St. Peter

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.”

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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


one language

I want to begin with comments about the 1970s.  For many people, they were well along in years when that decade arrived.  For a vast part of our population, they hadn’t been born yet.  Their parents hadn’t even been born.  For those in my generation, right after the baby boomers, many if not most of those years were spent in elementary school.

This is an oversimplification, but the 70s were largely a decade in reaction to the perceived anarchy and rejection of authority of the 1960s.  The 70s gave us punk rock, with its reaction to the reaction.  It also gave us disco, with its ignoring of politics, and an urge to mindlessly lose oneself in foolishness.  (I guess you can gather my opinion of disco!)

1 gnBut for my purposes here, I want to mention another phenomenon of the decade: disaster movies.  There was a flurry of them, many with ensembles of A-list actors.  There was Earthquake.  We had The Poseidon Adventure.  And then, there was The Towering Inferno, with another impressive list of top-notch actors, such as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway…  and a host of others.

Those Hollywood luminaries aside, the real stars of those movies were the disasters mentioned in the titles.  The Towering Inferno provided a cautionary tale about the dangers of those buildings reaching up to the sky­­­­—skyscrapers.  Of course, skyscrapers had been around for almost a century, but this was the 70s.  A decidedly negative impression was portrayed.  After watching that movie, people might understandably be hesitant to live or work in such edifices.

There’s another structure which is featured in Genesis 11: the tower of Babel.  And like those disaster movies, it has usually been cast in a negative light.  Actually, it’s usually been cast as a truly wicked affront to God.  The builders have been seen as thumbing their noses to the Lord.

Again, it’s perfectly understandable to have that viewpoint.  There are several interpretations to this text: the good, the bad, and the ugly!

The decision of the people to construct a city and tower, “with its top in the heavens,” in order to “make a name” for themselves could easily be seen as an act of arrogance (v. 4).  Actually, that’s a very good way to see it.  Whatever the motivation, preventing themselves from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” given the circumstances, could be seen as logical.

And what are those circumstances?  The stage is set: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1).  There has been no end to speculation as to what that means.  This comes on the heels of chapter 10, in which the descendants of Noah form nations spread throughout the world.  More than once we are told of their families, languages, lands, and nations.

This enterprise appears to be a rejection of that diversity, indeed a God-ordained diversity.

The story’s location is pivotal.  They settle in the land of Shinar, later known as Babylonia.  It is a vast plain, unlike the mountains, islands, and forests from which they came.  It’s the perfect terrain for bringing everyone together.  Of course, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, a construction project becomes necessary!

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["Tower of Babel" by Josh Dorman, 2016]

The tower is likely a ziggurat, a structure resembling a pyramid, though with sides that are terraced, giant steps leading to the top.  They were built throughout ancient Mesopotamia (which is modern day Iraq and western Iran).

Considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups on hand, making a name for oneself could be seen as a way of establishing a one-world government.  A major part of that is how we speak.  When languages disappear, they take with them all the intricate subtleties unique to their thought processes, based on the experiences of the people who use them.  They are irreplaceable.

The saying is true: “it gets lost in translation.”  It is vital to realize the theme underlying the entire story—words and tongues, messages and languages.

The way the Lord figures out what’s going on is something we see in much of the Old Testament.  There’s a term called anthropomorphism.  It means describing as having human attributes. We see it in verse 5: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”  It’s almost like God had to use a ladder, or maybe take an escalator, to check out what those humans were up to.

This is an unpleasant discovery.  Something about this doesn’t sit well.  What could it be?

The story basically hinges on verse 6.  “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”  Why is intervention needed?  Why is the decision made to confuse their language, so they won’t understand each other?

Maybe the assumption that what humans “propose to do” will work out for the best needs to be questioned.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, in which conformity in service to the state is required.  The government, overseen by a shadowy figure known as Big Brother, has four primary ministries.  There is the Ministry of Peace, in charge of waging war.  There is the Ministry of Plenty, running the economy and keeping the population poor and dependent.  There is the Ministry of Love, in charge of arrest, torture, and execution to make sure folks stay in line.

Finally, as especially relevant to our story, there is the Ministry of Truth, which has as its purpose the spreading of propaganda and lies.  One of its primary purposes is to take language and continuously remove any nuance of independent expression.  We might add, cracking down on misinformation, however that’s defined.  Three slogans encapsulate the effort: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

(Safe and effective.  I am the science.)

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I wonder if the drive for what we think of as “progress” is not also a factor.  We think of economic success by figuring out at what rate the economy is growing.  Growing more quickly is better than growing more slowly.  It’s always about growing.  Can’t enough be enough—at least, for a little while?  The earth and our fellow creatures would thank us.  How much do we care about them?

