forgiveness

have mercy, I'm purifying

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio between Columbus and Cincinnati, you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  Approaching from the east on I-86, there was another interesting sign.  (I presume it’s still there.)  Perched on a hill, it proclaimed, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I once wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?”  Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!  The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments.

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Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  If I’m correct, why would it be we so rarely see them posted in public?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do an injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Too often it’s, “Please, just tell me what to do!”  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities who have a blessed life.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Really?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  What does our economy say?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest: isn’t it better to be the one calling the shots?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[1]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”

So as we move through the Beatitudes of Jesus, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

There are nine of these “blessed”s.  I’ll just focus on two: numbers 5 and 6, that is, verses 7 and 8.  “Blessed are the merciful,” and “blessed are the pure in heart.”

Someone whose reflections I have found helpful and enlightening is Cynthia Bourgeault.  She calls herself “a modern-day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader.”[2]

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  She says Jesus is speaking “to the idea of flow.”[3]  She notes “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.  And this is not coincidental, for the root of the word ‘mercy’ comes from the old Etruscan merc, which also gives us ‘commerce’ and ‘merchant.’  It’s all about exchange.”

We often think of mercy in the context of something we do not do.  We “have mercy” on someone if we don’t punish them.  We are merciful if we refrain from bringing down the hammer on their heads.  And we usually think of God in the same terms.  We pray, “Lord have mercy,” and “have mercy upon us.”

Sometimes it’s an expression of surprise, even a pleasant surprise.  “Lawd, have mercy!”

Still, as we’ve been told, “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.”  There are acts of mercy.  In this idea of flow, “mercy is not something God has so much as it’s something that God is.”  Mercy is part of God’s very being.  And by extension, when we participate in God’s mercy, it becomes part of who we are.

Bourgeault continues, “Exchange is the very nature of divine life—of consciousness itself, according to modern neurological science—and all things share in the divine life through participation in this dance of giving and receiving.”  We are connected; we are connected by mercy.  When we refuse mercy, we become separated.  We build a wall.  We cut off the flow of life.  We become hardened.  Jesus would have us melt the ice.

Mercy is closely related to forgiveness.  They both have a sense of self-effacement.  They both have a sense of deference.  They both have a sense of respect.

I’ll revisit something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: political campaigns.  Election Day is upon us.  Can you believe that political differences have brought friendships to ruin?  Imagine.  “I thought we were friends!”  And it’s especially fun when faith enters the arena.  “How can you call yourself a Christian and support that guy?”  (Or support that gal!)  Remember, when the election is over, we still have to live with each other.

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Karen Chamis, our Resource Presbyter, has written about this.[4]  Here’s how a discussion might go: “You can’t vote for A and say you love me.”  “I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both.”  “No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence.”

“One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place…

“Regardless of what the [election] result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee.  We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom.”

We will all need to engage in a program of forgiving.  We will all need a refresher course in showing mercy.  With God’s help, we can be mercy.  Since this is All Saints’ Day, we’re reminded of that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on—not to mention the saints alive here and now.

Showing mercy, being mercy, flows right into the next beatitude.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  That’s a blessing like none other: they will see God.

What is purity of heart?  Too often, it has been limited to discussions of being virtuous, of being moral—especially sexually moral.  There is another place in which this purity is addressed.  James 4 says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (v. 8).  You can see the focus here.  A pure heart, a clean heart, is not divided.  It is single.

The New Jerusalem Bible puts it in this light: “The nearer you go to God, the nearer God will come to you.  Clean your hands, you sinners, and clear your minds, you waverers.”  More so than any other epistle, St. James’ has the theme of teaching wisdom.  Clearing one’s mind, avoiding wavering, is a sign of wisdom.  There is a flow that can be detected.

Maybe you will notice how “heart” and “mind” are used interchangeably.  The heart is not simply emotion, and the mind is not simply intellect.  There is a unity of wisdom.

When a heart is purified, there is a burning away of chaff, of debris, of residue.  There is a focus on what is clear, what is lucid, what is holy.  Too often, our minds, our hearts—at least, it’s true with mine—run to and fro in a helter-skelter fashion.  There is a sense of being torn.  Sometimes, it can be paralyzing.

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Again, here’s Cynthia Bourgeault.  “This Beatitude is not about sexual abstinence; it’s about cleansing the lens of perception.”[5]  I’m reminded of a line from the poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”[6]

Perhaps that is what it means to see God.  Can we see God in others?  Can we see God in those folks with whom we disagree, indeed, even strongly disagree?  I remember someone I knew years ago when I attended the Assemblies of God college in Florida.  He reflected on his approach when dealing with somebody who didn’t like him.  He brought to mind that “Jesus Christ died for him.”  That might be helpful.

Showing mercy, being mercy, frees the way for clearing our minds, for purifying our hearts.  We need that among us, more than we know.

Have mercy, I’m purifying.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[2] cynthiabourgeault.org

[3] cac.org/be-merciful-2017-04-19

[4] karenchamis.blog/2020/10/28/scruples

[5] cac.org/be-whole-hearted-2017-04-20

[6] from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”


memento mori

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

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"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

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

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

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

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

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

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

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

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

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


time to grow up?

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  This chorus is popular with the young ones.  (Or so I’ve been told!)  It expresses the fond and dear desire for Jesus to take up residence within us.

The gospel of John and the book of Revelation each call Jesus the Word (Jn 1:14, Rv 19:13).  Jesus is the Word of God.  Not pushing the metaphor too far, but we can see Jesus as the word who enters into us and dwells in our heart, as the request in the chorus goes.

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[photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash]

Someone who knows about the word being consumed is the prophet Jeremiah.  I’ll get back to that in a moment.  First, I have a story to tell.

Jeremiah was born and received his call to be a prophet during the time that Josiah was king.  Josiah was a good king; it was important for him to be faithful to Yahweh, the Lord.

It just so happens that some of his officials were doing spring cleaning in the temple.  They were digging through some knick-knacks and thingamajigs.  We’ve all done that.  One of them stumbled upon a scroll that caught his eye.  Upon examining it, he announced, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord” (2 Kg 22:8).  They brought it to Josiah, and it was read to him.  (On a side note, it’s believed that the book made up much of what we call Deuteronomy, but that’s a story for another time!)

The king was alarmed, because they hadn’t been doing what was written in it.  So they sought the counsel of Huldah the prophetess.  She said, “You’re right, boys, we’ve really screwed up.  We’ve got to our act together, or we’re in for some bad times.”  After hearing that, Josiah instituted a program of ridding the land of all the pagan altars and pagan priests.  That was the world Jeremiah grew up in.  Now back to eating the word.

When he was called as a young man, Jeremiah reports, “the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (1:9-10).  We’ll hear more about that later.

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Jeremiah’s life was ery hard—in fact, it was horrible.  We see in the book several times when he bitterly complained to the Lord about his fate.  One time he even accused the Lord of tricking him, of deceiving him, and he said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (15:16).  The word of the Lord entered his heart, only to prove to be the source of great misfortune.

