Presbyterian Church

let’s go crazy

Of all the things said about Jesus in the Bible, only once was his mental stability openly questioned.  When we look at what led up to that, his actions and statements, maybe there was good reason to wonder about it!

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Mark 3 begins with Jesus healing a man in the synagogue.  So far, so good.  However, he does this on the sabbath, and according to the law, the Torah, that constitutes work.  The authorities start plotting against him.

Jesus goes to the lakeside, and the crowd follows him.  He heals many people, and he commands the unclean spirits who would identify him to shut up.  Later, we see him going up the mountain and calling twelve of his followers to him, he gives them the name “apostle.”  The word means “one who is sent.”

We pick up the reading with verse 20, which has Jesus going home to Nazareth.  As fate would have it, he draws another crowd.  Word has gotten out about this Jesus.

So often when we read the scriptures, we fail to envision the scene.  We don’t hear the sounds; we don’t smell the smells.  When this throng of humanity comes flooding down the street, it draws some attention, to say the least.  Just when you think too many people are already there, here come some more!  The mob keeps pressing closer and closer.  More and more bodies keep getting crammed together.  (This might be a good time to imagine those smells.)

It gets so bad Jesus and his friends don’t even have enough room to enjoy a decent meal.

Meanwhile inside the house, Jesus’ family is frantic.  They call out to him, “Why are all these people here?”  “Why are you embarrassing us?”  “What will the neighbors think?”  Indeed, what will the neighbors think?  With his behavior, Jesus is drawing unwanted attention to his family.  Things might get out of hand, which the Romans no doubt would take as their cue to crash the party.  The Bible says, “they went out to restrain him.”  The Greek word (κρατεω, krateō) is a forceful one.  It means “to grab” or “to seize.”  They want to yank him inside.

Here’s where we get to the point of wondering if Jesus actually does have a screw loose.

Let me pause for a moment and take notice of the saying, “Every family has one.”  For example, that could be the uncouth uncle who makes inappropriate comments.  Maybe some of us fit into that category of “every family has one.”  Maybe we were (or still are) the rebel, the snob, the perfectionist, or something else altogether.  With Jesus, I imagine his family isn’t quite sure what to make of him.  That probably had been always the case.

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We learn what people are saying: “He has gone out of his mind” (v. 21).  The word is εξιστημι (existēmi), which means “to throw out of position,” “to be beside oneself,” “to displace.”  Jesus’ mind has been displaced; he has gone insane.  By the way, it’s possible his family is included in the folks saying that.

If they are, they might feel the need to protect Jesus.  Scribes from Jerusalem have heard some stories, and when they see what’s happening, they conclude, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (v. 22).

If this were simply their own opinion, it would be bad enough.  But it’s probably more.  These scribes have laid a legal charge.  When he is accused of demonic practices, he is accused of practicing magic, sorcery.  If that’s true, he would be breaking the law.  Deuteronomy 18, among other places, condemns one “who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead” (vv. 10-11).  This is a serious indictment.

They accuse him of trafficking with Beelzebul.  Who in the world is that?  The word comes from the Philistine god who was “lord of the heavenly dwelling.”  The Israelites had some fun and called him “Beelzebub,” which meant “lord of dung.”  There are a number of places in the Old Testament where a slight altering in spelling resulted in a change from the sublime to the ridiculous.  They turned something revered by their enemies into a laughing stock.

3 mk Actually, it sounds like something an elementary school student would have thought up: “lord of poop.”  And going along with the insects attracted to such a substance, he became known as “lord of the flies.”  However, over time, he morphed into something truly evil.

Very quickly, Jesus responds by saying if Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?  It would surely fall.  How could that possibly describe Jesus?  Furthermore, to rob a strong man’s house, he has to be bound.  Jesus is indirectly saying he is stronger than Satan.

He has one more thing to say to the scribes and the people packed together.  This has caused no end of consternation and confusion down through the ages.  I will quote it at length: “‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (vv. 28-30).

People will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.  I think we understand the “sins” part, but what about the “blasphemies”?  Can we recognize blasphemy as an insult or curse against God or that which is holy?  Sorry folks, I will not give you an example!  That last word, “utter,” is key.  A blasphemy which is spoken, or even written, can be forgiven.

But what about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?  It doesn’t seem like we’re dealing with something uttered, something said.  After all, it is “an eternal sin.”  It can never be forgiven.  What could it possibly be?