Rabbi Shai Held, a widely respected figure in Jewish thought, has spoken of the Tower of Babel as a “tower of uniformity,” saying its meaning concerns “the importance of individuals and the horrors of totalitarianism.”[1]  He expands on this idea, saying, “An inevitable consequence of uniformity is anonymity.  If everyone says the same words and thinks the same thoughts, then a society emerges in which there is no room for individual tastes, thoughts, and aspirations or for individual projects and creativity.  All difference is (coercively) erased.”[2]

When we take all of that into consideration, the words “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” have an ominous sound.

Rabbi Held comments on something remarkable.  No names are mentioned in the story “because there are no individuals.  This is especially ironic (and tragic) in light of the people’s express wish to ‘make a name’ for themselves…  When people are anonymous, they are reduced to insignificance.  If no one is anyone in particular, then who cares what happens to them?”

Something else to understand is that by coming together in one place, the people have rejected the call of God to go forth throughout the world.  After the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gn 9:1).  It’s difficult to impose unity if your population is spread all over the place.

When the Lord imposes the punishment / blessing, all the work comes to a screeching halt.  Building plans aren’t very useful if no one can read them!

I wonder, can we see this scattering of peoples and confusing of languages as acts of love?  Here’s one more thought from Rabbi Held: “To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God.”  One of the age-old temptations of the human race is trying to put ourselves in the place of God—to idolize ourselves.  That could manifest itself by idolizing a single person, or a single group: to idolize or obey a kind of “Big Brother.”

When we do that, we do violence to the beautiful and wondrous creation that each of us is.  There is a Jewish saying, “To save one person is to save an entire world.”  I’ve often thought about that.  We live in our own world.  It’s not that we ignore the rest of the world, but we are a world unto ourselves.  Every single human has experiences of their own.  We each have our own experiences of the divine.  We are loved by Jesus in our own exclusive way.

The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is seen as a reversal of Babel.  There is a reunification of language, although it’s not done by human effort—it is not an achievement.  It is a gift granted by the Spirit of God.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v. 4).  The people are still speaking different languages, but they comprehend each other!

The language beyond all languages is the heavenly language.

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

We can see the Babel project as an endeavor to overstep our place, to overstep our boundaries.  However, Brent Strawn who teaches at Duke Divinity School, has another perspective.  Rather than a case of hubris, outrageous arrogance, it can be seen as a case of sloth, under-reaching what God has set out for us.

He says, “Maybe at those times when we aren’t one, it is because we’ve fallen short of making every effort to be what we are in Christ.  Maybe when we aren’t one, instead of giving up on the unity that God desires and provides—maybe instead of refusing to believe in that unity when we don’t experience it—maybe we ought, instead, to grieve over it.”[3]

It is right and proper and essential to grieve.  It is necessary to lament.

“Grieve that we don’t have it, grieve that we aren’t yet one.  Worry about it, wonder about it, and redouble—make that re-triple—our efforts, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In the book of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (v. 17).  People will prophesy, see visions, dream dreams.  Signs will appear in the heaven and on earth: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (vv. 19-20).

It sounds like a 70s disaster movie!

But wait for the finale.  “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21).  Calling on the name of the Lord.

We are freed from the compulsion to make a name for ourselves.  We are liberated, knowing that our Lord has cherished and named us like none other in the cosmos.  It is a name of endearment, known only to the Holy One.

Let all of you understand, you are the child of God.  There can be no better name than that.  That is the one language we speak.

 

[1] Rabbi Shai Held, “Tower of Uniformity: What Really Went Wrong at Babel,” Christian Century 134:23 (8 Nov 2017), 12.

[2] Held, 13.

[3] Brent Strawn, “Unity, Diversity, and the Holy Spirit,” Journal for Preachers 40:4 (2017), 13.


embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

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[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

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My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

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[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.


to hell and back

The first church we served was in Nebraska.  We were in the Presbytery of Central Nebraska.  At one of the presbytery meetings, there was a lay pastor ready to be certified.  He was answering questions about his beliefs and his sense of calling, his faith journey.

One of the ministers asked him about his views on Jesus Christ’s descent into hell.  The fellow didn’t know what to say.  My guess would be that was the first time anyone had ever asked him about it.  I can understand that; no one has ever asked me about it!  As you might know, there’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed saying about Jesus, “he descended to the dead.”  That’s from the modern, ecumenical version.  The original, traditional reading says of Jesus, “he descended into hell.”

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I honestly don’t remember the pastor’s name, but he took the opportunity to speak of Jesus’ descending into hell as an image of his own life.  He spent about two minutes telling us of his trials and tribulations.  (If two minutes doesn’t seem like much, get a stopwatch and time it.)  I really didn’t know him very well, but from what I did know, I knew he wasn’t lying about his experiences.  Meanwhile the poor fellow, the prospective lay pastor, was still up there, waiting for him to finish!  (By the way, he was certified.)