Jeremiah had such a crummy life because he was the bearer of bad news.  The Babylonians are on the way, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  We might as well get used to it.  What we can do is to return to the Lord.  (King Josiah’s efforts proved to be unsuccessful.)

Long story short, the prophet was considered an enemy of the state, and he was treated accordingly.  He was ruining the morale of the troops.  He was ridiculed, beaten, tortured, imprisoned.

But finally, Jeremiah has some good news.  After all the mayhem, the land will be restored.  It will be livable for both humans and animals.  And in a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s call, the Lord “will watch over them to build and to plant” (v. 28).  Nonetheless, in the process of rebuilding and replanting, there are some things that have to go.

This is going back a few years, back to the 1970s.  There was a TV show my parents liked to watch, The Flip Wilson Show.  He portrayed a character that turned out to be the one most people liked, Geraldine.  Probably her best-known line was, “The devil made me do it!”

2 jrWhat a great line.  You can absolve yourself—you can forgive yourself—of any deed if you can pin the blame on anything or anyone else, including the devil!

In Jeremiah’s time, there’s a saying the people use that falls into the category of “things that have to go.”  “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 29).  I can’t say I’ve ever eaten sour grapes, but I have bitten into lemons on many occasions.  (When I was a kid and we were at a restaurant, I liked to take the lemon slice in a glass of water and eat it.)

What kind of face do you make when you eat something sour?  One way of describing it is having your teeth set on edge.

The point of the saying is, “We aren’t to blame for our actions.  We had no choice; we’re paying for the sins of our parents and those who came before them.”  If they can’t say, “The devil made me do it,” they still have a good excuse.  They can still shift the blame from themselves.

However, in some sense, they are not altogether wrong.  If we think of a family system, there are things we inherit—certain behaviors, ways of looking at the world.  That can be for better or worse.  Maybe we come from a background in which we were encouraged, we were nurtured, we were allowed to dream.  Problems were dealt with in more or less constructive ways.  It doesn’t mean everything was perfect by any measure.  We are imperfect, incomplete humans, but on the whole, there were primarily positive things to pass on.

Sometimes things don’t go so well.  If our background is one in which violence, abuse (of whatever kind), and pessimism pervaded, we can learn that’s just how life goes.  Though, the negative stuff doesn’t have to be that severe.  There can be unresolved grief, ways in which reality isn’t dealt with, harmful secrets.  So in that sense, our background really can affect our behavior.

But the prophet says, “That’s not good enough!”  “But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (v. 30).  You can’t use that excuse forever.  You are responsible for your own actions.  You have to pay the piper!  That can sound pretty harsh, but the good news is they aren’t left to work it out for themselves.  The good news begins in verse 31.

A whole new world opens up.  A grace not yet known is promised.  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  “The days are surely coming.”  There is wide disagreement as to what that precisely means.  One thing seems clear, though: a new covenant will emerge from destruction and exile.  By the way, this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where the term “new covenant” appears.

As Christians, we obviously see Jesus as the fulfillment, the embodiment, of the new covenant, the new testament.  Still, we shouldn’t jump ahead.  We need to see what that meant to Jeremiah and the people of his time.  The message continues, “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord” (v. 32).

Something we often do is to regard the Ten Commandments, for example, as a list of rules to obey.  There’s much more going on.  It’s not simply a bunch of “dos” and “don’ts.”  It is a vision of the blessed life, a life lived in the harmony of shalom.  Faithfulness to the Lord looks like this.  That’s the message of the prophets.  It comes from the heart.  But we need help in that!  We need help in persevering.

3 jrSo here we go: “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33).

I will write it on their hearts.  The late Bruce Prewer referred to that as “divine graffiti.”[1]  What will this divine graffiti accomplish?  “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (v. 34).  With God’s word written on their hearts, they will not need to teach other to know the Lord.

It will be from the least to the greatest.  Everyone’s invited!  Here’s how Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase, The Message: “They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God.  They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow.”

This is the heart of Jeremiah’s vision.  When God’s word is written on the heart, everyone will understand.

Now, depending on their disposition, there’s a class of people who might not welcome such an arrangement.  They might think it’s a raw deal.  David Rhymer calls this a “dangerous exercise of prophetic imagination.”[2]  Why should it be called dangerous?

Have you ever had a teacher who did not want their position questioned or presented with another viewpoint?  Maybe it was someone whose ego was too bound up in his or her work?  Maybe we could say they were too big for their britches!

4 jrI once had a history professor who invited students to ask him about the subject matter, claiming, “I know all.”  Admittedly, he was saying it with a bit of humor, but it was clear he felt he would not have any trouble answering any question.  One student was wondering about something, and it was obvious our teacher didn’t know the answer.  He fumbled a bit and responded, “Well, it would have been such-and-such.”  He was basically guessing.  (Having said all that, I really came to like the guy!)

Getting back to the text, the religious leaders might simply reject out of hand Jeremiah’s word, his assertion of what one day shall be.  It’s their job to read and interpret God’s word, and it’s the people’s job to “simply listen and do as they were told without question.”[3]

Their job is to sit down and shut up.

When God’s word is written on our hearts, everyone is treated with care and respect.  Everyone is treated as the sisters and brothers we truly are.  Everyone is valued.  As the prophet Joel reports of the Lord, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28-29).

When the Spirit fills our hearts, our petty divisions are erased.  No longer will be build walls.  Going along with verses 35 to 37, with all of those cosmic promises, it will last until the end of time!

So, to recap: following the disaster, the people are promised a new day, but they can’t blame their forebears for their hard times.  It’s true; those who’ve gone before might have set the stage in ways that are difficult, even catastrophic.  Still, it has to be said, there comes a point when it’s time to grow up.  When that happens, the promise is there will be the grace to see it through.  Actually, there is the grace like never before, as said earlier, one not yet known.

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When the Lord writes on our hearts, we are forgiven, now and forever.

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  It might sound trite and cute, but there is immense depth.  The next step is ours.

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C58sun29.htm

[2] David Rhymer, “Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Interpretation 59:3 (July 2005), 295.

[3] Rhymer, 295.


more than yes

I’ve sometimes said something that even I think is strange.  It has to do with being sick.  It’s happened when I’ve heard people talk about weight loss as a result of an illness.  Understand, I’m not referring to serious, life-threatening weight loss; I’m not talking about wasting away.  It’s just a question of taking off some pounds.  I’ve remarked (jokingly) a good way to trim the fat is to get sick.  Although, I add, it’s not the preferred method!

Another quirky comment deals with an almost abnormal (okay, let’s call it abnormal) satisfaction.  It’s possible in a weird way to enjoy being sick, or at least, not to hate it too much.  Again, I’m not talking about anything severe or really painful.  It’s simply that when one is under the weather, it’s possible to appreciate the days off.  And depending on how big a baby one is, it’s nice if you have someone to wait on you.  (Not that I would know anything about that!)