Presbyterian minister James Ayers has some helpful comments.  “Here is the rope to pull you out of the quicksand; the rope holds no grudge if you reject it, but you cannot be rescued without it.  Here are the paramedics to extricate you from the wreck in which you are trapped; if you shout curses and slap their hands away, you will be unable to escape on your own.  They will not be offended, but will think you must be in shock and will go on trying to rescue you.”[1]

It seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an action, not an utterance.  Perhaps we could say it is a lack of action, an inaction.  It is a refusal; it is indeed a rejection.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a continual turning away from the liberty, from the salvation, conveyed by the Spirit.  That’s why it is eternal.  It’s a never-ending state of freely chosen slavery.  At some point, slavery simply takes control.

For the boys accusing Jesus, their slavery has them truly believing that something holy is actually evil.

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Here’s a word of comfort: if you are concerned—if you wonder—about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then you haven’t committed it!

Just as he began the passage with Jesus’ family, Mark ends it on the same note.  They decide to come outside and send someone to go fetch him.  They tell Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (v. 32).  He says something rather unexpected.  He doesn’t say, “Tell them to hold on.  I’ll be there soon.”  Jesus doesn’t want to assure them that he’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.

Rather, he redefines, he reimagines, he expands, the definition of family.  “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (vv. 33-34).

Jesus’ family wants him to come home.  He has found a new home.  This speaks to those who have taken a decisive step on the spiritual path.  It’s not necessarily the case their old home was bad.  Perhaps it was wonderful.  But they have found a new truth, a better truth.

Those who have had a dramatic, or sudden, conversion experience probably can relate to this.  However, it’s not necessary to point to a particular moment in time to see oneself pictured here.  Many of you have been in the church your entire life.  It might be you look back and think, “Yes, that’s when it really clicked for me.”

There has been that sense of repentance, of μετανοια (metanoia), literally a “change of mind,” a revolution of mind, leading to a change of path, a turning around.

Having said that stuff about family, I quickly add that those who would manipulate others love this scripture.  We can think of cults and churches with cult-like behavior.  Followers are told, “We’ll do the thinking for you.  Welcome to the family!”  That isn’t the freedom of the gospel, the good news; it’s the slavery of the bad news.

I have a quick story to tell.  I’ll leave out some pertinent details to speed things along.  A few days after arriving at seminary in Philadelphia, I decided to go for a walk and explore the area.  I came upon a group having a car wash.  It turned out to be a church group, and they invited me to worship.  I went for a couple of weeks, but decided it wasn’t for me.

One night before I decided to leave, we were at somebody’s house and having a Bible study.  It was the strangest one I ever attended.  I was literally in the middle of a circle; people were sitting on chairs and couches around me.  They kept directing questions to me—no one else—about what it meant to be a disciple.  I was talking about following Jesus, etc., etc.  At some point, I decided to have some fun with them; I asked, “Am I giving the right answers?”

5 mkThere was a really creepy family vibe to that bunch.  (Though to be sure, not quite like the Manson family!)

A couple of weeks after that, two guys showed up one night at my seminary room.  I had met one of them; the other one I had never seen before.  This was at 11:00.  They said they were wondering what happened to me.  I said I had found another church.  (It was the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.)  The one I had previously met looked around the room and said, “Just because you’re in seminary doesn’t mean you’re a disciple.”  I replied, “I think you guys are a cult.”  They took off, and I never saw them again.

If you hadn’t figured this out already, their definition of disciple was joining their creepy family-like church.

Jesus gave this response to those asking about his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 35).  Jesus never employed mind games.  He didn’t coerce people.  In fact, when someone decided they weren’t ready to commit, he sent them on their way.

One thing I find interesting about Mark when talking about Jesus’ family is that he doesn’t mention Mary.  I imagine if there were one person in the family who understood Jesus, it would be his mother.  Still, it’s also likely at times he was a puzzle even to her.

Whatever the case, it’s okay to be puzzled.  We’re not expected to understand it all at once.  Actually, we’re not expected to ever understand it all.  There is room for all in the family of Jesus.  “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  If you love God, I’m with you.

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["Embraced" by Banu Moore]

Call me crazy, but I believe Jesus says to me there’s room for the creepy family crew.  There’s room for those who disagree with me politically…  who disagree with me theologically…  those who would shame and exclude me…  those I don’t like…  those who don’t like me…  those who love onions…  Jesus welcomes you and me into his family!

Call me crazy, but I believe there’s room for all of us.

 

[1] James Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51:2 (Apr 1997), 182.


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


idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of 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.)

Have you not heard?

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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).

We’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.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

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?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

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There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “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’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

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Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

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Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

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This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


presence among us

I want to begin with a confession.  I think I might be improving in this particular regard, but I still have a long way to go.  I too often feel like I need to air my opinions, especially on controversial subjects.  I fear I am far from alone in that.  Go to Facebook or scroll down through the comments on almost any article, and you’ll see what I mean.  Watch what passes for news in our country.

