grace

Jonah, where is the love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the animals have to repent!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


this was always the place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, all of that is in the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

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

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

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

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


death shall have no dominion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

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

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

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

Death shall have no dominion.

 

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


reset button—to hit or not to hit?

The epistle reading which is the final note of St. Paul’s farewell to the Corinthian church is to a church that has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; the rich among them have treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  To their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  But through it all, Paul has consistently guided them in, and to, the love and peace of Jesus Christ.

1 2 coHe starts by saying, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.”  That word for “farewell” usually means “rejoice.”[1]  What would it mean for them to fare well with rejoicing?

The apostle has a list of instructions.  When he says, “Put things in order,” he’s not demonstrating OCD!  He’s not being a neat freak; he’s not commanding them to sort each other out.  But we’ll get back to that one in a few moments.

Secondly, his plea to “listen to my appeal” is a plea to learn humility.  That flows into his request when he says, “agree with one another.”  Paul’s not telling them to act like clones.  He wants them as best they can, to obey the law of love.  This will enable them to “live in peace.”

In verse 12, the apostle adds this: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  He says this in several letters.  This is where the “kiss of peace” and our “passing the peace” come from.  And for anyone who’s ever wondered why we usually do not kiss each other—besides concerns about inappropriate contact (not to mention the virus-imposed concern about transmission of disease)—there’s also the fact that fairly early in church history, they had similar concerns.  The liturgical practice of men kissing women who were not their wives, and women kissing men who were not their husbands, was abandoned.

I have a little story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road.  (In case you didn’t know, there are a few differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Presbyterians!)

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace, the holy kiss.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

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[Ryan Gosling poses a hermeneutical question]

Paul ends the passage with a Trinitarian benediction, a triple blessing.  That’s why this is a scripture for Trinity Sunday.

What does the Holy Trinity mean in our lives?  There are many ways to go with this.  An image that might be helpful is seeing the Holy Trinity as the perfect community of love.  In this community, no one pushes the others aside.  No one tries to hog the spotlight; no one grumbles in the background.  That has ramifications for all of life, including the call to make disciples.  Then it won’t be just a song: they really will “know we are Christians by our love.”

That community of love has an even greater urgency today.  We’ve noticed how this strange new world in which we find ourselves, courtesy of COVID-19, has brought us to a relative standstill, though some places and some people are standing still more than others.  Each of us has taken notice of that reality, sometimes in quite trivial ways.  (I was alarmed when the NHL suspended its season!  But the alarm has turned to relief since they have decided to have the playoffs!)

Banu and I were discussing certain realities in the church.  We are aware that we are in an in-between time.  (We had interim pastor training several years ago, and never has it been more spot-on!)  What is happening now?  What will happen when “this” is all over?

In my Easter sermon, I addressed this very thing.[2]  “There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.”

3 2 coHas a reset button has been given to us?  What would it mean to hit it?

Let’s go back to this business of “[putting] things in order.”  It’s probably best to read that as a passive instruction.  “Be restored to order.”  Be restored.  Permit yourselves to be set straight.

Permit me to include what I said in a blog post.[3]

It appears to be increasingly certain that this coronavirus is here to stay.  We need to make long term plans, not simply knee-jerk reactions.  Unless we are prepared for chaos around the globe (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit!), our economic, our political, and most of all, our spiritual mindsets need to change.

Is there any wisdom we can glean from Paul’s use of a single Greek word, καταρτιζω (katartizō)?  Surely “be restored to order” can be seen as applying, to not just our relationship with other humans (be they in the church or not), but to our relationship with the earth itself.  It better be—no, it must be—if we are to live within our calling to be stewards of God’s good creation.

4 2 coIt looks like global climate change has taken on a whole new dimension.  Planet earth is calling “timeout.”

Maybe hitting the reset button will become a daily exercise.  And to be honest, doesn’t that reflect teachings handed down through the centuries?  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (who were facing their own strange new world), “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).  Every morning, when they woke up, they had to hit the reset button.  They had no choice.  Still, the prophet of God encouraged them.  He assured them that was the way to life.

