St. Luke

centered in confession

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

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

1 is 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 is 6

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


watery welcome

The 3rd of August 1986.  The Assemblies of God church in Tennessee I used to attend.  Suddenly, I’m immersed in warm water; I’m being treated to a full body bath.  (Fortunately, my bladder is not overflowing!)  I’m being held by my pastor, who is intoning words about the Holy Trinity.  (At least, I trust he is.  I can’t hear him under water.)

1 lk 3In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m describing my baptism.  I was 21.  There were two people before me: a boy probably 8 or 9 years old, and a woman roughly 40 years older than me.  The three of us participated in what we Presbyterians and many other churches refer to as the sacrament of baptism.  My old denomination calls it an ordinance.

Very briefly, an ordinance is a practice that demonstrates a believer’s faith.  A sacrament (in this case, baptism) is a practice, that through the means of the Holy Spirit, grants entry into the church universal.  Infants and young children are baptized with the understanding that God sends the Spirit, welcoming them into the covenant of the family of God.

Our Book of Order puts it this way: “Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith” (W-3.0402).  At some point in time, of course, they should respond in faith, however that happens.

And maybe that provides a good transition.  We are claimed in love.  Ultimately, that’s the most important reason to enter the waters of baptism.

As we read today’s gospel text, St. Luke’s version of the baptism of the Lord, it looks like love is completely off the table.  Earlier in chapter 3, John the Baptist unloads on the people approaching him.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (vv. 7-8).

I like how the recently deceased Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase The Message.  He had some fun with it.  “Brood of snakes!  What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?  It’s your life that must change, not your skin.”

2 lk 3Okay, so where’s the love?  Let’s back up a little more.

The story of the baptism is torn from its context.  At the beginning of the chapter, we see Luke, as he likes to do, giving a recitation of who is currently in the government.  Emperor Tiberius…Pontius Pilate…Herod, and so on.  He provides the political framework.  In response to John’s message, the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers all ask, “What should we do?”

Luke doesn’t go into this, but we learn from Matthew and Mark that John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt—dressed like prophets of old, especially Elijah.  He ate locusts and wild honey, which are nutritious, but being in the desert, not a wide variety of food is available.

In describing John, Mark Stenberg starts right there.[1]  “In Luke, John the Baptist is not some weird, crazy hick.  He is a political prisoner…  Not only did John the Baptist speak the truth about Herod’s wicked accumulation of money and power, he also was a direct threat to Herod’s economy.  He was teaching tax collectors and soldiers not to extort or bully the people.  He was teaching people to share their stuff.  All of this was too much of a threat to Herod, to his system.  So The Baptist is locked up.”

Herod doesn’t take kindly to John’s upsetting the apple cart, to his baptizing and making waves!

Luke gives a very specific reason for John’s arrest.  John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.  But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison” (vv. 18-20).  John told Herod marrying his brother’s wife was a no-no.  His criticism of Herod could have provided the pretext, the perfect excuse, to toss him into prison.

It might seem strange to have this note about Herod in the middle of the passage.  We’re talking about baptism before and after it.  What’s going on?

Some people say there’s no problem with the sequence of events.  John’s been baptizing and saying he’s not the Messiah; the Messiah is yet to come.  Herod throws him in jail.  So who baptizes Jesus?  Is John paroled and then arrested later on?  I don’t know if there are many people who go along with that.  The explanation commonly given is that the Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus, however that happens.

3 lk 3

Another viewpoint is Herod is inserted to show the result of John’s ministry—and that he refused to back down.  By extension, with our baptism and baptismal promises, we might find ourselves in trouble.  To be sure, it’s extremely unlikely we would get tossed in jail!  Still, there are places in the world where that happens.

Having said that, it’s simply a question of Luke not mentioning John’s name as the one who baptizes Jesus.  And this does matter.  Luke emphasizes the role of the Spirit in baptism.  All four gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—include the story, but they present it in different ways.  The one major commonality is the descent of the Holy Spirit, which is reflected in our theology of baptism.

We observe the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  It’s a time of remembering baptism and the promises made at baptism.  It’s a time for renewal.  Included in the prayer of thanksgiving are the lines, “We rejoice that you claimed us in our baptism, and that by your grace we are born anew.  By your Holy Spirit renew us, that we may be empowered to do your will and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.”[2]

That connection of the Spirit with baptism is especially made with the epistle reading in Acts 8.  We’re told that the apostles Peter and John laid their hands on baptized believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.  At least in this case, something visible must have happened, since an onlooker named Simon wanted to pay them for the power to do that himself.  There was some kind of sign, possibly (or probably) speaking in tongues.

Our scripture passage ends with all the people being baptized…  Jesus is baptized and is praying…  the heavens are opened…  the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove…  And then this: “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (v. 22).

4 lk 3
Father Richard Rohr

It’s that final bit I want to look at.  Last of all, there is a heavenly voice, claiming Jesus as the Son and the Beloved.  “With you I am well pleased.”

We have wonderful words of welcome and acceptance.  Earlier I said the best reason for baptism is being claimed in love.  (Where’s the love?  Here it is!)  It is the ultimate claim in love, the claim God extends to us.  It is the ultimate welcome and acceptance.

Regarding welcome, Richard Rohr speaks of what he calls “the first permission.”[3]  He wonders if we’ve ever met someone who didn’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  He suggests, “Maybe that person seemed to possess an inexpressible sadness, or was unusually apologetic, or was possibly surly and brittle.  Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, he [or she] was not given the first permission—permission to exist.

“Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken.  No one ever held their face, looked in their eyes, and said, ‘Welcome to the world, dear little one.  I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist.  I love you.’”

The questions are posed to us: “Did I receive the first permission?  How have I given the first permission to others…?”  Has anyone (and how have they) expressed joy that we alive?  Can we look at the people around us and say, “I am glad that you are alive.  I welcome you!”?

I mentioned the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  There are pastoral dimensions to the reaffirmation.  It’s not just something we do because today is Baptism of the Lord.  We saw how God extends promise and welcome to us in baptism.

5 lk 3
posted by Katie Klosterman on Pinterest

There are also promises reaffirmed which we make to each other.  At a baptism, the congregation is asked if they “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those to be baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”[4]  That’s no small thing.

Extending that watery welcome comes with a price.  If we welcome someone, it means we have to follow up on it.  Maybe that’s one reason why John the Baptist (in his cantankerous way) rebuked the people, calling them slithering snakes.  He wanted to let them know what baptism means.  It’s not a ritual to undergo to deflect public pressure.  It’s not something to just “do.”

Is there love involved in his ranting and raving?  One thing we can say is he doesn’t make it all about himself.  He isn’t boastful; he doesn’t take the credit where the credit is not due.  “I’m not the one you’re looking for,” he tells them.  “I’m just paving the way.”

So those promises are difficult.  In my own baptism, I knew I had walked through a door, but I hadn’t arrived.  I was just at the beginning.  Every day, we’re just at the beginning.  That also applies to those of us who were baptized as infants.  We are welcomed by God into the family.  Becoming aware of that when we’re older means learning that we’ve walked through that door.  The Spirit has led us, and we are always at the beginning of the adventure.  It’s a wondrous adventure, with the joys and sorrows that go with it.

