violence.  People have even been killed.

2 blogAs with so many seemingly random aspects of our society, wearing a mask has become politicized.  I’m a fan of the NHL team Nashville Predators.  Do I wear a MAGA hat, or am I feeling the Bern?  (On a side note, another aspect of grief—one I share with millions of people around the world—is wondering if I will ever again be able to share an arena with thousands of cheering fans.)

3 blogThe root of anger is fear.  Too often, we don’t recognize how our fear expresses itself, whether we’re boiling over or just simmering.  (On a foolish side note, I remember the SNL skit with Cheri Oteri, “Simmer down now.”)

Perhaps we can relate to the prophet Jeremiah who wailed, who demanded of God: “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?  Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (15:18).  We might hurl invectives at the Almighty!  Would it surprise you to learn that God can never be the recipient of misplaced anger?  The Lord can take it all.  Hit me with your best shot.

Recognizing that we are in fact grieving helps in entering a healthy process.  Maybe it’s not as irrational as it might seem.


this was always the place

1 gnHave you ever been given a nickname regarding something you had absolutely no control over?  You know, like being called “freckle face.”  (Assuming, of course, you have a generous supply of freckles.)  How about addressing someone of petite stature?  “Shorty” would be a nickname completely unearned.  That would also be true if the name “Shorty” were used ironically, referring to someone seven feet tall!

Here’s another question.  Have you ever given someone else a name about something they couldn’t help?

A lot of that goes on in the Bible.  Consider the Old Testament reading in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder.  We’re introduced to Jacob in chapter 25, just as he and his twin brother Esau are being born.  And what does he do to his elder brother?  He takes him by the heel!  Darn that infant.  Just for that, we’re going to call you Jacob.[1]  You know—the name that means one who supplants, the one who will shove you aside and take your place, the one who will grab your heels and try to trip you.

(I won’t go into detail now, but he does wind up tricking his brother into selling his birthright.  He tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, the one that should go to the elder son.  Esau is furious and is dead set on killing Jacob, so Jacob hits the road to go live with Uncle Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah.)

Speaking of nicknames regarding something of which you have no control, my own name wends its way through history back to Jacob.  James, by way of the French (Jacques), back to the Latin (Iacomus), back to the Greek (Iakobos), and finally to the Hebrew (Jacob or Ya‘aqōv).  Am I a supplanter; do I scheme to take someone else’s place?

I guess I can take heart in that there have been, and still are, a ton of Jameses throughout time and space!

But let’s go back to that sneaky Jacob.  Pastor and writer Renita Weems says of him, “What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character.”[2]

She isn’t kidding.  Later on, Jacob wrestles with a man/angel all night long.  Eventually, the man throws in the towel, but not before getting in one last lick at Jacob’s hip!  Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28).  His craftiness is rewarded.

2 gnWeems goes on, “I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use—deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever.  Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional.  They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.”

When called upon, he can also do an incredible Hulk imitation, though without the green skin!  He comes upon some shepherds at a well which is covered with a large stone.  Removing it is a job for several men.  Jacob, upon seeing the beautiful Rachel approaching, walks over to the stone and picks that bad boy up!  I don’t know.  Does this display suitably impress Rachel?

Still, all of that is in the future.

I started by asking about nicknames, but the real focus here is something deeper and more inward.  Jacob has a dream.  We’re told he comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night.  The Hebrew simply says, “the place.”  And at “the place,” he uses a stone for a pillow! (v. 11).  Who knows what kind of dreams that might prompt?

I don’t want to get into the mechanics of dreams.  There are numerous interpretations of what they might mean.  Some people remember their dreams on a nightly basis; some almost never remember them.  I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

There was a dream I had for many years.  If you’ll indulge me; I’ve told this story before.  It dealt with McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare (yes, nightmare) for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my needing to complete something.

All of us have had dreams, even recurring ones, that have had special importance.

