fear

scary monsters

Over a timespan of about fifteen years, I had a recurring dream.  I might even call it a nightmare.  It involved 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 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 feeling being trapped.

I say that because, after graduating from college, I worked there for over two years before going to seminary.  No doubt reflecting my Pentecostal influences, I was dead set on waiting for God to speak to me, to tell me what to do.  Lord, please give me a sign!  Give me a dream; give me a vision of what I need to do!

Please note, I’m not blaming the Pentecostals for my wrong-headed understanding.  That’s on me!

And of course, all the while, the Lord had implanted within me the calling that I needed to follow.  But I was resistant!

Maybe I would have been satisfied with what we see in the reading in Daniel.  We’re told that Daniel has a dream.

Starting with chapter 7, the last part of the book of Daniel is what’s known as apocalyptic literature.  (The word “apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”)  The book of Revelation is in that category.  (Surprise!)  Apocalyptic books are like movies with all kinds of weird special effects: dream worlds, cosmic calamities, and yes, scary monsters.

It’s been said, “One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy.  The latter…will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.”[1]

Think about it.  Even though the parables of Jesus and apocalyptic images aren’t exactly the same thing, they do serve similar purposes.

For example, Jesus could talk about grace and give us a definition.  He could call it “a free gift” or “an undeserved reward.”  He could do that, or he could tell a story about it—say, a story about a son who asks for his inheritance, shames the family, goes abroad and squanders the money, and after all that foolishness, after all those mistakes, is welcomed home with a lavish banquet.

I ask you, which of those makes a bigger impression?  Which one helps you to better understand grace?

And going back to those delightfully scary images, what would become of horror movies?  A documentary-style warning about the hazards of traveling alone on dark roads in the forest just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

So, even though apocalyptic language can be troubling and terrifying, that’s not the end of the story.  These images of mighty angels and stormy seas really do tell the story of God’s people being delivered from the foul beasts that would keep them down.  And those “foul beasts” are typically of the two-legged variety, the ones who walk around upright.

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The reading in Daniel has been chopped up.  Verses 4 to 14 have been deleted.  The Old Testament is often dissected to suit the purposes of the church.  It being a text for All Saints’ Day, the lectionary zeroes in on verse 18.  “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Those holy ones are the saints!

Still, we need to pay attention to the dream—or should we say nightmare?  Daniel seems to think so.  Look at the way the chapter ends in verse 28: “I was so frightened that I turned pale, and I kept everything to myself” (Good News Bible).  He was so scared that he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and he probably soiled himself).  And he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

He sees four great beasts rising from the sea.  In ancient Hebrew thinking, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  Who knows what’s down there?  This is a symbol that is primordial.  It goes back to the chaos at creation.  This is “darkness [covering] the face of the deep” (Gn 1:2).  So, toss in the tempest, and you really do have some chaos!

There’s some question as to which kingdoms the four beasts symbolize.  People pick among the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  The point is, all these empires in one way or another persecuted the Jews, the people of God.  Or in apocalyptic terms, they’re scary monsters that tried to gobble up the holy ones.

John Collins says that “the vision functioned to give hope to the persecuted Jews.  This rather trite statement, however, does scant justice to the power of the vision, which attempts to shape a whole new view of history.”[2]  Daniel’s vision shapes a whole new view of history.

It can be difficult for us to realize how powerful this is.  Imagine the audacity of this powerless group of people.  They’re just one nation among many that have been swept up by the empire.  How dare they show this holy defiance?  How dare they tell their own stories?  They’re supposed to agree with the official version of history, one that lets them know they’re less worthy, one that puts them in their place.

As the church, we have inherited that legacy.  Still, we have to watch ourselves.  We have to be careful about how closely we identify with the qualities of, not Greek or Roman, but American empire.  Believe it or not, we aren’t immune to acting like the rest of the human race.  We too can imitate a beast ready to devour.

We have here the story of that great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).  It’s the story of the faithful from every walk of life.

It’s the story told in the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”  Referring to the saints, the second stanza ends like this: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, / And one was slain by a fierce wild beast: / And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, / Why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Yes, that’s right folks.  There’s not any reason why I shouldn’t be slain by a fierce wild beast!

3 dnThis is the story of saints past and present—and we can say, of saints yet to come.  It’s the story of the faithful from every background.  It’s the story of those who have faced all manner of scary monsters.  (Even one symbolized by a fast food restaurant!)

Here are some questions for us.  What are our scary monsters?  Are there any great beasts that fill our dreams with terror?

In a sermon Banu preached one time, she dealt with Goliath the giant.  A quote from her sermon was, “When you focus on your giants, you stumble.  When you focus on God, your giants tumble.”  How does that translate into scary monsters?  How do scary monsters come at us?

Here’s another way of framing it.  Are we trapped by the past?  Do we carry around undeserved guilt?

Chris Gehrz speaks of All Saints’ Day as a call and opportunity “to be a steward of the past.”[3]  We’re called to be stewards of the creation, not only in space, but also in time.  All Saints’ Day “underscores the importance of preserving [the] past against the erosion that comes with the passage of time.”  We are called to remember—and to remember well.

This may come as a shock, but there are those who like to zap us by unfairly reminding us of our past.  They would have us remember, but not remember well.  Still, I fear that at some level, that tendency resides within all of us.  But to the extent we give way to that tendency, we only speak from our own fear, our own insecurity.  We are not speaking—and being—from a place of love and hope.

In Christ, those voices of accusation are silenced.  In the face of the glory of Christ, they have nothing to say.

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[pixabay.com]

In Christ, the great beasts, the scary monsters, are rendered toothless.  We’re given a whole new view of history.  We are ushered into the communion of saints, the holy ones of the Most High, who we join in receiving the kingdom and possessing the kingdom forever and ever.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=714

[2] John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 324.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/11/all-saints-day-and-the-stewardship-of-the-past


blow away the vapor

Last Tuesday Banu and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.  On a similar occasion when we were in Jamestown over a decade ago, I commented in front of some parishioners, referring to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they could be taken in more than one way!  Trust me—it was not a lament; it was not a statement of regret!

1 jr{Dr. Horace Russell sees a shoe lace that needs attention}

But yes, I don’t know what I did to deserve her.  I’m not always sure what I continue to do to deserve her.  You notice I said, “not always sure.”  There are times when I’m pretty confident (probably arrogant) in that regard!  Having said that, let’s turn our attention to a story in which there is no doubt whatsoever.

That story appears in Jeremiah 2.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of a lover spurned.  It is a story of an unfaithful spouse.

The chapter begins, “The word of the Lord came to me [that is, Jeremiah], saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember   the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (vv. 1-2).  The Lord is grieved at the straying of a beloved bride—one who followed, even in the wilderness.  This is the bride who on the wedding day, heard the words, “for richer, for poorer,” and held onto that bit about “for poorer”: but only for a little while!

This is indeed a story about abandonment.  It’s a story about abandoning one’s source of joy, be it a devoted loving partner, a devoted loving spouse.  More fundamentally, it’s a story about abandoning the source of joy that is one’s God.  That’s the unfortunate word the prophet brings.

(As a side note, this is probably one of the earliest messages of Jeremiah.  But its being in chapter 2 doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The book isn’t exactly in chronological order.  It’s almost like someone arranged it by taking the pages, tossing them up in the air, and then waiting for them to fall.)

Jeremiah addresses the whole country.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel” (v. 4).  This is the basic complaint: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (v. 5).  That is the essence of the matter.  We become what we worship!