If human history—if church history—is any guide, the changes we need to make are usually the ones forced on us.

Speaking of changes we need to make, I would be remiss if I neglected to address the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black folks (especially young men) by the police and others.  Also we can’t ignore the violent opportunists who have turned peaceful demonstrations into acts of wanton destruction, even committing murder, and that includes murdering police officers.

I also can’t ignore what I saw—a man in his final moments of life, calling out for his mama.  In my bold, heroic gesture, I posted on Facebook the three words, “I can’t breathe.”  One of my Facebook friends responded with a series of question marks.  She wasn’t sure what I was referring to, so I said it was about the death of George Floyd.  Her reply: “that is why I am limiting my news exposure.”  I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  (And I have since taken down my post.)

In a way, I understand where she’s coming from.  This happens over and over and over again; it seems to be part of our history.  The names and faces just blur together.

So what can we make of how Paul wraps everything up?  What does it say about being restored to order?  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (v. 13).  Is it just a nice, tidy way to say goodbye?  William Loader says it is “a benediction which teaches us where the heart of the gospel lies—if we ever to stop to think what it really means.”[4]

Each of those terms is filled with meaning, but I want to focus on the third one: “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

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What does that mean?  One thing it surely means is that communion (in Greek, κοινωνία, koinōnia) is provided by the Holy Spirit.  Communion, fellowship, sharing—however you translate koinōnia—is a gift of the Spirit.  It is a gift given when we come together as the one body of Christ.

“The communion of the Holy Spirit” can also mean “participation in the Holy Spirit.”[5]  It means “the Spirit as that which is shared by believers,” being within the Spirit, so to speak.  As we consider participating in the Spirit, being within the Spirit, I would ask, “What are some other things we participate in?  What other realities are we within?  What do we surround ourselves with?”

On the negative side—I’ll start with bad news!  We can participate in cynicism, a world-weary distrust, a feeling that nothing matters anyway.  We can share in prejudice, to literally “pre-judge,” be it by ethnicity, political orientation, some religious conviction, or someone’s favorite food.  We can surround ourselves with tribalism, which leads to fear and loathing of “the other,” whoever “the other” might be.

Okay, how about some good news?  What are some positive forces, life-enhancing atmospheres we can share, we can breathe?  The fruit of the Holy Spirit is a good starting point: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Ga 5:22-23).  We can enter into confident hope, as opposed to a world in which we always have to watch our back.  We can surround ourselves with humor.  I’m not talking about pointing and laughing, giving people derogatory, immature nicknames.

When we can laugh at ourselves, we allow an easy, joyful spirit to flow among us.  It opens the door to a spirituality of a graceful gratitude.  (Granted, some of us provide more material at which to laugh.  I see evidence of that every day in the mirror!)  I often say one of the sure signs we have been created in the image of God is a sense of humor.

We are told “Paul has expanded a traditional farewell to make it match a situation where community and compassion was largely missing.”[6]  The apostle is reminding the Corinthians that they need to get over themselves.  Hit that reset button!

For us here, regarding that reset button: “to hit or not to hit”—that is the question.  Like the exiles in Babylon, in their strange new world, perhaps we need to hit that button every day.  There’s no question we are facing challenges like never before.  Hitting the reset button daily might keep us sane!

6 2 coLet me finish with a quote from Thomas à Kempis’ masterpiece, The Imitation of Christ.[7]  (With slightly different language in this particular translation.)  Maybe we can say this is his take on hitting the reset button.

“Every day we should renew our resolve to live a holy life, and every day we should kindle ourselves to a burning love, just as if today were the first day of our new life in Jesus Christ.”

That, my friends, is being restored with a triple blessing.

 

[1] χαιρω (chairō)

[2] www.zebraview.net/2020/04/rich-wounds-yet-visible-above.html

[3] www.zebraview.net/2020/06/hit-the-reset-button.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpTrinity.htm

[5] Victor Paul Furnish, The Anchor Bible: 2 Corinthians (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 584.

