lectionary

decisions, decisions

Life is all about making decisions.  You’ve already made a few of them so far this morning.  Decision number one was whether or not to get out of bed.  (That’s assuming, of course, you didn’t stay up all night!)  Following that were other decisions, involving stuff like getting dressed, eating breakfast, going to church, maybe even praying!

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Rush, the Holy Trinity of rock (okay I added that last part!)

A lot of our decisions we make without really thinking about them.  Others require great effort and attention.  Some we eagerly embrace; others we avoid like the plague.  Still, as the rock group Rush once said in their song, “Freewill,” “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!”

Our scripture reading in Acts describes a decision made by the eleven remaining apostles—remaining, that is, after Judas’ death following his betrayal of Jesus.  Peter is the one who raises the issue, feeling that the original number of twelve needs to be restored.  So they decide to select a replacement.

(By the way, our scripture reading in the lectionary omits verses 18 to 20: all that juicy stuff about how Judas dies!  Once again, the folks who compiled the lectionary wanted to protect us and our delicate sensibilities from all those grim and garish details.)

I have a question to ask: how do you feel about this whole undertaking of replacing Judas?

This decision has received mixed reviews over the years.  On the one hand, it’s been seen as an act of faithfulness.  The young church sees itself as the new Israel, with twelve apostles corresponding to the twelve tribes.

On the other hand, it’s not that Peter and the other apostles are doing a bad thing.  They clearly have good motives.  They establish what appear to be sound criteria.  They make sure that the new apostle is someone who’s “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (v. 21).  It must be one who’s been there through thick and thin—from the time of Jesus’ baptism until the present day—someone who can provide witness to the Lord’s resurrection.

Two candidates are proposed.  The first is “Joseph called Barsabbas,” alias “Justus,” and the second is Matthias.  They pray that the one God has chosen will be revealed, and they cast lots—in effect, they roll the dice—to get the result.  And the winner is: Matthias!

I said this business has gotten mixed reviews.  Some feel Peter’s use of Psalms 69 and 109, claiming they predict Judas’ deception and their response to it, is a bit loose.  Still, it’s also true that upon reflection, the church saw how the Holy Spirit spoke through certain scriptures looking ahead to the Messiah.  (Having said that, I had teachers who lamented how some people see in the Old Testament every piece of wood and random comment pointing to Jesus!)

But that’s not the main reason the apostles’ decision has been critiqued.  To put it simply, it looks like they go ahead without hearing from God on the matter.  Our gospel reading in Luke 24 shows Jesus, just before his ascension, telling them to wait until the Spirit is poured out upon them.

Lacking any definitive guidance, they plunge ahead and use a method that’s been around for ages—casting lots.  It does seem to be relevant that, after Pentecost, lots aren’t mentioned anymore.  The Holy Spirit directs the young church.

2 ac 1Still, it’s hard to be too critical of them.  I can see why they might feel like they needed to take some kind of action.  Some of them may have been getting a little antsy.  Peter himself was known to be rather headstrong at times.

So I ask again: how do you feel about all of this?  Faced with a decision like this, I wonder how we would fare.

In a way, it’s not fair to ask what you think of the apostles’ decision.  There’s the saying about not knowing what’s happening with someone until you’ve walked in their shoes.  We’ve all been criticized for decisions we’ve made by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about!

Let me tell you a little story about someone who faced a major decision in his life.  As a result of his struggle, the world is better off for it.

I’ve mentioned him before, the 16th century Spanish officer, Ignatius of Loyola.  If you recall, he was a wild young man; he loved chasing the ladies.  While fighting the French, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin.  (I also said something about that projectile.  If it were one foot higher, well, he wouldn’t have been worried about the ladies!)

While bedridden doing physical rehab, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry.  None of those were on hand, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints.  He experienced his conversion while reading those books.  In time, he became the founder of an order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

What’s relevant right now is that in his book, The Spiritual Exercises, he includes a section entitled, “Discerning the Spirits.”  His use of the word “spirits” reflects a medieval concept; today, we might call these interior movements of the soul a combination of inclinations, attractions, imaginings, thoughts and feelings.

One guide to understanding Ignatius is Stefan Kiechle, a German Jesuit who wrote a book called The Art of Discernment: Making Good Decisions in Your World of Choices.[1]  It’s a very readable book, and it helps you to see what a wise person Ignatius was.

Ignatius stresses the need, when approaching a decision, to become “indifferent.”  That’s not “indifferent” as we tend to think of it.  It’s not an attitude that says, “I couldn’t care less what happens!”

For Ignatius, indifference is “a state where people no longer desire health more than sickness, wealth more than poverty, a long life more than a short life, honor more than dishonor, but instead they desire what brings them closer to the ‘end for which [they] are created.’  Therefore, one ought to be prepared to accept personal setbacks if they benefit a higher goal.”[2]

He sounds a lot like St. Paul, who in Philippians 4 says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (vv. 11-13).

Ignatian indifference is inner freedom.  Only those who have faced up to their own disordered desires—Paul might say “works of the flesh”—can be truly free.  The greater freedom we have, the better our decision making will be.  Still, we rarely achieve perfect clarity in our decisions.

“Apparently sound decisions are impossible unless one can reflect with a minimum of interruption…  The moment we enter silence, our inner self comes to life…  People who are constantly talking and keeping busy never pause to listen.”[3]  (That too often sounds like me.  When I mean to have a time of silence, I focus on the random thoughts that float through my head.  The trick is noticing them, and then just letting them go!)

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So far, the advice from Ignatius might sound pretty stern.  In that respect, he’s keeping true to his roots as a soldier!  But he’s quick to emphasize the need for love.  When approaching a decision, even one (or maybe I should say, especially one) causing fear or anxiety, I should “ask myself if I’m making my choice lovingly.”[4]  I need to make my choice lovingly.  A loving spirit helps dissipate the cloud of negative forces that confuse and confound us.

We all have weaknesses; we should acknowledge them.  For example, do I tend to jump right in, or do I put it off as long as I can?  Do I have an exaggerated sense of self-worth; do I strut around?  Do I think I’m totally worthless; do I shrink and try to hide?  Do I tend to ignore reality in favor of some dream world, whipping out the rose-colored glasses?  Do I insist on looking at the dark side of everything, always finding something to gripe about?  We all have our favorite traps.

“Yet the fact remains that only those who make mistakes will learn something; only those who dare will mature as a result of the experiment—an important word in Ignatius.”[5]  It’s easy to sit back and criticize.  God wants us to lovingly stand up and get involved.