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The Lord asks, “Why did you go far from me?”  Why did you reject me?  The word for “reject” (רׇחַקוּ, raaq) can mean “become distant,” “remote,” “walk away”—pretend like you have cooties!

Remember, this is also a description of a loved one: becoming distant, becoming remote, becoming absent.

What happened when they became distant, when they walked away?  As we saw, they “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  That word “worthless” (הֶבֶל, hebel) is an interesting one.  For example, it appears numerous times in the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Here’s how it starts.)  “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (1:2).  The word has many nuances: vanity, futility, nothingness.  The primary meaning is “vapor” or “breath.”  “They went after vapor and became vapor themselves.”

Here’s how the New English Bible puts verse 5.  “What fault did your forefathers find in me, that they wandered far from me, pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty.”  I like that: pursuing empty phantoms.

(Last month, while talking about the “elemental spirits,” I noted that St. Paul calls them “only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17).  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  They’re only a shadow.  You know—don’t be scared of your shadow!)

In the same way, don’t go after those empty phantoms.  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  What are you—scared of ghosts?

The people have abandoned their one true love for something which doesn’t satisfy.  They’ve been seduced by someone who will not and cannot satisfy.  If this sounds insane to you, you’re probably right.  But then, there is much insanity within us, within all of us.

3 jr Bungishabaku Katho, a professor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, goes into how this could come about.  Referring to Jeremiah’s audience, he says, “Judah had grown accustomed to God: they were so at ease that God was taken for granted and ignored.  Yahweh was no longer the center of Judah’s life, and he was not called upon during the time of danger.  Instead, people chose to go after idols, which are ironically implied to be more helpful than Yahweh.”[1]

In her book From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Life, for most of us, is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven.  Idols help to make up for that deficiency.  Life is outrageous.  Idols help us know how to proceed.  So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes.  Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”[2]

Our idols aren’t so very different from those of Jeremiah’s era.  We have our own loves and devotions, things seemingly much more realistic and useful than God, things that just make more sense.  Of course, there are things to do to make sure stuff gets done!  But how often do we wander from the source of our life and light and love?  How often do we trust in vapor?

The prophet speaks of the people being “brought…into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”  However, the land has been “defiled” and made “an abomination” (v. 7).  There are symbolic and spiritual ramifications—how idolatry has led the people astray.  It also has quite visible consequences—the destruction of the environment, the invasion of habitats, the eradication of species of animals and plants.  It includes how we have fared in being the stewards of God’s good creation.

(The devastation of the Amazon rain forest is a case in point of land being defiled and made an abomination.  Thinking of defiling, we have hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste in storage or buried underground: one more unwelcome gift our descendants will inherit from us!)

Jeremiah points in particular to those who should know better.  The priests, those who handle the law (the teachers), the rulers, and the prophets have all failed in their call to be faithful.

Our leaders often fail in their call to faithfulness.  We who are leaders, in whatever context, often fail in our call to faithfulness.  That being said, how much blame do we bear in perhaps allowing ourselves to be led astray?  How often do we follow with blind faith?  How often do we fail to actually investigate what our leaders tell us?  I understand very well there are things beyond our knowledge.  Ask me to describe abatement cost, generic securities, and tax-free spinoff, and I promise you will get a far from coherent answer.

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Verse 11 speaks of something that might hamper anyone.  “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”  There’s the insanity again about exchanging the one true love, the one holy love, for a deception, for a counterfeit.

It can happen before we know it.  Am I so sure I have never changed my God for other gods?  We can be baptized into waters that become stagnant.  Our society has much to offer; it makes many promises.  Does a fish swimming in water know that it is wet?

Joan Chittister reflects, “No one lives in a tax-free world.  Life costs.  The values and kitsch and superficiality of it takes its toll on all of us.  No one walks through life unscathed.  It calls to us for our hearts and our minds and our very souls.  It calls to us to take life consciously, to put each trip, each turn of the motor, each trek to work in God’s hands.  Then, whatever happens there, we must remember to start over and start over and start over until, someday, we control life more than it controls us.”[3]

We become what we worship.

How do we see God?  Remember Debbie Blue’s comment: “Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”  I’ve often said our concepts of God can become idols.

Do we see God as punitive?  Do we see God as petty?  Do we see God as a bully?  If so, then our God is an idol.  That is not the God of Jesus Christ.  If our God is a vengeful tyrant, then borrowing Jeremiah’s language about love and marriage, such a God is an abusive spouse.

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Our passage ends on an especially poignant note.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (vv. 12-13).

The heartbroken Lord reveals two crimes of which the people are guilty.  First, as we’ve seen, they have said no to the covenant, the bond of love.  Living water is fresh, running water.  It is not stagnant.  It doesn’t become the breeding ground of mosquitoes!  Algae doesn’t grow in it!  It doesn’t stink!  That cool, clear water doesn’t appeal to them.

Next, they have dug cisterns; they have dug wells.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with digging cisterns.  We are dependent on falling rain to feed the streams and rivers.  We are dependent on ground water.  We can’t live without water!

However, that’s not the picture here.  The Lord is a never-failing fountain of running water.  God is an everlasting source of that precious liquid.  In this image, there’s no need to rely on the rain or the ground.  There’s no need to rely on the work of our own hands, but that’s what Jeremiah’s audience has chosen.

What’s worse, the cisterns are cracked.  They have become broken; the water is seeping out of them.

We might ask, “What’s the big deal about this living water, this running water, anyway?”  Jesus speaks of this in John’s gospel.  He says, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’  Now he said this about the Spirit” (Jn 7:37-39).

The living water is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit can’t be held—not in a cistern, and certainly not in a cracked cistern!  It’s like trying the gather the wind with your hands.

Earlier I posed the question to myself about how often I exchange my God for those worthless gods, those idols.  How often do I trust in vapor, and then become vapor myself?  Well, I suppose the prophet would pose this question to me also.  How often do I try to grab, to hold onto the Spirit?  How often do I become content with past revelations, past experiences, of the Spirit—to the point I reject the living water and settle for stagnant water?  My guess is I might not be the only one who needs to hear that question.

Summer is nearing its end; fall is approaching.  I half-jokingly suggested to Banu we should take as a theme another scripture from Jeremiah: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  She didn’t agree.  Still, that might not be altogether out of place.  We may feel lost, but the promise of God remains.

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Forget about building those cisterns!  Allow the Spirit to blow away the vapor.  Let’s allow ourselves to regain and reaffirm our first and true love.

 

[1] Bungishabaku Katho, “Idolatry and the Peril of the Nation: Reading Jeremiah 2 in an African Context” Anglican Theological Review, 99:4 (Fall 2017), 722.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 172.

[The painting is Jeremiah the Prophet by Marc Chagall.]


who do you think you are?

I want to begin with a question.  How many of you can think of someone from your past, maybe even early childhood, who for you is summed up by a certain image or incident?

1 mk{Is this fellow summed up by a single image?}

Let me give an example.  When I was in second grade, there was a kid in my class named Jon.  For some strange reason, he would turn his eyelids inside out.  The first time he did it, it scared me, and I started crying.  That was a mistake!  Once he saw that, he made a point of turning his eyelids inside out and then trying to get my attention.  I don’t recall crying anymore, but it still freaked me out.

And to this day, that’s the image I have of Jon.  He was the creepy kid who would turn his eyelids inside out.  Forever and ever, that is who he is!

