racism

in the system, but not of the system

We tend to be more comfortable with priests than with prophets.

Some might quickly say that their church (or other religious tradition) has no priests.  Being a Presbyterian, I would be one of those folks to make that claim.  I’m not necessarily speaking of a man (or woman) who has been ordained to that office.  I’m thinking of a priestly function or priestly posture.  Likewise, I’m not necessarily thinking of a person identified as a prophet.  Again, it’s more of a prophetic function or posture.

Given the way I’m using the words right now, I can even imagine priests and prophets existing outside of any faith or spiritual context.

This is admittedly a crude oversimplification, but I’m thinking of a priest as one who serves the system—who keeps the system running.  I’m thinking of a prophet as one who questions or critiques the system.  The prophet doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  That approach might better fit the profile of revolutionary.  If you’re wondering what I mean by all of this, as I often say, hold that thought.  Stay tuned.

Before I go any further, I need to address an unfortunate way John’s use of the word “Jew” has too often been misunderstood.  The Greek word is ΄Ιουδαιος (’Ioudaios), which does mean “Jews,” but when it appears in the gospel of John, it’s mainly used for the enemies of Jesus.  The word can also mean “Judeans,” a word which has not led to the persecution of Jews through the centuries, especially by Christians.  It has led to a history of anti-Semitism.

A Judean was from Judea, just as a Samaritan was from Samaria.  If we feel like we can’t use the word “Judean,” we must recognize that “Jew” (as portraying an enemy of Jesus) only speaks of a tiny minority of Jews and/or Jewish leaders.  After all, it should be remembered that Jesus himself was a Jew.  Amazing!  Not only that, he was a faithful, observant Jew.

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The second half of John 2 describes what’s been called the cleansing of the temple.  Notice how it starts: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13).  Passover is one of the high holy days.  Jesus, as a faithful Jew, goes to celebrate.

Everything’s going fine; he’s with the crowds of worshippers who have come from parts near and far.  When Jesus enters the temple, his mood suddenly changes.  He sees the moneychangers at work.  They’re taking the peoples’ ordinary currency, with its images of Roman emperors and Greek gods (which would be idolatrous for purchasing animals for sacrifice) and exchanging it for Judean shekels.  And also, is it possible they’re ripping people off?  Of course, we also have to deal with the animals, producing their smells and solids.

Jesus goes ballistic.  He does his best impression of a bull in a china shop.  He takes off, flipping over tables, scattering coins, shouting at the merchants, and brandishing a whip.  Does he actually flog those fellows?  St. Augustine thought so.  He said Jesus “made a scourge of small cords, and with it lashed the unruly, who were making merchandise of God’s temple.”[1]  When the smoke clears, the place looks like the scene of an action movie.

On the matter of Jesus wielding that whip, some have said it justifies the use of violence, even to the point of punishing heretics and waging war.  “If Jesus was violent,” it’s been reasoned, “what’s to stop us?”

Others have a more nuanced perspective.  After all, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that animals were being sold for sacrifice.  There was no need for Jesus to throw a “temple tantrum.”  James McGrath has noted, “The sale of animals was essential for the temple’s main function as a place for the offering of animal sacrifices…  Both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions.”[2]

Maybe Jesus doesn’t fly off the handle.  This all might have been premeditated.  Maybe it was to make a point.  That would seem to be more in fitting with Jesus’ character.  And about Jesus being violent, there’s a long tradition holding that he was being nonviolent.  No one could have weapons of any kind in the temple area.  The Romans had their own security measures.

As you walk in, they scan you with the metal detector and ask, “Do you have any items to declare?”

That whip Jesus had could only be made with material on hand—stuff like strips of animal bedding.  (A lethal weapon, it was not.)  Not only did Jesus refrain from beating the people, as Andy Alexis-Baker says, we don’t see “Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.  The fact that he deliberately refrains from overturning caged pigeons shows his carefulness with the animals.”[3]

He has no doubt watched too many of those Sarah McLachlan commercials with the sad doggies.

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Is Jesus protesting worship which consists of the sacrifice of animals?  In chapter 4, we see him speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well.

He says to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (vv. 22-24).

To worship God means to worship in spirit and truth.  There isn’t much there about killing animals.  Maybe Jesus is trying to open our minds to a higher understanding, a more open awareness.  God doesn’t require us to slay our fellow creatures.

We hear Jesus saying, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (v. 16).  Our Old Testament reading has the final words in the book of Zechariah.  It’s part of a longer section on the day of the Lord.  The Lord will return to bless Israel and to defeat their enemies.  On that day, ordinary objects in the temple will be considered sacred.  What’s more, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (14:21).

Perhaps we see a promise of the day when exchanging of goods will no longer be necessary?  The slaughter of animals will be a thing of the past?

Whatever the case, we’re dealing with something grander in scope.  Whatever the case, we’re dealing with a challenge to the system.  In return, Jesus is demanded to explain himself.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (v. 18).  The word “sign” (σημειον, semeion), apart from the ordinary understanding, can also be a miracle or wonder by which God authenticates someone.  It shows that God is behind this.

They want to know why he’s there, messing up the program.

The first half of chapter 2 is about the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.  We’re told this is “the first of his signs” (v. 11).  His second sign doesn’t come until chapter 4, when he heals the son of a nobleman (vv. 46-54).  So in case you were wondering, Jesus doesn’t give these guys a sign.

Instead, as he so often does, he reframes the question.  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19).  Aha!  One of his interrogators slips away to grab a security guard.  He points Jesus out, saying, “You better search this guy again.  He’s threatening to blow up the temple!”  Of course, they misunderstand him.  He’s referring to the temple that is his body.  This is John’s way of pointing to the resurrection.

3 jn["Rage, the Flower Thrower" by Banksy]

I hope we realize that we all are temples.  As temples of the Holy Spirit, we in a sense, house God.  That’s what temples have always been for—to in some way, house a deity.  In our case, true deity, true divinity, dwells within us.

