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.

4 maundy
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.”

1 worship

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:


“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.

words written, words living (do we bless or distress)

I’m about to make a confession that I consider to be dangerous.  The confession is this:  I love the Bible.  I love reading and studying the Bible.  This August will mark the thirtieth anniversary of my baptism.  Back then, each day I read three chapters from the Old Testament, two from the New Testament, and a psalm.  I didn’t understand why some people would voluntarily deprive themselves of this rich treasure.

I gradually slowed down my pace.  For a long time now, each day I’ve usually read a psalm and a chapter from the rest of the Bible.  I no longer feel the “need for speed.”

Scripture studyWhy do I say that this is a dangerous confession?  Among other things, it can be dangerous if the written word becomes an idol.  There’s even a name for worshiping the Bible in and of itself:  bibliolatry.  And bibliolatry is alive and well.  I think it’s really demonstrated when people assert, even defiantly assert, that their reading of the scriptures is the only legitimate one.  Some might even use violence!

Picking up on that theme of violence, I must say even though I love the Bible, to be honest, there are some scriptures that I find detestable.  For example, I’m thinking of places in which genocide is advocated.  There are places that promote (or at least wink at) the abuse of human beings.  It can be based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disability, and social status, just to name a few.

However, we need not turn the Bible into a weapon.  We can keep the life-giving word of God from becoming an instrument of death.

“Yes, but how can we do that?”  Thanks for bringing it up!  That’s a good question!  We’ll look at that in a few moments, but for right now, I’ll say this much:  it involves Jesus.

Actually, even before we get to Jesus, we can see an evolution of faith in the Bible.  We can see it in stuff like forced labor and the death penalty.  But let’s deal with something that might be a little less controversial, a little less threatening.

“What are we going to eat for lunch?”

In our society, we are aware of those who have certain rules about what to eat.  There are Jews who keep kosher, Muslims who observe halal.  And on the point about Muslims, a few years ago, we hosted a forum on Islam in America since 9-11.  We had representatives from various kinds of Islam.  I made sure to remind the folks putting out the goodies in the fellowship hall to avoid anything with ham or bacon in it!

And of course, there are those with allergies and those who insist on only eating healthy food!

The business of kosher and halal involves food that is ritually clean and unclean.  In the Bible when we have regulations on what to eat and what to offer as sacrifice, ritual cleanness and uncleanness are the main focuses.

So how does Genesis 7 start out?

When we think about Noah and the ark and the great flood, we have a certain image in mind.  We learn it when we’re little kids.  Here come the animals, two by two!  What a heartwarming picture; it works very well in songs.

But then we have this.  The Lord says to Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate” (v. 2).  I don’t know about you, but for me, this kind of kills the vibe.  It puts a damper on the spirit.  By the way, it’s the only place where Noah is specifically told to bring seven pairs of clean animals.

Why only this one time?  Maybe somebody didn’t want to hear the alternative version.  Here come the unclean animals, two by two!

Still it’s true, in chapter 6, later in 7, and in chapter 8, we’re always told that the animals arrive in pairs, whether they’re clean or not.  Some say the reason for the extra clean animals was so Noah would have enough to offer as sacrifice when the flood was all over.

Whatever the case, we have a memorable early example of clean and unclean food.

In Leviticus 11, it becomes codified, almost engraved in stone.  This is where we come to the law of Moses.  Some say certain animals are considered unclean because of concerns about hygiene, or maybe certain animal behaviors, or who knows what.  One thing we can say for sure is that this is where the priestly system, the religious institution, flexes its muscles.

As we saw earlier, pork is off the menu.  So is rabbit, which Banu and I have enjoyed from time to time.  And regarding seafood, how about shrimp and lobsters?  Unclean!  And insects (if that’s your thing)?  Some are okay, like locusts and crickets.  Butterflies and bees?  Not so much.  I wonder, does anyone know about chocolate-covered ants?

image from 3.bp.blogspot.com

One of the problems with purity codes, in this case instructions on what to eat, is that they can become an end in themselves.  Like the Bible, they can degenerate into becoming an idol.  If we’re following this particular guideline, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that’s what pleases God.  We fool ourselves into believing we can earn God’s favor and mercy.  If we consume and offer as sacrifice only clean food (or whatever the equivalent behavior is for ourselves), we might feel that we are placating a God who, at the end of the day, really doesn’t like us!