1 jn 5Of course, there can be many problems with that, aside from being unnecessarily needy on said person!  One big problem would be getting used to being sick or injured.  A problem would be allowing it to define us.  You know, being the survivor of brain cancer who takes anti-seizure medication, whose condition is exacerbated by lack of sleep.  (Again, not that I would know anything about that!)

[Speaking of brain cancer survivors, there’s a woman named Joan Reilly who has her own quirky story.  She had the same kind of cancer as mine, oligodendroglioma.  Part of her story is told in her dry-wit cartoon, “What My Brain Tumor Taught Me about Anxiety.”[1]]

Considering the questionable appreciation of—or reliance on—sickness, there’s a fellow some might say is the embodiment of it.  But first, we need to set the stage.

The gospel reading in John 5 begins by saying, “After this.”  We’re starting right after Jesus has healed the son of a royal official, a son who was at death’s door.  Now we see Jesus entering Jerusalem, during “a festival of the Jews” (v. 1).  It’s not clear which festival is intended.

I want to digress for a moment on something that has led to oppression and death: which is the use of the word “Jews” in the gospel of John.  Without going into great detail, the context of John’s gospel is very important.  “Jews” can refer to the Jewish officials, and/or possibly to the Jewish people who were at that time persecuting the church.

A grievous misunderstanding of the word’s use has had a horrific effect down through the centuries.  Christians have inflicted all manner of cruelty against Jews.  It’s even led to the hateful nickname, “Christ killers.”  Friends, that is not the way to read the gospel according to St. John!

Moving on, we come to a pool known for its healing qualities called Beth-zatha, or Bethesda.  (Of course, we know Bethesda, Maryland as the home of the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.)  This pool attracts people with all manner of illnesses.  One wonders if there aren’t those with an entrepreneurial spirit traveling though the villages selling containers filled with the therapeutic elixir of Bethesda!

2 jn 5What is the source of the water’s power?  Legend has it that an angel now and then goes and stirs up the water, and the first one in gets healed.  Anyway, that’s what part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 say.  But there’s almost universal consensus those words were added on later.

Okay, the stage is set.  The first actor, Jesus, is already present.  The other actor, a poor soul who we’re told has been sick for thirty-eight years, is found lying on the ground among some other unfortunate ones.  Thirty-eight years is a massive chunk of someone’s life.  When you figure in life expectancy in those days, it’s likely this fellow has known nothing but sickness.

When Jesus sees the man, he asks him a question that, on the face of it, seems to have an obvious answer.  It’s almost like asking, “Is the sky blue?”  He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?”  Do you no longer want to be sick?  Are you tired of lying around here?

We might expect the sick man to respond, “Yes, yes, yes!”  What does he say?  He begins, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”  And because of that, “while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (v. 7).  It’s not the straight answer we might imagine.  And as you might also imagine, there have been quite a few takes on his reply.

A common viewpoint goes back to what I said earlier about a reliance (and even appreciation, if possible?) on being sick.

Raymond Brown is somewhat less than charitable in his assessment.  He notes about the man, “His crotchety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.”[2]  He says our poor fellow demonstrates a quality of “real dullness.”

Without hurling insults at the sick man, can we get a sense of him saying something like, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”

I think I can understand his reluctance.  He’s lived with this illness for a very long time.  As I suggested earlier, is it possible he’s let it define him?

In this congregation, we are blessed to have several people who, in one way or another, have experience in the medical field.  Maybe I’m the only one who’s ever heard this, but I have heard comments (not very positive ones!) about people being referred to as “the appendectomy in room 203,” or “the head trauma in 315.”  Again, I don’t know if anyone here has encountered that.  I’m sure it’s a necessary shorthand, so to speak.  It would be a bit of a mouthful to say, “James Moore, the fellow in 203 who had an appendectomy.”  But maybe we can see just a tiny example of being identified with one’s ailment.

So maybe our friend at Bethesda has in some way become comfortable with his condition.  Now he has the opportunity to leave his comfort zone.

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I wonder, how often has Jesus asked me to leave my comfort zone?  How many times have I said, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”  How many times have all of us decided against leaving our comfort zone?  I suppose there’s a good reason for it to be called our “comfort zone”!

Leaving our comfort zone forces us to move forward and be responsible in a way like never before.

In his article, “Courage to be Whole,” Kyle Childress includes the quote, “if it is hell to be guilty, it’s certainly scarier to be responsible—response-able—able to respond to God’s call, able to respond to the word and love of Jesus.”[3]  I’ve found it’s easy to talk about something, but not as easy to actually do it.

He adds, “We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation.  No more isolation.  No more living my own private life where no one bothers me.  To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved.”

So far, we’ve looked at the fellow as reluctant to receive healing.  Still, as I said, there’s more than one way to consider his answer to Jesus.  Remember, he says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool.”  I have no one.  Is that his plaintive cry?

Brian Stoffregen speaks of an alternate idea of healing.  It has to do with cultural and social connection.  “The man in our text has no one to put him in the water when it is stirring.  He has no friends.  He has no family.  There is no one to help him.”[4]  It looks like he’s been shunted aside, basically forgotten.  For him, healing would not only be physical, but it would help restore those social connections without which one might exist, but not really live.

It’s somewhat analogous to people who live on the street.  When we lived in Philadelphia, it was a not uncommon event to encounter them.  Even here in Auburn, there are more homeless people than we might imagine.

After all that, what does Jesus do?  He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (v. 8).  And that’s what the sick man does.  Jesus simply tells the man what to do.

It’s been about twenty years since the movie, The Matrix, came out.  For those who’ve never seen the movie, very quickly it’s about a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) who learns about the nature of his reality, which is that he’s living in an illusion generated by sentient and malicious computer programs.  A group of people led by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) help him break free of the illusion and see the world as it really is.

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They teach him to live in the real world, part of which involves training in various fighting techniques.  They do this in a simulation.  Neo is not making any progress.  An exasperated Morpheus scolds him, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

I mention this because sometimes we get trapped in our thinking.  (Actually, it’s much more than “sometimes.”)  I wonder if something like that is going on with Jesus and the sick man.  What are you waiting for?  Jesus wants to cut through the man’s explanations—and even his misfortunes—and just tell him, and show him, what to do.  Jesus lets him know he needs more than yes.  Just do it.  (And again, am I saying something without actually doing it?)

At the end of verse 9, a new paragraph begins with the words, “Now that day was a sabbath.”  We’re moving on to the story at large, which is Jesus’ violation of the sabbath rules.  That is, the rules the religious leaders follow and teach the people.  The point isn’t his healing of the man but his command to take his mat and carry it.  Carrying his mat on the sabbath constitutes working on the sabbath.  It is forbidden!

Verse 10 says, “the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’”  (Remember what I said earlier about the use of the word “Jews.”)