With the ears to hear, we hear that voice extending those words of welcome and acceptance.

6 lk 3

[1] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/baptismofourlordcgosepl

[2] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 470.

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 58.

[4] Book of Common Worship, 406.


the desert

A few years ago, Spike Lee directed the movie, 25th Hour.  It stars Edward Norton as a guy convicted of selling drugs.  He has one day left before he goes to prison.  He has one day to say goodbye to his friends and to imagine what could have been—if he hadn’t gone down the path he chose.

At the end of the movie, his father, played by Brian Cox, is driving him to prison.  They’re going up the interstate, and they’re approaching an exit that would take them out west.  He doesn’t want his son to go to prison.  His father says to give him the word, and they’ll just take off.

1 desertIn a beautiful monologue, as they’re traveling across America with its vast array of scenery, his father lays out the alternative.  He tells his son he can still have another life.  Find some little town out west and just blend in.  And he talks about the landscape.

He says, “Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die.  Nothin’ at all for miles around.  Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky.  Not a soul in sight.  No sirens.  No car alarms.  Nobody honkin’ atcha…  You find the silence out there; you find the peace.  You can find God.”

In the early church, in the 3rd through 5th centuries, people known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went out into the wilderness.  They lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia.  They also were seeking God.  They were fleeing the corruption of the cities, as well as a church that more and more identified with the state, the Roman Empire.  Christ and Caesar were becoming indistinguishable.  (We often have that problem today!)

Brian Cox’s character in 25th Hour would likely agree with the Desert Mothers and Fathers.  The desert is a place to flee the corruption and madness of civilization.  It is certainly a good place to find solitude.  Still, if the motivation is to simply escape the stench of society and of other people, then that is not a path of love.  It is a path of self-deception, and ultimately, a hatred of those we would flee.  And the terrible irony is if we don’t make an effort at peace, then we carry those people with us—and not in a good way.  It’s a burden.

Solitude need not only be found in the desert.  It can and should be found here in daily life, in times of withdrawal from the busy voices filling our lives to hearing God.  (But maybe escaping the stench of others still applies!  I’m including myself in the category of stinky!)

The desert is a place of contradiction.  God can be found there.  It can be a place of new life, of renewal.  But it is equally a place of death.  It is a place of thirst.  When moisture is at a premium, we shouldn’t expect to find lush gardens.  But it can also be a place of great beauty.

2 desert

The desert can be inhospitable, especially for those who do not respect it.  The desert is not a place for arrogance.

In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks of those desert monastics, the desert wilderness, and the way we often treat the desert—to our peril.

Regarding the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he says that they “believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men [and women]…  The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone…  God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”[1]

There is something supremely counter-cultural when looking at the desert this way.  It is a rejection of what we usually believe is important.

3 desertFor those who would indeed reject the comforts and gadgets that we become enamored with, it can in fact be a place to be alone with God.

Still, as Merton points out, there are other aspects.  “First, the desert is the country of madness.  Second, it is the refuge of the devil…  [Remember, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, and he was tempted by the devil.]  Thirst drives [us] mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has [imprisoned] himself in it and closed out everything else.”[2]

I suppose there is a bit of madness, a bit of craziness involved in choosing to live in the wilderness—maybe a good kind of crazy, but still, a craziness that has to be held in check.

In Mark 1, we see someone who’s a bit of a madman, John the Baptist.  He’s been out in the wilderness, and his diet and appearance might be considered slightly crazy.  (Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn.  Do we have any connoisseurs of locusts and wild honey?)  Despite all of that, people are going out to him so that they can be baptized.

4 desertNotice what he says about the coming One, the One whose advent is near.  “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John uses water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and as Matthew and Luke add, with “fire” (Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16).  The Holy Spirit is often associated with fire, as on the day of Pentecost.

How appropriate it is, while in the desert, to speak of one who baptizes with the fire of the Spirit.

If we can summon and practice patience, we can hear the voice of the Spirit in those lonely places.

In Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks words of comfort.  In verse 3 we hear, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  The desert is indeed a place for listening.  But we have to be silent.

Verses 4 and 5 add, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”  According to the prophet, the desert is not only a place for listening, but for listening to good news.

Mark borrows words from Isaiah, agreeing that the desert is a place for listening—and listening to good news.  However, he adds a new dimension, a different perspective.  Here, it is word that Messiah is coming; the advent is near.

We need that word in the desert, because as I mentioned earlier, there is also the reality of human arrogance in the way we treat the desert.

In his book, Merton also talks about this.  With our technology, “the wilderness at last comes into its own.  [We] no longer need God, and [we] can live in the desert on [our] own resources.  [We] can build there [our] fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice.”[3]

In our desert southwest, with moisture at a premium, metro areas have been built.  And when we think of experimentation and vice, what better example of a metro area is there than Las Vegas!  And thinking of fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal, what better slogan is there than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”?

5 desert

He goes on, “When [we] and [our] money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere.  Everywhere is desert.”[4]

I imagine you’ve figured out “desert” as a place of building those protected cities of withdrawal, of human arrogance, is not simply a literal desert.  It is the desert in our own lives.  At the same time, desert is the place where we listen for good news.  The desert is where we can find God.  As I said before, the desert is a place of contradiction.

What are the deserts in our lives?  Where are those places of contradiction?  Where do we need the crazy ones to bring us water—to plunge us into water—and bring good news?

The prophet comments on our fragility, saying, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (vv. 6-7).  And in one of the most powerful lines in the Old Testament (in my humble opinion), he declares, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).

6 desertAs the rock band Kansas once sang, “All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see / Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind.”  Even our plans are dust in the wind, or perhaps, sand being blown by the desert wind.

Desert experiences, be they uncertainty, abandonment, bereavement, whatever, can be barren and trying.  Even so, there is that voice in the wilderness, crying out to prepare the way of the Lord.  Even in the desert—or maybe, especially in the desert—the Spirit blows where it wills.  That Spirit of fire calls us to good news.  Even in the bleakest of places, the coming One welcomes us.

When we acknowledge and embrace and take joy in that, then the desert will bloom.

 

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958. eBook edition, 2011), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.

[2] Merton, 1.2.3

[3] Merton, 1.2.5

[4] Merton, 1.2.6


interwoven

A few years ago, Banu and I lived about a half hour’s drive from some Mennonite markets.  One time, I noticed a sign saying they would be closed for Ascension Day.  It’s always the Thursday forty days into the Easter season, so it was this past Thursday.

I told Banu I found it interesting that the Mennonites actually take the day off to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  For many of us, I imagine the day came and went this week without our even being aware of it.  That shouldn’t be entirely unexpected; Ascension is one of those days it’s hard to wrap our heads around.  Ascension—what the heck is that about, anyway?

1 ascension

In his gospel, here’s how St. Luke puts it: “Then [Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:50-53).

In ancient times, people tended to think of the universe as though it had three stories.  Some people still do.  We might imagine a three-story house.  The heavens were the top story, maybe the attic; our world was the first floor, and as for the underworld, as the name suggests, it’s down there below the surface.  It would be the basement.