It’s a common thing, really, to go from our memory and decide that we have them figured out.

In the gospel reading from Mark 6, Jesus goes back to his hometown and encounters something like this.  We’re told, “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, ‘Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’  And they took offense at him” (vv. 2-3).

Brian Stoffregen has said, “It is essentially their knowledge of Jesus that keeps them from really knowing and benefiting from [him].  Could this be a warning to all people who think that they know Jesus, but, in fact, may misunderstand and reject the real Jesus?”[1]

I think there’s more truth in this than we would like to admit.  We can possess plenty of Jesus “trinkets.”  We can be acquainted with Jesus.  In fact, we can know quite a bit about Jesus…without knowing Jesus.

2 mkThe people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him.  They remember when he was “knee high to a grasshopper”!  And this recent behavior has them confused.  Isn’t he the carpenter?  What’s he doing acting like a rabbi?  Who does he think he is?

The Greek word translated as “carpenter” is τεκτων (tektōn), but it has more than one meaning.  It can refer to any “artisan” or “craftsman.”  It can even mean “artist,” like a sculptor.  So we’re not entirely sure that Jesus was a carpenter, but it’s a pretty safe bet.

The point is, in the eyes of the local folks, he wasn’t staying in his place.  Jesus wasn’t sticking to what they always thought he would—or should—be!  “And they took offense at him.”  The word is σκανδαλιζω (skandalizō), which means they were scandalized by him.  But that’s putting it mildly.

In chapter 4 of his gospel, Luke does better than Mark in capturing anger at Jesus: “When they heard [him], all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (v. 28).  They go ballistic.  They’re so mad that they want to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he slips away before they can execute their plan (and him)!

Something else to notice is that Jesus is called “the son of Mary.”  In their culture, men carry the names of their fathers, such as “James son of Zebedee.”  Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” is a not-so-veiled way of saying that he is illegitimate.  We see a suggestion of it again in John 8:41.

It’s been noted that “the refusal—or inability—of Jesus’ neighbors to accept his status confirms what [we’ve seen so] far: the world’s standards of judgment appear to run headlong into God’s ways.  Jesus does not measure up.”[2]

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It’s not like Jesus is deliberately being stubborn.  He’s not doing things simply for shock value.  But he recognizes the unjust nature of so many of his culture’s traditions.  And that often includes the role of the family.  Jesus sees that “there is a higher priority than family power and obligation.”  William Loader has suggested, “Family power, meant to empower one to independent adulthood, frequently aborts the process, and becomes a source of oppression.”[3]

This surely is no surprise to any of you.  We all know people, and families, who have squashed the dreams and gifts of one of their own.  This can be done actively:  through ridicule or even abuse.  Or it can be done passively: through neglect or lack of encouragement.  Some of you might have firsthand experience with this.

Jesus has a very different take on family values.  In Mark 3, he asks, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 33-35).

Our Lord models for us a new way of being a family.  (And I would say, a better way of being a family.)  It’s been said, “That may well mean leaving the natural family behind, a revolutionary thought—and a healthy one.”[4]  That’s what the church should be: a family at a deeper and more profound level than those tied to us by blood.  (But then, perhaps it’s the blood of Christ which ties us together!)

Verses 4 to 6 tell us that “Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  He was amazed, astonished, dumbfounded.

Their minds are already made up about him.  They prefer the picture they have in their heads, as opposed to the living Jesus.  That’s what they’re comfortable with.  They think they have him all figured out.  One of my favorite bands, King’s X, sang, “There is no room inside a box!”  That’s no place for Jesus—or for those who, in second grade, turned their eyelids inside out!

The late Bruce Prewer commented, “The low expectations from within one’s locality, not only underrate the gifts and possibilities of a ‘local,’ but can also actively inhibit the development of such gifts. Numerous people have been grossly restricted by the low expectations of those around them. Many have to go elsewhere to be truly be themselves.

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“As I see it, fostering low expectations is one of the devil’s most canny stratagems.”  Who do you think you are?

People with “low expectations can inhibit or constrict your enlarging identity in Christ.  They rarely notice your developing gifts, or give you gracious affirmation in your accomplishments.”[5]  They’re the ones who are sure to pour cold water on the things that make for life—the things that foster joy and hope.  Although, I suppose we all do that, at least on occasion.  But there are people who seem to be expert at it.

Sometimes, low expectations appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They come to us cloaked as otherwise good and even noble considerations.  How many genuine promptings from God (not personal agendas) get buried amid concerns that we’ve never done it that way before…or we can’t afford it…or we should assign that to a committee and let them study it for the next few months?

“Be lofty in your expectations for yourselves and for other Christians, and be generous with yourself and with them when you stumble.  A stumble does not characterize your true future, but Jesus Christ does.”[6]

If it feels like I’m saying, “do more,” that’s not it.  It’s not enough to simply be busy.  Instead, what does God ask?  Mark tells us about the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples.  I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 12: “They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different.”  That’s his take on the message of repentance.

As I move towards my conclusion, I want to share with you something attributed to Nelson Mandela.  It actually appears in a work by Marianne Williamson.  Still, it sounds like something Mandela would have quoted!

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“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” she writes.  “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[7]

So… who are you to tell someone that Jesus loves them?  Who are you to feed the hungry?  Who are you to speak against torture?  Who are you to visit the sick and those in jail?  Who are you to bring hope to the hopeless?  Who are you to tell people that their sin has been forgiven?  Who do you think you are?

You are a child of God, and so am I.

 

[1] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[2] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[5] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[6] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[7] marianne.com/a-return-to-love


elements of the world

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?  When I was young, I had no idea what that meant.  Why can’t you see the forest?  Isn’t it made up of trees?  If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest?  Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.

1 co Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing.  The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’  The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’  The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”[1]

Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing.  They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing.  Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding.  By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.

When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements.  One of the big ones is “onions.”  I do not like onions.  I really do not like onions.  When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.

2 coShe often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them.  My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?”  Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor.  In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst.  By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  So they serve a valuable purpose!  By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.

But I still don’t like them.

In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning.  (Though it has nothing to do with onions!)  His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ.  He wants to warn them against certain errors.  A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.

In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia).  Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate.  In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.”  In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.”  It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things.  Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:

In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire.  This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.

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In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding.  The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food.”  In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.

In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law.  They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3).  And so, we come back to Colossians.

I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone.  There has been plenty of debate down through the ages.  Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended.  And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.

We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.

Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details.  These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).  Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).

One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook.  A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate.  This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife.  For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US.  However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989.  The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time.  It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!

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In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery.  That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.”  It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.

However, there’s no need to be afraid.

For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements.  We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty.  And that word “awesome” should be taken literally.  We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky.  We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship.  We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.

In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together.  Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves.  Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!

Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.”  Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”[2]

Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.”  We worship our culture, our cars, our cats!  We worship our concepts themselves.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs.  They identify us; they help give meaning to life.  Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God.  You know, the two are not the same!  We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.

Indeed, as Walter Wink notes, “No age has ever been more in the thralldom of the stoicheia; no age has been less aware of its bondage.”[3]

The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.

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I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions.  And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person.  (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)

The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16).  Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier.  He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17).  They are only a shadow.  Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”

6 coI like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter.  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20).  I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21).  I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor.  He’s having a good time!

Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too.  Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:

“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it?  ‘Don’t touch this!  Don’t taste that!  Don’t go near this!’  Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention?  Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.  They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic.  But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”

Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things.  But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself.  It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.”  As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.

