Monday
Oct072013

The Man with the Hammer

Numbers can be numbing. 870 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. 3.1 million children under five die each year because of poor nutrition. [1] 783 million people in the world are without access to clean drinking water. [2]

Numbers can be numbing. Years ago, Annie Dillard wrote,

On April 30, 1991 – on that one day – 138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh. At dinner I mentioned to our daughter, who was then seven years old, that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.

“No, it’s easy,” she said. “Lots and lots of dots, in blue water." [3]

Numbers can be numbing. Who can imagine 138,000 people? Somewhere in the United States there’s a city with a population of 138,000. Who can imagine an entire city washed away in one day?

Annie Dillard wrote,

There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it. [4]

But we cannot multiply singularity, importance, complexity, and love with a simple mathematical equation. In order to get closer to the reality of a life lived or barely lived at all, we must look into faces, we must learn names, hear stories, hold hands, look at pictures, stay in touch. Quick multiplication won’t do it, only slow, attentive addition will, one plus one plus one…

I’m intrigued by the fact that the poor man at the gate in Jesus’ story has a name. We live in a world where the rich have names and the poor are statistics. The rich have their names listed in Fortune magazine and written on buildings on college campuses. Tour busses drive by their homes and the guides point to the gates and speak their names and everyone on the bus knows who they are. The poor are nameless and countless, but Jesus tells a story of a nameless rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. A rich man dressed in purple and fine linen, feasting sumptuously every day, and Lazarus, covered with sores, lying at the rich man’s gate, longing for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Ever since I first heard this story as a child, I thought of the dogs licking his sores as kind, caring creatures, kissing poor Lazarus’s boo boo to make him feel better. The scholars tell me that I might be mistaken about the motives of these half-wild scavengers who search the streets for something to eat.

Lazarus died, and Jesus doesn’t tell us if he died of starvation, or if one of the sores got infected, or if it was one of those nights when temperatures outside the gate dropped into the upper 20’s. Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died, but no angels came to carry him away. He died and was buried. Period.

Both died, and at the moment of death a surprising reversal took place. Lazarus’ suffering was over, and the rich man was in agony in the flames of Hades. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” the rich man called out. You have to wonder how long he had known that name – Lazarus – and if he had ever spoken it before. And when had he last spoken of mercy? And why didn’t he say, “Lazarus, would you come over and help a brother out?” Why did he ask Abraham to send him? Had he been shaped by a life of privilege to such a degree that still he could think of Lazarus only as a servant to be sent?

Abraham responded to his cry, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Who was it that fixed the great chasm? It had been there all along, only now the opportunity to reach across it with a helping hand was past. Now the time to bridge the great chasm with kindness and mercy was over. Abraham is stating the terrible fact that opportunities to overcome the great divide between comfort and agony once abounded, but now it is too late.

In Anton Chekhov’s story, Gooseberries, Ivan remembers something his brother had said,

“Apparently those who are happy can only enjoy themselves because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and but for this silence happiness would be impossible. It is a kind of universal hypnosis. There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him – sickness, poverty, loss – and nobody will see it, just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortunes of others. But there is no man with a hammer, the happy man goes on living and the petty vicissitudes of life touch him lightly, like the wind in an aspen-tree, and all is well." [5]

We don’t know if Lazarus bore his burdens in silence. We don’t know if the rich man ignored the poor man at his gate, stepped over him on his way to work, or if the poor man’s poverty and need had blended into the background of the rich man’s life, as much part of his world as the sun by day and the moon by night. We don’t even know if the rich man was happy. All we do know is that he was well-dressed and well-fed and that Lazarus was neither, and when the great reversal came it was too late to do anything about it.

The rich man said to Abraham something like, “There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of each of my five brothers, to remind them by his constant knocks that there are people in great need. Send Lazarus that he may warn them.” And Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”

The commandments are clear: Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. [6] The prophets’ words are constant knocks at the gate: Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. Alas for those who (…) lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, (…) who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of my people. [7]

“No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

Will they? Will we? Jesus who told us this story, Jesus who lived and died for the kingdom of God, was raised from the dead. The question is, are we listening to the man with the hammer? Are we making the best of the time given to us to bridge the great chasm that separates us one from the other? Are we grieved enough over the existence of that abyss to do what we can to reach across? Are we in tune with the vision that sees every valley lifted up and every mountain and hill made low? [8] Are we lending a hand to help build bridges of mercy, bridges of reconciliation, bridges that bring us back together or are we sitting idly by on the rim of the great abyss, numbed by the numbers or happy enough with the way things are?

I listen to myself, and my hand goes up and I say, “Preacher, you are talking about some very complex issues. Poverty, hunger, homelessness – those are problems with muliple layers, and we need to study them carefully and consider all the possible ramifications of our actions. We can’t just do something.” True. Poverty is not a simple matter of the rich are blessed and the poor are not. The things that separate us one from the other are multilayered clusters of histories, causes, motives, and visions. But lying at the gate is not a bunch of issues and problems; lying at the gate is a human being with a name. Lying at the gate is a person with dreams and needs, a person of singularity, importance, complexity, and love.

This story Jesus tells us is not an invitation to speculate on the nature of heaven or hell, nor is it a call to go and solve the world’s problems. It’s a call to repent. It’s a call to refuse to sit in the loneliness of our wealth and our poverty, and to walk instead the path of reconciliation God cleared in Jesus. It’s a call to discover building beloved community as the work of Christ and as our way of life.

One of America’s saints wrote in a letter from jail,

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. [9]

His name was Martin, and we remember him because he was grieved over the ruin of the people and refused to sit idly by. He responded to Jesus’ call to repentance and reconciled community, and his first step turned into a movement of tens and hundreds of thousands of bridge builders. Because we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality every step of courageous love one of us takes toward another moves us all one step forward; and because we are tied in a single garment of destiny no act of kindness is ever lost. So imagine a sunny morning with the rich man stepping out of his gated life and saying, “Good morning, Lazarus. Come on in, tell me your story. I just made a fresh pot of coffee.”

 


[1] http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats

[2] http://www.unwater.org/statistics_san.html

[3] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 46

[4] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 45

[5] Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries, 1898 http://www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/1290/

[6] Deuteronomy 15:7

[7] Isaiah 58:7; Amos 6:4-6

[8] Isaiah 40:4

[9] Martin L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/popular_requests/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf

Wednesday
Sep252013

What an economy

JPMorgan Pays $920 Million to Settle London Whale Probes was the headline on Bloomberg News on Thursday.[1]

Senior executives had evidence by late April 2012 that traders in the chief investment office in London were pricing a derivatives portfolio in a way that reduced reported losses (…) The losses at the unit, which was supposed to help reduce risk and manage excess deposits, forced the bank to restate results for last year’s first quarter.

It was a loss of over six billion dollars. Didn’t anybody notice? Executives at the biggest U.S. bank engaged in what watchdogs called a “pattern of misconduct” by maintaining poor internal controls, failing to keep their board informed and allegedly misleading regulators. 

There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

God obviously has a great sense of humor. The London Whale is on the news, we’re meeting in Sunday school to talk about business ethics, about honesty, respect, stewardship, and fairness, and Jesus tells us a story that has puzzled his disciples for as long as records of disciple puzzlement have been kept.

Charges were brought to the rich man that his manager was squandering his property. So he summoned the man and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Show me the books, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

It starts like a story about holding management accountable, but who would use it as a case illustration in a class at the business school or the law school? Or who would dig it up in Sunday school in a class on business ethics? Jesus does. He loves this kind of stuff. Messing with our expectations. Flipping over the tables. Changing the conversation.

We know he can be quite clear and directive in his teaching, saying things like,

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Love your enemies.

Turn the other cheek.

Sell what you own. Give it to the poor. Follow me.

His stories, though, are different. His parables look like small fry at first glance, two verses, eight verses long, but every time you turn them, they grow bigger. Big as whales, and very playful whales at that. They invite us to talk, to consider, to reason together, to look from this angle and that, to keep wondering, and – perhaps most important of all – to resist the urge to wrap things up neatly with a simple moral.

Charges had been brought, and the rich man asked for the books. That’s all we’re told. Jesus doesn’t tell us if the charges were true or who brought them. He doesn’t tell us if the manager had been charged for being inept or corrupt. Squandering could mean he had missed his earnings goals for five consecutive quarters or that he had been quietly lining his own pockets with what belonged to the master.

“What will I do, now that my master is firing me as his manager?”

Perhaps you’re alarmed that this is a world in which a manager can simply be sacked on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, but that’s not the story Jesus wants to tell us. He wants us to see a man running out of time, making urgent decisions under the pressure of a world coming apart.

The manager doesn’t have the back nor the arms for manual labor. He’s ashamed to beg. He worries, he agonizes, he thinks, his options are very limited, but suddenly he has a bright idea. He makes a few phone calls. One by one he meets with each of the rich man’s creditors and writes off their debts of olive oil and wheat. Again, Jesus doesn’t tell us if we’re looking at lease agreements or loan documents, but the rates are awesome. If you’re trying to renegotiate your mortgage because home values have plummeted, a 20% adjustment of the principal is pretty significant, and a 50% cut is, well, hello sweet Jesus Hallelujah it’s Christmas.

“How much do you owe my master?”

“Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.”

“Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.”

Some who have read this story have suggested that the manager was cutting the interest, others that he was cutting his own commission, and again others that he spent his final day on the job doing what he had done before, squandering his master’s property. Plenty of angles to look at this scene, but whatever it was he did, one thing is clear: he scratched some backs; he feathered his nest; he made sure there would be some open doors when the door to his office closed behind him. He may have been a crook, but he sure knew how to make the best of a critical situation! Only that’s not the end of the story; there’s one more line:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Now the cat is out of the bag, he was dishonest – but he’s being commended by his master! Now if you want to tell stories to encourage honesty and accountability among managers, the last line should probably go something like,  “And when his master found out, he threw him in jail until he had payed back every ounce of olive oil and every grain of wheat he owed.” And if you want to tell stories that stick it to the man and bring smiles to the faces of share croppers, the last line to wrap things up nicely would be, “And the rich man in the city never knew that the books had been cooked.” But this is Jesus’ story and he ends it with a master praising a crooked manager for acting cleverly. And then he takes a half step out of the story and says, “I wish the children of light were as clever with things of the kingdom as the wheeler-dealers in the world who get up every morning scheming for a buck, focusing every ounce of energy on scrambling to the top of the heap. I wish God’s people would be just as focused, creative and energetic for the beloved community.” And he adds, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

What is he saying? Use dirty money for godly causes? Some people, and not just in London or New York, made a lot of money with mortgage-backed securities in the years before the collapse, so now they are to make friends with it by building shelters for the homeless so they may welcome them into the eternal homes? What does he mean by dishonest wealth? And why would he encourage his followers to use it?

“Dishonest wealth” sounds too much like money made by cheating, and it is not a good translation of the Greek. A better translation would be “the money of this unrighteous age.” Jesus is not talking about “dishonest money” versus “honest money,” but about the currency of this age versus the currency of the kingdom. When we ask questions about management or business ethics, he talks about kingdom ethics and a whole new economy of righteousness.

The gospel helps us see that we are standing on the threshold between the age of unrighteousness and the age to come where righteousness is at home. The manager in Jesus’ story had just been shown the door, was standing on the threshold, realizing that the world as he knew it was coming to an end, and he jumped into action. Cleverly he used the tools his master had put at his disposal to make friends among the master’s creditors. He invested in the world to come.

And that is, Jesus hopes, what the clever ones among the children of light will do. This world and all of its glory – and unrighteousness – is dying right before our very eyes, and God’s new creation, the kingdom of rightousness, the city of peace is at hand. The clever ones among the children of light realize that a new wisdom, a new ethic, a new economy is being summoned, and they invest all they have in the world to come.

What might that look like in our daily life? Tom Long, for several years now has loved to tell the story of one of his students, and I have retold it before. It has a pay phone in it, and I want to tell it one more time while a good number of you still know what a pay phone is and how it works.[2]

Tom’s student was the son of a city pastor. One Christmas vacation, he was at home with his family and spent an afternoon talking to his father about ministry. They talked about seminary and about the challenges of ministry in the city and the struggle for justice. As the conversation continued late into the day, father and son decided to get some fresh air by taking a walk around the neighborhood. As they walked, they continued to talk together until they started to get hungry. The father said, “Let’s call the pizza place and order a pizza. If we’re lucky, it’ll be there by the time we get home.” So they walked over toward the nearest pay phone, only to encounter a homeless man blocking their way.

“Spare change?” the man asked.

The father reached deeply into his pockets and held out two handfuls of coins.

“Here, take what you need,” he said to the homeless man.

“Well, then, I’ll take it all,” said the surprised man, sweeping the coins into his own hands and turning to walk away.

Before he had gotten far, though, the student’s dad realized that he no longer had any change to make the phone call.

“Excuse me,” he called after the homeless man. “I was going to make a phone call, but I have given you all my change. Could I have a quarter?”

The homeless man turned around and walked back toward father and son, extending his hands. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

A glimpse of the kingdom, if you will squint to see it. A view of the old world passing away, and the world to come emerging. Strangers making friends for themselves, each saying to the other, “Here, take what you need.” What an economy that is.

 


[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-19/jpmorgan-chase-agrees-to-pay-920-million-for-london-whale-loss.html

[2] Long, Thomas G. “Making friends.” Journal For Preachers 30, no. 4 (January 1, 2007): 52-57.

Monday
Sep092013

Sabbath Peace

How long does it take for a woman to bend under the weight of her life?

I saw the picture of a teenage girl carrying an enormous bundle of branches on her back. The bundle looked like a solid column, eight feet long; it reminded me of the rolls of carpet I have seen sticking out of the backs of trucks. Only this wasn’t a truck, it was a girl. I read the caption: “My name, Amaretch, means ‘the beautiful one.’ I am the youngest of four children in my family. Today, I spent from 3 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon collecting the branches of eucalyptus trees which people use as firewood. I will sell this big bundle at the market and with the money we can buy food for my family for a couple of days.”

Amaretch, ‘the beautiful one’ lives in Ethiopia, and every day, girls and women like her from the shanty towns of the capital Addis Ababa climb the mountain to gather firewood and carry it back to the city. Even the younger ones have little time for school. How long does it take for a girl to bend under the weight of her life until she is quite unable to stand up straight?

I once sat in a circle with a group of colleagues, at a nice conference center, far from anything resembling a shanty town. We sat in a circle, all of us facing to the middle, where a young woman sat alone on a chair. We were to name the spirits that bend human beings, and we were supposed to do it not in the abstract with names like poverty or colonialism. Instead, we were to recall words we had heard and images we had seen over the years, some blunt, others very subtle; we were to recall the small, daily things that cast shadows on the divine declaration that we are creatures made in the image of God.

There were baskets with shawls, and every time one of us named one of the spirits that bend us, he or she placed a shawl over the young woman’s head. The shawls were light as gossamer, almost weightless, but there were many. Layer upon layer covered her head, her arms and shoulders, and soon she began to bend under the weight, unable to see and breathe. She disappeared. We could barely hear her voice from behind the thick veil. She was no longer present as a person, but as a barely visible body, bent by crippling spirits.