We are created in the image of God.  That means plenty of things, but one of my favorite examples of God’s image in us is a sense of humor.

(Humor seems to belong to humans alone.  Still there are some animals, like chimpanzees, who seem to find some stuff funny.  But not my dog.  He never laughs at my jokes.  Although, there might be several reasons for that!)

Ignatius also stresses the need for humor.  When we develop our sense of humor, it enables us to entertain other ideas.  We’re not so rigidly dead set on one course of action.  If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we become rigid and intolerant.  Still, when it comes to laughing at oneself, some of us have more material than others!

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So there, we need a good sense of humor.  Oddly enough though, a full and healthy sense of humor carries with it the ability to mourn.  And somehow, the ability to mourn is also a part of wise decision making.  Our Jesuit friend Kiechle tells us: “People who have to choose between two good alternatives are frequently attracted to both of them.  Once an alternative has been selected, the other alternative that has been rejected will have to be mourned.  People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long to the [rejected] alternative…  One who keeps reproaching oneself for having made the wrong decision after all, feels dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[6]  We must be able to say goodbye.

What kind of decisions are we facing?  Let me suggest one possibility.

Certainly, we’re not in the same situation as those early disciples, but they have suffered a loss.  I don’t know that anyone here has betrayed the Lord—at least, not in the outward death-dealing way Judas did.  (We all have our own ways of betraying the Lord!)  Still, I don’t think it’s a controversial point to say we wonder about expanding our own number.

If I can push the comparison a little further, drawing on the idea of casting lots, are we prone to relying on our own methods, and being a little less charitable, relying on gimmicks?!  (I didn’t come up with that on my own.  In one of the previous churches we served, a session member, thinking of increasing the membership, said that very thing: “We need a gimmick.”  And that was suggested more than once!)

So there’s that.  I know this happens next Sunday, but after the day of Pentecost, the disciples learn what it means to be led by the Spirit.  And we live after the day of Pentecost.  Understand, that doesn’t mean we drift around, waiting for the Spirit to move us.  If you recall what I said about Ignatius, he provides one example of what it means to test the Spirit, to test the spirits.

As we saw earlier, the Spirit is the promise of Jesus after his ascension.  The Spirit guides us in our decisions.  Part of that means failing, but then still trusting.

When we make decisions and say, in an unnecessarily hurried way, “Let’s just get it done, already,” it limits the power of community.  When one of us takes it upon ourselves to speak for the entire community, it chokes the Spirit.  That is why it is so important as a community to test the spirits, both individually and within community.  And that begins right here in worship.  God speaks in ways we have not even begun to fathom.

Trusting in that is a pretty good decision.

 

[1] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005).

[2] Kiechle, 32-33.

[3] Kiechle, 69.

[4] Kiechle, 79.

[5] Kiechle, 91-92.

[6] Kiechle, 76-77.


ask the questions!

Today I’m using a reading from the book of Job, the beginning of chapter 38.  It actually appears in the lectionary in October, but I can’t wait!  I can almost hear you saying, “Job.  Oh goody!  That’s my favorite one in the Bible!”  It might seem strange, but I love the book of Job.  There are all kinds of good stuff to be found in it.

Obviously, in speaking of “good stuff,” I’m not talking about the numerous disasters that are visited upon our title character!

There is chapter after chapter of beautiful poetry.  The poetry is bracketed by prose narrative at the beginning and at the end.  This narrative is thought by many to come from an ancient legend—the story of a man who was wealthier than anyone else in the land.

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But more than that, he was “blameless”; he “turned away from evil” (1:1).  He was a good and righteous man.  In fact, he was so righteous he would offer sacrifices to God just in case his children had done something wrong!

Of course—just his luck—an argument breaks out in heaven, and the Lord points him out to the Accuser.  This creature is “the satan.”  He isn’t yet considered to be the evil Satan of later centuries.  A bet is made that Job can be forced to curse God.  (I don’t think I would want any part of that wager!)

He loses all of his wealth, then his children, and finally, he loses his health.  We are told “that his suffering [is] very great” (2:13).

Does he break?  Does he curse God?  According to the scriptures, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).  Understand, there’s no comment on what must have been going through his head!  As we see in the poetic chapters, Job does have some questions.  He has plenty of questions—plenty of soul-baring, agonizing questions!

If the saying, “the patience of Job,” applies to the Job we meet in the prose section, it definitely does not apply to the one we meet in the poetry.  This Job is anything but patient!

Job still has some friends, though: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  They have traveled a great distance to exercise what we might call the “ministry of presence,” albeit with mixed results.

(On a side note, understanding that some here in the congregation have an interest in science, I wonder if that reaches to archaeology?  I mention that because of some recent discoveries.  Among them was a surprisingly well-preserved fragment of pottery.  It seems to have belonged to Zophar himself.  Etched on it is Zophar’s second name.  Apparently, it was “Zogood.”)

Actually, for Job’s friends, it really is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior.  They’re doing a very difficult thing.  They’re actually being there with their friend in the midst of his pain.  Anyone who’s simply been with a suffering friend or family member knows that it isn’t fun.  It requires a sacrifice of self.

It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving advice that Job calls them “miserable comforters” (16:2).

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is forced to undergo the tragedies that have come his way.  And they can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is asking the questions they hear.  After all, everyone knows the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

“So Job, you must have done something wrong.  Why don’t you just repent?  All of this terrible stuff will go away!”  Job’s friends have to say that, because the way they look at God, and at life itself, is being challenged.  And they aren’t able, or willing, to question themselves.

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"When the Morning Stars Sang Together" by William Blake

Questions sometimes associated with the book of Job are, “What is the origin of evil?” or, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Why do bad things happen to good people?  We’ve all asked that question: maybe not with those exact words, but the unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still quite young.  I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God.  And part of what that means is we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong.  We have a sense of justice.  How we act on it is an entirely different conversation.

If we approach the book of Job seeking the answer to that question—Why do bad things happen to good people?—we may come away feeling…unsatisfied.  We never see one secret formula or one explanation that solves the puzzle.  Instead, in today’s reading, what do we see when God begins to answer Job?

Things certainly are dramatic.  We see that “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (v. 1).  The whirlwind, the storm, the tempest—aside from any literal meaning in the text, all of those are pretty good descriptions of what Job’s life has become.

As I just suggested, the answer might be unsatisfying.  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (vv. 2-3).  If I were Job, I don’t think I would like where this is going!  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding” (v. 4).