There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance.  Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ.  We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us.  Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”[4]

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What elements of the world do we face?  What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us?  Do we still live as though we belonged to the world?  Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12).  We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone.  We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone.  Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.

Alone, we’re helpless.  The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive.  They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.

8 coHowever, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors.  We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won.  We’re just on mopping up duty.  The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world.  We need not be scared of their shadow.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.

[2] Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.

[3] Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.

[4] Roth, 343.


centered in confession

I want to begin with a part of our worship service.  It deals with confession, and that’s not a confession of faith.  It’s a confession of sin.  And being done as a congregation, it’s a corporate confession of sin.  It is done as a body.  Having said that, I want to start with a question.

I imagine we’ve all been in this situation—probably more than once, maybe much more than once.  Have you ever been told to apologize when you were caught doing something wrong?  Have you ever been told to apologize, even if you didn’t mean it?  Maybe you were just sorry you got caught?  “Tell your sister you’re sorry for pulling her hair.”  (To which you might respond mumbling, “She deserved it.”)

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How many times have you told someone else to say you’re sorry?  (Not having kids, I haven’t had many occasions to do that.)

Have you ever been told to apologize for something you did not do?  Have you been punished for something you didn’t do?

Now, back to the confession of sin.  Does it ever seem like you’re being told say you’re sorry?  Or moving even further, does it ever seem you’re being told to apologize for something you haven’t done?  I have heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a certain prayer of confession.  Does it ever seem like we’re just reciting the words without meaning them?

Why bother with it at all?  Our scripture readings might shed some light on the matter.

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah 6 is one of the more memorable scripture passages.  (It’s also one of the scriptures for Trinity Sunday.)  It features the call of the prophet Isaiah.

There’s the glorious and frightful vision of Isaiah.  The Lord is perched high and mighty on the throne, his garb filling the temple.  The seraphim are flying around, praising with loud voices—voices so powerful that they’re shaking the whole place.  It’s truly an awe-inspiring scene.  And it is “awe”: a vision of astonishment, wonder, and fear.

In the presence of that sublimity, that transcendence, what can the prophet say?  “Woe is me!  I am lost” (v. 5).  Faced with that majestic beauty, he confesses, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Isaiah admits his irreverence, his unworthiness.  So where do we go from here?

How about taking a glowing, fiery coal and pressing it against his lips?  That should sear off the sin.  (Please remember, this is a vision.  He’s not in danger of having his mouth burned off!)

Okay, those unclean lips have been purified; they’ve gone through the fire.  Now what?  The Lord puts out a call of recruitment: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Having now been pronounced worthy, Isaiah ventures to say, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8).

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Quick note: the lectionary reading ends there.  The rest of the chapter has some unfortunate language for those hoping the prophet will say everything’s copacetic.  There’s some rather grim stuff about people being abandoned, left to their own devices.  But don’t worry, it won’t last forever.  As soon as the cities have been depopulated, the land devasted, the wild animals taking up residence in houses—that might be long enough.

I want us to take note of something.  At what point does the narrative change?  When does the tide turn?  It’s when Isaiah confesses his fault, his missing the mark (which is one definition of sin).  That’s the hinge on which the story turns.  That’s when the reverse fire brigade is sent in.

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

Our text in St. Luke’s gospel also has a bit of drama.  Jesus is at the lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), teaching the people.  He’s doing a good job, because they keep moving closer and closer to him.  Picture him backing up and backing up until he’s ankle deep, then knee deep—pretty soon, he’ll be swimming.  He sees a couple of boats belonging to some fishermen, and he gets in one of them.  Jesus needs to push off a little into water; he needs some breathing room.

After he’s done talking, he calls out to Simon Peter and says, “Let’s go out and do some fishing.”  Peter’s been cleaning his net, and, truth be told, he’s dog-tired.  He tells Jesus, “We were out there all night and didn’t catch jack squat—but if you insist.”  So he and his friends head out, and lo and behold, they catch so many fish their nets are about to break.

Peter knows Jesus is doing more than giving great fishing advice.  He is in the presence of greatness.  He is awestruck (to revisit that word), and he falls to his knees.  Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (v. 8).  His friends are also gripped with astonishment, including his good buddies, James and John.

Just as with Isaiah, Peter acknowledges his sinfulness, his unworthiness.  At that moment of humble admission, he is encouraged and elevated by Jesus.  He says to him, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear not!  And just as with Isaiah, Peter is given an assignment; this assignment is a promise.

3 is 6Just at the moment when he has failed as a fisherman, Peter is given a different quarry.  Jesus promises him “from now on you will be catching people,” or some might say, “fishers of men” (v. 10).  It’s a life changing experience.  Peter and his friends leave their boats behind, the tools of their trade; they leave everything and follow him.

I began by talking about the prayer of confession, and there’s nothing like coming clean.  And it is indeed a case of being told to say, “I’m sorry.  I apologize.”  It’s a good thing that we’re told to apologize.  We are called to face ourselves, to unburden ourselves, to cast our cares on the Lord.  One hopes that’s part of our private prayer life, but this, as was noted before, an act of the community of faith.  It is an act of the body.

There’s a particular subject I would like us to consider, and it involves the community; it involves the body of Christ.  It deals with conflict, and too often, that involves sin.

Michael Gulker is the founder of the Colossian Forum, which deals with conflict and Christian discipleship.  It draws its inspiration from Colossians 1:17—all things hold together in Christ.  He and some friends recognized how the church was facing serious problems, but not always dealing with them in a Christlike way, to put it mildly!

He said, “We started gathering people of different stripes around a variety of topics.  We said we were going to worship and follow the structure of the liturgy and put an argument where the homily went and then ask at the end whether the Spirit had produced fruit.  If it did, then our love of God and neighbor is richer and deeper.  And if not, then what do we need to repent of, lament, confess?”[1]

You might say they took the prayer of confession of sin and just ran with it.

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I’ve sometimes wondered if our worship could ever be dangerous—not safe and cuddly, not ever challenging.  Would it be dangerous to not shy away from the tricky issues?  Would it be dangerous to ask what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to say about climate change, racism, abortion, capital punishment, war, gun control, the pros and cons of eating squid, all those delicious issues and more!

Gulker said they were speaking with some youth, and this was one of the observations.  “They said they were interested in Jesus ‘but the church doesn’t smell like Jesus.’  They were saying that the church just smells like the rest of the culture.”

He continues, “We confess that all things hold together in Christ, not because of something we did, but because of something that has already been done, and we get to participate in that.  To do that well, we know that we have to pray.  We have to meditate on the Scriptures, together, across our differences.”

I said earlier I’ve heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a prayer of confession.  There’s the question, “Don’t we typically go into conflict thinking, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong?’  There’s a lot of work just going into conflict with humility and realizing, ‘Maybe I’m wrong.”

There’s something dangerously freeing about, as our friend Michael says, “coming together to worship and [being] honest and [being] willing to get it wrong together…  We can get it wrong.  We can tell the truth about when we get it wrong because when we do, we can confess our sins and God is glorified.  People have forgotten this.  They forget it the moment they walk into a conflict.  So to simply remind people of that is gospel.  You can watch them light up and taste the gospel.  They’ve forgotten it.”

What a wonderful and powerful statement: people light up and taste the gospel.

