Monday
Jan072013

The Fourth Wise Man

On a Sunday, two weeks before Christmas, some 200 people gathered under the Jefferson Street Bridge for a memorial service. They gathered to read the names of 36 homeless men and women who had died that year, some of them right there under the bridge. Charlie Strobel was there, founder of Room in the Inn and tireless ambassador of love and justice for the poor. He said he hoped a public memorial would raise awareness about our city’s growing homeless population.

The Metro Homeless Commission keeps track of the numbers for us, and they tell us there are currently about 4,000 men, women, and children living in shelters and on Nashville streets.

“Public awareness is important to create public policy,” Charlie told the newspaper. “We need public policy that creates affordable housing and eliminates this awful condition of people living on the streets like the animals.”[1]

James Fulmer was found dead early Thursday morning under the covered entrance of a church in East Nashville. He was 50 years old. Temperatures that night had dipped into the mid 20’s, and police say he most likely died from hypothermia. The man who notified police of his death was also homeless and had just met him the night before. “He had no blanket, no nothing,” he said. “I went (…) to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket to cover him up with, cause that’s what the good Lord says to do, you know.”[2]

Some of us will be quick to jump into Let’s-Fix-This-Mode: “We must do something about this; a death like this is a scandal.” Yes it is, and yes we must, but before we let this sad death challenge us to reconsider our attitudes and actions, the beauty and love in this story is waiting to be recognized: Wilford went to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket for James, something to cover him up with. One homeless neighbor responded to another homeless neighbor’s need with compassion. It’s what the good Lord says to do. It’s how the kingdom of the good Lord is extended.

“I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum,” we like to sing with the little drummer boy. “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the king,” we sing with him; until we ask, “Shall I play for you?” We can all play the tune of love and compassion that extends the good Lord’s kingdom; and we want to play it with all our heart, and mind, and strength. Here at Vine Street, we will be hosting Room in the Inn again for a week in February, and I am grateful for each of you who participates in this ministry. I am grateful for every gesture and every public policy initiative that extends the good Lord’s kingdom.

Why do we talk about a kingdom and not just about better public policy? In the days of King Solomon, Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom. Solomon’s fame had spread far and wide, even to the coasts of Africa. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with caravans of camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. Traders and merchants, all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought their gifts to Solomon, the great king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.

Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about Solomon, the wise king. And Grandpa and Grandma loved telling them the old stories and making up new ones, painting a golden past of peace and prosperity. They told stories with extra color because for hundreds of years the kings of the nations had come to Jerusalem not to bring treasure, but to take it away.

And then came the day, when the king of Babylon and his armies destroyed the city, and took its people into exile. Nothing left to take away. After two generations, the first groups of Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, and things didn’t look good at all. The once proud nation was now but a tiny colony on the fringe of yet another empire, this time Persia, and many of its people still lived far away by the rivers of Babylon. Most buildings were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? And, more importantly, who would pay for it?

The initial excitement about the possibilities of a new beginning soon wore off, and the old folks were tired of telling stories. Then Isaiah’s words pierced the gloom:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord (Isaiah 60:1-6).

No stories of a golden past from this prophet! Isaiah sang of God’s glory transforming the world.

Now there are two quite distinct ways of hearing Isaiah’s lines. In one, the tables are finally starting to turn: Israel has been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now, now they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich – they would be greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Now their city would be the hub of the global economy; sky-high bank towers and business headquarters would line the streets of downtown, and the world would play by Jerusalem’s rules.

The other way to hear the prophet’s words follows the same script, but with a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Let your life reflect this glory; shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light; the whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.

It matters greatly how we envision a reign of peace and prosperity. Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these wise ones from the East, but they have always fascinated us, these travelers from far away lands, bearing exotic gifts. And because we know almost nothing about them, we let our imagination go to work.

Matthew gives us an almost blank canvas, and we gladly fill it with rich, colorful detail. First we look at the map, and we list all the lands in the East – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, and China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we look at the gifts they bring – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not exactly what you and I would bring to a baby shower, but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? In our imagination the wise men now certainly were kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because they came with three gifts, we determine that there must have been three of them. Now we’re singing We Three Kings From Orient are, but our hunger for detail isn’t satisfied yet. Did they walk all the way? Certainly not, and already we see caravans of camels, not just three or four, but the multitude of camels from Midian and Ephah of Isaiah’s proclamation (Isaiah 60:6).

With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them – Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to be part of God’s future. Matthew gives us but a hint, and we let our imagination run with it because we know in our hearts that this child of Bethlehem is the good Lord, born to bring us all together in a kingdom where no man, woman, or child is left outside.

We notice again that the glory of God has risen not upon Herod’s palace nor any of Jerusalem’s other grand buildings, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty little hill town. This contrast, this conflict runs through the whole story, all the way to this year and this city and our life in it. We must decide where we will go and pay homage. Do we want the peace and prosperity of Herod’s realm, of yet another empire that rises and falls, but has no place for James and Wilford and so many others? Or do we bring our hope and our gifts to Bethlehem, where another kingdom has been born?

The wise ones from the east didn’t hesitate; they went to Bethlehem, to the house where the glory of God had appeared in a vulnerable human being. Miroslav Wolf observed that, in contrast to our Christmas traditions, “the wise men did not huddle around a fire and give gifts to each other and delight in each other’s generosity.”[3] Instead, they opened the circle and gave their gifts to the child before whose glory they bent their knees.

That’s what Wilford did with his blanket on the tenth day of Christmas.

 


[1] http://www.tennessean.com/article/20121210/NEWS01/312100028/Nashville-Homeless-Memorial-remembers-those-who-died 

[2] http://www.newschannel5.com/story/20493497/homeless-man-found-dead-on-church-steps and http://www.wsmv.com/story/20493488/body-found-in-east-nashville

[3] Christian Century, December 27, 2003, p.31

Monday
Dec312012

The Baby was God

We have heard the story, and what a wondrous story it is of God and the baby. We have sung the carols, beautiful songs that warm the heart; and we have lit the candles. The sanctuary on Christmas Eve was illumined by a wide circle of little flames, lots of candles held high as a witness to the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not and will not overcome it.

On Christmas Day and on all the days we celebrate the birth of Jesus with family and friends, life is a big dining room table surrounded by people of all ages in a sea of torn wrapping paper—gifts everywhere, smiles and thank-you’s, and an abundance of good food and cheer. All because of that wondrous story of God and the baby. Now what?

“Well,” says the narrator in W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio;

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—

Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.” [1]

Do you recognize yourself in some of these words? I do. They are very grown-up words, with little room for wide-eyed wonder and hearts warmed by nostalgia. “Once again,” Auden’s narrator declares with a regretful tone, “once again, as in previous years, we have seen the actual Vision – and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility; once again we have sent Him away.” We know it’s not just a matter of taking down the tree and all the decorations too soon. We know that we sing about the twelve days of Christmas, and that we can’t imagine how to keep singing for more than one or two of the twelve days.

I think it’s a little early for Auden’s reflective solemnity, though, and you and I wouldn’t be here on the first Sunday after, if the light of that night had not started a little fire in our hearts. So here are, just for contrast, the words of a little girl, her name is Sharon, as told by John Shea:

She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, “They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee-hee), but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was?” Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars. “The baby was God.” And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.[2]

The good news of the incarnation is the kind of news that takes a lot to process. For five-year-old Sharon it takes some jumping and whirling around, and then some sofa-diving and catching her breath again under the cushion. The little girl knows with every fiber of her being what an awesome thing it is to say, “The baby was God.” Saying, “The baby was God” means that heaven and earth not only touch but come together. Saying, “The baby was God” changes everything we can say about God and ourselves and each other and the world. The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, and he changes everything. Jesus does not just speak God’s words and do God’s works; rather, he does those things because he is God’s word and work in the world.[3] The baby was God, and all the possibilities we see in the eyes of the infant and the little child’s eagerness to love and learn unfolded into the particular life of Jesus. We know he grew up, and that he looks us in the eye awaiting our response. Will we add our voices to the symphony of praise that erupts from all of creation as Psalm 148 invites us to do – or will we be silent? Will we live our lives within the wide bounds of God’s love and mercy as we see them revealed in the life of Jesus – or will we send him away, again?

There’s a picture of Nancy’s sister Lisa, taken the very moment she opened the impossible gift from her sister Janet, the firstborn of the three Pratt girls. The snapshot was taken at just the right moment, for Lisa looks like a Victorian lady who just laid eyes on something utterly unmentionable like a gentleman’s undergarments displayed on a washing line for all the world to see. I know you really want to know that Lisa got from Janet for Christmas, but I only brought up the picture because I’m in it, too. I’m sitting in the background, and you can see that I’m wearing my Christmas socks. For many years, I have successfully resisted the cultural pressure to wear a Christmas sweater or a red-nosed reindeer tie, but a few years ago I gave in and got a pair of Christmas socks. I wear them once, and then they go in the laundry basket and eventually back in the drawer until next year.

Why am I talking about Christmas socks? Because the wonderful passage from Colossians for the first Sunday after Christmas talks about new clothes for us. The baby was God. The Word became flesh. We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus. Now what? As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

The baby was God, and with Sharon’s Three Rich Men we come and offer our gifts only to realize, suddenly or gradually, that Christmas is a reverse baby shower: new clothes for us. But this is not like so many trips where you come back and say you’ve been to Bethlehem and you got the t-shirt.  God invites us to wrap ourselves in all that Christ embodies and to let ourselves be changed for good, outside in and inside out. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, and humility. Wrap yourselves in patience, forgiveness, and peace.

We can put away the socks and ties and sweaters until next year, together with the left-over wrapping paper and all the decorations. But you know how much this land and every land needs communities of compassion and people who make room in their hearts for the peace of Christ to rule. It begins with you and me and our willingness to wear these new clothes year-round. It begins with our willingness to let the word of Christ dwell within and among us.

The baby was God, and little Sharon gives voice to the exuberance that calls on heaven and earth, sun and moon and all living things to praise the One who without ceasing loves all things into being. The baby was God, and Auden’s narrator gives voice to our experience. Once again we have attempted—quite unsuccessfully—to love all of our relatives, and in general grossly overestimated our powers. Grossly overestimating our powers – that seems to be the story of our life. But even this very grown-up and somber voice of after-Christmas pensiveness talks about our child-like dependence on the One who comes to us in the baby.

Once again, as in previous years, (…) we have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, the promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

We know he didn’t come solely for us to have a merry Christmas Day or two, but rather to reclaim and redeem our every day. We send him away, because the love that found us demands so much of us, and we are slow to change. But begging to remain his disobedient servant we wrap ourselves in Christ’s compassion, and we are one day closer to wearing it year-round.

The fire God has kindled in our hearts burns bright enough for us to trust that even though we cannot keep His word for long, the baby of Bethlehem and the man of Galilee is the Word of God who keeps us for good.

 


[1] For the Time Being, in: W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage International, 1991) p. 399

[2] John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected (Allan, TX: Argus Communications, 1977) p. 68

[3] See Gail O’Day, NISB, p. 1905-6

Monday
Dec242012

One Candle

We light a candle.

During the final days of fall, as the nights get longer, we light candles. Our Jewish friends and neighbors light the menorah to celebrate Hanukkah, and we count the Sundays of Advent with candles on the wreath. We put lights on our trees, candles in our windows, and strings of lights around our doors.

Friday was the day of the winter solstice, the longest night, and bells were ringing in Newtown, Connecticut and across the nation. Not Christmas bells, but bells of mourning for little children and the women who died trying to protect them from harm.

A deep darkness has descended on us, and we light a candle. We may do it with tears rolling down our faces, but we light a candle. Lighting a candle has always been a gesture of welcome and celebration, and these days it is no small act of defiance: We won’t accept the unacceptable. Our hearts are broken, and we’re afraid to feel the pain that lingers there, but we light a candle to illumine the darkness.

It’s been a week and a day, and we have tried to keep our heads above water as waves of anger and rage, exasperation and despair washed over us. We’ve participated in conversations about guns and mental health, about a culture in the grip of violence. We’ve tried to somehow penetrate the unfathomable with what we know and believe.

Michael Gerson wrote,

We attempt to regain control of lurching events by explaining them. And we explain according to our pre-existing beliefs. The religious see a God-shaped hole in American society. Those concerned about mental health see a nation inattentive to the broken. Those committed to gun control see a Bushmaster .223. Those who despair of a violent culture see a “first-person shooter” emerged from a video game.[1]

We each see what we are able to see, and we quickly despair when we point out these things to others and they don’t see what we see. I listened to Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, and I thought that he might say something that would surprise me. I thought that this shooting might have touched him and the members of his organization as deeply as it had touched me, and that he would perhaps signal their willingness to talk about restrictions on high capacity magazines or more consistent background checks. He didn’t.

The president said,

Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, [the] fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

It is not just the laws that must be changed. We must change. We will have to have fierce conversations about access to lethal weapons, and mental health services, and our infatuation with violent imagery, and the break-down of community in this country, and the dysfunction of our political institutions – and for these conversations to be fruitful and transformative, we must change.

I listened to Kevin on the radio. Kevin grew up near Newtown. He is the father of a young daughter, and another baby is on the way. Kevin is also a Kindergarten teacher.

He called in to a radio show to say, “I am empty. I respect people’s opinions on gun ownership, but I don’t know what to think. It’s happened again.”

And what’s troubling Kevin the most is that his own children and the children at this school are growing up thinking this is how the world is.

We must change. In order to change the world so our children can thrive in it, we must change. We must attend to our emptiness so that grace can transform it into patient waiting and persistent action. We must attend to our rage so that grace can transform it into holy anger and courageous action. We must attend to our exasperation so that grace can change it into compassion.

I read Micah during these days after the Newtown shooting. I read the passage assigned for this Sunday, about little Bethlehem and the ruler who was to come forth from it.

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

There it was; the promise of security and peace, and it resonated in ways it hadn’t before. I read through the whole book several times, it’s only seven pages long. I read again the beautiful words,

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4:1-4).

No one shall make them afraid. The words resonated in ways they hadn’t before. And one verse seemed to jump off the page, like it was written for this very moment,

When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me (7:8).

Micah points to Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah, and we notice the recurring theme: when God is about to do something great, the human scales of status and power are irrelevant. God is very fond of accomplishing great wonders through people on the margins. For a light to the nations, God could have chosen Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon – there were plenty of super-powers around; but instead, God chose the Hebrews that nobody had ever heard about. And to lead them out of Egypt, God chose a stuttering murderer who was hiding out in Midian. When a king was called for, God chose a shepherd boy who wrote poetry.

As Christians, and particularly today, we see this divine inclination most clearly in Mary. God enters her experience with a promise that has little if anything to do with her own hopes, and she responds with the courageous yes of faith. The redemptive acts of God that bring the topsy-turvy reign of heaven to earth don’t call in the big guns, but rather empower ordinary people to participate in God’s saving purposes. But we seem stuck in imagining the world as a battlefield where the only thing that can stop the bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. We need to change. We must attend to our distorted imagination so that divine grace can re-shape it.