The chapter ends by saying, “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (vv. 24-25).  Jesus doesn’t put his faith in others, but he isn’t ridiculing his fellow humans.  It’s simply a recognition that, for all their efforts, they aren’t God.  People fail.  People fail us, and we fail them.  It’s just reality.  Jesus puts his faith in God.

On a side note, we so often disappoint each other because we want what only God can provide.  We subconsciously want each other to be God.  Our love falls short.

On the matter of love, I need to ask, “How does the cleansing of the temple demonstrate love?”  It might not seem like it all the time, but Jesus always acts with love.  He chooses to follow the path of love, not that of sin.

Jesus knows the opposition he would face in challenging the system.  He goes in with eyes open.  It’s not that he hates the system.  He wants it to operate in a loving and compassionate way.  He longs to show those in the system that it can be better—that they can be better.  Jesus wants them to risk being more.  He dares them to be more.  He dares them to be more human, which really is a high bar.

Here’s where we return to my opening statements about priests and prophets, or more precisely, their postures or functions.  The priestly function or spirit desires normalcy, a sane and orderly running of the system.  That in itself is a very good thing.  Systems are good.

Nothing could work—nothing could live—without say, the water system.  Take away H2O with its liquid, gas, and solid states, and see what happens.  We have the body’s digestive system, which is obviously necessary.  We have the political system, which is simply the way we structure our society.  It dates back to when protohumans lived in groups.

Too often, though, systems we create deviate from the beneficial, just, and even holy treatment we owe each other.  They become harmful and not helpful.

That’s when the prophetic spirit is required.  It challenges; it seeks to go deeper.  As I said earlier, the prophetic spirit doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  However, it does point to qualities that have long outlived their usefulness—that is, if they were ever useful for anything but cruelty and tyranny and ungodliness.

The true prophet is in the system, but not of the system.  What I mean by that is similar to what Richard Rohr says about being “on the edge of the inside.”  Prophets “cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either…  Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.”

Think of it.  Are you more likely to listen to someone who respects you and speaks your language (so to speak!), or to someone who disrespects you and thinks you’re an idiot?

Being in the system means having learned how it operates.  Being of the system means not being able to imagine anything outside of it.  It means not being able to visualize something new, something different.  Think of the times when Jesus apparently broke the Sabbath.  He healed people on the Sabbath.  He was working!  Yet, he was showing the deeper, more faithful meaning of Sabbath.

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May I suggest that many people who are accused of hating America really do not?  There are some, of course, who do hate America; I’m not talking about that.  I’m speaking of those who simply want America to be a kinder and more decent place, a more virtuous place.  There is indeed a prophetic spirit which calls us to be our best selves, to heed our better angels.

If we can see how the cleansing of the temple demonstrates love, we also should ask, “What does love require of us?”  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking!  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking me, and truth be told, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.  Love exacts a high price.  Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, some of those in the temple that day behaved in such a defensive manner because they understood that.

What is it about our temples that need cleansing?

Are we carrying on with business as usual?  Are we welcoming the unexpected and unwanted visitor—maybe one who’s cracking the whip and upsetting our plans?  All of that is part of the work of God.  All of that is part of the sacrifice, not of animals slain, but of love spent.

May we welcome, may we receive, the Lord who resurrects the ruined temples of our lives.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.xi.html

[2] www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers

[3] Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15, Biblical Interpretation, 20:1, 2 (2012), 91.


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


centered in confession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 is 6

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

We are centered in confession.

 

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


good guys and bad guys

When we’re kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and quite cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize people don’t simply wear white hats or black hats.  We see that the hats we wear are shaded in gradations of gray.

1 3 jnTo be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  And it seems like some folks change hats, depending on which way the wind blows.  But life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were young.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

In the Third Letter of John, the author calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is no doubt someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, it would be just as fitting to call him “the presbyter.”)

He praises Gaius and Demetrius, but he castigates a fellow named Diotrephes.  In verse 11, in a back-handed sort of way, he suggests he is “evil.”  If we were to read 3 John in a quick and superficial manner, we might think we’re getting one of those two dimensional renditions of human behavior.

Certainly, there’s a lot more to it than that.  We shouldn’t think the conflict pictured here is just a question of clashing personalities.  Even though 3 John only has fifteen verses, there’s plenty going on below the surface.  There are issues of love, hospitality, and power.

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First is a desire to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!  “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth,” John says, “namely how you walk in the truth.”  And if he hasn’t made his point, he follows with, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (vv. 3-4).

Unfortunately, there’s something else that has compelled John to write the letter.  He feels the need to issue Gaius a warning.  As I just said, he alerts him about Diotrephes.  John’s relationship with Diotrephes has become…let’s call it “problematic.”  Gaius needs to keep his eye on him.

He says, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9).

2 3 jn

Last week I asked, “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  I mentioned a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escapes me, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never openly challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive response on my part.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.

John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[1]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

This guy is a pain in John’s rear end!

All of this needs to be seen in context.  We have a glimpse of the early church as it’s moving out of the apostolic era.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  Churches are becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.  And, not surprisingly, as things get more structured, there are more opportunities for power plays.

It’s very likely the conflict pictured here isn’t an isolated event.  It seems almost inevitable that when a movement enters into second and third generations, its nature begins to change.  Questions of authority arise.  Who has the right to do what?  Questions of identity arise.  Who are we?  Who are we not?

In verse 9, John gets to the business of naming names.  He does not say, “There’s a certain person I’m thinking of.”  No, it’s “Diotrephes, that low down dirty dog!”

This is where it might be helpful to hear Diotrephes’ side of the story.  It may or may not be convincing, but at least his voice would be heard.  And there are those who say he’s not completely out of line.