The woman who appeared in the synagogue where Jesus taught that day had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. We don’t know how old she was, if she was in her 20’s, 30’s or 50’s. We don’t know if she was married or not, if she had children or not, if she came from wealthy home or if she had to beg for food. All we know about her is that for eighteen years she was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Whatever it was, it controlled her; it burdened her, bent her double, and blocked her. She could not walk upright. Her horizon had narrowed. She could direct her gaze only to the ground below. She knew people not by their faces, but by their feet. Had her neighbors gotten used to her being bent? Did they take notice of her or did she always stay below their line of sight? What nicknames had the children made up for her? Did they tease her from across the street or whisper behind her back? Was she in constant pain? Eighteen years of this had redefined normal for her, perhaps she could not even imagine any other way of seeing or being in the world.

But Jesus could and did. When she appeared in the synagogue he saw her and called her over. Perhaps you wonder why he called her to come to him rather than going to her. Did he do it to make sure everybody took notice? How long did it take her to make her way through the congregation, shuffling all the way from where she was to where Jesus was sitting? Did the crowd part before her, or did she have to say, “Excuse me” again and again? And Jesus, did he get up from his chair or did he get down on his knees so he could see her face?

I can’t imagine him standing there and declaring above her bent body, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He could have done that from across the room. Everything I know about Jesus tells me that he looked into her face when he spoke to her; that he held her hands in his when he declared her free from her crippling bondage; that he rose slowly, raising her up with him until she unbent and stood up straight – and immediately she began praising God. Her lips spoke words of wonder, perhaps she shouted, perhaps she sang, her whole being became praise – but none of her words were remembered, no part of her witness to God’s liberating grace in Jesus was written down. Not one syllable.

Instead of the joy of life restored we get an argument. Joy must wait. Not that the objections of the leader of the synagogue are more important than her witness, but they are serious. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” The seventh day was set aside by God for rest, and keeping it holy meant refraining from work. The sabbath day was a day of rest for human beings and even for their farm animals. For one day each week, God’s people were to live not by the work of their hands, but solely by the gifts of God. For one day each week, God’s people were to experience the freedom of complete dependence on God. Thus we must not assume that the leader was an obstinate contrarian; he had the holiness of God’s commandment and the holiness of God’s people on his mind and in his heart.

It was fine for Jesus to study and teach on the sabbath, but healing was a more complicated topic. The common understanding of the sabbath commandment was that medical emergencies could be and even had to be attended, but that chronic illnesses were a different matter. Non-emergencies could wait. In the leader’s mind, Jesus could have said, “Woman, come and see me tomorrow.” After eighteen years, what’s one day, after all?

But Jesus didn’t wait. And that doesn’t mean he became an advocate for a more relaxed attitude toward the sabbath and for opening the day of rest for business. He added his voice to the ongoing debate about sabbath observance: Who wouldn’t untie their ox and donkey from the manger on the sabbath in order to lead them away to give them water? Untying farm animals and leading them to the water on the sabbath was common practice, and not only was it considered permissible but necessary for the animals’ well-being. If we can see the need to untie a thirsty animal, how can we not see the need for a human being to be unbound and released? Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

At the beginning of his ministry, in his hometown synagogue, Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “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.” And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). Today, he said. His coming marked the beginning of the today of fulfillment. It was time for every child of Abraham to taste the sweetness of sabbath. It was time for every daughter and son of Abraham to be set free from bondage: releasing the captives doesn’t taint  the holiness of the sabbath day – on the contrary, it finally brings the sabbath peace to the bound and the bent.

The sabbath is a day of rest and remembrance, but also of promise. The sabbath is a foretaste of that seventh day when humanity is at peace in God’s creation. The sabbath is day of rest for the weary and forgetful, but also a day to immerse ourselves in God’s promise.

The sabbath is a day to stand up and raise our heads and lift up our eyes and lift every voice and sing – in the great company of those from whose shoulders the yoke of oppression has been lifted. To sing, even though our own lives are still weighed down with worries, cares, and fears. To sing even though lovelessness and injustice still bend the world into oppressive structures. To sing with the woman whose name and witness never became part of our sacred tradition, but whose healing and redemption is also ours.

Jesus held her hands in his when he declared her free from her crippling bondage, and rising slowly, he raised her up to her full stature and dignity as a daughter of Abraham and a child of God. We sing, our hands in his, rejoicing because he lifts up all who are bent by unbending ways. With her we sing of the One who bends toward us with great tenderness and the power to make whole.

Monday
Sep092013

Paul's Appeal

David Walker was born in Wilmington, NC, in 1785. His father was a slave, but since his mother was free, he also was free in the eyes of the law. In 1829 he published the first thoroughgoing critique of slavery written by a black man. He called his book Walker’s Appeal … to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

Man, in all ages and all nations of the earth, is the same. Man is a peculiar creature – he is the image of his God, though he may be subjected to the most wretched condition upon earth, yet the spirit and feeling which constitute the creature, man, can never be entirely erased from his breast, because God who made him after his own image, planted it in his heart, he cannot get rid of it. The whites knowing this, they do not know what to do, they know that they have done us much injury, they are afraid that we, being men, and not brutes, will retaliate, and woe will be to them. (…) See your Declaration Americans! (…) Hear your language, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 – “We hold these truths to be self evident – that ALL men are created EQUAL!! that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!!” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers on ourselves on our fathers and on us, men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!

According to a biographical sketch accompanying Walker’s Appeal, the little book produced more commotion among slave holders than any volume of its size that was ever issued from an American press. A year after its publication, the author was killed, apparently a victim of murder.[1]

We cannot read Paul’s letter to Philemon without remembering the long struggle in this country for black slaves to be freed from bondage, and for their descendants to finally be free citizens among free citizens.

“What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in 1852, assailing American Christianity,

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. … It is … a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there, and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man.

In his biography, Douglass tracked the scandal of slavery all the way to the sanctuary, the pulpit, and the offering plate:

Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. [2]

We cannot read Paul’s letter to Philemon without remembering how Paul’s writings were read, how Scripture was read in the years before the Civil War. According to Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and the North’s most renowned preacher, the biblical witness was clear. In a sermon delivered on a national day of fasting on January 4, 1861, he declared that the evil for which the nation most desperately needed to repent, “the most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin,” was slavery.

Six weeks earlier, at a day of fasting called by the state of South Carolina, the South’s most respected minister, James Henley Thornwell, spoke before his Presbyterian congregation in Columbia, reassuring them that slavery was the “good and merciful” way of organizing “labor which Providence has given us. … That the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, we have long since settled.”[3]

All read the same Bible and claimed to surrender to the authority of scripture, but the conflicting interpretations did nothing to end the public deadlock, or worse, helped deepen and maintain it. We know how it ended. The preachers along with their congregations “effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant.”[4]

Brother Thornton, a Baptist preacher from Richmond, correctly stated in 1860 that “when Jesus ordered his gospel to be published through the world, the relation of master and slave existed by law in every province and family of the Roman Empire, as it had done in the Jewish commonwealth for fifteen hundred years.”[5] Did Jesus say anything against slavery? No. Did Paul or any of the Apostles say anything against slavery? No. Did Paul not send the slave Onesimus back to Philemon, thus showing that the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God? Yes he did, but he had more to say about that relation, revolutionary details that the proof text collectors for slavery conveniently ignored or simply didn’t catch.

Owning and using men and women as slaves was commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean world. Some estimates put the number of slaves in the Roman Empire at 35% to 40% of the population. The practice was so much part of daily life that it rarely became an object of reflection. No government ever thought of abolishing the institution that was such an essential element of the economic and social reality. Yes, there were slave-rebellions in the ancient world, but none were caused by the desire to abolish the institution as such.[6]

So Paul did not turn his letter to Philemon into an abolitionist treatise. Instead he sent Onesimus back to Philemon; and though there are hints in the text that Paul desired freedom for Onesimus, he did not say so explicitly. He did however give the church an example and a lesson for how our being in Christ transforms our relationships, even the relation betwixt master and slave.

Paul writes that Onesimus has been separated from Philemon “for a while so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but . . . a beloved brother.”  It is not entirely clear how Onesimus came to be separated from Philemon, if he was sent to be of service to Paul or if he was a run-away.We only hear just enough to suggest that Onesimus is estranged from Philemon, and from a legal stand-point, Philemon can do pretty much anything he wants with respect to Onesimus, it is his right.

But Paul’s perspective is different. I see him standing between Onesimus and Philemon. With one arm he embraces Onesimus, “Here he is, my child, my very heart. I have become a father to him in my imprisonment. I would much rather keep him with me, but I send him back to you.” With the other arm he embraces Philemon, saying, “You are my dear friend and co-worker in Christ’s mission, and while I could command you to do your duty, I much rather appeal to you on the basis of love. Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.” Paul says without stating it explicitly, at least not here, “Look at us, Philemon, all of us, you, me, my dear Onesimus, your fellow leaders Apphia and Archippus, the church gathered in your house, look at us. We are one in Christ, and in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, only sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. I won’t tell you what to do, but look at us and think about it.”

I’m afraid this is the part Brother Thornton and his fellow proof text collectors missed. Reading scripture is not just a matter of what we read, but how we read – and as Christians we only read scripture well with the cross in view and Easter morning in mind. Pauls brief letter challenges Philemon and us with him to consider the radical transformation of all social relationships through our baptism into Christ. Philemon is a master in the world of Roman law and tradition, he is a man of power and privilege – and in the church, he’s a brother among brothers and sisters, and one of them is a man he may still be thinking of as his property. Paul doesn’t tell Philemon what to do, but he reminds him who he is and trusts that he will learn to act accordingly.

We can of course continue to treat scripture as a quarry for proof texts to bolster our interests, but we cannot do so as people whom Christ has drawn into reconciled community with God and with each other. Faithfulness now requires that we read scripture together with all, especially with those whom the laws of state, society and market push to the bottom and the margins. We are one in Christ, by the grace of God, and that puts into question all the ways in which we define relationships along lines of our own making. Christ whom we crucified like a rebel slave has made us his own.

 


[1] See Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), p. 59-63

[2] Hughes, p. 80

[3] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) p. 2

[4] Noll, p. 160

[5] Cotton is king, and pro-slavery arguments: comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this important subject, by E. N. Elliott, Augusta, Georgia: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis 1860, p. 506-508

[6] See S. Scott Bartchy, Mallon Chresai: First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21. Dissertation Series, Number 11 (Missoula, MT: The Society of Biblical Literature, 1973), p. 116-117

Tuesday
Aug202013

The fool in the flame

There’s fire flashing through the speech of Jeremiah and Jesus, holy fire, dangerous fire. Fire is bright and warm, a symbol of hearth and home, and fire is uncontrollable, uncontainable, unquenchable. What fire do you see when you listen to the words of Jesus and Jeremiah?

Moses saw the fire before he heard any words. He was keeping the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro when something caught his attention: the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. “I must turn and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up,” he said. But then God called to him out of the bush, saying, “I have observed the misery of my people and I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” God sent Moses to Pharao to bring God’s people out of Egypt. For Moses, the curious fire of the burning bush became a fire within as he set out to serve God in the struggle for liberation of God’s people.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, angels and shepherds saw the fire. “Glory to God,” the angels sang, “and peace on earth!” Both heavenly and earthly voices praised God for sending the one who would “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

We have to admit we’re more than a little shaken by Jesus’ own words that come to us from further down the road to Jerusalem, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks, “No, I tell you, but rather division.” What happened to peace on earth?

We shouldn’t be surprised, though. When his parents took Jesus to the temple to be dedicated, old Simeon, holding the baby in his arms, said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Division was part of his life from the beginning. Perhaps you remember his first sermon at home in Nazareth, when people were ready to hurl him off the cliff after hearing what he had to say.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Yes, we do, because we long for harmony, but we easily forget that it’s a costly peace that disturbs the status quo and awakens the powers that oppose God’s reign. Not everyone welcomes God’s peace in the person of Jesus, and even the ones who do, don’t do it all the time. Jesus’ ministry triggers resistance and rejection. We easily forget that Jesus didn’t come to validate the social realities we have constructed, but to set them on fire with his life of compassion and justice. “Five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; father against son and daughter against mother.” Jesus’ mission results in disputes and divisions as people are either embraced or repelled by what God is doing through him.

Perhaps he sounds extreme because he has to push back against the meek and mild projections of our religious imagination – we rather like a nice Jesus who is kind to us and a little stricter with others. But the peace of God doesn’t make nice with the power of sin. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the ultimate confrontation between God and sin.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” What kind of fire is that? Is it the fire of judgment that rained out of heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah? Or is it the fire after the final harvest when the wheat is gathered in and the chaff is burned?Is it the fire that purifies, the fire that burns “thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine” as the hymn puts it? Or is it the fire on the mountain, the fire of divine presence and revelation that sets the bush ablaze without consuming it? Is it the fire of the word that burned in the hearts of the prophets? Or is it the fire of deliverance, the pillar of fire by night which led the Hebrews from slavery to freedom? “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” John the Baptist said of Jesus, and we are left wondering if perhaps the fire Jesus came to bring was the wildfire of Pentecost. I’m not sure we have to choose one or the other. Actually, I think it is very good for us to hear all those fiery echoes when we listen to Jesus, and to hear them anew in light of his life, particularly in light of his cross and resurrection.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus is speaking of the baptism of costly peace in which God swallows sin’s deadly, destructive power for the life of the world. He is speaking of the fire of judgment and deliverance, the fire of purification and of the Spirit. The fire we encounter in Jesus is the fire that lit the bush where Moses took off his sandals; it is the fire that illumined the path for the Hebrew slaves on their way to freedom; it is the fire that burned in the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; it is the fire that God kindles for the sake of life and peace. There’s a fire burning in the world, a fire that heavy blankets of oppression cannot smother and even the shroud of death cannot snuff. The fire is the whole life of Jesus revealing the heart of God.

We call them cool 
Those hearts that have no scars to show 
The ones that never do let go 
And risk the tables being turned

These are the opening lines of a song Garth Brooks co-wrote with Jenny Yates in 1993.

We call them fools 
Who have to dance within the flame 
Who chance the sorrow and the shame 
That always comes with getting burned

This is not what’s commonly called a Christian song, but with just a little twist in your listening you can hear it sing of the fool who dances within the flame, chancing the sorrow and the shame of the cross for love’s sake.

We call them strong 
Those who can face this world alone 
Who seem to get by on their own 
Those who will never take the fall

But we know that the ones who seem unable to resist love’s pull and who forsake it all for love’s sake, draw strength from a source that is closer to life. The chorus ends with the lines,

Life is not tried, it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire.

