Monday
May052014

Walking to Easter

We don’t know where to look for Emmaus on the map, but we know the road. We walk on it when loss has turned love into grief. Or when our hope has drained away as though a sinkhole had opened underneath and swallowed it. Emmaus is where we go to walk away from what we cannot forget.

Seven miles is a good long walk. When your heart is heavy and you don’t know who you might become after you’ve pretty much lost all sense of who you are, you go for a walk. Walking gives you something to do. It helps you sort through things. Sometimes you have to be alone – you walk by yourself; you want to be under tall, old trees. And when you know there’s no one else on the trail who could hear you, the words don’t just run through your head anymore, but spill out. You don’t really care who it is you’re talking to, whether it’s yourself, or God, or the trees. You let the anger well up, the disappointment, the doubt, the tears. And you walk; the rhythm of your steps keeps your thoughts and memories from spiraling into chaos. You walk, sometimes by yourself, sometimes with a friend. You tell the story, again and again, to your friend, to yourself, to God, to the trees. Seven miles, that’s a good long walk.

Two of Jesus’ friends, Luke tells us, were on that road – Jerusalem behind them, the city and the events of the last few days. They were trying to cope with the flood that had washed over them: the joy of Jesus’ arrival, the shock of his arrest, the guilt over their painful lack of friendship, the trauma of his execution, and then the astounding story the women told about a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive. It was all too much to take in, and so they walked. A stranger came near and was going with them. Luke tells us that it was Jesus, but they didn’t know that. They didn’t know the man who was walking next to them.

He asked them what it was they were talking about. They stopped and stood for a moment, and then they told the story again; told the man how their hope had grown from a spark to a bright flame in the company of Jesus, and how death had snuffed the flame together with the life of their friend. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped,” they said. Some of us have spoken those words when we were packing up the things we had brought with us to the ICU. “We had hoped,” we said, and then we went home alone. Some of us have used the phrase when we didn’t get the phone call after the job interview that went so well. Some of us were too tired to even say the words when news of yet another atrocity flashed across our screens: Civil war in Syria and South Sudan. Hundreds sentenced to death in Egyptian courts. Over two hundred Nigerian girls abducted from their school because education threatens power.

We had hoped. Emmaus is where we go when we can speak of hope only in the past perfect tense. We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem us from the powers and rulers that oppress us. With every fiber of our being we want to speak of that dreadful Friday in the past perfect, “Our chief priests and leaders had handed him over to be condemned to death and had crucified him, but …”

“But on the third day,” we want to continue… but the two on the road can’t hear that yet. The execution on the cross, that was the public event, the one with all the eyewitnesses. From the road to Emmaus, Good Friday simply rings truer than Easter morning. Good Friday is verifiable, then and now. On the Emmaus road, Good Friday is not only not past perfect, it’s present tense. It is where we live, in the world of betrayal, corruption, violence, death, and shattered hope. “Easter is a rumor by comparison. Someone said that someone saw him, only it didn’t look like him, exactly, and before anyone could believe it was him he was gone. … Now you see him, now you don’t.”[1]

Rumors. Baffling tales. The two travelers told the stranger the story of their dreams and disappointments, and they were quite unable to see outside of their own story. The things they kept rehearsing in their hearts kept them from seeing that it was Jesus, the risen Christ himself who was walking with them.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not as famous as Mary or Peter. We never hear of them again; they are like us, ordinary people struggling to keep hope alive. They are also, like us, folk who sometimes struggle to see outside of our own story. Slow-of-heart folk. The story of the resurrection of Jesus is the story outside of our stories, it is the story of God’s faithfulness surrounding our stories of lost hope, the story of God’s creative and redemptive possibilities enveloping our stories of dead ends. It is also the story inside all of our stories. Now you see it, now you don’t.

The stranger listened, and then he retold the story they had just finished, told it right back to them, and in the telling, he wove their loss of hope into the fabric of God’s faithfulness. Now they could hear the confusing rumors of resurrection as echoes of God’s promises to God’s people. Now they could begin to see that the suffering and death of Jesus was not the end of their hope, but somehow a part of it. In the stranger’s words, the promises of scripture opened up like blossoms, and the two companions opened up along with them. “Stay with us,” they urged him when they reached the village and he was walking ahead as if he were going on. “Stay with us; it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. And there, at the kitchen table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. That’s when they recognized him. That’s when it dawned on them. That’s when the resurrection was no longer a rumor or an idle tale, but their life, their world renewed.