In any event, this speaks to a problem with our own culture.  We have a tough time in listening.  We’re slow to listen and quick to speak.  We’re slow to listen and quick to judge; we’re quick to put labels on people.  It’s difficult for us to pray because we don’t want to listen.  We drown our spirits with noise: with mindless chatter, with the television, with the phone, with the computer, with all kinds of gadgets.

3 3 jnNow, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first.”  He spreads “false charges,” and prevents others from welcoming those he doesn’t like.  He’s the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates “to support [our brothers and sisters], so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (v. 8).

How do we support each other?  Obviously, there are lots of ways: with words of loving encouragement—and with words of loving correction.  We support each other with open hearts…and with open wallets, to the extent we can.  We don’t give to the church simply to pay salaries and pay the bills.  We give because we love God.  And here’s a crazy thought.  We give in order to support ministry and mission beyond these walls.

The spirit of “Diotrephes” is portrayed as willful and pushy.  The spirit of “Gaius” is portrayed as open and unpretentious.

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[2]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

“The little river said, ‘I can become a big river.’  It worked hard, but there was a big rock.  The river said, ‘I’m going to get around this rock.’  The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

“Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall.  Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through.  The growing river said, ‘I can do it.  I can push it.  I am not going to let down for anything.’

“Then there was an enormous forest.  The river said, ‘I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.’  And the river did.

“The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down.  The river said, ‘I’m going to go through this desert.’  But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river.  The river said, ‘Oh, no.  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to get myself through this desert.’  But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

“Then the river heard a voice from above: ‘Just surrender.  Let me lift you up.  Let me take over.’  The river said, ‘Here I am.’  The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud.  He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

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“There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves.  But there is the voice that comes, ‘Let go.  Surrender.  I will make you fruitful.  Yes, trust me.  Give yourself to me.’

“What counts in your life and mine are not successes but fruits.  The fruits of your life you might not see yourself.  The fruits of your life are born often in your pain and in your vulnerability and in your losses.  The fruits of your life come only after the plow has carved through your land.  God wants you to be fruitful.

“The question is not, ‘How much can I still do in the years that are left to me?’  The question is, ‘How can I prepare myself for total surrender, so my life can be fruitful?’”

Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.

We can see John as portraying Diotrephes as the river when it wasn’t ready to listen and Gaius as the river when it’s receptive and wants to work with, rather than to work against.

As I prepare to conclude, I want to include one last quote.  This is from Madeleine L’Engle in her book, The Irrational Season.[3]  She speaks of how she betrays her Lord in her “strange love affair.”  She says, “Not only do I listen to wiles of the dragon, I become the dragon, and then I remember [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s words:[4]

“‘How should we be able to forget those ancient myths [that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths] about dragons that at the last [moment] turn into princesses…who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.’

“I know that when I am most monstrous, I am most in need of love.  When my temper flares out of bounds it is usually set off by something unimportant which is on top of a series of events over which I have no control, which have made me helpless, and thus caused me anguish and frustration.  I am not lovable when I am enraged, although it is when I most need love.”

5 3 jnIn Banu’s and my article for the May newsletter, we include these words: “Deal gently with each other.  Be forgiving—we all have heavy loads.”  That, more than any clever ideas any of us can concoct, shows the Spirit of the Lord in our midst.

Just like Madeleine, when our temper gets the best of us, we are, more than any other time, demonstrating our need for love.  Although at such times, we are far from easy to deal with!

I once did a devotional in which I mentioned Hazel Bryan, the young white woman who in 1957, shouted insults at Elizabeth Eckford, the young black woman walking toward the Little Rock high school which was being desegregated.  The two are pictured in one of the iconic photos of that era.  I asked the question, “What if the photo of that outburst is all she’s remembered for?”  Would that sum up her entire life?

(As it turns out, years later the two met and had a sense of reconciliation, although they didn’t exactly become best friends.)

The point is, as I mentioned earlier, we all have the spirit of Gaius and the spirit of Diotrephes within us.  And Jesus Christ welcomes all of us, that is, everything within us.  We present our willfulness and pushiness to Christ, the one who welcomes those good guys and bad guys.

For those in our lives we deem as “good guys and bad guys,” as people of the new creation, we are called to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ep 4:32).

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[1] Revised English Bible

[2] www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html

[3] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 153.

[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. M. D. Herter Norton, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W. W. Norton), 69.


no fear

Were any of you bullied when you were in school?  It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone tried to pick fights with you (or maybe did pick fights!).  Among girls, bullying rarely ends in fisticuffs.  But I won’t speak for my sisters; you can recall your own experiences!  We can think of many different ways someone can be bullied.

1 1 jn 4There was a particular fellow in high school, who for some reason I never figured out, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never overtly tried to pick a fight, but when he was baiting me, I knew if I responded in an aggressive way, it would be something that he welcomed.  Kind of like a “make my day” sort of thing!

I’ll admit—I was intimidated by him.  I was afraid of him.  Still, aside from that, I just wasn’t interested in fighting, period.  I wasn’t interested in fighting anybody.  Maybe it had to do with being raised in a loving family.  Our home was not a fearful, violent place.  It was a safe place.  I don’t know about my friend from high school.  I don’t know what his home life was like.

Fear can be a controlling factor in our lives.  Sometimes it hides behind other emotions, for example, anger or despair.  Bullies are people filled with fear, and they project that fear out into the world.  A bully who’s been given authority—especially great authority—is a dangerous thing.

In her book, The Scent of Jasmine, Patricia McCarthy, changing the focus to faith, says, “There is no place for fear in the Christian life, not because we manipulate our emotions, but because we trust our risen Lord.  We choose to trust rather than to fear.  We choose to let God protect us, rather than defend ourselves.”[1]

The idea that we choose to fear, given what I just said, probably sounds strange.  We might object, “I just can’t help it!”