I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea to think about Jesus between the lines of a country song, it certainly isn’t something I’d want to do on a regular basis, but I admit that I like the image of Jesus living his life dancing within the flame and drawing us in so we can stop pretending we can get by on our own, so we can find life in fullness with him.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus knows that the invitation to live with him in expectation of God’s coming kingdom creates divisions. They are not the purpose of his mission but the consequence of decisions we and others make in response to his proclamation and his call to follow him: We must decide whether to remain standing outside the fire or to dance within the flame; whether to pretend that we can face this world alone or to give ourselves in love to God and neighbor; whether to shield our eyes from the world’s brokenness, or to trust in God’s promise and power to redeem and renew the world; whether to play it safe in our own little worlds and survive, or to live at the dawn of God’s kingdom. There will be divisions between those who consider Jesus an unwelcome disturbance of what they like to call peace and those who follow him in order to live in God’s shalom, the peace that includes all of creation and surpasses all understanding.

The Gospel of Thomas is an early Christian collection of sayings of Jesus, and one of them sounds very similar to what Jesus said in today’s passage from Luke: “I have cast fire upon the world, and see I am guarding it until it is ablaze.”

Jesus came to bring fire to the earth, and in many places the flames are burning brightly: Fires of compassion, fires of courage, fires of truth-telling, fires of patience, fires of reconciliation, fires of hope. In other places, the flames are low, small and blue, barely visible until you get very close – but Christ is guarding them. The little flames are fueled by faith, and the angels are holding their breath and watching us – and every time one of us takes one step closer to one of the little blue flames, they sing. They sing because Jesus is guiding our feet into the way of peace. They sing because once we step into the flame it will burn a little brighter.

Monday
Aug122013

Faith in the City

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Some of us know that line by heart. We’ve seen it written on greeting cards, cast in plaster, cross stitched on sofa pillows, and printed on coffee mugs.

It sounds like a definition, but it’s a door in a house with many rooms. The writer of Hebrews has already written about confidence and assurance, about the confessing of our hope without wavering, about provoking one another to love and good deeds and not neglecting the habit of meeting together, about endurance and not shrinking back – all of which are doors to the reality of faith.

Faith is about trust and obedience, loyalty, faithfulness and belief, and faith does things, it hopes, it sets out, it dares, it waits, it shapes our thinking, speaking, and doing. Yes, faith is something we have and do, but because it is what keeps our hopes from being empty and vain, it is also something that has and holds us. The writer of Hebrews wants to encourage us to live with our eyes open not just to current circumstances, but to the future, always trusting that God will keep God’s promises.

Reading chapter 11 of Hebrews, is like finding yet another door open and stepping into a kind of Hall of Fame with plaque after plaque reminding us of the heroes and heroines of faith who have gone before us. We read about Noah, Moses and the Israelites, Rahab, Gideon and Samson, David and Samuel and the prophets, and all they did and suffered. Faith, we understand now, is not captured by definitions but in lives faithfully lived.

I was still studying for my final exams at the university, when my friend Monika was preparing for her ordination. We had been in a study group together, and she asked us each to choose a passage from Scripture that we would read and briefly comment on during the service. I chose a passage from Hebrews:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

I chose that passage because it spoke to our sense of not quite being at home where we were; it spoke about our desire for a better country, and about servants of God and a church ready to live in tents, as it were – prepared not to settle down as long as God was calling us out, and never to settle for a faith that trades looking forward for looking inward. Faith gives substance to our hope. For me faith continues to be the tenacious longing for the city that has God’s name written all over it, the city whose architect and builder is God.

The cities dotting the biblical landscape, much like our own cities, contrast starkly: Babel, Sodom, Bethel, Corinth, Rome, and Jerusalem. Our own history of suspicion about cities and their harmful potential often leads us to assume that the landscape of faith is composed of ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters,’ but that rather romantic view is woefully one-sided. The Bible has more to say about cities than it does about the countryside.[1]

One of the major tensions in Scripture is presented as a contrast between two cities, Babel and Jerusalem, because the problem with the city, according to biblical tradition, is the problem of power. I’m painting in very broad strokes here, but Babel is biblical shorthand for a city whose architects and builders are human beings with great ambitions, great technological capabilities, and a limitless capacity for idolatry. Jerusalem is not the golden city, not by its own merits anyway; it is the city that kills the prophets, but it is also the city where God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, and where the Risen One told the disciples to stay and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). A better power for a better city. The way I read it, Jerusalem is Babylon redeemed. Jerusalem, the holy city coming down out of heaven from God, is the human city redeemed and renewed, the beautiful bride of Christ. All of the pilgrims of faith, we read in Hebrews, “all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” From a distance they saw and greeted the city that embodies the consummation of all history. The story of humankind begins with a garden and ends with a city.

The prophet Zechariah declared (Zechariah 8:3-6),

Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me?

Faith is the tenacious longing for the city that has God’s name written all over it. Now I want to talk about Detroit for a moment. I hear the news out of Detroit, and I pray. I am reminded of a passage from on of T. S. Eliot’s poems:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.[2]

I hear the news out of Detroit and many a city in this country and around the world, and I pray that in them there are men and women who are looking forward to the city whose architect and builder is God, men and women who are ready to answer the Stranger, “This is a community. And even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, our hope is founded in God who keeps promises.”

Babel is biblical shorthand for a city whose architects and builders are human beings with great ambitions, great technological capabilities, and a limitless capacity for idolatry.

In his novel World’s Fair, E. L. Doctorow takes us to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York:

We rode across the Bridge of Wheels and got out, of course, at the General Motors Building. That was everyone’s first stop … In front of us a whole world lit up, as if we were flying over it, the most fantastic sight I had ever seen, an entire city of the future, with skyscrapers and fourteen-lane highways, real little cars moving on them at different speeds. … This miniature world demonstrated how everything was planned, people lived in these modern streamlined curvilinear buildings, each of them accomodating the population of a small town and holding all the things, schools, food stores, laundries, movies and so on, that they might need … It was a toy that any child in the world would want to own. You could play with it forever … it was a model world.[3]

In the 1920s most Americans moved by rail. Two hundred fifty thousand miles of heavy rail were in use across the nation in addition to extensive inter-urban lines that served regional travel needs. Within the cities electric streetcars were the principal form of transportation. Alfred P. Sloan was president of General Motors in those days, and automobile sales were stagnating. Only one in nine American households owned a car at that point, but few people considered purchasing one, since American public transportation was second to none. In 1922 Sloan formed a special task force within GM dedicated to replacing the local and regional passenger railways with cars, trucks, and buses. By 1936 GM had acquired New York Railways and run it into the ground. In the same year it formed, together with Firestone and Standard Oil, National City Lines, a holding company that proceeded to acquire and dismantle one hundred urban rail systems in forty-five cities across the country. In 1949 GM was found guilty of criminal conspiracy for its actions, but its “model world” of Tomorrow Town continued to shape urban development in the U.S.  Under President Dwight Eisenhower, an Advisory Committee on a National Highway System was formed and retired general Lucius D. Clay was appointed to chair it; he also had a seat on the Board of Directors for General Motors. In 1956 Eisenhower signed the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act, authorizing the construction of 41,000 miles of roadway, the largest peacetime public works project in the history of the world.

It may still be too early to grasp the full impact of those decisions for America’s cities, but we know that the suburbs boomed; and the sad irony is that Detroit became the poster child of urban abandonment.

The problem with the city, with every city, is the problem of power – but in faith we trust in the power of God and the divine promise to redeem what the power of sin has destroyed. The story of humankind begins with a garden and ends with a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the beautiful city of God.

Ellen Davis compares Jerusalem to an icon: a holy, healing image that invites us into a different experience of the world and our place in it.[4] It is an icon that prepares our soul for the coming of the Stranger who knows how to ask questions. When he says, “What is the meaning of this city?” We will answer, “This is a community. We’re all at home here.”


[1] See William P. Brown and John T. Carroll, “The Garden and the Plaza: Biblical Images of the City,” Interpretation (January 2000), p. 4

[2] T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock (1934)

[3] E. L. Doctorow, World’s Fair (New York: Random House, 1985), p. 252-253

[4] See Ellen F. Davis. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Kindle Locations 2420-2426). Kindle Edition.

Monday
Aug052013

Your new life

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” It sounds like the beginning of fairy tale, but it’s the first line of Anne Tyler’s novel, Back When We Were Grown-ups. The woman is Rebecca Davitch, a 53-year old grandmother asking herself, “Am I living my own life, or is it someone else’s? How on earth did I get like this? How did I ever become this person who’s not really me?”

Have you ever looked at your life and wondered, “Is this me?” It’s a mid-life question, very different from the “Who am I supposed to be?” of our teenage years and the “Who am I?” of young adulthood. We all constantly try to find that line between fitting in and being accepted by others on the one hand and remaining true to ourselves on the other. Some of you may remember the very moment you looked at your life and said to yourself, “Is this the person I was supposed to become?” There’s an underlying suspicion that we might lose ourselves in the daily routines and demands of life, and we wonder what it might be like for a woman or a man to miss themselves so completely that they feel like they are living someone else’s life.

In Ladder of Years, another Anne Tyler novel, 40-year old Delia Grinstead is acutely aware that she is living her own life, but it is one she loathes. While on vacation at the beach with her husband and three almost-grown children, Delia is out on a walk by herself and she decides to keep walking. The beach stretches ahead of her, and she keeps walking, alone with her thoughts and the wide horizon of the sea. Eventually, she settles in a little town and invents a whole new life for herself: an unencumbered woman with no responsibilities, no past, no relationships. She likes the thought of beginning again from scratch.

Don’t we all; life with an undo button. To be able to point the cursor to an earlier chapter of our life story and rewrite things from there.

“You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self,” Paul tells his readers[1] and for a moment we are tempted to believe that we can leave the old life behind like a pile of clothes on the beach and put on the new self like a new pair of designer jeans. Bag those old rags, find a new self that suits you better and put it on! Changing your life as simple as changing your clothes – you could re-invent yourself every season! You will like the way you look, I guarantee it.

The Apostle Paul does indeed speak of a profound change of who we are, but he also insists on reminding us repeatedly that we are not the authors of that change. When we look at our own life as enfolded in the life of Jesus, when we hear the story of Jesus not just as another man’s story but as the story of our redemption, we begin to grasp that we are indeed living a stranger’s life unless we live fully who God made us to be. Scripture tells us, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”[2] Again and again we tend to forget that we are created and loved, and that our being created and loved is the most important part of who we are. “Our highest perfection and blessedness is to bear the image of God,” is how John Calvin said it.[3] Our true self is not what we make of ourselves or what has become of us – for better or worse – but whom God has made us to be. We are made to be in love with the One who made us and to know ourselves and each other as bearers of the image of God.

You may not have read any of Anne Tyler’s novels, but I trust that every last one of you has watched Shrek at least once. Not one of the sequels, but the first one that introduced us to the fairy tale world of Shrek, the ogre, and this sidekick, Donkey. They have been drafted by Prince Farquahr to go rescue Princess Fiona from the big, bad dragon who keeps her locked in a tower. Prince Farquahr needs a perfect bride because he wants a perfect kingdom, but he is not quite brave enough to make the dangerous journey himself. Fiona is a sleeping beauty, but she is living with a curse: for as long as she can remember, she has been under the power of a spell that makes her beautiful by day and ogre-like at night. She hides this from everyone because she has been told she will be freed by “love’s first kiss” and she doesn’t want to blow her chance; her true love might be put off by what happens to her every night! Shrek and Donkey, after a fierce battle with the fiery dragon, rescue Fiona, and on the long journey back the ogre falls in love with the princess. Donkey discovers her secret, and she vows to tell Shrek the truth but it is too late. One misunderstanding leads to another, and in the end Fiona stands at the altar with Prince Farquahr. At the last minute, though, Shrek steps in and declares his love just as the sun goes down and Fiona turns into an ogress. It’s a big surprise, but all ends well and the two live happily ever after.

What does the princess have to do with living your own life or someone else’s or with Paul’s contrast of old self and new self? Fiona believed the beautiful princess she presented during the day to be her true self, who she really was. Fiona believed she had to speak in the stilted fairy-tale language she had absorbed. Fiona believed she could only act according to what she believed her role to be. But then she discovered that her daytime self was actually her curse, that she had been locked into the life of a stranger, and that for as many years as she could remember she had been safe to be herself only under the shelter of  night.

When we create an image of ourselves solely from the expectations of others or from our own ideas, we lose our highest perfection and blessedness and live under a curse. Our redemption is to remember who and whose we are, created and loved, made for communion, bearing the image of God. Our highest perfection and blessedness is not to be who others want us to be but to bear the image of God.

Jesus tells us the story of a very successful man. He was rich for his land had produced abundantly, and at night, before he went to bed, I imagine he sang, “All I have needed my hand has provided. Great is my life’s success; all this for me.” And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this: 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.’”

He had all his heart desired, and it never occured to him that he could gain the whole world and lose his soul.[4] Didn’t he have a family? Didn’t he have neighbors? Didn’t he hear the news we hear of droughts, floods and war that destroy farms and crops and leave so many neighbors facing famine? He thought to himself. He spoke to himself. He lived by himself. He lived for himself. He had completely forgotten that he was made for communion, and nothing in the story indicates that he had even noticed, amid all his abundance, how he had cut himself off from life. Once upon a time, there was a man who discovered he had turned into the wrong person; but it was too late. “You fool!” God said to him.

Jesus tells us the story because it’s not too late for us to remember who we really are and what the true purpose of our life is. All of us have turned into the wrong persons, or in the words of Paul, all of us fall short of the glory of God[5] because we forget or ignore the most important part of our identity: we are created and loved, we are made in the image of God, we are made for communion with God and with each other. But becoming who we really are is not a simple matter of re-inventing ourselves and choosing yet another costume for yet another season. Paul, in Colossians and elsewhere, reminds us that it is a matter of death and resurrection. “You have died,” he tells us, “and your new life is hidden with Christ in God.”[6] The wrong person we have become dies with Christ, and our new self is being renewed in Christ, according to the image of its creator. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him in glory.[7]

Renewal in Christ – what might that look like? “In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” Circumcision and uncircumcision were among the dominant identity markers in Paul’s day; Greek and Jew the most influential cultural scripts in the early church; slave and free the polar opposites in describing socio-economic reality in the Roman empire. We have other terms today but similar patterns of claiming or assigning identity based on ethnic background, wealth, gender, education, or language. All that makes us who we are in a world where we have forgotten who we really are.

And all that, in our renewal in Christ, is no longer what defines us. We are instead beginning, finally, to become who we were created to be: human beings bearing the image of God, in all our wondrous variety.

 


[1] Colossians 3:9f

[2] Genesis 1:27

[3] Commentary on Colossians 3:10

[4] Luke 9:25

[5] Romans 3:23

[6] Colossians 3:3

[7] Colossians 3:4, 10

Monday
Jul292013

Praying with Jesus

One of Jesus’ disciples asked him for a prayer lesson. Apparently praying doesn’t come naturally like eating or sleeping, or so this disciple thought. Why ask for a prayer lesson? Does one take prayer lessons like some people take dancing or fencing lessons? Is prayer like an art or a sport, or is it more like already knowing how to talk but wanting to learn what to say? Or are prayer lessons all about learning when and where, eyes open or closed, hands folded or stretched out, standing up or sitting down?