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Did you know it’s possible to disagree with someone and not think they’re stupid or evil?  We can have a discussion and wonder how something might lead us to more fully love God and neighbor and creation.  We can come together and see how the good news of Jesus Christ shines on what divides us.

We are centered in confession.

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/michael-gulker-conflict-and-christian-discipleship


keep Herod in Christmas

We’re familiar with the calls to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Those calls are often spurred by an overemphasis on the jolly old man in the red suit, as well as a certain reindeer with a shiny nose that also happens to be red.  Some people point to more serious concerns, like the commercialization of Christmas, although if we’re honest, the vast majority of us have contributed to the commercialization of Christmas, in one way or another!

1 mt I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should keep Herod in Christmas.  I guess that’s to be expected.  Herod, who serves at the leisure of the Roman Empire, is just another insecure tyrant who rules with an iron fist.  What business does he have with Christmas?  Actually, as we see in our gospel reading in Matthew, Herod has quite a bit to do with Christmas.

This is the story of what the church has come to call the Holy Innocents.  We just celebrated their feast day.  They are the little boys in and around Bethlehem that Herod, in his paranoid fear and rage, ordered to be (euphemistically speaking) taken out.  This follows the visit of the Magi earlier in the chapter, which is the story for Epiphany.

(Their visit is believed to have come roughly two years after the birth of Jesus, but the date of the feast of the Holy Innocents provides the connection to Christmas—well, that and the meaning of the event!)

Anyway, Herod learns of these dignitaries from the East, who claim to have seen a star of great importance.  They’ve been talking about a child who has been born King of the Jews.  That kind of talk terrifies Herod.  He doesn’t need the Romans hearing about this.  All of Jerusalem is in an uproar.  So he arranges a secret interview with the Magi.  He tells them that when they find the young king, let him know about it.  Herod says, with all the sincerity he can muster, “so that I too may go and honor him” (v. 8, Common English Bible).

As it turns out, they are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, completely bypassing Herod.  This is what’s behind verse 16: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.”  Make a fool of me, will they?  I’ll show them!

Herod employs the “sledgehammer to swat a fly” approach.  The numbers are hard to calculate, but probably twenty or thirty innocent families are victimized by his cruelty.

Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned keeping Herod in Christmas.  I asked: what does he have to do with Christmas?  Jesus is born into a violent world.  His homeland is under military rule.  Many Roman provinces aren’t the headache that Judea is.  They don’t constantly stir up rebellion.

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The main reason the Romans even bother with it is its strategic location—the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  For centuries, the Promised Land has been a blessing and a curse; conquerors simply use it as a highway, heading toward more attractive destinations.

So it’s entirely appropriate for Herod, and his assassins, to be part of the Christmas story.  We’re told that “we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes.  Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.”[1]  So Herod is the new Pharaoh, and Jesus is the new Moses.

Angels seem to speak in dreams to Joseph on a frequent basis.  An angel warns him of Herod’s plan.  As a result, he “got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”  Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (vv. 14-15).

The Holy Family shares the fate of so many in our world today.  Bill Long describes it this way: “the Savior of the world…was none other than a displaced person, a refugee, whose parents fled for their lives because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ to use the language of…21st century asylum law.”[2]

He draws out the image even more.  “Matthew uses the same verb several times to stress the fear felt by people—[αναχωρεω, anachōreō].  Though it literally means simply ‘to withdraw,’ in the context of Matthew it [also] carries with it the notion of fleeing for one’s life.  The wise men fled.  Jesus’ family fled…  It has a haunting similarity to life in the 21st century.”  It has a haunting similarity to our own country.

Jesus is not only the new Moses; though he’s a refugee, some would also use the unfortunate term “illegal alien”!  And according to Luke, the family is also poor.  When Mary undergoes the purification ritual after Jesus’ birth, she and Joseph make their offering by using a provision designed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24, Lv 12:8).

3 mtI hope no one will think of me as morbid in pointing out the fear that is built into Christmas.  It’s right there in the Bible.  In fact, the second day of Christmas, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen.  In the book of Acts, he’s the first Christian to be martyred.

Regarding the atmosphere of fear, we’re reminded that there is “a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not [simply] because Jesus…went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers.”[3]  As Christians, our lives, our lives of grace, must also dodge between the powers.

Those powers can be represented by Herod—and the Herods of our day—those insecure tyrants.  Those Herods, those new Pharaohs, inhabit the political world in which people, especially children, are turned into refugees and trapped in poverty.  But those powers can be other types of Herods, such as insecure tyrants who seem bent on wreaking havoc in the family!

I like the way Caryll Houselander describes the Holy Innocents.[4]

“Baptized in blood, those little children were among the first comers to heaven.  Fittingly they, with their tiny King, are the founders of the Kingdom of Children.  We celebrate their feast with joy; it is the most lyrical in the year.  They reach down their small hands to comfort every father or mother bereaved of a child.  They are the first who have proved that the Passion of the Christ can be lived in a tiny span by little ones...

“Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ.  Any Child might be Christ!—the fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact of the modern world.”

There is the reality that we can’t embrace the joy of Christmas while ignoring the suffering that goes with it.  Matthew quotes Jeremiah (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18).  The prophet, who lived during the Babylonian exile, is referring to Ramah, a sort of transit point, where the Babylonians gathered captives for sending into exile.  Rachel symbolizes the grief over the generations for all of the lost children.

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Clearly, I think we’re all aware of how Christmas stirs up a mixture of feelings.  While being bathed—beginning in November!—with festoons and wishes of a “holly jolly Christmas,” this time of year is also one of depression.  That’s the idea behind Blue Christmas, a worship service which often happens during the winter solstice, the longest night.

It is a recognition of the grief that Christmas brings with it.  It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship—there can be many different kinds of losses.  We all have mini-deaths in our lives.

Thankfully, our story does not end with Herod.  Joseph has another dream of divine origin, letting him know Herod and his crew are dead and gone.  However, Herod’s son has taken the reins, so Bethlehem still isn’t safe.  Joseph has one more dream, directing him to his new destination, Galilee.  The family settles in Nazareth.

So, our story does not end with Herod.  Still, do we in any way reflect the spirit of Herod?

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to change and become like children (18:3).  We easily fall prey to imitating the insanity of Herod.  We crush the child within us, the part which carries the wholly innocent spirit that is open to wonder, open to joyous creativity—believing that anything is possible.  We can crush the child within each other, within our society, and God forbid, within the church.  (Maybe especially within the church!)

Knowing who and what Herod is, why indeed should we seek to keep him in Christmas?  Is it enough to know he’s already there?  Is it enough to stand with our sisters and brothers for whom this time is a struggle?  Is it enough to remember the children for whom our world is a struggle?  Perhaps.

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But thanks be to God, those little children, those Holy Innocents, keep witnessing, though their time was short.  They are constantly reborn in us.  Maybe that’s a lesson from Christmas, the little child who is born for all of us.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[2] www.drbilllong.com/LectionaryIII/Matt2.html

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[4] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 109-110.


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).

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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.

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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.


courage!

I need to admit something.  There was a time when I would have never dreamed that I’d be doing what I’m doing now.  And I’m not talking about being a pastor, which I believe I mentioned once.  I mean what I’m doing right now this instant, that is, speaking in public.

I was one of those poor souls who would put “public speaking” near the top of the list of things I dreaded doing.  I had to force myself to take a public speaking class in high school.