It might be useful to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fear.  Fear of fire…fear of wolves encircling you, growling and showing their teeth…fear of your wife—that’s healthy fear!  Fear of going outside…fear of taking risks…fear that keeps you pinned down—that’s unhealthy fear!

Clearly, every person has her or his own story, and there isn’t one easy remedy, but it seems that, in some way, we do choose that latter kind of fear.  Several times in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not fear.”  And in today’s epistle reading, we see that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18).

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Much of our fear deals with being left out, with being rejected, or with being denied the material necessities of life.

When he was a pastor in Clinton, Mississippi, Stan Wilson wrote about that kind of fear.  He said their church had “an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need.”[2]  Whether it’s someone out of work, someone with a medical need, whatever, they would come together and find ways to help.  It might have been through a benevolence fund, churchwide garage sale, or some other creative means.

During a Bible study one time, Wilson asked the people there, “Why not make it official?  Why not state out loud that no matter how bad it gets, we will be there for one another?”

He says, “I didn’t get an answer at the Bible study.  In fact, the very mention of the subject seemed embarrassing, as if I had violated a taboo and uttered that which must not be spoken.  I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other.  We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level: our bank balance.”

(Actually, I can think of other more intimate, private levels, but for the moment, I’ll go along with Wilson!)

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The author of 1 John deals with this very thing.  In chapter 3, we’re asked the question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv. 17-18).  And in today’s reading, we’re reminded, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 8).

Wilson said he didn’t doubt that the members of his church loved each other.  He just wanted them to publicly proclaim it.  Unfortunately, in our society, we tend to have a fear of commitment.  In fact, our culture runs on fear and disordered desire.  And that stuff infects the church.

But the church, when it embraces its identity, is counter-cultural.  He wonders, “What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another?”  I wonder about that myself.  What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?  This congregation does that better than some others, but what would it look like to take it even further?

“We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

“With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves.  We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order.”

4 1 jn 4How can we do that?  For example, how can we break the grip of what Jesus calls “Mammon”: money and possessions, that become an idol, a false god?  Again, there isn’t one easy remedy.

Matthew and Mark tell us of a rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking about eternal life.  Drawing on the targeted advice Jesus gives him, there is one good way to deal with Mammon.  Just give it away!  That helps prevent wealth from setting up shop in our hearts.  (If you ask me if I practice what I’m preaching, I might need to respond, “Are you asking me how often I do that?”)

Recall the reaction of the young man.  Mark 10:22 says, “When he heard [what Jesus said], he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  He was used to the advantages his wealth provided him.  It had become part of his identity.

Something that’s part of my identity is white privilege.  It enables me to avoid the day-to-day crap that my black brothers and sisters deal with.  Sam McKenzie, Jr. talks about “racial wealth.”[3]  The rich young man has financial wealth.  Too often, I’m oblivious to the wealth I have.

A couple of weeks ago, on the way back home from our trip to Tennessee, I was pulled over by the police not very far from home.  The officer said my taillights weren’t on.  (Which was true.)  I gave him the registration for our rental car, and he went back to his car to check things out.  He came back and said he would let me go.  After driving away, I asked Banu, “I wonder what would have happened if I were black?”  I honestly don’t know.

Recognizing our privilege can be fearful, because it calls us to action.  It calls us out of our comfort zone.  It calls us to hear stories that we possibly would rather not hear.

We have to confront our fears, and we have to do it with love.  That is, we must do it with love if we are to be Easter people.  Otherwise, we deny the resurrection power Jesus gives us.

5 1 jn 4The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi, who “was afraid of lepers.  One day he kissed a leper and the fear vanished.  It is important to note that the fear vanished after he kissed the leper, not before.  Before the fear left him, Francis had to take the risk of loving…

“There is a mutuality here in terms of cause and effect.  It is necessary to work against fear if we are to try loving our enemies, and it is absolutely necessary to risk loving our enemies if we want to be free of fear.  Like St. Francis, we need to risk acts of love before we experience feelings of love.”[4]

Why, at this point, do I bring in love of the enemy?  Besides the fact that Jesus stresses the need for it, “love of the enemy” speaks to so much of what we fear.  It is so darn hard to love those we consider enemies, whether consciously or subconsciously.  It requires a setting aside of self.

According to our scripture reading, the remedy for fear is love.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (v. 18).  Earlier I asked, “What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?”  Can we take that one step more?  How do we translate that love among us to the outward community?

How do we go from the church father Tertullian, who famously reported the saying about Christians, “See how they love one another,” to living that here and now?  How do we live the call, and loving encouragement of Jesus to live a life of no fear?  Are we plagued by an inner bully, a bully who needs to hear again the warning—and the reassurance, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

I imagine we can see how that is warning.  It does sound stern.  However, can we see it as reassurance?  I sure need to.  Sometimes my love grows cold.  I need the fire of the Holy Spirit to set me aflame.  When I am floundering and drifting, when I do not know God, God is merciful, for God is love.

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Verse 13 says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”  (I’m going to draw on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, those blessed Pentecostal folks!)  Do we yearn for the Spirit to fire us up again, to burn with holy love?

By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, we will tell those bullies, “We have no fear, because we live in love.”

 

[1] Patricia McCarthy, The Scent of Jasmine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 46.

[2] www.religion-online.org/article/ties-that-bind-1-john-316-24-john-1011-18-acts-4-12

[3] medium.com/@SamMcKenzieJr/white-privilege-its-stuck-in-the-pages-of-the-bible-764dea10aaa5

[4] McCarthy, 60-61.


live well and prosper

“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path…

“How I entered there I cannot truly say, / I had become so sleepy at the moment / when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”

These are some of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno.[1]  Its setting is the evening of Good Friday, in the year 1300.  Having been born in 1265, Dante writes himself into the story at the age of 35, which according to medieval and Biblical thinking, is half the human lifespan of 70 years.  So Dante realizes, in the midst of his life, he is lost in sin; he has wandered from the straight path.