In his book on Job, Stephen Mitchell makes it sound even more abrupt.  “Who is this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness?  Stand up now like a man; I will question you: please, instruct me.  Where were you when I planned the earth?  Tell me, if you are so wise.”[1]

Job is presented with questions to which he either can’t possibly know the answer, or the answer is obviously “no.”  Here’s a quick sample from later in the chapter: “Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (v. 19).  “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” (v. 31).  “Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?” (v. 35).

This goes on for four chapters.

Our poet seems determined to point out Job’s ignorance.  There seems to be a concerted effort on demonstrating this whole business of the unknown.

So, does that mean Job is wrong in asking the questions?

In the final chapter, here’s what the Lord says to Eliphaz: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  Eliphaz and his friends have positioned themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy.  They are the defenders of the faith, and there are some questions you just don’t ask!  Apparently, the Lord disagrees.

Could it be that questioning faith, provided it’s not done in an insincere, disingenuous way, is actually a good thing?  It must be so, that is, if we follow Jesus when he says in Mark 12 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (v. 30).

Job asks some angry, demanding questions of God.  And his friends are horrified.  As I’ve suggested, if Job is the good, honest, even holy man they’ve known him to be, then something doesn’t compute.  Their worldview begins to collapse; it’s in a state of free fall.

What about us?  What about our questions?  Have we been trained to not ask the anguished, soul-searching questions?  Have we been told to not admit it, when honestly, we doubt some stuff, maybe a whole bunch of stuff?  Has that defender of orthodoxy told us that to do so is wrong?

In her book, The Psalms for Today, Beth LaNeel Tanner talks about this kind of thing.  These aren’t “the nice salutations contained in [our] Book of Common Worship…  [She’s a Presbyterian; that’s why she mentions it.]  How can we speak to God in such a disrespectful manner?”[2]

She continues, “To speak honestly and demand that God come and do something, speaks volumes about the relationship between the one praying and God.  If I dare to speak my fears and my greatest hurts, then I am also acknowledging the importance of this other to me and the power that this other has in my life…  It is praise not because it is polite or politically correct, but because it is brutally honest and open.”[3]

It is only the voice of faith that can ask those sacredly brutal questions.  I think a lot of us here are in that category.

Job is the role model: loss of wealth, loss of children, loss of health—loss of identity.  And loss of friends!  There are friends who no doubt mean well, but you just want to say, “Please keep your opinions to yourself.  I beg you.  I don’t want to be harsh, but please, shut up!”  Has anyone here ever felt that way—or sadly, been the one who needed to hear it?

Of course, questions need not be about suffering.  When we ask questions with sincerity and love, we can be accountable the way a community of faith should be.  We help to bear each other’s burdens.  That especially happens when we don’t have the answers.

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In fact, learning to ask the right question is often, if not usually, more important than having the right answer.  Too often, the church is ready to give answers, but less ready to ask questions—and much less ready to simply listen.  So I’ll pose some questions for us to consider, as we continue our journey together.

“What do you mean by that?”  That’s one I’ve posed to Banu many times.  I’m not trying to be obstinate or difficult; it’s just realizing the same word can mean different things to different people.  We too often use labels as shortcuts into thinking we really know what the other person believes.

“How do we fail?”  This brings us back to Job and his friends.  Do we fail with dignity?  Are we too defensive about our failures?

I’ll finish with a quote by Richard Rohr, in his reflection on Job.  “When we are feeling overwhelmed by our guilt, on those days we feel inadequate, when our littleness and brokenness seem too much to live with, when we may even get to hating ourselves, that is when we should get in touch with the humble Job within all of us.

“When you are feeling abandoned, pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together.  There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before.  At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.”[4]

Don’t be afraid to ask the questions!

 

[1] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York:  HarperPerennial, 1992), 79.

[2] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 61.

[3] Tanner, 64.

[4] Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York:  Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 93-94.


to see and know Christ

James Finley, the spiritual teacher and mystic, tells us “there’s a story about someone who’s in hell, and he can get out of hell if he can make the Devil cry.  What he does is he gives the Devil a mirror, and when the Devil sees himself, he cries.  And the tears of the Devil put out the fires of hell.”[1]

1 saintsI begin with that rather abrupt story, because it says something about image, what we behold.  It says something about self-image, which in the devil’s case, leads to sorrow.  And to continue with the well-known ending, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

That little story says something about what we focus on, what occupies our attention—what occupies our lives.  But we’ll look at that later on.

The epistle text for today, All Saints’ Sunday, is 1 John 3:1-3.  It speaks of pleasant stuff, but it leaves out the rest of the passage.  It leaves out the troublesome, the uncomfortable stuff.  And as I think I’ve said before, when I see those omissions in the lectionary readings, I can’t simply ignore them.  It can be too easy for us to whip out our scissors, and go, “snip, snip, snip.”  We can’t pretend those verses don’t exist.

Having said that, let’s start with the assigned verses.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (v. 1a).  Love is one of the key themes in this letter and also in the gospel of John, who probably isn’t the same John we see here.

This love is not the kind we see on the Hallmark Channel.  This love is the stuff pervading the universe; it holds the cosmos together.  There’s something “quantum physical” about it.  There is also an awareness, or perhaps, pure awareness.  And it is that awareness which calls for and longs for all of us, that is, everything we are.  You know, having thought about it, the romantic love we see on the Hallmark Channel does tap into the love filling the universe.

Divine love makes us children of God, which the world doesn’t understand.  “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (v. 1b).  In the New Testament, the term “world” often has a different meaning than simply referring to planet Earth.  The “world” is a system; it’s almost like something in the air which is hostile to God and to God’s people.  It doesn’t understand—and in fact rejects, sometimes viciously—what the eyes of faith see.

I can remember a time when I made excuses (and they were excuses) for not following the path Jesus had laid out for me.  I pointed to TV evangelists who debased the gospel for the sake of fundraising.  I tried all kinds of ways to explain why church and the Christian faith weren’t for me.

2 saintsI say that in order to say this.  Like many others who have had conversions as adults, I had friends with whom I did … stuff.  And then, I started bringing up subjects about which they had very little interest.  They humored me for a while, but when we realized I was serious about it, we found our common interests fading away.  I began looking through, and appreciating for the first time in my life, the eyes of faith.

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

Here’s the first part of verse 2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”  I like how Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message.  “But friends, that’s exactly who we are: children of God.  And that’s only the beginning.  Who knows how we’ll end up!”

I imagine many of us can relate to that.  Who knows how we’ll end up?  We are still on the way.