Jacob has a dream that is exceptionally important—and quite vivid.  He dreams “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).  The word for “ladder” is better translated as “ramp” or “stairway.”  Jacob dreams of a “stairway to heaven,” to reference the old Led Zeppelin song.

The Lord meets him and identifies himself as the God of his fathers.  God gives him the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, that he will inherit the land and his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth.”  Furthermore, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v. 14).  God promises to be with him until these things are fulfilled.

(On a side note, it’s always the men who are given credit for the number of children.  The women are mysteriously absent.)

After that promise of amazing grace, Jacob wakes up and it dawns on him, “God is here, and I didn’t know it!”  Something is stirring inside him.  Whoa!  God is here, and I didn’t know it.  That something stirring inside him is fear.  It is reverence.

Remember what’s going on with Jacob.  He’s on the run; he’s literally running for his life.  Is it possible he has only himself to blame?  Maybe.  How many times have we been on the run, seemingly for our lives, only to realize that we are our own worst enemies?

We come to “the place,” just as Jacob does.  Where is that place for each of us?  Where is that place for us as a community, as the church?  Where is that place where we stop running?  Where is that place where it might take a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending, to make us realize that God has been here the whole time?  This was always the place.  It is a time of awe, of holy fear.

What does the dream signify?  What does Jacob’s ladder mean?  Now we’re back to the multiple understandings I mentioned earlier.  That’s certainly true with this dream.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for “meaning of Jacob’s ladder,” or words to that effect.  I imagine you’ll find two or three takes on it.

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

One that I find interesting and helpful comes from Ephraim of Sudlikov, a rabbi from eighteenth century Poland.  He speaks of the “ladder filled with upward and downward motion [as] a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth.”[3]  Very briefly, when we feel a profound closeness to God, we are ascending the ladder.  When we feel a profound distance from God, we are descending the ladder.

Ephraim says there’s nothing wrong with this.  It is an integral part of the spiritual life.  It is who we are.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that “God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid.  It is as if God seeks to reassure him: ‘This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.’  Just as your spiritual life wanes, it may yet wax stronger than you yourself thought possible.  And the waxing may owe much to the waning.”

Jacob now realizes, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).

Jumping ahead a few centuries, John’s gospel presents Jesus telling Nathanael, “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’ [By the way, in Hebrew thought, a fig tree was symbolic of prosperity.]  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (1:50-51).  John links Jesus himself with the gate of heaven.

How does Jacob finally respond to all of this?  He builds a shrine and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God” (v. 19).  Then he makes a vow in response to God’s promise of free and amazing grace.  He’s still not quite ready to fully trust God.  If you do this…then I will do that…

Thomas Whartenby tells us, “The man who has always lived by his wits now seeks to strike a bargain.  To the God who made gracious and unconditional promises, Jacob makes a very guarded and conditional vow: If you deliver, I will serve.  It is easier to build sanctuaries than it is to live the life of faith.  Conditional discipleship is much easier than unconditional surrender.”[4]  Can we all agree to that?

Yet, despite all of Jacob’s duplicity, despite all of his scheming, God is faithful.  Like Jacob, we come to our “place.”  And too often, we would rather be anywhere in the world but there.  We would rather be on Jupiter or Saturn than there.[5]

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Still, it’s true, that is where God meets us—where God has been waiting to meet us.

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

[2] billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling

[3] www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2000/12/the-ladder-to-heaven.aspx

[4] Thomas J. Whartenby, Jr., “Genesis 28:10-22,” Interpretation 45:4 (Oct 1991), 404.

[5] Since we’ve been able to see both of them at night recently!


because I can

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  We’ve all heard that.  Translation: whatever trouble, whatever debauchery, you get into on a trip to Las Vegas, don’t worry; it stays there.  You won’t have to face the consequences when you leave town.  The hijinks that occurred will never be mentioned!  Never mind that Las Vegas is a city where actual families live.  (Though I would question the wisdom of building a metro area in the desert.)  It still has the nickname “Sin City.”