1 easterWhen I became a Christian and started going to church—I was 21 when I was baptized—my pastor saw something in me and asked if I wanted to preach a sermon.  (This was a church with Wednesday night services, so that would be my time slot!)  I think I said “yes” because, as much as for any other reason, I didn’t want to disappoint him.

The first time I preached, I’m sure I was visibly terrified.  I forgot to breathe.  My chest tightened up.  I found myself trying to race through the words.  (Oh Lord, please let this end.)  My vocal inflection was terrible, that is, unless you’re a fan of anxious monotone!  However, over time, I gradually got better.

There was one particular night when I was scheduled to preach.  I was completely calm, perfectly at ease.  Then while he was introducing me, the pastor, reflecting on past bouts of nerves said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be him right now!”  He thought he was lightening the mood, trying to be helpful.  It didn’t work.  He inadvertently spoke worry and negativity into my brain.  I was back to being visibly terrified!  By the grace of God, I’ve made steps in conquering my fear of public speaking.

I begin with this reminiscence to demonstrate my tiny experience of gaining a little bit of courage.

Courage is something that is woven into the Easter narratives, in all four of the gospels.  We hear the message, “Do not fear.”  We hear the encouragement.  Even before we get to Easter, on Maundy Thursday, the gospel of John reports one of the last things Jesus says to the disciples: “take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  In other places, the Greek word (θαρσεω, tharseō) is translated as “take heart.”

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That makes sense.  Our English word “courage,” coming by way of French and before that, Latin, literally means “heart.”  It’s related to the word “cardiac.”  If you’ve got courage, you’ve got heart!

In today’s gospel lesson from Matthew 28, both the angel and Jesus say to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (there were several Marys), “Do not be afraid” (vv. 5, 10).  Do not fear.  Do not lose heart.  The gospel writers list various permutations of women at the tomb of Jesus, but the one constant is Mary Magdalene.  She’s given special attention.  She is courageous in a way none of the male disciples ever are.

We see that she is sent—in John’s gospel, she’s the only one sent—to tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised from the grave.  For that reason, she is called “apostle to the apostles.”  An “apostle” (αποστολος, apostolos) is “one who is sent.”  She’s a messenger to the messengers.

Ron Hansen reminds us that women “were not admissible as legal witnesses according to Jewish law.”[1]  The overall disbelief of the men regarding Mary Magdalene’s claims is to be expected.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that they seriously doubt what she’s saying, especially when it’s something so outrageous.

At the same time, Jesus did tell them that he would come back from the dead (v. 6, 26:32).  Still, what can you do with that—something so inconceivable?  And then there are those who say Jesus’ claims about resurrection were tacked on later, as an addition to Matthew’s gospel.

Having said all of that, sometimes we don’t take the disciples’ state of mind very seriously.  We already know the end of the story.  That’s what we’re celebrating today.  Death has been defeated.  It is the death of death.  Christ being raised means he can no longer die.  He is the pioneer of resurrection.  We who are in Christ share in the resurrection.  We will die and emerge with life eternal.

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image of St. Mary Magdalene is by Karmie Varya at http://stmarymagdalenes.org/stmarymags-karmievarya.jpg

As I say, the disciples don’t know that yet.  Look at verse 1: “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”  There’s not much said about the sabbath after Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  The sabbath is a time to rest.  However, I don’t think the disciples find much rest on that sabbath.

We now call that sabbath Holy Saturday.  The disciples are in a state of grief.  They have been bereaved.  They have been traumatized.

Shelly Rambo, who is a professor at Boston University School of Theology, has done work on the subject of trauma.  She has worked with military chaplains; they have firsthand knowledge.  For our purposes here, she’s looked at trauma from a theological point of view.  Thinking about my comment on our knowing the end of the story, she says in our rush to get to Easter (to get to the party!), we tend to not pause and reflect on Holy Saturday.  It’s so important to not fly past it.  And here I am saying it, when it was yesterday!  But that’s the beauty of the liturgical calendar.  We re-live the life and story of Jesus every year.

Rambo says that traumas don’t necessarily end.  “Traumas are moving—and we could say bleeding—into other traumas.”[2]

She talks about church folks, saying “in the case of many people who are living beyond traumas, the resurrection [is] often heard as a rush to get over it, to recover, or as pressure to live into resurrection when in fact the reality of their trauma [is] still very present.”  It is possible for there to be an element of insensitivity when we automatically expect everyone to join the festivity.

So back to the disciples.  Remember, they don’t know what’s going to happen.

4 easterOur friend Shelly continues, “That made me think about how hard it is to witness suffering, how hard it is in the chaos in which you don’t know whether life’s going to emerge for someone.  So in a sense, the preacher or the Christian leader becomes the Mary and the beloved disciple and the Thomas who don’t have a clear sign of life.”

At first, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus.  In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener.  Then, in the depths of their sorrow, they realize that it really is him.  Jesus is alive!  Notice how Matthew describes the two women.  “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (v. 8).

“With fear and great joy.”  Maybe one way to look at that would be as the transition of Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday.

(Maybe we get a small taste of fear and great joy by riding a roller coaster!)

I started with my story of moving from almost panic and paralysis to a much greater sense of comfort when speaking in public—one little victory of courage.  How about more meaningful cases of courage?

How about among you?  Can you think of a situation in which you found courage, you were encouraged, when it looked like death had won?  When it looked like all hope was lost?  Then, somehow, new life emerged?  A light began to shine in the darkness?  Did you discover newfound powers?  And to continue with the borrowed image: have you ever been in a state of “fear and great joy”?

Last week, I used Philippians 2:5-11 as my Palm Sunday text.  It speaks of Jesus emptying himself: his refusal to grasp on to power, his willingness to travel the human path, even to the point of being a slave, to the point of being homeless, even to the point of dying, and even suffering the disgrace of dying on a cross.

The constantly self-emptying, loving community that is the Holy Trinity permeates throughout all of creation, throughout all the cosmos.  Because of that, nothing is ever truly lost.  No act of self-emptying, however small, is ever wasted.  And ultimately, at the end of the day, nothing that dies truly remains dead.  On this weekend, we remember the reality of death (for now), but we celebrate the inexpressible joy that comes with rebirth and resurrection.

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I won’t speak for anyone else, but we non-courageous types need that message and the hope of life it carries.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (v. 10).  Jesus said, “take courage; I have conquered the world!”

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20140414JJ.shtml

[2] www.faithandleadership.com/qa/shelly-rambo-the-space-between-death-and-resurrection


matters of death and life

By now, most of you have heard about the seizure which led to my diagnosis of brain cancer.  That was in November 1995.  I had surgery and radiation treatments and was preparing for chemotherapy.

Three months later, in February ’96, Banu and I and a friend of ours were in our apartment.  It was getting a bit late at night.  At some point, our friend had a worried look on her face.  The next thing I knew, EMT personnel were there, asking me if I knew where I was.  It turned out that I had had another seizure.  So back to the hospital.

Like the first time, they gave me some tests, including an MRI scan.  The next day, my doctor came into the room, smiling from ear to ear.  He was positively beaming.  He had good news on what caused my seizure.  They were concerned about regrowth of a tumor, but that’s not what it was.

1 mattersThere’s a scene in the movie Kindergarten Cop which seems oddly appropriate.  Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cop who goes undercover as (guess what?) a kindergarten teacher.  He’s tracking a little boy’s criminal and scary father who’s on the run.

On his first day, the kids are being, well, little kids.  It’s a tough assignment.  Arnold complains, “I have a headache.”  A little boy responds, “It might be a tumor.”  Arnold snaps back, “It’s not a tumor.”  So there’s my doctor (minus my terrible Austrian accent)!