Once they had recognized him in the stranger, in the scriptures illumined by his presence, in the breaking of the bread, they no longer needed to see him. He vanished from their sight. The risen One walks with us on the road through the wasteland of lost hope until we see that the power of God’s suffering love makes all things new. Now we see it, now we don’t.

“The sacred moments,” wrote Fred Buechner, “the moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only… the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our … imagination (…) what we may see is Jesus himself.”[2] The risen Christ subverts our ways of knowing, making an ordinary moment shine with glory and opening to us a horizon of hope and courage we cannot perceive with our minds alone. Before we recognize the risen Christ in the stranger, in the scriptures, and in the breaking of the bread, we try to squeeze what we are told happened on Easter into our understanding of the world. We try hard to make it fit. Afterward, it’s the other way around. Now, how we understand the world is held in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. And how we understand life is illuminated by this divine passion for communion with creation, the pssion that has broken down the gates of hell, the chains of sin, and the tombs of death.

We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what will become of Syria and South Sudan, or of Ukraine and Russia. We don’t know how many executions there will be in Egypt or in Tennessee before we stop killing each other in the name of justice. We don’t know how long girls will be obducted and sold in Nigeria and elsewhere before their lives and freedom will finally be honored. We simply do not know what the future holds. But we believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead. We believe in God who is redeeming all things through Christ.

In his book Why Christian?, theologian Douglas John Hall engages in a series of dialogues with an imagined conversation partner, someone who is “on the edge of faith.” The final conversation in the book is about hope, and Hall talks about resurrection:

Resurrection is the ultimate declaration of God’s grace. It is not ... natural. It is not ... automatic. It is wholly dependent upon the faithfulness, forbearance, and love of God. And just for that reason - only that! - I am able, usually, to sleep at night, to continue playing the piano and writing (…) and taking my aging body more or less for granted “in the meantime.” Because the only thing of which I can be at all confident when I think of my own “not being” is that God will be. I am not so presumptuous as to think that the God who “brought again our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead” (Heb. 13:20) will also, quite naturally, be pleased to bring me from the dead, too. I don’t understand all that. (…) I do not, and I expect I never shall, understand all that. All that I can do is to stand under it.[3]

It’s much more than just a clever word play. All that I can do is to stand under the great promise that gives me hope and sets me free.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words,  

Deciding to trust the contours of this new reality more than they trust their accustomed sense of things, the [disciples] themselves are changed. They stop hiding and start seeking. They stop making excuses and start moving mountains. They sell all of their stuff and put the proceeds in a common pot so that no one is in need. They lay their hands on the sick. They defy the authorities. They never tire of telling people who gave them the courage to do such things, and they become known for their glad and generous hearts. (…) their way of life becomes contagious. [4]

They become Easter people.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Easter Sermon,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 1995), 10-14.

[2] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 87-88

[3] Douglas John Hall. Why Christian? (Kindle Locations 2113-2119). Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Preaching and the Lost Language of Salvation,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 2002), 18-25.

Tuesday
Apr222014

The Streets of Nashville

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, Emily and Elizabeth, Alec, Sara and Andrew, and a few more of us walked the streets of Nashville on Friday. We took the stories of Jesus’ suffering on a walk downtown, or perhaps I should say, Jesus took us on a walk on the Good Friday streets of Nashville from the garden to the governor’s headquarters and Golgotha. The long-ago stories of betrayal, denial and abandonment came close, uncomfortably close, between Broadway and Church Street.