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

And it’s in the church—sometimes it feels like the church has turned fighting into a fine art.  We ask, “How can you be a Christian and think that?  How can you be a Christian and support him or her?”

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When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches. (Not that their being Episcopal Churches had anything to do with it.  I love the Episcopal Church!)  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it, perhaps plotting some ever so slight retribution!

I’m trying to give an example of what Jesus references in Matthew 18 when he speaks of the offenses, the sins, that go on in the church.  When I mentioned this before, I jokingly said some might consider this to be a matter of life and death.  Due to this coronavirus craziness, that has taken on a nature which is quite disconcerting, bordering on the truth!

Jesus starts this off by saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (v. 15).  (The NRSV has “member of the church” instead of “brother” or “sister.”)

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

That’s a good example of being unwilling to “own” your complaint, a refusal to accept responsibility.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.  If we meet with them alone, there’s less chance of an automatic defense reaction—especially if the person doesn’t want to lose face in front of his or her crowd.  Actually, that could wind up being dangerous, depending on how prone to violence the crowd might be!

The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

2 mtI want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is never a wise course of action.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is likely a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to…”  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Confidentiality honors and builds respect; secrecy dishonors and destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[2]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

On a related issue, sometimes we need to check our sense of humor.  Understand, I’m not talking about a really serious matter.  Still, being able to laugh at oneself can take the sting out of an intended slight.  It takes away all the fun of insulting someone if they don’t get offended!  (I know, I know—I remember how I started the sermon.)

Back to the main point.  What if a meeting with one or two others present doesn’t work?  What if there is no peaceful resolution?

Jesus says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  It can take many forms, some helpful and some absolutely horrific.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

It’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

It’s the duty of every church member prayerfully and seriously!  That’s a high bar.

However, what’s the deal with considering someone to be like “a Gentile and a tax collector”?  That seems a bit harsh.  Some have tried to soften the blow by focusing on Jesus’ commandment to love, and not indulging in such offensive behavior.  It’s been pointed out that what is meant is such a person should “be regarded as outside the community.”[3]  It’s a decision made by the person themself.

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Having said that, we should be careful about watering down Jesus’ words.  Sometimes they should hit us in the face like a bucket of cold…water!

Then he gets into the subject of binding and loosing.  There have been all kinds of meanings attached to this.  Some traditions speak of “binding the devil” or “binding Satan.”  One day in class at the Assemblies of God college I attended, a fellow student said that very thing—we can bind the devil.  Our professor stopped and said, “Then do it.  Bind the devil.”  There was an embarrassing silence.  I guess he wanted us to figure out what binding the devil actually meant.

Binding and loosing really refers to a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it didn’t apply.

The passage ends with verse 20, with the well-known words: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The verse is almost always used in the contexts of worship and prayer, and it is appropriate for that.  However, that is not how it is used here.  The “two or three gathered in my name” appears in the context of discipline.  The presence among us is about confronting or challenging.

They are words of wisdom, based on the requirement in Deuteronomy 19: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing….  Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (v. 15).  The concern is to avoid relying on a false witness.

When Jesus says, “I am there among them,” he’s drawing on a rabbinic principle, which holds “two that sit together and are [studying] words of Torah have the Shekinah [the glory of God] among them.”[4]  Jesus is the glory of God.  Jesus is the presence, the glory of God among us when we gather in his name—when we gather in his authority.

As already said about correction by the church, considering the presence of Jesus in discipline can be tricky.  And understand, “discipline” is far more than simply enforcing rules.  It is about training, getting into shape.  Discipline can be intimidating.

Karen Chamis, who is our presbytery’s Resource Presbyter, notes the fear that would hinder us from helping each other on the path.[5]

“Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be,” she says, “and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.”  She speaks of those who thrive on intimidation.  “It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm.  Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

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[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

“And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations.  We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle.  We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution…  We forget who we are.  We forget Whose we are…because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.”

That presence among us is present in worship.  It is present in prayer.  It is present in discipline.  And today we are reminded that the presence of Christ is present in sacrament.  It is present where love is unleashed, and to borrow a word from Chamis, it is “fierce.”  Maybe that’s why love itself, in its unbridled power, can be very intimidating!

“Where two or three are gathered…”  The presence in worship, in prayer, in discipline, in sacrament—the presence of Christ means fear has been defeated by love.  We are given the courage and grace to help each other walk the path, even if means correcting each other—in love.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 6.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 220.

[4] sacred-texts.com/jud/sjf/sjf05.htm

[5] cayugasyracuse.org/index.php/blog/e-newsletter-presbytery-matters-september-3-2020/


reset button—to hit or not to hit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Ryan Gosling poses a hermeneutical question]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] χαιρω (chairō)

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

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

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

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

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

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


love, food, and toilet paper

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

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

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

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(Did they have toilet paper?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

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


how are we called?