He was happy because I didn’t have a tumor; it was a staph infection.  He was smiling.  This apparently was good news.  I was awaiting a “good news” verdict.  Since it was just an infection, they could give me some medicine, and I’d be home the next day.  Then the doctor said they could operate in the morning.  It seems a staph infection can be pretty serious!

My heart sank.  It wasn’t the second surgery that bothered me so much; it was the realization that this hospital stay would be a lot longer than I had anticipated.  I suddenly felt like a prisoner.  After the doctor left, I told Banu I was glad it wasn’t a tumor, but it still didn’t feel like good news.

We could take my little tale and end it with the smiling doctor and the happy news.  End of story.  Let’s celebrate!  Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story.  Perhaps I was just being a big baby, but I didn’t have a festive feeling.

Now, regarding another story, we’re told it’s “a christianish way of knowing Jesus.”[1]  That’s how Methodist pastor Robb McCoy characterizes “focusing on the happy ending without also seeing the dangerous ramifications of what Jesus accomplished.”

He’s talking about today’s gospel reading in John 11, which following the lectionary, runs from verse 1 to verse 45.  We hear about Lazarus falling ill.  We hear about Jesus’ risky plan to go back to Judea, where he’s a wanted man.  (In fact, they have his picture hanging in the post office.)  We hear about his showing up, knowing that his friend has died.  We hear about Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, venting their anguish at Jesus.  We hear about Jesus himself weeping.  And then we hear Jesus shout, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43).

Now, cue the heart-rending, achingly beautiful music as the miracle of miracles occurs.  Lazarus walks from the tomb, risen from the dead.

2 matters
So, there’s the end of the story.  That’s where our lectionary reading ends.  Get ready for a homecoming party like never before seen in history.  You know, some people are welcomed after traveling from the other side of the world.  How about a welcome after traveling from the other side?

Well, if you read the entire chapter, you can tell that’s not the end of the story.  I’m using one verse of the lectionary text and continuing with the other side of the story.  I appreciate the lectionary.  It forces us to scriptures that we ordinarily might ignore.  But I’ve also aired my complaints about it.  Sometimes good stuff gets left out!

That hasn’t escaped the attention of Rev. McCoy, who comments on ending the reading at verse 45.  “It doesn’t just cut off the story before it gets interesting, it cuts off the story before the most important part is revealed…  [T]he story of Lazarus is not so much about the power of Jesus.  The story of Lazarus is about how people react to this miracle.”

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (v. 45).  To be honest, I’m not sure what my reaction would be.  Seeing someone that you knew for a fact had been four days’ dead just walk out of the tomb—what do you do with that?  It is a matter of death leading to life.  So for the folks on the scene, being witnesses to that elicits a major awakening of faith.

So how about that party?  We’re going to have a toast to Lazarus and, of course, to Jesus!  Everyone’s coming.  “But some of them…”  Hold on, it doesn’t look like everybody’s in a mood for merry-making.

“But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done” (v. 46).  Seeing the love Jesus has for Lazarus, and seeing the loving power he exhibits on his behalf, many of the onlookers come to believe in Jesus.  They come to believe that he is the Messiah, even if it defies their expectations of what the Messiah should be.  But not all of them believe.

The opposite of love is fear.  Fear is what drives them to the Pharisees.  Maybe they fear what Jesus has done and who he is.  Maybe they think he’s a deceiver.  Maybe they want to stay on the good side of the Pharisees.  In any event, this is a key turning point in the ministry of Jesus.

(A couple of quick notes.  Regarding the Pharisees: they’re usually portrayed as bad guys in the New Testament.  They actually were defenders of the Jewish people in the face of outsiders who wanted to oppress them—including the Romans.  And regarding John’s use of the term “Jews,” context is necessary.  In his time, the church is indeed being persecuted by certain Jewish elements.  Still, the Greek word used (ιουδαιος, ioudaios) might be better translated as “Judeans.”  The use of the word “Jews” has led to centuries of persecution by Christians!)

How do the Pharisees respond to the news of Jesus’ miracle?  They and the chief priests call a meeting of the council, the Sanhedrin.  They acknowledge, “This man is performing many signs” (v. 47).  However, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (v. 48).

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They are well aware that Jesus is using the power of life against the power of death.  In their heart of hearts, they know that.  Still, just like the people who brought word of him to them, they also are acting from a place of fear.  McCoy says, “They feared Jesus because his was a power they could not abide.  They feared Jesus because he was threatening their way of life.  He was threatening their comfort, their position, and ultimately their power.”

Therefore, the choice is made.  Jesus must die.  Caiaphas, the high priest, chides them.  He warns them against any possible indecision.  “You know nothing at all!” he gripes.  “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (vv. 49-50).

Caiaphas is speaking at the practical, political level.  Why not sacrifice one person if it keeps the Romans from lowering the boom?  Unknown to him, God has other ideas in mind.  St. John says by virtue of his position as high priest, Caiaphas is giving voice to divine will.  Yes, Jesus will die for the nation, and the people of God everywhere will find, in that death, unity.

Caiaphas and his friends are sure of something.  Jesus is dangerous.  Even Lazarus is dangerous.  In chapter 12, he also is targeted for termination.  He is living, breathing evidence of what Jesus has done.  Because of him, even more people are turning to Jesus.  This fellow who walked out of the tomb needs to go right back.  He needs to take a dirt nap!

After the Lazarus event, nothing can be the same.

Sad to say, one thing these fellows have learned from the Roman Empire is the power of death, the power of the grave.  They better not play cards with Jesus, because he will say, “I see your power of the grave, and I raise you a resurrection.”

It does seem like death can silence life.  Don’t we see that everywhere?  That’s what the enemies of Jesus are counting on.  And they get their wish.  The life of Jesus is snuffed out.  He’s as dead as dead can be.  It’s his turn to take a dirt nap.  But somebody wakes him up!

Our friend Rev. McCoy issues a warning.  Just as the chief priests were wrong to think that death could imprison Jesus, we are wrong—we are being christianish—“if we think that the power of Jesus is something that shouldn’t be feared.”  It’s a mistake if we too easily dismiss it.

Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out.”  McCoy continues, “Church, Come out!  Come out of your comfort zone.  Come out of your fortress.  Come out of your ‘good old days.’  Come out of your sin.  Come out of the lies that tell us how to succeed, consume, spend, buy, then donate and be happy…  Come out of your slumber, and go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

How many of us have been inspired by a book or a movie or music but didn’t let it affect how we live?  What happens when we stop the story before we’re called to act?

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We do need to pray for courage, for bravery, but without giving in to bravado, to arrogance.  After all, Jesus knew when it was time to get the heck out of Dodge, and he spent some time in a “region near the wilderness,” remaining “there with the disciples” (v. 54).

Still, there is a time to come out, to come out of our fortresses.  We all hit high notes in our stories, but we must remember that our stories continue.  In these matters of death and life, the road is not always easy.  For some, it is rarely easy.  Still, know that we have a risen Savior who has gone through the worst of experience and remains faithful to us.  Our Savior defeats death and holds us in life.

 

[1] fatpastor.me/2011/04/08/lazarus-miracle-and-motive


are we ready?

New Year’s Day.*  Epiphany Sunday (Epiphany itself is on Friday).  The eighth day of Christmas.  The morning after New Year’s Eve.  A lot of stuff is coming together today.