Wendy Farley writes,

When we expect the power of redemption to mimic the power we see around us every day in fathers, judges, rulers, warriors, or captains of industry, it is because we have not been able to digest the shocking images of power we celebrate every Christmas and Easter.

Christ has always been a terribly offensive icon of the Holy, not least because he is perhaps the poorest display of power one sees in any of the world’s religions. In him, we see immortal, invisible God birthed into this world through an impoverished and nearly outcast young woman. We watch Jesus wander around a little rag-tag occupied country for a while and then leave it by one of Rome’s most hideous methods of execution. Although we love these stories and tell them over and over again, they capture something about divine power that [many of us] often find indigestible. Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus. [2]

Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus, and so we are tempted to address our deep discomfort by fashioning the God of power and might in the image of the familiar imperial rulers; we call in the big guns.

We must change, and we must change in ways much more profound than what legislature can achieve. We are all bound, in ways we barely understand, to suffering and to destructive ways of life. But this bondage is relieved and ended by the long and slow work of redemption, the work of grace by which all of the layers of our hearts and minds and community are opened to the flow of divine love. We must attend to the many ways in which we each can illumine the darkness around us by lighting one candle, by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (which, of course, is another verse from Micah).

I saw a beautiful example of this on Tuesday or Wednesday. The New York Times posted a video showing Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who became famous for announcing a Qur’an burning.

Pastor Jones is in Times Square, giving a street-corner speech about Islam that is both uninformed and unloving. Many people just keep walking, some stay and listen. One young woman makes an attempt to challenge one of his statements by saying, with a smile on her face, “That is not true,” but he doesn’t hear her or isn’t interested in a conversation. Then the camera catches a young man staring at his cell phone, typing away, and suddenly he starts reciting the opening lines of a Beatles song. It’s almost like he’s reassuring himself that the world is better than this. And then he starts singing. He really can’t sing, but he sings. All you need is love. And then he shouts, “It’s a free country, folks, let me hear you sing!” and one after another, people on Times Square join in. All you need is love, they sing, and the smiles return into their faces.

How about that for lighting a candle? A love song drowning out a hate speech.

When deep darkness descends upon us, we light a candle.

 


[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-we-are-not-helpless-against-gun-violence/2012/12/17/68cd94a4-4882-11e2-ad54-580638ede391_story.html

[2] Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire. Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005) pp. 29 and 96

Thursday
Dec132012

You gotta prepare

When you look in your Bible for the chapter break dividing the Old and New Testament, you’ll probably find just one page between Matthew and Malachi. In the Christian Bible, the Old Testament ends with Malachi, the last of the prophets. And the book of Malachi ends with the promise, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” We know it matters who gets the last word (and not just between children and their parents). The Old Testament ends with the promise of the great prophet Elijah’s return to bring about reconciliation between generations, so that the great and terrible day of the Lord will be a day of blessing.

The Hebrew Bible our Jewish brothers and sisters read, the Tanakh, has the various books in a different order. First the torah, the five scrolls of Moses, then the prophets, followed by the writings. The Hebrew Bible ends with 2 Chronicles, where King Cyrus of Persia gets the last word, saying to God’s people in exile in Babylon, “The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all his people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up.”

One who reads the Hebrew Bible ends with a look back to the end of Israel’s exile and the return of God’s people to the land of God’s promise. One who reads the Old Testament turns the final page waiting for a messenger. I’m not pointing this out as a curious bit of Bible trivia. Jews and Christian have organized our sacred scriptures around our deepest hope, and ever since the order of the texts was finalized it has in turn shaped our deepest hope. We turn the final page waiting for a messenger, expecting a messenger.

Malachi (whose name means “my messenger”) announces the coming of ‘my messenger who will prepare the way before me’ and our ears are ringing because we have run into John the Baptizer in each of our four gospels where he is in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. We look at John and we recognize one whose coming had been announced.

In Malachi we read of the coming of a messenger who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap, a messenger who burns and scrubs to purify and refine – and who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? I don’t know a thing about refining silver, but I read in a commentary that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete when she can see her own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. We are made in the image of God, meant to reflect the face and the glory of God, and the refiner’s fire speaks to me of God’s commitment to remove anything that would keep us from shining.

Many generations after Malachi, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – something happened. We hear this roll call of all the big names of men of importance and considerable power, and we are prepared to hear something equally important and powerful. We are ready for the kind of report that interrupts the regular programming with breaking news. Something had happened, something big, we assume, something like “Kate and William are expecting,” which USA Today thought significant enough to send me a pop-up on my phone.

What had happened?

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Now you know very well that this kind of news won’t even make it to the ticker at the bottom of the screen. Something had happened, but the big news wouldn’t register on the scales of our news organizations. The word of God came – not to the emperor or one of the governors or rulers, not even to the high priests, not to any of the connected people who are used to journalists taking notes whenever they open their mouths, but to John son of Zechariah. The word of God came to a man on the periphery of the world as defined by rulers, power brokers, and news editors. The word of God came into the world in the wilderness, far away from the palaces and temples. World changing, life changing news, barely noticed.

It wasn’t a particularly promising time – it never is – but it became a time of promise because the word of God came to John as it once came to Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah.  The word of God came to John and he began to speak of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The word of God came and the wilderness became once again a place of hope and transformation.

When Israel was in captivity in Egypt, the word of God came to Moses, and the people, weighed down by the yoke of oppression and exhausted by years of toil, stood and raised their heads, because their redemption was drawing near. In the wilderness, the prophet declared, the Lord would make a way and lead them to freedom. And against Pharao’s stubborn resistance, the Hebrew slaves followed God’s call through the desert and the sea to the land of promise; in the great exodus they became God’s covenant people.

Generations later, Israel was again in captivity in Babylon, and the word of God came to Isaiah. The prophet declared that the Lord would end their exile, gather the displaced, and bring them home in a procession of great joy on a highway through the wilderness. “Make a road for the Lord, and make it straight. Fill in every gulley, every pot hole, and grade the land until it is level. Where it’s crooked, make it straight. Where it’s rough, make it smooth. This is the road to freedom, this is the way home.” And the people followed God’s call to the land where they would be free to serve God without fear.

Generations later, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the land of promise occupied by Rome’s legions, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. It wasn’t a call to get ready to leave or to take up arms against the foreign occupier – it was a call to repentance, and John sounded just like Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord. Another exodus was in the making, and those who heard the call, crossed through the water as their ancestors did when they first entered the land. It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those who passed through the water didn’t change where they lived, but the transition was no less dramatic, because they were committed to changing how they lived.  The world was still governed by powerful men, but the reign of God was drawing near and they began to live in that nearness.

John the messenger calls us to repent, and that is more than a call to look back and feel sorry for what we have done and left undone. It is a call to turn and look in the direction of God’s coming reign and to lean into its advent and begin to live there. Prepare the way of the Lord. It’s what John did and what he calls us to do with his message of repentance and forgiveness. Prepare the way of the Lord. God doesn’t need us to prepare a way for God to get through to us. Nor does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to others. We are the ones in need of preparing the way of the Lord. What I hear John saying to me is, “Brother, you gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re on the wrong road. If you’re not leaning into the coming reign of God, you’re leaning in the wrong direction.”

When God’s people are enslaved, they no longer reflect the fullness of God’s glory as men and women made in the image of God. The messenger calls them to prepare the way of the Lord and lean into their redemption.

When God’s children are being belittled and abused, they begin to embrace as truth the lies they’ve been told; they believe that they are not worthy of love, that they don’t deserve to be happy. The messenger calls them and us to prepare the way of the Lord and lean into God’s healing shalom.

When in our exile we forget that we are God’s own and that we are indeed all made in the image of God and all meant to reflect the glorious beauty of God, the messenger of the covenant comes with words like fire. “You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, or chances are you’re either working in old pharao’s brick yard or you’re thinking that exile is as close to home as you’ll ever get. You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re leaning in the wrong direction.”

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose name means the Lord saves. It doesn’t mean the Lord comes to visit us in our exile and make it a bit more bearable. He comes to take us with him on the way into God’s future. He comes to be for us the way into that future and to be with us on the way. He comes to end humanity’s exile and bring us home. He comes to walk with us from the long shadow of sin and fear to the fullness where nothing and no one falls outside life’s communion with God. Thanks be to God.

Monday
Dec032012

Advent tune

Advent is a word that triggers images of candles, carefully lit when the darkness outside sinks early.

Advent comes with the fragrance of cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg, orange, and pine.

Advent makes me want to stay home and bake.

Advent makes we want to put thick socks on my feet and honey and cream in my tea.

Advent comes in a minor key before the major notes of Christmas gladness proclaim the birth of Christ with unbridled joy. A few longing notes open the gates – O come, o come, Emmanuel – and again we enter this season that locates us, unlike any other, between sentimental nostalgia and clear-eyed hope.

Advent triggers childhood memories of counting the days until Christmas, days that seemed to take Oh, so many more hours to pass than usual. We didn’t know it then, but we know now that we were practicing the difficult discipline of living watchfully and expectantly, with hearts wide open to the future God has promised.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune – without the words, and never stops at all.”[1] Jeremiah and Isaiah sing, Moses and Hannah, Mary and Paul sing, and the words change, but the tune remains the same. During Advent, we live more deeply in the fabric of memory and hope, of promise and fulfillment, listening for the tune that never stops at all. During Advent, we go back in time – to cherished family traditions, to customs lovingly preserved year after year, to worn tree ornaments that each hold a story – we go back to the days when we first heard how God became little like us in order to save us.  We go back in time, way back to the days when the prophets first spoke of God’s judgment and mercy, and God’s people first affirmed that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 25:10). Advent doesn’t begin with an angel’s visit, or with Mary weaving a blanket for the baby and Joseph building a cradle – it begins with the promises of God and the courage of those who dare to live in the light of God’s promises. During Advent we go back in time to remember the tune of God’s future for us and for all.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 33:14-15).

Tom Wright wrote about waking up one early morning from a powerful dream. He had a flash of it as he woke up, enough to make him think how extraordinary and meaningful it was, but then it was gone. He couldn’t remember what it was about. He invites us to wonder with him if our dreams of justice and righteousness are like that. We have a flash of a world at one,  a world where things work out, not just for some, but for all, a world where all of us not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up in the world as it is, and we can’t get back into the dream.

Wright wonders where that kind of dream might come from. “What are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream?” he invites us to wonder with him. “It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all.”[2] For some, this echo of a voice is only a fantasy, a wishful projection that has nothing to do with the way things really are. They say that we need to learn to grab what we can, because the meek will inherit nothing. “Stop dreaming and toughen up,” they say, “the world’s not going to change.” Others say that the voice of justice and well-being comes from another world, a world into which we can escape in our dreams, and hope to escape one day for good. For them, this world is run by bullies and that’s that;  they urge us to seek consolation in the thought that there’s another world where things are better, but not to hope that this world will change.

There is a third possibility, and it is the one people of faith have embraced for generations. “The reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have.” The reason we have these dreams of justice and righteousness, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us; one who cares very much about this world and all who live in it; one who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, and wholeness, and life in fullness.[3]

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. Advent begins with the promises of God and the songs of past fulfillments that nourish our faith.

I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 33:14-15).

During Advent we go back in time, remembering the promises to Abraham, to Moses and the prophets, and how they have been fulfilled in ever new ways, generation after generation. We remember the birth of Jesus, the king born in a manger. Jesus the ruler who overrules our concepts of power with his grace and obedience. Jesus the teacher who continues to stretch our imagination. Jesus the judge who was executed like a criminal, but who sits in glory at the right hand of God. Jesus who will return to execute justice and righteousness on the earth.

“There will be signs,” he says. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:25-26).”

What is he telling us? Sun and moon and stars are symbols of cosmic order. They represent the reliable succession of day and night, of seed time and harvest, of tides and seasons. The orderliness of the lunar cycle and the earth year represent the orderliness of the universe, of ecosystems and human society. In the days of Jesus and Luke, signs in the heavens weren’t just interesting astronomical phenomena, but indicators that things on earth were out of order. Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars reflected a disintegration of social and natural order into chaos – something like creation backwards.

We may find the “sun and moon and stars” language foreign, but we are familiar with “fear and foreboding.” We don’t look to the sky for signs, but it doesn’t take much of a search on the web to read alarming reports about ecosystems stressed to the point of collapse or disintegrating social structures. The Mississippi is running out of water due to the massive drought, news of Frankenstorm Sandy is still fresh on our minds, and talk about the fiscal cliff makes us wonder if we’re all sitting in the back of the bus listening to the passengers in front of the bus discussing if the driver should use the steering wheel or the brakes to avoid going over the edge.

Why do we hear words about fear and foreboding in Advent, when all we want to do is cling to a sense of normalcy by going shopping and humming about city side walks, busy side walks, dressed in holiday style? We hear them because sentimentality and denial love each other’s company, but the good news of Jesus Christ won’t allow us to romanticize Christmas completely. We know that the babe in the manger grew up to inaugurate God’s reign of justice and righteousness on earth. Jesus isn’t talking about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars to scare us, but to assure us that even when the powers of the heavens are shaken, we are to stand up and raise our heads – because what is drawing near is redemption. He urges us to stay alert and faithful in prayer, to be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with worries but lifted up with courage. When all around us people are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, we are to stand with hope. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:27-28). How can we stand? Not because present economic, cultural, or political trends may or may not give us reason for optimism, but because God is faithful. We stand up and raise our heads, because God is true to God’s promises.

Generation after generation, men and women have added their voices to the choir of witnesses singing of God’s faithfulness. We stand up and raise our heads and light one candle, do one small thing, because we await life’s fulfillment after the pattern of the life of Jesus, because we trust that the way of Christ is the way that all things shall go. In Christ, all things are held together; in him, all things shall be made new.

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. During these days of Advent, we live more deeply in the fabric of promise and fulfillment, listening for the tune that never stops at all, because it is God’s own song.

 


[1] And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 3

[3] Wright, p. 9-10

Wednesday
Nov282012

Empire and kingdom

Pontius Pilate likely considered himself the most powerful, most in-control person in Jerusalem. He was the local representative of Rome, the greatest power in the mediterranean world. In 26 AD, emperor Tiberius had appointed him governor over Judea, a remote but strategically important  corner of the empire, and he ruled the province with an iron fist. He was known to be a ruthless overlord; a contemporary of his described him as “rigid and stubbornly harsh, wrathful and of spiteful disposition,” and that his rule was marked by corruption and “the ceaseless and most grievous brutality.”[1] Whoever raised their head too high or their voice too much, risked being disposed of as a threat to Rome’s dominance.

Pilate had heard things, rumors mostly about a Galilean the crowd had greeted at the city gate as king of Israel.[2] “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked Jesus when the temple authorities brought him to his headquarters. Pilate looked at the handcuffed man in front of him the way he looked at the whole world: through the eyes of those who had the power to advance his career or terminate it. He played the empire’s game, and he knew that if he didn’t handle matters in Jerusalem to Rome’s liking, his next appointment would not be a move up.