It was one of the more interesting presbytery meetings I’ve been to.

The epistle reading in 1 Peter 3 has some verses that are often associated with the so-called “harrowing of hell,” that is, the plundering of hell.  The harrowing of hell is said to be what transpired on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Jesus visited hell and liberated the saints of old, and others.  There is no direct Biblical testimony to this, but it is based on a number of scriptures and the centuries-old witness of church tradition.  But let’s hold off on that visit for a few moments.

The lectionary reading actually begins with verse 18, even though the paragraph starts with verse 13.  Looking at it, I suppose I can see why that part was left out.  “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed…  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (vv. 13-14, 17).  “If suffering should be God’s will.”  Yikes!

Tucked away in the midst of that is this little gem: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (vv. 15-16).  Don’t get in people’s faces.  Don’t make them feel stupid.  Don’t be a jerk.  (That last sentence is from an alternate translation.)

Peter’s audience has had plenty of opportunities and/or demands to explain themselves.  They have had to deal with persecution.

Then there’s a transition to Christ, who “also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (v. 18).  He has set the example for them, and us, of underserved punishment and unjust treatment.

Then Peter’s thought takes a slight turn.  “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (vv. 18-20).

Who are these “spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey”?  There’s a curious story in Genesis 6.  There is mention of “the sons of God [who] saw that [the women] were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.’  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.  These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (vv. 2-4).

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[One image of Nephilim]

No one really knows who these sons of God and Nephilim were.  Theories abound about fallen angels, giants, unrighteous men.  Whatever the case, they were consigned into the prison Jesus visited.  In response, Jesus found them worthy of hearing his message of good news.

But then there was Noah, of whom he and his family “were saved through water.”  Peter says, “this prefigured [baptism, which] now saves you” (vv. 20-21).  The water of the flood, through which Noah and his family passed, prefigures, or foreshadows baptism.

So there’s water, but what about fire?  We’re back to the harrowing of hell, the plundering of hell!

The New Testament has three different words translated as “hell.”  So pick your favorite.  The first one, “Hades” (άδης), like “Sheol” in the Old Testament, is the land of the dead, the grave.

The second word, “Gehenna” (γέεννα), is the one associated with fire.  It goes back to the valley of Hinnom, where some Israelites burned human sacrifices to pagan gods.

The third word, “Tartarus” (ταρταρόω), is used only once—in 2 Peter 2:4.  In Greek mythology, Tartarus was said to be as far below Hades as the earth is below heaven.  Friends, that is a long way!

The word “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed (κάτω katō) means “down” or “below” and can be translated as he descended to “lower ones” or “those below.”  So it’s not a place; it’s people.

Some speak of a struggle with Satan.  Many have been really creative in describing how Jesus kicks open the gates of hell and demands the release of the captives.  One of my teachers had a dim view of this whole scenario.  He didn’t put much stock in portraying Jesus in a boxing match with the devil!

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Banu said that, after my surgery seeing me unconscious in the intensive care unit, with all kinds of lines hooked into me and a ventilator tube going down my throat, she could better appreciate Jesus’ descent into hell.  He came down to where she was.

(Actually, on occasion, that might be a good story for hospital chaplains to use when consoling those in the waiting room.)

C. S. Lewis said of the harrowing of hell, “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending.  There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

We’re told, “Whatever hells we may find ourselves in, whether in this life or another, Jesus is there waiting for us—and He has the power to pull us out.  Hell’s days are numbered.  Indeed, the only thing that keeps us there is our refusal to accept God’s love—and we may genuinely hope this love will [at last] prove irresistible.”[1]

How much during this particular Lent is this a meaningful word?

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke of the ashes put on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I suggested perhaps this time we might not need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.

It’s possible we might be in our own Hades, indeed our own Hell, and yet, hope is here.  The word of good news, of gospel, is being delivered.

As we end the chapter, the good news of resurrection breaks forth from down below into glorious majesty.  Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 22).  We speak of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  How can we not also speak of the triumphal procession of Christ freeing the captives and defeating the grave—literally plundering death of its ultimate power?  Who else has gone to hell and back?

Angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to him.  This isn’t some abstract nicety.  I’m not sure how often we encounter actual angels, but authorities and powers are forces we run into every day.  We can think of visible authority, like government.  There is easily recognized power, like the power of knowledge.  (Teachers, would you agree with that?)

There are realities more elusive and unknown.  Many of them we choose.  With others, we allow ourselves to be chosen.  We obey the authorities of money, of fashion, of “what will the neighbors say?”  We choose the power of life and death in the multitude of ways they are expressed.