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What’s worse, he doesn’t know how he wound up in that dark place.  As he says, “I had become so sleepy at the moment when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”  All he knows is that he, like a little child, is terrified at being lost in the deep forest.

This really is a picture of all of us.  Dante is clear to say, “Midway along the journey of our life,” not just “my life.”  We all, if we are to find our way out of the deep darkness of sin and evil, must wake up.  We have to arise from our slumber and learn how to live life.

I mention Dante’s Inferno because it reminds me of today’s Psalm, number one, which has the image of the two paths.  These are the two ways of the human race, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked.  If Dante gives us the picture of a path to follow, the psalmist reminds us that we come to forks in the road.  We continually have to decide which way to go, which path to follow.

Something else about the first Psalm, possibly the most important thing, is it is the introduction to the book of Psalms.  It serves as an entrance into the world of praise and wisdom we find in the book.  This psalm sets us up for the journey of a lifetime!

And we should admit this journey isn’t quite as black-and-white as a quick reading of the psalm might suggest.  The difference between the righteous and the wicked isn’t always so easy to figure out.  Real life, as I think we all know, is more complicated.

Maybe you’ve heard the example of “is it ever okay to tell a lie?”  Imagine living in Nazi Germany, and you’re harboring Jewish neighbors in your attic.  When the officers come banging on your door and ask, “Are there any Jews inside?” should you lie to them?

It’s been said, “This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our…walk of faith.  People are complex; life is not so simple.  Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us…  At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination.”[2]

So, what about these two paths, these two ways?  And what are the consequences of following each?

2 Ps 1Here’s how the psalm begins: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.”  At the very beginning, we’re pictured within the idea of community and the idea of learning.  Who do we listen to?

The epistle of James also taps into the wisdom tradition.  It says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1).  We have to pay attention to what we say, how we influence other people.  Why is that?  Because, as James reminds us, “all of us make many mistakes” (v. 2).

I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “And none of us is perfectly qualified.  We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths.”

But the psalm isn’t just about what we say; it’s about how we live: taking the path, sitting in the seat.  To “take the path that sinners tread” is about one’s daily walk.  In this case, it would be the opposite of walking with God.

To “sit in the seat of scoffers” doesn’t involve selecting furniture.  It’s not about going to Raymour and Flanigan.  It does involve siding with the cynics, who have an insincere attitude about life.  They don’t listen to sound wisdom.  If they do listen, they listen only to themselves.

In a country as divided as ours, that can be a problem.  Too often, we self-select the voices we listen to.  And isn’t it interesting?  It’s usually the voices we already agree with!  I find it fascinating (and depressing) how the exact same action—or the exact same statement—is presented, depending on whether it’s Fox News Channel reporting it or MSNBC.  It can feel like we’re living in parallel universes!

The psalmist suggests something else: delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night (v. 2).

What do we meditate on?  What goes through our minds?  Maybe jingles from commercials?

Retired quarterback Peyton Manning has done a million ads, it seems.  But I’m thinking of one in particular.

We see him at practice, calling signals to start the play, “Sixty Omaha, set, hut.”

Afterwards, he’s sitting in ice water, lamenting, “Losing feeling in my toes.”

Cut to his kitchen at home, with his mouth watering, “Chicken parm, you taste so good.”

Finally, he’s on the couch, turning on the TV, just in time to hear a female voice proclaiming, “Nationwide is on your side.”

I have a hunch that jingle is not quite as beneficial and life-enhancing as meditating on the word of the Lord.

But what about the ones who do meditate on those life-enhancing matters?  How are they described?  “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.  In all that they do, they prosper” (v. 3).  We might say they live long and prosper.  The psalmist maybe does one better.  They live well and prosper.

Still, I like that phrase: “In all that they do, they prosper.”  In all that they do—that does seem a bit difficult to measure!  Perhaps it’s more a frame of reference, or an approach to life.  When we have that point of view, we can see prosperity where others do not.

But what about the others?  What about those who do not delight and meditate on God’s word and wisdom?  What about those who, unlike Dante, are fine with remaining lost in the deep, dark forest?  Verse 4 says they “are like chaff that the wind drives away.”  Their plans come to nothing.  They don’t try to align themselves with God; they don’t seek God in prayer.  They listen only to themselves.  (Like we saw before.)

What do the ways of prosperity and cynicism look like?

3 Ps 1

Recent events in Charlottesville give a stark vision of a cynical view of life.  The enduring legacy of America’s original sin of slavery continues to appear.  I think we can agree that neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists represent an over-the-top and cartoonishly violent philosophy.  They don’t present garden variety racism.

But I have to question myself.  How much of that is in me?  Growing up in America, how much of that has seeped into me?  No less a person than the apostle Paul lamented, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7:15).

Here’s another question I pose to myself.  In what ways do I benefit from white privilege?  Am I willing to admit it exists?  What does that look like?

Again, Paul says, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).

Our psalmist presents us with a vision of what can be, and dare I say, what shall be!  It is the reality of life lived in God’s kingdom, which is already here, but not fully revealed.  It is the kingdom Jesus says “has come near,” the kingdom that “is at hand” (Mk 1:15).  The kingdom is revealed whenever we act as God would act.

The kingdom is revealed when we love someone enough to help them find the path they should travel.

Richard Rohr speaks about hope.  He speaks of a hope he has—a hope for us.  It’s a hope about living in the kingdom.

He says, “I hope you’ve met at least one ‘Kingdom person’ in your life”.[3]  His hope that we’ve met “at least one” such person suggests that it might be a rare occasion, or maybe that we too rarely allow those kingdom qualities to be seen in ourselves.

4 Ps 1

He goes on, “They are surrendered and trustful people.  You sense that their life is okay at the core.  They have given control to Another and are at peace, which paradoxically allows them to calmly be in control.  A Kingdom person lives for what matters, for life in its deepest and lasting sense.”

Maybe I can end my sermon on that note.  As the psalmist expresses his fond and confident hope that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” so may the Lord watch over our way (v. 6).

Live well and prosper!

[1] Mark Musa, trans. (New York:  Penguin, 1984), 67.

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/20/2012&tab=5

[3] conta.cc/ITinm3          [Daily Meditation for 22 Sep 2012]


daylight in the domain of darkness

Christ the King.  This is a rather strange day on the church calendar.  It comes at the end of Christ the King
the long season that we call “Ordinary Time.”  (Side note: It’s called “ordinary,” not because it’s routine or run of the mill or just plain boring.  It got that name because the Sundays are listed with “ordinal” numbers.  The 10th Sunday, the 30th Sunday, and so on.)

This is the final Sunday before Advent, when we commemorate the first and await the second coming (that is, the advent) of the Messiah.  This Sunday seems to be preview of things to come.  This young one will one day become the King of kings.  Walter Brueggemann said we can think of it as “a launching pad for Advent when we await a new king with a new order of reality.”[1]

The reason I call it a “strange day” is because Jesus never claimed the title “king” for himself.  It was always others who called him that, whether in joy or in judgment.  We see that in Luke 23, “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’  There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’” (vv. 36-38).  Those are not words of praise!

As for the ones who call Jesus a king as a matter of praise and joy, it looks like we’re in that category.

Maybe you can help me with this.  I’ve seen plenty of churches of various denominations which are called “Christ the King.”  But I don’t recall ever seeing a church called “Christ the Prophet.”  I wonder if we’re more comfortable with kings than with prophets.

Kings speak to our fascination with power.  None of us have been, or ever will be, a king or queen, but I think it’s easier for us to wrap our heads around the idea of monarchy.  In some ways, it represents the American dream of being able, and encouraged, to climb the ladder.

Does anyone remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by Robin Leach?  They would show swimming pools inside of bedrooms, people with an entire fleet of Maseratis and Lamborghinis, private reserves stocked with animals from all over the globe, taken from their natural habitats.  It was basically Robin Leach drooling over the one-percenters.  Still, that show is hardly the only example of that sort of fawning!

Psalm 49 says with a note of sarcasm, “you are praised when you do well for yourself” (v. 18).

The point is, we can deal with kings easier than we can with prophets.  To the extent that we identify with the powers that be—and with the privileges that come with it—to the same extent we do not identify with those who point out the flaws in that, those who criticize our comfort with power.  We just want to say to them, “Please go away!”

Having said all of that, it should be clear that Jesus is not that kind of king.  His kingdom is not of this world.  His kingdom takes this world and turns it upside down.  In celebrating Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate that new reality, even if we at times have some serious problems with it.  It calls us to account for our lives, to account for the sometimes questionable things in which we find solace.

We can see St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians as providing the biblical and theological underpinning for all of that.

That “new reality” I just mentioned is something the apostle attributes to God, “who has enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (v. 12).  That’s not an inheritance, as Banu would say, that would get us a Rolex watch, a BMW, and a swimming pool.  The inheritance of the saints in light is something too mind-blowing for that.

image from farm3.staticflickr.com
The problem for us is that we struggle with, we resist, the new reality.  That’s the reality in which God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  The Revised English Bible calls it “the domain of darkness.”  We resist the new reality, God’s new reality, because we too often love the darkness.  That is, the part of us that is less than truly and fully human, the part that wants to reject redemption and forgiveness.  That is us, loving the darkness!

Why is this a text for Christ the King?  That bit about the kingdom of the beloved Son has something to do with it.

And then there is the paragraph, verses 15 to 20, beginning with, “He is the image of the invisible God.”  Image of the invisible.  Imagine that!  Ponder that one for a while.  There’s something about that only art or music can capture.  In fact, these were the verses of a hymn that the early church sang.

He is the “firstborn of all creation.”  The word for “firstborn” is πρωτότοκος (prōtόtokos), which is where we get our word “prototype.”  So Jesus, not simply the flesh and blood man, but the Christ who fills all things, is the prototype of all creation.  If that doesn’t fit the description of king of all kings, I’m not sure what would!

That passage is an awesome meditation on the glory of Christ.  I really encourage you to go back and read it and just sit with it.  If you can, use a couple of different translations.  Let it sink into your mind and spirit.  It’s okay if you have trouble understanding it.  I certainly don’t claim to get it all.  But see what happens.

There is a problem, however, with claiming Christ as our king.  Subjects of a monarch are expected to do certain things.  They’re supposed to fall in line.  Brueggemann says, “Celebrating ‘Christ the king’ is easy until we try to embody our citizenship.”  It’s easy to do in worship; it’s not so easy when we try to do it physically, out in the world.

Remember though, Christ is not the kind of ruler we’re familiar with.  This is a kingdom, or queendom, that is inside out.  It isn’t based on force, but on love.  This is citizenship which isn’t compulsory, but is a loyalty flowing from joyful obedience.  And in many ways, acting out of love is more difficult than simply following orders.  It asks so much more of us.

I said earlier that we tend to love the darkness.  I’m afraid that in this past year, we’ve seen that infect our citizenship as Americans, and what’s worse, as members of the church of Jesus Christ.

A few days ago, an article was published by Jonathan Martin, who is a pastor at a nondenominational church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[2]  He speaks of the darkness he has seen revealed in our country, and especially the darkness revealed during our presidential election campaign.

He starts by talking about encounters he’s had with people who are afraid of what’s been going on, people who fear the future.

He wonders, “Does it feel like the world has turned upside down and inside out?  Does it feel like people whom you love and know — good people — almost seem like they are under some kind of spell right now?  Saying odd hateful, hurtful things you can’t account for based on your history with them?  Does it feel like we are under some sort of powerful…mass delusion?  Are you shocked, not only at what is being said, but what is not being said by Church leaders whom you have known to have a heart for justice, mercy and truth?”

Crazy pills

To be honest, I also have wondered about that.  Have all of us been taking crazy pills?  2016 has been an insane year.

Martin talks about something I mentioned recently, and that is the idea of the apocalyptic.  In the Bible, “apocalyptic” is defined as “revealing” or “unveiling.”  And it uses some bizarre images.  He says, “This is apocalyptic time…when the hearts of men and women in America are being revealed — deep divisions that have long been present are being exposed.”

This is more than mere political and cultural divisions; something darker, more sinister is at work.

He continues, “Apocalyptic time drives the demons that have been hidden in the darkness into the light.  It is now-there-is-no-place-to-hide time.  It is a time for principalities and powers to be exposed.”  But there is good news which goes with it.  The apostle Paul says that in Christ “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (v. 16).  Those forces which are bent on evil, and on warping us, still must answer to Christ the king.

But again, there’s our tendency to love the darkness.

In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, one meaning of the word “satan” (שטך) is “the accuser.”  Thinking of God, we would say that God is not simply loving; God is love.  In a similar way, Satan doesn’t simply accuse; Satan is accusation itself.  In this apocalyptic time, when principalities and powers are being revealed, Martin says, “In our absurd blame of people who are not like us, people we deem as other, we actually consort with dark spirits.”

We invite those forces which make us look like we have gone crazy.  We can’t explain it rationally.

He doesn’t side with conservatives or liberals, but he does feel compelled to point out some things about our president-elect.  His campaign made it a priority to single out certain groups of people for unwelcome attention, to put it much too lightly.  Scapegoating and accusation, pointing of the finger and blaming are becoming the rule of the day.

The resulting terror this inspires in people is the fruit of those thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers.

But guess what?  In our Lord Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v. 19).  Pleased to dwell!  Not grudgingly, not reluctantly, not because it’s my job, not “I might as well get this over with,” but pleased to dwell.  This is what I live for!

And guess what again?  Through our Lord Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (v. 20).  There we go again.  God was pleased to do this.

What can fear do when faced with unrestrained joy?  Daylight dawns in the domain of darkness.

One more note from our friend Jonathan.  “So finally, for the preachers, dreamers, artists and poets; for the pastors, lovers, and would-be truth tellers: in the chaos of so much rage, violence, and racial injustice: you must, must, must, must not cower before the agents of fear, when you are an ambassador of heaven.”

If we are ambassadors of heaven, if Christ is truly our king, Christ must also be recognized as prophet.  A prophet speaks truth.  A prophet speaks truth to society.  A prophet speaks truth to the church.  A prophet speaks truth to us.  But this isn’t the truth of petty accusation, of dividing into us versus them.  That is the truth of Satan.  And Satan’s truth is a lie.

Our king, our prophet is undeterred by our stubborn rejection of the inheritance of the saints in the light and our stubborn rejection of redemption and forgiveness.  That’s fine; there’s no giving up.  Our king, our prophet, speaks the word and will not let us go.

HPIM0860

That is the daylight in the domain of darkness.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “A New King and a New Order,” Christian Century 109:31 (28 Oct 1992): 963.

[2] medium.com/@theboyonthebike/you-want-it-darker-on-race-trump-apocalypse-and-the-need-for-more-prophets-than-priests-48b683d187b#.czj1f8wvw

[The first photo is "Walking from darkness into light" by Andy Teo; the bottom one is from our front porch in November 2009]


famine to feast

When I started planning this sermon, the local paper reported that southern Cayuga County was experiencing “moderate drought.”  (The scattered showers we’ve had since then have provided little help, at least where we live.)  I know that Banu and I aren’t the only ones who can testify to having brown, crunchy grass in the yard.  And we’ve seen some crops that looked mighty thirsty.

When we lived in Nebraska, excessively dry weather sometimes led to grassfires.  On one occasion, a spark from someone’s pickup truck started a fire that raged all night.  We had been serving as workers at our little town’s youth center, and after closing, a couple of the kids whose parents were helping out with the fire, waited at our house for a while.  (So we had a grassfire get-together!)

I’m sure plenty of you have your own stories to tell about drought, whether moderate or severe.

image from media.npr.org

Maybe you’re wondering why I begin with drought.  That’s pretty dry and dusty stuff, isn’t it?  How about something more mouthwatering and juicy?  Sorry, I can’t help it.  The prophet Amos compels me!

Technically, in chapter 8 Amos isn’t talking about drought; famine is what’s on his mind.  Admittedly, drought isn’t the only thing that causes famine.  Scarcity of food has its genesis in a number of distasteful things.  That includes poor agricultural practices and misguided political policies.

And on the point of governmental goings-on, sometimes they are well-meaning but terribly conceived and poorly executed.  On a darker note, sometimes political leaders have a deliberate intention to artificially create famine—hunger as an instrument of public policy.

Then of course, there’s war.  Nothing works in ravaging a country and spreading starvation like war.

So, those are the cheerful thoughts that came to mind while reading the prophet Amos!

Here’s a quick background on Amos.  He lives in the northern kingdom of Israel, which by the way, split apart from the southern kingdom of Judah about 200 years earlier.  Amos is active as a prophet during the time of King Jeroboam II, who reigned from 786 to 746 BC.  During Jeroboam’s time, Israel enjoys military might, territorial expansion, and economic prosperity.  Happy days are here again!  Life is good.

But it’s more than simply good.  Because of their affluence, many of the people, especially the elites, believe that God’s blessing rests on them.  And more than that—they deserve that blessing.  Seriously, how could they not, considering the way they so richly fund the national shrines?

Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, this wealth has been accumulated on the backs of the poor.  Fulfilling the prophetic role to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, in chapter 5, Amos brings the word to those who think their religiosity pleases God.  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (v. 21).

As we get to chapter 8, that theme is infused with some really colorful images.  (I think “colorful” is a good word to use!)