With their use of the understanding of sabbath they would hinder the man.  They would hinder him from experiencing God, from experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit.  Elsewhere, Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27).  The sabbath was made for us; we were not made for the sabbath.

I wonder: what rules, what guidelines do we have—what do we impose—that hinders others (and ourselves) from fully experiencing God?  What walls do we build in the attempt to prevent the saving and empowering grace of Jesus Christ from reaching certain others?  How often do we mimic the prophet Jonah’s attitude toward the people of Nineveh, saying, “I don’t want them forgiven!”

We are nearing the end of the Easter season.  Is there anything in us that has died and needs resurrection?  Or at least, is there anything in us that needs healing?  I think I’m safe in saying yes to both of those.  But we are not alone.  We have a Lord who directs us—who carries us, if need be—into those stirring, healing waters.

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And guess what?  That healing doesn’t come to us all by our lonesome.  It comes in the connection that is community.  It comes in the connection that is this congregation.  It comes in the connection that sends us beyond these walls.  It comes in the connection that bids us to “go forth in peace,” to be the peace and to share the peace.  It bids us “to love and serve the Lord,” to love our neighbor more than any rules that would hinder.  We serve the Lord, who reminds us there’s plenty of water in the healing, life-giving pool.

 

[1] medium.com/spiralbound/what-my-brain-tumor-taught-me-about-anxiety-513113356d68

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 209.

[3] www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2010/05/courage-to-be-whole

[4] www.crossmarks.com/brian/john5x1.htm


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


confession is good for the soul

As I suggested in what might be called chapter 1 of the story of King David and Bathsheba, if the “me too” movement had existed during David’s time, he would have qualified as one of its poster boys.  But now we come to chapter 2, which could have the dramatic title, “The Reckoning.”

With a theme we’ll look at later, Nathan, who plays the role of prophet and “he who speaks truth to power,” calls David to account.

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There’s an idea I’ve heard and I imagine most, if not all of you, have also heard.  Maybe you’ve tried it, or it’s been tried on you!  One good way to convince someone, or to make a point, is to let them think it was their idea.  This might require a bit of craftiness.  Maybe simply knowing when it’s time to shut up can figure into it.  You don’t want to come out swinging or insult someone’s intelligence.

There have been times during a group discussion when I’ve tossed an idea into the mix and then said nothing else.  I didn’t belabor the point.  And on many occasions, someone else would say the same thing, and then finding approval.  Sometimes, you just got to let someone else take the credit!

One good way to implement this method is to tell a story—something the other person can identify with.  That’s what Nathan does.

Let’s review to see why he is prompted to tell his story.  After David impregnates Bathsheba, he is finally “forced” to have her husband, Uriah, killed in a deliberately ill-conceived military move.  You know—accidentally on purpose.  When word about the fiasco is brought to David, he isn’t furious, as would normally be expected.  Kings don’t usually welcome such news in a good mood.  Instead he blows it off and assures his general Joab, “Don’t worry, that’s what happens in the fog of war.”  And there’s an understood “wink wink.”

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Speaking of “wink wink,” roughly three centuries after the writing of 1 and 2 Samuel, we have the two books of the Chronicles.  One of the writer’s concerns was to emphasize the key role of David’s dynasty.  Unfortunately, Bathsheba never figures into the story.

Here’s how chapter 20 begins: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, Joab led out the army, ravaged the country of the Ammonites, and came and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.  Joab attacked Rabbah, and overthrew it” (v. 1).  Wait a minute!  Didn’t something else happen at the time?

If I didn’t know better, I would swear someone wants to sanitize history.

And so we come to today’s reading.  When Bathsheba heard of her husband’s death, “she made lamentation for him.  When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son” (2 Sm 11:26-27).

So there we go.  David’s plan finally works.  Uriah is out of the way, and as far as the world is concerned, he is the father.  Bathsheba is now David’s wife.  He’s taken her into his home.  To the unsuspecting, it might appear he’s extending royal protection to a woman who is a widow and is about to be a single mother.  Things are going fine.  “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”

Well, let’s not jump the gun.  Here’s verse 1: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”  “Be sure your sin will find you out,” as Moses told the people (Nu 32:23).  The king is about to find out that warning also applies to him.  He has been found out.

As we saw at the beginning, Nathan the prophet realizes he has an unwelcome message for David.  He tells the story of a rich man who had an abundance of sheep and a poor man who “had nothing but one little ewe lamb.”  Notice how he describes the little critter.  “He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him” (v. 3).  I’m about to cry just reading that!

But then—oh yes, but then!  The rich man has a visitor.  Hospitality requires he welcome his guest with a meal.  However, this member of the top one-percent decides he can’t bear to part with one of his vast horde of animals.  Instead, he sends his boys to grab the poor man’s lamb, slaughter it, and prepare it for the dinner plate.  Delicious.

At this point, David begins quaking and shaking with fury.  He sees red, and he explodes, “That evil so-and-so needs to be slain!  But not before making restitution to the poor fellow whose heart he crushed.”

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I wonder how long Nathan takes with his response.  Does he wait until David calms down?  Or does he strike while the iron is still hot?  Whatever the case, Nathan lets loose with something to knock David back on his heels—metaphorically and maybe even literally.  To David’s cry for the man’s blood, Nathan comes back, “You are the man!” (v. 7).

The prophet launches into a litany of what God has done for him: making him king, rescuing him from Saul, giving him Saul’s wives, “and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more” (v. 8).  But, unfortunately, that’s not all.  There will be turmoil in his family, bloodshed, and rebellion.

David does repent, but there is one more heartbreaking consequence of his actions.  As Nathan says, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (v. 14).  Afterwards, David fasts and prays to God that the child should live, but to no avail.

Let me go back to something I mentioned at the beginning, which is Nathan holding David accountable.  By the way, he does this, not without a degree of danger.  Who knows how the king will react?  Nathan might find himself in prison, or maybe David’s wish for the rich man will come true—except Nathan will be on the receiving end!

Having said that, it’s very important we have someone to be accountable to.  It can be easy to say, “I’m accountable to God,” and at the end of the day, it’s certainly true.  Still, without someone (that is, a wise, centered someone) looking us in the eye and saying, “So how are you doing with such-and-such?” we run the risk of not sticking to a path of spiritual growth.

I’ll admit, I haven’t always been faithful in finding such a person.  (We have moved quite a bit over the years—how that for an excuse?  However, I do have a wife who holds me accountable more often than I would like!)

After the confrontation (a stern form of accountability), as we know, David repents.  Is it possible there was at first a thought of self-justification?  There could be numerous ways to do this.  As we saw earlier, he could say he’s been protecting Bathsheba.  As for Uriah the Hittite, he was no child of Israel.  How do we know he wasn’t a spy?

David confesses his sin.  As mentioned earlier, Nathan gets his point across to David by giving him someone to identify with.  In an unexpected, uncomfortable, and even compulsory way, the rich man in the story becomes his idea, an idea he really doesn’t want to have!