[6] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpTrinity.htm

[7] www.ccel.org/ccel/kempis/imitation.all.html


love, food, and toilet paper

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

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

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

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(Did they have toilet paper?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

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


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.


glory everywhere

When I was at seminary in Philadelphia, one of my favorite activities was going for long walks, especially in the evening.  But if we had a decent amount of snowfall the previous night, I might decide to change up my routine and go out in the morning.  It was on one such morning that I ventured out into a landscape glistening with ice and snow.  The whole world had been frosted with layers of confectioner’s sugar!

As I enjoyed the brisk chilly air, I encountered one of the elderly ladies from the Presbyterian Church across the street from our school.  I often sat in one of the pews in “her” part of the sanctuary.  I greeted her, and she acknowledged me, but not in the way one ordinarily does.

As she took in all that her senses were telling her about this magnificent morning, she seemed to be almost mesmerized, almost in a state of rapture.  On that snowy sidewalk in Philly, all she said was, “There is so much beauty.”  There is so much beauty.

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It was as though some celestial being had parted a veil and revealed some secret splendor.  The look on her face—that moment—that’s what I remember about her.

I begin with my recollections of beauty and splendor because there’s someone else who has a little bit to say about it.  Our Old Testament reading in Isaiah describes what’s usually thought of as the call of Isaiah the prophet.  He mentions some celestial beings himself.

While in the temple, he has a vision of “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe [or “the train of his robe”] filled the temple” (v. 1).  The Bible says that he sees “seraphim” (שְֹרׇפׅים).  These are indeed celestial beings; the word literally means “burning ones.”  The prophet says that they “were in attendance above [the Lord]; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew” (v. 2).

This is, to say the least, an awesome sight.  I mean that in the truest sense of the word; it is an awe-inspiring sight, a fearsome sight.  Here’s some of that beauty and splendor I just mentioned.  These creatures call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (v. 3).

And if that’s not enough, in his vision, his trance—whatever it is—the whole place begins to violently shake and fill with smoke.  In their purest state, beauty and splendor are actually quite terrifying to us mere mortals!

In the temple, images of the cherubim were placed above the ark of the covenant.  No one really knows the difference between a cherub and a seraph—or if they’re even angels.[1]  It’s possible they’re beings even more powerful than angels, even closer to God!

Whatever the case, the prophet is in the temple, gazing at these engravings.  And he sees them moving!  He hears them singing!  One of them even speaks to him, and he feels it touch his lips with a red hot coal!

You know, there are a number of hallucinogenic substances, as well as certain mental disorders, that could explain these events.  (I won’t say if I’m speaking from personal experience!)  Still, throughout the ages, there have been mystics and prophets with similar experiences.  Look at what happens to the prophet Ezekiel almost two centuries later.  (In chapter 1, some people say he saw a space ship!)

And a word on mystics: this isn’t some spooky reference to someone with magical powers.  Rather, a mystic is one with what’s been called “a long loving look at the real.”[2]

I think it’s safe to say that Isaiah lives a life in which he is more attuned to sensing and noticing things others miss.  He lives a life in which he looks and listens for God.  And in our scripture text, he is worshiping.  It’s been noted that he is “hyperaware.”[3]  He is fully present to what is going on.

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“The Prophet Isaiah,” Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Recalling that Pentecost was last Sunday, we also have the ability to be present to what the Holy Spirit is saying.  After all, that is the point of worship—to pay attention to God in a loving, expectant way.  Having said that, if the figures in the stained-glass windows do not speak and make gestures, I think that would be okay!

There’s something we need to keep in mind regarding the prophet and his vision and his call, and that is: this isn’t just about him.  Isaiah hasn’t been given this blast of enlightenment and wisdom so that he can reassure himself that he’s such a spiritual guy.  This isn’t something he’s supposed to keep to himself, as he is painfully aware.  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

In fact, with the first few words of verse 1, we’re already confronted with the larger community.  When does Isaiah have this experience?  When does he receive his call?  “In the year that King Uzziah died.”  Sometimes we’re told stuff like that just as a way to mark the date.  This thing happened at that time.