“He was a coward.”  That was Banu’s comment on reflecting how Abram had Sarai pose as his sister.  That is, he had her pose as his sister in order to save his own neck.  Upon entering Egypt, he knew that the Pharaoh’s officials would want to take her, because she was a good-looking woman.

1 gn(I’ll use the names they were given a few years later, Abraham and Sarah.)

I will admit that it might be hard to argue with her assessment of Abraham’s decision.  (That is, his being a coward!)  We’ll look at what might have been behind his choice in a few moments.

Once again, and I mention this from time to time, the lectionary compilers tended to edit out embarrassing or troublesome verses.  The reading in Genesis for today ends at verse 4.  Showing one of the great figures of faith like Abraham treat his wife the way he does might not seem especially heroic.  But we need to pay attention to that stuff.  If God’s calling of Abraham is to have any real meaning for us, then we should see how that gets worked out in, say, our own messy and complicated lives.

Still, as I just said, we’ll be getting to the too-often deleted aspect of the story momentarily.

As for the commonly-agreed-upon heroic aspect of the story, it’s not for nothing that Abraham is given the title “Father” Abraham—that the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their history back to him.  The whole thing got started when, somehow, the Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (v. 1).

What precisely does that mean?  How did Abraham receive that call from God?  Was he hearing voices?  Did he have an exceptionally vivid dream?

Maybe it was a gradually growing awareness.  Some have suggested that Abraham grew disenchanted with the worship that was practiced in his homeland—worship of the sun and moon.  At some point, he couldn’t take it anymore, or perhaps, some people couldn’t take him anymore!

2 gnIn any event, as one writer tells us, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was…no routine expedition of several hundred miles.  Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history.  The all-important commencement is…‘Go forth.’”[1]

The part of the message that seals the deal is in verses 2 and 3: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  Okay, not bad: God will bless me, and I will bless others.  Now those others get drawn into the picture.  “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

That last line can also be translated as “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

What can we make of all that blessing?  As Christians, we stand in that tradition, the blessing of the call of Abraham and Sarah.  It’s important to include Sarah; Abraham could not have done very much without her.  Apparently, one of those things would be using her to make sure he stayed alive while in Egypt!

Verses 2 and 3 promise the blessing of becoming a great nation—of being a conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth.  Being a blessing means several things, among them being a source of good will, a source of shalom, a source of light.

As for that business of the calling of Abraham having meaning for us, Dan Clendenin refers to what he calls “Abraham in Three Movements.”[2]

“God’s call upon Abraham’s life,” he says, “is a call that’s repeated to each one of us today.  It’s a call that subverts conventional wisdom, and so it can feel counter-intuitive, for it’s a call to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears—fear of the unknown that we can’t control (ignorance), fear of others who are different from us (inclusion), and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities (impotence).”

Whenever I’ve thought of God’s call to Abraham to “go forth,” I’ve usually had the first of those three in mind.  I’ve thought of the unknown, with whatever fear and foreboding go with it.  He and some close family members are launching out into foreign territory.  This involves a different culture, with unfamiliar customs.  This involves moving from one’s kin, which would leave one vulnerable in many ways.

Clendenin combines the fear of the unknown with fear of others who are different and fear of powerlessness.  He says that Abraham “had to leave not only his geographic place.  He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger,” the tendency to exclude the alien.

3 gn Which of Abraham’s three “movements” speaks most to you: fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different, or fear of powerlessness?  Which of the three would most likely hold you back?  Is there one of those fears that you’ve seen someone else conquer that gave, or continues to give you respect for them?

This speaks to us not only as individuals, but also as a congregation.  The same “movements,” the same fears to confront, affects churches as well.  All of this goes into answering the question, “How are we called?”  We can emphasize different words in that question and come up with different nuances.

Now, as for that apparently less-honorable part of our story, in which Abraham portrays Sarah as his sister, things become a little fuzzy.

E. A. Speiser tells us, “In Hurrian society [Abram was from Haran] the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the [legal] status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely than breaches of marriage contracts.”[3]

In other words, it’s going to be bad news if you touch my wife, but if you touch my sister, you’re in for a world of hurt!

In fact, Chana Weisberg argues that Abraham showed such respect for Sarah that the question could be asked, “Was Abraham the first feminist?”[4]

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I mention all this, though not mainly for judging Abraham’s quality of character.  Instead, I’m wondering if Abraham is being obedient or disobedient to God’s call.  More specifically, I’m wondering if adapting to culture constitutes part of what it means to be called.