Here’s what John says about it.  “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (v. 2b).  And again, Peterson: “What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him.”

So we’re back to this business of seeing.  It’s the devil peeking into the mirror and recoiling in terror.  Is it the utter lack of love which causes such fright and bitter disappointment?

I said earlier the lectionary leaves out verses 4 to 10.  Maybe we can understand why.  When we read stuff like, “No one who abides in him sins,” “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil,” and “Those who have been born of God do not sin,” we might be excused for taking a moment of pause (vv. 6, 8, 9).

One writer, reflecting on this message, concludes it is “a disquieting thought.”[2]  Disquieting indeed.  It’s almost like joining the devil with that peek in the mirror.  Horrifying!

There are some folks who do something interesting with the idea of sanctification.  To sanctify is to set apart, to make holy.  Truly abiding in Christ results in sanctification.  It means being set free from the power of sin.  It means adopting a new nature.

Some of those folks I mentioned say being set free from sin’s power equates to not sinning.  Some people say it’s possible to be sanctified enough so that you never sin.  There are some who claim to have arrived at that point.  They will tell you, “I do not sin anymore.”

However, there is a slight problem.  Remember our call to confession today.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  That’s from chapter 1 of today’s letter (vv. 8-9).

Being set free from sin’s power unfortunately does not mean we no longer sin.  Our sin is a sign of our weakness.  For some strange, bizarre reason, we keep holding on the power of sin.  We’re extremely reluctant to have those chains broken!  That’s why salvation is an ongoing process.

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Still, as much as we would like to, we can’t ignore the verses setting up a zero-tolerance philosophy.

Consider the last part of verse 6, referring to Christ: “no one who sins has either seen him or known him.”  That seems to be an open and shut case!  Again, here’s Peterson.  “No one who lives deeply in Christ makes a practice of sin.  None of those who do practice sin have taken a good look at Christ.  They’ve got him all backward.”

The idea here is we’re looking at habitual sin—sin in which we constantly indulge.

Still, it feels to me like we’re too easily dismissing John’s point.  We’re too eager to take the easy way out in order to resolve conflicted feelings.  But maybe having those conflicted feelings is how it should be.  Dealing with the power of sin should not be thought of as easy!

How about verse 8?  “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.  The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”  Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.  Yikes!

I want to ask something I would guess you’ve never heard in a sermon.  Do we worship the devil?  (Granted, that’s not a typical All Saints’ Day question!)  In posing that question, I’m not talking about offering a slain goat as sacrifice, while uttering incantations.  It’s something a little more nuanced.

We can think of the devil as lord of this world, with the meaning of “world” as that which is impermanent, illusionary, counterfeit—promising something we already have.  Do we foolishly hold on to that?

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“God loves people who throw bedpans. God loves people who don’t.” (James Finley)

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.  William Loader says, “The language of destroying the works of the devil is talking about dealing with what does not come from love.”[3]  The devil is incapable of love.  We can think of worshiping the devil, being a child of the devil, if our lives do not demonstrate love.

But we need help in doing that.  All by ourselves, we can’t let the love flow.

Someone I really like is the priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in the first half of the 20th century.  He saw love at literally the heart of all things.  Here’s a prayer in which he confesses his failure to love:

“My God, I admit that for a long time I have been and still am [regrettably], unwilling to love my neighbor…  My God, make it so that I reflect your face to the lives of others…  Jesus, Savior of human activity, to whom you bring a reason to act, Savior of human suffering to whom you bring a value to life, be the salvation of human unity by forcing us to abandon our smallness and, with your support, to venture out onto the unknown ocean of charity,” the unknown ocean of love.[4]

How do we go with the flow of love?  What are ways in which we’re unloving?  On this All Saints’ Sunday, what can we learn from those who’ve gone before?  Is there anyone who comes to mind who’s been a source of that wisdom, someone who has seen and known Christ?

God even loves children of the devil, we who are saints and sinners.

5 saintsHere’s James Finley again, who says, “imagine your issues: you have a temper, all your life you struggle with your temper, and your last act on this earth is, you throw a bedpan and you die.  So you say: this is regrettable.  And it is regrettable, because you could hit somebody.  And you’re hoping for a better exit.  But the mystical insight is that God loves people who throw bedpans.  God loves people who don’t.”[5]

When we see and know Christ, bedpan-throwers and nonbedpan-throwers alike, we join in that number of the great cloud of witnesses.  And we will sing:

“Oh when the Saints go marching in / When the Saints go marching in / O Lord, I want to be in that number / When the Saints go marching in.

“We are traveling in the footsteps / Of those who’ve gone before / But we’ll all be reunited / On a new and sunlit shore.

“Oh when the Saints go marching in / When the Saints go marching in / O Lord, I want to be in that number / When the Saints go marching in.”

 

[1] Christopher McCauley, “Thomas Merton as Spiritual Director, Teacher, and Mystic: An Interview with James Finley” Presence 21:2 (June 2015): 11.

[2] Robert M. Brusic, “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season,” Word & World 17/2 (1997): 215.

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/BEpEaster3.htm

[4] in André Dupleix, 15 Days of Prayer with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Liguori, MO:  Liguori Publications, 1999), 31.

[5] Christopher McCauley, 10.


interwoven

A few years ago, Banu and I lived about a half hour’s drive from some Mennonite markets.  One time, I noticed a sign saying they would be closed for Ascension Day.  It’s always the Thursday forty days into the Easter season, so it was this past Thursday.

I told Banu I found it interesting that the Mennonites actually take the day off to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  For many of us, I imagine the day came and went this week without our even being aware of it.  That shouldn’t be entirely unexpected; Ascension is one of those days it’s hard to wrap our heads around.  Ascension—what the heck is that about, anyway?

1 ascension

In his gospel, here’s how St. Luke puts it: “Then [Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:50-53).

In ancient times, people tended to think of the universe as though it had three stories.  Some people still do.  We might imagine a three-story house.  The heavens were the top story, maybe the attic; our world was the first floor, and as for the underworld, as the name suggests, it’s down there below the surface.  It would be the basement.

Well, we’ve been in outer space, where there is no “up” or “down.”  And as for the nether regions, I once heard a traveling evangelist tell an interesting story about that.  He claimed workers in France doing deep well drilling made a bizarre discovery.  He said they could hear the screams of the doomed rising up to them!  Apparently, the location of hell is under France.

(I’m not so sure.  I think the evangelist’s comments were based on a subconscious aversion to the French!)