We build up, and we tear down.  We affirm, and we negate.  We help, and we hinder.  All of that stuff has been made subject, all has been made subordinate, to Christ.

So, what about this Lent?  Are we to give something up?  Should we give up that which keeps us from answering others with gentleness and reverence?  Should we give up that which keeps us from having a clear conscience?  Should we give up that which imprisons us?

Thanks be to God, we have one who goes before us, one who leads in procession for us, one who has gone to hell and back for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] godoftheodd.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/the-harrowing-of-hell-what-really-happens-between-good-friday-and-easter-sunday


crafting another way

When Banu and I were at seminary, there were three floors in the main building set aside for residence.  We lived on the third floor (mind you, in separate rooms before getting married!).  Up on the fourth floor, there were a number of students from India.  Constantly emanating from the community kitchen was the unmistakable scent of curry.  I think the aroma had seeped into every counter and shelf.  That strong smell would waft up and down the hallway.

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When you live with people from all over the world, you learn about a lot of different cultures.  And that could mean learning to appreciate—or at least to tolerate—the smell of curry, whether you like it or not!  (By the way, I do like curry—just not a whole lot of it at once!)

Try not to salivate too much, because I’ll be returning to the subject of food in a few minutes!

Speaking of different cultures, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, mentions a variety of them, as he and his friends travel around the Roman Empire.

In today’s reading, we hear about Tabitha, who lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv).  He calls her “a disciple” (v. 36).  It’s the only time in the Bible that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (μαθητρια, mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while the apostle Peter is in Lydda, a nearby town.  While he’s there, Tabitha dies.  Knowing that he’s in the neighborhood, some people send word, giving him the sad news.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas).  Luke’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile.  He has life experience in bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile.

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[“St. Tabitha” by reinkat]

Tabitha might be the same way.  One idea is that this woman with two names has, in her ministry, worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds.  She’s a “cultural hybrid.”  She’s at home in her own culture, but also in the cultures of the people around her.[1]

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity.  She can relate to many different people.  And she has done this in a loving way.  That’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter shows up, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

We’re told that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside and knelt down and prayed.  He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’  Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up” (v. 40).

As you can see, the lectionary appoints this text for the season of Easter.  (Which makes sense, with all of this rising from the dead business.)  Because of that, it’s been said “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.”[2]  In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting another way, a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately.  It speaks to the sense of art and beauty that we see.  Tabitha crafted wonderful garments to share with others who both admired and needed them.

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  That wouldn’t be a bad name!  The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure.  The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but even more importantly, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that is her life—and also in ours.

Ac 3Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from various backgrounds demonstrates in their life together.  Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”[3]

Why is that?  “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life.  If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life…”  [The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.]

“That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich.  And that is their message to us as well.”

One of the amazing things about the Holy Spirit is that there is always more than enough.  Can we trust that?  Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be a Pentecost community?  So often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do.  We miss out on abundance of Spirit, generosity of Spirit.  We miss out on celebration of Spirit.

Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage.  I like the way he closes the chapter.  After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin.  Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”  For sure, that’s a cause for celebration.  Do we honestly think he’s talking about a bunch of folks with long, grim faces?

Ac 4Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke ends the chapter by tossing this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43).  What’s going on with that?  Why should we care about his lodging accommodations?  Did his trip advisor screw up the itinerary?  Maybe a one-star rating is in order!

No, I think we can see a bit of another, a new direction of ministry.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work.  That’s “unclean” in a literal sense.  Handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky.  I imagine some of you know more about tanning than I do—which isn’t much!  It’s likely he would also be ritually unclean.  That is, he would be ritually impure, unable to worship in a proper, acceptable way.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random.  Peter, quite knowingly, stays in an unclean place.  Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job.  But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ.  It hasn’t been an easy transition.  To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

And it’s while he’s staying with Simon that he has a vision of God ringing the dinner bell, saying, “Come and get it!”  (I told you I’d get back to food.)  Hmm, so what’s on the menu?  Critters that fly around; critters that are creepy and crawly; critters that root around in the dirt.  In other words: delicious.  But then we have that ritually unclean business.

So Peter’s going nuts, breaking laws right and left.  But some laws should be broken.

It’s probably easy for us to dismiss ritual purity laws when it comes to stuff like food.  What about rules that say you can’t associate with certain kinds of people?  And you better not stay at their house!  Seriously people, in today’s society, we have to be vigilant against the transmission of cooties.  There’s a good reason for these guidelines.

Ac 5

In reality, there can be a real problem with codes of purity.  The way they exclude and separate people becomes unjust and hard-hearted.  And in the book of Acts, that painful truth slowly dawns on Peter and his friends.  In the next chapter, when he is called to visit Cornelius, the centurion, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).

