Leviticus

the gift of repentance

I imagine we have occasionally come upon some characters dressed in unusual garb, professing to have a word from God.  They often are dressed in robes, crying out their appeals / commands.

I recall one such individual, who was poised on a traffic island in downtown Nashville.  He was wearing a sign bearing the message, “Repent in the raw.  Nudist Christians.”  If my recollection of the fellow is accurate, it seemed underneath the sign, he was wearing no shirt.  However, he did have on some pants.

Below the delightful invitation was a phone number.  I didn’t bother memorizing it.  I had no intention to follow up and get more information on his group.

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[photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash]

The nudist fellow aside, the call to repent is usually understood to be a stern warning.  It’s a demand to get your act together!  If you have ever encountered any of those oddballs on the sidewalks, it would be easy to get that idea.  Or maybe you’ve been in church with a wild-eyed preacher pointing and shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!”

The fellow in Matthew 3 could fit the bill.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (vv. 1-2).  He seems to be a rather formidable force, with a bit of fanatic thrown in, at least according to polite society.

“In those days” he appears.  No particular time period is intended.  We might think of life going on as normal, when suddenly this prophetic figure arises.  It happens in the wilderness—a region “off the grid,” so to speak.  The reason for repentance is due to the kingdom of heaven as drawing near, as being at hand.

It’s right here, within our grasp.  The pure of heart are graced, as the gospel later tells us, to “see God” (5:8).  The kingdom can be sensed in moments of awe.

We’re told John is prefigured by Isaiah with the message, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (v. 3).  By this time, those in the Jewish faith had come to see this as a messianic scripture, a reference to the end times when the Messiah will establish universal peace.  There’s a slightly different spin from Isaiah 40, which says, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Being in the desert, in the wilderness, is far from the structures erected by human ingenuity.  Having said that, the wilderness is less about outward structures than it is about inward ones.  The desert is a place of utter openness, of exposure that is complete vulnerability.

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[photo by Ahmad Ardity on Pixabay]

The clothing of John the Baptist has been an inspiration for those characters I mentioned earlier.  It’s not exactly what would be seen on the runways of fashion capitals around the world.

How about his menu, consisting of locusts and wild honey?  In Leviticus 11, which deals with ritually clean and unclean food, “locusts of every kind” are pronounced kosher (v. 22).

On a side note, locusts have been and are still eaten in many parts of the world.  They are rich in protein, and can be prepared in many different ways, including frying in olive oil, perhaps with a dusting of salt and spices.  They are a tasty and crunchy biblical food!  So accompanied with wild honey (as opposed to the product of domestic bees) we have a combination of savory and sweet.

3With verses 5 and 6, we see why John is at the Jordan.  He’s baptizing folks from near and far.  They are confessing their sins, heeding the call for repentance.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says of him, “When John waded into the water with people, he was cleaning them up for their audience with God, which he believed would take place very soon. He begged them to change their lives in preparation for that event, and he was not below scaring them half to death if that was what it took.”[1]

That especially applied to the Pharisees and Sadducees who approached him, who he referred to as a “brood of vipers” (v. 7).  John compares them to snakes fleeing a fire.  In doing so, he’s hardly saying their ministry and leadership are based on such noble and godly qualities like love and concern for the people.

He warns them against relying on their status as sons of Abraham.  Quit acting like big shots.  Demonstrate a conscientious desire to serve the Lord.

Taylor continues, saying John “offered to hose them down, if they were willing.  If they could come out of their comas long enough to see what was wrong and say so out loud, then he would wash it away for them, forever.  Or God would.  The same God who could make children of Abraham out of river rocks could make children of God out of them right there, if they were willing.  All they had to do was consent, repent, return to the Lord and they could start their lives all over again before they even dried off.”[2]

That was an amazing gift.  “The past would lose its power over them.  What they had done, what they had said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives.”

Too often we want to hold on to the past, even a past that was destructive and hurtful.  Have there been voices in our head telling us, “You’re dumb.  You’re ugly.  You’re worthless.  You’re an embarrassment”?  Or maybe we’ve inflicted that kind of pain on others, possibly without even intending to.

“As scary as John was,” says Taylor, “it was a pretty great offer.  No wonder people walked days to get to him.  No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again.  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them.  We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.”[3]

Remember the wild-eyed guy I mentioned yelling, “Repent, ye sinners”?  As just noted, where we hear a threat, they hear a promise.  That goes to my title: the gift of repentance.  If that sounds counter-intuitive, please know there are scriptures in the Bible making that very point.  I could cite several, but I’ll just give one from both Old and New Testaments.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks the word of the Lord to the people in exile in Babylon.  They are promised return and restoration.  “A new heart I will give you,” says the Lord, “and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).  They are promised outer restoration (their nation), and inner restoration (their spirit).

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In the New Testament, Peter is describing to his fellow Jews how God directed him to go to the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius.  Understand, Jews were forbidden to visit Gentiles—and certainly not to sit down and eat with them!  Peter said, “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” that is, on the day of Pentecost (Ac 11:15).  How do they react?  “When they heard this, they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (v. 18).

The Gentiles received the gift of repentance.  Do we also not play a role in that?  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Repentance leads to life.  The chains of death and darkness are shattered, torn asunder.  We are set free from the power of sin.  We are slaves no more.

However, having those shackles removed doesn’t mean we won’t be aching to put them on again.  Sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  Sometimes we like being stuck in the mud.  The hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” cries out the plea, “Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be.”  Poor wretched creatures that we are, we are prone to not only choosing sin, but loving it.

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We don’t want to give up the fun of spreading rumors or talking smack behind somebody’s back.  Why forego the enjoyment of berating the driver who cut us off in traffic?  Why is it called road rage when it’s such a thrill?  Why deprive ourselves of the pleasure found in getting revenge, which is a dish best served cold?

Worst of all, we too often refuse the love of God, who calls us to do the things—or calls us to love the ones—we would rather not do.  We might even notice our ignoring Ezekiel’s caution about hearts turning to stone.

Repentance is indeed a gift, but it also must be sought.  Without a desire to change, without a desire to know Jesus more deeply, there is no repentance.

John is baptizing, but he knows very well it’s not about him.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).  Now he really sounds like that wild man from the wilderness.

If John the Baptist hoses you down, the one to come (a perfect image for Advent) sets you on fire.  Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He wields a winnowing fork, throwing the wheat into the air and allowing the breeze to blow away the debris.

The chaff will be consumed by flame.  It takes up space but contributes very little.  It’s not terribly nutritious.  It provides some empty calories, so to speak.

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There is chaff within us to be burned away.  (I’m addressing this to myself more than to anyone.)  It can be quite painful; burning usually is!  As noted before, sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  We want to remain stuck.  We love our sin.  And to submit to it being wrenched away feels like we’re losing part of ourselves.  And guess what?  It’s true, and it needs to go.

Once we let that stuff go, we find a liberty we couldn’t imagine.  A burden is lifted.  Dare we look inside and have the courage to face it?