Anyway, today we wouldn’t describe the Ascension of the Lord as someone floating up into the sky.  We no longer perceive the cosmos in the “three story” way, as did the ancients.  We don’t see ourselves the same way.  You do realize we are mostly empty space?  At the atomic level, there are electrons spinning around the nucleus, like tiny solar systems.  Smaller and smaller particles are being discovered.  A few years ago, evidence of the speculative Higgs Boson particle was detected.

2 ascension

Going in the other direction, by using ever more powerful telescopes, we’re gazing deeper, toward the edge of the universe itself.  We’re looking at light that has taken billions of years to arrive at Earth.  (It appears we have a new “three story” image:  macrocosmic, mesocosmic, and microcosmic!)

Luke is speaking of the resurrection body of Christ.  Imagining the physics of that is enough to get your head spinning!  We might think of him as becoming interwoven with our space and time.  Earlier in chapter 24, that could be how he appears and disappears to the disciples at will.

However we conceive of it (and I won’t belabor the point), why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  I promise you—this isn’t just abstract theory.  This has very “real world” meaning for us.

There’s an Australian missiologist named Michael Frost.  At a conference in Budapest, Hungary, he said he’d spoken with some Christian surfers a few years earlier.[1]  When he asked who their favorite surfer was, he described it as “pandemonium.”  They were yelling different names, but he got them to narrow it down to Kelly Slater, who was described as the greatest surfer ever.  He was able to get them to describe him in detail.

3 ascensionThen he asked them to describe Jesus.  Aside from stuff like, “Son of God” and “died for our sins,” they couldn’t say very much.  Frost said he’s noticed the same thing in the church and even in the seminary where he teaches.  He’s noticed people being unable to talk about Jesus the person.

But as I watched the video of the conference, what really caught my attention was something else he said.  Frost spoke of a “spirituality of engagement.”  This is a spirituality of engagement as opposed to a spirituality of retreat, of withdrawing.  That is, retreating or withdrawing from the world.

It’s the idea that the only way to really connect with Christ is by retreating to worship services, or by going on retreats, or by going to places specifically labeled as “Christian.”  He doesn’t reject those experiences; he very strongly affirms them (as do I).  But he also emphasizes engaging with Christ in the world.

For those who care about connecting with Jesus, there can be the danger of living in a Christian “bubble.”  There’s the danger of not being able to see Jesus in the cinema, in art, in the workplace, in school, in science, in everyday life.  As he was talking about this stuff, it dawned on me that this is what Ascension is all about.

As the Nazarene professor Andy Johnson puts it, “our very flesh is constantly interchanging elements with the rest of the material universe.”  There’s that subatomic particle stuff again!  At that level of reality, it’s hard to draw a line between “us” (our bodies) and “not-us.”  Thinking about that theologically, with God’s raising the body of Jesus, “the redemption of the cosmos as a whole has begun.”[2]

(You know, the difficulty in seeing a line between “us” and “not-us” gives a whole new spin on describing people as “joined at the hip.”)

Because of the Ascension of the Lord, Jesus as the Christ is everywhere.  What that means is there are no “God-free” zones.  Nothing is truly godforsaken.

Frost also talks about “prevenient grace,” that is, the way God works prior to anyone’s action.  God extends grace before we decide to do this or that.  The question is not: “Will we bring God into a godless world?”  The question is: “Will we find out what God is already doing in the world and get involved?”  Again, there are no “God-free” zones.

So, here it is again, just in case what I’ve said isn’t crystal clear: why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  Why does Jesus say, in effect, “It’s time for me to fly!”?

Jesus must depart, because frankly, it’s time for the disciples to grow up.  In John 16, Jesus tells them, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (v. 7).  He’s told them they will do even greater things than he has done (Jn 14:12).

Without Jesus around, even the resurrected Jesus, the Spirit of Christ pervades—is interwoven—everywhere.  The Spirit of Christ indwells us.

It can be difficult to understand.  Earlier in Luke 24, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are downcast; they’re crestfallen.  Jesus comes up and speaks with them, though they don’t recognize him.  They say “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21).  But notice what happens.  “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

Now we have today’s scripture reading.  When he appears to the gathered group of disciples, he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44).

Our friend Andy Johnson points out, “the Old Testament never directly says that the Messiah will suffer, die, or be raised from the dead.”[3]  That’s true, and that’s why Jesus was such a problem, even for well-meaning people.  The disciples need to understand.  So Jesus repeats what he did on the road to Emmaus.  For the disciples who think they’re seeing a ghost, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45).

Johnson says, “Jesus begins reshaping their imagination, reshaping the categories they had used to make sense of what God was doing in their world.”  Their culture has shaped them to think in a certain way.  Then here comes Jesus, completely turning that stuff on its head!

There can be a difference between translating and interpreting.  When we translate, we go from one language to another.  For example, we take the English word “dog” and go to the Spanish word “perro,” or to the Turkish word “köpek.”  However, when we interpret, we assign meaning, and sometimes that meaning can be quite different from what we expect, or want, to hear!

For the disciples to understand who Jesus is, it will mean “reinterpreting the entire biblical narrative, ‘all the scriptures.’”[4]  Jesus knows what he has to do.  He has to open their minds.  He has to blow their minds.  He has to rock their world!

The disciples have their vision radically expanded, re-imagined.  They must learn “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (v. 47).  The old categories no longer work.  They can’t presume to “have” or “own” Jesus.

Can we think of ways in which we do that?  Is it possible others are turned away if and when we present Jesus as our property?  (I include myself in the question.)  Do we too rarely ask the question, “How can we as the church serve the community?”  Or do we too often wonder, “What can they do for us?”  Remember, there are no “God-free” zones.

Having said all that, I believe the desire to serve the community is in evidence here.  I believe it was evident on the day of the presbytery meeting.  You are building on the past and allowing a new vision to form.

In my sermon eight days ago, I quoted part of a prayer we used earlier in the service.  “Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”  I like that: empty slogans or senseless controversy.  (Not the slogans or controversies themselves, but being made aware of them!)

I also quoted our Book of Order’s warning about “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), and how that might appear in us.  Do we ignore prophets, avert our eyes from visions, and disregard the dreamers?  Possibly, but it looks like good progress is being made on encouraging the dreamers—paying attention to our own dreams.

ThinkingmanAre we pushing the boundaries, even as it dawns on us the ascended Christ is everywhere?  Therefore, do we understand that we are interwoven with everything around us?