We carried a cross all the way up to the Capitol, the final station. There we listened to a long list of names, the names of men who are currently on death row at Riverbend and we prayed. We prayed. We prayed for resurrection. We prayed for God’s word, for God’s reconciling grace to disrupt our violent ways for good. We prayed, a large wooden cross on the ground in front of us, a silent witness to God’s suffering from us and with us and for us – all of us. We should have left it there, a silent witness at the bottom of the steps of the Capitol, but we didn’t. We carried it back to the garage and loaded it on a truck and left.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary didn’t leave. They watched Joseph taking the body and wrapping it in a clean linen cloth and laying it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. They saw him rolling a great stone to the door of the tomb, and then he went away, too. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.[1] They had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee to this moment. They had seen him teaching and healing and illuminating the world around him with his grace and his compassion. When they were with him they saw the world where the poor are blessed and love embraces all, even the enemy. The way he broke bread with friends and strangers, the way he spoke of forgiveness—he had lit a fire in their hearts. He spoke of the kingdom of heaven, and when they were with him, they could see it.

Now this could be the moment when I quote C. S. Lewis who said, “To love anyone is to open oneself to heartbreak.” This could be the moment when I point out how true that is for the two Maries, and really for all of us, and certainly for God who loves the world. But this is also the moment where the story takes a very funny turn. The chief priests come to Pilate’s office with a memory that’s troubling them, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day.” And that’s what they do. They put a guard in front of it and stick a seal on the stone. Now it’s secure. Now this nonsense of God’s reign in what is after all Rome’s world is dead, buried, guarded and sealed. Ha!

But they who laugh last laugh best. The chief priests weren’t the only ones who remembered what Jesus had said. After the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. They remembered Jesus’ words and they went to see and they walked into a messenger of God descending from heaven, lightning dressed in white, earth quaking and the guards of death shaking for fear and passing out. Can’t no grave hold this body down. No grave. No stone. No guard.

“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” the angel said to them. “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” That’s all there is to see: the guards of death passed out on the ground like dead men and the place where he lay, empty.

Jesus who was crucified has been raised—where is he? The women don’t know whether to laugh or cry; their hearts are beating up in their throats; in their fear and joy they have nothing to hold onto but each other; they want to know where they can see him, him and not some heavenly messenger who seems to know their every thought and hope. “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” Go quickly, like they needed an angel to tell them that—they run, their cheeks hurting from grinning, tears running down their faces, they run, each holding the other’s hand to keep their souls from bursting. They run and suddenly they see him, they see their risen friend on the way. “My God,” you want to say, and if there has ever been a moment to say it, this is it. They fall down at his feet and worship the risen Lord, still trembling between fear and joy.

“Do not be afraid,” he says and then he repeats what the angel said, with one small difference. The angel said, “Go and tell his disciples,” but Jesus says, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The first disciples were the men who betrayed, denied, and abandoned him, and we know we belong among them, men and women. Our risen Lord makes sure we know that, no matter what we have done or left undone, we are his brothers and sisters and we are not done following. He hasn’t been raised from the dead to live in glory and never to be seen again. He didn’t burst the chains of death to save himself from the consequences of our sin but to save us, to be with us, and to go ahead of us. The resurrection is not merely something spectacular that happened to Jesus. The resurrection of the crucified one is God’s judgment of the world and it is the first day of a new creation. It is the beginning of new life for the whole world, you and me and all creatures great and small.

“Go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Why Galilee? Galilee is where it all started. Galilee is where Jesus first disrupted our daily routines with his call to follow him. Galilee is where he healed and taught and told the wondrous stories about God’s reign. Galilee is where we first saw the world where the poor are blessed and the hungry are filled and love embraces all, even the enemy, in ways we could barely imagine before Friday. Those who want to see the Risen One are sent to the Sermon on the Mount and to Jesus the Teacher. We who want to see the Risen One are sent back to the beginning of the journey, to follow him again, with a little less fear and with the joy of this day.

The first disciples went to Galilee and saw him there, on the mountain where he said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” He sent them into the world not from Jerusalem, the city where authority and power are so easily confused with might and violence, but from Galilee, from their everyday world of things to do, bills to pay and kids to raise. We who want to see the Risen One are sent back to the beginning of the journey, to follow him again, to learn from him and to serve with him. And we will again hear his parable of the last judgment where they ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

When we walked the streets of Nashville on Friday we heard stories about brothers and sisters who are hungry and thirsty and we saw them; we heard stories about strangers longing for welcome and families in need of shelter and we saw them; we heard stories about brothers and sisters who are sick and in and out of prison, and we saw them. We saw Jesus on the streets of Nashville. On my way back to the church, this has become a Good Friday tradition of mine over the past few years, I listened to Mike Farris sing like an Easter angel.