That brings up one of the common themes among the Hebrew prophets.  It is to offer, as it frequently is, correctives in worshiping and relating to God.  For example, the prophet Hosea delivers this word from the Lord: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6).  So often, the people lapse; their hearts become divided.  They substitute outer observances instead of living in the grace and love of the Lord.  And it’s reflected in their actions.

Then Jesus arrives on the scene.  He stands in the tradition of the prophets.  As with them, there continues an evolution of faith.  Jesus holds on to what is good and true and holy in the tradition, and he also re-interprets the scriptures to fit the changing realities.  He does a lot of that in the Sermon on the Mount.

We see that enlightenment about the deeper meaning of the scriptures in Mark 7.

One day, some disciples of Jesus sit down for a little snack.  That’s fine, but some Pharisees realize that they haven’t washed their hands in a ritually-approved way.  How dare they eat with defiled hands!  So they tear into Jesus and chew him out.

Jesus points out the way they’ve idolized their traditions—things that really have nothing to do with God’s love.  In fact, they put up barriers to that love.

Then he gets to the matter at hand.  He says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (vv. 14-15).  He turns the argument that was hurled at him upside down.

With their usual clarity of understanding, his disciples later ask what the heck he was talking about.  Jesus wonders why they still haven’t got it.  Here’s where he again re-interprets and deepens the understanding of the scriptures.  Being defiled isn’t a matter of what food to eat, since it only goes into the stomach.  Being defiled is a matter of the heart, who we are in our innermost being.  That’s what clean and unclean are all about.

What comes from the outside doesn’t defile, because it travels through the body and “goes out into the sewer” (v. 19).  Most English translations are a bit squeamish in dealing with the Greek word ἀφεδρῶνα (aphedrōna), which actually means “latrine” or “toilet.”  So in case you haven’t noticed, Jesus is rather blunt in his opinion on questions of clean and unclean food.  That might be why Mark adds as an editorial note, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

That’s a nice save Mark, considering we’re talking about what goes into a toilet!

Speaking of the toilet, Jesus lists a bunch of nasty qualities.  In verses 20 to 23, he unloads some unclean stuff.  These come out and defile us.

If Jesus hasn’t done this already, St. Paul brings in a specifically social and neighbor oriented dimension to eating clean and unclean food.  In Romans 14, he says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (v. 14).  He follows Jesus in saying all food is ritually clean, but then admits there might be things people avoid for the sake of conscience.

He continues, “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.  Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (v. 15).  Examples might be sitting at the table with one who finds alcohol offensive and then getting in their face with a bottle of wine or whiskey.  (Come on, have a snort of this!)  Or perhaps offering your observant Jewish neighbor a big helping of barbecued pork!

More specifically in Paul’s time, there was food that had been offered in the temples of pagan gods.  After such a ceremony, the food would be distributed to the poor.  If you’re eating with someone who makes a point of saying, “This was offered to such-and-such a deity,” then Paul says to politely refuse.  Someone might think you’re agreeing with the worship of other gods.

Again, we see the re-interpretation and deepening of the meaning of scripture.  He fits the teaching of Jesus into his own time, into his own situation.  “Do not,” Paul warns, “for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.  Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat” (v. 20).

People are more important than food.

I began with the “dangerous” confession that I love the Bible.  But as I hope we’ve seen, the written word can also serve the powers of death, not life.  It can become a weapon.  To prevent that, we need the living Word.

I said that we would look at the “less threatening” subject of food.  As I also hope we’ve seen, it can wreak its own kind of havoc.

On revisiting the question of preventing the Bible from becoming a weapon (which I said we would do), I want to offer a few comments by Richard Rohr.