We are freed to love and serve whose advent is nigh, Jesus Christ, the one who comes to us.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Journal for Preachers, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” 21:1 (Advent 1997), 16.

[2] Taylor, 16.

[3] Taylor, 17.


table manners

Enriched flour (composed of wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid), soybean oil with TBHQ for freshness (by the way, TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone), sugar, salt, leavening (which in turn contains sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, and monocalcium phosphate), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy lecithin.

Would anyone care to guess what this list is all about?  Well, it’s the list of ingredients on a box of Keebler Club Crackers.

In recent years, there has been increasing attention to the food that Americans eat, especially the highly processed food we consume.  There’s a witches’ brew of chemicals—some benign, some quite harmful—all mixed up in it, along with added salt and sugar.

Some time ago, I saw an interview with a retired lieutenant general who said the number one reason that people are refused admission to the armed forces is because they’re too overweight.  On a side note, he said something I had never heard before.  In the 1940s, one of the main reasons for Americans being refused admission was malnourishment.  The military considered it to be a question of national security, so it pushed for the free lunch program in public schools.

Maybe it will take the military to push the food industry, and all of us, to get our act together and quit eating so much junk food!  (Although, what can I say?  I do like cookies.)

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Throughout history, cultures have addressed the stuff we put into our bodies in a multitude of ways.  What one group of people rejects as vile and disgusting is considered by others to be a treat that is absolutely scrumptious!

Ancient Israelites and modern-day Jews provide a classic example of distinctions in food.  Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 go into some detail.

These laws regarding what is proper and improper, what is ritually clean and unclean, to eat—they’re just part of a whole vision of life.  Along with birth, death, sex, economics, and everything but the kitchen sink, instructions about food demonstrate the way the people of Israel, who are called to holiness, should live.  In fact, the last part of Leviticus, starting with chapter 17, is referred to as the Holiness Code.

But maybe you’re wondering, “What is all this talk about food?  To remind us to eat healthy?”  Okay, that’s part of it.  Still, what we consume helps to define us.  You know, you are what you eat?  It may be largely an accident of geography, but different cultures are associated with certain kinds of food.  Thinking of cuisine, what comes to mind when I say Chinese…or Mexican…or Turkish?

However, there are other factors when it comes to eating.  What we eat can reflect many values, be they religious, political, ecological, or whatever.

So what’s going on with Peter in Acts 11?  It looks like he’s behaving—and eating—the way he’s supposed to.  It looks like he’s doing his very best to avoid food that is ritually unclean.  He hasn’t defiled himself by eating improper stuff; he has kept kosher.  But then, he has a vision!  (More on that in a moment.)

In chapter 10, we’re told the story of Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea.  He’s what people refer to as a “God-fearer.”  God-fearers are Gentiles attracted by the Jewish faith and who live according to its principles.  The Bible calls Cornelius “devout”; he gives alms generously and observes the hours of prayer (v. 2).

During one of these times of prayer, an angel appears to him, telling him to send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, about 30 miles down the coast.  He has a message that Cornelius needs to hear.  It just so happens, as Peter re-tells the story in chapter 11, that while he’s been praying, Cornelius’ guys show up.  And he has quite a story of his own!

It seems that he’s had a vision of “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” which contains animals of all kinds (v. 5).  Peter sees critters with feet that run, wings that flap, and scales that are…just scaly!  (This is not a vegetarian friendly vision!)  The heavenly voice rings the dinner bell, and says, “Come and get it!”

As I suggested a moment ago, there are plenty of items on the menu that have Peter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks!”  Then we’re told this: “a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven” (vv. 9-10).  It came from heaven.  That’s an interesting origin for all of this unclean stuff!

When Peter’s Gentile visitors arrive and tell him about Cornelius, something clicks inside him: one of those “a-ha” moments.  And after he returns with them, as he is speaking, he says that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (v. 15).

What has happened to Peter?  Dan Clendenin frames it like so, how “the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually ‘clean’ who considered themselves close to God, and the ‘unclean’ who were shunned as impure sinners far from God.  Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated.”[1]

So in case you haven’t figured this out by now, this isn’t about food; it’s about people.  Notice the language of verse 3; look at how Peter is confronted.  The Good News Bible puts it this way: “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”  Peter, what in the world were you thinking?

Clendenin goes on, “In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and perhaps even actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.  And as Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, Jesus asked him to do the same.”

Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  It’s obvious that we do have differences and distinctions but encouraging the ones that crush human life are not to be tolerated.

On that note about differences, there’s the story about the student who is speaking with the rabbi.  “Teacher,” he says, “you have told us that we are all made in the image of God.”  “That’s right,” the rabbi responds.  The student asks, “Then why do people come in so many different colors, have so many different sizes, and have so many different customs?”  The rabbi answers, “Because we are all made in the image of God.”

2 ac

Just like anything that is alive, our identity continues to change—one would hope becoming bigger in heart and spirit.  Think about it.  Do we describe ourselves the same way as we did when we were children?  (I hope not!  I hope we’ve learned a few things!)  What about when we were teenagers?  And through adulthood, our identity continues to evolve.

That’s where the church is in Acts 11.  They have to decide if they will let themselves grow in identity—who they say they are, how they define themselves—or will they turn inward?  When Banu and I did interim pastor training, that was something we were called to encourage, discovering and renewing your identity, at the individual level and at the congregational level.  We forget who we are, and we forget that we need to continue moving.

Remember, this isn’t something that Peter has welcomed.  He has struggled against this expansion of his vision.  (It had to happen three times, which is always a good symbolic number.)  But despite his resistance, he realizes that this change in table manners is a good thing!

What about us?  Do we need a change in table manners?

Do we have any purity laws of our own, ones that crush human life?  Do we have any convenient rules we rely on to avoid the love-affirming, community-building, Holy Spirit-obeying way of life we know we should follow?  Are there any people, or groups of people, that we think of as unworthy—and we move heaven and earth to avoid?  (I include myself in this!)

I don’t know the answer to all those questions.  I suspect that, if we’re honest with ourselves, much of it is true.

“A second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”  The New Testament church has to deal with this again:  “Who do we welcome to the table?”  That’s something I’ve been hearing from Banu in recent times: who is at my table?  That’s a good question for all of us.  Who is at our table?

What is it within us that seeks to exclude?  What is it that we regard with fear and loathing?  Who is it that we regard with fear and loathing?

Remember, as I said earlier, Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  As I said in the story about the student and the rabbi, God creates us with differences and diversities; we just need to not encourage the ones that lead us away from love.

I want to finish with a Polynesian prayer of confession of sin.

“Lord, you have made us known to friends we did not know, and you have given us seats in homes which are not our own.  You have brought the distant near—and made brothers and sisters of strangers.  Forgive us, Lord… we did not introduce you.”

Thanks be to God, who is always willing to teach us table manners!