O’ Mary, Mary I know just whom you seek
You seek for Jesus, whom they crucified last week
Now child he’s risen from the dead And now he walks the Streets of Galilee
O’ Mary, Mary Tell the disciples that he is free
Run Mary run
Now he is waiting just for you
Out on the streets of Galilee
Now when they got up to the mountain
Where he said he’d be
They worshipped and adored him
And said Lord how can this be
All power is within me
From sea to shining sea
Now, go tell all the world about me
And tell them that I walk the Streets of Galilee.[2]

You knew it, didn’t you? He is waiting just for you out on the streets of Galilee.

 


[1] See Matthew 27:57-61

[2] Words and Music by Michael E. Farris © Gypsy7Music

 

Tuesday
Apr152014

Jesus Comes to the City

When they were still in Galilee, Jesus began talking with his disciples about having to go to Jerusalem. He mentioned it not just once, but several times, speaking of betrayal and condemnation, of being handed over to be executed and of being raised.

They tried to persuade him not to go. His reputation as a teacher and healer had grown, but so had the concern of the authorities in the city. Delegations had been sent from Jerusalem to investigate his ways: they challenged him, questioned his teachings, tried to identify his weak spots.[1] In Galilee Jesus was safe; he was with his own people – rural folk, poor people mostly, people who weren’t impressed with delegations of educated experts from the city, having come all the way to harass one of their own.

Jesus’ friends thought it was a mistake to go to Jerusalem, to make himself so vulnerable, but he insisted. The city was where he had to go. They followed reluctantly, dragging their feet, one day amazed at his courage and determination, the next day frightened to death.

On the road, the crowd of people walking to Jerusalem grew larger and larger. It was spring, time to make the pilgrimage to the Temple to celebrate Passover, time to celebrate God’s mighty acts in liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt. Conversations among the pilgrims were marked by joy and expectation, but occasionally even the casual observer could also detect overtones of wounded national pride and signs of barely contained religious fervor. Jerusalem was the holy city, God’s own city, their city, but it was also a center of Rome’s control over the land and its people.

Facing a city crowded with pilgrims, Rome’s representatives were understandably nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the politically charged memory of liberation from Pharao’s yoke, and the mix easily became explosive. Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. He brought along elite Roman soldiers to keep order and to quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare.

Lots of people were on the road before the festival. Imagine two processions approaching Jerusalem at about the same time. One a festive, happy throng of pilgrims, colorful and noisy, with small children, goats and sheep; the other a long, orderly column, a Roman battalion, rows and rows of foot soldiers, led by troops on horseback; banners flying overhead, golden eagles mounted on poles; helmets and weapons glistening in the sun; the sound of marching feet, the clanging of hooves, the clinking of armor, the beating of drums. Rome knew how to project power and remind a city filled with pilgrims that any trouble would be crushed. The Pax Romana, Rome’s peace, would be enforced.

Jesus and the disciples reached Bethphage, on the outskirts of the city, at the Mount of Olives. Jesus had walked all the way from Galilee, but now he stopped, only a couple of miles outside the city gates, and sent two disciples for a donkey. It wasn’t that suddenly he couldn’t walk anymore and needed a ride. Everything in this story is about the unfolding of God’s purposes. “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Words from Isaiah and Zechariah illuminate the scene with the light of promised redemption. People stripped branches from trees and the cloaks off their shoulders and spread them on the road to make a carpet for the one who comes in the name of the Lord, a carpet worthy of a king, their king. Hope and expectation were stirred, but also fear. The whole city was shaken, questions flying from every side, “Who is this?” and the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Two processions entered the city that day, one led by Rome’s governor, riding on the largest horse he could find in his stable, the other led by Jesus, a Galilean peasant, riding on a donkey. Some look at this scene and they see prophetic theater, comedy of the oppressed at its best, a parody of imperial pomp and circumstance; but the people who asked, “Who is this?” didn’t just ask out of curiosity. There were men with little black note books in the crowd who reported to the authorities, both at the temple and at the governor’s residence. They followed Jesus to the temple, eager to record verbatim his inflammatory speeches, but he didn’t give any speeches. He entered the temple precinct like any other pilgrim, but instead of purchasing an animal for the sacrifice, he drove out the merchants and money changers, words of the prophets pouring from his lips. On his first day in the city Jesus managed to irritate the occupying power and the religious authorities, not to mention the merchants who didn’t like having their holiday business interrupted.

He spent the night in Bethany, and some of his disciples probably wished he had stayed there, in the suburbs, away from the complications of the city, but he didn’t. Everything in this story is about the unfolding of God’s purposes. He had to be in Jerusalem, the holy city, God’s own city, the city of memory and hope that was also a hub of political power. He had to be there, not to take over the system and put himself at the top, but to topple the whole power scheme and its principles of fear, greed, and control.

Days later, after the powers that be had decided that they needed to get rid of him expeditiously, the governor would ask him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus would say neither yes nor no.[2] He was and is a threat to the power arrangements of the city because he refuses to play their game, our game, and instead he continues to proclaim the kingdom of God, a reign based not on fear or coercion but on faith and unsentimental, dependable love.

Jesus comes to the city. He comes to bless and to heal, to teach and to comfort, but also to challenge, confront, and disturb us. We spread green branches on the floor of our sanctuary today to remember and celebrate his entry into Jerusalem when the empire was Rome’s, but we also do this to remember his claim on our city. We do this to remember that he does indeed ride his donkey all the way down Broadway, passing churches and synagogues on the way, hospitals and schools, hotels and arenas, law firms and banks, the governor’s office and city hall. He has no interest in a bigger pulpit, a bigger desk, or a bigger campaign fund. He rides his donkey down 8th Avenue, past the massive, most impressive Music City Center, and on down Lafayette and past the Union Mission and the Campus for Human Development. He knows this city, from the hippest condo in the Gulch to the fragile encampments under bridges where those without housing try to find shelter. He enters our city and rides through its streets, inviting us to follow him, and on the way we discover life in his city. His city is built around the table where he shares his bread with the hungry and brings the homeless poor into his house, all of us. His city is built around the table where he gives himself to us to heal our broken, fragmented lives with his compassion and his deep trust in God’s faithfulness. His city is built around the table where we look around and finally see that we are brothers and sisters, members of one household, all of us.

Two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day before Passover: One from the west, a parade of imperial power, a show of force led by Rome’s governor; the other entered from the east, a parade of hope, surrounding a man of fearless humility. We know where the two parades ended; on a hill not so far away. We know which man was tortured and executed, and which one washed his hands.

A few weeks ago, Amanda Miller taught a class during our adult education hour on Sunday morning. We learned a lot about life in the cities of the Roman Empire, including the curious detail of the very restricted use of the color purple. Only members of the imperial household and a small class of officers were allowed to wear clothing made from purple cloth or decorated with purple accents. Purple was the most expensive dye, the color of highest status, the royal color. I chuckled because the church soon adopted the practice of color coding its hierarchy with bishops in purple and cardinals in red. Then I came upstairs and looked at the table.

You can see the bright purple cloth, it’s been on the table all through Lent. It was a bold step for the church to strip the emperor of his purple power suit and to put it on Jesus of Nazareth, as it were, to declare which of the two truly was Lord and Savior and whose vision and power ruled all things. It was a bold step. It was also a dangerous thing to do, given the human inclination to seek power. The challenge remains to this day, will the gentle and fearless way of Jesus transform how we negotiate and organize power in our communities, or will our old imperial ways of domination and control co-opt the name of Christ for our own purposes?

The church was bold to not only claim the royal color of the empire for the Lord Jesus but to combine it with the cross, the empire’s preferred instrument of execution for slaves and trouble makers. This table cover is a bold statement of our hope that the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, will indeed overcome our death-dealing ways with redeeming love. The purple cloth of Caesar embroidered with the cross of Christ is perhaps a greater statement of our faith in the resurrection of the Crucified One than all the trumpets of Easter.