Today’s affirmation of faith is based on Ephesians 1, which is the epistle reading for Ascension.  The end of it comes from verses 22 and 23.  God “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  The one whose body fills all in all.

We are the church of Jesus Christ, and the fullness of Christ fills us.  So, let us weave our stories into the visions that are forming and transforming us.  Let us not disregard the dreamers, but rather encourage each other in following our dreams.  The Spirit who has been promised gives us strength.  Like those first disciples who witnessed the Ascension, we can go out with joy.

 

[1] vimeo.com/22699742

[2] Andy Johnson, “Our God Reigns: The Body of the Risen Lord in Luke 24,” Word and World 22:2 (Spring 2002) 141.

[3] Johnson, 136.

[4] Johnson, 136.


matters of death and life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 matters

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

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

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

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

After the Lazarus event, nothing can be the same.

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

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

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

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

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

4 matters

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

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

 

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


gospel in the dark

How about Psalm 88 as a way to lift your spirits?  And then there’s John 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.”  Or as it’s more commonly rendered in the King James and other versions: “Jesus wept.”  After the scripture readings, saying, “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God,” might feel pretty strange!

There’s a song that is not in the blue hymnal which we use (The Presbyterian Hymnal), but it is in the older red hymnal (The Hymnbook).  It’s “Be Still, My Soul.”  It’s set to the wonderful tune, “Finlandia.”  The hymnal includes three verses, but it doesn’t have this one:

“Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, / And all is darkened in the vale of tears, / Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart, / Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears. / Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay / From His own fullness all He takes away.”[1]

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, and all is darkened in the vale of tears.  What a beautiful and haunting image: “the vale of tears,” the valley of tears.  It’s a somber description of our life in this mortal coil.  It’s omission from the hymnbook is a commentary on how we often reshape our singing and liturgy to avoid awkwardly acknowledging certain topics.

1 lamentStill, I think that song would be loved by those who are into Goth music!

There’s a prayer website called Sacred Space.  Among the things they post are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  I made a note of something that appeared some time ago.  It dealt with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects: death.  (At least, in my experience, when I’ve gone to parties, it’s not often a topic of conversation!)

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[2]

We’re told that in his book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland “remembers with regret how the family conspired to avoid the truth when his beloved Aunt Rose was dying.  ‘We knew—she knew—we knew she knew—she knew we knew—and none of us would talk about it when we were all together.  We kept up the charade to the end.  Aunt Rose was deprived, and so were we, of the coming together that should have been, when we might finally tell her what her life had given us.  In this sense, my Aunt Rose died alone.’”

I think there’s a parallel between how we often speak of death, and in a broader sense, of lamentation, expression of grief, in general.

2 lament

[The above image is from diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54142, “Angel of Grief.”]

That’s also seen in the worship of the church.  I just mentioned how we try to avoid those unpleasant realities in our hymns and liturgies.  The folks who put the lectionary together tended to leave out the problematic, uncomfortable verses.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Stuff like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” and “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (Ep 6:5, 1 Tm 2:12).  Admittedly, those need some big time work done to them!

Another good case is the story in 1 Kings 3, where it talks about Solomon’s dream, in which he asks God for wisdom (vv. 3-14).  God congratulates him for not asking that his enemies be killed or that he be made a wealthy man.

What conveniently gets skipped over is Solomon’s marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  My guess is that’s one of those awkward subjects!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in our lectionary.  Hint: Psalm 88 is one of them.  After listening to that litany of doom and gloom, maybe we can see why it got left out.

Still, one of the most treasured psalms, Psalm 22, is filled with anguish.  Jesus on the cross screams out its beginning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But it does have notes of hope, and by the time we get to the end, the psalmist announces, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

3 lamentSurely Psalm 88 follows the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (GNB).  Surely by the time we’re finished, we’ve worked out some kind of resolution.

Here’s how it ends in the NRSV: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (v. 18).  That doesn’t sound very much like praise.

I think some of the other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the NIV: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  I think the New Jerusalem Bible is even gloomier: “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  Friends, this is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.  It’s the only psalm in the Bible without one word of hope.

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of someone engaged in ridiculing or mocking.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh [Lord], God of my salvation.”[3]

Even though our psalm has no breath of blessing, it is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

4 lamentDominique Gilliard is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church; he’s the executive pastor of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland.  He wrote an article called “Reclaiming the Power of Lament.”[4]  It is a revelation.  It is a challenge.  And I think it’s a perfect meditation for the Lenten season.

“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.”  That goes along with our reluctance to even mention it.  Still, scripture is filled to the brim with lamentation.  Here’s just a taste: the book of Lamentations (of course), the book of Job, a huge number of the Psalms, Paul’s grief about his thorn in the flesh, and again, Jesus’ weeping.

Gilliard speaks about tragedies in our nation.  Among others, he mentions Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston.  The hits just keep on coming—and that’s not counting disasters all over the world.  They just wash over us until we can’t keep track.  In response to that, he says, “Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down…  Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world…  Lamentation begets revelation…  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world.”

Here’s something I find fascinating and challenging.  “To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  We lose touch with what makes us human.

5 lament

[A man in Ferguson, Missouri, holds on to a fence on August 15, 2014, at the site of a convenience store destroyed during rioting after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police.  Bigstock/Gino Santa Maria]

We don’t have to look very far for something to lament.  There is much in our lives to provide reason for mourning.  But we need not yield to despair.

Our friend Dominique hits on something.  “When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows.  It reminds us of our need for God, one another, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”

Our baptismal vows!  When the sacrament is celebrated, we “as members of the church of Jesus Christ,” are asked to “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those being baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”  We vow to be accountable to each other, to watch out for each other, as we walk the journey of faith.

Blest be the tie that binds.  “We share our mutual woes, / Our mutual burdens bear, / And often for each other flows / The sympathizing tear.”

And what about Jesus when he weeps?  Is he putting on a show?  Surely his understanding that he can raise Lazarus from the dead would prevent the need for tears.  Does he weep with empathy for Mary and Martha, because they are weeping?  Here’s my guess.  Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus, he still feels the pain himself.  After all, he is human!

If we also acknowledge that Jesus is the image, the icon, of God, that also says something.  Do we think of lamenting, of grieving, as weakness?  If so, so be it.  God laments.  At the end of the day, maybe that’s enough.  God’s weakness is greater than all the strength we can muster.  The weakness of God serves as a model for us.

Lent reminds us that we must pass through the valley of tears before we arrive at the resurrection.  We do not honor each other by ignoring the reality of lament.