Admittedly, it is difficult to compare moral codes.  We are separated, not only by the distance, but by the time—four thousand years.  Their world was quite different from ours.

There’s also the element of desperation.  As verse 10 tells us, after Abraham arrived at his destination, there was a famine.  He was forced to go “to Egypt to reside there as an alien [we’ve just heard that word], for the famine was severe in the land.”  He was a refugee, dependent upon the kindness of others.  Factors beyond his control influenced him, even compelled him.  Factors beyond our control can do the same thing to us.

Still, the question of culture is timeless.  In working out our calling, we always have to deal with the culture around us.  It’s inescapable; we are immersed in our culture and in our subcultures.  Fish in water don’t know they are wet.  (Don’t ask me how I know that.)  Culture shapes how we perceive the world.  That’s why it’s important to learn about other cultures; it helps us to be more objective about our own.  It helps us, as best we can, to stand outside of it and look through the eyes of others.

There is also church culture; there is also congregational culture.  In a congregational system, there are written rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  We have our congregational bylaws.  As Presbyterians, we have our Book of Order.  But there are probably hundreds of unwritten rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  One reason for that is because everyone brings their own culture, their own experiences, to the table.

Imagine a pond on a quiet day.  Now picture throwing a rock into that pond.  The ripples spread out in all directions.  If someone else throws a rock into the pond, the ripples intersect.  Now imagine all of us throwing rocks into that pond.  Ripples are bouncing around everywhere.  Those interactions lead to the unwritten rules.  Otherwise, there is chaos!  (Although, sometimes a little chaos can be a good thing!)

What names, what rules, does our culture give us?  I’m fond of being called a “consumer.”  According to our economic system, my calling is to “consume.”  Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be more than a little unsettling.

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That makes it all the more important to get a handle on the question, “How are we called?”  And going a little further, like Abraham, how are we called to bless?

A few years ago, Banu and I were invited to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

I did one which was inspired by an instructor I had in Clinical Pastoral Education.  What that meant for me was a student chaplaincy at a hospital, the result of which was my discovery that I was not cut out to be a hospital chaplain!  Still, I’m glad I was required to do it, being mandatory for Presbyterian ordination.  It was a good experience.  I really liked our instructor, although at times he tended to have a bit of a potty mouth!

There was one thing he had us practice which I thought was especially valuable.  He would challenge us to not use “God talk.”  That is, to avoid language that, for example, referenced “God” or “salvation” or “faith.”  It really forced us to stretch ourselves, to dig deep, to say what we meant by those words.

You might find this impossible to believe, but there are people who have actually had bad experiences with church or with Christians.  “God talk” can be a trigger for all kinds of negative stuff.  And then, there are those who simply don’t know what we’re talking about.

So that was my challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using “God talk.”  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.

5 gnFor many of them, they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise didn’t even take a half hour, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

I will freely admit, it is not easy for us church people to avoid using “God talk.”  It is not easy at all.  It’s not easy for me.  Again, it forces us to explain what we mean.  But it is well worth the effort; it is well worth practicing.  It helps us to speak with others with understanding and one hopes, with compassion.

In the end, this business of culture pays off well for Abraham (and dare I say, Sarah).  He entered Egypt without; he is leaving Egypt with—a lot!  The chapter closes, “Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had” (v. 20).  He’s on his way, following the call to “go forth.”  It’s central to how he is called.

How are we called?

 

[1] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 88.

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080211JJ.shtml

[3] Speiser, 92.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/2235031/jewish/Was-Abraham-the-First-Feminist.htm


after the fire

It’s not every presbytery meeting that has a worship service that seems especially meaningful to me, which is understandable, since not every service can speak to everyone in the same way every time.  Still, I’ve been to some meetings when it felt like the people putting the service together were trying to be a little too cute.  Sometimes it’s just been boring.

Please understand, I’m not expecting to be entertained, but a worship service should help us into something of a sacred space.  Among those I have found most meaningful was one several years ago in a different presbytery which focused on giving thanks, on gratitude.

It wasn’t the theme so much that struck me, but there were other aspects, such as the hymns we sang.  One of them was, “Let All Things Now Living.”  There was also a time when symbolic gifts were brought forward, as signs of thankfulness.

Something that really stayed with me was how one of the pastors concluded the Prayers of the People.  After going through the various praises and intercessions, he finished with this: “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves,” and then he paused.  I was mentally finishing the sentence with something like, “no matter how proud we might be” or “no matter how startling it might be.”

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But I was wrong.  What he said was, “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.”  No matter how beautiful it might be.  You know, I almost wished that he had concluded on one of those more negative notes—like something I’d been anticipating.  Maybe no one here feels the way I do about it, but sometimes it seems like being reminded of our failings, of our shortfalls, can in a strange way, actually feel better than being told how creative and radiant we are.