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070430JJ.shtml


the ravine of blackest shadow

If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms.  Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of.  But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version.  (People often request this psalm for funerals.  For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)

One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.”  That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful.  It’s not as artistic.  The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.”  Friends, that’s pretty dark!

1 ps

Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm.  That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.

However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow.  And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!

A quick lesson in Hebrew might help.  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants.  The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later.  Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words.  Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.”  Same consonants, different vowels.

Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand.  Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read.  A dot might be misplaced.  That could change the pronunciation and the meaning.  It’s possible that happened here.

The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i).  With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.”  In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.

We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place.  We are on a journey, and we are not alone.  The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else.  Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us.  And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.

2 ps

So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship.  I used a funeral service as a case in point.  I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically.  Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm.  But all that stuff isn’t enough.  We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.

Again, on the point of funerals.  I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier.  She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month.  She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.

She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks.  After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back.  Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.

I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up.  She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.

Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.

What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host?  What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack?  And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies?  What response does it encourage or require?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction.  “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light” (5:8).  If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).

Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative.  They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile.  Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.

Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies.  Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!”[1]  It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!

But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.”  In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given?  I have security through advanced firepower?  Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?

3 psOr maybe is it “for you are with me”?  Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability.  Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”

It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God.  It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6).  By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.”[2]  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this.  But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God?  Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”?  There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms.  The Lord could be vindicating his servant.

And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word.  The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.”  The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23).  It’s almost always used in a military context.  Someone is being hunted down.

One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14).  I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.

I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful.  I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking.  And I haven’t lifted a finger to help.  I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide.  I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven.  I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.

Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  He has a fitting thought for the Easter season.  “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past.  There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death.  Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.”[3]

Here’s a question.  What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave?  What about that?  What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?

That leads to another question.  When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that?  What is an entirely different order?  I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.

Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.”[4]  When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised.  Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves.  That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit.  We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.

Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper.  “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.”  I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be.  When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.

4 ps

When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God.  We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death.  We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/article/you-prepare-a-table-for-me-psalms-23/

[2] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981), 199.

[3] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004), 23.

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


vital virus?

“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (Leviticus 25:3-5)

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It seems that, with caring for the earth, there was a guarantee it would still produce what people needed for life.  “You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath.”  Such was the sabbatical year.  Leviticus 25:8-55 outlines an early version of land reform.  It was the year of jubilee.  It was the sabbath after the fiftieth year (7 years times 7 years).  Debts were to be forgiven.  Slaves were to be freed.  And most of all, land that was sold was to revert back to the original owners.

In her article, “When Earth Demands Sabbath: Learning from the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Leah Schade notes, “In the 50th year they were commanded to take care of each other.  No interest charged on debts. No price-gouging. ‘If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them,’ (25:35).  The working poor are to be released from their debts.  Everyone is set free, including the very Earth itself.”

What is the justification for this reordering of priorities?  “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (v. 23).  Here is God’s message to us:  The land belongs to me.  The earth belongs to me.  You are the caretakers.

3 blogIn my Old Testament classes at Bible college and seminary, when the year of jubilee was discussed, there seemed to be a consensus that it was never observed.  Maybe it was felt that God couldn’t be trusted.  Maybe there was a fear about what it would do to the economy!

It’s interesting that this month marks the 50th year after the inauguration of Earth Day in 1970.  What kind of jubilee could it be?

The coronavirus is forcing an economic slowdown.  This slowdown has had dire effects, leaving millions around the world jobless.  And yet, it is not without any beneficial qualities.  It’s been observed that, in some places, pollution levels are falling.

For a long time, I’ve wondered about the measure of economic health as being growth of the economy.  A faster rate of growth is better than a slower one.  What is “growth”?  Is it increasing our use of the earth’s resources?  Is it, contrary to the vision of the sabbatical year, not allowing the land to recover—not allowing it to breathe?

2 blogSchade reflects on this mania of growth.  “In the human body, cells that grow without rest, consume all surrounding resources, and take over the system are called ‘malignant’ because they lead to death.  The kind of growth envisioned by our consumerist culture is, indeed, leading to death.  Whether it’s a microscopic virus that erupts when humans refuse to respect the wildness of land or creatures, or monster storms super-pumped by global warming that churn across the land, the results are catastrophic in biblical proportions.”  Runaway growth of human cells is called cancer.

4 blogWe are literally sickening our planet.  We have given it scars.  It’s almost like we need life to emerge from death!

A lesson from the Easter event is that the one who is the resurrection still bears scars.  As the hymn says, “Rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.”  Scars do not prevent thriving—and thriving in a way never believed possible.

The year of jubilee is about healing.  Does it take a virus to bring it about?


offering with Spirit

Here’s a newsflash: churches do things differently, and that includes passing the plate.  In the Assemblies of God (where I had my first life-changing experience of church), and other churches, the language of an annual pledge for giving isn’t often heard.  At least, I didn’t hear it.  I became more used to hearing things like, “Give what the Lord lays on your heart.”  Sometimes I heard calls for a literal tithe, ten percent, to be offered for the work of the church.  (Some people debated if it should be before taxes or after taxes!)

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Something else I heard of on a fairly regular basis was the “prosperity gospel,” or prosperity theology.  It is especially demonstrated by many televangelists.  It’s the idea that God financially rewards those who have enough faith.  Sometimes preachers will refer to giving to their ministry as sowing seeds.  The more you sow, the greater the harvest you will reap.  Oh, and you might hear, “God has promised me a private jet.  I need this jet.  Will you believe with me and stand on the promise of God and support us in this vital mission to spread the gospel all over the nation and all over the world?”

(By the way, we’ll come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings!)

We Presbyterians (and others in the so-called mainline churches) aren’t exposed to the prosperity gospel quite so much.  Still, it’s really not anything new.  It’s even in the Bible—though not that anyone prayed for a jet.  Take Job, for example.  When he lost all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and then suffered the loss of all his children, and then his health, his friends concluded he must have sinned.  (Actually, that was after he professed his innocence.)  He must have done something wrong.  If he would only repent, he might see the return of his fortune.

There is something in the human spirit that drives us, that impels us, to please a God who apparently, in an almost whimsical, capricious fashion, will withhold blessing if we don’t measure up.  We are put on the scales, and if we are found wanting, then something will be taken away.

One more note about Job.  If you skip to the final chapter, we see that the Lord is angry with Job’s friends.  “[Y]ou have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  The idea that God acts like a vending machine—insert money and a goody comes out—is upended; it is rejected.

2 lvIf that’s true, then what do we do with scriptures throughout the Bible that mandate giving to God in order to find blessing?

Let’s go back thousands and thousands of years ago, when humans began to have some awareness of a reality beyond them, when they eventually began to worship deities.  Sacrifices were deemed necessary to guarantee good hunting, to ensure healthy crops, to assure health for themselves.  It’s the vending machine mentality.

And as we’ve already seen, that mentality, that spirituality, does appear in the scriptures.  There is indeed a tug of war, a back and forth, a struggle to walk the path.  There is the vending machine.  Yet contrary to that, there is the call to act in faith, to act in faithfulness, to act in gratitude, to be thankful.