I wonder if he lay awake sometimes at night when troubling thoughts arose in the quiet and the dark. Did he wonder sometimes if he really was in control of his life and career, or if he was just another chess piece in a game that wasn’t his? Was taking care of Rome’s dirty business what he was meant to do? Was he who he was meant to be or was he living somebody else’s life?

Parker Palmer is one of the great teachers of our time. He paid close attention during moments when it was clear to him that the life he was living was not the same as the life that wanted to live in him. And he wrote about it.

I was in my early thirties when I began, literally, to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that – but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach – I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling. Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.”[3]

He was encouraged by those words and thought he knew what they meant: he lined up the loftiest ideals he could find and set out to achieve them. He wanted his life to speak only of the highest truths and values. It took him a while to realize that the words meant something quite different,

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[4]

Let your life speak and listen.

When Pontius Pilate met Jesus, their lives embodied two very different realities: the empire and the kingdom. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked Jesus rather routinely, to see if the Galilean had any revolutionary ambitions. And Jesus responded with a question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Whose question are you asking? Is it your own or is it just another one from the manual of power politics or counter insurgency? What is it you want to know?  Are you open to hear the truth that doesn’t fit your political calculations? Can you imagine a king who has no ambition to sit on the Emperor’s throne?

The issue of Jesus’ kingship had been raised before. He had fed thousands by the lake, and when he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he went away.[5] The empire, of course, knows how to manipulate the masses with bread and circuses, but the kingdom is a very different story.

This king doesn’t command an army of followers who fight to keep him in power. This king doesn’t live in a palace behind high walls and guarded gates. This king bows to wash the feet of his friends. This king tells his companion who still carries a sword to put it back into its sheath. This king insists that should any blood be shed, it would be his own.

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus told Pilate – but it is for this world and in this world and for the life of the world, and it is for you. “So you are a king?” Pilate asked. This is where I imagine a mass choir of all the followers of Jesus shouting, “Yes he is! Hallelujah! King of kings and Lord of lords!” Only Pilate doesn’t hear a thing.

Delores Williams remembers Sunday mornings from her childhood when the minister shouted out, “Who is Jesus?” And the choir responded in voices loud and strong, “King of kings and Lord Almighty!” And then little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear her, would sing her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang. “King of kings” the choir thundered, and Miss Huff sang softly, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” “King of kings” cannot be the answer without seeing “poor little Mary’s boy.”[6]

Jesus turned that word “king” on its head, and Pilate didn’t see or hear a thing because his imagination had been entirely shaped by the empire. He simply couldn’t imagine a king who had no imperial aspirations and who refused to rule with coercion. Many of Jesus’ own followers over the centuries have had trouble with this, and they did choose conquest and control to spread what they perceived to be his kingdom, and it never occurred to them that they lived as disciples of Pilate rather than Jesus.  But by the grace of God there were also those who knew and trusted the power of the kingdom, and who honored the king by serving with honesty, compassion and humility. They were free citizens of a kingdom not from this world, but for this world and very much in this world, like yeast in a batch of dough.

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

In the encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, one embodies the logic of the empire which is control and the other embodies the kingdom of God. Jesus knows what his life intends to do with him, because he is fully in tune with the giver of life.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And the truth is God’s love for the world, this world, mired in power struggles and deadly competition as it is – the truth is God’s love for us and for all. The truth about God is God’s love for the world, and the truth about the world is God’s love for it. The testimony of Jesus reveals love as the power at the heart of the universe, love that calls and waits, love that serves and does not overwhelm.

In Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, Melchior, one of the three kings says, “The child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom. His pierced hand will hold no scepter. His haloed head will wear no crown. His might will not be built on your toil. Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us. He will bring us new life and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.”

It is a powerful thing to be able to say, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” As followers of Jesus we never stop to listen for our life to tell us what it intends to do with us. We never stop to listen for the voice of God amid the many voices that vie for our attention.  And we give thanks to God for Jesus and his kingdom; he frees us from the love of power and calls us to live in the power of love.

 


[1] Philo of Alexandria

[2] John 12:13

[3] Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 53-59). Kindle Edition.

[4] Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 66-67). Kindle Edition.

[5] John 6:1-15

[6] See Barbara Lundblad http://odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-john-18-33-37

Monday
Nov192012

God's own labor

Eli was an old priest back in the days when there were no kings in Israel. Eli was old and very heavy, so he spent most days sitting on a chair beside the doorpost of the sanctuary at Shiloh. His sons performed most of the priestly duties, they were the new generation in charge. But they were scoundrels. Not only did they steal the offering from the altar, they also slept with the female staff. Everybody assumed that they represented the future of Israel’s leadership. People talked; they complained; they were worried about institutional decline. But as far as people could see, things didn’t change at the sanctuary in Shiloh.

Hardly anyone noticed that Hannah who had been childless for years, was pregnant. Every day there was more news about the appalling actions of the sons of Eli, but change was in the cradle. Hannah had given birth to a boy, and she called him Samuel. And while the sons of Eli were rushing down the road of corruption to their fall, the son of Hannah grew in faithfulness. Hannah was singing for joy about the Lord God who brings low and exalts, who breaks the bow of the mighty and raises up the poor from the dust – Hannah was singing, and the house of Eli was promised a future of weeping. Big change was gonna come, and in the drama of the great reversal, old man Eli embodied a dying past, and Hannah the birth of new possibility.

Hannah was not the paradigm of youthful,  generative potential. She was childless, had been childless for years, which in the biblical imagination points to the larger context of human creativity having reached a dead end. The new beginning that was needed for God’s people to thrive and life once again to flourish, the new beginning would be God’s doing, a gift of divine creativity and faithfulness. Big change was gonna come, and it began with Hannah and Samuel who were God’s willing collaborators.

Our gospel reading today also is about big change, and it begins with the big eyes of one of the disciples. “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The temple Herod had built covered an area of over 900 by 1,500 feet, and the front of the temple itself stood 150 feet tall and 150 feet wide. It was made of white stone, much of it covered with silver and gold, glistening in the sun – it had to be by far the most impressive building any of them had seen.

Jesus was not impressed. “You’re talking about all this? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Huge blocks of rock, walls that appear immovable, magnificent buildings – all of it will be thrown down.

Later when they sat on the hill opposite the temple mount, some of the disciples had a follow up question.  They didn’t ask, “Why?” or “How?” as though they knew the answer to those questions already. They were only wondering, “When?”

The disciples weren’t strangers to apocalyptic thought and language. Talk about destruction on a massive scale was not surprising to Jesus’ audience or to Mark’s first readers. It was a style of thinking that had given up on the possibility of meaningful reforms in public life in all its political and religious aspects. It was a style of thinking that developed among people with little power who wanted to hold on to the promises of God during generations of life under foreign occupation and with disappointed hope. According to that perspective on life, history, and God, things weren’t going well because a cosmic crisis was underway, and this crisis was meant to build up in a series of catastrophic events culminating in the end of the present age and the beginning of God’s reign. In the apocalyptic imagination, the announcement that “not one stone will be left here upon another” was a given – the burning question was, when would the present age crumble under the weight of evil and the righteous anger of God to give way to the kingdom of heaven?

“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Jesus responded, but he didn’t give them a date, a timeline or a list of signs, but a warning: “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he said to them, knowing that many would come in his name and speak without knowledge. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them, reciting the familiar list of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, nations rising and falling that many interpreted as signs of the impending end and continue to interpret that way to this day.

Hamas shooting rockets into Israel and Israel responding with airstrikes, while the fighting in Syria continues and political solutions appear to grow more difficult and less likely – you know that there are plenty of people now with their noses in the Good Book drawing lines from the evening news to verses in Revelation and Daniel, soon to announce what will happen next according to God’s master plan.

Lamar Williamson calls them “date fixers” who “besides pretending to know more than the Son does, (…) often have little sense of responsibility for the world, whose destruction they await with fascinated detachment. In contrast to these, (…) Jesus speaks of responsibilities imposed by the master who left us in charge here” (Williamson, Mark, p.241)

When the disciples ask, “When?” Jesus responds, “Beware” and “Do not be alarmed.” He tells them to be cautious and courageous. He tells them that about that day or hour no one knows, only God. He tells them and us to continue to follow him on the path of faithfulness to God.

Yes, we will hear of wars and rumors of wars – and we will learn to respond to them in the Spirit of Jesus with the message and work of reconciliation. We will hear of great suffering, and we will learn to respond in the Spirit of Jesus with acts of compassion and justice. We will hear of the crumbling of institutions and ideas whose splendor and grandeur we admired only yesterday, and by the grace of God we will learn to respond in the Spirit of Jesus.

God’s future is not tied to the success or failure of religious institutions. The One whose name is above every name, and whose absence we now experience in all the broken places, will make his presence known in those very places with great power and glory. “When?” is the wrong question because it distances us from the presence of God in the world. “When?” is the wrong question because it keeps us from asking, “What is God doing now?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples suggests that God is in labor. He speaks of birth pangs. He suggests that much of the pain we experience because we love this broken world and long to see it made whole, is labor. Birth pangs, he says.  The fullness of life is not a distant reality but very near and already here, so now the question is not, “When?” but “Where am I?” Am I present to what God is doing now? Am I worried sick about the sons of Eli going about their corrupt business at Shiloh or am I playing with young Samuel, Hannah’s son? Am I losing sleep over the crumbling of institutions and ideas whose splendor I have come to admire and love over the years, or am I looking for the new life that is emerging in all this pain?

It is much easier to build new temples after the old ones have fallen, than to trust the labor of God and to entrust ourselves to it. But Jesus calls us to leave the fallen walls behind and to be on the road with him. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he says, and we keep following, one step at a time. We may feel homeless for a while because what we thought was the very dwelling place of God turned out to be a heap of stones and rubble. We may have a hard time remembering his words about the foxes having holes and the birds having nests but the Son of Man having nowhere to lay his head, but we will let them call us back. In his company we will discover that our pain is God’s own labor and that new life awaits us. In his company we worship the God who breaks the bow of the mighty and lifts up the lowly, who loves the world and raises the dead. In his company we find the courage to keep going, to keep hoping, pushing.

Having said all that, I’d like to close on a lighter note, a much lighter note as a matter of fact. You couldn’t fail to notice that people have been buying Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Ho’s like it’s the end of the world.

Well, it’s not. Do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is still to come.

Wednesday
Nov142012

Grace flows

If all earth’s water fit in a gallon jug, available fresh water would equal just over a tablespoon—less than half of one percent of the total. About 97 percent of our planet’s water is seawater; another 2 percent is locked in icecaps and glaciers. Yet there’s as much water on earth today as there was thousands and thousands of years ago. Like blood pulsing through our bodies, water has cycled from the clouds to the land, from the land to the rivers and oceans, and back from the land and the oceans to the sky, nurturing all of life on its journey. Not a moment goes by when it doesn’t rain or snow somewhere on earth. Think about that for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.

In the contiguous United States, an average of 4,200 billion gallons of water falls each day. Each day. 4,200 billion gallons of rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Two-thirds is absorbed by plants or evaporates back into the atmosphere; most of the rest runs to the sea, through streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. And everywhere it flows, along every inch of its endless journey, living things drink and grow and swim, and not a single drop is ever wasted. Think about that for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.

Scott Potter astonished us on Wednesday when he told us that just about every home and business in Nashville is connected with the Cumberland river by about 3,000 miles of water main. The largest pipe is five feet in diameter – wide enough for a child to walk through; the smallest pipes branch off to every neighbor on every street like twigs on a tree. Water makes us one, because none of us can live outside its flow. No wonder we speak of thirst when we try to put into words our longing for God.

Like a deer craves streams of water,
so my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God,
for the living God (Psalm 42:1-2).

There is just as much water on earth today as there was thousands and thousands of years ago, but there are many more people – and not all of them live close to potable water. In many parts of the world, in both rural and urban areas, collecting water is a woman’s task. And it is a chore that often occupies several hours of the day. Women and girls may have to leave their homes at dawn to travel miles to the nearest well, and some will not return before nightfall laden with containers of water. A woman might have to spend an entire night waiting in line at a distant water pump for her turn to fill her bucket. Many school-age girls spend more time each day carrying water for their families than they do in school – if they get to go to school at all.

And much of the water fetched with such enormous effort is not always safe for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Water-related diseases kill more than five million people each year—that’s ten times the number of people killed in armed conflicts.[1] Think about that for just a second or two; you won’t feel like singing.

The widow in Zarephath didn’t feel like singing either. There had been a long drought in the land, and life had literally dried up slowly. Now she was gathering sticks to build one last fire to bake one last little cake for herself and her son, from a mere handful of meal and a little oil. Week by week, she had watched her meager supplies of flour and oil from last year’s harvest dwindle. Day by day, she had watched her child slowly grow thinner and more listless. Life had dried up and now death was waiting at her door.

The widow, the orphan, and the stranger appear together many times in Scripture, representing the most vulnerable of the community. In this story, the stranger meets the widow and the orphan, and amid drought and looming death, life erupts. Life erupts because they trust the word of God the life-giver that the stranger brought with him. Life erupts because they hold on to generous hospitality and idol-defying faith in the parched landscape of scarcity. Life erupts, and it all begins with the stranger’s request, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” Life erupts when a little water flows again. Think about that poor widow handing the stranger a cup of water, think about the simplicity and the beauty of that gesture for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.

There’s a lovely story that’s just waiting to be recalled. Abraham and Sarah had a baby boy when they were both old and well advanced in years. Isaac grew up, and his father sent a servant back to the old country to find a wife for him. At the end of his journey east to the city of Nahor, the servant arrived at a well, and he prayed, “Lord, please grant me success today and be loyal to my master Abraham. I will stand here by the spring while the daughters of the city come out to draw water. When I say to a young woman, ‘Hand me your water jar so I can drink,’ and she says to me, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels water too,’ may she be the one you have selected for your servant Isaac.” And then Rebekah came, beautiful Rebekah, carrying a water jar on her shoulder. She went down to the water, filled her jar, and when she came back up, the servant ran to meet her and said, “Give me a little sip of water from your jar.”

What do you think she did? Not only did she give him a drink, she emptied her jar into the trough for his camels, then ran to the well again to draw water, and drew water for all ten of his camels. The rest, the say, is history. Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. But that’s not all.

There’s another story that wants to be heard. Years later, Rebekah’s son Jacob was in the land of the people of the east, and he saw a well in the field and three flocks of sheep nearby. It was the middle of the day. He asked the shepherds if they knew his uncle Laban, and how he was. And they said, “We know him. He’s fine. In fact, this is his daughter Rachel, coming with the flock.”

Now what do you think Jacob did? He rolled the stone from the well opening and watered the entire flock Rachel had brought. And the rest, they say, is history. It was love at first sight; there was a bit of a delay, but eventually Jacob and Rachel were married, and they became the parents of many tribes. Love and life erupted, with blessing rolling down like a never-ending stream, generation to generation.