4 2 smStill, it works.  Not every leader admits guilt.  Some say there’s nothing they need to apologize for.  Instead of accepting responsibility, they shift the blame to others.  But then, how often do we do that?  According to the Bible, human beings have been doing that since day one.

We see a David who is calculating, even brutal, but also in pain.  He must go through the fire to be purified.

He emerges on the other side, giving voice to one of the most beloved of the psalms, number 51.  It is the Ash Wednesday psalm.  If you notice the psalm’s title, or superscription, it is forever linked with Nathan’s calling him out regarding his sin against Bathsheba.

Look at verse 4.  “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”  Understand, this can apply to any of us.  But right now, we’re dealing with it as it applies to David.

I have a question.  Where’s Bathsheba?  Hasn’t she been sinned against?  Need we go back and run through the sorry story again?  Is she being slighted yet again?  Is her voice not being heard?  Does she need to cry out, “Me too”?

O Lord, against you alone have I sinned.

In his book, The End of Memory, Croatian writer Miroslav Volf seems to agree.  He speaks of the months-long interrogation by someone he simply calls “Captain G.”  This was during the time of the former Yugoslavia, and he was under suspicion of being a spy.  He’s reflecting on that experience from more than two decades earlier and imagining a reconciliation between Captain G. and himself.

Captain G., being a loyal communist, is also an atheist, so he would only be interested in forgiveness offered by Volf, not by God.  Our friend Miroslav, being a Christian, thinks differently.

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Miroslav Volf

“By wronging me,” he says, “you’ve transgressed the moral law God established to help us, God’s beloved creatures, to flourish; so you have wronged God.  Ultimately, only God has the power and the right to forgive, and only God’s forgiveness can wash you clean of your wrongdoing.  When I forgive you, I mostly just echo God’s forgiving of your sin.”[1]

That has the makings of a pretty good theology of forgiveness!

Of course, when we wrong someone, commit those petty little offenses, we sin against each other.  Still, as the psalmist and Miroslav Volf contend, those sins are simply a reflection of the sin against God, and forgiveness offered is a reflection of God’s forgiveness.

Confession is good for the soul.  We learn it when King David confesses.  We learn it when we confess our sin against each other.  We learn it when we confess our sin against the earth.  We learn it when we confess our sin against the body politic.  That is, if we disagree, we somehow become enemies.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10).  Confession is good for the soul.  How does that chorus go?

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and renew a right spirit within me. / Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and renew a right spirit within me.

“Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord, / and take not Thy holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”

 

[1] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 225.


good guys and bad guys

When we’re kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and quite cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize people don’t simply wear white hats or black hats.  We see that the hats we wear are shaded in gradations of gray.

1 3 jnTo be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  And it seems like some folks change hats, depending on which way the wind blows.  But life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were young.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

In the Third Letter of John, the author calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is no doubt someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, it would be just as fitting to call him “the presbyter.”)

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

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

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First is a desire to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!  “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth,” John says, “namely how you walk in the truth.”  And if he hasn’t made his point, he follows with, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (vv. 3-4).

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

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

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Last week I asked, “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  I mentioned a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escapes me, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never openly challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive response on my part.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

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

John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[1]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

This guy is a pain in John’s rear end!

All of this needs to be seen in context.  We have a glimpse of the early church as it’s moving out of the apostolic era.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  Churches are becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.  And, not surprisingly, as things get more structured, there are more opportunities for power plays.

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

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

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

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

3 3 jnNow, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first.”  He spreads “false charges,” and prevents others from welcoming those he doesn’t like.  He’s the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates “to support [our brothers and sisters], so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (v. 8).

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

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

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[2]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What counts in your life and mine are not successes but fruits.  The fruits of your life you might not see yourself.  The fruits of your life are born often in your pain and in your vulnerability and in your losses.  The fruits of your life come only after the plow has carved through your land.  God wants you to be fruitful.

“The question is not, ‘How much can I still do in the years that are left to me?’  The question is, ‘How can I prepare myself for total surrender, so my life can be fruitful?’”

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

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

As I prepare to conclude, I want to include one last quote.  This is from Madeleine L’Engle in her book, The Irrational Season.[3]  She speaks of how she betrays her Lord in her “strange love affair.”  She says, “Not only do I listen to wiles of the dragon, I become the dragon, and then I remember [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s words:[4]

“‘How should we be able to forget those ancient myths [that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths] about dragons that at the last [moment] turn into princesses…who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.’

“I know that when I am most monstrous, I am most in need of love.  When my temper flares out of bounds it is usually set off by something unimportant which is on top of a series of events over which I have no control, which have made me helpless, and thus caused me anguish and frustration.  I am not lovable when I am enraged, although it is when I most need love.”

5 3 jnIn Banu’s and my article for the May newsletter, we include these words: “Deal gently with each other.  Be forgiving—we all have heavy loads.”  That, more than any clever ideas any of us can concoct, shows the Spirit of the Lord in our midst.

Just like Madeleine, when our temper gets the best of us, we are, more than any other time, demonstrating our need for love.  Although at such times, we are far from easy to deal with!

I once did a devotional in which I mentioned Hazel Bryan, the young white woman who in 1957, shouted insults at Elizabeth Eckford, the young black woman walking toward the Little Rock high school which was being desegregated.  The two are pictured in one of the iconic photos of that era.  I asked the question, “What if the photo of that outburst is all she’s remembered for?”  Would that sum up her entire life?

(As it turns out, years later the two met and had a sense of reconciliation, although they didn’t exactly become best friends.)

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

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

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[1] Revised English Bible

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

[3] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 153.

[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. M. D. Herter Norton, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W. W. Norton), 69.


denying the best within us

Everyone’s heard the saying about “biting off more than we can chew.”  Well, in John 18, we see the result of it.  This is the passage in which Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him.  In fact, Peter is quite adamant in declaring he has no connection with Jesus.  “Wait.  Jesus who?  Can’t say the name rings a bell.”

The part about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew happens earlier, in chapter 13.  It comes after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and after the meal which has come to be known as the Last Supper.  Peter boldly says to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (v. 37).  That is some pretty big talk!

Jesus doesn’t seem to be impressed.  He comes back at Peter, “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (v. 38).  Peter, you’ve done the easy part; you’ve done the talking.  But before sunrise, before the rooster crows, three different times you will claim you don’t even know me!

Tragically, as we see in chapter 18, the prediction of Jesus comes true.

What about Peter’s big talk—that he will lay down his life for Jesus?  In one of the ironic twists of history, Peter does indeed lay down his life for Jesus.  Tradition holds that Peter is crucified by the Romans (in the year 63 or 64), but they do grant him a last request.  He wishes to be put to death on an upside-down cross, because he feels unworthy of being crucified in the same manner as his Lord.

(Satanists have stolen the upside-down cross and claimed it as their own, but it’s still a Christian cross!)

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So maybe we should revisit that comment about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew.  Sadly, he winds up choking on it!