1 1 coI start with Las Vegas because it isn’t the only place in world history noted for its decadence.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are directed to a church in a city that could give Vegas some pointers.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.

In fact, there was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to engaging in promiscuity and immorality.

That is the city providing the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church.  As I noted last month, this church has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  And as I said, to their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  And that’s one thing you can say about the town they live in.  It is not boring—far from it.

That’s enough debauchery for right now, but rest assured, we will come back to it!

Here’s a very quick outline of 1 Corinthians.  The opening verses have the salutation, and then the first four chapters deal with divisions in the church.  Chapters 5 and 6 address a man and his stepmother (fill in the blank), church members dragging each other into court, and Corinthianizing.  In the middle part of the letter, chapters 7 to 10, Paul answers questions they have posed to him.  Chapters 11 to 14 are about order in worship.  Chapter 15 is about the resurrection, and chapter 16 is the conclusion.

I want to look at a passage in chapter 9 and a snippet from chapter 10.  This is in the section where Paul is fielding questions.  A common refrain among many of the Corinthians is, “Who do you think you are?”  Many folks have expressed uncertainty and/or hurled accusations regarding his role as apostle.  They are holding his feet to the fire.

Here’s where Paul wants to make a point.  He hasn’t exercised his full rights as an apostle.  He hasn’t asked for all he could.  Maybe given the, at times, problematic relationship, Paul wants to be as above reproach as possible.  He doesn’t want to give anyone an excuse to challenge his motives.  Still, in some peoples’ eyes, that will take some doing.

Imagine applying for a job.  One thing sure to be asked is, “Do you have any references?”  I think Paul has this one covered.  In verse 1 he asks, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”  Not everyone can make that claim.  It looks like Paul might be qualified for the position, at least as far as Jesus is concerned—assuming he gave Paul a good reference!

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It’s important that Paul has his credentials in order.  His identity as an apostle is at stake.  And he needs credibility, especially since much of the discord hinges on people’s rights.

As noted before, Corinth is a cosmopolitan city, and the church reflects it.  Its members are primarily Gentiles, with the (as expected) background of pagan religions.  These would be Greek gods and whatever gods were imported by folks from near and far.

There was the question of eating food which had been sacrificed to pagan gods—to idols, as Paul would say.  Some of the food would be burned, but the leftover amount would go to local shopkeepers for sale.  Should Christian converts eat the food if they knew where it came from?  Paul says, “We know those gods don’t really exist.  But if someone who is still tempted to believe they’re real sees me eating the food, they might think, ‘Well, Paul’s joining in, so it must be okay!’”

The apostle is clear: I will not exercise my right to eat, if it means I will cause someone else to stumble.  It’s almost like serving wine in front of a recovering alcoholic.  (That would actually be a cruel thing to do!)

It’s a lesson he teaches them.  Basically, put yourself in the other person’s place.  “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (v. 19).  He gives examples.  “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (v. 20).  Likewise, “to those under the law…, to those outside the law…, to the weak…”  “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (v. 22).

3 1 co

Understand, this isn’t saying anything goes.  It’s a commitment to forego his right to do something if it means someone else will be hurt.  That’s a crucial point to make.

Here’s where we come back to the notorious reputation of Corinth.  They have a saying which Paul repeats in chapter 10: “All things are lawful.”  And they do mean “all things.”  In this case, anything does go!

Paul finishes the thought.  “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.  Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (vv. 23-24).  Paul includes the quote earlier in the letter, and here’s how he finishes there: “…but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12).

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.  Actually, when you say, “because I can,” you might get more than you bargained for.  Our dear apostle warns you might become dominated by your choice; you might become its slave.  You might get addicted.

Still, even short of that, as Eugene Peterson reflected, “We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well” (10:24).

There was a question I used to hear when we were electing new officials.  It went along these lines: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The implied suggestion would be “no.”  That sounds like a reasonable question.  However, I remember someone speaking of a truly Christian version.  “Are your neighbors better off than they were four years ago?”  I would love to hear that question asked.