“We can only safely read Scripture—it is a dangerous book [there’s that word again]—if we are somehow sharing in the divine gaze of love.  A life of prayer helps you develop a third eye that can read between the lines and find the golden thread which is moving toward inclusivity, mercy, and justice.”  He’s referring to the evolution of faith I’ve been talking about, the one that leads to greater enlightenment and deeper understanding.

image from tufsreception.files.wordpress.com

What happens when we’re not moving in that direction?  “Any ‘pre-existing condition’ of a hardened heart, a predisposition to judgment…any need to win or prove yourself right will corrupt and distort the most inspired and inspiring of Scriptures—just as they pollute every human conversation and relationship.”  Quoting verses to win a fight, often quoting them out of context, turns the Bible into a weapon.  Weapons kill.

“Hateful people will find hateful verses to confirm their love of death.  Loving people will find loving verses to call them into an even greater love of life.”  That goes for all of us.  Hate leads us to search the written word and find death.  Love leads us to search the written word and find life.

As I draw near my conclusion, I want to add something that got me thinking about my subtitle: “Do we bless or distress?”

In last week’s e-letter that our presbytery’s stated clerk publishes, he mentions an incident that left him angry and hurt, but mostly sad.  He is among those who will be at the PCUSA General Assembly which begins next Saturday in Portland, Oregon.

He says he heard from a friend and colleague who he has known for decades.  This person made comments about the committee on which our stated clerk is serving and about its written statements which will be coming to this year’s Assembly.  He said the comments “were dismissive at best, derisive at worst, of the careful, deliberative work of the committee.”  He has reached out to his friend in hopes of reaching some understanding.

Still, he laments, “Disagreeing with someone’s opinion about an issue rarely can seem to take place without viewing that other person as ‘stupid,’ ‘uninformed,’ ‘ignorant.’  One can scarcely express a different viewpoint from someone without being attacked, shamed, or ridiculed.  We see it in national political discourse.  We see it in our communities.  Sadly—and shamefully, I believe—we sometimes see it within the Body of Christ, the Church.”

Unfortunately, that verifies what we’ve been looking at.

Our stated clerk commends to us a document adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1992, “Seeking to be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement.”  (It is included in the Zebra links on this blog!)  He especially focuses on numbers 1 and 5: “Treat each other respectfully so as to build trust, believing that we all desire to be faithful to Jesus the Christ,” and “Focus on ideas and suggestions instead of questioning people’s motives, intelligence or integrity.”

In closing, remember that the written word without the living word, Jesus Christ, becomes rigid and stale.  It leads to death and distress, rather than to what it is meant to be, life and blessing.

driving, not leading

[special note: In a recent sermon, I spoke about the apostle Paul in Galatia, mentioning the difficulties he was having, some of them self-imposed. That’s especially true regarding the colorful language he uses about his detractors. In particular, I noted his bloody joke about those who demand circumcision, hoping for their self-castration. That, among other things, might raise questions about him: is he “driving or leading” the people?]

There’s a story from 1 Kings 21 about King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel, and in case you haven’t already figured out from the title, my supposition is that he’s “driving, not leading” the people.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com

What I would like to do is to use this story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and Naboth and his vineyard as a study of conflict. There are some crazy things going on!

Verse 1 begins, “Later the following events took place.” At the end of chapter 20, a prophet chastises Ahab for making peace with Ben-hadad, the Aramean king. It’s a peace that will not last. The final verse says much about his character. “The king of Israel set out toward home, resentful and sullen, and came to Samaria” (v. 43). Keep those words in mind: “resentful and sullen.”

So, in today’s story, Ahab has his eyes on a vineyard that belongs to Naboth. It’s adjacent to his land, so he makes a proposal. “Naboth, I would like to use your vineyard as a garden, so let me have it, and I’ll give you one that’s even better. If that doesn’t work, I’ll pay you for it.”

That sounds like a pretty good deal—better than anything you can find on Craigslist or Pinterest!