Jesus prayed quite often, sometimes for hours; in Luke’s gospel, prayer marked significant moments in Jesus’ ministry like his baptism (3:21), his choosing of the 12 (6:12), Peter’s declaration that he was the Messiah (9:18), and his transfiguration (9:28). Jesus prayed that night on the Mount of Olives (22:41ff.), and his last words on the cross were a prayer (23:46).

“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple said, perhaps sensing a connection between who Jesus was and his habit of prayer. In response, Jesus spoke words very similar to what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The words we speak come from the gospel according to Matthew and the long tradition of use in the church. We still say the prayer in the King’s English with ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ and ‘thine,’ thoroughly in love with the old sounds that elevate these words from ordinary speech. The words in Luke are, in comparison, utterly simple, like the meetinghouse of a Reformed church next to a Baroque cathedral. Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. There is no ornament, no please, no filler words – just the bare imperatives of give us and forgive us, and don’t bring us to the time of trial. God’s holiness and our need are spoken side by side, and while the language sounds almost brazen, it puts into words our complete dependence on God. This prayer is no meek, religious act of uttering sacred words, but the bold communication of human beings who know how hard it is to be human without food, without forgiveness, and without faithful belonging. 

Anne Lamott famously wrote in Traveling Mercies, “Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”[1] Her words reflect her trusting reliance on God, and something we call familiarity or intimacy. Jesus’ prayer, which he invites us to make ours, is also rooted in intimacy, but it is communal throughout: Give us each day our daily bread.

The petition marks a threshold: in the first part of the prayer, God’s cause is foremost – your name, your kingdom. The second part is about us – our bread, our sins, our trials. But the prayer isn’t really changing themes from the sanctification of God’s name and the coming of God’s reign. Bread, daily bread for all of us, is God’s holy will and God’s daily gift. The God whom Jesus invites us to address as Father is concerned about our stomachs and our livelihoods. When we pray with Jesus, we don’t fly away into the weightlessness of spiritual realms, but rather pray with our feet firmly on the ground. We pray with our feet touching the soil out of which we were taken and to which we return, the soil in which the grain of wheat is buried and on which we labor and eat bread by the sweat of our face.

What is bread? Depends on whom you ask. A source of complex carbohydrates, says the nutritionist. Bread is seed and soil, sun and rain, sweat and toil, says the farmer. Bread is flour and water, yeast and salt, skill and fire, says the baker. Bread is the sweet memory of my grandmother’s kitchen, says the old man. Bread is expensive, says the worker. Bread is power, says the politician. Bread is reconciliation and community, says the priest. Bread is cheap, says the rich fool. Bread is God’s gift, say those who pray with Jesus. Give us each day our daily bread. Farmers prepare the field and sow the seed, take care of the plants and bring in the harvest. Millers grind the wheat, the rye, the barley, and sift them to make the finest flours. Bakers blend the ingredients and turn them into beautiful, fragrant loaves of bread. Truck drivers deliver the seed, the fertilizer, the crop, the flour, the bread. Workers stock the shelves at night at the store. And we see so little of it until we notice the cashier whose wrist hurts from pulling tons of groceries across the scanner, and finally the kid who asks, ‘Paper or plastic?’ and puts the loaf in our bag. Some people call this a supply chain, but to me it will always be the poetry of human labor and the grace of God. Bread is a communal product, and no bread is eaten alone. There really is no such thing as my bread, there is only our bread, and every loaf contains our whole life together. When we pray with Jesus, we pray for bread and our life together, we pray for the land and all who live on it, for justice and compassion, and for the love that breaks bread even with the enemy.  

We can and we often do consume bread without thanksgiving, without remembering how it brings us all together and that we all need it; we can eat bread without memory or gratitude and without sharing, yet while it will still nourish our bodies, it will not nourish human life, which is life in community.

Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism as a resource for children and their parents to study the basics of the faith. In the chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, he asks, “What, then, is meant by daily bread?” And the answer he wants us to consider is,

Daily bread includes everything that we need for our bodily welfare, such as food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, land and cattle, money and goods, a godly spouse, godly children, godly workers, godly and faithful leaders, good government, good weather, peace and order, health, a good name, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.[2]

Our prayer for bread is indeed our prayer for everything that we and our neighbors need for our bodily welfare. We say bread, because there isn’t a more beautiful word for the dailiness of our needs, the fragile nature of our lives, and our dependence on God, the earth, and one another.

And because we can and do eat the bread of life without memory and without sharing, we need forgiveness. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray with Jesus we are reminded that just like there is no such thing as my bread, forgiveness cannot stop with me. Forgiveness is for our sins, for all that we have done or have failed to do – in disobedience, in lovelessness and in self-absorption – and forgiveness becomes a way for us to participate in the flow of mercy in the world wounded by sin. We’re not asking God to forgive us our sins because we’re so eager to forgive each other’s debts; we know we’re not. We pray for both dimensions of forgiveness in one breath because Jesus does so; he teaches us to see and remember that mercy is not a quid pro quo transaction but a healing flow freeing us from being held hostages by a past we cannot undo, a healing flow that cannot stop with us.

A disciple asks Jesus for a prayer lesson, and Jesus, rather than focusing on when, where, how and why, directs our attention to bread and forgiveness, to the relationships we have with each other that are inseparably woven into the relationship God has with us.

Jesus invites his disciples to call upon God as children call upon a loving parent, trusting that we belong to God and that God desires fullness of life for us. He invites us into the intimacy he has with God, encouraging us to address the Holy One of Israel using the same name he uses – Father.

Across cultures and generations, fathers relate to their children in very different ways, and the name does not by itself and necessarily characterize God as a caring, nurturing, compassionate, and responsive parent. The name by itself will stir in some memories of absence or distance or hurt. Father is an ancient name with many reverberations, not all of them life-giving, and what are we to do with those resonances in this prayer? We will notice that when Jesus speaks this name, it echoes deeply with mutual love and unwavering trust. Perhaps we can remember that Jesus invites us to pray with him, and not just like him. Perhaps we can remember that it is Jesus the Son who reveals who the Father is, and not our experiences with fathers, good or bad (Luke 10:21f.).

When we pray with Jesus, we speak of our need and the world’s needs in the presence of God whose kingdom we seek and whose name is revealed in the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. We speak with honesty and held up by the faith of Jesus when our own faith is shaken.

Do not bring us to the time of trial is the final petition in this prayer, and it is good for it to be the last word, as it were. We ask for deliverance from any circumstances that would threaten our trust in the God who found us in Jesus with forgiveness and compassion, and who opened our eyes to see the dawn of a new creation where all of life is finally at home. We ask for deliverance from anything that might tempt us to believe that we are not God’s beloved sons and daughters, or not meant to live in the glory of this love forever.

 


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Random House 2000) p. 82

[2] Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, The Lord’s Prayer: Fourth Petition

http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/martin-luthers-small.html#LORD and elsewhere online

Monday
Jul292013

Hand in hand

Mary is a pastor in Chicago, but she grew up in the South, and in a magazine article a few years ago she shared her thoughts on southern hospitality. Southern women, she wrote, are Marthas and proud of it. The ones who have southern hospitality refined to an art never sit—they hover. At Martha’s table, plates are never allowed to go empty, and the serving dishes are passed around at least three times. You know how it goes, “Some more iced tea? Have another yeast roll? Do try the jello salad, it’s my aunt Sara’s recipe, and the squash casserole is a favorite at every church potluck supper. My grandmother gave me the recipe, and I never use the cheap crackers.” The hostess keeps circling the table and shuttling between the kitchen and the dining room; she gives herself completely to serving her guests and misses all dinner conversation. “When does the hostess eat?” Mary and many others wonder. The answer will forever remain one of the South’s great mysteries.[1]

Then there is, of course, the other Martha, you know, the former queen of home and garden. She made it all look effortless with her little army of helpers that no one ever laid eyes on. This Martha would greet the guests at the door as they arrived; her dress unwrinkled, her make-up perfect, and the table beautifully set with the finest china, spotless crystal, and immaculate, starched table cloth and napkins. Everyone would admire and comment on the gorgeous center piece the hostess had made herself, a creative arrangement of fruits and flowers from her own garden, in a basket she had woven herself in a summer course at the Appalachian Center for Craft. Martha would sit with her guests, smiling graciously at their many compliments, enjoying the appetizers with them, sipping the perfectly chilled chardonnay, and keeping the conversation going with her witty remarks. At just the right moment, wonder woman would excuse herself, disappear briefly in the kitchen, and soon return with large trays and deep bowls of delicious food. Everything was effortless. Martha was the embodiment of home-making perfection and hospitality – and she still haunts many of her sisters in their dreams.

Luke’s Martha doesn’t have a staff. She has a house full of guests who didn’t call to let her know they were coming, but she opened the door to her home and welcomed them in. She offered them washbasins, filled with fresh water, and towels, so they could refresh their tired, dusty feet. And she made sure they had plenty to drink before she disappeared in the kitchen.

Jesus sat with the disciples, telling stories about the kingdom of God and talking about his journey to Jerusalem. It was quiet in the room, except for the sound of his voice. No one noticed that the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen was growing steadily louder, but finally Martha, who we suspect had been making all the noise to get a little attention, could no longer contain her frustration. She stood in the door, wiping her hands on her apron, and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Martha had a sister, Mary, and Mary sat with the other disciples, also showing hospitality to Jesus, but in a way that seemed to bother Martha. In a sonnett by Gioacchino Belli, the poet imagines Martha saying a few more choice words:

I’m tied up day and night. I’ve never complained,
but I’m getting tired – I’m always on my feet;
you can’t find this painted doll of a saint
except, of course, when there’s something to eat.”

It’s easy to sit and listen, when somebody else is doing the cooking and the dishes, isn’t it? You know the feeling, don’t you? You do something because it needs doing, and you don’t mind doing it – parts of it you even enjoy; but when you begin to suspect that nobody seems to notice or that your work is being taken for granted, you grow resentful. ‘Jesus, do you not care? My sister has left me to do all the work by myself! Would you mind telling her to help me?’ And you know she said it so her sister would overhear every word of it. [Vanessa from the Counseling Center would love to help them sort through that tense triangle!] “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, scolding her like she was some little girl, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” And with that, the story in Luke just ends, and it sounds a lot like a good sister/bad sister story: You, Martha, are worried and distracted. Your sister has chosen the better part.

In Gioacchino Belli’s poem, Martha doesn’t just swallow it; she snaps back at Jesus,

So says you, but I know better.
Listen, if I sat around on my salvation
the way she does, who’d keep this house together?[2]

She has a point, doesn’t she?

Jesus taught that one does not live by bread alone, but he gratefully depended on the hospitality of many a Martha and their bread while teaching the word of God in the villages of Galilee and all the way to Jerusalem. After Pentecost, believers gathered in homes for meals and worship, always depending on the generous hospitality of those who opened their doors to itinerant missionaries and the first congregations. Here in Nashville, in 2013, Martha has a career, she is a wife and a mother, and a deacon at her church, and everybody gladly depends on her to keep things together at home, at work, and at church. I don’t know about you, but I kinda expect her to snap back.

Every time I sit with this gem of a story, just five verses long, sooner or later I write the same kind of question in my notebook: Why isn’t Jesus in the kitchen? I imagine Mary walking through the door and seeing all of them around the kitchen table, listening to Jesus and talking about the kingdom of God and the challenges of discipleship, while chopping tomatoes and zucchini, frying the chicken and slicing the bread – I think Mary would post a quick picture on Facebook, “Great evening with Jesus and friends,” and then she’d lend a hand setting the table for dinner. At the end of the evening, all of them, except for the littlest ones who had fallen asleep on the couch, would be doing the dishes together. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples during a meal as an example of mutual attentiveness and service – wouldn’t a dish towel in his hands also make a great discipleship lesson?

I don’t read this story as a tale of sibling rivalry where Jesus takes the side of one against the other. We know about being worried and distracted by many things, and Jesus tells us that there is need of only one thing. We know about working hard and giving ourselves to serving others and resenting those who don’t. We know about endless expectations, and the voices that demand perfection, and schedules that make us sick. We know about being worried and distracted and way too busy, and Jesus tells us that Mary has chosen the better part – the better part, but still only a part of the one thing necessary. What is the one thing?

Last Sunday we heard the story of a lawyer who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He already knew the one thing necessary: Loving God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus helped him to see that life doesn’t depend on knowing but on loving, and he told him the story of the Samaritan who became a neighbor to the victim lying by the side of the road. “Go and do likewise,” he said to the lawyer.

The story of Martha and Mary follows that story; the two belong together and neither is complete without the other. The lawyer was skilled in scripture, but he had trouble seeing the need for active, generous neighborliness. Martha knew self-less service like no other, but she was so busy doing that she lost her focus on Jesus and didn’t even notice how she had replaced it with her bitter frustration.

The first story ends with Jesus saying to the lawyer and to us, “Go and do likewise.” And in this story he says, “Stop and sit likewise.” The two together are the one thing necessary. As love of God and love of neighbor are two and one, so are doing and listening, studying and serving. The one thing necessary is the integration of the two, the integration of our service and our study, of our worship and our work, of our action and our reflection. Jesus doesn’t envision a community where some stand around the kitchen table and work while others sit around the dining room table enjoying inspiring conversation. The faithful community is one being shaped by its hospitality to the living Christ – Christ who comes to us as the word of God and the fellow human being. The faithful community is one where listening to the Lord and serving the Lord in his sisters and brothers go hand in hand.

 


[1] See Mary W. Anderson, “Hospitality Theology (Living by the Word),” The Christian Century, July 1-8, 1998, p. 643

[2] From a sonnett by Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863), translated by Miller Williams, in: Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, ed. by Robert Atwan, George Dardress, and Peggy Rosenthal (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 209; my emphasis

Monday
Jul082013

The power of the Lamb

Jesus didn’t send them off on a summer vacation by the lake. If he had, he would have told them to make sure they had their swimming trunks, perhaps a hat, plenty of sun screen, and a stack of summer reading in their bags.

I love a trip where I don’t need to worry about packing socks or anything more formal than t-shirts and shorts. But Jesus didn’t send them off to camp or a week on the beach. It was a different kind of trip, one that wasn’t just a break from their daily routines, but rather more like a whole new routine.

It had started in the towns of Galilee where at some point he called together the twelve, gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and then he sent them out to do what he had been doing – proclaim the kingdom of God and heal. Then again in Samaria, on his way to Jerusalem, he sent messengers ahead of him to alert villages of his arrival and to make preparations for his coming. And after this, he appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.

I suspect that he had to appoint and send them, because if he had asked for volunteers and waited for them to come forward after he had told them about their mission, he might have had to switch to plan B: There’s a lot of work to do, and there are few workers, he tells them. He sends them like lambs into the midst of wolves and adds, Do not to carry a purse or a bag or an extra pair of sandals. They would be his messengers and for their meals and lodging they would depend entirely on the kindness of others.

When Miles and I are on the road, we love to stop at Cracker Barrel and eat Momma’s Pancake Breakfast, no matter if it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and Nancy will eat the hashbrown casserole almost any time of day. But as one of Jesus’ 70, you’d eat whatever is set before you. I read about a preacher’s kid who found that to be the most challenging part of Jesus’ travel instructions. His dad had been a pastor in rural South Dakota, in a very poor area with lots of small farms. The family was often invited for lunch after church on Sunday, and the young man recalled that he and his siblings were admonished to eat whatever was served. And he wasn’t referring to the countless varieties of cooked, leafy greens that very few children find delicious. Many of the farm families relied on whatever they could kill or catch nearby for food – occasionally it was chicken, sometimes it tasted like chicken, but on many a Sunday the preacher’s kid had no idea what he was eating. Reading about him, I thought about Stelma who grew up in rural Virginia during the Depression. She was the oldest of the girls, responsible for cooking, and she would fix whatever her brothers brought home from their hunting trips – mostly squirrels and rabbits.

“One day they came back with a raccoon,” she said.

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

“I skinned it and I cooked it. It was a little greasy, but we ate it.”

Jesus sent the 70 to proclaim the nearness God’s reign, but rather than telling them to pack enough food to feed the hungry, or extra outfits to clothe the naked, he told them to rely completely on the hospitality of others and to receive it with equal kindness. For most of us, I suspect, that’s an unexpected reversal. When we think of mission, we think of sharing our resources to alleviate suffering as a witness to the compassionate love of God. We glean fields and gardens and our pantry to prepare food for the hungry. We make beds in the fellowship hall and fill backpacks with mittens and scarves, chapsticks and toothbrushes, to protect the homeless from the elements and to make their life a little better. We write checks – beautiful, faithful checks for Hope Camp and Rooftop and Nashville Food Project and Week of Compassion and so many other agencies and programs here in Nashville and around the globe. We give – with glad and generous hearts as a testimony to the generosity of God who desires abundant life for all. And then we hear Jesus sending the 70 to proclaim the nearness of God’s reign with nothing but the clothes on their back, the word of peace on their lips, and the willingness to eat the food of strangers.

I don’t know who first noticed that in Luke’s telling of the gospel, Jesus is constantly either on his way to eat, eating with others, or just leaving the table. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but it does capture the prominent place of table fellowship in Luke. The whole story is built around shared meals, the heart of hospitality, and Jesus eats and drinks with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings, but – he never gives a dinner party. He is always a guest.

The way I read this, Jesus invites us to let go of the control that comes with having and giving, to let go of the power that comes with determining who gets what and when and why, and to trust in the possibilities of healing and wholeness that lie in depending on the hospitality of others. The one who had no place to lay his head invites us to share in his mission by sharing in his vulnerability.

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” says the Lamb of God. Throughout the generations of the church, there have been those who lived as if they had been sent like wolves into the midst of lambs, but it wasn’t the Lamb who sent them, no matter how loudly they kept declaring that they were acting in the name of the Lord. With all their power and might, they built empires, but they didn’t proclaim the kingdom Jesus brought near. Yet throughout those same generations, there have also been the followers of Jesus who took nothing on the journey but the word and promise of God, who didn’t take the path of control or coercion or vengeance, and who returned rejoicing in the fall of demons.

In every generation, Jesus is appointing and sending 70 who trust in the possibilities of healing and wholeness that lie in depending on the hospitality of others. To me, the number 70 is not a matter of counting heads, but of recognizing Jesus’ mission as global. In the Bible, the number 70 represents all the nations of the world, so in sending the 70 Jesus is sending his followers to all nations, not to conquer or assimilate them, but to live among them as witnesses to the power of the Lamb.

Very few among us will hear this as a call to leave our homes and possessions and take up an itinerant lifestyle of radical dependence on the hospitality of others, although I don’t think we ought to dismiss that possibility altogether. The circumstances of our mission as followers of Jesus have changed, significantly in many ways, but we also know and affirm that his call to us to live as messengers of God’s reign in our world has not changed. His commission of the 70 talks about characteristics of the church’s mission that aren’t bound to particular circumstances but can serve to shape its work and witness in each generation. I want to highlight just a few of them.

1. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

He affirms that there’s plenty to do for us in the world once we learn to look at it through the lens of grace, and there’s always a shortage of people with that particular vision. Surprisingly for many of our generation, this doesn’t call for greater effort or longer hours, but for prayer.

2. Jesus says, “Go on your way.”

Of course he wants us to go on his way, but he affirms that there’s a way for each of us to be on his way. This also implies that we are to begin where we are, not where we think we ought to be or wish we could be.

3. Jesus says, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”

Proclaiming the peace of Christ arouses the hostility of powers opposed to God’s reign, no question about it. This doesn’t imply that we need to grow bigger teeth but rather that we trust in the power of the Lamb.

4. Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.”

The purse is for money and the bag is for stuff. Money and stuff are what make things happen in any other kingdom. He tells us that we can do what we need to do without them. If nothing else, this puts money and stuff in proper perspective.

5. Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.”

This humble word is a well of wisdom and truth. It’s not just about what’s for dinner. This word implies that when we enter the world of others, whether that’s a kitchen or a whole country, we are to do so without imposing our own cultural assumptions on them. Jesus encourages us to meet others with a willingness to receive what they offer and them with it. That’s what the preacher’s kid began to grasp at the Sunday tables in South Dakota. Every meal is a communion, or rather every meal is open to becoming recognizable as communion, as the sacrament of creation redeemed and fulfilled. Eating what is set before us, we can stop pretending that our mission as followers of Jesus is to give others a truth we have and they need. Instead, we can both discover that the kingdom of God has indeed come near and know it together.

Monday
Jun102013

The Procession of Life

One day, the prophet Elijah came to king Ahab and said, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The prophet and the king had been clashing over what kind of power was life-giving, and whose power it was – the king’s or God’s.

Ahab was angry, very angry, but the long drought began as the prophet had declared. God sent Elijah across the border, away from Ahab’s reach, to Zarephath, where a widow would take care of him. When he came to the gate of the town, he saw her; she was gathering sticks. Sticks for one last fire, to cook her last handful of grain with a little oil, one last meal for herself and her son.

Elijah, who had asked her for a little water to drink and a morsel of bread, said to her, “Go and do as you have said, but first…” First do this other thing, this rather odd thing to do on the verge of death, this incredibly generous and hospitable thing, first “make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” That last handful of grain, divide it by three instead of two, and feed me before you feed your child and yourself. And the stranger from across the border added, “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

And so it was. They ate for many days, and the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail. If this were a movie, you’d see smiling faces all around, perhaps heavy rain clouds on the horizon, and the closing credits with the sound of thunder in the background – a happy end. But the story continues. In a tragic turn of events, the widow’s son becomes ill, and the illness is so severe that there is no breath left in him. Death again comes very close, but God hears the prayers of Elijah, and the boy is miraculously revived and returned to his mother.

King Ahab and queen Jezebel have their names written in the royal archives and the chronicles of Israel, but nobody wrote down the names of the widow and her son. Their story is not for the history books, but for ordinary people like you and me and our neighbors, people who know life in dry times. It’s a story we have been telling for generations because it speaks of a hope and a power beyond what our drought-stricken hearts can imagine. It encourages us to put our faith in God, in hospitality, and in prayer.

Folks down in Coffee County are living through a dry season, but it’s not rain that’s lacking for life to flourish. On Tuesday night, the American Muslim Advisory Council, headquartered in Murfreesboro, had organized an event, called “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society.” It was billed as an educational opportunity for the public to learn about American Muslims, as well as how the civil rights of all citizens are protected under the United States Constitution.

Many of you will have heard about Coffee County Commissioner Barry West posting a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago, many of you may have actually seen it.  It was a picture of a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun at a camera, and the caption read, “How to wink at a Muslim.” Commissioner West initially thought it was funny, but has since not only apologized for the post and removed it, but also met with Muslims who live and work in Coffee County.

Almost 1,000 people attended the event Tuesday night, and while some where there to listen and learn, a majority came straight from a preceding anti-Muslim and “free speech” rally, and they had other plans – to intimidate, undermine and disrupt the event. Their stated reason for being there was to protest what bloggers had called the government’s attempts to take away an individual’s First Amendment rights to post whatever he or she chooses on social media sites without repercussion.

The real reason, however, became apparent shortly after the presentation began. Wrapped in American flags and waving Bibles, the protesters shouted, “speak English” at a Muslim man who has been in the United States for three decades. They cheered and clapped at photos of a burned mosque in Columbia, Tennessee. They booed at photos of American Muslim soldiers killed while serving their country in the United States military. They accused all Muslims of being terrorists and yelled at them to “go home.”[1]

Some good friends of mine were there, Christians, Jews and Muslims, and they felt wave after wave rolling over them, hot waves of ignorance, fear, and rudeness. It’s a different kind of drought, one where the wells of wisdom and care are running very low. In dry times, it is good to have stories that speak of a hope and a power beyond what our drought-stricken hearts can imagine.

Luke takes us to Nain, a small town in Galilee. Jesus approached the gate of the town just when a man who had died was being carried out. A large crowd, probably the whole town, followed the stretcher with the body on it. Apparently the man had not been married; there was no young widow, no children – only his mother. A woman who had already lost her husband, and now her son, her only son. Without a husband or a son to take care of her, her future looked grim. Widows often had to depend on the kindness of their husband’s family to survive, and many ended up sitting in the gate or by the road side together with the blind and the crippled, begging neighbors and travelers for a little mercy.

Death is of course a biological reality and part of life, as all living things eventually die. But death is also a social reality, a moral and spiritual reality. Death invades our lives with different rules for boys and girls, for men and women, for people born in poverty and those born in wealth, for members of the majority and for minorities. Death has ways of making life smaller and poorer than it could be, and long before it comes to its biological end.

In a good funeral procession, people cry, but they also share stories and memories that make them smile. In a good funeral procession, people travel in grief and gratitude, with tears and smiles, carrying seeds of new life. A good funeral procession is a procession of life. But when people make that journey without a promise for tomorrow, they are in a procession of death. They are barely surviving, in a drought where it’s not rain that is lacking, but hope and courage.

So we’re watching a widow on the way to the cemetery to bury her only son and with him her own future, her own life. And traveling with her, all the women who still gather sticks for one last fire to prepare the last meal for themselves and their children. And behind them in the procession, the many whose hope vanished like smoke from a snuffed candle. And behind them, you notice your friends whose wells have gone dry, and perhaps you recognize yourself in that long procession of all those who have seen and felt death invading life and sucking it dry. They all pass through the gate, and there, outside of town, coming toward them, is another procession. When the two columns meet, the Lord of life sees the widow, and moved with deep compassion he says, “Do not weep.” Then he touches the stretcher and the bearers stand still.

And now the Lord says, “Rise!” and the young man sits up – and right there and then, it begins to rain: showers of hope and courage, of wisdom and care; the Lord speaks and it rains life and joy. The procession of death stops, and not just temporarily, it ends here where the Lord of life says, “Rise!” The procession of death stops, because with Jesus the reign of God has invaded the old dominion of death. The procession of death can go no further than to the cross, where God says “No!” to all that makes life smaller and poorer than life’s Creator intended, and where God says “Rise!” to a world where sin and death are no more.

“Praise the Lord who made heaven and earth, who keeps faith forever,” are the words that called us to worship this morning. The Lord keeps faith forever, bringing justice to the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting the prisoners free. The Lord keeps faith forever by redeeming all whom death has bound, by lifting up those who are bowed down, by watching over the strangers, and upholding orphans and widows. The Lord keeps faith through acts of judgment and redemption that bring to ruin the way of the wicked and stop the procession of death.

And we? We who have been called to follow Christ in the procession of life? We keep faith by doing the small things that never make the history books. Small things like listening to those outside our circles and to the stories they tell. Small things. Like practicing hospitality by entertaining ideas that are very different from our own. Small things like telling the bully to stop. Small things that are in truth huge because every small act of faith is an act of witness and a step in processionof life.

 


[1] See the editorial in the Tullahoma News, and the article by Andrea Agardy, “Hostile crowd greets diversity speakers”

Tuesday
Jun042013

Surprises

Who comes to mind when I say Francis? Sir Francis Drake in tights? The medieval saint who talked to animals? Perhaps you think about your auntie who smelled like lily of the valley.

Mary DeTurris will hear the name and almost instantly turn into a junior high girl telling her friends about her newest crush. “I’ll admit it: It was love at first sight,” she wrote back in March. “I have got a crazy pope crush – … he had me at ‘Hola.’ Actually, he had me at ‘Francis.’ And so far I’ve still got stars in my eyes. … Some of my non-Catholic friends have joked about my Pope Francis obsession, but I think even they can sense that there’s something really special here, something outside the papal norm. From the minute he stood on that balcony shyly waving and then bowed and asked for the people to bless him, I was hooked. … And then came one thing after another — the lack of the usual red cape, the impromptu stop at the hotel to pick up his bags and pay his bills, the photos of him riding the subway in Argentina, … the unusual blessing for non-Catholics and non-believers at his meeting with journalists. With every new thing, I found myself thinking, ‘This is too good to be true.’”[1]

Too good to be true? It’s not just middle-aged Catholic women who have been getting all giddy over the new pope; many of my friends, men and women, young and old, have been praising his humility and particularly his statements about the poor and about people of other faiths or no faith. A Presbyterian colleague posted on Facebook last week, “It’s official. I now have a Pope crush. I <3 Francis.” My colleague had read the news about a homily during which the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, and he invited all his hearers, whether they identify themselves as believers or not, to meet at the place of doing good works.[2]

Pope Francis understands that working side by side changes how we talk about beliefs and doctrines. He understands that the witness of service is proclamation of the gospel at its best, because Christ is among us as one who serves (Luke 22:27).  The priest from Argentina has surprised many people around the globe by opening windows with a smile instead of slamming doors shut for those who don’t confess as the church of Rome teaches. At the Vatican, I imagine, the honeymoon is over and the various interest groups are busy discussing strategies for getting the pontiff back on message. But they can’t undo his actions and words that have filled so many with hope. They can’t undo the joy that rises after grace breaks in. They can’t undo the beautiful surprise of a pope “outside the papal norm.”

Luke tells us a story about a centurion that is full of surprises. Finding a centurion in Capernaum is not surprising, though. The Roman Empire occupied Judea and Galilee and maintained a sizable military presence there, including lots of centurions. They were mid-level officers in the Roman military who were in command over about eighty soldiers. Folks in Capernaum would have known this one to be the man in charge; the one who didn’t just tell the soldiers under his command what to do, but pretty much everybody else in town. He was used to a life of receiving and giving orders. The first-century historian Josephus describes the daily duties of Roman soldiers in this way:

Nothing is done without a word of command. At daybreak the rank and file report themselves to their respective centurions, the centurions go to salute the tribunes, the tribunes with all the officers then wait on the commander-in-chief, and he gives them, according to custom, the watchword and other orders to be communicated to the lower ranks.[3]

Reading in Luke’s story that the centurion had a slave whom he held dear is no surprise either; it was pretty common among officers. And there’s no surprise in his sending some Jewish elders with a message to Jesus since nothing is done, after all, without a word of command. So wouldn’t you expect him to tell Jesus to come to his house without delay? Wouldn’t you expect him to order Jesus to his house? Instead he asks.

A Roman historian described the qualities of a centurion as follows:

A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright.[4]

There’s a hint here why this centurion doesn’t tell Jesus to come and heal the slave. The man is “more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak.” He knows how to take orders before giving them. His world is the military, and he is confident that Jesus is in command of healing forces just as he is part of a chain of command, and his confidence informs his words and actions. He addresses Jesus as he would petition a superior officer.

Now that’s a huge surprise, especially in the world of the first disciples: an officer of the Roman Empire petitioning a Galilean Jew for a miracle! Wow! This is where the lights come on and instantly the mighty warrior becomes recognizable as a human being, as a man whose heart is heavy because a loved one is sick and he is helpless.

You may suspect that quid-pro-quo politics is still part of the picture when the elders tell Jesus that this man deserves his help because he loves their people and has built the synagogue in town. A great benefactor like that would certainly be worthy of his attention and a favorable reply! But the centurion himself responds to that suspicion, sending word through a group of friends, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” Only speak the word – the centurion’s world is defined by the chain of command, and it’s not surprising that he would imagine divine authority to be organized in similar fashion, with Jesus as commander-in-chief or at least lieutenant general.

What I find most remarkable in this little story is how it depicts the humanizing power of love and suffering. All the categories we so readily use to define ourselves and others as either Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, slave or free, believever or non-believers, insiders or outsiders – all these categories become less rigid and lose their defining power. The story captures a moment in which the ordinary human experiences of love and suffering allow the characters and us to look beyond all the simple dualisms and notice the complexities: this Gentile has built a synagogue for the Jews, despite our assumption that Gentiles are hopeless idolaters; these Jewish local elders speak well of the Roman officer, despite our assumption that Rome’s regime is brutal and oppressive and that the locals despise the occupiers; this representative of Rome’s might is caring and kind, despite our assumption that systems of power leave no room for such gifts.

Nobody was more surprised, according to Luke, than Jesus himself.  He was amazed. He hadn’t expected to find such faith, let alone in an outsider, and, yes, he called it faith, regardless of what we might call it because of our assumptions. The centurion didn’t ask to follow Jesus or promise to do so. He didn’t even seem particularly interested in meeting him in person. Maybe he did become a follower of Jesus, maybe not; we seem to be the only ones interested in these questions. Jesus enjoyed the moment of surprise and praised the centurion’s amazing faith.

I stumbled upon this quote by Gene Bartlett. It’s primarily about worship, but like everything we do in worship, it both reflects and impacts the entire context of our life with God.

What surprises there are! We are such planners! We decide how God must come into human affairs. We treat it all with a kind of public relations twist. We pick the time and the place. We insure that the right people are there to meet God. We get the news releases out as to what to expect. ... But God has an uncanny way of taking care of times and places and entrances. While we wait at the airport, as it were, with a representative committee of dignitaries, an escort waiting for the coming, God has a way of quietly arriving at the bus station, walking up the side street, and slipping, unnoticed, through the servant’s chambers.[5]

God shows up when we least expect it and in places few of us would associate with divine presence. Likewise, human faith has an uncanny way of quietly arriving on foot while everybody is waiting at the airport. We simply don’t know as much about these things as we like to pretend. It is wise for us to meet in the place of doing good works, drawn together by suffering and our God-given capacity for compassion – the best surprises await us there. And it is good for us, very good to have leaders who open windows with a smile.

 


[1] http://www.notstrictlyspiritual.com/2013/03/my-pope-crush-he-had-me-at-hola/ See also the very funny post by Rabbi Kasher http://hellogiggles.com/why-im-crushing-on-the-new-pope/#read

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/pope-francis-good-atheists_n_3320757.html

[3] Josephus, J.W. 3.98, quoted in Wendy Cotter, CSJ, The Christ of the Miracles Stories: Portrait through Encounter (Baker Academic Press, 2010), p. 106

[4] Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted in Cotter, p. 114

[5] Jones, Kirk Byron (2010-09-01). The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy (Kindle Locations 56-61). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Monday
Jun032013

Yet many things to say

On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Merle Marie and Tom sat alone on the couch at the end of the day paging through their wedding album. Looking at the beautiful young couple they were, they smiled remembering how naïve they had been about the whole journey at its beginning. Merle Marie remembered feeling like a princess walking down the aisle on her dad’s arm. Tom remembered seeing her coming toward him, her face half-hidden behind the veil, and that was all he could recall, her face, her lovely face; the rest of the ceremony was a blur.

As they came to the final picture, he jokingly asked, “Should we tell them what we know now?”

“No,” she replied. “They’ll find out soon enough.”

We all know that it’s one thing to be told, and another to find out for ourselves. Every child knows this and every parent. Every friend knows this and every teacher – everybody, I suspect. When I was little I often watched when my mom was ironing the laundry. I was intrigued by the quickness of her motions and the magic of that shining thing she handled so skillfully; it looked like a silver boat plowing through water, turning choppy seas of wrinkles into fragrant smoothness. “Don’t touch it, it’s hot,” she had told me, I don’t know how many times, but one day I touched it anyway. I already knew hot from sitting in the tub and from playing in the sun and from sipping soup from my spoon, but I learned a whole new dimension of hot when I touched that shiny iron. It’s one thing to be told, and another to find out for ourselves. Words are very good for sorting through and processing experience, but we can’t use them to prepare one another for any and all circumstances we might encounter down the road. And so we tell our youngsters that there’s a difference between love and a crush, but they will still have to make their own way through the adolescent awkwardness and turmoil and find out how that is true.

Jesus said to the disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Some of the things he had to say to them had a weight they weren’t prepared yet to support with their lives, and he wouldn’t give them a word they couldn’t bear. Beginning with chapter 13, John tells the story of Jesus’ last night with his friends.[1] They didn’t know it would be their last hours together. They didn’t know that the very next day he would be arrested, convicted, and crucified. They didn’t know what was coming next, but Jesus did. And so he spent that last night with them preparing them for what they couldn’t even begin to imagine: how to follow him without seeing him in front of them; how to do his works without him there to teach and admonish them; and how to hear his voice in the noise of the world.

They were eating together, and during the meal, Jesus got up from the table, got a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash their feet, without saying much. When he was done, he asked, “Do you know what I have done to you?” Then he began to talk, and he talked for a long time – it’s more than three chapters, the longest conversation we know of between Jesus and his friends. It’s actually not much of a conversation, because he did all the talking; they listened the whole time, only occasionally did one or the other throw in a comment or a question.

And after he was done talking, Jesus prayed. He gathered up the life they had lived together and the life the disciples would continue to live without him. He prayed his life and work and their life and work together into one – one life, one mission, one movement of God’s love to the world and in the world.

That is how he prepared them for the difficult transition. That is how he helped them move from seeing in his life who God is to letting their own lives embody the love they had encountered in him. He washed their feet, down on his knees before each of them, teaching them to do to each other what he had done to them. And he prayed to the Father that their mission and his would be one. He served and he prayed, as he had for as long as they had known him, and between those two poles of service and prayer he wove a tapestry of images, promises, and commandments.

Two things he said over and over again. The first was, “I am with you only a little longer” (13:33). Fifteen times he told them, in one way or another, that he would be leaving them. And the other thing he said, and this also over and over again, was that he would not leave them comfortless, but send them another advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth (14:16; 16:7). Two things he said over and over again, “I am leaving, I am sending; I am leaving, I am sending.” He would leave, but he wouldn’t abandon them. He would no longer be with them, but the Holy Spirit would be in them and among them and continue to connect their life and work with his.

Our calling is to become and proclaim the good news in a very messy and complicated world, and it’s a lot easier to imagine Jesus standing in a corner of the room listening to what we are saying to each other, than to know him standing among us and speaking the very word we all need to hear right now, in this messy moment of the world’s confusion.

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” he told them. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

We are not left to our own strength and imagination, and we don’t have to make our own way into all the truth. Jesus is sending the Spirit to inspire, empower, and guide us, and the Spirit will not speak on his own authority but as one forever connecting our life and work with the life and work of Jesus. The Spirit allows all generations of disciples to receive the word of Jesus in the changing circumstances of our lives, and not just to recall the life of Jesus, but continue to live it.

There are words of Jesus that we need to hear in order to understand our mission in the current messiness of the world, and the Spirit helps us to remember faithfully what Jesus has said and receive obediently what Jesus is saying. What aspect of the mess we’re in should I mention? There is still some debate over whether or not we crossed  the threshold of 400 ppm carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere a couple of weeks ago, but an adjustment down to 399.89 really doesn’t change much.[2] Atmospheric CO2 levels are rising at unprecedented rates, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries, and today’s levels have not been seen since 3 million years ago, when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than current levels. Many scientists have warned that carbon dioxide readings must be brought down to 350 ppm to avoid severe climate impacts and stall feedback loops that will exacerbate the rise. This mess is unlike any humanity has ever had to face, but our response so far has been remarkably familiar. It’s like we don’t want to be told, we want to find out for ourselves – only in this case, a lot more is at stake than a burned finger or a few bumps in the early years of a marriage.

Don’t you wish Jesus were here? Don’t you wish he were here to tell us what to do? When he said, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” he wasn’t being secretive but preparing us for this very moment. The Spirit of truth is here to guide us. The Spirit whom Jesus sends allows us to hear the things we couldn’t bear before. And the Spirit, the church declared with the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh – men and women, young and old, poor and wealthy. The Risen One is speaking, and we who long to hear the word of God for this day must be attentive to all flesh – men and women, rich and poor, old and young.

We must listen for the word of God in the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of the churches, but not only there. We must listen for the word of the Lord in every word spoken, whispered, sung or censored among us.  The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, and we must listen very carefully lest we miss the word the church can bear and must bear today to glorify the Lord.

The Lord said, “I am leaving…; I am sending…” and when he left he didn’t send a final word that would set the world straight once and for all. He poured out the Spirit of truth that draws us all into communion. He poured out the Spirit of truth who guides us to embrace the humble service of listening to each other, expecting to hear the Lord’s voice through the noise of the world.

 


[1] I'm following Eugene Peterson, The Story Behind the Story, Journal for Preachers Vol. 26, No. 4, Pentecost 2003, pp. 4-8

[2] http://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-carbon-dioxide-400-20130513,0,7196126.story

Tuesday
May212013

God's city project

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” the story begins. That sounds intriguing to me. I could fly to China without wondering how to say Hello, Thank You, or Goodbye. Secretary of State Kerry could sit down with President Putin to talk about Syria, and there wouldn’t be a need for a translator. Every poem, every song and novel would have one global audience. Instead of some 6,900 languages spoken in the world there would be just one with countless regional and local accents. Men and women would probably still speak different languages occasionally, as would parents and teenagers, despite using the same words, but overall the potential for misunderstandings would be much reduced, one would expect.

But I wonder, what would happen to the great variety of human experiences around the globe if all of them had to be squeezed into a single idiom?You and I could perhaps come up with 5-7 words for frozen precipitation, snow, ice, slush, sleet, hail, and such, but boys and girls living near the arctic circle probably know something like twenty words for frozen water before they enter first grade. I imagine that a woman from the jungles of Brasil has many more ways to speak of shades of green in foliage than a man from the Arabian desert – but when he talks about the joy of seeing an oasis on the horizon after days of travel under the sun, she will have to listen very carefully to grasp what the horizon might be and to connect to the depth of an experience so far removed from her own.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words – doesn’t that suggest a very homogeneous world, and a very small one?

Our story from Genesis shows little enthusiasm for the possibilities of one language. People migrated from the east and came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. “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 earth.” One people, one language, one city, one name. “A tower with its top in the heavens” sounds ambitious, as does “let us make a name for ourselves,” but this ambition is out of tune with God’s will and desire. God doesn’t want us to live in small worlds of our own making, but on God’s earth.

Even a casual glimpse at God’s creation shows us that monoculture is a foreign concept to life – and human life is no exception. Small worlds of one people of one language, living in one city, with one name, that is how most of us become familiar with life in community, but it doesn’t end there. Monoculture is not God’s vision for humanity.

The first part of the story is all about us and how we use our best skills to build communities that give us a sense of belonging and accomplishment. The second part of the story is about God looking at what mortals have built. “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.” This is only the beginning. Human culture that is not in tune with divine purposes threatens the communion of life God desires. What does God do? Like a guerilla gardener who throws hand-fulls of wildflower seeds into the bland sameness of suburban lawns, God introduces linguistic diversity, saying, “Let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. It wasn’t the city God had in mind.

We have long listened to this story as the curse of Babel, as though it was a story of tragic failure, a story of the loss of the unity God intended for creation; we have long listened to this story imaginining that the fantastic variety of cultures we see in the world is at best a necessary evil rather than a reflection of God’s delight in creating countless colours, shapes, and sounds. But isn’t it a blessing of mercy that God intervenes creatively to keep our dreams of unity from turning into totalitarian nightmares of sameness? Isn’t it a blessing that God counters our desire for homogeneity with the songs and stories of thousands of tongues from all over the face of the earth?

God has a different kind of city in mind. In the chapter following the story of the linguistic revolution of Babel, God speaks to Abram and tells him to become a stranger in a foreign land, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

The baptistery window at Vine Street on Pentecost 2013The story of Babel begins with the human project of unity and greatness, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves.” And Abram’s call to a life of faith is the beginning of God’s project of unity after Babel.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, and Pentecost is all about the kind of city God has in mind. Jesus had told the disciples to stay in the city and to wait to be clothed with power from on high. They stayed and they waited, although they weren’t exactly sure what it was they were waiting for. Power from on high? How would they know the moment had come? Would they suddenly feel holier than usual? Would it tickle? Would it hurt?

And then it happened – but how do you describe what happens when God is in the house? What language do you borrow to talk about the moment when a group of timid Jesus-followers become witnesses of the risen Lord, become men and women with a testimony of life? Luke writes of a sound like the rush of a violent wind, filling the house, and of tongues, as of fire, everywhere, and resting on each of them. Something like wind, like fire, something powerful and beyond control. Not a word about how they felt when they were filled, only about what came pouring out of them: testimony about God’s deeds of power, testimony in every language spoken in all the cities of the world. People from as far away as Mesopotamia and Rome heard them speak in their own native language.