What purity codes do we enforce?  In what ways do set up rules to keep people away?  How do we shun people, thinking that in doing so, we are serving God, even defending God?

Banu has noted, “I am always amazed about the churches where the main mission statement lists these words—‘Welcoming, friendly congregation…’  Then one wonders why nobody really pays any attention to the words.”  I’ve wondered about that myself.  Are they welcoming, regardless of socio-economic, sexual, racial, political, athletic, culinary orientation?

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them.  They are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it.  Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit.  We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized.  At times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome.  And if we learn anything from Peter staying with Simon the tanner, it might even be stinky!

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, again, it’s not a good idea to rush the job.  When we hinder or resist the movement of the Spirit in our lives and among each other, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

Ac 6

We are crafted to face the truth about ourselves, no matter how beautiful that might be!

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1625

[2] www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Living-Power-John-Holbert-04-15-2013.html

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1983), 131.


listening in the light

On the mountain of the Transfiguration, seeing Jesus in glory, along with Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to set up camp.  He wants to capture the moment; he wants to stay, take this instant and freeze it.  That is his proposal.  But as Luke tells us, he doesn’t know what in the world he’s talking about.

Then a voice sounds from on high, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 35).  Peter is basically told to shut his trap.  Or as the delightful Mt. T would put it, “Quit your jibba jabba!”

1 ps 99

In Psalm 99, the poet encourages anything but jibba jabba.  The whole world is exhorted to “praise [the Lord’s] great and awesome name” (v. 3).  If Peter, James, and John are struck by elation (and alarm) by their encounter on the mountain, the psalmist does one better when he proclaims, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!  He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!” (v. 1).

Peter would like to stop time; he wants to preserve the experience.

We do that as well, sometimes in trivial ways.  Some of us (and I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this) like to photograph the contents of our dinner plate.  But who am I to talk?  No doubt, I take too many pictures of my dog.  (Still, if I’m able to catch him yawning—with the sound he makes—I’m going to try to get that on video!  That would be an experience to preserve.)

Maybe you can understand what I’m trying to say.  We often want to freeze life, to take a timeout, for good or ill.  Life is calling our name, and we’re not always sure how to answer.  The psalmist invites us to enter in, to allow the transfiguration light to guide us.  The disciples would do well to heed what the psalmist says.  They need to listen.  That goes for us, too.

As with much of Hebrew poetry, Psalm 99 is well constructed.  Stan Mast, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, says something about it.  “It deliberately uses the Hebrew number of perfection and completeness, the number 7, mentioning the Lord seven times and using 7 pronouns to refer to that Lord.”[1]  And in three places, it points out that the Lord is holy.  (Three is also a key number.)

Structure in poetry can be important.  It imposes a certain discipline, even in limericks.

2 ps 99A few days ago, Banu and I were at Wegmans.  They had the tasting stations set up around the store.  The one at the deli had something called chicken epicurean sausage.  I was struck by the word “epicurean.”  It dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Very roughly speaking, he taught that happiness is the greatest good in life.  He focused on simple pleasures.  Today, we think of an epicure as someone who likes the fine things, especially fine food and drink.  I told Banu it reminded me of an old limerick:

“An epicure dining at Crewe, / found quite a large mouse in his stew. / Said the waiter, ‘Don’t shout, / or wave it about, / or the rest will be wanting one too!’”

Admittedly, that’s not the best example of showing the discipline of structure!  Still, structure can mean being careful to transmit the message, and it helps in recalling it if there’s good rhyme and rhythm.  After all, it’s easier to remember something if you listen to the music!

Psalm 99 is broken into three sections, each of which has something to contribute to the whole.

Verses 1 to 3 praise the Lord for reigning worldwide—being king of the world!  Verses 4 and 5 praise the Lord for justice.  Verses 6 to 9 praise the Lord for entering into relationship.  Moses the lawgiver, and Aaron and Samuel, perhaps prototypes of priest and prophet, are highlighted.  Of course, the starting point throughout is the focus on Israel: in Zion, in Jacob, in the pillar of cloud—with each of them expressing a different stage in its history.

I won’t go into great detail, but I do find verses 4 and 5 especially interesting.  After the first section urges all nations to praise the Lord, we now get a sense of who this Lord is.  “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (v. 4).

What does justice mean here?  What is justice for this Lord?  The God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is an ethical God.  By that, I mean this God cares about ethics; this God cares about how we behave.  This God is not like other gods, the blood drinking gods who lash out in blind fury if they don’t get their sacrifices.  As long as they are appeased, they don’t care what their worshippers do.  (Sometimes we treat our Lord the same way.  If we pay our dues, what we do doesn’t mean quite so much!)