The subject matter he deals with is pretty grim, but John is a wonderful story teller.  I like the way he throws in little details.  A good example is when Peter is lying and saying he is not a disciple of Jesus.

A woman at the gate of the high priest’s courtyard is questioning him.  “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” (v. 17).  As we’ve seen, Peter says, “No way!  You’ve got the wrong guy.”  Here’s a nice detail: “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves.  Peter also was standing with them and warming himself” (v. 18).

Why add the bit about the charcoal fire?  What’s the point?

It does add color.  It invokes the senses.  Can you smell the smoke of the burning coals?  Can you feel the chill of the pre-dawn cold as Peter huddles with the others to gain warmth?

Lutheran bishop Craig Satterlee talks about Peter joining “the very ones who came to the garden to seize Jesus as they warm themselves around a charcoal fire.”  He compares him to “the junior high kid who abandons a buddy to hang with the cool kids.”  He is the “bystander who does not intervene to oppose abuse because to do so is just too dangerous.”[1]

Have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever betrayed someone, especially someone we care about very deeply?  Have we ever been too scared to stand by someone?  I think if we’re honest, we’ve all been in that position, at least once in our lives, maybe more.  It’s a horrible feeling.

At various times, I’ve had dreams in which somebody is being picked on or someone is being mean to an animal, and I haven’t stepped in.  I haven’t said anything.

I’ve heard that when we dream, we do so in order to learn, to practice different scenarios.  We see what happens when we do or don’t do something.  So maybe I’m learning some lessons!

Fortunately for Peter, he will find himself once again standing next to a charcoal fire.  They’re on the beach, cooking fish for breakfast.  This is after Jesus has been resurrected.  He asks Peter three times, once for each denial, “Do you love me?” (21:9, 15-17).  John makes sure to include this act of restoration, because it is such a powerful part of the story.

I’ll ask again, have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever experienced the overwhelming, humbling, and heart wrenching moment of being forgiven by someone we have betrayed?

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Have we ever been in Jesus’ place?  Have we ever granted to someone the awesome grace of forgiveness?

If we follow this particular thread of the story of Jesus and Peter into the book of Acts, we see something marvelous.  Along with John, Peter is teaching the people about Jesus, and “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees” are upset about it, and they have them arrested (4:1-3).  The leadership is interrogating them, and we have this remarkable comment: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (v. 13).

Companions of Jesus.  After being filled with the Spirit of Christ, there’s no way in the world Peter is denying that anymore!  He now has a true knowledge, a holy boldness.

Still, what does it mean to deny we are disciples of Christ?  What does it mean to deny we know him?  Does it mean giving in to the voices of fear and selfishness and apathy?  Does it mean settling for karma when grace is so abundantly present?

A few years ago, the lead singer for the rock group U2, Bono, did an interview in which he talked about the difference between karma and grace.[2]  He said that “at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma.  You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one.  It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe.  I’m absolutely sure of it.  [I’m not so sure of it, but I still like what he has to say!]  And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so you will sow’ stuff.  Grace defies reason and logic.  Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…

“I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge.  I’d be in deep s___.  It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.  I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

Karma is what we deserve.  Grace is what we do not deserve.  Let me transition from a rock star to a Benedictine sister.

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Sister Joan blessing Bono at the 2008 Women’s Conference in California

Joan Chittister comments on a chapter in the sixth-century Rule of Benedict that deals with “serious faults.”[3]

“Each of us is capable of betraying the best in us.  We cut corners in the office, we stop cleaning the house, we let the study and the reading and the praying go.  We sit around in life letting the juice turn black in us.  We let the family down.  We let the business slide.  We let our minds and souls go to straw.  We fight the call to growth and goodness with everything in us.  We let the world carry us instead of carrying our part of the world.”

To return to our story, while his dear friend and Lord is being mistreated, Peter denies him.  How often have we denied Jesus?  How often have we denied the best within us?  What is to be done?

Chittister continues, “The problem, of course, is that a human being needs help to be a human being.  At our worst we seek the solace of another’s hand.”[4]

When the cock crows, Peter wonders, “What have I done?”  This is the very thing he swore he would never do.  He is gripped by intense remorse.  He can’t believe he has done such a thing.  This is Peter at his worst.  And yet, soon the time will come when Jesus offers him his hand.  He sets that as an example for us.

We need not sit around in life letting the divine juice spoil and turn black in us.  Our very best self is being transformed into Christ-likeness.  We need to seek it and hold on to it, because that is where we find life.

By the grace of God, we do not deny, but we express the best within us.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1926

[2] www.thepoachedegg.net/the-poached-egg/2010/09/bono-interview-grace-over-karma.html

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 97.

[4] Chittister, 98.


take each other off the menu

I’m sure we all have places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  Some people dread the dinner table on special occasions, like Thanksgiving, when lots of family and friends gather around.  There might be the family member who’s always itching for a fight about politics or religion—or the life choices of someone who is present.  Then there might be the one who simply makes inappropriate comments about anything under the sun!

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There is a place I remember with a less than fond feeling.  Actually, there are several, but one place in particular sticks out.  It was my junior high school cafeteria.  If there’s somewhere you learn about the social structure of a school, it is the lunchroom!  (That also goes for high school lunchrooms.)

You might find this shocking, but I was never among the popular kids in school.  On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the peak of popularity, I was usually at about 2 or 3.  On rare occasions, I might creep up to 4.  Fortunately, I was never one of the poor souls people made fun of; I was just there, not paid much attention.  It was difficult for me to be at ease in social situations.  I was plagued by shyness.  To put it bluntly, junior high was hell!

There was a curious thing I sometimes felt.  I sometimes felt like I wasn’t real.  Again, it’s not like I was picked on; it’s that I often felt like I was in my own little world.  People who are real don’t have so much trouble making friends, do they?  Privately, I knew I was real.  I was sure of it.  Within myself, I sensed there was nothing really wrong with me, although the outward evidence seemed to suggest the opposite.

But I imagine that’s enough of my sob story and irritating introspection!  I’m sure no one else has felt the way I did—and sometimes do.

Still, I’m fascinated by that sense of not being real, of existence being called into question.

2 Ga 5Earlier this month, Umair Haque wrote an article called, “The Rage in America’s Soul: The Dilemma of Nonexistence.”[1]  It’s a fascinating, insightful, and disturbing take on today’s society.

He sees the problem of “nonexistence” as flowing from, and a part of, the “rage” we have.  Haque has lived all over the world, and he’s noticed something he claims is unique to the US.  I have not lived all over the world, so maybe I’m not the best person to comment.  I don’t believe we’re the only country filled with rage, though perhaps we’ve learned to perfect it in our own way!

He says he “would like to gently confess: I have never seen a place with so much rage in its soul — not even an iota as much — as America.  If we are wise, we will ask, instead of becoming defensive, simply, why?”  As a people, as a nation, why are we filled with so much hate?

(And don’t worry, I’ll include the church, hearing reflections by St. Paul in a few moments!)