This pandemically plagued planet has posed new problems.  For example, do we have the right to forego wearing masks in public?

There was a recent article in The Atlantic by Julia Marcus bearing the colorful title, “The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks.”[1]  The example given was former baseball player Aubrey Huff, who wrote on Twitter that he wouldn’t wear a mask inside any business, noting, “It’s unconstitutional to enforce.”  He also posted a video getting plenty of attention.

“In his video,” Marcus writes, “he appears to be wearing a seatbelt.  Yet unlike a seatbelt, which directly benefits the user, masks primarily protect everyone else, particularly people who are older or have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.  Huff seems to understand this; he just thinks those people should ‘stay the [blank] home.’”  It looks like if he had his way, those who are more vulnerable, including children, should have their freedom curtailed, their rights restricted.

He ends the video by proclaiming, “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a [blank] mask.”  I guess my response would be, “He has the right to do that.”

(On a side note, I wouldn’t say I’m living in fear by wearing a mask.  I won’t deny it is tedious, and I’m still not really used to seeing people in public wearing them.  But no, I don’t think my motivation in wearing a mask is driven by fear!)

4 1 co

“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (9:23).  That’s what Paul the apostle says.  We squabble over our rights and close our eyes to the shining glory Jesus the Christ offers.  We fight over crumbs while a splendid banquet is set for us.

Our friend Mr. Huff would rather die from the virus than wear a mask.  Our friend the apostle Paul “would rather die than” insist on his rights.  Why?  So that “no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!” (v. 15).  He isn’t boasting about himself; he has “no ground for boasting” (vv. 15-16).  He is boasting about our Lord, who has redeemed him, just as our Lord has redeemed us.

Because of that, we are held to a higher standard than those who don’t know the Lord—the standard of love.  And that is a rigorous standard.  It requires repentance, continual repentance, a continual changing of our minds.  It calls for our lives to be a witness to Christ, who puts others first.  At the end of the day, we find wearing a mask really isn’t such a sacrifice!

Why Lord, do you pour out blessings and meet us in these very difficult times?

“Because I can.”

 

[1] medium.com/the-atlantic/the-dudes-who-wont-wear-masks-be8df1a9ec41


death shall have no dominion

“And death shall have no dominion. / Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, / They shall have stars at elbow and foot; / Though they go mad they shall be sane, / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; / Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion.”

1 roThat is the first stanza of Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have no Dominion.”  As you might have guessed, it was inspired by Romans 6:9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Thomas speaks of bones being picked clean, sinking through the sea and rising again, lovers lost but not love itself.  After everything is said and done, death shall have no dominion.

(That poem has appeared in many places, such as in Steven Soderberg’s remake of the movie Solaris.  In one scene, we hear George Clooney reciting that same first stanza.  It was also featured in the show, Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Pearlman.)

We will revisit death’s having no dominion in a few minutes.

Chapter 6 begins, “What then are we to say?”  St. Paul’s asking a question about something, so let’s check out chapter 5.  Very, very briefly, he’s been talking about Adam and Christ.  Through Adam, sin entered the world.  Through Christ, grace has been extended.  And this isn’t a tiny drop of grace.  We read in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  There is a superabundance of grace.  We are awash in grace.

So how do we answer Paul’s question?  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v. 1).  Hey, that sounds like a plan!  Let’s pour on the sin, knowing a tsunami of grace is on the way.  If a little bit do good, a whole lot do better!  I imagine Paul would think about it for a moment, and say, “No way, José.”

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"Look, there's a tsunami!"  "That's nice. Who has the suntan lotion?"

Instead, the apostle asks, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (vv. 2-3).

Baptized into his death.  That is a serious way of looking at it.  And it’s also a quite visual way of “looking” at it.  That’s especially true for those of us who were baptized by immersion—going into the grave and being raised back to life.  Accordingly, I have a story of my own baptism.