In particular, the prophets denounce the approach of offering the proper gift, saying the proper words, going through the proper motions, but without it coming from the heart.  The outward form of worship, without a concern for holiness, for justice, for love, is useless and empty.

That’s true with the call for the first fruits in Leviticus 23.  The word of the Lord comes to the people: “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.  He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance.” (vv. 10-11).

If it feels like we’re still in transition from the “give to the deity, so that you may get back” mentality, that would not be totally wrong.  In the following verses, it is stipulated what’s involved in bringing the first fruits.  Along with the sheaf, a lamb is to be brought for sacrifice, a lamb “without blemish.”  There is also a grain offering, one of “choice flour.”  Translation: if you are to give to God, then you are to give your best.

I wonder if that applies to donations.  We’ve all done this, haven’t we?  You know, you’re going through your belongings and deciding what to give away.  There’s the “donate” bin and the “trash” bin.  Sometimes you get them mixed up—no big deal.  It’s going to the thrift store; they don’t know the difference!

3 lvHere’s a crazy thought: what about buying brand new items and donating them!

But back to the sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest.  Just a few verses later we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (v. 22).

Wouldn’t that fit into the category of performing the proper form of worship and pursuing a concern for holiness, for justice, for love?  By not hoarding every scrap of produce, of product, there is an effort made to provide for everyone.  By not maintaining a mercenary economy—by building into the system care for the poor and the alien—holiness, justice, and love are given at least an equal standing with the profit margin.

Along with the poor, there is the alien, the foreigner, who is valued as a member of society.  The foreigner is to be held in esteem.  The refugee is to be held in esteem.

Pointing out how God’s peace is found in these structures of laws of worship is part of what prophets do.  Among the various approaches that can be used, there is one that seems to have greater meaning and effect.  Richard Rohr addresses this.[1]

“Prophets, by their very nature,” he says, “cannot be at the center of any social structure.  Rather, they are ‘on the edge of the inside.’  They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either.  A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important.  Jesus did this masterfully…”  We will see an example of that in a few moments.

Rohr continues, “Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.  A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice.  This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.”

The prophets want their traditions to expand, evolve, and frankly, just get better.

In the New Testament era, we see the apostle Paul model this approach.  He calls himself “a Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Ac 23:6).  He is “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Ph 3:5).  He is thoroughly educated in and familiar with the system.  He is also able to see where the system falls short, indeed, how it can crush people.  The vision of Jesus the apostle Paul has enlightens him to these truths.

4 lvIn Acts 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the leaders of the church in Ephesus.  He has lived there almost three years.  They are heartbroken at the news he is leaving them.

Among his final words are the reminder that he commends them to God and to the message, the good news, which will build them up.  He also reminds them, “I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions” (v. 34).  Paul gives them a challenge.  “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (v. 35).  He shows the proper use of money and resources.  As with the first fruits of the Hebrews, the harvest must benefit all.

And then, he finishes the thought with “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

If you do some checking, you’ll find that these words appear nowhere in the gospels.  They’re more in tenor with Jesus’ overall teachings.  For example, in Luke 6 when Jesus is talking about loving one’s enemies, he says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great” (v. 35).

Obviously, the few writings we have about Jesus do not contain everything he said.  These words of wisdom are among them.

Toward the end of John’s gospel, we have the modest statement, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).  There isn’t enough room in all the world!  I think there might be a tiny bit of exaggeration at work.

We do have some of Jesus’ words, and they continue our theme on money and its uses, for good and for ill.  They appear at the beginning of Luke 21, and they go like this:

“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (vv. 1-4).

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In Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped, he brings up this story of the poor widow.[2]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  Indeed, she is left destitute.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church who shows up while they’re having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Now that’s the kind of guy you want at a Bible study!

But it’s true.  Those other folks, in terms of the amount of money they’re giving, are doing a great deal.  But when you look at percentages of what they have, it’s almost a pittance, a drop in the bucket.

Here’s where we come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structures that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.  Think of the poor souls who are swindled by the prosperity preachers.

Still, we need not go to the extremes of people being bullied or scammed.  We can expand our vision and ask, as noted earlier, is money offered in a spirit of holiness, justice, and love?  Do we share our resources in that spirit?

We could come at those questions from many different angles, but I would like to make an observation from these last few days.  Actually, it’s not my observation, but that of one of the mothers of the dance students who have been staying at the PERC [Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center].  She wrote down her thoughts in a letter, and I’m quoting part of it.  (She gave me permission!)

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[This photo was not taken in the summer!]

She speaks of last year having been “in a pretty rough place mentally and emotionally.”  But then she underwent “a transformation,” and a big part of that was “the respite [she] was given at the PERC.  There is a peace that exists at the mansion that is nothing short of healing.  It is home and family and rest.”

She says she couldn’t wait to come back this year, noting, “Toxicity has a way of creeping in while going through daily life.  I needed to come to refocus and renew.  I needed my whole family to have that opportunity as well, because I can describe my experience all I want, but that doesn’t lead to understanding.”

When her family returned this summer, they were offered lodging that was, let’s say, underwhelming.  Reflecting on that, she notes, “When I knew that we needed to have a different experience than what we arrived to, I knew I could just make a phone call and be welcomed with open arms.”

Here’s how she finishes: “The PERC is not just a building, there is a presence there that is palpable.”

Friends, that is what sacred space is all about.  Sometimes we need to get out of the way and allow the Spirit in to create that sacred space.  We are seeing that happen at the PERC.  We are seeing that happen right here.

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Give with holiness, justice, and love.  Give what the Lord lays on your heart.  Amen!

 

[1] cac.org/the-edge-of-the-inside-2019-07-09

[2] www.dougpagitt.com/writing


pink and purple

I am a fan of the NFL.  (I’m especially a fan since last week, when the Dallas Cowboys had a last second win over Detroit!)

If you are not an NFL fan, you might not realize that for several years, the league observed Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is this month.  One of the more obvious ways it did this was by festooning the field, uniforms, and graphics with pink.  This happened all through the month.  Pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness appeared all over the place.  Last season, the NFL expanded awareness to other types of cancer, with the motto “Crucial Catch.”

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Aside from dressing football players in pink—and focusing awareness on breast and other kinds of cancer—October is the month for another kind of awareness.  It is for domestic violence.  And by the way, that campaign has purple as its color.  (Purple is my favorite color, so I’m often dressed in purple, as opposed to pink.)

Still, acknowledging that kind of awareness in October would be a tricky proposition for the NFL.  The league, although making some minor steps on the issue, is just that—minor steps.  Players have tended to get in more trouble for smoking marijuana than for beating their wives or girlfriends.

The scripture readings deal with the issue from different angles.  They aren’t precisely about domestic violence, but they do address the mentality from which it flows.