It seems when almost anything is reported on the news, the finger pointing soon commences.  Before the dust has settled, people are wondering, “Who’s to blame?”  And even more troubling, we too often see opposite groups as believing the others are not only mistaken—they don’t have the facts straight—but they’re morally wrong.  It’s not simply a matter of intelligence, but of character.  We can automatically assume that someone isn’t acting in good faith.  And sad to say, I have at times found myself falling prey to that temptation.  It is not a good thing!

In calling our rage as Americans a rage of “the soul,” Haque points to a number of things.  He says the rage is omnipresent.  “It does not come and go like the tides, but is more like a background hum of constant fury.”  One example that comes to mind is reading the comments to stories or posts on the internet.  The illogical and irrational venom people write makes me think all of us have taken crazy pills!

He also says it’s merciless.  “It is not merely the shout of a sulking child, but points to a kind of profound agony, one so deep, that there can be no possibility of forgiveness.”  We hold on to grudges with a vengeance.  There is a spiritual reality at work here.  If we haven’t experienced forgiveness, that is, forgiveness for something that really needs to be forgiven—then it’s almost impossible to extend forgiveness.  We have to feel the love.

That goes along with something in 1 Peter: “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8)!

The third thing Haque mentions is “the rage is murderous.  It doesn’t contain the anger of a scorned lover, but the exhilarating, dizzying fury of a killing field.  There is kind of pleasure, a satisfaction that seems to linger in it.”  There really is a dark delight, a twisted joy, in slaying the enemy, whether with weapon or word.  That’s especially true if we feel ordained by God in our enterprise.

When we view others through a lens of contempt and hatred, we don’t see them as simply human beings.  We don’t see the joys and hopes and fears that we have.  We don’t see them as real.  Haque continues, “The only thing that I know that can produce such rage is to not to be seen to exist at all, which is the first kind of murder that there is, really.”  In effect, we kill them.  We deny each other’s existence as the beloved of God, as those for whom Jesus Christ died.

3 Ga 5So there’s a good segue; I follow up on my promise to bring this to the church!

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is possibly the earliest one he wrote.  To put it lightly, he is befuddled at some of the stuff they’re doing and the peculiar things they believe.  He is “astonished;” he calls them “foolish”; he is “perplexed” (1:6, 3:1, 4:20).  And it would seem from the scripture reading in chapter 5, we don’t have to wonder why.

He begins the chapter by reminding the Galatians of their freedom in Christ.  He warns them against using their freedom to go back to slavery, as crazy as that sounds.

Now we see how the apostle tells them “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence [literally, “the flesh”], but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (vv. 13-14).

A moment ago, I mentioned viewing others through a lens of contempt and hatred.  If we do that, it hampers our ability to see them as real.  It also twists our ability to know the truth.

In our Book of Order (F-3.0104), there’s a saying, “Truth is in order to goodness.”  Part of what that means is truth isn’t always a neutral concept: 2+2=4.  Truth is to be in service of the good.  There is a way of presenting the truth that tears down, that destroys.  There is an evil way of telling the truth—the devil’s truth.  It brings death, not life.  If we tell a truth in rage, if we have a malevolent purpose, if we want to do harm, it’s not really true!  It’s not God’s truth.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Galatian church is in danger of becoming infected with hate.  Paul wants to get ahead of that.  He warns them about using their freedom to indulge the flesh.  And here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It is the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence.

The apostle gives them some advice, some Spirit-inspired advice.  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).  Take each other off the menu!

In recent years, zombies have become very popular.  That is, stories and movies and tv shows about them—not the zombies themselves!  Zombies go around eating people, but they don’t know why they do it.  After all, they are dead.  Some people see the fascination with zombies as a commentary on our society.  We mindlessly consume each other, and it’s reflected in art (if portrayals of zombies can be considered art).

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Richard Rohr says something interesting in a reflection on Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in her twenties at the end of the nineteenth century.[2]  She came to have the nickname “The Little Flower.”  She spoke of the “science of love.”

Rohr makes a reference to John the Baptist saying of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29).  He says, “the sin of the world” is “ignorant killing, and as we see today, we are destroying the world through our ignorance.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The sin of the world is behaving like those zombies, who kill and have no idea what they’re doing.  The sin of the world is behaving like the devil, who was “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).  However, and there is a “however.”  “When we love, we do know what we are doing!”  We wake up.

Paul wants the Galatians to wake up from the drowsiness and the haziness of self-indulgence.  They need to see what they’re doing.  They’re eating each other alive.

Can we see any of this in the church today?  Can we see any of it in ourselves?  If we can, that’s okay, and here’s one example why.

I started by talking about places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  I put forth the supposition that one of them might be Thanksgiving dinner.  And I speculated one reason might be arguments over religion and politics.  Mind you, I enjoy talking about that stuff, but it’s important to do so without speaking the devil’s truth.

At its very best, the church embraces those with various viewpoints.  One thing I like to mention is Jesus’ inner circle.  It included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot: a collaborator with the Romans and a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Romans.  (I wonder how their dinners went.)

We can have those different groups—conservative and liberal—rich and poor—popular kids and kids like me, in Christ, and do it with gratitude.  Live with thanksgiving.

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And thankfully, we have help in taking each other off the menu.  We have help in not submitting to the rage which would have us licking our chops and sharpening our knives.  We have the freedom in Christ to treat each other as real, as the beloved of God.  We have the freedom in Christ to taste and see that the Lord is good.

 

[1] umairhaque.com/the-rage-in-americas-soul-494a285cb633

[2] cac.org/therese-lisieux-part-2-2017-10-04


gracefully correct

There are many cases of conflict and need for forgiveness in our world.

We could recite a laundry list.  One on the international level that in recent months has appeared with a vengeance involves the US and North Korea.  I wonder, if our leaders considered themselves to be brothers, would it make a difference?

It is unusual to hear competing sides refer to each other as “brothers” or “sisters.”  Still, if we recall Cain and Abel, we should be aware of how the Bible presents the very first homicide as a fratricide, one brother killing another.  (I suppose we could make the argument, taking the really broad view, that every murder is a fratricide or a sororicide, killing a brother or sister.)

In Matthew 18, Jesus addresses the conflict, the offense, the sin that goes on in the church, the Christian community of faith.

The Lord addresses his disciples, posing a scenario in which a brother or sister sins against another.  Some manuscripts don’t even include the words “against another.”  They simply say if someone sins.  Period.  If someone commits an offense.  Full stop.

As I just said, Jesus places all of this in the church.

1 Mt 18How about if we start with a less serious situation?  (Although I must confess, some might consider this one to be a matter of life and death!)

When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches.  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it!  I’m sure that’s never been a problem here!  I’m sure if anyone noticed someone in their spot, the reaction would be, “Welcome to worship!  I’m so glad you’re here!”

But for a moment, let’s assume it were a matter of serious importance.  What would be the first step in addressing the offender?  Publicly berate the person?  Enlist others to give stern looks?  Perhaps make derogatory comments about their mother?