On the evening of the 3rd of August in 1985, I had what I might call a mystical experience.  I was in college at the time.  I had been meditating on Isaiah 55:8-9.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I began to feel like I was being plunged into an ocean of love.  I was being baptized in love.  It was, as you might gather, a very powerful experience!

At the time, I did not go to church.  My mother, however, had begun attending an Assemblies of God church.  I told her I had this encounter with the Lord, and she said I needed to be baptized.  I really didn’t see the point in it.  What would it serve?  Didn’t God accept me as I am?  Her basic response was it was necessary to make that public profession of faith.

I eventually started attending church, though on a very sporadic basis.  Still, as the months went by, I began to sense baptism was for me.

So on a Sunday evening, the 3rd of August 1986, one year to the night I had my revelation of love, I stepped into the baptismal of the church, with its heated water.  There were two others who went before me: a boy about ten years old and an elderly woman, who upon being raised out of the water by our pastor, began speaking in tongues.

Then it was my turn.  Later on, after the service was over, I told my mother it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me.  I could breathe.

[Someone is holding the shirt he wore during his baptism.]

3 roSo as I suggested a moment ago, I can relate to this business of dying with Christ and being raised back to life.  “We too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4).

“Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.”

Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6).

(By the way, if we read that bit about “our old self” being crucified with him in the King James language of “our old man,” the unfortunate question might be put to us, “Has your old man been crucified?”  We might wonder if they’re talking about a husband or a father.)

In any event, according to the apostle, we are no longer enslaved to sin.  We are not under its power.  We need not submit to its power.  But if we are really honest, sometimes we like that power!  When we’re presented with blessing and cursing, life and death, too often we go with the latter.  After all, in the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we sing the prayer, “Take away the love of sinning.”

I’m not sure when it happens, but at some point early in life, we discover manipulating people can be fun!

Something of which Paul assures us is “whoever has died is freed from sin” (v. 7).  That’s a good thing when what we’re considering is this matter of being crucified with Christ.  Of course, whoever dies is freed from a whole lot of stuff!

Paul continues, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (vv. 8-9).  And he finishes that thought in grand fashion: “death no longer has dominion over him.”

“And death shall have no dominion.”  If we have died to sin, what could that mean?

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Israel Kamudzandu, who teaches at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, comments, “Christians must always remind themselves that our old self, our culture, our rights, our private spaces, and the desires of our flesh were crucified with Jesus Christ. Our daily living must demonstrate our newfound and grace-filled status in Christ.”[1]

Being from Zimbabwe, he puts it on a global scale.  “Sin is like a foreign domination in that it dehumanizes and reduces one to a victim position and some people die as victims because no one is there to rescue them…”

I guess the sentiment expressed by death having no dominion is especially meaningful for us in our strange new world.  It is especially poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how we’ve been given a reset button.  What do we do with it?  Are there new lessons to be learned?  Are there old lessons that need to be re-learned?  The coronavirus has given us a sort of pause, so maybe we can use it to reflect on all that life is.  Quite immediately for us, it is our own life.  How do we embrace life and reject death?

In times like these, time is something that can take on a sense of sameness, of uniformity, maybe even of monotony.  Schedules can go out the window.  For the past few weeks, I have felt like Friday was Saturday.  I’m not really sure why.  One thing I can say is that when I realize it is indeed Friday, I’m relieved I didn’t lose a day!

We can embrace life by keeping our minds active, keeping them challenged.  Take this time to learn a new language; develop your artistic side; read good books; do some writing; do more writing.  (I think I’m preaching to myself on that one.)

Is it too far-fetched to say, by not stretching ourselves, we’re embracing death?  Paul says to us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).  We are called to claim our identity.  As those who have been buried with Christ and raised to new life, we are called to be ourselves.  I find that difficult, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

“And death shall have no dominion.”  Following from that, what does have dominion is shalom (שׁלוֺם).  The Hebrew term shalom means far more than what our paltry English word “peace” entails.  It is absolute well-being, perfect harmony, Heaven on Earth!  Shalom reaches to God, embraces the neighbor, permeates our politics, cares for creation.  We find shalom within ourselves.  If we take the pause I mentioned a moment ago, if we’re willing to listen, we hear that silent voice coming from within.