For example, there’s the book of Esther.  There were debates about whether or not it should be in the canon.  One reason was the lack of any reference to God.  (There were later additions which had many mentions of God.)  But I’m glad it’s there.  It’s such a crazy book, and it is plumb full of biting humor, sarcasm in the service of the Holy One.

Chapter 1 deals with events before Esther enters the story.  All of the men, starting with King Ahasuerus (who in Greek is known as Xerxes), are portrayed as buffoons.  Queen Vashti, as they say, is the only adult in the room.

The story is told with over-the-top exaggeration.  The king has military and government officials gather from throughout his vast empire.  He wants to show the place to everyone.  So what if it takes half of a year?  Finally, it’s dinnertime.  Everyone, loosen your belt; we’re having a seven day banquet!  Folks are sprawled all over elegant couches, and oh, the drinking.  The goblets are overflowing; there is guzzling without restraint.

2 esOn the seventh day, the king is drunk as a skunk—no, drunker than a skunk.  He issues an order that Queen Vashti be brought in.  He wants to show her off to the boys.  You know, she is pretty hot.  But guess what?  She gives him a big fat “no.”  Apparently, she doesn’t think of herself as his property.  That doesn’t go over very well.  The scripture says, “At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him” (v. 12).

What to do?  Xerxes consults the experts in the law, and here’s their response: because of her outrageous conduct, the queen should be removed.  But that’s not the only reason, and it’s not the best reason.  When all the women hear about this, they will “look with contempt on their husbands” (v. 17).  And what will be the result?  Here’s my favorite verse in the entire chapter: “This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (v. 18).  For me, that’s one of those “laugh out loud” moments.

Have you ever heard the slogan, “Well behaved women seldom make history”?  Well, here’s a good case in point.

I like the way some other people have translated it.  Check out Carey Moore’s take on it.  “So, this same day those ladies of the Persians and Medes who have heard about the queen’s conduct shall show themselves obstinate to all the king’s officials; and there will be contempt and anger to spare!”[1]

And how about the way it’s put in Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  “The day the wives of the Persian and Mede officials get wind of the queen’s insolence, they’ll be out of control.  Is that what we want, a country of angry women who don’t know their place?”

I told you they were behaving like buffoons, to put it very lightly.

So the letters go out, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house” (v. 22).  King of the castle!

3 esOne more note before we leave this ridiculous tale.  As we begin chapter 2, we’re told his servants propose finding beautiful young virgins from throughout the empire and bringing them to his harem.  They will undergo a regimen of cosmetic treatments, and the king can select the one who pleases him the most.  So the proposal is a beauty pageant.  Jon Levenson describes it as “The Search for Miss Persia.”[2]

You have to pity the king.  He truly agonizes over the decision, but grudgingly agrees.  Yes, he’ll bite the bullet and take the most stunning young female in all the land.

Lest you think I’ve strayed by giving too much attention to these foolish fellows, I did say this mentality is what leads to violence against women.

Our gospel reading in John 8 is more specifically concerned with physical violence.  It’s a really insane story.  Some scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus and tell him that she was caught “in the very act of committing adultery” (v. 4).  We aren’t told how she was caught.  I hope we’re not dealing with peeping toms.

They want to test Jesus.  They remind him “in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?” (v. 5).

They’re referring to Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22.  What they conveniently leave out is that those scriptures also call for the man to be executed.  I’m sure it just slipped their minds!  And by the way, where is the gentleman involved in this little escapade?  I guess it also slipped their minds to bring him along!

As for the rest of the story, Jesus simply bends down and starts writing on the ground with his finger.  I’ve heard various theories on what he’s writing.  Some say he’s writing the names of the men there.  Some say he’s listing their wrongdoings.  No one really knows.  Maybe he’s just doodling while they continue to badger him and just blather on.

Eventually he just says if anyone among them is without sin, be my guest and throw the first stone.  Then he goes back to doodling, and everybody takes off.  No one condemns the woman, and Jesus says that he doesn’t condemn her, either.  It’s true that you sinned; just don’t do it again.

With his approach, Jesus helps the men see their attitude of hate and violence toward the woman.  He’s holding up a mirror to their culture of violence.  Whether or not they actually learn the lesson is another matter.

We also are part of a culture of violence.  And going with this month’s theme, it’s violence against women and girls.  A culture of violence encompasses more than overt physical or sexual violence.  It can be latent, not readily seen.  Among other things, it includes an atmosphere of harassment or intimidation.  Shockingly enough, that also includes the church.  It can even happen in a church building.  (Who would have thought?)

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Alaina Kleinbeck

Alaina Kleinbeck, in her article “Christian accountability in a #MeToo world,” points out our “institutional structures whose imperfect systems of accountability presume not only innocence but also forgiveness before repentance and reparation.”[3]  There can be pressure to forgive an offender who has not repented or owned up to what was done.  Organizations, including church hierarchies, can be more concerned with saving face than reaching out in care to those who have been hurt.

Maybe you’ve witnessed or even experienced groups that, under usual circumstances, embrace and act with the highest of motives, but when some serious events happen, they stray from those practices and basically betray the reasons they exist.

Kleinbeck continues, “I regularly hear stories of men and women in ministry who have treated others dismissively or abusively.  Our work cultures in the church have failed to foster the full accountability we need for every person to thrive.”

Treating others dismissively, not being accountable to each other: clearly, that extends beyond sexual misconduct to almost all of life.  I like how she mentions the genuine interest “for every person to thrive.”  I’m reminded of the choir at the PC(USA) Synod of the Northeast Assembly who led us in worship.  They performed Hezekiah Walker’s “I Need You to Survive.”  I was especially gripped by the third verse.

“I pray for you, you pray for me. / I love you, I need you to survive. / I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. / I love you, I need you to survive.”

What a wonderful pledge.  I won’t harm you.  I need you to survive.  I want you to thrive.  On this World Communion Sunday—and it’s true, I’ve paid special attention to this as Domestic Violence Awareness Month—we are called as the catholic, that is, the universal church, to witness to Jesus Christ’s desire and empowerment that we not only survive but thrive.

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The apostle Paul says that among you who “were baptized into Christ [and who] have clothed yourselves with Christ…there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:27-28).

Whether we’re wearing pink or purple, we are called to clothe ourselves with Christ.  Wearing those garments, we reject the violence that cannot be domesticated, and we embrace the peace that cannot be defeated.

 

[1] Carey A. Moore, Esther: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1971), 2-3.

[2] Jon D. Levenson, Esther (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 53.

[3] www.faithandleadership.com/alaina-kleinbeck-christian-accountability-metoo-world


why this is Maundy Thursday

In the mid-2000s, the Mel Gibson-directed film, The Passion of the Christ, appeared in theaters.

When it was released, many people had concerns about anti-Semitism, based on what some saw as a sympathetic portrayal of Pontius Pilate versus the Jewish leaders.  (I didn’t really see it that way.)

There were also concerns about the level of gore in the movie.  For me, the flogging scene is the worst.  By the time we get to the crucifixion, it seems mild in comparison.  Gibson said that he felt he needed to be quite graphic to do justice to the passion narratives.  We shouldn’t forget that this is the same Mel Gibson of Braveheart and The Patriot—other movies not recommended for children!