In the book, Uncommon Gratitude, Joan Chittister says, “Darkness deserves gratitude.  It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”[5]

Think of the hymn, “Abide with Me.”  It’s listed in the section of our [Presbyterian] hymnal called “Evening Hymns.”  I imagine that’s due to the first lines.  “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.  The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!”  The hymn speaks of things in our lives which pass away.  But unlike our psalm, it ends on a strong note of praise and affirmation.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: / Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; / In life, in death, O Lord, / abide with me.”

As incredible as it is, deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  There is gospel in the dark.

 

[1] library.timelesstruths.org/music/Be_Still_My_Soul

[2] sacredspace.ie (26 Sep-2 Oct 2010)

[3] יהוה אלהי ישועתי (salvation-of-me, God-of, Yahweh)

[4] www.faithandleadership.com/dominique-d-gilliard-reclaiming-power-lament

[5] www.friendsofsilence.net/quote/2012/10/darkness-deserves-gratitude


are we ready?

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

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

1

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, this has been plucked out of its context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

Fear can also result in loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

Are we ready?

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

 

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

[2] Knight, 74.

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

[4] renovare.org/2016


from false life into true

Some people see the epilogue of Revelation, the final words of the Bible itself, as a grab bag of stuff that gets tossed in as an afterthought.  But there is a method to the author John’s madness.  He brings together images that he used earlier in the book, such as “Alpha and Omega” (v. 13, 1:8), the washing of robes (v. 14, 7:14), the morning star (v. 16, 2:28), among many others.

Something about our passage that I find interesting is what the lectionary compilers left out.  This often happens with the “problematic” verses.  When I see stuff that gets deleted, I just have to include it.  Verses 18 and 19, in which John cautions about messing around with the words in his book, are skipped over.

But before that, there’s verse 15, which is the flip side to the blessing which has just been pronounced on “those who wash their robes” (v. 14).  These are the ones granted access to the tree of life and entry to the city.  That is God’s new city, the new Jerusalem.

Here’s the sentence that gets the ax: “Outside [that is, outside the city gates] are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”  Saving the rest of the verse for later, it’s that last part—everyone who loves and practices falsehood—that jumps out at me.  The New Jerusalem Bible reads “everyone of false speech and false life.”  False speech and false life.

image from jayfnelson.files.wordpress.com

Let me tell a story I think might go along with that.

In November 1987, I was a student at Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida.  (It’s an Assemblies of God school; it’s now Southeastern University.)  Anyway, on most Friday nights, a group of us would go to Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa—at the time, it wasn’t exactly the most upscale part of town.  What we students did was street evangelism.

The night after Thanksgiving was my very first time going with the group to Tampa.  I doubt that I’d been on the street for more than five minutes when I encountered a man, maybe in his fifties, dressed in shabby clothes.  I walked right up to him and said, “Jesus loves you.”  Just like that.

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  We were Pentecostal students; I suppose we expected to see some dramatic changes every time we went there.  But with my very first person on my very first night, I did see something.

Upon hearing the name “Jesus,” the man started crying.  And as he sobbed, he poured out his heart.  He said that he’d once been a rich man; he’d had a job as a manager in some corporation.  Due to various things, in particular a drinking problem, he just frittered it all away.  But worse than losing his career, worse than losing all his money, was the fact that he had lost his family.  He told me that he wasn’t even sure where they were.  And he wondered if he could ever be forgiven—if he could ever be pardoned for living a false life, so to speak.

With an almost knee-jerk reaction, I said, “Jesus does forgive you.”  There, that ought to do it!  That ought to take care of him!  But for some reason, it didn’t.  My magic words failed to produce the intended effect!  I expected him to say, “Thank you” or “Get lost” or something like that.  But he said something very different.

“Do you forgive me?”  He was directing the question to me!  Somewhat taken aback, I was determined to provide what I considered to be a theologically correct response.  “Jesus forgives you.”

“No, no, no,” he groaned through his tears.  “Do you forgive me?”  To my anonymous friend, in that deserted parking lot on the evening after millions of Americans had gobbled turkey in the comfort of their homes, my talk of Jesus was an abstraction.  He needed a flesh-and-blood word.  So I said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he turned and shuffled away into the night.

When we hear the words a “false life,” the poor fellow I met in Tampa may come to mind.  Or we may imagine those who haven’t wound up on the street:  say, employers who abuse their employees and the environment.  Perhaps “false speech and false life” conjures up images of slick-talking salesmen, corrupt politicians, or that romantic interest of your youth who gave you hope—and then said, “I just want to be friends”!

Our friend John gives us examples of what he’s talking about.  In verse 15, he starts off with “dogs.”  Jews sometimes described Gentiles that way.  That may or may not be the way John is using it.  In any event, calling someone a dog is hardly a compliment.

The next word on the list, “sorcerers,” would seem to be a concern to those who don’t like Harry Potter!  The word in the Greek, φαρμακοι (pharmakoi), sheds a little more light.  Pharmakoi is the origin of our word “pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical.”  So John’s reference to “sorcerers” is also a reference to “drugs.”  There’s always been a link between drugs and sorcery.

Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for taking drugs, but I think I’m safe in saying that Americans are probably the most overmedicated people in the world.  Still, that kind of dependency contributes to the “falsity” that our scripture points to.

And then next on the list is “fornicators,” coming from the Greek word πορνοι (pornoi), which is the source of our word “pornography.”  We dehumanize each other in plenty of ways, and this is definitely one way it happens.

And then, with “murderers and idolaters,” we can think of the folks who physically do that.  Or, going a bit deeper, we can examine the presence of murder and idolatry within ourselves.  In John’s first letter, these are his final words:  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  Hint:  he isn’t talking about images of stone!  Idolatry is very much a part of the human condition.

In reality, we’re in danger of holding on to some, or all, of the qualities in verse 15.  There’s the intolerance and bigotry shown by the use of the word “dogs.”  Like sorcerers, we often try to manipulate God and others, with or without drugs.  We can be controlled by lusts of the body, motivated by grudges, and love the creation more than the Creator.

We all have the qualities that I’ve mentioned within us.  We might try to hide them or pretend that they don’t exist.  We begin to live a false life; a life which may seem healthy on the outside, but is sick on the inside.  We all need forgiveness, and we need to forgive each other.

In what’s sometimes called a “preview” of Pentecost, or the “first” Pentecost, Jesus gives power to his disciples.  In John 20, he breathes on them, and then says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (vv. 22-23).”  Maybe that’s what I was doing that night in Tampa!