Imagine Ahab’s surprise when Naboth rejects his offer, doing so in no uncertain terms. “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (v. 3). For Naboth, the vineyard represents more than its usefulness or a financial transaction. He sees himself as the steward, the guardian, of what has been passed down to him by his ancestors. That’s a distinction that is lost on Ahab.

So what does Ahab do? He goes home, “resentful and sullen” (v. 4). And like the grown man he is, he curls up in bed and refuses to eat his dinner! The king decides to pout!

Enter Jezebel. We first meet her in chapter 16, where we learn that she is the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians. Ahab marries her, and alongside with Yahweh, he serves her god, Baal. The author of 1 Kings says that Ahab “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him” (v. 33). That doesn’t sound like somebody who was invited to the wedding!

Anyway, back to the current scripture. Try to imagine the scene. Jezebel asks him, “What’s your problem? Why aren’t you eating anything?” Ahab responds with his sob story. Jezebel must be looking at him and saying, “Are you the king or not? Get up. Go eat your dinner. I’ll take care of it.”

image from media1.annabrixthomsen.com

And the way she takes care of it is by rigging the legal system. A fast is proclaimed, elders are summoned, and a couple of unscrupulous fellows are hired to falsely accuse Naboth of a capital offense. He receives the death penalty, and Jezebel lets her husband know that the way is clear for him to take the vineyard.

There’s still one complicating factor, and it comes in the form of the prophet Elijah. The king and he have some history. Elijah has called out Ahab on his misdeeds before, and he does so again. The prophet tells the king that he has set himself on a course that is doomed. Everything will end in tears.

Refocusing on the idea I mentioned earlier, that is, using this story as a study of conflict, here’s my question: where does conflict appear in this story? It’s possible to see it in several places.

One place conflict appears is in the initial event, between Ahab and Naboth. They have conflicting plans over the disposal of the vineyard. Ahab fails in his God-ordained commission to protect the rights of his people. Naboth is affirming the tradition, going back to Leviticus 25 that land must remain within the possession of the family.

Without a doubt, there’s conflict between Ahab and Elijah. Elijah is remembered as possibly the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. He confronted the king of Israel in spectacular fashion. The showdown with the prophets of Baal in chapter 18 is truly a case of high drama.

There is also conflict within Ahab, within the man himself. Howard Wallace notes that Ahab gives his children names that a worshipper of Yahweh would select. He hasn’t abandoned his faith in the Lord, at least, not entirely. “Ahab personally bears the tension between worshipping Yahweh and worshipping Baal.”

Just before the showdown with the prophets of Baal, Elijah says to the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (18:21). Elijah’s talking to the crowd, but the person it fits better than anyone else is the king.

Making the decision to marry Jezebel has brought plenty of complications. And yes, there is definitely conflict—ongoing conflict—between the king and the queen. (That seems to be an age-old quality to married life!)

It might be helpful to look at Jezebel’s side of the story, which we don’t get in the Bible. As throughout history, this marriage was no doubt part of a political alliance. It’s quite possible that Jezebel knows that she has to look out for herself, being the foreigner in the equation.

Jezebel has her own sense of honor, as well as need for protection. She has her own set of expectations, based on her cultural background.

We’ve looked at some places in which conflict appears in the story. What can we learn from it? How do we deal with the conflict?

Something we should acknowledge up front is that conflict is not necessarily good or bad; it simply is. In fact, it is inevitable. Actually, it’s possible to say that conflict, in and of itself, is a good thing. It is a good thing, in the sense that it is necessary for life. Living things, by definition, engage in conflict. One of the easiest ways to see this is by looking at the food chain. There’s conflict between the eater and the eaten. Conflict among humans stimulates new ideas, new ways of doing things.

So maybe we can reframe this, and think of dealing with conflict in ways that are not destructive.

Certainly, it helps if there are preventive measures to head off problems before they blow up. It’s always easier to deal with conflict before it escalates into full-scale war. If there are clear guidelines in place, clear expectations, then that helps to prevent false impressions.