Well, we’ve been in outer space, where there is no “up” or “down.”  And as for the nether regions, I once heard a traveling evangelist tell an interesting story about that.  He claimed workers in France doing deep well drilling made a bizarre discovery.  He said they could hear the screams of the doomed rising up to them!  Apparently, the location of hell is under France.

(I’m not so sure.  I think the evangelist’s comments were based on a subconscious aversion to the French!)

Anyway, today we wouldn’t describe the Ascension of the Lord as someone floating up into the sky.  We no longer perceive the cosmos in the “three story” way, as did the ancients.  We don’t see ourselves the same way.  You do realize we are mostly empty space?  At the atomic level, there are electrons spinning around the nucleus, like tiny solar systems.  Smaller and smaller particles are being discovered.  A few years ago, evidence of the speculative Higgs Boson particle was detected.

2 ascension

Going in the other direction, by using ever more powerful telescopes, we’re gazing deeper, toward the edge of the universe itself.  We’re looking at light that has taken billions of years to arrive at Earth.  (It appears we have a new “three story” image:  macrocosmic, mesocosmic, and microcosmic!)

Luke is speaking of the resurrection body of Christ.  Imagining the physics of that is enough to get your head spinning!  We might think of him as becoming interwoven with our space and time.  Earlier in chapter 24, that could be how he appears and disappears to the disciples at will.

However we conceive of it (and I won’t belabor the point), why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  I promise you—this isn’t just abstract theory.  This has very “real world” meaning for us.

There’s an Australian missiologist named Michael Frost.  At a conference in Budapest, Hungary, he said he’d spoken with some Christian surfers a few years earlier.[1]  When he asked who their favorite surfer was, he described it as “pandemonium.”  They were yelling different names, but he got them to narrow it down to Kelly Slater, who was described as the greatest surfer ever.  He was able to get them to describe him in detail.

3 ascensionThen he asked them to describe Jesus.  Aside from stuff like, “Son of God” and “died for our sins,” they couldn’t say very much.  Frost said he’s noticed the same thing in the church and even in the seminary where he teaches.  He’s noticed people being unable to talk about Jesus the person.

But as I watched the video of the conference, what really caught my attention was something else he said.  Frost spoke of a “spirituality of engagement.”  This is a spirituality of engagement as opposed to a spirituality of retreat, of withdrawing.  That is, retreating or withdrawing from the world.

It’s the idea that the only way to really connect with Christ is by retreating to worship services, or by going on retreats, or by going to places specifically labeled as “Christian.”  He doesn’t reject those experiences; he very strongly affirms them (as do I).  But he also emphasizes engaging with Christ in the world.

For those who care about connecting with Jesus, there can be the danger of living in a Christian “bubble.”  There’s the danger of not being able to see Jesus in the cinema, in art, in the workplace, in school, in science, in everyday life.  As he was talking about this stuff, it dawned on me that this is what Ascension is all about.

As the Nazarene professor Andy Johnson puts it, “our very flesh is constantly interchanging elements with the rest of the material universe.”  There’s that subatomic particle stuff again!  At that level of reality, it’s hard to draw a line between “us” (our bodies) and “not-us.”  Thinking about that theologically, with God’s raising the body of Jesus, “the redemption of the cosmos as a whole has begun.”[2]

(You know, the difficulty in seeing a line between “us” and “not-us” gives a whole new spin on describing people as “joined at the hip.”)

Because of the Ascension of the Lord, Jesus as the Christ is everywhere.  What that means is there are no “God-free” zones.  Nothing is truly godforsaken.

Frost also talks about “prevenient grace,” that is, the way God works prior to anyone’s action.  God extends grace before we decide to do this or that.  The question is not: “Will we bring God into a godless world?”  The question is: “Will we find out what God is already doing in the world and get involved?”  Again, there are no “God-free” zones.

So, here it is again, just in case what I’ve said isn’t crystal clear: why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  Why does Jesus say, in effect, “It’s time for me to fly!”?

Jesus must depart, because frankly, it’s time for the disciples to grow up.  In John 16, Jesus tells them, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (v. 7).  He’s told them they will do even greater things than he has done (Jn 14:12).

Without Jesus around, even the resurrected Jesus, the Spirit of Christ pervades—is interwoven—everywhere.  The Spirit of Christ indwells us.

It can be difficult to understand.  Earlier in Luke 24, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are downcast; they’re crestfallen.  Jesus comes up and speaks with them, though they don’t recognize him.  They say “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21).  But notice what happens.  “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

Now we have today’s scripture reading.  When he appears to the gathered group of disciples, he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44).

Our friend Andy Johnson points out, “the Old Testament never directly says that the Messiah will suffer, die, or be raised from the dead.”[3]  That’s true, and that’s why Jesus was such a problem, even for well-meaning people.  The disciples need to understand.  So Jesus repeats what he did on the road to Emmaus.  For the disciples who think they’re seeing a ghost, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45).

Johnson says, “Jesus begins reshaping their imagination, reshaping the categories they had used to make sense of what God was doing in their world.”  Their culture has shaped them to think in a certain way.  Then here comes Jesus, completely turning that stuff on its head!

There can be a difference between translating and interpreting.  When we translate, we go from one language to another.  For example, we take the English word “dog” and go to the Spanish word “perro,” or to the Turkish word “köpek.”  However, when we interpret, we assign meaning, and sometimes that meaning can be quite different from what we expect, or want, to hear!

For the disciples to understand who Jesus is, it will mean “reinterpreting the entire biblical narrative, ‘all the scriptures.’”[4]  Jesus knows what he has to do.  He has to open their minds.  He has to blow their minds.  He has to rock their world!

The disciples have their vision radically expanded, re-imagined.  They must learn “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (v. 47).  The old categories no longer work.  They can’t presume to “have” or “own” Jesus.

Can we think of ways in which we do that?  Is it possible others are turned away if and when we present Jesus as our property?  (I include myself in the question.)  Do we too rarely ask the question, “How can we as the church serve the community?”  Or do we too often wonder, “What can they do for us?”  Remember, there are no “God-free” zones.

Having said all that, I believe the desire to serve the community is in evidence here.  I believe it was evident on the day of the presbytery meeting.  You are building on the past and allowing a new vision to form.

In my sermon eight days ago, I quoted part of a prayer we used earlier in the service.  “Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”  I like that: empty slogans or senseless controversy.  (Not the slogans or controversies themselves, but being made aware of them!)

I also quoted our Book of Order’s warning about “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), and how that might appear in us.  Do we ignore prophets, avert our eyes from visions, and disregard the dreamers?  Possibly, but it looks like good progress is being made on encouraging the dreamers—paying attention to our own dreams.

ThinkingmanAre we pushing the boundaries, even as it dawns on us the ascended Christ is everywhere?  Therefore, do we understand that we are interwoven with everything around us?

Today’s affirmation of faith is based on Ephesians 1, which is the epistle reading for Ascension.  The end of it comes from verses 22 and 23.  God “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  The one whose body fills all in all.

We are the church of Jesus Christ, and the fullness of Christ fills us.  So, let us weave our stories into the visions that are forming and transforming us.  Let us not disregard the dreamers, but rather encourage each other in following our dreams.  The Spirit who has been promised gives us strength.  Like those first disciples who witnessed the Ascension, we can go out with joy.

 

[1] vimeo.com/22699742

[2] Andy Johnson, “Our God Reigns: The Body of the Risen Lord in Luke 24,” Word and World 22:2 (Spring 2002) 141.

[3] Johnson, 136.

[4] Johnson, 136.


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]


the neutral zone (redux)

Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make lame attempts at interjecting those interests into conversations, or—God forbid—into sermons.  I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts!  I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.comFor those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation.  Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone.  Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.

Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone!  It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke.  He’s done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.

He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, another consultant.  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.  He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”[1]

We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close.  “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that is now appearing.  It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really alarm us, even sending us screaming in the other direction!  Or it can really have us confused.

We all know that caterpillars turn into butterflies.  While that critter is still in the cocoon, strange, confusing things are going on.  At some point, it’s neither caterpillar nor butterfly.  It’s in a state of metamorphosis in which it’s neither one.  That little booger is in what we might call a state of transitional goo.  That is its neutral zone.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

We can see the people of Nazareth in our reading from St. Luke’s gospel as being in their own neutral zone; they are transitional goo.  (I should probably explain!)

As we begin with verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation.  He says of Jesus, being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.

Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19).  Jesus tells the people that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

They are astonished by the way he addresses them.  They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?”  Dennis Bratcher says, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth.  They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man.  But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing.  Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”[2]

It’s not long until Jesus reveals the feelings of ownership and control the people want to use over him.  “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us!  He should do the stuff here he’s done in other places.”

But when they hear how Jesus elaborates, attitudes change pretty quickly.  He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners.  After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24).  And it looks like they want to prove him right!

Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger.  They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom” (vv. 28-29).  But maybe there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he gave them the slip and was on his way” (v. 30).

I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone.  Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed.  Families, communities, congregations:  all of them can be seen as emotional systems.  Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!

I just mentioned that change is going on.  What change could that be?  There are a number of ways to look at it.  I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible.  Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.

In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the Israelites.  Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that those other gods exist.  It’s just that they’re not supposed to follow them.  As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God.  Other gods are simply idols.

With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth.  Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God.  And later, as the church of Jesus Christ expands throughout the Roman Empire, barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.

That evolution of the faith has continued, albeit with many bumps in the road.  Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in the twenty-first century.

The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying.  He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended.  This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them!  And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!

Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable.  But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.”[3]  That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive.  Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.”  We sense danger; anxiety kicks in.  Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.

image from cx.aos.ask.com

What happens when we’re anxious?  Are we relaxed?  Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up?  Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words.  When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded.[4]  When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take a survey!  Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think!  Just do it!”

That second one that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective.  This is learned behavior.  We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination.  We’re free to explore possibilities.  We’re using the “upper brain.”  And it also has a physical response.  Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm.  We remember to breathe!

Both reaction and response are necessary for human life.  Without the “knee-jerk reaction,” we wouldn’t pull our hands out of the fire.  You know, when any body part is on fire, that’s not the time to assemble a focus group and brainstorm various options!

So for all its benefits, the reptile brain, the lower brain, is not very useful in building community.  We need response that’s more elevated.  In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”[5]

Here’s a note about the reptile brain.  At the conflict mediation training a few months ago at Stony Point, the presenter gave us some advice.  Never tell someone that they’re acting out of the reptile part of their brain.  For some reason, that usually doesn’t go well!

Having said all that, I hope I haven’t given the impression that anxiety is a bad thing.  As I just said, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans.  But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.

Speaking of being driven by anxiety, maybe you heard about the poll that was recently released by Monmouth University.[6]  It dealt with people’s feelings about the presidential campaign.  The question was asked if this campaign has brought out the best in people or the worst in people.  A large majority, 70%, said it’s brought out the worst in us, 4% said the best, 20% said neither the best nor worst, and 5% said it’s both the best and worst.  That last 1% said they don’t know!

Good and bad spock

When asked if they’ve lost friends because of the campaign, 7% said yes.  Though in fairness, 7% also said that happens in every presidential campaign.

Again, this is one poll, so take it for what it’s worth, and remember, there really aren’t right or wrong answers.  This is just a snapshot of anxiety among us today.  Still, I would be willing to hazard a guess that it’s not every campaign in which 70% say it shows us at our worst.

Okay, I’ve touched on ways in which those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue are spending time in the neutral zone.  A good example would be Jesus’ refusal to allow them to “claim” him, and to call them to a wider vision.  In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and community.

That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period.  Feelings of anxiety would be expected.  What does the future hold?  What will we do next?  Or better, who are we, and who is God calling us to be?  How is God calling us to emerge from transitional goo?

A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us.  In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).

The neutral zone can be a scary place.  We can learn the wrong lessons there.  We can learn how to bully each other.  We can learn how to belittle each other.  That can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place.  But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart.  It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves.  We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the hopeful and hope filled future into which the Holy Spirit leads us.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany4nt.html

[3] Steinke, 2.8.8

[4] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 8-9.

[5] Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8

[6] www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/MonmouthPoll_US_092816

(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)


losing to be found

By now, most of you know that Banu and I lived with my mom during almost all of 2015 and a little bit at the beginning of this year.  It was a learning experience for each of us.

The Nashville area was flooded in 2010.  That included my mom’s basement, which took an extremely long time to dry.  Her house contains many possessions, with a huge percentage of them in the basement.  So if you combine abundant moisture, very little light, and plenty of items, including carpets on the floor, what do you get?

My sister and her sons had already done some hauling out of moldy stuff and cleaning of walls.  But rest assured, there was still plenty for us to do.  Open space began appearing in the basement.  There was room to breathe.  The energies of feng shui became more harmonious.  However, the garage had hardly been touched.

Items disappeared, some under mysterious circumstances.

Rummaging dog

We were justly accused of clearing out some stuff which, truth be told, contained little mold.  But we did need some walkways!

Here’s to my main point.  There was a box of tapes and CDs, containing some of my mother’s beloved music, including the bluegrass and gospel musician, Doyle Lawson.  Amazingly, it had vanished.  The finger of blame was first turned toward my sister, who had no idea where it was.  After she successfully argued her case and being cleared of any wrongdoing, the eye was turned toward Banu and myself.

Intent on proving our innocence, Banu led my mother on a search of her bedroom, which also had a pretty good number of…artifacts.  Lo and behold, the long-sought box was discovered.  Not unlike the woman in our gospel text who was overjoyed to find her lost coin, so was my mom after discovering her own treasure.

So, speaking of things lost and found, of Luke 15 it’s been said, “If the Gospel of Luke comprised only this one chapter, it would still be precious beyond all estimate.”[1]  Very high praise!  Precious beyond all estimate, like something lost and found.

Here’s the scenario.  We see a motley crew gathering around to listen to Jesus.  This crew is featured by tax collectors and sinners, folks who are relegated to the category of undesirables.

This crowd hasn’t escaped the attention of some Pharisees and scribes.  They are simply indignant at the attention Jesus gives them.  They are grumbling.  One translation says that they are “murmuring their disapproval: ‘This fellow,’ they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v. 2, Revised English Bible).  If he wants to have any influence among the people that matter, this crap has to come to a screeching halt!

So, who are these tax collectors?  The disgust toward them goes well beyond the occasional (and perhaps frequent) irritation we might have about the IRS.  No, this is on a whole different scale.

These tax collectors are instrumental in funding the hated Roman government.  They could rightfully be called traitors.  It would be bad enough if it were simply a matter of helping keep the imperial machine going.  The Romans tell them how much they need to raise—so just get it done!  As you might guess, this tends to lead to corruption and extortion, to plundering the poor.

The Pharisees also despise them for the same reasons.  The New Testament usually gives the Pharisees a bad rap, but they really do want justice for the people.  They are no friends of the empire.  But they also have other reasons for looking down on the tax collectors.  These guys also violate religious obligations and spiritual sensibilities.

Now, how about these “sinners”?  As for them, Walter Bowie says they are “the general run of people: not notorious evildoers, but the careless and unconcerned about religious proprieties,” earning the disdain of “the sanctimonious.”[2]  The sinners aren’t necessarily bad people.  That label doesn’t mean they engage in, for example, slander or thievery.  Sometimes the rules are stacked against them.

But there’s something praiseworthy about these folks.  Unlike the elites, when the sinners are drawn to Jesus, they do so out of a felt need to seek more.  They’re done with pretending.  When they come to Jesus, they mean it.  When they ask him questions, they really want answers; they’re not doing it to be argumentative or to play games.

Jesus addresses that earnest desire by telling two parables.  And like the story about my mother, he uses examples from everyday life—things that people can relate to.

The first one is about a lost sheep.  He asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (v. 4).  At first glance, that might seem to be wrong way up.  Why risk the ninety-nine to search for the one?

Regardless of practicality, it does speak to the value of each individual.  Every single sheep is treasured.  Every single one of us is treasured.  Jesus says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).  And yes, Pharisees, I’m looking at you.

Lost and found

The second parable is about the woman who loses a coin.  She’s desperate, and she turns her house upside-down until she finds it.  She’s searching; she’s tearing stuff apart.  And when she does find it, she calls everybody together and says, “Let’s have a party!  I found my coin!”  (And wouldn’t you know it?  She finds it in the last place she looked.)

Doesn’t it seem like a lot of trouble to find a single coin?

Again, this is where Jesus knows his audience.  That silver coin is half of the temple tax that was paid every year.  And for that woman, that coin would be a big chunk of whatever savings she might have had.  “To the poor, therefore, the loss of one coin could be a major calamity.”[3]  Jesus knows all about being poor.

And again, he brings his point home.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).  There is joy when someone comes to Jesus.

There’s a quote which I’ve heard attributed to St. Dominic, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  (Who knows, there may be others.)  As the story goes, one of them is visiting the Pope.  The Pope gestures at the treasures in the Vatican, and says, “We no longer have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none’” (3:6).  He’s quoting St. Peter from the book of Acts.  The response to him is, “No, and neither can we say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

If we depend on our possessions, if we become complacent, we lose our joy; we neglect our power in the Holy Spirit.  Our worship and prayer become lackluster.  Possessions don’t always have to be physical things.  They can be a feeling of safety, of comfort.  Do we become satisfied with our relatively stable well-being?  Are we unaware or indifferent to what has slipped away?  I have a sneaking fear that, too often, that might characterize me.

“[J]oy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life” (v. 10, Common English Bible).  Do we rejoice when a sinner, one just like us, comes to faith or has a recommitment of faith?  Does it move our hearts; does it stir our spirits?  Have we ourselves ever had such an experience?  Have we lost something precious?  Do we need to tear apart the house of our lives in order to find it?

“I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.”

Today is a day of “recovenanting.”  I’m not sure about the origin of that, but “covenant” is a word filled with meaning.  It’s not simply a contract; it also has the sense of something solemn, something sacred.  It’s about two parties entering into an agreement in which they make pledges to each other.  It isn’t businesslike.  It has the elements of artistry and beauty.

We might, and indeed do, fail to keep our side of the covenant.  But the covenant remains intact.  God is faithful; God keeps faith.  God does not break promises.  For that reason, our faithlessness does not nullify the covenant.

It might make sense to “recovenant” with each other, but with God, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel.  The covenant with God is one and everlasting, beginning with Adam, and extending through Noah, through Abraham, through David, to Jesus Christ.

In our baptism liturgy found in the Book of Common Worship, the language of covenant is front and center:

“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established.  Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love.  In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”

It’s a covenant in which we celebrate being lost and being found.  That’s the upside-down, inside-out, backwards-forwards way of Christ in which the first will be last and the last will be first.

Spock

This past week, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek was observed.  The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966.  This enterprise has been fifty years of pushing the envelope in issues of ethnicity, gender, nationality, and ethics, among others.  (Though I think the recent J.J. Abrams movies have fallen a bit short in that regard!)  One of the best-loved characters has always been Spock, the Vulcan who quotes words of wisdom based on his philosophy of logic.  One of the Vulcan principles is that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This business of risking the ninety-nine in order to find the one, according to that way of thinking, clearly doesn’t make sense.  It’s just foolish and irresponsible.

And this matter of tirelessly rummaging around to find a single coin might be deemed as much ado about nothing—similar to a woman who, amid her numerous possessions, is focused on finding her treasure trove of music.  (Though I suppose referring to it as a “treasure” might explain the concern!)

Yet, that is exactly how it is with God of the covenant in the kingdom of God.  God will not let us go.  God will pursue us relentlessly.  Because God’s love does not depend on what we have done or left undone, we can rest in the promise that those who are losing will always be found.

 

[1] Walter Russell Bowie, The Compassionate Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 202.

[2] Bowie, 202.

[3] Bowie, 205.


we’re not worthy! (are you sure?)

There’s a TV show that’s been on since the 70s, and it’s had its ups and downs through the years, depending on the cast members.  I’m talking about Saturday Night Live, and when I was a kid, I was familiar with the original cast, but I really didn’t start paying attention to the show until the 90s.

During those years, there was a recurring skit called “Wayne’s World,” featuring Mike Myers as Wayne and Dana Carvey as Garth.  They were two goofy guys with their own show on public cable access.  Their conversations would often be centered on “babes” and rock music.  On occasion, they would meet rock stars.  Being in the very presence of their idols would prompt Wayne and Garth to bow the knee and proclaim with outstretched arms, “We’re not worthy!  We’re not worthy!”

image from www.dohiy.com

That act of worship (which is what they were doing) would be cast aside by the celebrity with the reassurance to Wayne and Garth that yes, you are worthy.

Would it surprise you to know that those two knuckleheads have something in common with the prophet Jeremiah?  (More about that in a few moments.)

Last week when I was preaching on the call of Jeremiah—and the call from God to all of us—I included some stuff from our Book of Order that seemed especially fitting.  Well, guess what?  I found some more good stuff!

There’s a section that talks about our confessions of the faith as expressing the Reformed tradition (F-2.05).  Now if by chance that term “Reformed tradition” isn’t in your everyday vocabulary, some “great themes of the Reformed tradition” are listed in it.  Among them are:

“The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation;

“Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God;

“A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation; and

“The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.”

All of that is a bit of a mouthful, but I like the one about “faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation.”  If there’s something that needs to be shunned, it’s ostentation!  We can think of ostentatious as being flashy and pretentious, but there’s a little phrase that also does the job: “puttin’ on the dog”!  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus has something to say about being worthy, ostentation, and puttin’ on the dog.  But again, let’s put that on hold for right now.

Getting back to Jeremiah, in chapter 1 there is the assurance from God, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (v. 8).  Jeremiah is told he’s going to be saying stuff that will have people quaking with rage.  The young prophet tries to decline the opportunity to bring such wonderful news—sadly, to no avail!

In chapter 2, we get a little taste of why his recruitment is met with something less than enthusiasm.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel.  Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (vv. 4-5).

Here’s where we come back to Wayne and Garth and Jeremiah.  Wayne and Garth, by worshiping that which they feel unworthy of, demonstrate the link between worthiness and worship.  Our word “worship” comes from the Old English weorþ (weorth), “worthy”—and sciepe, “quality, state of being.”  It’s a quality of being worthy.

The prophet is saying if you worship something worthless, you become worthless.  We imitate what we worship.  What we consider to be the worthiest is what we worship.

Closely related to this idea of ostentation is “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny,” which is one of those themes in the Book of Order.  It really is a human tendency.  We all have within ourselves the idolater and the tyrant.  The early Christians recognized the danger.  The final verse of 1 John is, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  Don’t feed the idolater within you.  St. Paul warns the church about behaving in a tyrannical fashion, even to the point of biting and devouring each other, with the danger “that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:15).  Instead, “through love become slaves to one another” (v. 13).

There is a story told by Zen masters about wealthy donors who invited Master Ikkyu to a lavish banquet.[1]  “The Master arrived there dressed in beggar’s robes.  His host, not recognizing him in this garb, hustled him away: ‘We cannot have you here at the doorstep.  We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu any moment.’  The Master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his host’s doorstep where he was received with great respect and ushered into the banquet room.  There, he took off his stiff robe, sat it upright at the dinner table and said, ‘I presume that it is my robe you have invited since when I first arrived without it a little while ago, you [turned] me away.’”  You said, “Hit the road, Jack!”

Ostentatious

We humans often have strange ideas about worthiness.  In Luke 14, Jesus seems to have a similar thought.

He’s having lunch on the sabbath with one of the top dogs among the Pharisees.  Folks are showing up, and he notices something.  He sees how the guests are elbowing to get the best seats in the house.  You can’t blame them; they want to look important.  What’s wrong with that?

I realize that many people don’t see humor in Jesus’ stories, but watching this display, I can’t help but think that Jesus is laughing to himself.

Eventually, he has to say something!  So he pipes up and says, “Listen everyone, I’ve got a story that I just have to tell you.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

Jesus tells them that there was a banquet, kind of like the one they’re at today.  Those invited started jostling with each other, trying to get the best spots.  Rumor has it there were even a few angry looks and insulting remarks.  Apparently one fellow’s mother was described in a derogatory fashion.

They should have known this behavior was going to come back and bite them in the rear end.  There was a good chance that the host would ask someone to vacate their spot at the table, because somebody more important would be showing up any minute now.

Jesus said the moral of the story is don’t act like them.  Don’t act like a jackass who pushes and shoves and tramples their way to the top, because from there, the only way to go is down.

And addressing the host, he said the story’s not quite over.  Jesus said the fellow throwing the party has a lesson to learn, too.  Don’t invite your friends and family and the rich folks you’re trying to suck up to.  Instead, send that RSVP to the outcasts and the people you turn your nose up to.  They can’t repay you, and that’s where you find the real treasure.  That’s where you find what’s worthy.

Now I must admit, I haven’t done a great deal of trouble knocking myself out looking for that particular treasure!

But if we take it one step at a time, we can learn to stretch ourselves.  We learn to not rely on our own sense of worthiness.  That requires meaningful self-examination, reflection, and prayer.

Later in his passage, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of the people changing their gods for something that “are no gods.”  They “have changed their glory for something that does not profit” (v. 11).  The Lord commands the heavens to be “appalled,” to “be shocked, be utterly desolate” (v. 12).

David Garland says, “In addition to being appalled, the heavens were commanded to “bristle with horror,” shacarû.  In the Arabic the concept was ‘to be shaggy, hairy.’  [There would be] a convulsive shrinking of the skin in sudden terror which had an effect upon the hair.  [It would make] the hair…‘stand on end”…  So, in light of the folly of the people, ‘heaven’s hair was to stand on end.’”[2]

According to this, when we turn to other gods, when we worship what is not worthy, we give heaven the willies!  We give heaven a celestial case of the creeps.

Remember what Jeremiah says happens when we worship something worthless.  We become worthless.  That should give us a case of the creeps!

Most humble
Sometimes we equate worthiness with size and quantity and even ability.  That can provide a ready-made excuse for saying why something cannot be done, why we’re not good enough.  That can easily devolve into a false humility, a humility that takes itself too seriously!  That is not being humble; that’s a different thing.  False humility is humility turned upside down.  It is the flip side of self-importance, which itself is idolatrous.

But thanks be to God, it’s not our job to decide who’s worthy and who’s not.  God decides our worthiness in and through Jesus Christ.  When, as with Jesus, all pretense and ostentation and tyranny are laid aside—when even claims of worthiness are laid aside—we witness “those who humble themselves [being] exalted” (Lk 14:11).

The next time we encounter (or think) “We’re not worthy!” be aware that God replies, “Are you sure?”

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 163.

[2] D. David Garland, “Exegesis of Jeremiah 2:10-13,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 2:2 (Apr 1960): 30.


empty hands

Any of you who have attended, or participated in, a service of ordination may recall what happens at the end.  Those being ordained as ministers are given a charge, something reminding them and encouraging them regarding the duties of the office to which they have been ordained.  The Presbyterian liturgy also has a charge to those we ordain as elders and deacons.

Banu and I were ordained as ministers in February 1997 at Overbrook Presbyterian in Philadelphia.  Banu’s pastor gave her this instruction: “I charge you to fail.”  (I don’t believe he was expressing ill wishes, just telling her to take bold risks!  That’s advice that I also desperately need to take heed of.)

Distant lands

[image is from christophermpark.com]

My pastor gave me this charge at the end of the service: “Tell your story of being in a distant land.”  Using that image from the parable of the prodigal son, he was talking about several things.

At the time, I wore a bandana on my head; it covered a rather visible surgical scar.  It was a mute witness to my experience of brain cancer.  (At a party, I removed my bandana to reveal the scar.  A couple of people looked like they were about to turn green!)

At the time of our ordination service, I had been on a journey of almost a year and a half.  That journey included the initial seizure, diagnosis, surgery, radiation therapy, another seizure, another surgery, then seven cycles of chemotherapy.

Before andAlong the way, there were plenty of CAT and MRI scans, a port temporarily implanted in my chest for antibiotics, needles and more needles, and being put on prescription meds that I was told I would need to take for the rest of my life.  Oh, did I happen to mention…needles?  To my pastor, that constituted “being in a distant land.”

He was also referring to the spiritual journey I had taken, at least, the parts of it he knew.  Coming from an Assemblies of God church in Tennessee to an American Baptist seminary in Philadelphia to the PC(USA) church across the street—and knowing that I had worshipped and worked with Christians of many different stripes besides that—that also constituted “being in a distant land.”

He understood the power of story to reach people in a way that explanations cannot.

I must confess, though, I have tended to discount my pastor’s charge to me.  I’ve included parts of my story from time to time, but probably not in the deliberate way he intended.  I’ve also been disobedient in a less obvious way, even when I have spoken of my experiences.  I have focused too often and too much on the purely medical aspects of my continued health.  Too often I have failed to properly acknowledge the work of God in my healing.  To put it bluntly, I have failed to give God the glory!

(Maybe my coming clean will encourage others who feel like failures to do the same!)

I begin with this little story because it came to mind when I read our gospel text.  It’s the last verse from our passage in Luke 12 that especially did it.  “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (v. 21).  Does a failure to give credit (no, to joyously give credit) where credit is due qualify as, so to speak, storing up treasure for oneself?  Honestly, I’m not sure; I’ll have to get back to you on that!

As we’ll see, the main focus of this scripture text relates to possessions, but not being rich toward God suggests other things to me—intangible possessions and treasures.

It would seem that’s what Jesus has in mind, too.  He takes an example that is definitely about tangible and visible possessions, a family inheritance, and moves on to something deeper and less obvious.  For the people in Luke’s story, we could also add that it seems to be unexpected!  Today’s passage begins with a request coming from the crowd gathered around Jesus, and it ends with a parable often called “the rich fool.”

In verse 13 we read, “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’”  We don’t really know what the situation is.  Skullduggery may or may not be at work.  There’s nothing like money and property to bring kindred together!

Whatever the case, somebody wants Jesus to play the role of Judge Judy.  (I should say:  the Bible is silent on any sarcastic lines he might have uttered!)

Jesus is having none of it.  “Friend,” he replies, “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (v. 14).  I won’t be dragged into your domestic squabble.

Let me throw in a quick sidebar.  We can also see how Jesus avoids being triangulated.  Here’s what I mean.  The fellow has a beef with his brother.  A and B.  He wants Jesus to be his ally.  A wants C to take sides against B.  Jesus is aware of this dynamic and does not participate in it.  Triangulating, or triangling, happens all the time in life.  It can be healthy or unhealthy.  Jesus recognizes the unhealthy nature and does not intervene.

This is where he takes the situation and, as I said, moves on to something deeper and less obvious.  He gets to the heart of the matter, saying, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v. 15).  Again, we don’t if there’s anything fishy going on, but that’s not the point Jesus wants to make.

 He’s warning against “all kinds of greed.”  As we’ve seen, that could apply to anything.  We are a culture that needs to re-learn the value of “enough.”

Maybe I’m the only one who notices this.  It is a rare event when I go to a buffet restaurant and do not see this.  It seems without fail there will be someone who loads up a dish to the point of the food being ready to fall over.  Some places that used to advertise “all you can eat,” have rephrased it to “all that you care to eat,” or even “please do not take more than you will eat.”  I don’t think anyone there is in danger of starvation!  Besides, you can always go back for seconds.

Jesus adds to the warning about greed, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Having said that, I realize there are those who live by the motto, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  It doesn’t seem that Jesus subscribes to that philosophy.

On that note, Jesus launches into the parable of the rich fool.  This a guy who strikes it big.  He has an abundance of grain and goods.  He has more than what he knows to do with.  Our friend is like some actors and athletes who pull in multi-millions of dollars per year.  They have more money than they could reasonably spend in two or three lifetimes—maybe more!

What does our wealthy friend do?  He decides, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (vv. 18-19).  His physical needs will be well taken care of—or at least, that’s the plan.  In Aesop’s fable, he is the hare, not the tortoise.

Walter Bowie notes, “But the supreme loss is not in what may happen prematurely to the body.  The loss is what happens to the man’s whole self.  He thinks he has plenty of time to find out who he is and what his life is for.  He will stop and give attention to all that after a while.  But it is not only in the parable that the unexpected bell may toll.”[1]

image from gatsbyluxury.files.wordpress.com

I’m reminded of a line from the 90s movie The Basketball Diaries.  It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life musician Jim Carroll, who also played Catholic high school basketball.  However, his talent is being wasted, due to his use of heroin.  One day in class, he falls asleep and is enjoying a drug-induced dream.  His teacher, a cane-wielding priest, gives him a rude awakening.  Smacking his desk, he shouts, “Wake up, Mr. Carroll, it’s later than you think!”

Wake up; it’s later than you think.  Now that’s a sobering thought.

And it’s one delivered to our friend in the parable.  God reminds him, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (v. 20).  So now, we come back full circle to the thought of storing up treasures for ourselves but not being rich toward God.

This business of it being later than we think, of getting our house in order—that is no doubt some seriously important stuff.

Speaking for myself, I sometimes have a sense of foreboding in all of that.  Maybe I haven’t lived life the way I could or should have.  Perhaps I’ve been stingy in sharing God’s work, God’s provision, God’s healing in my life.  Maybe in doing that (or in not doing that, as the case may be), I have been greedy like our friend in the parable, the rich fool.

But this is the gospel, the good news that Luke brings us.  Where is the word of grace?  How is this the word of love?

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr mentions a charge he received at ordination.[2]  He puts it in the context of perfection, something we attempt to provide by ourselves.  It “gives the impression that by effort I can achieve wholeness separate from God, from anyone else…

“On the day of my first vows in 1962,” he says, “the preacher glared at us earnest and innocent novices and quoted the line, ‘Thou shalt be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’ (Matthew 5:48).  Most of the honest guys left within the first few years of seminary when they could not achieve this supposed perfection.  That’s sad because I think a lot of them would have been really good friars and priests, precisely because they were so human, humble, and honest.”

Those guys were already set up for failure.  The charge from that preacher was not uttered in wisdom and love!

Rohr continues, “Many people give up on the spiritual life or religion when they see they cannot be perfect.  They end up [as] practical agnostics or atheists, because they refuse to be hypocrites.  It is quite unfortunate that [this] ideal of perfection has been applied to human beings…  It has created people who, lacking compassion, have made impossible demands on themselves and others, resulting in a tendency toward superiority, impatience, dismissiveness, and negative thinking.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Those who can see actually realize it isn’t that way.  And that is the good news.  That is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

image from deacontimlexky.files.wordpress.com

We need not be afraid to share, to unfasten ourselves, to empty our hands.  By not piling up riches for ourselves, we open ourselves to being amazed and surprised by God.  We unleash the power of the Spirit within our lives, and together, we unleash the power of the Spirit in community.

We approach with empty hands so that they might be filled.  We yield the treasures we store up so that we might be rich toward God.

 

[1] Walter Russell Bowie, The Compassionate Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 175.