By forgiving each other, we welcome the power of Christ.  We act on the words of that familiar prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  (Or substitute words to fit other versions.)  Some might say, “I’m not in debt to anybody here.”  To which, I would say:  sorry, but yes you are!  In Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that we owe each other love (vv. 8-10).

We’ve taken a look at what a false life could mean for us as individual persons.  How could a false life apply to a congregation?

There are a number of ways to approach this, but here’s an example.  My wife Banu and I attended a week-long retreat on interim pastor training.  We watched a video of the late Edwin Friedman.  He was talking about overcoming barriers to effective leadership, both clergy and lay leadership.

One of his comments was on the fallacy of expertise, which is an overemphasis on information and technique.  We can become paralyzed by incessantly gathering information before we take any meaningful action.

Friedman spoke of another barrier to effective leadership:  what he calls the fallacy of empathy, the ability to feel what others do.  Clearly, empathy itself is a good quality.  The problem comes when there’s an overemphasis on how people feel.  The hard truth is that not everyone is going to be happy with you, even if you’re doing your very best.  (Often it turns out, especially if you’re doing your very best!)

One way this is seen is when the most dependent members, the ones who have the least amount of self-regulation—the least amount of self-control—are the ones who are setting the agenda.  He made an interesting comment: organisms that lack self-regulation don’t learn from experience.  They don’t learn from their mistakes, their patterns of behavior, if they are constantly being enabled.

image from angermentor.com

Friedman had an observation about American society.  A key thing that is lacking, he said, is maturity.  And sadly, maturity is a quality often lacking in the church.  When we violate proper boundaries, we display a lack of maturity.  When we intrude on someone’s personal space, we display a lack of maturity.

Developing maturity is what we allow God to do in us through spiritual formation.

Prayer is a vital component of spiritual formation.  But guess what?  We are being spiritually formed all of the time.  It doesn’t just happen through what are often thought of as “spiritual” practices: like prayer, scripture reading, peacefully meditating.

We are also spiritually formed in the very “real world” activities in how we treat each other and how we work through issues.  Board meetings, committee meetings, are perfect places for spiritual formation.  We are spiritually formed in how we deal with conflict, which inevitably arises.

Conflict, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad.  We can deal with it in good and healthy ways—or in bad and destructive ways.

Hear verse 17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

God gives us the gift of love that helps us deal with false speech and false life.  Of course, by its very nature, love cannot be compelled.  It must be both freely offered and freely received.

So here’s a question: what do we do with that love?  Do we let it remain abstract, the way I was with the man on the street in Tampa?  Do we find ways to make it flesh-and-blood, praying for strength and courage, even in those board meetings, and beyond that, even when it seems like everything is lost?

That is what motivates John and his sisters and brothers with their faithful, hopeful, and joyful cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Come, lead us from false life into true.


Advent people

“We are living in Advent and are preparing the way for the Coming One.” (105)  Jürgen Moltmann, in his book A Broad Place, isn’t simply referring to the liturgical season of Advent.  He’s referring to life itself, especially the life of faith (and Christian life in particular).  He’s image from 2.bp.blogspot.com
exploring a theme from his classic work Theology of Hope from four decades earlier.  He says, “The foundation of hope is not utopia and the exploration of unknown future possibilities; it is the new beginning and the beginning of the new, here and now, today.”

Advent is possibly my favorite season in the church calendar, and still, somehow it eludes me.  It is always “not yet,” at least “not yet” for me.  I still have trouble wrapping my head and spirit around it.  I get the theology, the meaning, of it.  (Or at least I tell myself I do!)  But does it change the way I live?  Do I have the determined commitment to prepare the way?
 
The epistle reading for Year A of the 1st Sunday of Advent is from Romans 13.  St. Paul says that “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… …the night is far gone, the day is near” (vv. 11-12).  As Advent people, we are called to wake from our slumber.
image from 2.bp.blogspot.com
Maybe that’s why Advent seems so vague to me.  Am I too reluctant to “lay aside the works of darkness”?  We do need darkness to sleep—and sleeping is so comfortable.  (But sleeping through life!)  And our culture, with its shiny gadgets, and people filling us with fear, and reminding us of our duty to consume…

Advent says that now is the time to prepare the way.  Tomorrow never comes.


a really new covenant

 

In Jeremiah 31, we’re presented with a passage that appears later on this fall in the lectionary. But we’re talking about it now in our Bible study! In verse 31, here’s the prophet, speaking under the influence of the divine: “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.”

What is this new covenant? As a Christian, I’m familiar with the interpretation that telescopes this ahead six centuries to the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Still, how does this speak to Jeremiah and his audience? Are we to believe that it means nothing to them? If we can wrench it from its context, then why is Jeremiah risking life and limb to speak these words? (I should also note that I have similar complaints regarding the way the book of Revelation is treated.)

In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Walter Brueggemann says, “The ‘old’ covenant belongs to that Israelite community which through its sustained disobedience forfeited covenant with God, even as it lost the city of Jerusalem. The ‘new’ covenant now wrought by God also concerns the Israelite community. This is the community formed anew by God among exiles who are now transformed into a community of glad obedience.” (292)

This seems to fit with Jeremiah’s agenda. Up to this point in the book, we’ve heard warnings about impending invasion and exile by the Babylonians. Now, in chapters 30 and 31 (some extend it to chapter 33), we have the so-called “Book of Comfort.” The prophet is stating that the worst is almost past. God is about to do a new thing. But it’s not because the people—including those in exile—have done something to bring this about. It is a completely voluntary act on God’s part; it’s an act of grace.

Again, Brueggemann: “All the newness is possible because Yahweh has forgiven. Indeed, beginning again in and after exile depends upon Yahweh’s willingness to break out of a system of rewards and punishments, for the affront of Israel and Judah could never be satisfied by punishment. God has broken the vicious cycle of sin and punishment; it is this broken cycle that permits Israel to begin again at a different place with new possibility. This is an uncommon statement, utterly Jewish, utterly grace-filled; upon it hangs the whole of reconstituted Judaism out of exile. Jewish faith is deeply rooted in forgiveness.” (294)

“It is of course possible to read this in terms of Jewish triumphalism, but such is not the intent of the text. Indeed, the text invites Jews (and belatedly Christians and others) to stand in grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness, to receive it, and to take from it a new, regenerated life. Thus the promise occasions no arrogance or pride, but only genuine gratitude.” (295)

Imagine how our world would look if we lived lives of grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness!