war

Spirit of repair and renewal

I want to steal Banu’s answer to something I asked her.  “What comes to mind when you hear the words, ‘creation and Pentecost?’”  “How about when you hear the words, ‘Earth and Holy Spirit?’”

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

She spoke of a portal to heaven being opened.  She spoke of the Spirit covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.  I mentioned the book of the prophet Joel, which assures the outpouring of the Spirit “on all flesh.”

This pouring out has sons and daughters prophesying, the elderly dreaming dreams, and the young seeing visions.  There is a note on male and female slaves also receiving the outpouring of the Spirit.  Maybe we can translate that to “everyone, both great and small”!

The promise of “all flesh” receiving the Spirit only refers to human flesh.  Is it possible the animal kingdom could also be intended?  I’m not sure.  I think the animals already have their act together.  It’s the human race that needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit of wind and fire—the wind to steer us straight and the fire to burn away the impurities.

Unfortunately, the church (at least, the church in the West), has rarely thought of creation and Pentecost, Earth and Holy Spirit, as going together.  Happily, that is increasingly no longer the case.

Regarding Joel, we really have no idea when his book was written.  Unlike many of the other prophets, there is no helpful mention of historical markers, such as who was king during that time.  There is, however, mention of a devasting ecological disaster—wave after wave of locusts have swept through and ravaged the crops.  The destruction has been frightful.

They are described in rather stark language.  “They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge.  As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle” (2:4-5).

I think I’m safe in saying these critters are unwelcome guests!

2 joelThese locusts are seen as God’s call to repentance.  Joel doesn’t go into much detail as to what the people need to repent of, as some other prophets do.  He just speaks of disobedience in general.  An interesting thing is that this call to penitence involves nature itself—the invasion of locusts and the resulting devastation of the nation’s harvest.

Likewise, the sign of the salvation by God also involves nature.  “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.  And my people shall never again be put to shame” (vv. 25-26).

Before he gets that far, the prophet has a message for creation itself.  He addresses nature.  “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!  Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield” (vv. 21-22).  When we look at the reading in Romans, I’ll say more about why I’ve highlighted this.

We might want to dismiss Joel’s speech as flowery symbolism.  He attributes emotion to his non-human, even non-living audience.  (At least, not living the way we think of it.)  Fear not!  Be glad and rejoice!

However, we are today understanding more about these things.  For example, there have been experiments in which rats have been observed consciously sacrificing themselves for others.  (I should add, that wasn’t the expectation at the beginning of the experiment!  No one actually thought the rats would give up their lives to save one of their fellows.)

In the recent movie, My Octopus Teacher (2020), the filmmaker befriends a creature that apparently has a high level of sentience.[1]  I’ll think twice before eating calamari again!  (And I do understand that calamari are squid; but they’re close enough!)

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I grieve for trees that are cut down.  I see them as having some level of consciousness.

My point is that we too readily disregard our fellow earthlings.  Sometimes I think of war and the toll it takes.  Obviously, the loss of human life is both horrific and unnecessary.  When we go to war, it shows a failure of imagination and creativity.  Do we ever consider the mass murder we commit against animals and plants?

Actually, the Bible itself makes an issue of that very thing.  In the law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 20, there’s a section on the rules of warfare.  An environmental clause was inserted.  The Israelites are told, “If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them.”

When an army lays siege to a city, it is blockaded.  Supplies are cut off, including food.  Sometimes the water supply is hindered.  The strategy is if the population is starved, denied vital necessities, eventually it will have to submit.

The verse goes on, “Although you may take food from [the trees], you must not cut them down.  Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (v. 19).  I’m not sure how often that warning—that wisdom—was heeded.  We can learn a lot from it.  It’s an early version of the Geneva Conventions.

Now to my point about emphasizing addressing creation itself in Romans 8.  St. Paul speaks of the present suffering as not even close to the glory which will be revealed, adding that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v. 19).  The creation waits with eager longing.  There is an intelligence at work, an intelligence that yearns, and it yearns for the unveiling of God’s children.

I wonder how often we act like the children, the daughters and sons, of God in our care of creation.  We are reminded of that ancient command in Genesis 1 in which the human race was told to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (v. 26).  We should remember that there is a difference between dominion and domination.

There is a reason given for creation’s longing.  It has been “subjected to futility” (v. 20).  That word “futility” (ματαιοτης, mataiotēs) means “vanity” or “emptiness.”  One translation says, “creation was condemned to lose its purpose” (Good News Bible).  Of course, we’re the ones who lost sight of creation’s purpose!  We too often lose sight of our own purpose.

4 joelVerse 20 goes on to say the creation was subjected “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.”  As they ask in the crime novels trying to solve a murder, “Whodunnit?”  Who subjected creation to futility?  Was it we humans, or was it God?  Majority opinion goes with the latter.  It’s unclear why God would do such a thing.  One explanation is the ones put in charge by God—us.  We are the ones who screwed it up.

We dump plastic into the soil and into the sea.  We pave over the earth with reckless abandon.  We do chemistry experiments with our atmosphere, altering its composition.  We even inject ourselves with chemicals, the long-term effects of which we really don’t know.

Despite our failings as caretakers, God has made sure that the futility, the purposelessness, we have inflicted has been done “in hope.”  The story isn’t over.  Ultimately, despite our destruction (including self-destruction, God forbid), creation will endure.  Creation will be repaired and renewed.

If all of this is giving you a headache, or maybe giving you a pain in the rear end, take heart!  You’re not alone!  The apostle Paul understands, and it’s causing him to groan.  Actually, what he does is to give us a three-fold list of groaning: “the whole creation” (v. 22), “we ourselves” (v. 23), and “the Spirit” (v. 26).

I won’t into great detail about all of this groaning.  All of these “groaning” words are related to στεναζω (stenazō), which besides meaning “to groan,” also means “to sigh.”  The creation groans with labor pains.  We groan, awaiting our adoption, the final redemption of our bodies.  And that bit about our bodies is important.  Remember, in Jesus the Christ, God chose to be manifest in flesh—to appear in matter, to become part of creation.  Resurrection is not about the spirit; it is about the body.

Lastly, there is the Spirit, who helps in our weakness, not knowing how to pray as we ought.  The Spirit intercedes with sighs (as just mentioned) “too deep for words.”  Some say that refers to glossolalia, speaking in tongues.  However, speaking in tongues is an occasion of elation, as Paul says elsewhere.  In this context, the word is used as an expression of pain, of great discomfort.

The Holy Spirit grieves for us; the Spirit grieves for the creation.  Yet, as I said before, this is not the end of the story.  At this point, let me return to my original question I put to Banu.  That portal to heaven is open.  The Spirit is poured out as the waters cover the sea.

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[photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash]

Our duty, our calling, our joy isn’t simply to each other.  The gospel, the good news, goes throughout all the earth.  “God so loved the world (the cosmos)…”  Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the awesome privilege we have.  God issues the invitation to join in repairing and renewing the world.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt12888462


I will be with you again

U2’s “New Year’s Day” was released in 1983.  U2 has had many great songs, but to me, this ranks near the top.  (“Pride in the Name of Love” isn’t a bad song either!)  Clearly, this New Year’s Day is like none other for everyone in the world.  Of course, we’re all thinking of the pandemic (as if that isn’t way more than enough), but a fellow named Speed Leas spoke of five levels of conflict.

U2Levels one to three describe increasing degrees of difficulty.  At level four, people are no longer satisfied with getting their way.  Now they have to get rid of the opposition.  Some might say we in America are at level five.  (I think that’s a bit of exaggeration.)  At this level, people become fanatics.  They won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop.  They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.  The only thing you can do at this level is remove the opposing parties from each other.  In church contexts, a pastor may need to ask for protection and support from the denomination.

Do we need to ask for protection and support?

Under a blood red sky / A crowd has gathered in black and white / Arms entwined, the chosen few / The newspapers say / Say it’s true, it’s true / And we can break through /
Though torn in two / We can be one…

 

(In the video, Irish flag draped on his shoulders, Bono references Jason McAteer, who had just scored the goal that secured Ireland’s place in the 2002 FIFA World Cup.)


we are not dead

Ezekiel is one of those prophets with whom most people never become familiar.  He seems too remote, too odd.  What can we say about a book that starts with a vision in which the prophet sees images of creatures flashing like lightning, with wheels all around?  Some people swear he saw a spaceship.

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And he often behaves in ways that are just flat-out weird.  He builds a model of Jerusalem and then smashes it to bits.  He shaves his head and beard and then publicly burns the hairs.  Ezekiel doesn’t lend himself very well to Sunday school.

Still, he does have an admiring audience.  People come to listen to him.  However, as the Lord says, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (33:32).

There isn’t much about this book that is familiar, with the exception of today’s scripture reading.  We’ve been helped by the old spiritual which tells us, “Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones!’”  Do you know this one?  “The toe bone connected to the foot bone / The foot bone connected to the heel bone / The heel bone connected to the ankle bone…”  I think I can stop there; you probably don’t want to hear me connect all the bones.

At the start of chapter 37, Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself in a valley filled with bones, and indeed, they are not connected.  They’re strewn all over the place.  He examines them and finds that they’re completely dry.  These folks died a long time ago.  The Lord asks Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”  What kind of answer can he give?  It doesn’t look like anything alive could emerge from that dismal scene.  Still, he knows not to limit the power of his God.  All he can say is, “You know, Lord.”

To really understand Ezekiel, we need to take a step back and look at his world.  He lived through one of the true turning points of Biblical and world history.  The Babylonian Empire has become a superpower, and by the year 597 (B.C.), after sweeping through most of the Middle East, the Babylonians are ready to conquer Judah.  People who might be considered a threat are deported.  Ezekiel is part of the first group of exiles.  Thus, Ezekiel comes to live in Babylon.

For about eight years, Jerusalem has been occupied by the Babylonians, but they’ve refrained from destroying the city.  But then the Judahites try teaming up with the Egyptians to fight back.  That doesn’t work, and the Babylonians lose their patience.

As a result, the unthinkable happens.  The temple is destroyed.  It’s difficult for us today to understand the crushing blow that was.  They couldn’t imagine the temple being destroyed.  There’s no way God would allow it.  They had a trust in the building—a superstitious trust, as it turned out.  They trusted in a building, but they didn’t trust God.  They constantly broke the covenant with the Lord.  They served other gods.  They oppressed the poor.  They were corrupt.

And so we arrive in the valley of dry bones.

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There’s a Hebrew word that appears over and over throughout today’s reading: רוּחַ (ruah).  It’s translated by three words that best capture its meaning: breath, wind, or spirit.

We see in Ezekiel’s vision the creative use of the word.  First he’s commanded to prophesy to the bones, as our little song puts it, he’s to say to “dem dry bones…hear the word of the Lord.”  Suddenly the bones reassemble, with sinews, flesh, and skin reappearing.  Still, the bodies are dead.  Then the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to call out to the wind, to speak to the spirit.  It’s only then that ruah enters the bodies, and they come to life.

The exiles, defeated and taken captive far from their homeland, truly were dispirited.  They felt they were as dead as those dry bones.  With the news of the temple’s destruction, Ezekiel’s job has changed.  He’s been calling for repentance; now he must offer hope.

When the people felt that all was lost, that their enemies had vanquished them, the prophet came to them and told them of the promise of the ruah of the Lord, of the Spirit of God, which would revive them, which would bring them back to life.

So what does this vision of hope given to a group of exiles 25 centuries ago in Babylon say to us here today?

We might feel like our nation, our world, has become a collection of dry bones.  We might feel that way about ourselves.

Do we need to be brought back to life, like Lazarus?

We’re like the exiles, in a way.  We have been forced; we have been taken to a place we never would have chosen.  We have been exiled to a strange new world.

We’ve all had our own experiences with the virus.  Some have had truly dreadful experiences.  Others—not so much.  I have this feeling that there’s something out there, and it has ill intent.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.  Wouldn’t be nice if we could actually see the virus?  That would make things much easier!

Still, we’re here.  The crowds asked John the Baptist after his message of repentance, “What then should we do?” (Lk 3:10).  What should we do?  Let me ask the question from a different angle.  What opportunities await us?

Remember what I said regarding the news that the temple had been destroyed.  The prophet had been calling for repentance.  Now it was a time for hope.

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[photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Well, the temple has been destroyed.  We’re in the valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel’s vision is about a promise of return from exile.  It will be a second exodus.  What can these bones do, given a new life?  The breath, the wind, the spirit of God is still blowing.  We have the opportunity—we have the option—of allowing that wind to carry us to a new way of being.  Or maybe it’s a question of regaining what we’ve possibly allowed to lapse.

What are we doing to stay healthy?  What are we doing to stay healthy mentally?  What are we doing to help others stay healthy?  What are we doing to spread the love?  Friends, we are not dead.  As the Song of Solomon puts it, “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (8:6).  Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message reads, “Love is invincible facing danger and death.  Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.”

Here’s another question.  How will we emerge from this?  Will fear win the day?  So much of what we see in the media, in my opinion, borders on sensationalism.  Sometimes it seems like the goal is to inspire fear, to inspire panic, rather than level-headed caution.  I feel like some people would almost welcome mobs who are setting fires and smashing windows.

So that’s one option.  Here’s another.  Will we learn from this?  Will we work together?  Will we learn to care for each other?  I don’t expect heaven on earth, but maybe some heavenly spirit can take hold.  There is an opening for a deeper and more vibrant faith.

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14).


warm up the celebration

It might seem strange to use Matthew 24 as one of the readings for World Communion Sunday.  This snippet of scripture portrays wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, betrayal, people being led astray.  What kind of communion is that?  Actually, this might be a good description of our world!

This comes right after Jesus’ disciples are “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty of the temple.  In his gospel, Luke adds “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (21:5).  So how does Jesus respond to his starry-eyed friends?  He asks, “You see all these, do you not?  Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2).

What a party pooper.

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"I'm the party pooper"

But he wasn’t wrong.  In the year 70, fed up with the constant rebellion of the Jews, the Romans rolled in and destroyed the temple.

(Here’s a quick note.  Actually, anything we humans build will eventually disappear.  This building we’re in right now will eventually crumble to the ground.  We are in a doomed structure!  And that word “structure” has one than one meaning.)

Still, the reason I picked this passage for today comes in verse 12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”  Back when I started reading the Bible in earnest—when I became a Christian while in college—that really jumped out at me.  It still really speaks to me.  The love of many will grow cold.  Love growing cold—that’s not a very pleasant thought!

It’s not a very lovely thought for World Communion Sunday, is it?  In some ways, it might be true of us today.  Love is growing cold.

Having said that, it’s also true that actual witch hunts rarely happen anymore.  People are not routinely burned at the stake.  And then there are stories from the 1600s of Presbyterians and others in their dealings with Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism.  They decided to help the Baptists and grant their wish.  Since Baptists believed they needed to be baptized again, they were bound with heavy stones and tossed into the river.  Here’s your baptism!  (Still, I cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports!)

2 lmIn any case, there are some things one hopes we have left behind.  One hopes we aren’t put to the test if our civilization were to come crashing down!

A time when people were put to such a test was when the Babylonians invaded Judea.  The nation was under military occupation, with hundreds and thousands sent into forced deportation—the Babylonian exile.  The invaders destroyed the original temple, as the Romans did the second temple centuries later.

According to the book of Lamentations, during the siege of Jerusalem, food began to run out.  Apparently, some even resorted to cannibalism.[1]

The part of the book we usually focus on is in chapter 3, verses 19 to 24.  We do see the author acknowledging the dire straits.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (vv. 19-20).  The grim reality is recognized.  “But this I call to mind.”  We’re turning a corner.  There’s a light in the darkness.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (vv. 21-22).  Even in the depths of despair, hope is still alive.

In verse 23—the mercies of the Lord “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”—we have the inspiration of that great hymn of the church.  And for those who didn’t know the Biblical origin of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” here it is.  It comes from a time when civilized society has collapsed.  Even when we humans screw up on a colossal scale, God is still faithful.

(Who knows?  If our civilization collapses, maybe some wise person will be inspired and pen lyrics to encourage those who come after.)

3 lmOur poet proclaims, “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (v. 24).  Unfortunately, the struggle continues.  A few verses later, he says, “When all the prisoners in a country are crushed underfoot, when human rights are overridden in defiance of the Most High, when someone is cheated of justice, does not the Lord see it?” (vv. 34-36, New Jerusalem Bible).  Lord, what are you going to do?

As the hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, / Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!”  Seizing that hope keeps our love from growing cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the spiritual disciplines of the prayer of recollection and of secrecy.  (Again, that’s not the secrecy as opposed to keeping confidence.  It’s the secrecy Jesus displays by telling people to not turn him into a spectacle.  He heals and then tells the people to not broadcast it all over the place.)  I gave as another example of secrecy the over-the-top behavior of the guy praying very loudly, confessing his sin, in a quiet time and a quiet place.

In her work Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun speaks of the discipline of celebration.[2]  It’s the discipline of abandoning oneself to joy, of giving in to the spirit of gratitude and love, of just letting go.  That covers a lot of ground; it has many different aspects, but there is something she says I readily understand.[3]

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One of them is “taking yourself less seriously.”  Some of us have more trouble in that than others!  I’ve often thought a key quality of our bearing the image of God is a sense of humor.  We humans didn’t invent humor.  Where can humor come from but a source of infinite joy and good will?

Did you know that humor is a powerful weapon?  Brian Doyle in The Thorny Grace of It speaks to this point.[4]

“Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness.  What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you.  It advances the universe two inches.  If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words.  You and I know this is possible.  It is what [Jesus] said could happen if we loved well.”

Cynicism and mockery can’t appreciate the pure, uninhibited appeal of genuine and authentic humor.  There’s an easiness of spirit, without which we can become brittle.  When we’re brittle, we don’t have flexibility.  When we’re brittle, our sense of humor becomes twisted.  We laugh at the expense of others.  We sometimes give them nicknames, and they aren’t friendly nicknames.  We can become vulgar.  We can’t laugh at ourselves.

There’s something else that goes along with love growing cold.  The discipline of celebration entails gratitude.  When love grows cold, we have the “celebration” of ingratitude.  In our country, we seem to have taken the celebration of ingratitude to new levels.  For instance, many of our so-called “reality” TV shows extol the virtues (or should we say, the vices) of it.

5 lmIngratitude and love have a hard time co-existing.

The apostle Paul has his own take on love.  “Love is patient,” he says, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

A friend of mine years ago said he sometimes would put his name in the place of “love” in this passage.  It was a lesson he needed to learn again and again.  Let me try.

James is patient; James is kind; James is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James’ love has not grown cold.  That can be a high bar to set!

A posture of love that is kept warm by the Holy Spirit enables the discovery and cultivation of gifts from that same Spirit.

I began with the comment that using the reading from Matthew 24 (with the “love growing cold” business) might seem to be a strange one for World Communion Sunday.  But why not?  If there’s one place where love is meant to be warmed, it is at the table of Holy Communion.  This is where “celebration” of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and joyful, life-affirming humor is to be found.  And surely the entire world is where it needs to happen.

The apostle says, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).  That word “complete” (τελειος, teleios) is also translated as “perfect”—not perfect as in flawless, but as in finished.  We are not yet complete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).

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What awaits us is awareness of the infinite bursting heart of love gazing into our very being, burning away the coldness and resounding through all the worlds with fierce, irresistible euphoria.  Paul is fully known—nothing is hidden—and yet is loved all the more.

Those cold hearts, overcome and warmed with the spirit of celebration, is the foundation for all of the spiritual gifts.  We are empowered by the Spirit and sent forth into a world that is dying for communion.

 

[1] “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:10)

[2] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 26-28.

[3] Calhoun, 26.

[4] www.loyolapress.com/products/books/spirituality-inspiration/the-thorny-grace-of-it


centered in confession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


building the earth

I want to begin by talking about mammals.  “The story of mammals is one of self-destruction.  They first arose roughly 200 million years ago, and after eons spent scurrying in the shadow of the dinosaurs, they finally cut loose and evolved into a breathtaking variety of shapes and sizes, including the largest creatures to ever exist.  And after all that, it took barely 100,000 years for one relatively young member of the group—us—to bring everything crashing down.”[1]

That’s how Ed Yong’s article in last month’s The Atlantic begins.  From the time of the early proto-humans, we have hunted, invaded habitat, and polluted the environment.  One key point in the article is how we have affected evolutionary history.  Taking into account the mammals we’ve eradicated, and those nearing extinction, it is estimated it would take 3 to 7 million years of evolution for their replacement.  Evolution is very slow; destruction is pretty quick!

1 ps

I jokingly made a comment about the article when I posted it on Facebook.  I said, “If human beings vanished from the face of the earth, it would a good thing for our fellow animals!”

Fortunately, there’s one group doing their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

There are some folks in what’s known as the Quiverfull movement.  In a nutshell, they don’t believe in contraception.  Some are even opposed to the rhythm method.  On the contrary, they believe God wants us to procreate as much as possible.  It’s like the TV show from a few years ago, 19 and Counting.

So why do I mention the Quiverfull movement and their determination to propagate the species?  It just so happens that their inspiration is Psalm 127.  Speaking of children, in particular sons, we read, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (vv. 4-5).  Thus the name!  This is taken as, if not exactly a command from God, then at least a very firm recommendation.

Whether or not you agree with the Quiverfull philosophy, I would say their talk of arrows misses the mark.

2 psVerse 1 establishes the context of the psalm; it sets the stage.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

Backing up for just a moment, Psalm 127 is part of a group of psalms called “The Songs of Ascents.”  They run from Psalm 120 to 134.  It’s commonly thought these were songs sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem.  (I’ve never been to Jerusalem, but those who have can probably attest to the higher elevation the city occupies—thus the idea of “ascent.”)

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

The dearly-departed Eugene Peterson, author of the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message (and about a thousand other books), in 1980 wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  It deals with the Songs of Ascents.  Perhaps those who are familiar with Peterson’s work can agree with me that, whatever he wrote, he spoke with the heart and soul of a poet.

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

In his chapter on Psalm 127, he begins with his own take on building and guarding.  He says, “The greatest work project of the ancient world is a story of disaster.  The unexcelled organization and enormous energy that were concentrated in building the Tower of Babel resulted in such shattered community and garbled communication that civilization is still trying to recover.  Effort, even if the effort is religious (perhaps especially when the effort is religious), does not in itself justify anything.”[2]

The story in Genesis 11 is one of frantic anxiety.  It’s one of human desperation and despair.  It’s one of human arrogance and hubris.  “The whole world” as the story goes, said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (vv. 1, 4).  They thought their technology would save them.  They wanted to build a city; they wanted to guard their culture from ruin.

That’s not the only time we humans have done that.  Today is the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  In 1918, the armistice was signed, ceasing the fighting of what came to be called World War 1.  It was, as our call to worship puts it, the “day when the guns once fell silent.”

3 psHuman knowledge and technology during the late nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as it was sadly discovered, knowledge and wisdom often progress at different rates.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[3]

This was yet another time of human hubris, when we engaged in “the war to end all wars.”  In the midst of it, he quoted Walter Rauschenbusch, “O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it…

“Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy.”[4]

He takes note of our building cities, “building the house,” building the earth, so to speak, but it must have the blessing of God.  When we build the earth while ignoring God, it leaves a horrible legacy to our children, those young ones we looked at earlier.  “We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.”

We can knock ourselves out in doing this building.  Verse 2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.”  “In vain”: that’s the third time we’ve heard that!  So many are sleep-deprived, working anxiously.  I don’t imagine this is a big surprise, but America is the most sleep-deprived nation in the world—Japan is a close second.  Roughly one-third of us get less than 7 hours of sleep each night.  It takes its toll on our health.

When I was a kid, my parents used to listen to country music.  I was never a fan.  But I remember a song by Hoyt Axton: “Boney Fingers.”  Here’s the chorus: “Work your fingers to the bone, What do you get? / Boney fingers, boney fingers.”  And we lose that sleep I was just talking about.

4 ps

 

Remember the last line of verse 2: “he gives sleep to his beloved.”  There’s an alternate reading which says, “he provides for his beloved during sleep.”

With all this talk of sleep, some might say, “Why bother with work—and certainly working hard?”  God will take care of it.  However, the psalm isn’t advocating being lazy.  St. Paul had an argument with some of the Thessalonians, complaining that “we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (3:11).

And so we come to verse 3.  “Sons [children] are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”  Children are a gift from God.  They are created without working our fingers to the bone.  Building the house isn’t simply about a physical structure.  Building the house also means family, lineage.  For example, the house of David figures greatly in the Old Testament.

Rickie Dale Moore says, “How deeply the world view of this psalm makes this connection can be seen in the fact that the Hebrew words for ‘build’ (banah), ‘house’ (bayith), ‘daughters’ (banoth), and ‘sons’ (banim), all come from the same Hebrew root (bnh).”[5]

This brings us to the final line of the psalm.  We already saw the first part of verse 5: “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (that is, sons).  Here’s how it ends: “He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”  “The gate” represents a place where justice is meted out, a tribunal.  If someone has many sons to back him up—well, let’s say there’s a better chance of being treated fairly!

Our psalm begins with the “threat of a cursed life of vanity.”  By the time we get to the end, there’s “the promise of a blessed life.”  Our friend Rickie Dale says, “The blessed life, here, finally consists in nothing other than the plenitude of one’s children, and what’s more, the blessedness is secured and protected by nothing other than the children themselves!”[6]

That might sound like someone without children is cursed.  (If so, then my wife and I are in that category!)  Translating that into the understanding most of us share, it doesn’t have to be our own children.  It’s the children of our society, the children of our world.

5 ps

There was a movie starring Clive Owen called Children of Men.  It’s set about twenty years into the future.  For some unknown reason, women all over the planet have become infertile; nobody’s having babies.  The youngest person in the world is 18 years old.  A notable line of one of the characters goes, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.  Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”  Eventually, a young woman does get pregnant, so all is not lost!

In a very real way, it is the hope of children that saves us.  They are how we build the house; they are how we build the earth.  So, to rephrase as Moore does, “Unless the Lord builds the world; Then for its builders, all is vanity.”[7]

What goes into building the house?  What goes into building our culture, building our lives?

In Mark 12:38-44, the high and mighty are giving donations in a prideful way.  It’s a reaffirmation of the respect they believe they deserve.  They have plenty of money in the bank; their investments have paid off well.  The poor widow isn’t trying to impress anyone.  She can’t impress anyone.  She gives—not for show—but from a heart of love.  She gives her all, and Jesus commends her to his disciples.

We are called to build with love.  We are called to build the earth with love.  Part of that means not wiping out hundreds of thousands and even millions of years of evolution of our companions—whether they stride, soar, or swim.

6 ps

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

We are called, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, to be joined together—to be built—into a holy temple in the Lord (Ep 2:20-21).

 

[1] www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/mammals-will-need-millions-years-recover-us/573031

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 105.

[3] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), vii.

[4] Fosdick, 60.

[5] Moore, Rickie Dale, “Futile Labor vs Fertile Labor: Observing the Sabbath in Psalm 127,” The Living Pulpit, (April-June) 1998: 24.

[6] Moore, 25.

[7] Moore, 25.


wait, every living creature?

When I was young, for a little while we went to church—a couple of years or so.  My Sunday school teacher had one of those billboards covered with felt material.  (The kind that images can stick to.)  She would use it illustrate the Bible stories for us students.

Of course, one of the favorites was always Noah’s ark.  There would be all manner of critters obediently marching to the giant boat.  Natural enemies would behave themselves, or rather, they would not behave as nature designed them.  The lion would not tear into the lamb.  The eagle would not swoop down and snatch the rabbit.

1 noah

We can think about how we first learn the story.  “Here come the animals, two by two.”  That sounds nice!  However, reading Genesis 7:2 gives us a slightly different take on it.  The Lord tells Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate.”  It’s about ritual purity.  So maybe it should go this way: “Here come the unclean animals, two by two.”

Anyway, that’s how we first learn the story.  But if we leave it there, we’re reduced to asking rather cartoonish questions.  How did every species find its way to the ark?  Where did they store enough drinking water for the entire time?  Did anyone take a bath?  (You get what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, no story in sacred scripture has such a limited meaning.  The central idea of this story is covenant.

Sometimes there’s confusion between a contract and a covenant.  With a contract, terms are spelled out.  If one party does not abide by the terms, the contract is broken, and sometimes penalties are levied, punishment is meted out!  In addition, we’re always warned about reading the fine print before we sign on the dotted line.  (But who actually spends half an hour with six-point type?)

However, a covenant is quite different.  This is an agreement entered into which oddly enough, is still in effect even if one party doesn’t observe it faithfully.  It’s a statement which says, “I will honor this, even if you don’t.”  It’s “for better or for worse,” though that “for worse” in a marriage covenant can finally reach the point where it’s unsustainable.

2 noah

In the Bible, God makes numerous covenants.  We’ll look at the one in our scripture reading in a few moments.  Here are a few notable ones:

In Genesis 15, a covenant is made with Abraham—and Sarah, though she doesn’t get proper credit (v. 18)!  One who has no children is promised a multitude of descendants.

In Exodus 19, God makes a covenant with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  They are promised to be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (v. 5).

In Psalm 89, we see the covenant made with David, who receives the promise, “I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.”  What if his progeny—what if a king in the Davidic line—becomes unfaithful?  No matter, the Lord will still honor the covenant (vv. 3, 34).

And of course, we have the new covenant in Jesus Christ, which applies to us.  Even when we fail, and fail we do, the covenant stands.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.[1]  It makes sense that this would be one of the readings for Lent.  Consider the number forty.  It rained for forty days and forty nights, and the result was the great flood.  Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days.  Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  The number forty appears many times in the Bible.

Oh, and then there’s sin!  Sin a’ plenty.  We see the Israelites falling into sin in the wilderness.  They even long to go back to Egypt.  After all, they did have food to eat.  And talk about job security!  Sure there were chains, but who wants to fend for themselves in this terrible freedom of the desert?

Then we have Jesus in the desert.  What happens after he is baptized?  St. Mark tells us, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).  Jesus is weakened and vulnerable, in body, mind, and spirit.  Come on Jesus, just give him a try.  The devil has some interesting offers, and besides, nobody has to get hurt.  Sin is dangling before him, juicy tidbit it is—but Jesus doesn’t bite.

And now we have a story of universal sin.  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5).  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts.  And what is the remedy?  Complete annihilation (well, with the exception of Noah and his family).  That doesn’t sound like a loving God, does it?

One way to come at this would be to realize in ancient times, many of the gods just didn’t like people!  They found them irritating, and they constantly demanded obedience, or they would lower the boom.  That was the environment of the ancient scriptural stories.  The difference here is that this God shows mercy and establishes the covenant—the one I mentioned earlier.

Still, the portrayal of a God who unleashes fury isn’t so strange as we might think.  Isn’t the image of a God who hurls lightning bolts still with us?  I think there’s something within the human psyche, regardless of belief system, theology, or life philosophy, that knows we have done, and sadly still do, wrong.  And so, there’s an expectation of punishment, which can lead to all kinds of scenarios.

Of course, we also have that new covenant.  We have the covenant which says in Christ we are forgiven.  Period.

If we can agree the flood wasn’t a historical event—if we can’t point to it on a calendar—I think we can still say it was, and is, a reality.  The flood is still with us, the flood of evil thoughts and evil doings!  However, we haven’t been destroyed.  “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11).  That’s the promise.

So here we go: “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (vv. 12-13).  The rainbow is the reminder.  “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 16).

There is a covenant with every living creature.

3 noah

In ancient times, the rainbow was imagined as a bow, a divine weapon used to shoot the arrows of lightning bolts.  But now, the bow is being laid down in the clouds.  God is laying down the weapon.  We’re told God “will find a way of defeating evil without waging war.”[2]

Timothy Simpson wrote an article called, “The Politics of Saving Everybody.”[3]  If you think about it, this rainbow covenant is an extremely radical thing.  Think of it.  This is one of the stories told by those who say they are God’s chosen ones, the treasured possession out of all the peoples.  These are people who believe they’ve been set apart from the other nations.  They have special status.

At the same time, this story told by the Israelites has “the unmistakable notion that there is no living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere that is not covered under the scope of this covenant.”  No living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere.  That’s quite a sweeping statement.

I find his phrase interesting: the politics of saving everybody.  There are always political divisions.  There are always differences in how people want to accomplish certain things.  Still, maybe we can notice how, over the past couple of decades, divisions have gradually become hardened.  Too often people are questioning, not only the intelligence of those with whom they disagree, but also their character.  Not only are they wrong-headed, but wrong-hearted.  In the past couple of years, that seems to have dramatically escalated.

It can be a tricky proposition to recognize how the rainbow covenant applies to everyone and everything.

But then, that’s why this story is so perfect for Lent.  We are reminded by Joan Chittister, “Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod.”[4]

God lays down the bow.  God buries the hatchet, so to speak.  Aren’t we called to scrape the sludge off our lives?  Aren’t we called to lay down our weapons?  To lay down the mistrust?  To lay down the hostility?  To tear down the walls we erect?  To stop praying for a flood to wipe out our enemies?  Isn’t that what this season of Lent is calling us to do?

I find Henri Nouwen’s prayer for Lent especially insightful.  “I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me.  The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life.  I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions.  There are not times or places without choices.  And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.”[5]

It is difficult to accept God’s throwing down the bow, God’s extending the rainbow covenant to every living creature.  It is difficult to escape lazy either-or thinking, to reframe the discussion, to creatively imagine a third way or a fourth way.

When the flood comes, don’t worry.  God will not let it destroy you!

 

[1] Obviously, this sermon was posted well afterwards!

[2] www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2010-07-01

[3] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-saving-everybody-genesis-98-17

[4] Joan Chittister, Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.

[5] drsheltie.blogspot.com/2015/02/snowy-ashes.html


may our faces shine

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, she met through a mutual acquaintance another young woman from Istanbul, named Nilgün.  According to Banu, one time early on in their friendship, Nilgün made a comment about me to her.  She apparently said my face has nur.  That’s a Turkish word which means “light,” but it’s light in the sense of celestial or heavenly light.  I don’t have to tell you that was a gross exaggeration—no, a gross misunderstanding!

We do speak of people’s faces as shining, don’t we?  We think of someone’s face lighting up for a certain reason.  On this day, the Transfiguration of the Lord, we consider the appearance of actual nur, the true shining of heavenly light.  And we’ll consider what that means for us.

1 ex and mk
“Moses” by Michelangelo

Notice Michelangelo’s sculpture entitled “Moses.”  Is there anything about it that strikes you as odd?  Could it possibly be you never knew Moses had horns?

There’s a word in Hebrew, קׇרַן (qaran), appearing three times in the Old Testament reading in Exodus.  The word for “shining,” it means to “send out rays.”  However, it can also be translated “to display horns.”  It comes from a word that literally means “horn” ( קֶרֶן, qeren).

For centuries in western Europe, the version of the Bible most people read (at least, those who could read) was a Latin translation known as the Vulgate.  In this version, we have a different picture of Moses after he speaks with God.  Instead of “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone,” it says, “and he did not know that his face was horned” (v. 29).

Instead of Transfiguration, we get something we might expect on Halloween!  So, in his own way, the Italian master is paying his respects to the Moses of today’s scripture.

Horns or not, Moses is the first person in the Bible to be transfigured with the light of God.  This is after his second trip up Mount Sinai.  Remember what happens after his first encounter with God on the mountain—when he receives the Ten Commandments the first time?  There’s the incident with the Golden Calf.  The people get tired of waiting for Moses, and they pressure Aaron into devising some physical symbol of the divine they can see in worship.  Plus, they just want to have a really wild party!  Moses appeals to God to not wipe the people out, and he is summoned back up the mountain.

As we come to today’s reading, Moses is on the way back down the mountain, completely unaware he is literally beaming.  But the looks of terror on the faces of Aaron and the others clue him in that something strange is going on!  How is it that the face of Moses is shining?  The scripture says, “because he had been talking with God” (v. 29).

2 ex and mkEliezer Segal, teacher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, speaks of the Jewish legend which goes into a little more detail.  It says after God finished giving the Torah, “Moses wiped the pen on his forehead, and it was this ethereal ink stain that continued to radiate as he walked among the people.”[1]

He’s speaking of the way Moses gets actively involved in this second trip up the mountain.  Remember, he’s already interceded on behalf of the people.  Now, as opposed to the first time, it’s Moses, not the Lord, who provides the stone tablets and then writes on them.

Segal sees a lesson to be learned here, as he wonders, what is it that can make our faces radiate light?  He speaks of the spiritual energy flowing from the face of Moses and looks for a comparison.  He says it’s “not to be compared to fire, but to electrical power, which can exist only in the form of a current that flows continuously to and from its source.”

The connection is also made to us.  “Religious inspiration must also be a continual dialogue and struggle between the Creator and [we] creatures.  When that current is interrupted, or even if it fails to return to its source, then the energy has no use, and we find ourselves donning our figurative veils.”

In our epistle reading, St. Paul makes a similar connection.  He says, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Co 4:3).  It is veiled; the radiance of the gospel doesn’t shine through.  Those traveling the vale of tears who reject the light of life fall stricken by the wayside.

Of course, it’s our gospel reading (Mk 9:2-9) that tells the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  That’s why it’s on the calendar.  And for our Lord Jesus Christ, it’s not only his face, but his entire body radiating with the light of God.

3 ex and mkOn that fateful trip up the mountain, Peter suggests dwellings be built for Jesus, as well as for Moses and Elijah, who also appear with the glory of God.  In effect, Peter wants to hold on to the experience—he wants to trap that light.  He, not surprisingly (because wouldn’t we?), wants to capture the moment.  But the moment is gone.  And as the scripture says, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He needs to be quiet and listen.  The power and energy of God can’t be treated as something static, like something engraved in stone!  Like love, it increases the more we give it away.

Like Peter, we’re often guilty of trying to trap the light.  How often do we avoid letting our own light shine?  How often do we avoid letting light shine onto the paths of others, so they can see for themselves?  And it’s not like there’s some false choice between living the life and saying the words—they go together.  If letting our light shine is our heart’s desire, the opportunities will arrive.  Actually, we won’t have to wait very long—opportunities abound.

It may be asked why Transfiguration is observed on the last Sunday before Lent.  Right before the Transfiguration story, Jesus has just predicted the passion, the suffering headed right for him.  That is, unless he keeps his mouth shut and stops being such a headache for the powers that be!

In the previous chapter, Jesus told the disciples he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (8:31-33).

The light of Transfiguration helps to illuminate the sometimes dark road of Lent.  And if it’s not exactly dark, Lent is still to be a time of reflection, of renewed repentance and reconsideration.

I think we all know that light is not an entirely benevolent force.  After all, it can cause us to go blind!  That’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life.  My eyes have always been sensitive to light.  Especially when I was a boy—and especially if someone were taking my picture in bright sunlight—it would be no time at all before I would start squinting.  During winter, I’m given a reminder of that when sunshine is reflected off a field of snow.  (I think I would make a great vampire!)

Still, much more than simply not being benevolent, light can be positively destructive.

4 ex and mkAs I said, we celebrate Transfiguration on the final Sunday before Lent.  Traditionally however, it was celebrated on August 6.  Tragically, the 20th century provided August 6 as the anniversary of another kind of light.  It, of course, was the day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, one of the most horrific events in human history.  Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn!  (On a bitter side note, the first atomic bomb test was actually nicknamed “Trinity”!)

Let’s return to light as a spiritual reality, not just a physical one.  Just as with the light from the sun, the light from God can also be blinding.  Exhibit A: the veil needed to cover the face of Moses!  Faulty, frail creatures that we are, we can only take so much light at a time.  We often resemble cockroaches, who when exposed to the light, scurry off into dark corners!

We are indeed exposed, uncovered by the light.  Our shadow side is revealed.  Our shadow side isn’t necessarily bad; it’s the stuff about us we suppress and repress.  It’s the stuff about ourselves we find embarrassing; it’s the stuff we want to hide.  But guess what?  Even as painful as it is, God wants to shine the light into those deep canyons.

If we believe what the psalmist says, it’s for our own good that we just go along with it.  Speaking of God, we hear “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12).  We can’t hide from God—we only hide from ourselves.

God is good.  God understands our weakness, and graciously provides a veil until we can handle more light.  God sends a cloud, as with the three disciples on the mount of transfiguration.  God lovingly protects us.

So in the end, we need not fear the light.  We can share in the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can trust the light that shines on the dark places in our lives—the places we are ashamed of.  We can help others, especially those who have plunged into darkness, to let their own light shine.  We don’t have to hold on to the light; we don’t have to hold on to mountaintop experiences.  Jesus says we are the light of the world.

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May our faces shine.

 

[1] www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S980222_SunshinyFaces.html


light unexpected

“O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them.  We are wasting the resources of the earth in our headlong greed, and they will suffer want…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.

“…Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy…”

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Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)

Those are words from a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch; they date back to 1910—over a century ago.  They’re in a book published in 1917, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Meaning of Faith.[1]  It was published during what came to be known as “the Great War” and “the war to end all wars.”

Human knowledge and technology during the latter part of the nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as we might know all too well, knowledge and wisdom rarely progress at the same rate.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Fosdick calls “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[2]

So far, the twenty-first century has amply demonstrated that lack of wisdom in dealing with conflict, at the international level and elsewhere.  To the unknowns of this unfolding century, the impulse to respond with fear is always present.  The future can be seen as a void, filled with darkness.  We have to be cautious of morbid or despairing outlooks that expect disaster and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like the “law of attraction,” which can go under various names.  It’s the idea that whatever we project into the world, the universe, the ether, is what we attract.  I’m reminded of the verse in Titus which goes, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure” (1:15).

To this vision of darkness, we need something that’s light.  Literally.  Epiphany, which falls on Saturday this week, is all about light.  It’s all about the glory of God shining in Jesus Christ.  It’s all about the appearance, or manifestation, of Jesus to the Gentiles—to the world.  Our word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek term επιφανεια (epiphaneia), which appears in several places, such as 2 Timothy 1:10, where we learn that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing [or through the epiphany] of our Savior Christ Jesus.”

Our gospel reading, the visit of the Magi, is the primary image of Epiphany.  The Magi were more than likely Zoroastrian priests, the ancient faith of Persia.  They’ve been called “wise men,” “kings,” “astrologers.”  But whatever you call them, they’re the first Gentiles in the Bible to see the Christ child.

They notice a star which they interpret to signify a special birth.  So off they go to Judea, asking questions about “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (v. 2).

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The guy currently claiming that title, Herod the Great, gets nervous when he hears about it.  (His campaign pledge was “vote for me, and I will bring you cruelty and paranoia.”)  Learning from the religious leaders the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, he wastes no time and sets up a secret meeting with the Magi.  Herod wants to know two things.  When did you first see the star?  Will you find the child and let me know where he is?  “After all, I want to pay my respects, too!”  (Wink, wink.)

The Magi, upon finding the young Jesus and offering their presents, have a dream telling them, “Don’t go back to Herod.”  So they leave for home, taking the bypass around Jerusalem!

Herod tries to stamp out the light that the Magi found.  Not simply a light in the sky, the light they found is the one who enlightens all of humanity.  The deeper we go into the epiphany of Jesus, the more wonders we find.

There’s another meaning to epiphany, which I imagine we know.  It has the sense of a sudden awareness of truth, a flash of understanding.  It’s when the light goes on.  Eureka!

I want to tell you a story.  It didn’t happen to me, but I think I can identify with John Artz, the one it happened to.  It’s the story of a personal epiphany.[3]

He says, “I suppose that most people never bother themselves with questions about the meaning of life.  I, on the other hand, can’t seem to think of much else.  One day as I was driving home, I filled the empty moments with musings about the possible meanings of life.  As the car bottomed in a dip and began to pounce over the next rise, I turned the wheel to the left and leaned into the turn to overcome the centrifugal force.

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“Then it came to me in a flash.  There were four principles basic to all aspects of life.  These four principles could be combined in various ways to explain everything—why we are here, what we should do, why we are the way we are—every nagging question I had ever pondered.

“It was an epiphany.  It was one of those two or three seconds in your life when it all makes sense.  When you are one with wisdom and understanding.  When there is no more asking, only doing.  I raced through examples in my mind to come up with something that these four principles did not explain, but I could find nothing.

“‘Well,’ I thought. ‘I’d better write these down before I forget them.’  I had had moments of insight before and knew how quickly they could evaporate.  I steered with my left hand and rummaged through the glove box with the other, looking for something to write with.  I looked through every cubby hole in the car but there was no pen to be found.  I looked around and realized that I was just minutes from home and that I could preserve the insight by just repeating it to myself for a few minutes.  Once in the door, I would head to my desk and jot down these ideas before they decayed.

“I pulled into the garage, turned off the ignition, pulled up the emergency brake, left the car and headed for the door.

4 epiphany“When I opened the door, the kids were fighting over a [video] game.  The cat was tormenting the fish.  And my wife started rattling off a list of everyone who had called and left messages.  Then she asked me what I wanted for dinner.  I chased the cat away from the fishbowl, tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the kids, and then turned to my wife and said, ‘What are the choices?’

“By the time I got to my office only a few minutes had passed, but the inspiration had disappeared like a dream upon waking.  It left a residue of that feeling of understanding, but nothing to hang that understanding on.

“Many times I have reenacted that car trip in my head trying to recall the four principles but the muse of understanding never returned: until yesterday.  As I drove home yesterday the insight returned—not the four principles, but the understanding.  The significance was never in the four principles, but in the story about them.”

For our friend, what were most important weren’t the particular ideas he came up with; it was the process itself.  It was the experience of having the light come on, of experiencing an epiphany.  Returning to the biblical understanding, what matters is experiencing the light—the glory—of God in Jesus Christ.  And when that happens, the principles, the insights, the vision—all of that comes with it.  We’re changed for the better.

Thinking again about the Magi, we know that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod to report the location of Jesus.  Instead, as the scripture says, “they left for their own country by another road.”  I believe they did just that.  But I wonder if that statement isn’t true at another level.

These men had no idea what they would find when they set out on their journey.  The Magi were accustomed to associating with those in positions of power.  Surely the star they saw promised a change in regime, perhaps one who would bring even mighty Rome to its knees.

Who could know that the king of the Jews would turn out to be the humble child of a poor family—a family which soon found themselves fleeing their homeland, fearing their rulers, becoming refugees?  And who can say how meeting this family effected these wise men from the East?  Perhaps in leaving “for their own country by another road,” the Magi also were choosing another path in life.

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Epiphany reminds us that the light of Christ is for the entire world.  And it’s also an experience of light that’s deeper than the words we use to describe it.  Our words, our language, about God and Jesus and life in general give us a picture of reality.  We talk about things; we use names, but that’s not the same thing as actually meeting them, experiencing them.

The light sneaks up on us; it takes us unaware.  It’s such a joyful, shocking, unexpected source of grandeur.  The darkness of Fosdick’s warning loses its gloom.  Our poor, stumbling lives are radiantly exposed by something wondrous and holy. 

When we encounter the humble, holy child, we are changed—and we’re challenged.  We see, by the light of the Epiphany of the Lord, our own lack of humility; we see our own arrogance.  But thanks be to God, into the darkness that wants to enshroud us, Jesus says, “Let there be light!”

 

[1] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), 60.

[2] Fosdick, vii.

[3] gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~jartz/alter/stories/epiphany.html


God, are you with us?

Make a joyful noise.  I often say that to people who claim they can’t sing.  In the Psalms, we’re told several times to make a joyful noise.  Here’s a good example: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (98:4).  I like to sing, and I’m definitely on the side of making that joyful noise.

1 xmas eveSinging is a big part of today’s Old Testament and gospel readings.  We might say it carries the tune in a measured call and response.  But before we sing the praises of our scriptural poets, allow me to refrain, promising we will return to their melodic message.

“Melodic” is not a bad way to describe Isaiah 52.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (v. 7).  We need to look at the background to see what kind of message this is.

This part of the book is talking about the exiles who were sent to Babylon.  They are now returning, in what’s been called “the second exodus.”  And just in case it’s not clear, the word “exile” does not mean going on vacation.  You do not consult a travel agent when forced relocation is in store.  These people have known more than their share of violence and war.

But the tide has turned.  There has been a reversal of fortunes.  The prophet proclaims, “Listen!  Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (v. 8).  Their Lord is leading the way; their Lord is the vanguard.  And they need the Lord to go before them.  They need the strength and courage of the Lord, because they’re coming home to a real mess.  When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, they went hog wild.  They tore up the place, and worst of all, they destroyed the temple.  The folks who later moved into the city have no interest in rebuilding it.

Even so, anticipation and joy begin to appear.  “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (v. 9).

Episcopal priest David Grant Smith says, “Even the ruins themselves are singing about this new day being heralded by their return!”[1]  Even destruction and chaos are transformed by God into something wonderful and beautiful—into a work of art.

2 xmas eve

Dirk Lange speaks of death being overcome by song.  “This joy [and] singing arises out of great anxiety—a battle has been engaged, death is confronted.”[2]  And looking to this time of year, he adds, “as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children [ordered by Herod].  It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.”

We can see the Babylonian exile as a time of God leaving the people, so to speak.  The exiles would say God is not “with us” or “for us.”  God is not Immanuel.  God is far away.  Now, everything has changed.  Immanuel, “God with us,” “God for us,” has arrived.  That’s what the joyful ruckus in Luke 2 is all about.

Having said that, those shepherds probably wouldn’t use the word “joyful” when the angel appears.  “Scared out of their minds” might be a better description.  So it’s no doubt for the best when after announcing the arrival of the Messiah, the angel and celestial companions get things going.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”—or “those of good will” (v. 14).

After our sheep-keeping colleagues have been properly reassured, they take off for Bethlehem to see what the angels were so excited about.  Upon seeing the holy family, with the promised one lying in a trough for barnyard animals, they are overcome with awe.  And then they leave, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).

Still, I wonder, what’s the deal with all this singing?

Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most noted theologians, weighed in on this.  And he was no nonsense!

3 xmas eve
“The church which does not sing is not the church.” (Karl Barth)

“The Christian church sings.  It is not a choral society.  Its singing is not a concert.  But from inner, material necessity it sings.  Singing is the highest form of human expression.”[3]  The Christian church sings.  And that applies to all kinds of singing.

As the old hymn goes: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation / I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation: / Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; / It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?”

But Barth isn’t through, yet.  “What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church.  And where...it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation.”

How can we keep from singing?

Last week’s sermon was based on the epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians, which begins, “Rejoice always” (5:16).  I invited the singing with me of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  I don’t think he was referring to the time of year when we’re sleepwalking through the stores, or maybe fighting our way through the stores.  (I’m not sure how often it gets to the point of people literally throwing punches or whacking each other on the head with televisions.)

No, it’s the time of year in which, more than ever, we ask, “God, are you with us?”  Are you for us?  Have you brought Immanuel?

Christmas is indeed a time of elation, but as we saw with Stephen and the Holy Innocents, the twelve days of Christmas also have had built into them agony.

Our friend David asks, “What devastation in our own lives is God inviting to sing?”  Remember the ruins of Jerusalem.  How on earth can we plumb the depths of our sorrow and shame and bring that to God, so that something wonderful can emerge and even be celebrated?

“What aspects of ourselves have been long in exile and are now being brought back home where we belong?”  What aspects of ourselves have been banished by others to a far country?  What aspects of ourselves have we rejected and said, “I never want to see you again”?

If God is able to take human form as the babe of Bethlehem, how much easier is it for God to reclaim what we have lost?  Be it from ruins or renewal, we can ask, “God, are you with us?”  And we hear the reply, “Make a joyful noise!”

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[1] processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/christmas-eve-christmas-day-2017

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1530

[3] www.rca.org/resources/theology-and-place-music-worship