1 maundySome have wondered, looking at the movie as a work of art, how much of the message of Jesus comes through.  That is, amid all the violence that’s portrayed, how well does the film explain the extreme hatred directed at this poor man?  Just who is this Jesus?  I suppose it’s difficult for those of us who are familiar with the story to look at the movie that way, to remember that not everyone knows the story.

We don’t meet Gibson’s Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, until the garden of Gethsemane.  By this time, the event that’s at the heart of Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, has already happened.  Jesus has already washed his disciples’ feet in a display of servant leadership.  He has already pronounced the words, “this is my body…this is my blood.”  The Lord has already spoken to the disciples these words from our scripture reading: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (v. 34).

The meaning of “Maundy” is found in this statement.  Coming from the Latin mandatum, it means “mandate” or “commandment.”  Maundy Thursday is all about the new mandate given by Jesus:  love one another, just as he has loved us.  Just as he has loved us.  What could that possibly mean?

Let me tell you all about it, since I am an expert on love!  It really is a new way of loving.  The obligation to love one’s neighbor had long been part of the Jewish consciousness.  Check out Leviticus 19:18 as an example, that loving-your-neighbor-as-yourself stuff.

But the commandment of Jesus to love is “new.”  It’s new, not simply because Jesus expands the definition of “neighbor” to include the poor and the enemy—those who seemingly cannot or will not repay us.  It’s a new kind of love, not just a new degree of love.  Disciples of Jesus are told to love one another.  They are called to this new love because they are part of a new creation.

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One way we see Jesus model this new command to love is by the way he selects his inner circle of disciples.  First of all, he violates the barriers that forbid the education of women by welcoming Mary Magdalene and the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  When the church has embraced those barriers, it’s been a sad refusal to practice this new love of Jesus.

Jesus ignores cultural sensibilities by calling men who are laborers—fishermen—the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.  Later, in the book of Acts, after the healing of the “man lame from birth,” Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin.  The scripture says that “when they saw the boldness of [the two] and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (3:2, 4:13).  Now there’s a statement about the calling of all believers!

Jesus ignores political prejudice by including Matthew the tax collector, viewed as a collaborator with the Romans, along with Simon the Zealot.  The Zealots are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the Romans.  Compared with these two, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are nonexistent.

These are the people to whom Jesus gives his new command: love one another.  The church has at times, by the grace of God, been able to model this love.  In the late second century, Tertullian famously reported a saying among certain pagans about Christians, “See how they love one another, and how they are ready to die for one another!”

It is that very witness, that testimony, which Jesus predicts in verse 35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Rudolf Bultmann comments on the unusual nature of this new love.  He says that it “demonstrates the strangeness of the community within the world, and results in the world calling those who love, the disciples of Jesus.”[1]  A new creation within the old creation can’t help but seem strange!

He continues with this stipulation: “But the community itself fulfils its commission…only if its [love] remains the response to the love of Jesus…  It is not the effect it has on world history that legitimates the Christian faith, but its strangeness within the world.”[2]

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Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a fan of the “strangeness” of the Christian faith.

To boil this all down, Bultmann is saying that our success or failure is less important than our faithfulness to the new love that Jesus commands.  We shouldn’t be surprised if the love of Jesus leads us onto paths that the world disregards.  More important than credibility in the old creation is fidelity in the new creation.  Love, especially the love of Jesus Christ, has a logic all its own.

In Thomas Keating’s Lenten devotional, My Prayers Rise Like Incense, he says, “Love makes us vulnerable.  The love of another person (including God) reduces our defense mechanisms.  As soon as we trust somebody, we no longer have to be self-protective in their presence and our defenses diminish.  Then the faults and limitations that we have never seen or always tried to hide begin to emerge as clear as crystal…  Once we learn to accept failure, love grows.  We do not grow by thinking about it, but only through the experience of failure.”[3]

Friends, as a minister, as a fellow Christian, as a fellow human being: I can guarantee you one way in which we will never fail.  We will never, never fail!  By playing it safe; by not taking a step of faith—and by holding people’s failings against them.  We are called to something greater.

I’ll finish as I began: with The Passion of the Christ.  As I said, the movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The decision of Jesus to submit to arrest was a sign of faith in God.  It wasn’t something he was looking forward to.  But for me, as I watched the movie, it really was his courage that struck me.  Jesus knew his enemies were coming for him, and he knew that he would be treated brutally.  I picture myself in his place, and I suspect that the impulse to just take off would be too strong to resist.

But love gives us courage, even non-heroic, ordinary people like us.  That’s the antidote to cowardice!  And the new commandment to love—to love each other as Jesus loves us—gives each person here the courage to be a bigger person, to live a bigger life, than we have ever dreamed.  That is worth embracing and celebrating.  That is why this is Maundy Thursday.

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a Battlestar Galactica Last Supper!

 

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1971), 527.

[2] Bultmann, 529.

[3] Thomas Keating, My Prayers Rise Like Incense (St. Louis:  Creative Communications for the Parish, 1999), 28.


worship that smells good

Once in a great while, I have noticed an unusual smell wafting out of the kitchen.  It has usually been something with an oniony or a vinegary note to it.  On rare occasions I have asked, “What is that stench?”  Sometimes I’ve added, “Is someone involved in gas warfare?  My eyes are burning.”  My wife has responded, “That’s dinner.”

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For some reason—which I have yet to fathom—describing the smell of food as having a “stench” is worse than commenting on its “aroma”!  (Still, aside from any poorly chosen words on my part, my wife really is a very good cook.)

The culinary arts are not the only arena in which something meant to be beautiful can be taken as something hideous.  Has anyone here ever given what you thought was the perfect gift, only to have it rejected?  (Or perhaps later, made the discovery that it was re-gifted?)  As we see in our scripture reading from Isaiah, sadly, worship can also be put into the category of “what we thought was amazing, but considered repulsive.”

On the face of it, what the prophet says doesn’t make sense.  We might feel like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

Speaking for the Lord, Isaiah lays into his fellow citizens of Judah.  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” (v. 11).  The Good News Bible says, “Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me?”  Of course, the book of Leviticus goes into detail about the need to offer sacrifices—sacrifices that are now being rejected.

In verse 12 he demands, “Trample my courts no more.”  Again, the Good News Bible says, “Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple?”  They might be forgiven if they were to respond, “Actually, you did.”  There are a number of festivals in which they are told to come to the temple and offer sacrifice, such as Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles (Ex 23:16-17).

And reflecting my opening thoughts about “stench” versus “aroma,” verse 13 claims “incense is an abomination to me.”[1]  Some other translations are even less diplomatic.  Cases in point: “the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me”; “the smoke from them fills me with disgust” (Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible).

What is going on, besides the often-competing points of view of priest and prophet?

As we continue reading, we start to understand why the prophet is telling the people their worship stinks!