But Uzziah (also known as Azariah) isn’t just any king.  At the time of his death, Uzziah has been king of Judah for over fifty years.  For most of the people, he’s the only king they’ve ever known.  And now, he is gone.  When a long-reigning leader leaves the scene, there can be a sense of uncertainty, even fear.

Uzziah is remembered as devoted to the Lord, but with limits.  He builds up the army, and he defeats the surrounding enemies.  Unfortunately, as often happens with militarily-powerful nations, their priorities become skewed toward the wealthy.  And so we have Isaiah.  “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.”

It’s often said of prophets that their job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.  This is where we get to what I said earlier, about Isaiah’s knowing that he can’t keep his experience to himself—as he is painfully aware!  He cries out during his vision, “Woe is me!  I am lost, for 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!” (v. 5).

In response to this business about unclean lips, the seraph has him kiss a burning ember.  That’s some pretty fierce hygiene.

Isaiah is keenly aware of his unworthiness for what the Lord calls him to do.  But this act of divine intervention comes with the reassurance, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (v. 7).  The Lord huddles up with the seraphim and wonders aloud, “Do you have any ideas about who we should send?”

In a little while, we’ll sing the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.”  Isaiah volunteers for the mission—but what a mission it is.  At this point, I need to interject something.  This last part of the chapter isn’t in today’s lectionary reading.  As I’ve mentioned / complained before, the embarrassing / troublesome verses are frequently omitted.

When we read it, it looks like Isaiah is being sent on a fool’s errand.  Or maybe it’s a suicide mission!  One thing’s for sure: this will not look good on his resumé!

What is this crazy assignment?  The Lord tells the prophet, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’”  Okay, not too bad so far.  But then we hear, “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (vv. 9-10).  Now this really is a troublesome one!

It looks like the prophet’s job is to make sure that the people keep going in the wrong direction!  “Make sure that their minds are dull, their ears are deaf, and their eyes are blind.  Otherwise,” God is apparently saying, “if they do wake up and repent, you will have failed your mission.”

Here’s how the Revised English Bible puts it: “This people’s wits are dulled; they have stopped their ears and shut their eyes.”  Read this way, God isn’t commanding the prophet to confuse the people.  It’s simply a statement of fact; it’s what they’ve done to themselves.

Still, there is a sense in which sharing the light with those in love with the dark will bring confusion.  It’s even necessary.  It’s not an act of punishment, rather it’s one of tough love, so to speak.  Even those on the right path—those who love and seek God—sometimes experience what the mystics call “the dark night of the soul.”  This is when there is no understanding, no light, no way forward.

In any event, it seems clear that Isaiah is aware of things the people around him are not.  They have narrowed their minds; they’ve chosen to be narrow-minded.  Where the people around him see (and participate in) the grim cynicism of the day, Isaiah is able to see glory everywhere.  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  Hearing that is a gift of grace.

On that snowy morning in Philadelphia, I don’t know to what extent my older sister was a mystic or prophet, but I do consider that moment in time to be a gift of grace.  Her wondrous proclamation that “there is so much beauty” was, to me, a message from heaven.

Maybe it was even a kairos moment, a moment of timelessness, a moment from God.

What about us?  Can we see ourselves as mystics and prophets?  Or maybe I should put it this way: can we see ourselves living out our calling, our vocation, to be mystics and prophets?  And what does that even mean?  Does it seem too far-fetched, too unreal?

4 is 6
Sister Judette Gallares

Judette Gallares talks about this in her article “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today.”  She says that the mystical, “prophetic task requires friendship with God, an authentic intimacy with God.  It is in this intimacy when a deep friendship is developed in quiet moments and where one learns to share heart to heart with God and begins to see and hear from God’s point of view.”  And like I said earlier, that doesn’t mean we have to see inanimate objects in motion!

If we sing the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord,” and live into it, then that requires action on our part—although it’s not the mindless, blind, and deaf action Isaiah criticizes.  It requires taking a risk.  Sometimes it is easier to say, “Here I am Lord…but please send somebody else!”