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We are called to lay aside the foolish facade the world imposes on us.  We learn to stop the incessant posturing, the soul-draining competition that leads to death.  We kill our spirits struggling to prove that we’re good enough, that we’re worthy, that we deserve love.  The one who has defeated death says, “I don’t care about that stuff!  I offer grace abundant, grace superabundant.”

The power of sin, the power of death, would plunge us into the water and hold us down.  We wouldn’t be able to resurface; we wouldn’t be able to see clearly.  We wouldn’t be able to see, even in those we are told to fear and loathe, the face of Jesus Christ.  We wouldn’t be able to see that his grace abounds.

Death shall have no dominion.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2052


we are not dead

Ezekiel is one of those prophets with whom most people never become familiar.  He seems too remote, too odd.  What can we say about a book that starts with a vision in which the prophet sees images of creatures flashing like lightning, with wheels all around?  Some people swear he saw a spaceship.

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And he often behaves in ways that are just flat-out weird.  He builds a model of Jerusalem and then smashes it to bits.  He shaves his head and beard and then publicly burns the hairs.  Ezekiel doesn’t lend himself very well to Sunday school.

Still, he does have an admiring audience.  People come to listen to him.  However, as the Lord says, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (33:32).

There isn’t much about this book that is familiar, with the exception of today’s scripture reading.  We’ve been helped by the old spiritual which tells us, “Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones!’”  Do you know this one?  “The toe bone connected to the foot bone / The foot bone connected to the heel bone / The heel bone connected to the ankle bone…”  I think I can stop there; you probably don’t want to hear me connect all the bones.

At the start of chapter 37, Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself in a valley filled with bones, and indeed, they are not connected.  They’re strewn all over the place.  He examines them and finds that they’re completely dry.  These folks died a long time ago.  The Lord asks Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”  What kind of answer can he give?  It doesn’t look like anything alive could emerge from that dismal scene.  Still, he knows not to limit the power of his God.  All he can say is, “You know, Lord.”

To really understand Ezekiel, we need to take a step back and look at his world.  He lived through one of the true turning points of Biblical and world history.  The Babylonian Empire has become a superpower, and by the year 597 (B.C.), after sweeping through most of the Middle East, the Babylonians are ready to conquer Judah.  People who might be considered a threat are deported.  Ezekiel is part of the first group of exiles.  Thus, Ezekiel comes to live in Babylon.

For about eight years, Jerusalem has been occupied by the Babylonians, but they’ve refrained from destroying the city.  But then the Judahites try teaming up with the Egyptians to fight back.  That doesn’t work, and the Babylonians lose their patience.

As a result, the unthinkable happens.  The temple is destroyed.  It’s difficult for us today to understand the crushing blow that was.  They couldn’t imagine the temple being destroyed.  There’s no way God would allow it.  They had a trust in the building—a superstitious trust, as it turned out.  They trusted in a building, but they didn’t trust God.  They constantly broke the covenant with the Lord.  They served other gods.  They oppressed the poor.  They were corrupt.

And so we arrive in the valley of dry bones.

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There’s a Hebrew word that appears over and over throughout today’s reading: רוּחַ (ruah).  It’s translated by three words that best capture its meaning: breath, wind, or spirit.

We see in Ezekiel’s vision the creative use of the word.  First he’s commanded to prophesy to the bones, as our little song puts it, he’s to say to “dem dry bones…hear the word of the Lord.”  Suddenly the bones reassemble, with sinews, flesh, and skin reappearing.  Still, the bodies are dead.  Then the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to call out to the wind, to speak to the spirit.  It’s only then that ruah enters the bodies, and they come to life.

The exiles, defeated and taken captive far from their homeland, truly were dispirited.  They felt they were as dead as those dry bones.  With the news of the temple’s destruction, Ezekiel’s job has changed.  He’s been calling for repentance; now he must offer hope.