It can feel better because, even though this really isn’t true, it seems to give us an excuse for not being more than what we are.  It’s a convenient cop-out.  But if we’re reminded that, in Christ, there are no limits—if we say with the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”—then we’re left with the question: What will we do about it?

Some people in our scripture readings today have that question to answer.  In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, the glory of God is revealed.  Being chosen for such an intimate encounter would no doubt dramatically change one’s outlook on everything.  After such an experience, nothing is ever the same again.

In Exodus 24, Moses and a group of the leaders of Israel are summoned by God to Mt. Sinai.  Words fail to describe what they see.  “Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (v. 10).  And they are convinced that it is God they see.  The next verse tells us that “God did not lay his hand” on them; God did not strike them.  They would have expected death.  Everyone knows you cannot see God and live to tell about it!

Moses, of course, is the one who is summoned even farther.  He goes up to the top of Sinai where, as the scripture says, he spends “forty days and forty nights” in the presence of God (v. 18).  The result of all this enlightenment is that Moses brings God’s law to the people.

In our Gospel reading, Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it’s Peter, James, and John who have an intimate encounter with the glory of God.  In their case, it’s their teacher and friend through whom they see that divine radiance.  Jesus reveals to this privileged trio the true nature of his being.

How does this happen?  People of many different cultures have traveled to the tops of mountains to meet their gods.  The ancient Greeks believed that Mt. Olympus was the home of their gods.  The indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and America have had mountains of their own.  Elsewhere in Exodus, we see Moses’ face shining when he comes down from Sinai (34:29).  Something similar happens to Peter and his friends.  We’re told that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt 17:2).

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The Son shines like the sun.

Peter seems oblivious to all of this.  He babbles something about building three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Peter wants to stay on the mountain, literally and metaphorically.  He wants to enshrine this experience.  But what happens?  We’re told “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’”  The heavenly voice terrifies them, but Jesus calms their fears.

He leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain.  He takes them back to their lives in the world.  And just so they know, they’re not even to talk about what happened up on the mountain.

Isn’t that how the transfiguration story is usually explained, at least regarding Peter?  Poor, stumbling Peter.  Poor, stumbling thick-headed Peter.  He prattles on about putting up tents, but he’s missing the whole point of he and his friends being there.  Lending support to this view are the versions in Mark and Luke about his not knowing what in the world he’s talking about (Mk 9:6, Lk 9:33).

The lesson we’re to learn is to not be like Peter.  Remember that we can’t always have those mountain top experiences.  And just like Peter, we should also remember that Jesus understands and builds his church with imperfect disciples like us.  We, like Peter, are destined for greater things.

Actually, that’s not such a bad thing to take from this story.  But is that all there is to it?

Methodist pastor Jason Micheli offers some thoughts.[1]  He admits he also has simply focused on the lesson I just mentioned.  There is a mistake, however, in concentrating on Peter and his apparent failures.  Why doesn’t Jesus correct him?  If Peter gets it so wrong, why doesn’t Jesus set him straight?

“In fact,” Micheli reminds us, “here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him.  This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.”  Maybe Peter isn’t quite as dull and obtuse as we might make him out to be.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God.  This is where the good news is to be found.”

God became human.  God entered into our matter, as frail and fragile as it is.

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Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord.  It is the final Sunday before Lent.  We celebrate the fire of Transfiguration.  What happens after the fire?  What is left after the fire?  Are not ashes left over?  Appropriately enough, Ash Wednesday occurs this week.

A couple of weeks ago, Banu and I returned from study leave in Tennessee.  (We stayed with my mom, who was pleasantly and overwhelmingly surprised at how friendly and loving Ronan is.)

The feature of our trip was a visit to Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  It was named for the place in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with the angel, and his name is changed to Israel, which means “one who strives with God” (Gn 32:22-32).  The center is in Cheatham County, which is an interesting county.  It’s almost hidden.  It’s a short drive from Nashville, and then you’re in hilly country; you might not know there’s a major metro area nearby.  The retreat center was located there partly with that in mind.

When we visited, we were cognizant of the soon-approaching Lenten season.  The day of our visit was an overcast one, punctuated by intermittent drizzle.  I won’t speak for Banu, but I think we both enjoyed the atmosphere—with the effects on body, mind, and spirit.  It was soul-enriching.  I was once again reminded of what retreat is meant to be.  We weren’t exactly on a mountain like Sinai or the mount of Transfiguration, but we were indeed on a ridge high above the Cumberland River.

At one point, I was reflecting and writing in my journal images that came to me.

“Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  Gray day.  Sacred gloominess.  Conversation with the director.  Prosaic, yet brimming with possibility.  Traffic on the road fronting the property.  Mud.  Fire failing in the Duraflame-logged fireplace.  Water drops.  Banu behind me at the desk, paper shifting, rustling.

“My own thoughts, wondering how I can use this—how to put it into a sermon or a blog post.  (Of course.)”  That last bit is something of a confession of sin!  How can I use this, instead of simply letting it be?

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{scenery from Penuel Ridge, with a psychedelic touch}

As we think of the retreat house next door,[2] perhaps Transfiguration isn’t a bad image to use.  Transfiguration, a metamorphosis revealing the fire within, seems appropriate.  And yet, after the fire, we have the ashes.  The ashes, representing our mortality, remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

There is the busyness of being in a city (albeit a small city) along an often-busy thoroughfare.  It can be easy to miss the gift of retreat in the midst of all that.  That is a challenge for all of us—to see in the ordinary (especially an ordinary we’ve probably grown too used to) the fire within.  Our challenge is to claim the privilege of sacred space, there and here.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God.”

Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.

 

[1] www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/what-preachers-get-wrong-and-peter-gets-right-about-transfiguration

[2] Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center (108 South St., Auburn, NY 13021)


do not break; do not extinguish

There’s a certain TV show from the 1970s that my mom and dad used to watch when I was a kid.  It was set in the 1870s: Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.

This was the premise of the show: we have someone with an American father and Chinese mother.  He is orphaned in China and raised by Shaolin priests.  After killing the Emperor’s nephew (who, by the way, just killed his teacher), he’s forced to flee the country.  He goes to the American west, in search of his brother.  As he travels, he opposes whatever injustice he encounters.  I always liked the way he spoke.  [very tranquilly]  “I am Caine.  I am called many names, but I have chosen ‘Caine.’”

I was reminded of Caine from Kung Fu because he has some qualities that are reflected in our reading from the book of Isaiah.  (I’ll elaborate in a moment.)  Caine’s life at the Shaolin temple has given him many skills.  In fighting his opponents, he does so with seemingly effortless action.  He presents the very image of a serene, almost pacifist, nature.

1 is

Isaiah 42 begins with the Lord declaring, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1).

This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah.  There are three others.  Who is this special Servant?  Some say it’s the people of Israel as a whole.  Others say it’s the prophet.  Still others, reflecting a Christian interpretation, say this special Servant is none other than the Messiah himself.  I imagine all of those elements are involved.

Regardless of the Servant’s identity, there are, as I already suggested, some characteristics that this one possesses.  When I was reflecting on this passage, I was especially drawn to verses 2, 3, and 4.  The image I got was one of quiet perseverance.  As I said, that’s what reminded me of Caine’s demeanor in Kung Fu.

Verse 2 says of the Servant, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.”  This one doesn’t seem to be very confident.  How can you get your message across if you’re not out there promoting yourself?  Doing book tours?  Going on talk shows?  Telling people to visit your website?

For the past few years, according to many reports, the fastest growing church in the world is the church in Iran.  We’re told, “What’s fascinating right now is that the most powerful leaders in Iran are women, but it’s not in a bombastic…way…  In fact, they are the most gentle women.  They are leading this movement, going out in the highways and byways sharing with prostitutes, drug addicts, with everybody they come into contact with, and that takes courage.  They are courageous women.”[1]

I don’t think these women can be accused of not being confident!

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In verse 3 we learn that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”  I like the way Bill Long puts it:

“How do reeds become crushed…?  By the forces of nature and of people.  Reeds become smashed because of storms and diseases, because of people stomping over them…  We are reeds, subject to the forces of life that we cannot control and that sometimes descend on us with frightening speed and mercilessness.  And so, we live our lives in a crushed condition.”

However, the Servant in Isaiah will not break a bruised reed.  He (or she) treads lightly on the earth.  Again, I’m reminded of Caine in the show Kung Fu.  When he was finally able to walk down a long length of very fragile rice paper without tearing any of it—leaving no trace behind—only then was he prepared to leave the Shaolin temple and go out into the world.

And about that “dimly burning wick,” Long says that “we are here compared to a wick which is…about ready to go out because the candle has melted…  We may appear strong…but if we know ourselves well, we know that there are lots of forces at work within and without that make us terribly vulnerable to [being extinguished]…  But the Servant won’t crush; the servant won’t extinguish.”

Verse 4 has a nice turn of phrase.  “He will not grow faint or be crushed.”  So what that means is the Servant won’t crush the reed or snuff out the wick that’s growing faint.  And on the flip side, he himself won’t grow faint or be crushed.