Now John tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria, and you know that Jews and Samarians didn’t get along and tried to avoid each other. So Jesus had to go through Samaria, and he came to a Samaritan city named Sychar, and almost in passing John mentions that Jacob’s well was there. And John writes, “And Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. I was about noon.” John shows us Jesus sitting by Jacob’s well in the middle of the day – talk about building expectation!

A Samaritan woman comes to draw water, and Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink.” It sounds like a simple request for water, but she knows it’s not that simple because he’s a Jew and she’s a Samaritan, and we know it’s not that simple because we know who it is that is asking her for a drink. We know that life is about to erupt, that blessing will flow like water, and divine love heal the wounds of our fragmented world. Jesus knows that she’s thirsty, that her whole being thirsts for the living God.

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Not a moment goes by when it doesn’t rain or snow somewhere on earth. Water flows, and everywhere it goes, living things flourish, and not a single drop is ever wasted. Water makes us one, because no one can live outside its flow. Jesus invites us to come to him and drink, never again to live outside the flow of all he pours out for us:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-39).

Rivers he promises! We drink and receive all that he gives, and we become conduits branching off to every neighbor on every street like twigs on a tree, conduits for the rivers of living water that bring life to dry places. Life erupts, and again and again it begins with a neighbor’s simple request, “Bring me a little water, will you?”

A girl cannot go to school because she spends hours every day fetching water for her family; you know she is thirsty. A woman gets up before dawn for the long daily trip to the river; you know she is thirsty. A man doesn’t know how to keep his children from drinking the foul water in the irrigation ditch because it’s the only water there is, and he knows it will make them sick; you know he is thirsty.

In each of them, we encounter Jesus; and when we reach for the cup to share it, it is not at all clear who is the one giving and who the one receiving, because the river runs through us.

 


[1] Estimates vary from year to year, and depending on which diseases are included. I used an estimate from a CWS flyer. For a recent estimate that adds up to four million see http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2010/0322/World-Water-Day-Dirty-water-kills-more-people-than-violence-says-UN

Wednesday
Nov142012

Wet and thirsty

Weeks ago, when Sandy was just a boy’s or a girl’s name, we made plans. A few of us got together and we put dozens of ideas on large sheets of newsprint. Everything about water. We talked about art projects, how to put a fountain in the sanctuary, about field trips and river clean-ups, about music and movies, about the countless ways we encounter water daily and about water in scripture, about thirst and floods and baptism, and how good it tastes - a cup of cold, fresh water. And then we went to work and made plans for water:360, plans that would allow us to tap into the topic and the reality of water in as many ways as we could imagine – geographical, biological, political, physical, spiritual, musical and wet. And we made worship plans – one Sunday around baptism, and another around the simple hospitality of offering a thirsty stranger a cup of water, and two more Sundays around the deadly threats of too much and too little water, around flood and desert, around drowning and thirsting. With the joy of explorers who stumble upon one beautiful find after another, we discovered psalms and scriptures for each of the Sundays.

Weeks ago, we thought that today we would reflect on thirst, on parched throats and dry deserts.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

That was weeks ago, long before Sandy became a byword for destruction; long before the wind and the tide pushed a wall of water against the coast in New Jersey and New York; long before the largest storm on record covered nearly a third of the United States; long before more than 80 people drowned in this country alone and countless others lost their homes and businesses to flood, wind, and fire, and the power went out for millions.

We made plans, and then life happened. You know how it goes. And all that, of course, a week before an election that will only confirm how divided we are in this country and how we have lost our center in every sense of the word. I feel like I just need to sit for a moment and breathe, do you know what I mean? To hit the pause button and just sit for a few minutes and hum, “Be still my soul, for God is on your side…” and remember who I am and where I belong.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

The desert wastes are not just dry landscapes out there where the dust longs for days of gentle rain and the return of flowers, grass, and trees. The desert wastes are inner landscapes; parched souls and languished spirits also long for refreshing and renewing showers of mercy.

It is a rather bitter irony that flooding – very much a problem of too much water in one place all at once – results in a shortage of water. We know this; it’s only been two years since we lived through a flood and one of our two water treatment plants went underwater. The lovely, old Omohundro plant had to produce at full capacity for weeks without interruption, leading the City Paper to call it “savior to a city at the same time wet and thirsty.”[1] Wet and thirsty. Water, water everywhere, but not enough for thoughtless consumption; in the aftermath of the flood we learned to focus on essentials.

Chris Bonanos lives in Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood, and on Tuesday morning he wrote about the odd reality of a flooded city running out of water,

It’s not the elevators or the climate control that makes a tall building unlivable in a blackout. Any building taller than six stories requires one thing to support ordinary life, and that’s a big pump. Water has to get up to the rooftop tank to be gravity-fed to the apartments below. Once the pump dies, the tank begins to empty, and you and your neighbors can share only its finite supply. (In my building, we had one overnight’s worth — about twelve hours. Newer buildings have backup generators for the pump, but ours did not.) After the tank has drained, the taps go dry, and toilets will flush only if one pours a bucket of water into them. When the buckets run out, an apartment gets pretty ripe pretty fast. The situation activates a set of moral questions: Should you be selfish, and bathe as soon as the power fails? Or selfless, and rigorously conserve? Fill buckets, a bathtub, a Brita pitcher? How obligated are you to live amid your own filth? If we all use too much, we invoke the tragedy of the commons, or at least the irritant of the commons. I tried to be a good citizen when I awoke on Tuesday morning, limiting myself to a 90-second shower, surrounded by pails and pots to catch the wastewater. That gave us three toilet flushes’ worth, enough to carry us through a day. Did we consume less than our share? More? We may have been bad neighbors, or good. We’ll never know.[2]

Chris and his family may never know if they consumed more or less than their share, but I believe they were good neighbors, because they didn’t just take as much as they could without a thought about their neighbors’ needs. The blackout only brought to the fore questions we all must answer in a world that’s getting smaller, hotter, and more crowded every day: how do we share life with each other and with future generations on this planet? Will we make sure all people have access to clean, potable water or will we watch water flow up the hill to go to the highest bidder?

Disasters like Sandy or like the 2010 flood here in Nashville are terrible tragedies, but they also have the potential to make us wiser. For a moment, the mayor, the governor, and the president ignored the fact that the campaign never ends and they have worked together to help our cities up after they’d been knocked down. For a moment, we are realizing how strong we are together and what we could accomplish if we just stopped soundbiting and started listening to each other. For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way.

When hurricane Isabel hit the East coast in 2003, our family lived maybe ten feet above sea level in a small community next to the Chesapeake Bay. The wind had done a lot of damage, the power was out, and the storm surge was about nine feet. For a few long hours, our house sat on a tiny island. Ten days later, when we gathered in the sanctuary for worship again for the first time after the storm, I talked about the glimpse of possibility we had been given.

“Nothing builds community like a disaster, it seems,” I said. Many of us decry the fact that people don’t sit on their front porches anymore, but that hasn’t kept us from staying in the house ourselves most of the time. Many of us complain that we don’t know our neighbors anymore, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we make an effort to introduce ourselves to people who have moved into our neighborhood. All it took was a good-size storm, and things changed. For several days, the neighborhood kitchen and dining room was Billy and Penny’s driveway, and every morning we could hear Billy calling, “coffee’s ready!” It’s amazing what you can do with a gas grill! All across the Peninsula, strangers with chain saws knocked on doors to offer their help, and it turned out they lived only three houses down the street. People emptied their thawing freezers and there were block parties everywhere. It was a feast of rich food, a feast of neighbors sharing casseroles, lasagnes, chicken and burgers, generators, washing machines and cell phones. Neighbors opened their homes to neighbors to let them live with them, or to let them enjoy a hot meal and take a long hot shower.

“The power is still out in some areas,” I said, “but we have discovered the power of sharing, the power that builds and strengthens community.” Of course there were also those who burglarized the 7/11 on the corner as soon as the lights went out. “What we learned, though,” I said, “and what I hope we will remember in the days ahead when we will withdraw again to our TV’s and our computers, when we will take it for granted again that the water in the shower is hot and the beer in the refrigerator cold—what I hope we will remember is that living together is a beautiful thing, that solidarity between people is stronger than a hurricane.

For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way. It’s like gentle rain falling on parched land.

When disaster strikes, or when we’re drained by the relentless shallowness of so much that passes for public discourse these days, it is easy for despair to creep in, and to be weighed down by the “shroud that is cast over” us. But Isaiah sings of a banquet for all peoples, prepared by God. Isaiah sings of a banquet where God destroys the shroud – the fear, the worries, the little deaths that get in the way of the abundant life God wills. Isaiah sings of a banquet and John of a city where death is no more. This is where we come from as followers of the risen Christ, and this is where we’re headed.

In the midst of the desert wastes where we find no way to a city where we might dwell, God puts our feet on a path of hope, the way of Christ. Our prophets declare that all of creation is headed toward unending communion with God, and we take it to heart. We point our feet toward the city where Christ rules and God is at home among us.

And the vision of God’s city shapes our hope and our work. Trusting the promise of God, we each add our little strength to each other’s little strength. Even the smallest gesture of kindness matters in the big picture, and every small act of love becomes part of the city of redemption. Gently wiping a tear from a crying neighbor’s face is not only kind and tender, it is holy. It proclaims the faithfulness of God who will wipe away the tears from all faces.


[1] http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/2010-flood/omohundro-shrine-water-god

[2] http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/11/16-sad-crazy-and-uplifting-stories-from-sandy.html

Wednesday
Nov142012

Worship shapes us

Julia's final Sunday as Organist and Director of Music Ministries gave me an opportunity to share one of Michael Lindvall's great stories. Thank you, Julia! And thank you, Michael.

Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road, and when he hears that Jesus is coming through town, hope wells up. Hope wells up like water from the deep, and he shouts; he shouts, and nothing and no one can silence him.

And then we listen to the psalm, and we hear about mouths filled with laughter and tongues with shouts of joy. God has done great things for God’s people, redeeming them from the oppressor. Joy wells up, and anticipation, and they shout; they shout, they laugh and sing out their gratitude.

Worship is everything we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God: we shout, we sing, we tell stories, we laugh and love and serve, we eat and drink together – in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God we worship and are shaped as God’s people.

Several years ago, Michael Lindvall told stories about life and ministry in Minnesota; when I heard the one you’re about to hear, I knew that some day I would tell it. It’s a marvelous little gem, a lovely and surprising reflection on how worship shapes us as God’s people. I have waited for just the right day to tell it, and I believe today’s the day.

Carthage Lake is a vanishing town on the Minnesota prairie: seven weathered frame houses, only five of them inhabited, plus the church. The last minister left Carthage Lake in 1939. He blew away with the dust bowl and the depression, and with him went most of the town – but not all. A faithful remnant – fewer and fewer every year, but the more tenacious for their smaller numbers – have saved it from the dread fate of so many country churches – becoming an antique shop, a warehouse of memories for sale.

Carthage Lake still has a church where people worship the living God on Sunday, though not every Sunday anymore. It’s only one Sunday a month, and soon one would guess, it will be every other month, and then after a few funerals, the pews and the two stained-glass windows will be auctioned off, and maybe an antique dealer will buy the building for his shop. But for a while yet, a visiting minister comes once a month, usually a visiting minister who has already preached his sermon that morning to his own congregation and has been cajoled by Lloyd Larson to preach it again at noon in Carthage Lake to the eleven souls who will always be there barring bad colds or worse than usual rheumatism. Lloyd has been the Chair of the Board for the last 31 years and when he calls, he always says, “Yep, dere ain’t so many of us no more, but you’ll have 100% attendance, preacher.”

It was Tuesday morning when Lloyd called Michael looking for a preacher for the Sunday coming. He offered his routine confession and promise: a small group, but a faithful one. And he promised Michael an organist, the same organist Carthage Lake had been promising guest preachers for the last 60 years: Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Agnes Rigstad.

Michael said he’d be pleased to preach in Carthage Lake, and the next morning he called back to give Lloyd the title of the sermon and the hymns for Agnes. No answer and no answering machine. So he asked the church secretary to send the information in the mail.

Come Sunday, he arrived late. Only two cars and a pick-up were parked in front of the freshly painted church. He noticed the sentimental stained-glass windows on either side of the steeple: one of Jesus the Good Shepherd, lamb in one arm, staff in the other. The second showed Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, his eyes lifted toward heaven.

Inside there were twelve people, all but Lloyd seated in the front two pews of the little sanctuary. Lloyd was standing beneath the pulpit in the far corner. At eighty years, he was perhaps the youngest of the congregation save one, a young man sitting at the end of the second pew.

Lloyd was slowly reading the adult education program leader’s guide to the others when Michael entered. “Well, that’s that, then,” he said, closing the pamphlet, “Next week we do the Trinity. Hello, Reverend, perfect timing.” The class stood up slowly, all except the young man, and moved to their accustomed places for worship. One very old lady in what was obviously a wig slightly askew on her head, mounted the chancel steps and went to the organ bench to the right of the pulpit.

Lloyd pulled Michael over and offered the same whispered instructions he had given a hundred visiting ministers before him: talk loud, there’s no mike and some folks don’t hear as well as they used to. Then Lloyd added: “And we don’t do a Sunday bulletin anymore; can’t get parts for the printer, so you just gotta tell us when it’s time for a hymn.”

Worship started. “This is the day the Lord has made,” Michael said; “let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us join together in singing hymn number 204.”He glanced over to Agnes to make sure she had heard this last. She smiled back and launched into the hymn. She had not played but a measure before he realized that she was not playing “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” It clearly was “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Maybe Agnes hadn’t heard him?

Michael read the New Testament lesson in a voice that was just an inch this side of a shout. The text he had chosen was from John’s Gospel, words that Jesus spoke to his little band of followers on the eve of his death. Words that include his promise to send the Holy Spirit, “I will not leave you orphaned.” He also read some of the words from the next chapter, Jesus’ injunction, spoken several times more as a fond wish, that his followers might love one another after he was gone: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Michael was going to preach a sermon about love and the power of the Spirit abiding among those who love each other, but before he started, he announced the second hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” a hymn that he had carefully chosen for this sermon. He announced it very loudly and rather too pointedly, looking Agnes in the eyes. She smiled back before diving at the organ keys and launching into “I Love to Tell the Story.”

After the sermon Michael prayed, and when it came time to announce the last hymn, he looked at Agnes and thought better of it. He took two steps over to the organ bench, bent down and whispered loudly in her ear, “Agnes, what are we going to sing?” She smiled, said not a word, and began to play, “Just As I Am.”

After the service was over, Michael greeted at the door. Agnes smiled broadly as she pumped his hand, but said nothing beyond “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Lloyd and the young man were at the front of the church when he went back to gather up his notes. Lloyd gave him a sheepish look, “Forgot to tell you about Agnes,” he said. “You don’t need to tell us what the hymn is, only when. Agnes only knows those three hymns, so we always sing ’em.”

“How long has she been your organist?” Michael asked.

“Well,” Lloyd looked down at the worn carpet at the foot of the pulpit, “since ‘37 when old Rev. Simmons left. Rev. Simmon’s wife, she played the organ for us back then, and when she was gone, there was nobody, so Agnes learned to play.”

“Good God, Lloyd, you mean to tell me you’ve been singing the same three hymns every month for 60 years?”

He was concentrating on the carpet more intently. “We like those hymns well enough, and we know ’em by heart - and she is our organist. You want some coffee, Reverend? I got a Thermos out in the truck.”He disappeared out the door and across the road to a rusty brown Ford pick-up.

The young man offered a hand and introduced himself to Michael. “My name is Neil Larson. I’m Lloyd’s grandson, I’ve been living with him for the last few months. Moved up here from Texas in March. You have to understand about Agnes. She’s my late grandmother’s little sister, Lloyd’s wife’s baby sister. Agnes has never been quite right. She never says more than a few words, and usually the same words. But she learned to play those three hymns in one week 60 years ago. It was a moment of musical emergency. Anyway, she hasn’t been able to learn another one since. Playing the organ this one Sunday a month means the world to her. Sometimes I think it’s mostly for her that they keep the church open. Aunt Agnes lives for the first Sunday of the month.”

Neil looked down, he played with the frayed carpet with the toe of his loafer.

“They asked me to play, of course. They had to ask. But Grandpa knew I’d say no when he asked. I remember how he sighed with relief when I said no, then he slapped me on the back.”

“You’re an organist?” Michael asked.

“Eastman, class of ’84. I’ve had some big church jobs, the last one down in Texas, big church in the Houston ’burbs. Brand new Casavant—102 ranks. Four services a Sunday. Then I got sick. I’ve been HIV-positive for six years, but it wasn’t till last fall that I got sick. The personnel committee of the church figured it out, the weight loss, all the sick days, not married. They told me it would be best if I were to move on, but not till after Christmas, of course. My parents live in St. Paul, but my father and I haven’t spoken since I was 19. I’m not sick enough for the hospital, but I’m just too tired most of the time to work. I really had nowhere to go. My grandfather said I could move in with him and Agnes. To tell the truth I kinda feel right at home in a town of 80-year-olds.”

He looked up from the carpet and said, “You know, pastor, that was a fine sermon, but I think that they got it a while ago. I mean the ‘love one another’ part. And they have not been left orphaned.”

He paused and went on, “They keep Agnes, and they took me in. And since I moved up here, most every night either Lloyd or old man Engstrom from down the road opens up the church for me. If it’s cold they lay a fire in the wood stove. And then I play the organ. It’s a sweet little instrument, believe it or not. Lloyd’s kept it up. These last weeks, it’s been almost warm in the evenings, so they leave the doors and the windows of the church open and everybody sits out on their front porches and they listen to me play—Bach, Buxtehude, Widor, Reger, all the stuff I love. And they clap from their porches, even Agnes claps.”[1]

Worship is what we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God, and for thirty-six years Julia has led us in worship, both inside and outside of this sanctuary. She has led us with exceptional skill, great faithfulness, and much love. Thank you, Julia.


[1] Michael Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small-Town Pastor, chapter 12

Wednesday
Nov142012

Tip of the Week

Not just for lectionary geeks: would you like to see the Sunday readings on your calendar?

All you have to do is paste this link into the IMPORT CALENDAR box of your calendar app: 

webcal://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/feeds/lectionary.ics 

Wednesday
Oct242012

To drown and to swim

On Pentecost, Jews and Jewish converts from around the world were gathered in Jerusalem. It was a great festival day: just about every language spoken under heaven could be heard in the streets, in the markets, and in the temple. It was like the whole world had come to Jerusalem, and on that day something amazing happened: the disciples of Jesus, all of them Galileans, proclaimed God’s deeds of power, and the whole world heard them, each person in their own native language. They were amazed and perplexed. Something new and unheard of was on the loose, something that blew through language barriers like wind through a fence.

“What does this mean?” people asked, and Peter responded by telling them of Jesus of Nazareth. He talked about the deeds of power God had done through him, and how he had been crucified and killed. “This Jesus God raised up,” he declared, “making him both Lord and Messiah.” The miracle of mutual understanding they all had been part of that day had been brought about by Jesus the Messiah – by his life, his death and resurrection. Amazing stuff, but what did it mean for them? How were they to respond to what God had done with this Jesus? How does one live in a world where Jesus is Lord, rather than Caesar? “What should we do?” they asked, and Peter said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4-39).

God had raised Jesus from the dead, inaugurating a new creation, and the way to enter it was through water. Repent, for the old ways of the old world have been judged. Be baptized, for God calls you to live the new life of the new creation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The miracle of the whole world gathered in Jerusalem, each person hearing the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their own language – that miracle was not just for a day. It was a glimpse of the future, a glimpse of the fullness that had been unveiled by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The love of God in Christ is the reality that transcends all our cultural differences, and we enter this reality through water.

In the beginning, when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). Water and the Spirit go together, in creation and in the new creation we enter through baptism. Water and the Spirit go together in moving life toward fulfilment.

In baptism the church from its earliest days has perceived echoes of the whole story of God and the people of God. Every baptism contains the flood that threatens to undo creation, and yet we emerge to live. Every baptism contains the sea in which the powers of oppression drown and through which God’s people escape to freedom. Every baptism occurs in the river which God’s people cross to enter the promised land, and where John the Baptist calls them to repent and Jesus obeys. We are baptized in the river of life that runs from Jesus’ wounded side on the cross and from the throne of God. Baptism is the water that breaks at the birth of new humanity; it is the washing of feet at the end of a long journey and the bath on the eve of the great sabbath.

Water and the Spirit go together. When Peter preached in Caesarea, he and the other circumcised believers were astounded to realize that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Pagans were extolling God! Nobody asked, “What does this mean?” or “What should we do?” Peter simply stated, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Baptized into Christ, we learn to follow the movement of the Spirit who tends to act in ways that astound us.

We look at Jesus, and we find in his life and teachings the embodiment of God’s compassion and power to heal. We hear God’s call to trust God’s promise that all of life will be redeemed and renewed in Christ. We hear a call to live in Christ. And the call to live in Christ is more than a call to believing differently, or to thinking, talking, and acting in more promising ways;  it is all that, but it is above all a call to be renewed in the image and likeness of Christ; it is a call to say yes with our whole being to the work of God. And saying yes to one thing implies saying no to others.

“You were taught to put away your former way of life,” we read in Ephesians, as though saying no to bad habits, loveless attitudes, and selfish practices were as simple as giving your old furniture to goodwill. “You were taught to put away your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Yes, we were taught, by apostles, prophets, parents, teachers and preachers, but the old self can’t be put away by teaching.

In Romans 6, Paul gets to the heart of the matter, which is why we read this passage every time we have a baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Baptism is the burial of the old self.  The new self is not a better educated version of the old; the new self is being born and raised in Christ; the new self belongs to the new creation.

Martin Luther called the old self the old Adam, and he reminded the church “that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new human being daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[1] He didn’t suggest that we need to be baptized every day, but that we remember every day that we are baptized and that Christ has made us his own. Because we are in Christ, the knowledge of our falling short of “true righteousness and holiness” doesn’t lead to despair, but opens the door to greater trust in the power and mercy of God. In Christ, everything has become new, and in baptism and discipleship we embrace that newness and we are embraced by it, held by it. Living in Christ is a lot like learning to swim. We float on grace with complete trust that we will not sink.

I want to go back to the image of clothing ourselves with the new self. In the ancient church, that imagery was an important element of every baptism. New disciples took off their clothes and entered the baptistery naked, leaving their old life behind like a pile of old clothes. When they emerged from the water, a deacon dressed them in a white robe – but not silk for some and scratchy wool for the rest; no, the same white robe for all, because in Christ the world’s distinctions of ethnicity, class, status, and gender no longer apply. Or as Paul put it, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). We are one in Christ. In baptism we are made one with him and through him with the whole people of God.

Baptism is very personal. To each believer baptism is the tangible assurance of God’s love and forgiveness and the equally tangible expression of God’s claim on his or her life.  Baptism is deeply personal; but baptism is also deeply communal: Newness of life is not a private adventure but life as a member of God’s covenant community, life with the brothers and sisters of Christ.

In baptism the whole story of God and the people of God, past and future, is condensed in one moment. God acts by embracing us as God’s own, incorporating us into the body of Christ, and giving us the Holy Spirit. The church acts by obeying the command of Christ and welcoming new disciples as brothers and sisters and equipping them for ministry. And the individual believer acts by responding to God’s call in Christ, renouncing the false gods of this world, and committing to a life of discipleship.

In baptism, God draws a line between our old self and our new life.  We know that, but we tend to redraw that line. Rather than seeing ourselves as fully claimed by God for God’s mission and God’s future in God’s world, we draw a line between religion and the rest of our lives. We draw a line around a little garden, where Jesus lives and where we love to go and visit; but we don’t live there. Most of our life takes place outside the little garden, on the other side of the line, and there, it seems, idols of our own making and beyond our control are in charge. But God is faithful. God doesn’t leave the world to our idolatrous tendencies. God continues to call us and claim us for the mission of transforming all things in the Spirit of Jesus, beginning with ourselves. So remember this: We are baptized. Christ has made us his own. We belong to the new creation.

 


[1] Small Catechism IV.4.

Wednesday
Oct242012

Family Wealth

Here comes that man again, running up to Jesus, asking him his simple, urgent question about life. And before we had even a moment to see him kneeling before the good teacher, we can already hear those dreaded words from Jesus’ lips, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” We already know that he will go away grieving, because he has much to give. And a part of us grieves with him, knowing that his choice could be ours as well.[1]

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

This is not the kind of word we look for at the calligrapher’s booth at the craft fair, so we can frame it and hang it over the fire place. This is not the kind of word we want our auntie to cross stitch on a sofa pillow; we know it will disrupt our slumber. Sure, it’s funny, but it also hits us like a hammer: What if the rich aren’t just other people? Is he saying that I am too rich for the kingdom? Do I have to sell what I own and give it to the poor?

The nervous questions trigger my desire for comfort, for somebody to calm the waves of my anxiety: Surely this episode isn’t to be taken literally. Surely there is a preacher somewhere who will find in these unsettling words a spiritual meaning that won’t render me penniless. And if the calming voice that soothes our worries with some measure of authority can’t be found quickly, we don’t despair, for we have learned to rationalize: The women among us will point out that Jesus is talking to a man, not to them. And all of us rich men will discover that wealth is a relative term and that, comparatively speaking, we are not rich at all but only comfortable.

Perhaps somebody who has done a little research will remind us that according to some medieval commentary ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the city gates in Jerusalem; in order for a camel to get through, the burden had to be taken off its back, and the camel had to get on its knees.

Now this was obviously an excellent interpretation for a time when the pope was building a new cathedral in Rome and was in need of a steady stream of cash; and it remains a tempting interpretation for some churches who are looking for solutions to their fund raising shortfalls: tell folks who wish to enter the kingdom to get on their knees and write checks until the burden on their back is small enough to fit through the gate. But the pope’s accountants and their contemporary brethren in Christian tv conveniently ignore that Jesus tells the man to give the money to the poor, not the church.

No, Jesus isn’t talking about a tiny gate that a camel could only crawl through. He points to the largest animal his audience would have been familiar with, and to the smallest aperture they knew from daily life, the eye of a needle, and he makes his point. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for you and me to squeeze through the card-slot of our local ATM. The point is indeed that it is impossible, not just really, REALLY hard.

In the scene just prior to today’s reading, people are bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. In that scene he teaches the disciples, saying, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (You may notice that he’s been talking about children a lot lately.) A little child is the personification of need, helplessness, and trusting dependence, and Jesus teaches that we are to receive the kingdom like little children.

The man who comes running to Jesus in today’s lesson is everything a little child is not; he is the personification of power, achievement, and confident independence. He is grown-up and successful. He is used to making things happen and getting things done. When presented with a challenge, he weighs the options at his disposal, and a solution is never more than a phone call away. And yet he comes running to Jesus, and he’s kneeling in the dust. Something is missing in his life, and his desire to change that is urgent and sincere.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“You know the commandments,” Jesus responds, naming six of the big ten, and the man replies, “I have kept all these since my youth.”

Nothing in the story suggests that he is lying or bragging. He is a good man who has done everything right, yet his life is incomplete. His considerable achievements are not enough. His virtues are not sufficient. His best obedience cannot still the question.

“What must I do to live in God’s realm?”

At this point, Mark briefly interrupts the conversation between the two to let us know that Jesus loves this man. We could say, “O well, Jesus loves everybody, let’s get on with the story.” Yes, he does, but this man isn’t just an extra put on stage so Jesus can do his teaching in dialogue. Jesus looks at the man intently and he loves him; perhaps for his integrity and his commitment to live a God-pleasing life; perhaps for asking the question that so easily gets drowned out by the world’s noisy answers.

“What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?”

And Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing,” and gives him a five-step answer, “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Jesus turns our world upside down to set things right. The little children who possess nothing, achieve nothing, and know nothing, the little children don’t lack anything – the kingdom of God is theirs. Yet this man who knows so much, has achieved so much, and possesses so much, he lacks the one thing that opens the door to eternal life. He was a child once, perhaps he still remembers being small, dependent, helpless and trusting. Can he become small again after all these years of growing and knowing?

“Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.”

He can’t do it. He walks away saddened.

“Children,” Jesus says to the disciples, “it’s hard to enter God’s kingdom!” Children he calls them, all of the grown-ups who are trying to keep up with him on the way. Like us, they are perplexed and shocked. The eye of a needle is small, too small to squeeze through – then who can enter?

Nobody. The rule and realm of God is not a squeezing matter. No amount of knowledge, goodness, or wealth will open the door to life’s wholeness. The big question is not, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” but rather, “What is God doing to make life whole and how am I part of it?” And the answer is the life and the way of Jesus.

We want to believe that with enough money or education or ability or goodness or effort we will be able to make it all work. And Jesus, God’s Messiah stands there, looking at us, loving us, and says, “No. Come with me.”

We can stop running. We can stop worrying so much about how to get ourselves through that door. Again Jesus redirects our attention from ourselves and our salvation to the poor, and to the way of Christ, and to what God is doing to make life whole. Our salvation is not a private matter but deeply connected with God’s salvation of the world.

For life to be truly full and fulfilling for all, the perils of wealth must be addressed as well as the perils of poverty, and Jesus gets us to think deeply about both in this encounter. Ken Carder wrote several years ago, echoing the best of Christian teaching of many generations,

“If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.”[2]

Jesus says that those who leave behind the things that promise security for the sake of the good news of God’s reign will live rich and full lives, now and in the world to come. How? They find themselves members of a large family of unlikely brothers and sisters, no longer living for themselves, but for one another.

As to the wealthy man in the story, I imagine he eventually returned, perhaps not running this time, and said, “Jesus, it’s me again; no matter how hard I try, I can’t do this on my own. Is there another way?” Yes, there is. It is the way the children know: Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. It is the way of Christ: he opens his arms to embrace and hold us, rich and poor, to heal our wounded lives, and bless us.

 


[1] Stacey Elizabeth Simpson, “Who Can Be Saved? (Mark 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, September 27-October 4, 2000, p. 951

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches (Mk. 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997, p. 831

Monday
Oct082012

Mother tongue

A table is a remarkably simple thing. A flat surface with legs for support. It wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the world’s most wonderful inventions, but it should. In the evolution of humankind, I imagine we first gathered around the fire to share food and stories, to sing and debate. And then somebody at some point figured out that we could have the food and the stories, the singing and debating without the heat and smoke, and we started gathering around tables.

There’s a scene in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, where Jesus is finishing a table, a most unusual piece of furniture in Galilee, where most people had their meals sitting on the ground. His mother takes a good look at it and says, “This is certainly a tall table. Who is it for?”

“A rich man,” he answers.

“Does he like to eat standing up?”

He laughs, “No, he prefers to eat like … so” and he squats a little to show her what sitting on a chair might look like. “Tall table, tall chairs.”

She mimicks his sitting on a chair, puts her jug on the table, pretends to be reaching for things, and finally she says, “This will never catch on.”

We know it did, and today we celebrate the table that is at the center of our lives as Christians, a table that represents God’s welcome to all of humanity, a table where we share the bread of life and the cup of salvation, where we tell the story of our hope, sing songs of praise and redemption, and have our best debates.

Friday evening I got a message from a dinner table. It came from the mother of a boy already known for asking excellent questions. Thomas, we are at dinner and [he] wants to know what language Adam and Eve spoke ... Can you help? Tables, dinner tables in particular, are perfect for questions that have no simple answer but have the power to make us wise. Had I been there at the table with them, I would have asked the little guy right back, “What do you think?” But since I was at home, I sent his mom a message, “GREAT question! It’s been one the greatest minds have tried to answer, but nobody knows.” We don’t know the origins of language, which means we have all kinds of wonderful, creative, and beautiful ideas about it, and in the process we realize, every last one of us who’s willing to go on the adventure, just what a marvelous thing language is, any language.

The best questions don’t demand answers, but demand to be asked again and again. They direct our attention not to riddles to be solved, but to mysteries to be pondered.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

The best questions arise in the evening, when the hustle and bustle of the day begins to fade. What are human beings? Is there a language that is the mother tongue of all? What’s our place in this vast universe?

A wise woman from New Orleans once told Robert Coles something her momma had told her, “Remember that you’re put here only for a few seconds of God’s time, and He’s testing you. He doesn’t want answers, though. He wants you to know how to ask the right questions. If you learn how to do that, then you’ll do all right when you meet Him, and He’s there looking you over. You have to tell Him that you’ve learned how to question yourself, and when you show Him what you know, He’ll smile on you.”[1]

God doesn’t want answers but wants you to know how to ask the right questions. Who came up with the first word? Why is there something rather than nothing? Who am I? What are human beings?

Scholars and scientists give us answers, and every answer raises seven new questions. They tell us that human beings are tool-making, weapon-bearing mammals with large brains whose technical skills are far more evolved than their capacity for moral reasoning. They tell us that human beings are the only living beings conscious of their mortality and that human consciousness is like an iceberg – only one seventh is above the surface and the most powerful forces reside in the unconscious depths. They tell us that human beings are to a signifant degree the products of particular historical circumstances, determined by economic and political factors. We get answers from anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, psychologists, neurologists, economists, historians, philosophers, theologians, poets and musicians. What are human beings? As far as we know, sparrows, trees and whales don’t wonder what their place in the universe might be; they simply occupy it. Human beings ask questions and turn them into poetry and song.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The song of praise erupts with a shout, and it ends with the same exuberant phrase. Between these two pillars, the poet meditates on what it means to be human before God. The meditation is not a solitary quest for answers, but a song that includes all of creation. First babies raise their voices in praise of the Creator who has prevailed against the powers of chaos and established a world in which life can thrive, even small, vulnerable infants. Then the song turns quiet and becomes an evening hymn.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

You have seen the images taken by the Hubble telescope, you have heard of physicists exploring subatomic space; and when you allow the vastness of the universe to enter your consciousness but for a moment, you feel very small and insignificant – yet you also realize that you are this tiny speck of dust with the capacity to contemplate the sheer enormity of it all.

“We exist in a universe that does not notice or care about us,” says Jim Mays, and he adds, “To be human is to be afflicted with the capacity for this subliminal glimpse of the significance of our insignificance, to live constantly on the edge of consternation before the cosmos.”[2] The universe does not notice or care about us, but the poet sings of moon and stars, of planets and galaxies, protons and neutrons as “the work of Your fingers.” We are indeed specks of ancient stardust, but the One who brings forth life in all its wondrous forms is mindful of us. The final horizon of our existence is not the unimaginable immensity of the universe, but the loving gaze of the One whose majestic name is revealed in it – written onto the night sky and into the story of Israel and Jesus.

After this quiet moment of awe under the stars, the psalm changes from evening hymn to morning song.

Yet you have made them but little lower than Divine, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

In the light of the morning sun, the poet looks at the world, the work of God’s hands, and marvels at our royal vocation: crowned with glory and honor, we have been given dominion over all things. Specks of ancient stardust, meant to be kings and queens in the realm of life. The sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are given power and responsibility within the sovereign rule of the mindful, caring Creator. What kind of dominion? To be kings and queens in the realm of life we exercise care for other creatures in the same way that God is mindful and caring. Anything less would be a  failure to be who we are.

The poet of the psalm doesn’t give us answers, and of course we all want to know how to be mindful and caring, given that our experience with the human species hasn’t been very encouraging. The poet of the psalm doesn’t give us answers, but the song itself is an invitation to sing along, and to sing our questions before God and to God. Throughout the psalm, the focus is not primarily on the human beings, but remains on God; we find our place in this relationship: How majestic is your name! You have founded, you have established, you are mindful, you care, you have made, you have crowned, you have given.

What are human beings? Throughout the generations, human beings have answered the question by comparing themselves to animals, to gods, and to other nations, cultures or ethnic groups. The psalm locates us between God and animals, responsible to God and responsible for the creatures placed under our care. But no mention is made of others – other nations, cultures, peoples, tribes, or ethnic groups. There is no us and them, only one humanity in our shared location between God and the creatures entrusted to our care.

Which brings us back to the table.

“This will never catch on,” she said, but sometimes, thank God, even mothers are wrong. The risen Christ invites us all to his table, regardless of our ethnic background, our religious views, our political philosophy, our income, age or gender. He invites us to eat and drink with him, and to learn from him how to be mindful and caring. In his company we discover that our mother tongue, the language spoken by Adam and Eve, the language spoken in thousands of dialects around the globe, the language spoken in the city of God, is the language God has been teaching us in every moment of wonder since life began: our mother tongue is praise.

 


[1] Robert Coles, Children of Crisis

[2] James L. Mays, “What is a Human Being? Reflections on Psalm 8,” Theology Today, Vol. 50, No. 4, p. 514

Tuesday
Oct022012

My Way or the Way?

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and the disciples are trying to keep up. Jesus is on the way to the cross, and the disciples don’t know how to follow. Jesus speaks of being rejected, condemned, and executed in the city, and the disciples are discussing who is the greatest. They are still with him, in close physical proximity, but it’s like he’s already as alone as he’ll be on the cross. Yet he keeps teaching.

He takes a little child and puts it among them, and taking it in his arms, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

He keeps teaching. He continues to surprise and confuse us with his words about welcoming the great God of heaven and earth in the little ones. I wonder if Jesus was still holding the child in his arms when one of the disciples said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 

Jesus wants to draw our attention to the little ones; he teaches us to welcome God by welcoming those too little to reach even the bottom step of the status ladder; and he’s not just talking, he’s holding one of them in his arms. Show and tell. Teaching by example. But the disciples are distracted. They are concerned about what others are doing in his name.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Yes, you heard that right. Someone is doing powerful, liberating work in the community, and they are watching with suspicion and even trying to intervene, because that someone is not part of their group, their tribe, their denomination. How dare he claim to do anything in the name of Jesus?

I like to think that Jesus is still holding the child during this scene. I like to think that he is smiling at the irony of it all: the disciples’ objecting to others doing powerful stuff, when only moments ago they were unable to do anything when a father asked them to help his son who was being tormented by a demon. Instead of celebrating the great works of healing that are being done outside their circle, they act as if they were the exclusive copyright holders on Jesus’ name.

I was listening to Krista Tippett’s conversation with Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family.[1] Focus on the Family is a very conservative Christian organization, and some have referred to it as a “Religious Right powerhouse.” Focus on the Family headquarters are in Colorado Springs, and the city is also home to the Independent, a proudly liberal weekly newspaper. Jim Daly described the paper’s publisher, John Weiss, as “a Berkeley-Harvard guy [who] worked on Henry Waxman’s campaign [and] would be self-described as a pretty strong liberal.”

Jim Daly and John Weiss. Two guys that hardly see eye to eye on anything. Jim Daly was talking with Krista Tippett about the recent work Focus on the Family had been doing on foster care issues in Colorado:

We had 850 kids in the foster care system available for adoption. If you know church history, that is one of the things the early church engaged. We were known for taking care of the orphan, and it’s in part what the early church was built upon. And so for us in this country, with all that we have, particularly the Christian community, to be able to engage that, so over a couple of years, we were able to get that number down from 850 kids waiting to about 300. That was the most progress that had been made on that issue in the state for a long time.

That’s when John Weiss of the Independent wanted to meet with Jim Daly, and when they did meet, he said, “I didn’t know anything that good would come out of Focus.” Later he wrote to his readers,

Here’s something you need to know. The Independent is involved in a community-based partnership with Focus. No, Hell has not frozen over. Here is what happened. Our publisher, John Weiss, realized that there was at least one issue on which Focus and the Indy can agree. We want all kids to grow up in a loving home.

Now some will call this welcome political compromise, others the work of the Holy Spirit, and again others clever PR. I have no desire to give it a name. I want to say, “Thank you!” and “May we have some more, please?” I see two leaders in two very different camps who for a moment aren’t guarding the tribal fences but paying attention to the little one Jesus is holding in his arms. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says Jesus.

At the council of Carthage, in the year 400 A.D., one of the delegates, Pusillus of Lamasba said, “I believe that there is no saving baptism except in the Catholic Church. Whatsoever is apart from the Catholic Church is a pretense.” And Augustine replied, “But there may be something Catholic outside the Catholic Church, just as the name of Christ could exist outside the congregation of Christ, in which name he who did not follow with the disciples was casting out devils.”[2]

Disciples of Jesus must learn to recognize the works of Jesus on the other side of the fence. There may be something Catholic outside the Catholic Church. There may be something Christian outside the Christian Church. We must not allow ourselves the ancient comforts of tribalism. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, and he happens to hold up a little child urging us to welcome her.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and we are trying to keep up. Jesus is on the way to the cross, and we don’t know how to follow. Jesus speaks of his suffering, death, and resurrection in the city, and we’d rather have any other conversation.

Mark is holding up the gospel mirror, and what we see reflected is not flattering. Our eyes are not on the one who is going ahead of us, and our attention span is quickly shrinking to twitter length. Our feet are not pointed in the direction Jesus is going, and our paths follow the fences around our turf. Our hands could be holding the little one he urges us to welcome, but we are very busy. Mark is playing a short clip, “Disciples of Jesus” and we watch ourselves stumbling over our attitudes, our priorities, our distractions, ourselves.

I imagine that this is the moment when Jesus tells the child to go outside and play with the others. You see, the gospel reading for this day has another nine verses, and they are rated “R” for violence. Jesus says,

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

Drowning, cutting, tearing, and everyone salted with fire - terrifying words, shocking and disturbing. It’s like the gentle Jesus who loves the little children has suddenly turned into a fire-spewing preacher. He frightens me and I don’t know how he manages to end his speech with a word about peace.

I remember men and women who have been cut off from their communities for allegedly causing others to stumble. I remember heretics who were cut off and burnt at the stake lest they cause the body of Christ to stumble. I remember dissenters who were cut off and disappeared lest they cause any more disturbance in the body politic. It’s not that violently simple. The source of our stumbling is not something that can be removed with a sharp enough knife.

It’s not your foot that’s causing you to walk off the path, and you know that. It’s not somebody’s hand that’s causing them to lash out and hurt their spouse or child, and you know that. It’s not my eye that’s causing me to see only what I want to see; it’s my delight in shiny things; it’s my curiosity so easily aroused by new things; it’s my desire to live life fully and completely; it’s all good, actually. Except that my delight, my curiosity, my desire and the paths they lead me on are so completely self-centered.

I wonder if Jesus is using this terrifying, violent language to break through the fog of our self-absorption and remind us how much is at stake. This path of self-absorption, this path of status-obsession, this path, he says, can only end in hell, and I believe him. But I don’t believe that hell is a place of God’s making. Hell is what happens to life when we have it our way.

Jesus calls us to a different way. Jesus calls us to go with him on the way to Jerusalem. He calls us to go with him on the way to the city where all are at home and at peace. He calls us with such love, such passion. He calls us this very moment. Shall we go?



[1] http://www.onbeing.org/program/next-christians/4839

[2] See Placher, Mark, p. 136

Monday
Sep242012

Ground Level

Do you remember how big everything was when you were little? Do you remember having to reach up to touch the door knob? Do you remember that kitchen stool you had to climb like some piece of playground equipment if you wanted to sit on it? And that moment when you were finally tall enough to simply sit down on it without any effort? Do you remember the room full of adults who were all standing tall as trees and chatting way up there while you were trying to find your way across the room through a forest of legs?

I remember sitting at the children’s table with my siblings and cousins at every family gathering. It was great fun, usually. We had a wonderful time eating and drinking, joking and laughing amongst ourselves while the grown-ups were at the big table. We did have a wonderful time, but I remember how proud I was when I got to sit at the grown-up table for the first time. They had to put one of the firm pillows on my chair to bring me up a couple of inches, but I had made it. I was still short, but I was no longer one of the little ones. That day, I grew at least a couple of inches inside.

We all have memories like that, memories of a world just beyond our reach, a world we can’t wait to belong to. Getting to sit at the grown-up table is easy, it’s just a matter of time, all you have to do is get older. Getting to hang out with the people you really want to hang out with at school is a lot tougher. And getting a seat and voice at the tables that define our communities and shape our life together – that is both a measure of our human dignity and a struggle.

From a very young age, people around us encourage us to be ambitious and competitive, to set goals for ourselves and pursue them, to work hard, to meet the right people, to make something of ourselves. The disciples had met Jesus. They had met the one who would set all things right. He had talked about going to Jerusalem, and they were ready for the challenge. They were still in Galilee, still preparing for the great journey south.

Jesus was teaching them, talking again about being betrayed into human hands and being killed and after three days rising again. They did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask?

Well, we kinda know how it is. You don’t want to appear too slow for the big race to the top. Even when you’re confused and clueless, you still want to project confidence and make everybody else believe that you have it all together. You fake it till you make it.

In Mark’s story, instead of asking questions, the disciples were jockeying for cabinet positions in Jesus’s government. We also know how that goes. Two of them had been talking about sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory. One of them probably never missed an opportunity to mention that he had been with Jesus the longest, and another that Jesus had already entrusted him with the office of treasurer. And while one touted his revolutionary zeal, another bragged about his connections in the business community. They were afraid to ask what Jesus meant when he talked about what would happen to him in the city, but they had no trouble imagining their seats at the big table and their names and titles on the letterhead.

Jesus, we know, is never afraid to ask. When they got to the house, he said, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And suddenly they were silent, the whole chatty, ambitious bunch; no one said a word. Why the sudden silence?

Well, we kinda know how it is. Had he asked them in private, individually, several of them probably would have told him about Theophilus who “thinks he’s the greatest” or about Bartholomew who is “dreaming about a seat on the supreme court.”

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about being rejected and betrayed, being handed over and condemned to death, being killed and rising again after three days. Three times, not just because this is disturbing news that doesn’t sink in easily, but because being a disciple of Jesus is so tied up with that particular path. We don’t understand and we’re afraid to ask not just because we want to keep up the appearance of our intellectual brilliance and deep knowledge. We’re afraid to ask because we’re afraid he’s going to turn our world upside down. Because we want Jesus very much to be part of our world, but we hesitate to let ourselves be part of his.

He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, those at the top of the ladder lord it over those at the bottom. But in the world of God’s reign, earth and heaven do not touch at the top, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all. On the way of Christ, greatness is defined in terms of service, and the path doesn’t lead up to thrones and cabinet chairs, but remains at ground level and leads to us, always to us.

We all start out little. We all start out needing to be welcomed. We all need somebody to see us and speak our name, somebody to hold us and care for us, because we all start out little, needy and helpless. How much of our drive for greatness, do you think has to do with that deep need to be seen, to be noticed and recognized, and finally, finally welcomed?

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Who knew there was a child? Who noticed? We were engaged in important matters, making sure our voice would be heard, our opinion registered, and our contribution recognized in its significance. And Jesus puts a little child among us. Mark doesn’t tell us if it’s a precious, cuddly little sunshine or one of the rascals from Capernaum Elementary who is sent to the principal’s office at least twice a week and whose parents dread opening the home folder, afraid there might be another note from a teacher who is at her wits’ end.

Politicians pick up little children all the time, it looks good on television and it makes them more likeable. But Jesus doesn’t pick up a child to draw attention to himself. He does it to draw our attention to the child. He does all his work at ground level to draw our attention away from our high-altitude power pursuits.

“If you want to be great, notice the little ones and bring them in.” You want to be great and so you make yourself as big as possible just to be seen, recognized and welcomed. But in the world of God’s reign you’re not welcomed because you’re great. You are welcomed because you belong; you are loved for who you are. So don’t be afraid to shift your attention. Notice the ones that habitually go unnoticed. Welcome those who are not great by any common measure, and bring them in.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Welcome is woven through this teaching unlike any other verse of scripture. Welcome, welcome, welcome, as steady as the holy, holy, holy sung in heaven. Welcoming those who are so easily overlooked at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God.

Much of our religious tradition has taught us to wonder, “What must I do, who do I have to be, who do I have to become in order to be worthy of welcome by the holy God? How can I work my way up?” But Jesus works at ground level. He looks us in the eye and says, “I see you. I know you. I love you.” He invites us to live in the world of God’s reign, where even our religious tradition is turned on its head. He turns our attention away from ourselves and our anxious obsession with our status,  and turns our attention toward each other. He stops our lonely ascend to the top that is our quest for fulfillment, recognition and control and he guides our feet into the path that leads us to see and embrace the little neighbor. He teaches us to see that the little ones who are constantly rendered invisible by our arrangements of power, are indeed the embodiment of the invisible God. Welcoming one such child in his name, says Jesus, we welcome the Creator of heaven and earth.

Jesus works to redirect our attention to ground level, and much of discipleship is about new habits of seeing and acting. Peter was the first to confess that Jesus is the Messiah, and the first to wrestle with the implications of that confession for his life. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is incredibly embarrassing and slow. Mark was wise to frame the long section around Peter’s confession with two accounts of blind people who are given sight (Mark 8:22-26 and 10:46-52).

The gift of sight comes gradually. We can’t quite see who Jesus is; we can’t quite see what it means to follow him, but we receive the gift of sight on the way, gradually. We learn and grow, like all little ones – and why would we be afraid to ask our questions and share our curiosity? We learn and grow together, welcoming each other in the name of Christ.

Monday
Sep172012

The Tongue is a Fire

Barely anyone remembers Zacharias Warner but he was a famous man in his day. In the early 19th century he packed Vienna’s churches. You might assume he must have been a musician or a singer – but no, he was a priest and a poet. Zacharias Warner was famous for his fiery sermons against the sins of the flesh.

One Sunday, once again before a packed house, he looked across the congregation saying, “That tiny piece of flesh. That most dangerous member of a man’s body.” The gentlemen panicked, the ladies blushed and he went on to speak rapidly about the horrendous consequences of the misuse of that most dangerous member. Then he leaned over the pulpit, his eyes shooting sparks, and said, “Shall I name for you that tiny piece of flesh?”

The sanctuary was perfectly silent. Nobody was moving, let alone coughing. All eyes were on him as he leaned further over the pulpit and exclaimed, “Shall I show you that tiny piece of flesh?” Some of the ladies were reaching for the smelling salts in their purses when the priest said with a sly smile, “Behold the source of our sins!”

He stuck out his tongue. We can laugh about it, the story is clearly from another century. So much has changed since then, yet so much more hasn’t.

The tongue is a powerful little muscle. It’s still sticks and stones that break the bones, but words - it always begins with words. Words do hurt, be it unintentionally or by design. The tongue can affirm or alienate, build or belittle, delight or destroy, offend or befriend.

The tongue is a fire. When James wrote those words, he couldn’t begin to imagine the kind of wildfires the tongue can ignite in the age of youtube. Some fool in California makes a bad movie about the prophet Mohammed, a movie steeped in the muck of ignorance, a movie that on opening night draws an audience of ten at a Hollywood theater, and that would have been the end of it just a few years ago. But the fool wants an audience, he wants to be heard, he wants at least a few good laughs from fellow fools and a pat on the back for saying what they think needs to be said. And so he makes a trailer of the most offensive frames and puts it on youtube for the whole world to see and hear.

The tongue is a fire. Fools play with matches without a care in the world, and far away in Libya a house goes up in flames and people die. Is the fool responsible?

I want to tell you another story that’s wonderfully quaint. A young man comes to the priest for confession.

“Father, forgive me for I have sinned. I have told lies and gossiped about my neighbor.”

“Do you understand what you have done?” asks the priest and adds, “Go home and bring me a feather pillow.” The young man leaves and when he returns with a pillow he meets the priest on the steps of the church.

“What now?” he asks.

“Open the stitching on the side and shake the pillow,” the priest tells him. He does as he’s been told. He opens the seam and shakes the pillow vigorously and smiles as he watches the feathers flying across the church yard, to the lane and beyond.

“What now?” he asks.

“Now pick up all the feathers.”

“But that’s impossible, Father! The wind has blown them all over town!”

“Just like the thoughtless words you spoke.”

The tongue is a fire. Thoughtless words, careless, heedless, reckless, loveless words are not just blown all over town like feathers in the wind; they are sparks and hot embers that can start a blaze.

Freedom of speech is being honored in this country like a sacred law, and rightly so. Speech must be free for a democratic society to flourish. The freedom of speech must be protected, even foolish, hateful, and hurtful speech. But our responsibility for what we say and how we say it cannot be limited to legal liability. We have moral and spiritual obligations that go far beyond what the law of the land requires.

The world we live in is just as vast as it has been for all of human history, but we are one neighborhood like we have never been before. The young man with his pillow only needed to consider the little town he lived in. The feathers only flew so far. We live in a neighborhood where the thoughtless word, the careless, heedless, reckless, loveless word travels faster and further than ever. Yes, we are responsible for our tongues.

James sounds rather pessimistic.

Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

The tongue is a fire, and whether flames of praise emerge or flames of hatred only one human being can determine. My tongue, my choice, my responsibility.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing, but our first language has always been blessing and praise. Blessing and praise are as old as creation. Long before there were liturgies and hymns, prayers and creeds and theologies, there was praise. Long before there were music directors and organists, choirs and anthems, there was praise. Our babies remind us of this truth. I remember a little boy, still an infant, singing his morning psalm almost every day. Lying there in his crib, usually some time before the rest of the house was up, he awakened with the first morning light. He could not walk, couldn’t even stand up yet, and he could not talk. But with the light of dawn in his eyes he chanted a morning prayer of giggles and gurgling, a song of thanksgiving for life, a hymn of praise to the maker of heaven and earth. That praise lies deep beneath every word and language and song. That is our mother tongue.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Days and nights proclaim the glory of God, and so do we. The world is vast and glorious, and our native tongue, our mother tongue, our first language is praise, not hate speech.

Steve and Cokie Roberts have been married for decades, and they measure the health of their marriage by the number of teeth marks in their tongues. That kind of wisdom isn’t always true and everywhere, but you know very well that sometimes biting your tongue is less painful than the words about to pour out of your mouth would be. James only considers this option, the taming of the tongue, the bridling of the tongue, learning to live with the teeth marks. But there is another option: the training of the tongue to sing and speak its native language in every dialect spoken in the neighborhood.

So let me tell you another story. On Wednesday I met Michael, a songwriter who has been incredibly successful in contemporary popular music. Josh Groban sang In Her Eyes on a CD that went multi platinum. Jaci Velazquez sang On My Knees, a song that won both Song of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association and the Dove Award by the Gospel Music Association. Michael’s songs have appeared on over 15 million albums sold worldwide. He also wrote songs for tv and film, including Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Terminal, True Blood, and The Simpsons.

But he mentioned none of that when we met. He wanted to tell me about a group of people who want to change life in the Middle East. A group of people who “believe it is possible to create a Middle East that is peaceful, open, and prosperous. A place where human life is highly valued and the quality of life is steadily improving; where justice and human rights are respected; where religious, cultural and political diversity is both appreciated and secured through mutual trust and freedom of expression.”[1]

Michael wanted to tell me about a group of musicians who share this vision. They are top selling Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, Norwegian and American songwriters and recording artists.[2] They got together and called their unlikely collaboration My Favorite Enemy. They began as a vehicle to build professional and personal relationships across cultural, historical and political divides. But it didn’t take them long to do together what they each do best. They co-wrote and recorded ten songs and began to perform together in settings as small as a family home and as large as the European Parliament.

“A three minute song,” says Michael, “in some small way, has the potential to bridge the divide between two people who actually consider (…) themselves enemies. A song doesn’t have to be rational or logical - it can bypass that entire side of the brain and begin the process of healing and transformation by finding its way to the heart.”

Michael told me all that while we were just beginning to try and understand what had triggered the violent protests in many cities in the Middle East and the attacks in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.

The tongue is a fire. We decide whether flames of praise and peace emerge from our lips or flames of hatred. We decide whether to practice singing and speaking in our native tongue of thanksgiving or to throw words like rocks.

Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. At Congregation Micah, Zaid, a musician from Jordan who has never been in a synagogue, let alone a synagogue service, and Michael, a Jewish-American songwriter, will sing in the New Year together.

The tongue is a fire. Flames of peace or flames of hatred? You decide.

 


[1] www.iyouwe.org

[2] Basel Khoury, Zaid Modhi Mansour, Jordan; Rami, Alaa Shaham, Palestine; Christian Ingebrigtsen, Hans Petter Aaserud, Venke Knutson, Norway; Aya Korem, Ohadi Hitman, Mika Sade, Kobi Oz, Israel; Michael Hunter Ochs, USA

Monday
Sep102012

Children first

Cassandra Nelson works for Mercy Corps, a non-profit dedicated to alleviating suffering, poverty and oppression in many places around the world. Cassandra has spent the past couple of weeks working in the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border.

The camp was opened about a month ago for Syrians fleeing the violence in their country, and over 20,000 men, women and children have moved into the camp already. The pace of new arrivals has more than doubled, with more than 14,000 arriving in the last days of August.Humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies have been working around the clock to accommodate the sudden increase in new arrivals of refugees, but it is hard to keep up.

“We need more of everything,” said the camp manager. You know the basic things he’s worrying about, things like tents, blankets, clean water, and medical supplies. What may surprise you, is that he’s also pushing for more playgrounds.

Cassandra has spoken with many mothers at the camp, and most report that their children have terrible nightmares and are not behaving normally – either they are being very aggressive and misbehaving, or they are silent and afraid, running and hiding at any loud noise.[1]

Tens of thousands have fled Syria and the demons that are on the lose there, seeking refuge across the border. But the demons of oppression and violence don’t just stay behind. The children are bound by painful and frightening experiences, and they need safe places, playgrounds, and wise counselors to heal and flourish.

I thought about those Syrian children and their mothers when I read again the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.

Mark only tells us that Jesus went away to the region of Tyre. Not a word about why he went so far from rural Galilee, both geographically and culturally. Did he have to leave the country just to get a little peace and quiet? That would explain why he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Whose house did he enter and how did the woman find out and get in? We don’t know; it’s almost as if Mark stripped away all unnecessary details so we focus all our attention on Jesus and the woman.

He does tell us that her little daughter was tormented by an unclean spirit. But then he just lets us sit for a moment with this explosive tension: a gentile woman and a Jewish man in a house across the border, an almost unthinkable clash of gender, culture, language, and religion. She throws herself at his feet, begging him to cast out the demon that has bound her daughter.

We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she crossed every boundary of custom and propriety; we know what having a sick child can do to a parent. Having a sick child makes you desperate.[2]

It makes you say horrible things to the receptionist who won’t give you an appointment until Wednesday next week. It makes you very rude to doctors who will spend hours running test after test and then tell you in less than two minutes that the nurse will call you tomorrow. It makes you scream at the insurance representative who tells you that your plan does not cover the treatments your child needs. It makes you stay up all night doing research on the web, finding out where the best clinics are, the best doctors, the best therapists, the most promising programs.

And after you’ve exhausted all options, would you consider a trip to Mexico or India or anywhere else on God’s green earth? Of course you would. You will do anything it takes to make your child well. You will knock on any door and cross any border for your child’s wellbeing.That’s where this mother is – in the place at Jesus’ feet where l love, determination, and hope have given all and await an answer.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says, and who wouldn’t agree that the little ones, the vulnerable ones, the ones who have so much life ahead of them, who wouldn’t agree that they need to be fed first, with love and good food, with education and health care and safe places and playgrounds and the best we can give them.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It may take you a moment to realize that he just told her No, and not just that, he insulted her by calling her and her child dogs.

We love our dogs. We love ‘em a lot. The other day, cartoonist David Sipress allowed us to overhear two doggies chatting on a Brooklyn sidewalk.[3] Each is on a leish. Each has just dropped a you-know-what on the concrete. Each has a most attentive owner with a little baggy picking up what the puppy just dropped. Says one pooch to the other, “I don’t know about you, but it always makes me feel kinda special.”