Maybe that makes sense.  Each new year has an unbelievably complex set of joys and fears, anticipation and dread.  That might be especially true as we enter 2017.  Many people are glad that 2016 is over!  Although, in speaking with Banu, we recognize that 2016 had a whole lot of blessing to it, and we thank God for it.

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Of course, many of us make new year’s resolutions.  (Such as resolving to exercise—I mean, to exercise more!)  How long folks keep at it is another question.  Still, that speaks to the human need to look to the future and the felt need to change.  We remember the past, with both the good and the bad, but maybe we want a do-over as well.

What I’m about to say should be no surprise to anyone.  When we’re young, our storehouse of memories is very limited.  Everything is directed to the future, and most of us can’t wait to get there!  As time goes on and we get a little more of life under our belt, a little more experience, things begin to even out.  As the years go by, most of us have a wealth of memories, and if you’re regarding life as simply a measure of numbers, the future seems quite foreshortened.  (Still, as I often say, no one is promised tomorrow.  Any of us could be gone tonight.)

Perhaps not regarding life as simply a measure of numbers is a big part of keeping one’s heart young.  We welcome times to come (however that works out), while remembering “auld lang syne,” times gone by.

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I begin with this little meditation on memory because we can see that in the Old Testament lesson.  Today’s passage from Isaiah 63 speaks about memory.  Verse 7 begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord.”  This person who is doing the recounting has seen times that are both awful and awesome.

Here’s a quick note about our author.  The first two-thirds of the book of Isaiah date to the time of the prophet himself, in the eighth century B.C.  Starting with chapter 40, we’re at a point in the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century.  This latter part of the book, sometimes called Second Isaiah, is considered to be the work of an anonymous prophet in the “school” or the “spirit” of Isaiah.

When we get to chapter 56, we’re a couple more decades into the future.  This final section is sometimes called Third Isaiah.  This is after the return from exile has happened.  For a while, there is a great deal of enthusiasm among those returning to their homeland.  Over time, however, hopes began to fade as cold reality sinks in.  Among other things, there is constant opposition from many who have settled the land while so much of the house of Israel has been held captive in Babylon.

This is probably about the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.  One of the things they emphasize is the need to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.  The people need a kick in their complacency.

Last week, part of my Christmas sermon dealt with one of the seven deadly sins, sloth.  The sin of sloth isn’t a matter of being physically lazy, although it might include that.  Rather, it is a sickness of the soul, in which a person simply ceases to care.  It is a resistance to the Spirit of God which results in a hardening of heart, not in an angry way, but in a way that loses the desire to grow.  It’s a settling down into a dull routine in which the prompting of the Spirit is ignored.

The prophet’s audience in today’s text is largely afflicted by sloth.  They need a fire lit under them.

But you might not get that, based on the snippet of the chapter that is today’s passage.  The compilers of the lectionary tended to chisel out some of the “troublesome parts,” the scriptures that say things we find embarrassing, or stuff we just don’t want to hear.  Whenever I see scriptures that are deleted, I have a hard time letting that go—even if it’s something I don’t want to hear.

As I said earlier, our reading begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,” because of all the wonderful stuff the Lord has done for us.  Verse 8 has affirming words about Israel being “my people, children who will not deal falsely.”  Things get wrapped up nicely with God’s “presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (v. 9).

Those are good memories.  It is vital; it is life-giving, to remind each other of what God has done for us.  It’s especially important when we’re in times of distress.

Still, this has been plucked out of its context.

The first part of the chapter talks about vengeance being unleashed.  Verse 3 is especially lovely.  “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.”  The juice from trampling grapes is compared to blood!

However, this isn’t the action of a bloodthirsty god.  Our Lord isn’t roaming around, looking for heads to smash.  This crazy language is actually about grace.  George Knight talks about the way “the nations have made life for each other on this planet hell on earth.”[1]  So what does God do in response?  “God alone knows how to use [humanity’s] hellish activities for good; he does so by taking upon himself the absurdity of human violence.”[2]  That’s how we get the language about juice staining the garments of God.

We see here a preview of the sacrificial love perfectly demonstrated by Jesus.  Still, I guess that stuff about blood made our lectionary friends squeamish!

Now, what’s going on after today’s reading?

In verse 10, right after the language of blessing that was read to us, we get a splash of cold water in the face.  “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit; therefore he became their enemy; he himself fought against them.”  But they rebelled.  Memories become a bit more painful.

Mike Stavlund has sarcastically noted, “With an editorial snip, we miss Isaiah’s inflammatory commentary on the unfaithfulness of God’s followers.”[3]  Then changing the focus to us, “who spend far more time proclaiming ourselves ‘God’s servants’ than we do acting like it.  Who pray for shalom while we make war.  Who ask for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Who preach repentance while we quietly judge.”

That’s an exceptionally biting comment: asking for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Can that be true?

As I said, we are on the cusp of a new calendar year.  2017 won’t automatically be better than 2016.  One of the narratives that was promoted this past year was that people are angry.  We were told that we’re angry.  Take our word for it.  And if you’re not angry, you should be!

But beneath all of that, we should remember that anger has its roots in fear.  We’ve been told to fear each other.  And that’s not anything new.  Fear is the opposite of love.  As 1 John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18).  It’s impossible to carry out the gospel imperative to love one another if we’re afraid of each other.  We are armed against each other, both literally and metaphorically.

3

Fear can also result in loneliness.

Chris Hall, president of Renovaré, the spiritual formation ministry started by Richard Foster, talks about this in his review of 2016.[4]  He speaks of “an epidemic of loneliness in our culture.”  We can see this in America as a whole, but he especially focuses on feeling lonesome in the community of faith.

“This loneliness epidemic,” Hall says, “came into sharp focus for me several months ago, when I joined a group of Renovaré Institute alumni at a reunion in London, England.  One after another, often amid tears, people spoke of how desperately they missed the rich sense of belonging and connection they’d had while they were in the program.

“And it’s not just Renovaré Institute students.  We receive calls from folks nearly every day whose lives were altered at a Renovaré conference, or in the pages of a Renovaré book, and who now crave community with others who are on the same journey.”

He’s speaking in particular of those their ministry has reached, but clearly the reality that people are lonely reaches far and wide.  Going back to earlier comments, could the epidemic of loneliness also be the result of rebellion and bitterness on our part?  Does our fear prevent our loving each other?  And going back to the original audience of our scripture reading, do we suffer from the spiritual sickness known as sloth?  Does it keep us from caring, from really being with the other?

Like the new year we’re entering, we ourselves are a crazy, mixed up set of joys and fears.  We are beautiful, marvelous, wise, and courageous.  We are also afraid of our own shadows.  We are creatures desperately in need of a loving Savior.

We are in the season of Christmas, and God comes to us in the flesh.  God dwells with us in the flesh.

This is also Epiphany Sunday.  Like the magi from the East, we are drawn to the glory of Christ’s majesty.  But guess what?  That glory is also in us.

4

Remember verse 9: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  The very presence of God saves us and is with us.

So are we ready for what this new year holds?  Are we ready to be led by the Spirit into the new thing God has for us?

I want to finish with a quote that was attributed to Nelson Mandela, but actually comes from Marianne Williamson in her book Return to Love.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Are we ready?

* This was for New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve!

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, The New Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 73.

[2] Knight, 74.

[3] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/christmas1ot

[4] renovare.org/2016