And the Servant will keep at it “until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  The word for “coastlands” literally means “islands” ( אׅי,’iy).  It refers to the ends of the earth.  That’s the kind of character we’re dealing with: not one who is feeble and fragile, but one who won’t get frustrated and quit!

I wonder, how do we compare?  That can be hard to answer for ourselves.  We can benefit from the insight of observers.  From time to time, my wife Banu has been willing to provide her observations to me.  And more often than not, I actually find them helpful!

This scripture reading about the Servant of the Lord is beneficial to us in one particular way, that is, when we ordain and install officers.

During that part of worship, we ask the questions for ordination and installation in the Book of Order, but maybe we could add something else.  Maybe something like: “Do you refuse to break a bruised reed or to extinguish a dimly burning wick?  If so, please say, ‘I do.’”  Maybe we could pose that to the congregation and add, “If so, please say, ‘We do.’”

If there’s any confusion, a phrase from the old Book of Order clears it up.  (It’s one I wish they hadn’t deleted.)  This is it: “Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love are especially incumbent upon elders because of their calling to office and are to be fulfilled by them as official responsibilities” (G-6.0304a).  How do you like that?  It’s official.  If being a Christian isn’t enough for us to follow the law of love, being ordained as an elder is part of the job description!

Of course, it isn’t simply a job; it’s an adventure.  It’s a lifestyle.  That’s true for anyone, whether ordained or not, who would take the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah as a model or a pattern.  It’s a lifestyle for anyone who senses the call, as verse 7 puts it, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

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What does this calling to not break a bruised reed or to not extinguish a dimly burning wick look like?  As I’ve indicated, bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks are images of people who have been bruised and whose lights are fading away.  I have a few bruises myself, and sometimes my light burns rather dimly!  It’s been on the verge of going out altogether.

In answering that question about our calling to not break or extinguish each other, I’ll suggest something from a document approved by the General Assembly of the PC(USA) back in 1998, “Life Together in the Community of Faith: Standards of Ethical Conduct.”[2]  One of those standards refers to accepting the discipline of the church.

Accepting the “discipline of the church” might sound outdated or old-fashioned, like being chastised for playing cards.  It might even conjure up medieval images of being flogged or burned at the stake.  That’s not what I’m talking about!

Accepting the discipline of the church can be seen in a more basic way.  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he gives what might be considered a manifesto of church discipline.  He deals with many issues in Corinth, such as people splitting up into factions and being disruptive in worship.  Church itself requires discipline—it requires the discipline of love.  And love requires that we discipline ourselves!

Indeed, the section of our Book of Order called “The Rules of Discipline” includes the reminder, “The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing.” (D-1.0102).

The discipline of “church,” if done well, gradually turns us into loving and kind persons.  If we abandon that discipline, or approach it in an unhealthy fashion, we become ungrateful and cause injury.  Can we help each other in our discipline and affirm with the apostle Paul that our “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Co 14:33)?

I recently watched a movie about Christians living among radical Islamists.[3]  (I don’t necessarily agree with all of the theology in it, but that’s okay!)  There’s one scene which featured an American missionary.  His name wasn’t given; I’ll just call him John.  He was wondering how much he would be willing to give up.  How much deprivation and abuse would he take for the cause of Christ.  He asked, “What is my price?”

Regarding the discipline of church, maybe we’re back to those medieval images I just mentioned.  I have to ask myself, “What is my price?”

John speaks of a friend who is also a missionary.  Again, his name wasn’t given; I’ll call him Peter.  Peter has a wife and two young children.  He admits that he and his wife have wondered if it’s fair to have their kids in such a dangerous place.  Acknowledging the danger, when they first arrived, he and his wife made a video.  It was an unusual video—they forgave the men who killed them!  That’s really reflecting the nature of Christ.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  That is some serious church discipline.

As insane as it sounds to us, those who are determined to break and extinguish with the worst possible methods are also loved by God.  But again, we ourselves do that to each other in less horrific ways.

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[Jon Tyson at unsplash]

I want to close with a quote by Henri Nouwen on that very thing.  “A life of fifty, sixty, seventy, or a hundred years is just a little moment in which you can say, ‘Yes, I love you too’…

“That’s where ministry starts, because your freedom is anchored in claiming your belovedness.  That allows you to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they are beloved, chosen, and blessed.  When you discover your belovedness by God, you see the belovedness of other people and call that forth.  It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know how deeply you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved.”

Friends, that is the discipline of love, the discipline of church, the way in which we fulfill our calling.

 

[1] godreports.com/2019/09/fastest-growing-church-has-no-buildings-no-central-leadership-and-is-mostly-led-by-women/

[2] www.pcusa.org/resource/standards-ethical-conduct

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndf8RqgNVEY