As mystics and prophets we must ask the difficult questions.  Can we venture into the unknown, trusting God and seeking new opportunities presented as we live the life of Christ in community?  The temptation is to wait—to play it safe.  When we don’t answer the call to take a risk, we miss out on the glory everywhere.

Here’s the last verse of “Here I Am, Lord”: “I, the Lord of wind and flame, / I will tend the poor and lame. / I will set a feast for them, / My hand will save. / Finest bread I will provide / Till their hearts be satisfied. / I will give my life to them. / Whom shall I send?”

Isaiah enters deeply into prayer.  He has a new vision.  We have a new vision.  When everything seems and is dark, we find glory everywhere.

 

[1] כְּרום  cherub

[2] www.ignatianspirituality.com/6277/a-long-loving-look-at-the-real

[3] www.drbilllong.com/Lectionary/Is6II.html


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!)

1 jn 18

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?

2 jn 18

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.

3 jn 18
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.


may our faces shine

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, she met through a mutual acquaintance another young woman from Istanbul, named Nilgün.  According to Banu, one time early on in their friendship, Nilgün made a comment about me to her.  She apparently said my face has nur.  That’s a Turkish word which means “light,” but it’s light in the sense of celestial or heavenly light.  I don’t have to tell you that was a gross exaggeration—no, a gross misunderstanding!

We do speak of people’s faces as shining, don’t we?  We think of someone’s face lighting up for a certain reason.  On this day, the Transfiguration of the Lord, we consider the appearance of actual nur, the true shining of heavenly light.  And we’ll consider what that means for us.

1 ex and mk
“Moses” by Michelangelo

Notice Michelangelo’s sculpture entitled “Moses.”  Is there anything about it that strikes you as odd?  Could it possibly be you never knew Moses had horns?

There’s a word in Hebrew, קׇרַן (qaran), appearing three times in the Old Testament reading in Exodus.  The word for “shining,” it means to “send out rays.”  However, it can also be translated “to display horns.”  It comes from a word that literally means “horn” ( קֶרֶן, qeren).

For centuries in western Europe, the version of the Bible most people read (at least, those who could read) was a Latin translation known as the Vulgate.  In this version, we have a different picture of Moses after he speaks with God.  Instead of “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone,” it says, “and he did not know that his face was horned” (v. 29).

Instead of Transfiguration, we get something we might expect on Halloween!  So, in his own way, the Italian master is paying his respects to the Moses of today’s scripture.

Horns or not, Moses is the first person in the Bible to be transfigured with the light of God.  This is after his second trip up Mount Sinai.  Remember what happens after his first encounter with God on the mountain—when he receives the Ten Commandments the first time?  There’s the incident with the Golden Calf.  The people get tired of waiting for Moses, and they pressure Aaron into devising some physical symbol of the divine they can see in worship.  Plus, they just want to have a really wild party!  Moses appeals to God to not wipe the people out, and he is summoned back up the mountain.

As we come to today’s reading, Moses is on the way back down the mountain, completely unaware he is literally beaming.  But the looks of terror on the faces of Aaron and the others clue him in that something strange is going on!  How is it that the face of Moses is shining?  The scripture says, “because he had been talking with God” (v. 29).

2 ex and mkEliezer Segal, teacher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, speaks of the Jewish legend which goes into a little more detail.  It says after God finished giving the Torah, “Moses wiped the pen on his forehead, and it was this ethereal ink stain that continued to radiate as he walked among the people.”[1]

He’s speaking of the way Moses gets actively involved in this second trip up the mountain.  Remember, he’s already interceded on behalf of the people.  Now, as opposed to the first time, it’s Moses, not the Lord, who provides the stone tablets and then writes on them.

Segal sees a lesson to be learned here, as he wonders, what is it that can make our faces radiate light?  He speaks of the spiritual energy flowing from the face of Moses and looks for a comparison.  He says it’s “not to be compared to fire, but to electrical power, which can exist only in the form of a current that flows continuously to and from its source.”

The connection is also made to us.  “Religious inspiration must also be a continual dialogue and struggle between the Creator and [we] creatures.  When that current is interrupted, or even if it fails to return to its source, then the energy has no use, and we find ourselves donning our figurative veils.”