Again, assuming the action would qualify as sin, what does Jesus say?  Verse 15 reads, “If another member of the church [or your sister or brother in the faith] sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

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

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.

But isn’t it so much fun proving you’re right or getting the last word in?

2 Mt 18

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

There’s usually two sides, or even more sides, to every story.

It’s not much fun when your words are taken the wrong way, is it?  When you’re misunderstood?  On the internet and in emails, a lot of people use emojis, like a smiley face to show they’re not angry.  Or maybe they use a wink, letting people know they’re just being facetious and playful.

Think about the Bible.  We can’t hear the tone of voice, so we don’t always know if something is gravely serious, or if it’s a good-natured comment.

There can be another benefit to going to the person first.  Our friend Wayne goes on, “Word of your initiating this private conversation might well spread through the church system.  If so, it can lift the level of ethical responsibility of the whole congregation.  Members will know that they, too, will face you alone if they sin against you.”[2]

This should be a happy coincidence.  If you make a big show of saying, “Hey everyone, I first went to So-and-So all by myself,” that kind of defeats the purpose of working stuff out privately.

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

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

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

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[3]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

But again, what if even this doesn’t work?  What if the presence of others still doesn’t convince the person to listen?

According to Jesus, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds pretty harsh!  There are those who say there’s no way Jesus would have said something like that; it was added by Matthew or somebody else.

Our friend Wayne agrees Jesus sounds rather callous, but he reminds us that when Jesus was presented as an infant in the temple, his “mission in the world [according to Simeon]…was to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’” (Lk 2:32).[4]  It’s hard to be a light for someone if you can’t stand them!

3 Mt 18
Wayne E. Oates, 1917-1999

He adds that Jesus “took great initiative toward Zacchaeus, the tax collector.”  Now that’s a guy who was far from popular!  It wasn’t so much that he collected taxes (though that was part of it), but he did it for the hated Romans.  He was thought of as a traitor.  And yet, Jesus welcomed him.

So, when comparing the offender to a Gentile or a tax collector, the hope is that the “congregation can sustain a caring relationship” to the one being corrected.  The church might say, “We believe what you’re doing is wrong, but we still love you.  We still hope for restoration.”

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”  So he would seem to go along with what we just heard.

Now, after Matthew does his three-step approach with someone being cautioned, in verse 18, he ties it with binding and loosing.  Jesus says, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Some say that’s about exorcism, casting out demons, but it’s more likely he’s talking about a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it really didn’t apply.

Jesus passes that authority to bind and loose on to the church.  It’s not because Christians are worthy of doing so; it’s because the Spirit of Christ lives within the church.  As he says: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (v. 20).  Please note.  That’s not about worship; it’s about reconciliation and dealing with offenses.

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

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

When we lived in Jamestown, an administrative commission was formed to investigate a pastor in one of our presbytery’s churches.  (Quick note: administrative commissions are groups of people formed with a single task.  Usually they help with installing new pastors.)

Banu was part of that commission.  There apparently was evidence the pastor had porn on the church’s computer.  It turned out to be true.  Faced with the prospect of disciplinary procedures, the pastor figured it was time to hit the road.  He did what the Book of Order calls “renouncing the jurisdiction of the church.”  That means leaving the Presbyterian Church.  He was protected from ecclesiastical charges.  The pastor literally hit the road.  He wound up moving out of state.

A year or two later, I was part of a similar commission.  There had been a long-going dispute within the session of that same congregation.  It was our job to attempt reconciliation.  It’s safe to say, that church had a lot of problems.

That brings up a related issue.  Is there any action that is utterly unforgivable?  Can you think of anything we might do that is beyond forgiveness?  Is there anyone who Christ does not and cannot forgive?  How does that apply to us, we who pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?

4 Mt 18

A couple of examples from church history might be helpful.  Aside from doing this to others, Christians have burned each other at the stake.  Presbyterians, on a number of occasions, dealt with Baptists in a dreadfully appropriate way.  Responding to their insistence on another baptism, in addition to infant baptism, Presbyterians would tie heavy stones to them and toss them into the river.  You want another baptism?  Here you go!  (Splash!)

Maybe we no longer fit people for concrete galoshes, mafia style, but we still do some pretty terrible things to each other.

Peter comes to Jesus and wants to know about forgiving.[5]  He wants to make it really personal.  He asks Jesus, not what to forgive, but how often to forgive.  Peter offers, “As many as seven times?” (v. 21).  To Peter, this is a lot.  He feels like he’s bending over backwards.  Again, a teaching of the rabbis applies here.  It says [and please pardon the male-oriented language], “If a man sins once, twice, or three times, they forgive him; if he sins a fourth time, they do not forgive him.”[6]

So with his response, Jesus blows Peter’s mind.  He says to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven]” (v. 22).  This huge symbolic number says, “Don’t keep count.”  It’s not up to you to keep track of how many times to forgive.

Here’s a complicating factor that can arise: do we wait until someone asks for forgiveness?  What if they never come around, like the offending brother or sister we looked at earlier?  Are we still compelled to forgive?  And by the way, I’m not talking about forgiving in a back-handed or snarky way—as in, “I forgive you for getting offended when I called you a jerk and made disparaging remarks about your mother”!

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean we’ll automatically have a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling.  Forgiving isn’t about emotions.  And it’s not about conjuring up something by ourselves.  It is very much about the grace of God enabling us.  And it is a grace that removes a heavy burden from us.

Pamela Cooper-White picks up on this idea of the grace of forgiveness.[7]  She says, “To be gracious is to be graced.  It is a charisma, a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It enables a person to let go of the person who wounded him/her, and perhaps, in time, to be less preoccupied with both the perpetrator and the wound.”[8]  Forgiving is not easy.  In fact, it can be the hardest thing in life.  But if we can get there, we can find a freedom like none other.

Picking up on the earlier theme about church discipline, if we can wrap our minds and hearts around forgiveness being an act of God’s grace, then we can gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  Faithful discipline is done with a view toward forgiving.

Faithful discipline offers a challenge.  It offers a challenge to practice being a community of accountability and forgiveness.  It doesn’t happen instantly; it isn’t one and done.  It is a practice.  It is a discipline.

5 Mt 18

Henri Nouwen says, “Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another ‘seventy-seven times’…  Forgiveness is the cement of community life.  Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.”[9]

I know I need the grace of God to be part of that cement.  I need that grace to gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  How about you?

 

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

[2] Oates, 5.

[3] Oates, 6.

[4] Oates, 7.

[5] αφιημι, aphiēmi: “I send off,” “I forgive”

[6] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981), 381.

[7] χαριζομαι, charizomai: “I favor.”

[8] Pamela Cooper-White, “Forgiveness: Grace, not Work,” Journal for Preachers (32:2 Lent 2009): 20.

[9] henrinouwen.org/meditation/forgiveness-cement-community-life