3 ps 99

Reinforcing that idea is verse 5: “Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.  Holy is he!”  We are called to worship a holy God.  Verse 9 agrees: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.”  We are called to worship twice in Psalm 99.  We are called to listen to these words.

Stan Mast comments, “Unlike the gods of the nations who cannot hear or speak, God both hears the cries of his people and speaks in words they could hear.”  God speaks through visions and dreams and written words and through his servants, the prophets, and of course, through Jesus the Messiah.  God speaks through the still, small voice of prayer—the sound of silence.  We are called to listen, like those early disciples.

Listening is easier said than done.  Listening is hard work.  Prayer and meditation are hard work.

There’s a concept originating from Buddhism, but I think it applies to everyone.  It’s called “the monkey mind.”  It refers to a sense of restlessness, thoughts bouncing from one thing to the other, constant chattering.  It’s called “monkey mind” because it’s like monkeys swinging from one branch to another.  One thought leads to another and another and another.

4 ps 99Whenever we enter silence, it is inevitable that thoughts will surface.  “I need to do that today.”  “What’s that dog barking at?”  “I wish I could get that stupid song out of my head.”  Thoughts will come and go, but the trick is to not hold on to them.  Let them pass through.  I believe that, at least in some way, it’s expressed by St. Paul’s comment on “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Ph 4:7).  We can hear the voice of transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

I will not claim to be an expert practitioner of what I’m saying.  As I said, it takes work—and patience.

As I said a moment ago, the psalmist calls us to worship.  We are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (“Eucharist” comes from the Greek word which means “to give thanks” [ευχαριστεω, eucharisteō].  It appears all throughout the New Testament.)

Today being Transfiguration, it provides the theme.  Part of the service is the Great Thanksgiving.  It’s the prayer reciting the story of salvation, the history of salvation.  Here’s part of the prayer:

“You are holy, O God of majesty, / and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. / On a lonely mountain / his human body was transfigured by your divine splendor. / In his face, we have glimpsed your glory. / In his life, we see your love.”

Here’s a question: how does listening tie together worship and the justice the psalmist is talking about?  Does worship lead us to seek justice outside these walls?

Our friend Stan says, “This emphasis on justice and righteousness is something many North American Christians don’t appreciate as much as we should.  We praise God for his grace and mercy and love, not his righteousness and justice and judgment.”  He does say “many” Christians focus on God’s mercy and not God’s righteousness and judgment.  In reality, all of those things go together.  You can’t have one without the rest.

5 ps 99However, it’s definitely not “all” Christians who take that approach.  There are many who think of God’s judgment as someone wielding a sword preparing for execution, rather than someone making sure all is put right—all is restored to proper balance.

I’m sure none of you have ever encountered this: the one with a scowling disposition, harshly critical, the finger-wagging party pooper.

Still, the point is made.  We who live in warm houses, who have plenty of food to eat, who live in safety, too often can’t relate to those around the world and those here at home who do not have such things.

Listening to the voice from on high, listening to the voice within—that still, small voice of the Spirit—we are called to move into the light leading us into action.  We listen in the light; we listen to the one who is called the Beloved, the Chosen.  We are guided by the light shining in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-c/?type=the_lectionary_psalms


centered in confession

I want to begin with a part of our worship service.  It deals with confession, and that’s not a confession of faith.  It’s a confession of sin.  And being done as a congregation, it’s a corporate confession of sin.  It is done as a body.  Having said that, I want to start with a question.

I imagine we’ve all been in this situation—probably more than once, maybe much more than once.  Have you ever been told to apologize when you were caught doing something wrong?  Have you ever been told to apologize, even if you didn’t mean it?  Maybe you were just sorry you got caught?  “Tell your sister you’re sorry for pulling her hair.”  (To which you might respond mumbling, “She deserved it.”)

1 is 6

How many times have you told someone else to say you’re sorry?  (Not having kids, I haven’t had many occasions to do that.)

Have you ever been told to apologize for something you did not do?  Have you been punished for something you didn’t do?

Now, back to the confession of sin.  Does it ever seem like you’re being told say you’re sorry?  Or moving even further, does it ever seem you’re being told to apologize for something you haven’t done?  I have heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a certain prayer of confession.  Does it ever seem like we’re just reciting the words without meaning them?

Why bother with it at all?  Our scripture readings might shed some light on the matter.

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah 6 is one of the more memorable scripture passages.  (It’s also one of the scriptures for Trinity Sunday.)  It features the call of the prophet Isaiah.

There’s the glorious and frightful vision of Isaiah.  The Lord is perched high and mighty on the throne, his garb filling the temple.  The seraphim are flying around, praising with loud voices—voices so powerful that they’re shaking the whole place.  It’s truly an awe-inspiring scene.  And it is “awe”: a vision of astonishment, wonder, and fear.