In our epistle reading, St. Paul makes a similar connection.  He says, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Co 4:3).  It is veiled; the radiance of the gospel doesn’t shine through.  Those traveling the vale of tears who reject the light of life fall stricken by the wayside.

Of course, it’s our gospel reading (Mk 9:2-9) that tells the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  That’s why it’s on the calendar.  And for our Lord Jesus Christ, it’s not only his face, but his entire body radiating with the light of God.

3 ex and mkOn that fateful trip up the mountain, Peter suggests dwellings be built for Jesus, as well as for Moses and Elijah, who also appear with the glory of God.  In effect, Peter wants to hold on to the experience—he wants to trap that light.  He, not surprisingly (because wouldn’t we?), wants to capture the moment.  But the moment is gone.  And as the scripture says, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He needs to be quiet and listen.  The power and energy of God can’t be treated as something static, like something engraved in stone!  Like love, it increases the more we give it away.

Like Peter, we’re often guilty of trying to trap the light.  How often do we avoid letting our own light shine?  How often do we avoid letting light shine onto the paths of others, so they can see for themselves?  And it’s not like there’s some false choice between living the life and saying the words—they go together.  If letting our light shine is our heart’s desire, the opportunities will arrive.  Actually, we won’t have to wait very long—opportunities abound.

It may be asked why Transfiguration is observed on the last Sunday before Lent.  Right before the Transfiguration story, Jesus has just predicted the passion, the suffering headed right for him.  That is, unless he keeps his mouth shut and stops being such a headache for the powers that be!

In the previous chapter, Jesus told the disciples he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (8:31-33).

The light of Transfiguration helps to illuminate the sometimes dark road of Lent.  And if it’s not exactly dark, Lent is still to be a time of reflection, of renewed repentance and reconsideration.

I think we all know that light is not an entirely benevolent force.  After all, it can cause us to go blind!  That’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life.  My eyes have always been sensitive to light.  Especially when I was a boy—and especially if someone were taking my picture in bright sunlight—it would be no time at all before I would start squinting.  During winter, I’m given a reminder of that when sunshine is reflected off a field of snow.  (I think I would make a great vampire!)

Still, much more than simply not being benevolent, light can be positively destructive.

4 ex and mkAs I said, we celebrate Transfiguration on the final Sunday before Lent.  Traditionally however, it was celebrated on August 6.  Tragically, the 20th century provided August 6 as the anniversary of another kind of light.  It, of course, was the day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, one of the most horrific events in human history.  Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn!  (On a bitter side note, the first atomic bomb test was actually nicknamed “Trinity”!)

Let’s return to light as a spiritual reality, not just a physical one.  Just as with the light from the sun, the light from God can also be blinding.  Exhibit A: the veil needed to cover the face of Moses!  Faulty, frail creatures that we are, we can only take so much light at a time.  We often resemble cockroaches, who when exposed to the light, scurry off into dark corners!

We are indeed exposed, uncovered by the light.  Our shadow side is revealed.  Our shadow side isn’t necessarily bad; it’s the stuff about us we suppress and repress.  It’s the stuff about ourselves we find embarrassing; it’s the stuff we want to hide.  But guess what?  Even as painful as it is, God wants to shine the light into those deep canyons.

If we believe what the psalmist says, it’s for our own good that we just go along with it.  Speaking of God, we hear “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12).  We can’t hide from God—we only hide from ourselves.

God is good.  God understands our weakness, and graciously provides a veil until we can handle more light.  God sends a cloud, as with the three disciples on the mount of transfiguration.  God lovingly protects us.

So in the end, we need not fear the light.  We can share in the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can trust the light that shines on the dark places in our lives—the places we are ashamed of.  We can help others, especially those who have plunged into darkness, to let their own light shine.  We don’t have to hold on to the light; we don’t have to hold on to mountaintop experiences.  Jesus says we are the light of the world.

5 ex and mk

May our faces shine.

 

[1] www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S980222_SunshinyFaces.html


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