It was a festival day, Jerusalem was already humming with the songs and stories of God who gave the torah at Sinai and made a covenant with Israel, and amid those happy sounds the disciples began to talk about Jesus whom God had raised from the dead. They spoke of the righteous one who died for love, for us; and they spoke in ways the whole world could understand. Luke mentions about fifteen different ethnic groups and languages, representing the entire known world of his first readers. But the story of Pentecost is not about a group of Galileans receiving the gift to speak fifteen languages, nor about what a great foreign language teacher the Holy Spirit is. What we celebrate today is the miracle of communication that translates the good news of Jesus across barriers of language, custom, and culture. What we celebrate on Pentecost is the power of the Holy Spirit to transcend our differences without eliminating them.

This is not about one people, one language, one city, one name – not in the way we imagined it, anyway. We celebrate the gift of the Spirit who creates unity without coercive sameness.

We celebrate the Spirit who gives us a vision and foretaste of one humanity where we no longer desire to make a name for ourselves because we all know ourselves and each other as God’s own. We no longer need to make a name for ourselves because the name of Christ has been written on our hearts.

Pentecost is not the anniversary of something that happened centuries ago in Jerusalem, though. Pentecost is what began when God looked at Babel and mercifully said, “No, not like that.”

Pentecost continues whenever and wherever God inspires men and women, young and old to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ as ambassadors of reconciliation and messengers of peace. Pentecost continues whenever and wherever young people have visions of a city of righteousness, and old people still dream dreams about love transforming all things. Pentecost continues whenever and wherever we hear the call to leave country, kindred, and father’s house for the sake of the city where all our differences no longer divide us but are recognized as manifestations of the glory of God.

Pentecost is God’s city project that began after Babel. It is a city where grace is spoken in ten thousand dialects and community is gated no more. It is a city of songs where praise is every creature’s native tongue. It is a city that is, in the words of John, home to a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. It is a city whose gates are never closed and where, at last, God is at home.

Monday
May132013

Songs in the Night

The girl was a psychic. Or that’s what we’d call her today; in ancient times they would have called her a mantic or a Sibyl. For a fee, she would tell her clients what the future might hold for them. Young people with romantic concerns would turn to her, anxious parents troubled by what might become of their children, or just about anyone who had woken up from a strange dream or had difficulty falling asleep at night because all kinds of worries were keeping them awake – they all came to see her, or at least the ones who could afford her fortune-telling services.

This girl wasn’t just a psychic, though, she was also a slave; she was somebody else’s property. And that’s why she wasn’t putting her gift to use at the temple of Apollo like her respectable colleagues, but on the sidewalks of Philippi where she made her owners a great deal of money.

Paul and the others were on their way to the place of prayer outside the city when they first met her; it was the very place where on the sabbath day they had met Lydia, the independent woman from Thyatira who ran her own business and was head of a large household. The contrast between her and the nameless sidewalk psychic couldn’t be more striking.

This slave girl followed Paul and the others, and she wouldn’t be quiet, and this went on for days. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” she would yell, day after day, all the way from the house to the place of prayer.

Who do you think she was addressing? Nobody in particular because she was babbling in a psychic trance? Every pedestrian within earshot? Or – and how intriguing that would be – just her own clients?

I appreciate that Paul didn’t slip her a fifty and ask her to take her message to the market place so even more people would hear her. I appreciate that he didn’t use her like a billboard and pay her owners a handsome price for the publicity. I appreciate that he noted her bondage, her being possessed, and that he addressed her circumstance in the name of Jesus – but I wish I could ask him why he waited until her presence had become an annoyance he couldn’t stand any longer; and I wish I could ask him if he acted solely because she had become too irritating to ignore, or at least in part because Jesus had come proclaiming liberty to the captives; and I wish I could ask him what her name was.

She had spoken the truth when she declared that Paul and the others were slaves of the Most High God, and they knew that no earthly power could enslave them because they belonged to God. Did they ever tell her that she was nobody’s property because she was a child of God? And why did Paul exorcise the spirit of divination and stop there? Why didn’t he cast out the spirit of exploitation from her owners when they dragged him before the magistrates? The little story raises lots of questions.

Luke is painting a very large picture with very few strokes: The followers of Jesus come to the city. The good news of Jesus they proclaim finds receptive hearts and minds among some women who gather for prayer by the river, outside the city. Nobody else is really paying any attention to their presence. But as soon as they confront one of the spirits that hold the city captive, as soon as they interfere with the subtle and not-so-subtle economic and political arrangements that keep a girl in dual bondage to her masters – as soon as they do that, the principalities strike back. “These men, being Jews, are disturbing our city!” we hear the owners shout. Anti-Jewish rhetoric is not a modern invention, nor are xenophobic demogogues. There are enough of them in Philippi to stir up the rabble. It doesn’t take long for the magistrates to bend to the demands of the crowd, and the men are stripped, severely beaten, and thrown into prison.

Luke not only tells us that they ordered the jailer to keep them securely, he shows us the innermost cell where they sit with their feet in shackles; that’s maximum security. That’s Give up all hope all ye who enter here. The slave owners can sleep without a worry now because the people proclaiming the foreign God’s way of salvation in the name of Jesus are locked up in the innermost cell.

Luke is painting a very large picture with very few strokes: The city is captive to the powers of greed, fear, ignorance, and violence. And the people proclaiming the reign of God in Jesus’ name are locked away in the deepest dungeon. What now?

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

Luke tells the church to have faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We will find ourselves at the point where the whole world appears firmly in the grip of powers we can only call demonic. We will find ourselves surrounded by walls too thick to break and too high to scale, and it will be midnight. And some of us will be praying and singing hymns to God, trusting that God will make a way where there is no way, trusting that the way of salvation doesn’t end in the pit. Luke is painting a very large picture for us, large enough to contain our hope and the hope of all captives.

Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.

There are mighty powers that hold human beings captive, but whatever they attempt to build on these foundations cannot stand. Whatever they do to keep human beings from living in the glorious freedom of the children of God cannot last. Any systems built on fear and oppression will collapse. In Luke’s picture, all the prison doors are flung open and everyone’s chains are broken.

I find it very interesting that at the beginning of this week when we are making final preparations for a Saturday conference to discuss the churches’ response to slavery and mass incarceration, we are reading and listening for God’s word in a text that addresses these issues in the larger context of our shared captivity under powers we somehow create together and yet we cannot control.

The picture Luke has painted for us directs our attention to the faithfulness of God and to two beautiful closing scenes. In the first, the doors have been flung open and the chains have dropped from the prisoners’ feet, but they are all still there. Paul and the others didn’t just take off and run. It is as though they are waiting for the jailer to wake up, as though they don’t want to be free without him; and when the jailer asks them what he must do to be saved they tell him to trust the God whose songs they sang at midnight. Believe in Jesus. Believe in the power of compassion and forgiveness. Believe in the reign of God.

In the final scene we see just how different life in the kingdom of God is compared to the empire of fear and oppression. We see the jailer washing the prisoners’ wounds and they in turn washing him with the baptism of Jesus. We see them all gathered at the table, sharing food and rejoicing in the power of God who makes all things new. We see a scene of life redeemed and renewed, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine a young woman walking into the room – she’s no longer anybody’s property, and behind her her former owners, finally free as well.

As followers of Jesus we are called to trust in God who raised him from the dead, and in that trust and in his name to address every circumstance that keeps the lives of God’s children from flourishing. We are called to speak the word of the Lord to them, to show them kindness and mercy, and we are called to do so knowing that every small act of liberation will awaken the powers hostile to God’s reign – but they will not stand. Even at the point where the whole world may seem firmly in the grip of demonic powers, the faithfulness of God will prevail. Even when we find ourselves surrounded by walls too thick to break and too high to scale, our prayers will remind us that we are God’s own and our songs will rise on wings of hope.

Several of us have been at Riverbend recently for visits with groups of prisoners, and some of us will be talking about our experiences on Saturday. We were surprised by what we learned – about them, about our courts and prisons, and, perhaps more than anything else, about ourselves. And “surprised” may not be quite the right word. “Surprised” is almost too superficial to describe an experience that broke our hearts open like an earthquake.

It is as though doors have been opened we didn’t even know were there. It is as though chains have been broken, chains that have kept us from being in community with the men on the other side of the gate, chains that have kept us from even considering being in community with them; and now we are beginning to witness how grace drives out the demons of ignorance and fear. This is the awesome faithfulness of God.

Monday
May062013

Abide with me

When our son Miles was a little boy – years ago when we lived in Virginia – Nancy went away for a long weekend to attend a continuing education workshop. On Thursday morning she walked out the door from the kitchen to the garage, and Miles waved her good-bye with a happy smile. He didn’t quite understand that she’d be gone a little longer than usual. When I took him to bed that night, he asked, “Where’s my mommy?”

“She’s in Maryland; she’s there to learn new things.”

“Maryland?”

“Yes, Maryland, it’s far away, but she’ll come back very soon.”

That was all he asked. In the kitchen the next morning, just when I was pouring some milk over his cereal, he looked at me and said, “Where’s mommy?”

“She’s in Maryland, only for a little while.”

After finishing his cereal, he went to the frontdoor and started calling “Mommy!” across the street. Our neighbor Mary lived in that house, so in his mind Maryland wasn’t really that far away. “That is Mary’s house,” I told him. “Maryland is far, far away, but mom will come back, not tonight, but just one more day.”

When I put him to bed that night, just before I left his room, I turned around and said, “Good night, Miles, I love you.” He pulled the blanket halfway over his face, giggled, and said, “Love you too, Power Ranger.” That was a great compliment in those days. Minutes later he was sound asleep.

My colleague Caroline wrote about developing a fear of the dark when she was eight or nine years old. I know that feeling, most of you probably do. I remember well how I often ran up the steps from the basement where my mom had sent me to get something for her – and I know that I didn’t run because of my youthful exuberance but solely because I couldn’t get away fast enough from that darkness at the bottom of the stairs. It was much more difficult for Caroline who had a very active imagination that kicked in at night time. She would lay in her bed and imagine all kinds of scary things that might happen after dark – from monsters in the closet and under the bed to hidden intruders behind the curtain and strange shadows cast on the bedroom ceiling and walls by strange creatures lurking outside her window. Caroline had a hard time going to sleep because the only way she knew how to guard against the scary unknown was to sit up all night and keep a lookout. Eventually, her mother would come sit with her until she could fall asleep. Over time, she became less afraid of going to sleep at night, but only if her mom was in the room with her.[1]

We all know those words we utter at the edge where day turns into night:

“Please leave the door open.”

“Can you and dad talk so I can hear you?”

“Don’t turn off the light in the hallway.”

“Just hold my hand.”

I read a poem with friends on Tuesday. It was written by Jane Kenyon who died of leukemia when she was only 47.

Let Evening Come[2]

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.

I read those lines, and I heard echoes of the gospel. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Let evening come. Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. Let evening come. I will not leave you comfortless, so let evening come. Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. The words continued to do their wondrous work, and every day since Tuesday, at one time or another, I found myself humming, Abide with Me.[3]

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

From our first breath we learn to let evening come, trusting the love that holds us and all things. On the border where life’s little day turns into night we learn to let go, trusting that we are being held.

Letting go doesn’t come easy, and we get to practice it all the time. Some of our youth are graduating this month from high school and preparing to enter college after the summer. There’s so much excitement about that transition, but you also know that it means saying good-bye to friends, to families, to a couple of teachers that have meant so much to you.

Some of our parents are saying goodbye to their eldest child, still remembering the day you dropped her off at Kindergarten like it was yesterday. Other parents are watching with a smile and a tear as the last one leaves the nest. Just yesterday, a dad walked his daughter down the aisle, and it’s been only days that another daughter followed her father’s casket down that same aisle.

Every day, it seems, we are saying goodbye – goodbye to childhood, goodbye to high school, goodbye to friends, goodbye to jobs, goodbye to dreams – goodbye, goodbye, and the little litany of farewell even sounds like the book we read to our littlest ones at bed time,

Goodnight room
Goodnight moon
Goodnight cow jumping over the moon
Goodnight light and the red balloon
Goodnight bears
Goodnight chairs
Goodnight kittens and Goodnight mittens
Goodnight little house

On the border where life’s little day turns into night we learn to simply let evening come, trusting the love that holds us and all things. We whisper and sing, Abide with me, because we are afraid of facing the unknown by ourselves; we don’t want to be left comfortless.

Jesus spoke very kindly with his friends on the eve of his betrayal and arrest. In John, it’s column after column of words printed in red, and all of them are about how Jesus’ presence with us will not end but change. He tells his friends that he’s not going away, but rather ahead of them.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

He tells us that he’s not abandoning us, but going ahead of us to make tomorrow a homecoming. He is going ahead of us, and we can continue to follow him by keeping his word and loving one another as he has loved us. He tells us how he will be present with us in a new way,

“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit will comfort and empower us, just as Jesus did, and abide with us forever. Now the unknown is no longer occupied by fear but has become the abode of promise, and our anxious hearts are filled with peace. Now we are prepared to hear another, rather astonishing word of Jesus.

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

It is not only Jesus who goes to prepare a place for us, we also are meant to go and prepare a place: keeping the word of Jesus and loving without fear we become a dwelling place for God in the world. It is not just us who have that deep and often painful desire to be fully at home, it is God’s desire too. And without the Holy Spirit’s work among us, teaching us and reminding us and comforting us and empowering us, without the Spirit’s work God would remain homeless in the world.

We whisper and sing “Abide with me” because we feel small and helpless, because our hearts are troubled, because we are afraid of facing the unknown by ourselves, because letting go doesn’t come easy at all. God also whispers and sings, “Abide with me,” but with different lyrics. God invites us to let the love of Christ be the true word that keeps us and all our goodbyes of a lifetime. God invites us to let the love of Christ be our morning praise and our evening rest. God invites us to make the love of Christ our home.

 


[1] Caroline M. Kelly, I Am Still With You, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2002, p.39-41

[2] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175711

[3] Henry Francis Lyte http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Abide_with_Me

Tuesday
Apr232013

Table of peace

What a week this has been. We need to give our souls a little time to catch up, don’t we? I thought I’d be preaching this morning on the curious story of Peter and Tabitha or reflect on the tension in Solomon’s portico between Jesus and the temple leadership, but not after a week like this. “What is the word, Lord, you want me to preach?” I asked, and the Lord said, “Breathe, just breathe.”

The cruel attacks in Boston, the terrible accident in West, TX, the grotesque theater of NRA funded politicians, the righteous fury of Gabrielle Giffords, the sigh of relief when the second suspect in the Boston bombings was caught – what a week this has been, and that’s only considering the national news.

On Wednesday, I wrote the prayer for our bulletin, and I found myself drawn to the Psalm for this Sunday, or rather drawn into its world of complete trust; I was grateful for the table of peace God has prepared for us, grateful for the house mercy has built for us to dwell in.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

The first book of religious instruction I ever read was given to me when I entered first grade. Our teacher told us we would use it in class for four years of Elementary School, but the first weeks of the first year were all about the pictures.