[2] cac.org/perfection-self-defeating-path-2016-07-20


Independence Day theological reflections of one American

The wording of my title has been carefully chosen.  First of all, “Independence Day.”  It is the one day of the year in which we’re especially called to be grateful for the gift of nation.

Then there’s the word “theological.”  That speaks to questions like:  how is God involved in it?  Where is God to be found?  And they are “reflections.”  I don’t pretend this is some universal truth that applies to everyone.  I’m speaking from my own experience.

And indeed, this is the viewpoint of “one” American.  But though I am one, I am an “American.”  In some ways, I feel like I could be nothing but an American.  Having been adopted as an infant, I don’t know who my genetic ancestors are.

In a similar way, America as a nation has no single clear understanding of its genetic makeup.  After all, what does an American look like?  What does an American sound like?  Our political history mainly ties us to England, but as a whole, Americans look to all parts of the world, not to mention those who were here before the Europeans ever showed up.

So there’s that.  But I do have a better reason for saying that “I feel like I could be nothing but an American.”  It’s because I love my country.  I love America.

For the first ten years of my life, we were a military family.  My dad was posted to various naval bases around the country, from coast to coast to coast.  That meant plenty of moving around, guaranteeing that I saw a whole lot of this country.

But like most of us, whether or not we’re from a military background, I was taught at an early age that God has blessed America.  However, my young mind—not so good with nuance—made the assumption that since God had blessed America, we were better than people from other countries!  (I’ve since learned that Banu was raised with a similar belief about Turkey—that’s there’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!)

Ferguson flag

There is within the spirit of America a conviction that people have human rights, that they shouldn’t be tortured, that the government shouldn’t tell them how to think, that they are truly “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  That’s why it’s a shame when we, as a country, don’t live up to those convictions.

I realize that many say faith and politics should be kept separate.  (By the way, that’s a whole different animal from separation of church and state!)  When it comes to airing one’s political opinions from the pulpit—such as telling people who to vote for—I would agree.  As Christians, we need to learn to think theologically, not just politically.  As I said earlier, “Where is God in this?  How do we think of God?”  That’s what the New Testament church does.

The gospel is inherently political; it’s inescapable.  Words like “Lord” and “Savior,” in the first century, are political terms.  They aren’t merely spiritual in the sense of being disconnected from everyday life.  The terms “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr) are titles attributed to the emperor.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues, are especially insistent about it.

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on a bumper sticker or post on Facebook.  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25).  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.  I wonder, what does that mean for us, on our nation’s 240th birthday?

We see the scribes and chief priests sending representatives to Jesus, but they’re hardly doing so in good faith.  The scripture calls them “spies who pretended to be honest.”  That’s not a vote of confidence.  Their job isn’t to pursue meaningful dialogue; their job is “to trap him by what he” says, so that they can hand him over to the Romans (v. 20).  They aren’t there to listen; they just hope he screws up!

The backdrop of our story is the payment of taxes to the Roman authorities.  Any loyal Jew, with any patriotic sensibility, considers being taxed by this foreign government reprehensible.  The enemies of Jesus have racked their brains, trying to come up with some way to get rid of this guy.  He’s drawing too much attention, and they feel that can only spell trouble.

Somebody has one of those “aha!” moments, and says, “I got it!”  If Jesus teaches “the way of God,” let’s see what he says about the law.  If Jesus says it’s legal to pay those taxes, he’ll anger the Zealots.  (They are the Jewish insurgents who want to overthrow the Romans, by any means necessary.)  No doubt they will say, “If he won’t lead the revolt, then it falls to us.”

However, if he says “no,” the Romans will step in and take care of him.  Either way, we win.

The folks trying to trick Jesus haven’t done their homework, or they might have guessed their plan won’t work.  Jesus is proactive, not reactive, about the job of reconciliation.  He is intentional.

For example, among his disciples he’s included Simon the Zealot, one of those Jewish revolutionaries.  He’s also included Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans.  Not exactly birds of a feather.  Compared with them, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are identical!

In answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus elevates the discussion.  Changing the perspective, he gets to the heart of the matter.  He gives the perfect answer to their question, one that invites them to challenge their assumptions.

Christ and caesar

Ten days after the 9-11 attacks, a well-known person spoke of his own assumptions that needed to be challenged.  I’m referring to the guy who went from being Terminator to Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He spoke of growing up in the scarcity of postwar Austria and of his dream of going to America.  He arrived in 1968 with $20 in his pocket, and within six months starred in his first movie, the classic work of art, Hercules in New York.

He said, “I called all my friends back in Europe and said: ‘It’s true!  You can do anything in this country!  Come over here!  It’s everything you imagine—and more!’”[1]

Arnold spoke of 1989, when President George H. W. Bush named him the Chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.  He traveled all over the US, promoting fitness programs in schools.  He believed if a poor farm kid from Europe could make it in America, anybody could.  Encountering the poverty of American cities forced him to challenge his assumptions.  He said he used to go around saying, “Everybody should pull himself up by his own bootstraps—just like I did!”  But he changed, and said, “What I learned about this country is this:  Not everybody has boots.”

Arnold finished by saying that “it’s not just the bodybuilding and the business and the box office for me anymore.  Helping the kids who need help is the most important goal I have.  This is what it means for me to be an American.  Maybe that’s what it could mean for you, too!  No matter how much success you have, you can be more successful by reaching out to someone who needs you.”[2]

We are called, both as Americans and especially as Americans of faith, to expand our vision, to look outward, to be proactive about reconciliation—to take the first step in peacemaking.  We’re called “to form a more perfect union.”

And again, as the church, St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18).

Our second hymn today, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was one I had never heard or sung until going to seminary in the 90s.  I found out that it’s often called the national anthem of the black church.  It was that second verse which reinforced it for me.  “We have come / over a way that with tears has been watered; / We have come, / treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”

That comes from the black experience of America.  I’ve had friends who told me some stories, stories of everyday life: stuff I’ve never had to deal with or even think about.  Still, black history, Native American history, Latino history, white history (although we usually don’t think of it that way)—all of that and more is American history.  But more than just national history—the civic side of things—all of that belongs to church history.

Now, to recall my question from a few moments ago, how do we as Americans of faith live on the 240th birthday of our country?  There is a vast difference between being an American and an American of faith, just as there’s a vast difference between Caesar and God.

As Americans who belong to the body of Christ, we are called to actively celebrate the good and to challenge the injustices, not only in our country, but in ourselves.  To say that each person is born with inalienable rights means respecting and honoring those who are different from us, in whatever way.

It also means not denying our identity in Jesus Christ.  It’s easier than we think to conceal the cross behind the flag.  Remember, there is a difference between Christ and Caesar!  We mustn’t confuse the two as we rightfully celebrate, as we seek to be grateful to God for the gift of nation.

May we live lives that are authentically Christian this Independence Day.  May we sing with sincere belief in mind and genuine joy in heart:

“Shadowed beneath Thy hand / may we forever stand, / True to our God, / true to our native land.”

 

[1] Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Education of an American,” A Patriot’s Handbook, ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York:  Hyperion, 2003), 567.

[2] Schwarzenegger, 568.