When the people felt that all was lost, that their enemies had vanquished them, the prophet came to them and told them of the promise of the ruah of the Lord, of the Spirit of God, which would revive them, which would bring them back to life.

So what does this vision of hope given to a group of exiles 25 centuries ago in Babylon say to us here today?

We might feel like our nation, our world, has become a collection of dry bones.  We might feel that way about ourselves.

Do we need to be brought back to life, like Lazarus?

We’re like the exiles, in a way.  We have been forced; we have been taken to a place we never would have chosen.  We have been exiled to a strange new world.

We’ve all had our own experiences with the virus.  Some have had truly dreadful experiences.  Others—not so much.  I have this feeling that there’s something out there, and it has ill intent.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.  Wouldn’t be nice if we could actually see the virus?  That would make things much easier!

Still, we’re here.  The crowds asked John the Baptist after his message of repentance, “What then should we do?” (Lk 3:10).  What should we do?  Let me ask the question from a different angle.  What opportunities await us?

Remember what I said regarding the news that the temple had been destroyed.  The prophet had been calling for repentance.  Now it was a time for hope.

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[photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Well, the temple has been destroyed.  We’re in the valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel’s vision is about a promise of return from exile.  It will be a second exodus.  What can these bones do, given a new life?  The breath, the wind, the spirit of God is still blowing.  We have the opportunity—we have the option—of allowing that wind to carry us to a new way of being.  Or maybe it’s a question of regaining what we’ve possibly allowed to lapse.

What are we doing to stay healthy?  What are we doing to stay healthy mentally?  What are we doing to help others stay healthy?  What are we doing to spread the love?  Friends, we are not dead.  As the Song of Solomon puts it, “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (8:6).  Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message reads, “Love is invincible facing danger and death.  Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.”

Here’s another question.  How will we emerge from this?  Will fear win the day?  So much of what we see in the media, in my opinion, borders on sensationalism.  Sometimes it seems like the goal is to inspire fear, to inspire panic, rather than level-headed caution.  I feel like some people would almost welcome mobs who are setting fires and smashing windows.

So that’s one option.  Here’s another.  Will we learn from this?  Will we work together?  Will we learn to care for each other?  I don’t expect heaven on earth, but maybe some heavenly spirit can take hold.  There is an opening for a deeper and more vibrant faith.

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14).


love, food, and toilet paper

One day while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, they were grumbling because they couldn’t find any food.  Many were saying, “Wasn’t it great when we were slaves in Egypt?  We had plenty to eat!  And now—we’re looking at you, Moses—we’re going to die in the desert.”  God told Moses, “Okay, I’m going to give them something to eat.  They’ll call it ‘manna from heaven.’  Tell them that they will have as much as they need.”  That’s what Moses told the people.  In the morning, they found it scattered on the ground.

“Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until [next] morning.’  But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.  And Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:19-20).

They chose the path of hoarding.  Does that sound familiar?

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(Did they have toilet paper?)

At the last session meeting (that’s Presbyterian-speak for board of elders), we had an extended discussion on the uncharted territory our congregation and the whole world find ourselves in.  What to do?  How to worship?  How to care for one other?

We could choose the path of hoarding.  I’ve got mine.  Go fend for yourself.

We decided to go another way.  We’ll be worshipping online.  We will be having prayer times, classes, and other opportunities for sacred space.

The coming weeks and months will not be easy.  (That’s no doubt a colossal understatement.)  We can choose to hoard, or we can choose to share.  Every Sunday we hear the Trinitarian benediction, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship (or communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  The Greek word for “fellowship” is κοινωνια (koinonia), which at root means “sharing.”

When we hoard, we wind up losing what we think we had.  The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Together, we will find new ways to be “sharing.”  Let us share, not hoard, the physical means of living and thriving.  Let us share, not hoard, the care and companionship that bring support to each other.  Let us share, not hoard, the living Word who frees us from the chains of fear and panic.

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[photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).