In the presence of that sublimity, that transcendence, what can the prophet say?  “Woe is me!  I am lost” (v. 5).  Faced with that majestic beauty, he confesses, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Isaiah admits his irreverence, his unworthiness.  So where do we go from here?

How about taking a glowing, fiery coal and pressing it against his lips?  That should sear off the sin.  (Please remember, this is a vision.  He’s not in danger of having his mouth burned off!)

Okay, those unclean lips have been purified; they’ve gone through the fire.  Now what?  The Lord puts out a call of recruitment: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Having now been pronounced worthy, Isaiah ventures to say, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8).

2 is 6
Quick note: the lectionary reading ends there.  The rest of the chapter has some unfortunate language for those hoping the prophet will say everything’s copacetic.  There’s some rather grim stuff about people being abandoned, left to their own devices.  But don’t worry, it won’t last forever.  As soon as the cities have been depopulated, the land devasted, the wild animals taking up residence in houses—that might be long enough.

I want us to take note of something.  At what point does the narrative change?  When does the tide turn?  It’s when Isaiah confesses his fault, his missing the mark (which is one definition of sin).  That’s the hinge on which the story turns.  That’s when the reverse fire brigade is sent in.

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

Our text in St. Luke’s gospel also has a bit of drama.  Jesus is at the lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), teaching the people.  He’s doing a good job, because they keep moving closer and closer to him.  Picture him backing up and backing up until he’s ankle deep, then knee deep—pretty soon, he’ll be swimming.  He sees a couple of boats belonging to some fishermen, and he gets in one of them.  Jesus needs to push off a little into water; he needs some breathing room.

After he’s done talking, he calls out to Simon Peter and says, “Let’s go out and do some fishing.”  Peter’s been cleaning his net, and, truth be told, he’s dog-tired.  He tells Jesus, “We were out there all night and didn’t catch jack squat—but if you insist.”  So he and his friends head out, and lo and behold, they catch so many fish their nets are about to break.

Peter knows Jesus is doing more than giving great fishing advice.  He is in the presence of greatness.  He is awestruck (to revisit that word), and he falls to his knees.  Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (v. 8).  His friends are also gripped with astonishment, including his good buddies, James and John.

Just as with Isaiah, Peter acknowledges his sinfulness, his unworthiness.  At that moment of humble admission, he is encouraged and elevated by Jesus.  He says to him, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear not!  And just as with Isaiah, Peter is given an assignment; this assignment is a promise.

3 is 6Just at the moment when he has failed as a fisherman, Peter is given a different quarry.  Jesus promises him “from now on you will be catching people,” or some might say, “fishers of men” (v. 10).  It’s a life changing experience.  Peter and his friends leave their boats behind, the tools of their trade; they leave everything and follow him.

I began by talking about the prayer of confession, and there’s nothing like coming clean.  And it is indeed a case of being told to say, “I’m sorry.  I apologize.”  It’s a good thing that we’re told to apologize.  We are called to face ourselves, to unburden ourselves, to cast our cares on the Lord.  One hopes that’s part of our private prayer life, but this, as was noted before, an act of the community of faith.  It is an act of the body.

There’s a particular subject I would like us to consider, and it involves the community; it involves the body of Christ.  It deals with conflict, and too often, that involves sin.

Michael Gulker is the founder of the Colossian Forum, which deals with conflict and Christian discipleship.  It draws its inspiration from Colossians 1:17—all things hold together in Christ.  He and some friends recognized how the church was facing serious problems, but not always dealing with them in a Christlike way, to put it mildly!

He said, “We started gathering people of different stripes around a variety of topics.  We said we were going to worship and follow the structure of the liturgy and put an argument where the homily went and then ask at the end whether the Spirit had produced fruit.  If it did, then our love of God and neighbor is richer and deeper.  And if not, then what do we need to repent of, lament, confess?”[1]

You might say they took the prayer of confession of sin and just ran with it.

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I’ve sometimes wondered if our worship could ever be dangerous—not safe and cuddly, not ever challenging.  Would it be dangerous to not shy away from the tricky issues?  Would it be dangerous to ask what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to say about climate change, racism, abortion, capital punishment, war, gun control, the pros and cons of eating squid, all those delicious issues and more!

Gulker said they were speaking with some youth, and this was one of the observations.  “They said they were interested in Jesus ‘but the church doesn’t smell like Jesus.’  They were saying that the church just smells like the rest of the culture.”

He continues, “We confess that all things hold together in Christ, not because of something we did, but because of something that has already been done, and we get to participate in that.  To do that well, we know that we have to pray.  We have to meditate on the Scriptures, together, across our differences.”