On the front cover is a man dressed in a white robe carrying a lamb; and gathered around him are more sheep than we could count at age 6. On the book’s back cover is another picture of that man. There’s a round corral in the background with sheep in it and more sheep still going into it, and in the foreground is the man in the white robe, holding a long staff in both of his hands, the pointed end raised against a snarling wolf.  To my six-year-old eyes, the wolf looked very dangerous, almost like a dragon, but I could tell that the man standing between the wolf and the sheep would do anything to keep the foe away from them. The title of the book is “The Good Shepherd.” When they gave it to us we couldn’t read or write yet, but we learned a song, and the words in English go something like this, “Because I am Jesus’ little lamb I always rejoice in my Good Shepherd who takes good care of me, who loves me, who knows me and calls me by name.”[1]

“Jesus’ little lamb” – to my grown-up ears that sounds just a touch too sweet and cute, but when I was 6, I had also seen the back cover of the book; I knew this shepherd was a determined fighter who would protect his own. In the first week of first grade, with a picture and a song, the church taught me the truth at the heart of our faith: I am known, I am loved, I belong to Jesus, and no wolf can snatch me.

In Israel’s imagination the shepherd is a rich and complex figure. Moses was keeping the flock when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush, and he received God’s call to go to Pharao and to lead God’s people out of Egypt.

Young David was keeping the sheep when Samuel came to anoint him.

The prophets accused corrupt leaders with powerful poetic words, drawn from the world of shepherding, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” The prophets knew that God would always hold Israel’s shepherds accountable for their lack of attention and action, because God was the Shepherd of Israel and God’s people the sheep of God’s pasture.

What is striking about Psalm 23 is that it is written entirely in the first person, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The poem speaks of trust in God in the most personal voice and tone. The Lord is my shepherd, therefore I shall not want, fear no evil, and dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

The poem offers words to all; to the leader who wants to depend completely on God’s guidance, as well as to the widow and the orphan on the margins of power who have learned that to trust in human leaders often means to build on sand. “The Lord is my shepherd” has a polemical thrust against rulers who fail to lead according to God’s purposes.

Nothing is asked of the Lord in this psalm, no requests are being made. It begins with statements about God and God’s actions, and it is never far from the intimacy of, “This is who you are to me, Lord, and who I am to you.” You are with me. You prepare a table before me. You anoint my head. I shall not want. I fear no evil. My cup overflows. I shall dwell in your house all my life. You are my shepherd – and nothing else matters. You know me, you love me, you call me by name, I am yours.

Learning to sing, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” I may not have learned everything there is to know about God, but I began to know who God is. I began to trust in God who is with me.

God said to Isaac, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

When Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharao, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.

When Moses passed the mantle of leadership to Joshua, he said to him, “Be strong and bold, for (...) it is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

And when Israel was in exile, the prophet Isaiah gave God’s word to an anxious people, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”

The promise has been given to every generation of God’s people, and in this psalm a response rises from the depth of human trust, “I fear no evil, for you are with me.” The words invite the king and the Senator to lead from that depth of trust; the words urge the widow whose cry for justice might go unheard at court to stand firm in that depth of trust; and the words teach every child of God to remember in every circumstance, You are with me, I am not alone. You are my shepherd. You stand between me and the wolf. You are stronger than the terror going after my soul. You restore my life. You lead me in paths of righteousness. In the darkest valley, you are with me. In the presence of my enemies you prepare a table.

For you and me the divine shepherd has the face of Jesus. “No one will snatch my sheep out of my hand,” he said, and he died like a lamb in the jaws of the wolf. God’s answer to our helplessness in the face of evil and sin is not a divine warrior with more or bigger guns, but the Lamb who knows the shepherd psalm by heart. He lays down his life for the sheep, and he conquers because he trusts in God. He conquers because he refuses to act out of fear or vengeance. He conquers because he refuses to let his actions be rooted in anything but the love that sent him, even when the path of righteousness leads through the darkest valley. The table is his.

Ever since I first heard and learned the words, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” I have wondered why – why a table in their presence? To defy their arrogance and violent threats? To give me a place not defined by their wickedness but by mercy? To remind me even when enemies surround me on every side, that the place where I belong is a place of grace and freedom? Or is it because in the end the table is also for them? Is it because in the end the gracious hospitality of the divine shepherd will disarm and befriend them? Because that table of mercy is the only place where all of us are at home?

I asked the Lord for a word and the Lord said, “Breathe, just breathe,” and invited me to take my seat at the table of peace.

 


[1] Weil ich Jesu Schäflein bin, freu’ ich mich nur immerhin
über meinen guten Hirten, der mich wohl weiß zu bewirten,
der mich liebet, der mich kennt und bei meinem Namen nennt.

Thursday
Apr182013

Stormy Questions

As the 2013 event in the Wayne H. Bell Lectureship on Ministry, Vine Street Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ Historical Society invite the public to a forum wrestling with the historical issue of the church and slavery, the modern parallel of mass incarceration, and ways in which the church can recover its prophetic voice by forming communities with those condemned by the criminal justice system.

Saturday, May 18
9 AM - 2 PM

Vine Street Christian Church
4101 Harding Pike
Nashville, TN 37205

FREE TO THE PUBLIC
Box lunch provided

To reserve your free space & box lunch, call or email
Vine Street Christian Church 615-269-5614

stormyquestions@vinestreet.org

150 years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation. By examining the church’s response - or lack thereof - to slavery, we can see more clearly the oppression resulting from a war on drugs that has spanned four decades and resulted in unprecedented numbers of people, mostly minorities, being incarcerated. Informed by the past, the church must discern how to respond in the present to systemic injustice.

As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, we have an analogous evil in our midst today, which is the mass incarceration that has resulted from four decades of a drug war that has almost exclusively targeted poor communities of color, and a punitive, adversarial criminal justice system that defines justice in terms of process, not outcome, and provides little opportunity for healing and reconciliation. If the church is to take seriously the gospel of following a condemned criminal who proclaimed freedom for prisoners, we must acknowledge that we are failing in the same way as our nineteenth century predecessors did.

Topics:

  • The Churches and Antebellum Slavery
  • The New Jim Crow: The War on Drugs, The Prison Industrial Complex/Mass Incarceration
  • Visits with people who have experienced and are experiencing injustice firsthand
  • The Response of the Churches Today – What Can We Do?

Panel discussions, workshops, and question and answer sessions featuring church historian and archivist Sara Harwell, former prosecutor Preston Shipp, former death row inmate Ndume Olatushani, minister Thomas Kleinert, prison chaplain Jeannie Alexander and community organizer Janet Wolf.

Moderated by Glenn Thomas Carson, President, Disciples of Christ Historical Society.

To reserve your free space & box lunch, call or email
Vine Street Christian Church
615-269-5614

stormyquestions@vinestreet.org

Tuesday
Apr162013

Disruptive Presence

Sometimes you wonder what it is we affirm when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Sometimes you wonder if you can be a Christian if you have trouble grasping the resurrection. If you have talked with me about it, I probably told you not to worry. Christians aren’t the people who have grasped the resurrection, but rather the community of those who have been grasped by it and are being drawn by Christ into fullness of life.

We like to think that we are the ones who find Jesus, but the Gospel tells us it’s the other way round. The Risen One finds us. The Risen One shows up, breaks in, intrudes, interrupts, no one knows when or where.

We just heard again about Paul’s famous encounter on the road (Acts 9:1-19). He was a man with a mission, a man of unshakable certainty and unquestionable authority, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, when suddenly he found himself thrown to the ground, surrounded by blinding light, and questioned. He was helpless and blind, had to be led by hand like a toddler into the city, and after three days – his eyes were opened and he realized he had a very different mission in the world.

The Risen One finds us, shows up unexpectedly, breaks into locked rooms, intrudes the party, disrupts the deadly routines, no one knows when or where or how. Peter was fishing with his friends when Jesus found him. How much more everyday could it possibly be for a bunch of fishermen? He found them at work.

What these stories tell us is that Jesus is neither safely buried in the grave nor safely gone to heaven never to be heard of again. They tell us that we live in a world perpetually disrupted by the presence of the risen Christ. They tell us that he used to be somewhere, somewhere in Nazareth or Capernaum, Bethany or Jerusalem, somewhere on the lake or on a mountain or in somebody’s house. You could have tracked him with GPS and traced his movements on a map. But now, the stories tell us, now his astounding intrusions can be and must be expected anywhere and anytime.

We know lots of stories, of course, and we love listening to, reading, or watching them. They all begin when something interrupts the ordinary flow of things. Say, a jogger finds a body floating in the river and a crime novel begins. Or a young man on his way to work decides to take the train going North instead of the one going South he’s taken every morning for the last three years, and we have the beginning of a romantic comedy. Then there are clues and unexpected twists and turns, a smart inspector, mistaken identities, conflict and confusion, until in the end the crime is solved and the young couple finally realize that they are meant for each other. All is well. Nothing else needs to happen. Roll the credits.

The question is, is the Gospel a story like that? The world’s in trouble. Jesus descends from the Father and reveals God’s glory in wondrous ways; there’s conflict and rejection, and Jesus dies. He goes back to where he came from, ascending to the Father. Mary has seen him, the disciples have seen him, even reluctant Thomas has finally confessed, “My Lord and my God!” Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Nothing else needs to happen. Roll the credits. No, no, no says John. Not so fast. You may be done watching, but this story doesn’t end until you’re in it.

The resurrection of Christ is not just something radically new God did with Jesus – and it is that, something as radically new as creation itself. But the resurrection is not a just a moment, say the instant when God overruled the verdict of death; the resurrection is this new reality of the continuing, disruptive presence of Christ. Yes, chapter 20 of John’s Gospel wraps things up nicely in a house in Jerusalem, but then chapter 21 opens with a view across the Sea of Tiberias: we’re in Galilee, where it all began. Peter is here and Thomas, the sons of Zebedee and two others of Jesus’ disciples, and Nathanael – Nathanael who hasn’t been mentioned again since Jesus promised him in chapter 1 that he would see greater things. And now he sees them, along with the other disciples, after a long night of hard work for nothing.

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” the stranger said before telling them to cast the net to the right side of the boat – and then they hauled it in, or rather tried to haul it in and stopped because they couldn’t manage the abundance of fish that filled their heavy nets. Wow! Enough fish to feed the whole town and then some! How many of the seven do you think were remembering that wedding day in Cana at the beginning of their journey with Jesus when the guests had finished the last drop of wine and then the surprise on the chief steward’s face when he tasted the good stuff and then the size of his eyes when he realized how much of it there was? Wow! Talk about joy in the presence of Jesus!

The beloved disciple was the first one in the boat to recognize what he saw. “It is the Lord!” he said and Peter responded with now familiar eagerness: he was caught between his desire to greet the Lord with proper respect, that is with his clothes on, and his unbridled excitement to do so immediately – and jumping into the lake while putting on his clothes he ended up providing plenty of comic relief!

Coming ashore they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread, it smelled delicious, and Jesus said – and they knew it was him – “Come and have breakfast.” Bread and fish in abundance – how many of them do you think were remembering that day by the lake when a boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fish fed a crowd of five thousand? Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.The world in which Jesus has been raised from the dead is a world where the feeding of the multitudes is not a one-time miracle but an economy of grace rooted in divine generosity.

When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” it brought back memories of another charcoal fire where Peter had come to warm himself and before the cock crowed, he denied Jesus three times. Three times the risen Christ asked Peter, “Do you love me?” – but not because accounts had to be settled properly. The Lord didn’t come to tie up loose ends. The risen Christ found Peter in the hour of need and lifted the heavy weight of guilt and shame. Three times he asked him, “Do you love me?” – not because only three heartfelt affirmations of love could make up for the three-fold denial, but because Jesus wanted Peter to continue to live in the generous and merciful love of God by feeding the sheep and lambs of the Good Shepherd.

The risen Christ finds us and feeds us and sends us to feed others in his name. The risen Christ sends us as he has been sent. He commands us to love one another as he loves us, and through him we participate in God’s mission.

On Monday morning some fifteen of us, mostly clergy met in a downtown office building. We filled small baskets with loaves of bread and fish, and carefully tied a name tag on each basket. Then we each carried a dozen or so baskets down to Legislative Plaza to give them to our legislators. We were concerned about a couple of bills in the House and Senate having to do with healthcare for the uninsured and financial assistance for needy families. And so we took a basket of loaves and fishes to every member of the House and Senate and to Governor Haslam, encouraging them to approach debates and decisions about the wellbeing of our communities with a spirit of gratitude for the abundant gifts of God. In halls and offices, stairwells and elevators we gave testimony to the economy of grace rooted in divine generosity. It was a beautiful Monday morning Easter sermon. We heard echoes of the Lord’s words, “Children, you have no fish, have you? Cast the net to the other side of the boat, and you will find some.”

This afternoon, many of us will participate in the Nashville CROP Walk, and it will be another beautiful Easter sermon: we live in the world in which Jesus has been raised from the dead, in an economy of grace rooted in generosity and mutual love, and so we do what we can to end hunger and poverty.

Sometimes you wonder what it is we affirm when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We affirm the faithfulness of God. We affirm that Christ is alive and present. We affirm the power of forgiveness. We affirm the wells of hope Christ has opened for us in the desert. We affirm that love drives out fear. We affirm that God loves the world and all who live in it. We affirm that the living Christ has found us again and again and continues to draw us into fullness of life in communion with him and each other. Thanks be to God.

Friday
Apr052013

What about Adam?

This reflection was first published in the April edition of our monthly print newsletter, The Vine. I post it here to make it easier to share.

On Sunday, December 16 last year, we lit a candle in worship. Two days earlier, a young man had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He was heavily armed with several guns and dozens of bullets. He killed twenty children and six teachers and staff. We know the story.

Two days later, we lit a candle in worship, in memory of one of the teachers, Victoria Soto, who was 27 when her life ended so violently. Since then, we have lit a candle every Sunday, lifting up one name each week, remembering one precious life at a time. Charlotte, Daniel, Rachel, Olivia, and Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Dawn, and Madeline, Catherine, Chase, and Jesse.

I’m writing on a sunny Thursday morning, knowing that this coming Sunday we will pray for the family and friends of James, and on Palm Sunday it will be Grace, and on Easter, Anne Marie. We speak their names in the name of Jesus, hoping and praying and affirming the resurrection: that violent death will not end the promise of life; that terror will not hold our hearts in its cold grip; that God knows and transforms our pain; that our anger and rage will become passion for healing; that the promise of life will be fulfilled in beloved community.

But what about Adam? You may pause here for a moment and consider that the young man who took so many lives on that Friday had been named with the first name given to humanity, Adam. And now I ask that you think and pray with me how we might speak Adam’s name in the name of Jesus. I have carried that thought and prayer with me for many weeks now. Just before Christmas, I made the list of names, and the last name I added was that of Adam’s mother, Nancy Lanza. And then I wrote myself a note on a short list that I look at and read through daily, “What about Adam?” At the time I knew nothing about him other than that he had shot and killed twenty-seven people, including his own mother, before taking his own life. I was hoping that with time I would get closer to an answer and be able to add this name to our prayer concerns.

Can we imagine a memorial where the twenty-eight names are connected by something other than the violence of that Friday? I pray we can and will, in the name of Jesus.