It begins right away with a pun, a play on words.  (You do realize that the noble tradition of the pun is enshrined in the words of the Bible?  It’s all over the place.)

In a vision, God asks Amos what he sees.  It turns out that it is a basket of summer fruit.  The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is קָֽיִץ (qayits).  God’s response is “the end has come upon my people Israel” (v. 2).  The word for “the end” is הַקֵּץ֙ (haqqets).  qayitsqets.  “Ripe fruit…the time is ripe.”  (I like that!)

The “colorful” language continues with wailing and dead bodies being cast out.

Amos puts those wealthy folks on notice.  They’re saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?  We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances” (v. 5).

I like how they’re itching for the end of the new moon festival and for the sabbath to be over.  They can’t do business at those times.  They want to get back to gouging their customers.

Once upon a time, people could enjoy Thanksgiving without having to get up extra early the next morning.  Unfortunately, stores began opening earlier and earlier on what has come to be known as “Black Friday.”  I guess some of the boys in the corporate offices figured letting a few extra dollars get away was too much to bear.

Please understand, I’m not saying these business practices are unscrupulous, unless you consider denying a good night’s sleep to be unscrupulous.

In the next few verses, the colorful images become overshadowed.  Darkness and sorrow are the prophet’s themes.  “Friends, you’ve had a good run with Jeroboam at the helm.  But party time is almost over.  This pleasure cruise is about to become a ship wreck.”

Then we come to the final part of the chapter, which is my main focus.  “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (v. 11).  So this isn’t a literal famine, like I was talking about earlier.  This is spiritual famine.  This is famine that inflicts hunger and thirst on the soul.

Just as with literal famine, people become disoriented and disconsolate.  “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (v. 12).  Another translation says, “People will stagger from sea to sea” (New Jerusalem Bible).

image from upload.wikimedia.org

I will send a famine on the land, a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.  This sounds like a deliberate plan on God’s part.  How could that be?  Why withhold the word?  It sounds like the people need that life-giving substance more than ever.  Doesn’t God love the people anymore?

I’ve sometimes heard of being inoculated against the word of God, against the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s inoculation in the sense of being given enough of it in weakened form to build up our immunity.

The idea is being deluged, inundated, stuffed to the gills (nice words while thinking about famine!).  It is being in an atmosphere in which the word is pervasive: on billboards, on bumper stickers, on clothing, on knick-knacks, on Facebook, and so on.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that stuff is bad.  Banu and I have some clothing and knick-knacks with scriptures on them.

Still, we have to guard against manipulating the word so that it loses its power.  It becomes a question more of trappings than transformations.

That’s one reason why God might, so to speak, withhold the word.  It’s important to avoid self-deception.

A more serious concern is what Amos addresses.  There is often an attempt to use the word of God as a shield or a weapon.  It begins with self-deception but escalates into keeping others down, politically and socially.  The word is shown to be empty; it becomes useless when justifying ourselves.  We can quote the letter of the law while violating its spirit.

These are what we might call external factors.  The word of God is used, or misused, as mechanisms for outward purposes.  The more serious and insidious concerns are what we might call internal factors.  Within ourselves, we resist the word.  We harden ourselves to it.

In a phone call with my mother, I referred to our recent “week from hell” as a nation.  Two high-profile killings of black men by police, followed by the murders of five officers, to me, constitutes a week from hell.  Sometimes current events oblige us to speak, and I feel like this is one of those times.

Regardless of your opinion of him, or of his speech in Dallas last Tuesday, President Obama did make some points that I think bear repeating.[1]

He said he was “reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel.  ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you.  I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’

“That’s what we must pray for, each of us.  A new heart.  Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

His primary point was the racism that still endures in our country and the pain and violence of many sorts that flows in all directions from it.

Moving away from that speech and the president who uttered it, we still have (as just one example) the sin of racism and the way we participate in it.  To some extent, we all deal with that sin.  America didn’t invent racism; we’ve just done a good job of institutionalizing it.  Racism isn’t simply racial prejudice among individuals; it is a system.

If we don’t recognize it within ourselves, we become hardened.  We become hardened to the word of the Lord, the word that changes our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.

But as I say, that’s just one example.  Too often, we refuse to hear the word of the Lord.  We plug the ears of our heart, the ears of our spirit, and shout, “La la la la la!”

How do we refuse to hear the word of the Lord?  It happens in many ways.  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as blowing stuff up or having a bonfire with Bibles as the kindling!  In a less forceful way, it doesn’t have to be something we deliberately set out to do.  We need not consciously say, “I will not listen to that.”

Much, if not most of the time, it just happens.  We just get caught up.  We fill our minds with everything except the word.  We fail to take heed of that wisdom; we pay attention to voices of trivia.  I fall into that myself.  Sometimes a jingle in a commercial or a song played in the background at a store gets stuck in my head.  I might dwell on it all day or all week.  (I especially hate it when it’s a song I don’t like!)

Sometimes we live our whole lives that way, sleepwalking through life.

There’s a quote by Thomas Merton that I have loved for many years.  He talks about moments when we wake up “and discover the full meaning of our own present reality.”[2]  Regarding such a moment, he says, “In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”

image from www.browngirlgumbo.com

We squander our lives when we refuse the word of life.  To return to the imagery of the prophet, we go hungry, we starve, we needlessly endure famine, while a feast is within reach.

So, avoid refusing the word of life.  Don’t settle for crumbs, while that succulent feast beckons!  Here’s a crazy thought: actually read the word.  Read the scriptures.  Don’t race through them; that’s hardly the best approach.  Let the word of the Lord soak into you.

Come with expectation.  Open your mind.  Let “the trifles that occupy our minds” be put on a starvation diet.  See what changes our Lord can make.  Move from famine to feast.

 

[1] time.com/4403543/president-obama-dallas-shooting-memorial-service-speech-transcript/

[2] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.