We love our dogs, and for many of us they are simply canine members of the household.

Every year, the American Pet Products Association conducts a National Pet Owners Survey. If you want a copy of the full report, it’ll cost you $2,995. The information is costly, because pets are big business.

The current estimate of basic annual expenses for dog owners in the U.S. include

$655 Vet Visits
$324 Food and Treats
$274 Kennel Boarding
$95 Vitamins
$78 Travel
$73 Grooming
$43 Toys

That adds up to over $1,540 a year for the basics for each of the 78.2 million dogs in 46.3 million U.S. households.[4]

This was very different in the world in which Jesus grew up. In Jewish communities dogs weren’t pets, but semi-wild animals that roamed the streets scavenging for food, and they were not allowed in the house. They had to stay outside.

Jesus tells the woman that her place is outside and that the door is closed. In saying “Let the children be fed first,” he implies that the time is not right. God’s salvation will come to the gentiles, in time, but not yet, not her, not now. His mission is to the house of Israel first, and for the time being the Gentiles will have to live with their demons. The day will come when those outside will be welcome inside, but not yet, not her, not now.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

He tells her that the door is closed, but she is already in the house. And if you want to call her a dog, call her a bulldog, for she won’t let go. She is courageous, persistent, and quick-witted.

“In my house, Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In my house, dogs don’t wait until the children are finished; dogs and children both eat at the same time. The doggies wag their tails in joyful expectation of every bit of bread dropped either by accident or by a child’s secret cunning.

In my house, the children eat their fill and the dogs still get to feast on the crumbs. What I’m asking of you isn’t taking away anything from the children. Have you paid attention to your own miracle? Five loaves, and 5,000 ate till they were full and wanted no more, and the pieces filled twelve baskets. Your table can’t hold the abundance you bring, it overflows with blessing.

I’m not asking for a seat at the table, but let the doggies have a feast. My little daughter is bound by a demon, and I know that what she needs is yours to give. Crumbs will do.

This is the only story in all the gospels where Jesus is bested in an argument, which is remarkable. The fact that he’s being bested by a woman is perhaps no longer remarkable in some quarters, but it surely was for generations. And the fact that she’s a gentile puts the cherry on it.

Like Jacob who wrestled with God through the night, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” she didn’t let go.[5] She left the house with a blessing she had wrestled from him; “You may go,” he said, “the demon has left your daughter.”

The word faith is never mentioned, but everything about this anonymous, gentile mother speaks of it: her tenacity fuelled by love, her courage and perseverance, and her insistence that mercy is not a limited resource. When she went home, she found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. The house of bondage had become the house of laughter. That is the promise of God for all of life.

Almost immediately following this story, there is another bread story.[6] At first glance it looks like an awkward repetition of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus breaks bread with thousands, seven loaves for 4000 people. All of them eat and are filled; and they take up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Plenty of crumbs, don’t you think?

This gentile mother’s fierce love ties the two bread miracles together. Because of her we can see that there are not two stories but one; there are two courses of the one meal. Of this bread, there is more than enough for all of us, and the door is open. No need to keep anybody outside or under the table. Every child of God has a seat at the table.

Za’atari is a Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border. Many sons and daughters there are tormented by the demons of terror and bound by the demons of war. But there are also groups there with beautiful names like Mercy Corps or Week of Compassion. They are there to break the bread of mercy that turns a refugee camp into a community with safe places and playgrounds. The house of bondage becomes the house of laughter.


[1] See http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/29/opinion/opinion-nelson-syrian-refugee-camp/index.html and http://www.mercycorps.org/

[2] With thanks to Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. 19, No. 5, August-September 2008, p. 30

[3] New Yorker 2012, see http://tinyurl.com/d7guo7o

[4] All data from http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp

[5] Genesis 32:22ff.

[6] Mark 6:30-44 is the feeding of the five thousand; Mark 8:1-10 is the feeding of the four thousand

Tuesday
Sep042012

Good Habits

Wherever Jesus goes, people gather. On the street, in houses and synagogues, in villages and cities, people gather, bringing the sick and the possessed, hoping that they might touch the fringe of his cloak. Wherever Jesus goes, people gather, because his presence is healing.

Others gather, because Jesus’ presence can be profoundly confusing, even disturbing. Today’s passage from Mark tells us that some people are watching Jesus closely, keeping an eye on him and his followers and what they do and fail to do. What they notice is that Jesus loves to break bread with just about anybody. They watch him break bread with five thousand, and they notice his smile, how he breaks the loaf and gives a piece of bread to any and all; he doesn’t even hesitate when the person he eats with is clearly a crook, or a prostitute, or a stranger from across the border. And it’s not just his eating habits.  He also has a rather unique way of observing the sabbath, or some would say, not observing it. You watch him and there are moments when you think he’s the most devout person you’ve ever met, and then you stumble upon a scene where he acts as though religion means nothing to him.

The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism, and their passion was to live holy lives; they sought to sanctify every dimension of daily life. They took seriously that God had chosen Israel to be “a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). The big challenge they saw was, how to be a holy nation when foreign occupiers determine so much of public life.

In a context like that, the small, daily, at-home activities take on greater weight and importance. Every meal becomes a sacred ritual of remembering, “We are God’s people.” Every moment of every day becomes an occasion for blessing the Lord God of Israel. You open your eyes in the morning, praising God for the gift of light. You go about your daily work, praising God for the gifts of strength and skill. You open scripture, praising God for the gift of the commandments. You break bread, praising God for the gifts of the earth and of human labor. You tuck in your sons and daughters at night, praising God for the gift of children. And you go to bed, praising God for the goodness of day and night, springtime and harvest, work and rest. It’s a beautiful practice. You sanctify every moment by living it with attention to God’s gifts, commandments, and presence.

 

Marcia Falk spent years writing a book of Jewish prayers; it was published in 1996. In it, she comments on the practice of handwashing that some Jews observe and others don’t. The reason for washing one’s hands has long been that they’re about to touch bread.

“The rabbis saw bread as a double symbol – of God’s gift of sustenance to humanity and of humanity’s sacrificial offerings to God. For the rabbis, the table was an altar and the meal at which bread was served was an reenactment of the devotional rituals of Temple times.”

Every table an altar, every meal an act of worship, every host a priest. Marcia Falk writes that “In the case of its use before a meal, [handwashing] was originally intended, among other things, to reenact the priestly purification ritual performed when offering a sacrifice at the Temple. One might say that mandating the washing of hands before eating, the rabbis turned every meal in the daily life of ordinary people into a sacred event.”[1]

In the days of Jesus and the early church, these practices were still emerging and occasionally hotly contested, especially in the church where Jews and Gentiles had to determine which traditions to continue and which ones to abandon.

In Mark’s story, some Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem questioned Jesus, because they had noticed that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. They weren’t concerned about their personal hygiene or health. Handwashing was a matter of piety and faithfulness. Pouring a little water over one’s hands before a meal, a simple ritual inspired by priestly rules, established and maintained the boundary between holy living and the common world of pagan idolaters and other disorders.

Some of Jesus’ disciples did not observe that tradition, others apparently did. In Mark’s account, however, the lines are clearly drawn. He even adds an editorial comment saying, “all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands,” which isn’t entirely true, but makes for great drama.

Jesus shows little patience in this scene. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” some Pharisees ask, rather innocently, I would say, but there’s no room for innocent questions in this drama.  Jesus calls them hypocrites who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God. He accuses them of teaching human precepts as doctrines while abandoning the commandment of God and holding on to human tradition.

If anyone questioned you and me whether we live by God’s word or by human tradition, we would obviously say, God’s word. But many of us would want to add that God’s word is available to us only through human tradition. The word and command of God is not a voice from heaven or a book that fell from the sky, but a voice that speaks to us in the voices of Moses and the prophets, in the life and teachings of Jesus, in the proclamation of the apostles, in the stories of the gospels, and in the voices of friends and strangers. We listen for and obey the word of God, but our understanding and obedience will always depend on how we interpret the words spoken and written by human beings.

The people questioning Jesus about the practices of his disciples wanted to honor the commandment of God, “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). To them being associated with God meant avoiding any association with ungodly people and things. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with keeping an eye on that line between what is holy and what is not, and not allowing it to get blurry?

In Mark’s story, Pharisees and scribes with a passion for holy living saw Jesus eating with sinners. They saw him crossing the line; but they didn’t see that he crossed it to bring reconciliation. They saw him crossing the line when he cured a man on the sabbath; but they didn’t see that he crossed it to bring redemption, so the man would be part of the sabbath peace. They saw Jesus breaking bread with five-thousand – but, no, they didn’t, not really. All they saw were some disciples who hadn’t washed their hands first. They missed the miracle altogether. Suddenly their holy passion seems petty-minded. They could only see what their tradition allowed them to see. They didn’t take into account that sometimes God will say and do something unheard of. It’s something that happens all the time, and to all of us – not just some Pharisees.

“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Not so fast. There is plenty outside a person that by going in can defile. We are not born with our prejudices. We are not immune to the subtle messages that tell us that we are unworthy of love. Words and attitudes do defile a person’s innate sacredness and snuff the flickering flame of dignity and hope. There are things outside a person that by going in can defile. But we can’t pretend that we can keep it all away. We can’t pretend that we can create islands of holiness in the threatening sea of unholy chaos that is the world. We can’t pretend that the line that divides the holy and the unholy can be drawn in a way that we’re always safely on the inside.

The line runs through the very core of our being. “It is from within,” says Jesus, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” The trouble, says Jesus, doesn’t arise from a world hostile to the holiness of God’s people. Evil cannot be walled out or fenced in or locked away or bombed out of history. The trouble arises from the human heart. From my own heart, not from people whose piety is different from mine.

If I expect the threat to holy living only to come from outside, then that’s where my attention will be, and I will learn to watch, and avoid, and accuse, and condemn others. But in the company of Jesus I learn to look at my own heart with greater honesty, and the better I know my own heart, the deeper my compassion for others will be.

I still love the notion of sanctifying every dimension of life. You open your eyes in the morning, thanking God for the gift of light.  You go about your daily work, thanking God for the gifts of creativity and community. You eat your meals, thanking God for the gifts of the earth and of human labor. You go to bed, praising God for love received and love given. It’s a beautiful practice to sanctify each moment by living it with attention to God’s gifts, commandments, and presence. And that attention, together with the practices that sustain it, shapes your heart, the very core of your being.

Protestants have been highly critical of ritual, for good reasons, but we have dismissed them as empty too quickly. Rituals are not just outward actions, but practices that can help us live more faithfully. Think about the good habits that help you remember that you belong to God and God’s people. And if you can’t think of any, come and see me sometime.

 


[1] Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)p. 428 and p. 426

Monday
Aug272012

Love builds a house

Note from the editor: the following meditation on the lectionary readings was given on Sunday morning. We had four Muslim women guests, and one of them, Maha Elgenaidi, later addressed the congregation. We believe this was a first, but it is part of our continuing effort to talk about matters of faith with people of other faiths.

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How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! (Psalm 84:1)

This psalm is a pilgrim song, a song for the highway, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine a tired but happy throng of men, women, and children on their way to Jerusalem. They’re coming up the road from Jericho, and the older ones who have made this pilgrimage before know that soon they’ll come to the turn where suddenly Mount Zion comes into view and they can see the temple from a distance – how beautiful! How lovely is your dwelling place! They sing, they sing all the way, they sing until all of them are close enough to see the nest the swallow has built for her young near the altar.

My body and soul shout for joy to the living God! Happy are those who live in your house, O God, ever singing your praise! Line after line gives voice to the joy of going to the place where God may be found and the pilgrims are at home: Your dwelling place, O Lord; your house; the courts of the Lord where the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest; better one day in your courts than a thousand anywhere else; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. This psalm is all about the place where God dwells; the pilgrims say they’d gladly trade a thousand days elsewhere for one day there. Think about that for a moment. Summer is just coming to an end, and for those of us who’ve been on vacation the memories are still fresh. Think of those precious days of fullness and rest and joy; days on the beach, in the mountains, on the river, or by the lake – a thousand days there for one day in God’s house. What a day! What a house!

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem has been a holy place for many hundreds of years, for generation after generation of the children of Abraham, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Suddenly we don’t feel like singing anymore, or only a very different song. Suddenly we realize that we can only take turns singing our laments about destruction, suspicion, and jealousy, about pogroms, crusades, and other terrors. We children of Abraham don’t know how to live together at the same address. It’s like we’re singing, “your house, your courts, your dwelling place,” but what we’re really saying is, “our house, not yours.” But we – and by we I mean all of us, Jews, Christians, and Muslims – we can’t sing the beautiful words of Moses, David, Jesus, or Mohammed to the ugly tune of mutual exclusion or colonization and pretend that it’s still the same song. It’s not.

In John 14, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” I believe that is a good place for Christians to start thinking about sharing God’s address with neighbors of other faiths. For some of us that will be a much easier task than for others, but I consider it the call of God for this generation.

And I believe that it’s not just a matter of learning to be tolerant, civil, and respectful or of being nice. Tolerance, civility and respect are all important and good, but they still allow us to continue to live side by side behind thick walls without ever getting to know each other. Prejudice thrives in the shadow of those walls; therefore, whenever the opportunity offers itself to us anywhere to take out a few stones for a window or a door, we need to embrace it and use it well.

The psalm for this day sings of God’s house, and how lovely a place it is where God abides. Now to abide also is a key word in the Gospel of John, and one of the more than forty times this word occurs there, is in today’s passage from chapter 6 where Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

We know John is sailing to the very edge here of what language can convey. In Jesus, the word of God became flesh and blood, a human being, and yes, we are to listen to his teachings and follow his instruction, but he gives his whole self to us, and what he intends for us is the most intimate relationship imaginable, a relationship of mutual abiding – he in us and we in him. This is the house that love builds, not with walls, never with coercion, but with hospitality and grace. It’s God’s house for us and our house for God.

I want to close by going back to Psalm 84. The translation we commonly use in worship reads in v10, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” Now doorkeeper sounds a little like an entry-level job in the temple hierarchy, and the whole phrase conveys a holy humility: it is indeed better to be a lowly servant in God’s house than master of the house in the tents of wickedness.

The verse can also be translated, “I would rather stand at the threshold of God’s house than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a long history of mutual suspicion and violence, with but a few periods when we lived together like brothers and sisters. We are still only beginning to see and understand that the “tents of wickedness” are not necessarily places where only the others ever dwell. Sometimes our very conviction that we are in God’s house, turns that house into a tent of wickedness and we end up living in the most ungodly ways.

“I would rather stand at the threshold of God’s house than dwell in the ents of wickedness.” I find the image of standing at the threshold very moving. It speaks of a willingness to stand in the door of what we know and love as the dwelling place of God, and to keep the door open, to say our prayers and sing our songs and preach our sermons within earshot of each other. The image of standing at the threshold reminds us that the peace and reconciliation we seek and find inside the house cannot be separated from the peace and reconciliation outside. The image invites us to think of the house of God as an open courtyard with many dwelling places.

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