I said earlier I’ve heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a prayer of confession.  There’s the question, “Don’t we typically go into conflict thinking, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong?’  There’s a lot of work just going into conflict with humility and realizing, ‘Maybe I’m wrong.”

There’s something dangerously freeing about, as our friend Michael says, “coming together to worship and [being] honest and [being] willing to get it wrong together…  We can get it wrong.  We can tell the truth about when we get it wrong because when we do, we can confess our sins and God is glorified.  People have forgotten this.  They forget it the moment they walk into a conflict.  So to simply remind people of that is gospel.  You can watch them light up and taste the gospel.  They’ve forgotten it.”

What a wonderful and powerful statement: people light up and taste the gospel.

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Did you know it’s possible to disagree with someone and not think they’re stupid or evil?  We can have a discussion and wonder how something might lead us to more fully love God and neighbor and creation.  We can come together and see how the good news of Jesus Christ shines on what divides us.

We are centered in confession.

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/michael-gulker-conflict-and-christian-discipleship


decisions, decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting in that is a pretty good decision.

 

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

[2] Kiechle, 32-33.

[3] Kiechle, 69.

[4] Kiechle, 79.

[5] Kiechle, 91-92.

[6] Kiechle, 76-77.


denying the best within us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Chittister, 98.


have you not known? have you not heard?

Have you not known?

Our Book of Order, when it calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), agrees with Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah, if you like).  An idol is the creation of workers, goldsmiths, and artisans, as the prophet tells us (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.  By the way, how many of us have turned off our phones, or at least, set them on vibrate?)

Have you not heard?

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

1 isaiahWe’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  Still, going from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, we have to be careful about overestimating the worth of our own efforts, our own accomplishments.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?

There’s something I read in Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped.  (I imagine he’ll say a couple more things about it this afternoon!)  It’s something I’ve used as a devotional.

About halfway through the book, he brings up the story of the poor widow.[1]  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.  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 while they were having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Well!  Would I be mistaken in saying that somebody needs to do a flip?

But it’s true.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structure that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.

2 isaiahDear friends, I have to tell you: we are the system!  We are part of the religious and political structure.  I must confess (and I’m likely not alone in this) that I’m not fond of being part of the system.  I think that feeling was especially heightened in college when I started reading those revolutionary and counter-cultural authors.  And it was also in college that I started reading the scriptures, and for the first time in my life, I really began to understand them.  Talk about revolutionary and counter-cultural!

Still, being part of the system is neither good nor bad.  The system is how things operate; it is how things happen.  It occurs to me I might rephrase what I just said.  The system actually is a good thing.  Think of the ecosystem.  It’s how life operates.  I think that’s a good thing!

The question is, what do we do with the system?  Do we make it into a beast?  Does it turn us into beasts?  Do we give in to cynicism?

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (v. 27).  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, giving power to the faint, strengthening the powerless.  Isn’t that amazing?  We don’t have to be beasts!

Therefore, if we have a God who makes such promises, who follows through on those promises, what is our response?

My wife Banu and I have been in this presbytery for a little over a year, so in that time, we’ve gotten a pretty decent lay of the land.  Part of the lay of the land is rather obvious: we are a presbytery in transition.  It’s a transition in structure; it’s a transition in terms of several folks retiring.  And regarding structure, the Leadership Team is an expression of that transition.

Because of all of that, we are in a special position.  This is something you learn as interim pastors.  Transition presents us with new opportunities.  We are given permission (as if we don’t already have it!) to try new things.  Unfortunately, sometimes when presented with new opportunities, we are too quick to say “no.”  We try to find ways it won’t work.  We try to find ways to get out of doing it ourselves.  (Or could it be I’m the only one here who’s ever done that?)

In Acts 2, St. Peter, drawing on the wisdom of the prophet Joel, says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.

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I wonder, do we quench the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh?  Do we as a presbytery do that?  Do we idolize our system and make it an agent of tyranny?  I understand: we don’t throw people into an iron maiden or have them drawn and quartered!  Even so, does tyranny reveal itself among us by ignoring prophets, averting our eyes from visions, and disregarding the dreamers?  I don’t know.  Maybe.

In our opening prayer, we asked God, “Be with members of our presbytery.  Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”

Empty slogans and senseless controversy?  What’s wrong with them?  They’re so much fun!  They make us feel like we’re getting stuff done.

Again, we have to heed the warning about idolatry and tyranny.  That’s our challenge as a presbytery.  That’s our challenge as congregations.  That’s our challenge as Christians.  That’s our challenge as those in Christ, those who love Christ.  Is our love sufficient?  I don’t think so; it always falls short.

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But here’s the good news.  We are promised that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

 

[1] Doug Pagitt, Flipped (Convergent Books: 2015), 97-102.