2 worshipHe declares, “your hands are full of blood” (v. 15).  Worship alone—observance of ritual alone—is not the answer.  So what is?  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (vv. 16-17).

If our worship doesn’t make us more sensitive to the condition of everything in creation (other people, the animals, the earth)—or worse, we become hardened—then something really is wrong.

Richard Rohr speaks of something similar, mystical moments, deep experiences with God in which we encounter God’s love.  This is what he says:

“If it isn’t an experience of newfound freedom, I don’t think it is an authentic God experience.  God is always bigger than you imagined or expected or even hoped for.  When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices or sermons or sacraments or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience.”[2]

Our epistle reading has St. Paul encouraging his readers to be larger, not smaller, people.

1 Corinthians 11 includes what are known as the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.  (FYI: that’s what we say when we break the bread and pour the cup.  The long prayer before it is called the Great Thanksgiving.)

Banu and I were ordained in 1997, and we spent the next three years at the first church we served, which was in Nebraska.  For quite a while, whenever we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, I would read the words for sharing the bread and cup from our Book of Common Worship verbatim.  I didn’t want to make a mistake!

3 worshipBut in time, I got tired of doing that.  It seemed like I was speaking the words as if they were an incantation.  Mess up a phrase, and the spell would be broken!  What happened was that I started telling the story.  If you read something long enough, eventually, something starts to sink in.

Word has reached the apostle Paul’s ears of a quite unwelcome practice.  To appreciate why he’s upset, we need to understand something about their celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  It’s not the way we do it, with a nibble and a sip.  For them it’s something more substantial; it’s an actual meal.  The practice for much of the New Testament church is to host a love feast, an agape meal.

However, there is a problem.  It seems some of the wealthier Christians are going ahead and helping themselves to the tasty morsels they’ve brought.  They’re not offering to share with the others.  The result is, as the apostle puts it, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21).

So Paul lets them have it.  If you people want to pig out and get drunk, then do it at home.  Don’t pretend you’re worshipping the Lord.  You’re disrespecting your sisters and brothers who have less.  As he says in verse 20, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.”  He’s telling them their worship stinks!

They need to be reminded that the Lord’s Supper is a communal event; it’s not just a question of observing a ritual.  When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it’s not just some mental exercise (v. 24).  It means recognizing the presence of Jesus in their midst—discerning the body of Christ!

The failure of the Corinthians to honor Christ among them—by practicing selfishness instead of love—has had serious consequences.  The apostle is concerned because “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).  How in the world has this come about?

In the late 19th century, a famous preacher in London, Charles Spurgeon, spoke about this in a sermon.[3]  He commented on verse 27, which speaks of those receiving the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner—being “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

“Many have been troubled by this verse,” he says.  “They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’”  Spurgeon replies, “You are, this is quite true; but the text does not say anything about your being unworthy.  Paul uses an adverb, not an adjective.  His words are, ‘Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily,’ that is, in an unfit way.”  Or, as the NRSV puts it, “in an unworthy manner.”  It’s not about us; it’s about the way we do it.

Some people decide not to receive the Eucharist, holy communion.  There may be any number of reasons for that.  But refusing on the grounds that one doesn’t feel worthy actually doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  In fact, according to another 19th century minister, the American, Charles Hodge, an unworthy feeling “is one of the conditions of acceptable communion.  It is not the whole [the healthy], but the consciously sick whom Christ came to heal.”[4]

4 worship
“They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’” Charles Spurgeon: you bet you are!

In other words, if you feel unworthy, then that’s all the more reason to receive the body and blood of Christ.  It is a gift of grace.

We hear the warning of verse 29, that those “who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  All that leads to a good question: exactly what does it mean to discern the body?  Some say Paul speaks of those who come to the table with unexamined lives—for example, bearing grudges and being unforgiving.  As a result, they’ve been stricken with illness and death as divine judgment.

However, discerning (or not discerning) the body of Christ can be imagined in other ways, possibly more helpful ways.  We may fail to see Christ in people—people in whom we do not wish to see Christ!  It looks like this is what Paul’s talking about.  In our world, many Christians do not see Christ in those on the margins.  We fail to discern the body in the starving and the tortured and those seeking refuge.  We fail to see Christ in those without health care!  Over and over, verse 30 comes true: “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

It may come down to a twist on a question some people ask at Christmas: whose birthday is it, anyway?  Paul seems to be asking, “Whose body is it, anyway?”  If we, like the Corinthians, imagine we are the hosts of this celebration, then that means we get to decide who’s on the guest list.  And we get to decide who’s not.

But if we recognize Christ as our host—that it’s his body we both share and are a part of—our understanding of ourselves and the world gets a radical makeover!

5 worship

I’ll close as Spurgeon did so many years ago after reflecting on Paul’s words: “May we…keep this feast in due order under the power of the Holy Spirit, and may we find a blessing in it to God’s praise!”

That is worship that smells good!

 

[1] תּוׄעֵבָה (toebah)

[2] stjohnsquamish.ca/seven-underlying-themes-of-richard-rohrs-teaching/

[3] answersingenesis.org/education/spurgeon-sermons/2268-question-for-communicants/

[4] www.puritansermons.com/reformed/hodge02.htm


boring you with law and love

“I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus.”[1]  That’s what a professor said one of her students told her.  I think that’s just crazy.  If there’s anything that keeps you breathlessly holding onto the edge of your seat, it’s stuff like:

Snore

“When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil” (2:4).  Hey, am I right or am I right?

Check out this one.  “Flesh that touches any unclean thing shall not be eaten; it shall be burned up.  As for other flesh, all who are clean may eat such flesh” (7:19).  Pretty exciting!

“When a man or woman has a disease on the head or in the beard, the priest shall examine the disease.  If it appears deeper than the skin and the hair in it is yellow and thin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an itch, a leprous disease of the head or the beard” (13:29-30).  [snore]

Okay, maybe there’s a point to what her student said.

At the same time, we need to remember that the vast majority of Leviticus is not narrative.  It isn’t meant to be spellbinding story telling.  It’s mainly codes of law; it’s legislation.  It is ritual.  Kathryn Schifferdecker, who made the comment about the drowsy student on a treadmill, concedes the point, but says that “the person who is willing to enter into the book with imagination, and with an eye for detail, will find profound insights there.”

Look at how today’s reading in chapter 19 starts.  “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2).  If there’s any single quality that best describes our Lord, it would be “holy.”  It’s a word that means “separate,” “set apart,” “completely other.”  The holy is something beyond our understanding.  And like the Israelites, we also are called to use that as our model, our image, for life and existence!

How does that work?  How are we set apart?  How are we completely other?  What does it mean to be holy?

Well guess what?  We have here a long list of what Leviticus is famous for.  Rules and regulations!  The lesson picks up again at verse 9, skipping over the revering of parents, the worship of idols, and the offering of a sacrifice of well-being, a covenant meal with the community.