In the context of our story, Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel is shown to be ill-advised. It has reinforced whatever character flaws he already possessed. This marriage leads him to stray from the path of the faithful, the path of the wise and the just. Why is that? As we’ve seen, and as Nancy deClaissé-Walford reminds us, Ahab is a king “who, apparently, or largely, because of the influence of his wife Jezebel, is unwilling or unable to be fully faithful to Yahweh.”

With Ahab, the clear guidelines and expectations of a king of Israel do not exist. Instead, we have the mixed messages that come from trying to follow the Lord and Baal at the same time. To put it in less dramatic terms, it would be like trying to work with two contradictory job descriptions—or no job description at all. Misunderstanding will ensue.

As we see in the story, and as we see in our own lives and congregations, we don’t always have the pre-emptive measures that prevent conflict. We’re not always on the same page. We can think of that as literally not on the same page by thinking of confusion on policies and procedures. There can also be unspoken stories that drive how we behave—stories that go back for years, even decades.

In his book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke has a list of observations about congregations and conflict. I like the way he begins: “I have worked with troubled churches for 20 years. I never cease to learn from these experiences.” (113) This comes from someone who is frequently cited as an expert in the field. I find his sense of humility to be quite refreshing. He strikes me as one who works at leading, not driving, people.

One of his observations I found especially relevant when considering today’s scripture reading. Here’s verse 20: “Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you.’” Then the prophet continues by laying out the verdict on Ahab.

This is Steinke’s observation: “Secrets—that is, hidden agendas and invisible loyalties—in most cases need to be brought to light. What about sin and evil? Expect it; expose it. To expose the demonic, name it.” (115) He then cites the story of Jesus and the demon-possessed man in Mark 5.


image from www.sharpestpencil.com.au

What I take from this is that Steinke isn’t necessarily talking about demons, but he is addressing those hidden, unnamed powers that stir up conflict. Just as Elijah has identified Ahab—just as he has “found” him—we also need to find and name those things that bedevil us. Once we get a handle on something and drag it out into the open, its power begins to wither. We work in concert with the Spirit of Christ and allow that breeze to disperse the fetid, stagnant air.

I mentioned the sermon on the person of the apostle Paul as he deals with the Galatian church. In 1 Kings we get a look at the person of King Ahab as he deals with Naboth, Jezebel, and Elijah. Both men are embroiled in conflict, but only one has a grasp on how to deal with it.

Conflict within us, if left unaddressed, gets projected outward. It affects our relationships. It affects our communities, be it the people of Israel, Paul’s audience in Galatia, or our own congregations. It turns us into people, into groups, that are driven, not led.

So we need to ask ourselves, “How do we address the conflict within?” That’s something for consideration and meditation!

[originally posted on 16 June 2013]

sign on the dotted line

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In Jeremiah 32, we encounter what is probably the most detailed business transaction described in the Bible.  The prophet is exercising his “right of redemption” in purchasing a field.  This is based on the law in Leviticus 25 which enables the next of kin to purchase, or “redeem,” property which has passed out of the family.  It’s one of the mechanisms, including the year of Jubilee, which is intended to avoid the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  Our society today, with the 1% versus the 99%, could learn something from this!
But this isn’t just about economics.  This story is profoundly theological.  Walter Brueggemann says in A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, “In the exercise of family economic responsibility, the prophet enacts the long-term fidelity of God as well.  Jeremiah invests in God’s promised future exactly when that future seems completely closed off.” (303)
Why does the future seem closed off?  Well, the Babylonian army is at the gates of Jerusalem, about to destroy it.  During wartime, real estate prices are not exactly hitting the ceiling!  And what about Jeremiah’s future?  He’s been almost alone in saying that we shouldn’t be surprised that the Babylonians will make us pay dearly.  He even says that we shouldn’t fight against them, which gets him labeled as a traitor—and he gets treated as harshly as that label suggests.
Suffice to say, Jeremiah doesn’t have a future.  That is, outside of the promise of God.  Even though Judah will be punished severely, there will be something glorious on the other side.  The promise of God is that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15). 
Jeremiah puts his money where his mouth has been, even when his actions seem to be madness.