Verse 9 says to not gather in every scrap of your crop in every inch of your land.  It’s normal to miss some of it.  In fact, you should leave those scraps behind.  There are some who depend on those leftovers to feed themselves and their children.  This is a way of building charity into the economic system.  In our terms today, it helps prevent the excesses of cutthroat capitalism.

I must confess, someone who has needed to hear this correction would be me!  As a freshman in college, I was basically a disciple of the writer Ayn Rand.  She was an advocate of removing government regulation of the economy—all regulation, that is.  To say she was a fierce advocate of that would be like calling a lion a kitty cat!  She had extremely little tolerance for anything resembling a social safety net.

Taking myself way too seriously, I wrote a letter for the campus newspaper lauding her values.  On a sunny afternoon, as I was leaving a classroom building, I encountered one of my professors on the steps.  He was the perfect image of the kindly old man, with a gentle and winsome sense of humor.  (In those days, my sense of humor was on life support, so the joy he exuded just bugged me.)  He mentioned my letter in which I railed against Social Security, and he simply said, “You still have to care about people.”

Eventually, looking back on that quick conversation, I realized that was when my foolish admiration of Ayn Rand had gone way too far.  It had warped and twisted me in ways I did not like.  Bringing this back to the scripture, I needed to hear that corrective.  And what better vehicle for carrying the message than that wonderful and loving man?

Before we leave the subject, I was grateful for public assistance when Banu and I were at seminary.  My diagnosis of a brain tumor meant that we quickly used up the insurance we had through the school.  We signed up for the Pennsylvania state welfare insurance.

I’ll go through a few more verses, but I won’t spend as much time on them as I did this last one.

Two faced

Verse 12 says, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.”  We can think of putting our hands on the Bible and swearing to tell the truth, but there are other ways to look at it.  In simple terms: do not be duplicitous.  Do not be two-faced.

“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (v. 13).  Do not keep the wages of a worker until morning.  When you’re a day laborer, waiting until tomorrow is a serious matter!  This is a prohibition of wage theft.

“You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (v. 14).  Do not mock those with disabilities.  They have a heavy enough burden to carry; they don’t need others adding to it.  And incidentally, that bit about “fearing your God” implies that one who does fear God doesn’t engage in that activity to begin with.

Here’s verse 16.  “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.”  That first part about not slandering has an especially current day feel to it.  We hear about fake news, which is completely made up, or if not fake, at least news that is decidedly slanted.  That’s the news which reaffirms what we already believe and what we want to hear.  We don’t learn anything new about the world around us.

Yellow journalism

Do not engage in yellow journalism.  But that’s so delicious; it’s so salacious and scandalous!  It gets the blood flowing.  It bypasses the part of the brain that houses higher consciousness and triggers that reptilian instinct.  But also notice how the verse ends: “I am the Lord.”  This goes back to my question, “What does it mean to be holy?”  There is something about being set apart that calls us to challenge ourselves, to not simply accept whatever we are spoon fed.

Just think about how many times the phrase, “I am the Lord,” or “I am the Lord your God” is used in this passage.  It speaks to how intertwined our relationships with God and with others really are and what role law has in the mix.

Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader has some thoughts about this.[2]  She says, “I wonder whether ‘liberal’ ‘progressive’ Christians don’t tend to give the law a bit of a short shrift.  There are distinct advantages to having a set of rules to govern our lives.  Rules can help us ‘pre-make’ some of our decisions so that we do not allow our feelings to dictate what we do, how we treat people…

“Law and love. That’s what I’m thinking about this week.”

Admittedly, as she says, she’s approaching from a more liberal / progressive point of view.  Still, I think folks who are more conservative might also be able to see themselves here.  Regardless of where we appear on the spectrum, there does seem to be an inherent contradiction between law and love.  We might respond, with a bit of irritation, “You can’t force me to love!”

And just in time, we come to the end of the passage.

“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (v. 17).  Do not hate any of your kin.  As the faith has expanded and evolved over the centuries, we can recognize “kin” as the entire human family.  Likewise, “your neighbor” can mean someone across the street or across the world.  And going along with that second part, if we don’t reprove our neighbor (that is, in a holy, loving way!), we can let injustice run wild.

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (v. 18).  Jesus would later join loving God and loving neighbor as the two points that sum up the law (Mt 22:34-40).  So Jesus takes this boring book and shows us how law and love come together.

Love your neighbor

This is a good day to consider the law and loving one’s neighbor.  In our service of ordination and installation, we take vows before God to abide by certain things; we pledge ourselves.  Those vows act as laws we agree to follow.  Those vows commit us to love and care for each other.

We are asked what are known as “constitutional questions,” because they are derived from our constitution as Presbyterians: the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order.  Among the things we agree to is trusting in Jesus Christ, accepting the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, abiding by our church’s polity, and one that Banu and I especially appreciate, “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

That’s a good way of taking love of God with all our heart and soul and mind and directing it toward each other.

There are also questions for those called to various offices in the church.  Here’s one for deacons.  “Will you be a faithful deacon, teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the people’s help to the friendless and those in need?  In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”

What jumps out at me is the request to direct the people’s help to the friendless.  What a great and wonderful ministry.  Of course, that is directed to all of us.  It’s difficult to befriend the friendless without a love and concern that motivates us.

And how about that last question?  “In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”  That’s one which is also directed to elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament.  (I’m sorry, I should say, “ruling elders and teaching elders”!)[3]

I’ll leave us with some questions to ponder.  (No ready-made answers.)  Again, how can we be holy?  Today, we all make vows.  How can those vows help us?  Maybe I should ask, can they help us?  And if so, what do those vows mean as you move forward with your own unique emerging ministry for the sake of the law and love of the Lord?

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2186

[2] spaciousfaith.com/2011/02/15/pre-sermon-ponderings-law-and-love

[3] Terminology used in the new Form of Government, which began with the 2011-2013 Book of Order!


can conflict be a gift?

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  That tends to happen when one frequently moves from one place to another!  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Two decades later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s something I still need to work on.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a long way to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from the reading in Matthew that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”  It appears three times in the law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21).

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of its context.

It’s been said, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude [in modern times, we can compare it with the outlawing of slavery]; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.[1]  The idea was that, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours—and then, it would escalate from there.

Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”[2]  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything that Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[3]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is:  the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it’s especially true for those in the church.  We have a tendency to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[4]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis.  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[5]

The truth is, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[6]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict…out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict [when it is stifled].  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

This is the first Sunday since the presidential election.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter what your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that this past year has had a distinctly different feel.  I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one, and doing that with all our might and means.

The “other ones” who have been insulted and verbally attacked for over a year from on high have found a green light, permission has been given, implicitly or explicitly, for them to be physically attacked, to have fear instilled in them.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “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.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[7]  (I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably work any time.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[8]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?

Steinke goes on, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be corrected.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, returning insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Beare, 158.

[3] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD:  The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[4] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict:  The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 56.

[6] Westerhoff, 57.

[7] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[8] Steinke, xv.