Jesus is riding into town on a donkey, he wants to build his city here. Following him, we discover what it means to be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. Following him, we discover the just city.

 


[1] Matthew 15:1; 16:1

[2] Matthew 27:11

Wednesday
Apr022014

Just City 360 | Cohousing

Cohousing? Yes, co-housing. Nashville’s first co-housing community will be moving into their condos on 5th and Taylor in Germantown this summer. The project features two buildings with 13 and 12 units, respectively and a common house with a dining room, a living room, a kitchen for community dinners and two bedrooms upstairs for overnight guests. The design and development process as well as the built environment are intentionally more supportive of social interaction. Nationwide, there are approximately 125 co-housing communities where residents own their homes but share open space and common facilities. The growing movement represents efforts to push back against the isolating forces of other development models.

Diane Sullivan, a real estate broker and future resident of Germantown Cohousing, will be our guest speaker on Wednesday, April 9 at 6:30 p.m. (dinner as usual at 6:00 p.m.) to talk about the vision and challenges of this movement. If you want to join us for dinner (see the menu), please make a reservation before noon on Monday, April 7.

Saturday
Mar292014

Just City 360 | Sanctuary Art Project

There will be an article in our April newsletter about this project. But if you don't mind poor audio, grainy resolution, and a lot of cross-disolving transitions, watch this video. 

Tuesday
Mar182014

Second Call

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction. I knew her writing from the New Yorker, and I was looking forward to reading more of her excellent science journalism. I expected her book to be well researched, well written, and challenging, and I was not disappointed. I couldn’t put it down. What I didn’t expect was how reading it turned into an ongoing Lenten moment of seeing with painful clarity what an impact human life is having on all of life on earth. I was filled with awe at the sheer immensity of life’s history and with amazement at life’s flourishing again and again after great devastations.

The first mass extinction of life on earth, roughly 450 million years ago, at the end of the Ordovician period, is believed to have been caused by dropping temperatures and the resulting glaciation. The third and biggest, known as “the great dying,” at the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago, seems to have been caused by rising temperatures and changes in ocean chemistry. That one, writes Kolbert, “came perilously close to emptying the earth altogether.” The fifth and most famous, which ended the Cretaceous period some 65 million years ago, doomed the dinosaurs as well as perhaps three-quarters of all living species. It was brought on by an asteroid slamming into the Yucatan Peninsula. Which brings us to the sixth mass extinction, happening all around us. This one is unique in that its underlying cause is a single highly successful species, yours and mine. In geological time, humanity has been around for only a blink of an eye, but long enough to become a planet-altering force.

In her book, Kolbert took me along as she joined scientists in the field who are closely following the trail of destruction – in tropical forests on the slopes of the Andes, in the Amazon, on the Great Barrier Reef, and in caves in Vermont and the Adirondacks. Reading her stories I found myself wondering at her capacity for grief. How could she not be overwhelmed by all the losses she encountered? I can’t forget the scientist from Australia who became a Marine Biologist because he loved the ocean and the incredible diversity of life it supports; now he studies dying reefs, fully expecting that they will all be gone by the time his children would become grandparents. How does he do it?

In a conversation with Claudia Dreifus Kolbert said about humankind’s role in the sixth extinction,

“It’s not something we’re doing because our species is greedy or evil. It’s happening because humans are human. Many of the qualities that made us successful — we are smart, creative, mobile, cooperative — can be destructive to the natural world. When we use fossil fuels, we are reversing geological history by taking organisms that were buried millions of years ago and pumping their carbon back into the atmosphere at a very fast rate.  If I go to Antarctica, an organism I bring on my shoe could be devastating to a life form that has evolved there without any defense against it. Humans have sped up the rate by which we change the world, while the rate at which evolution adapts is much slower. There’s a mismatch between what we can do and what nature can sustain.”[1]

Like I said, reading her book has turned into an ongoing Lenten moment for me, a moment of questioning, wondering, and waiting. Her stories set me down in the middle of the valley, full of dry bones, side by side with Ezekiel, where the Lord asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?”[2] Her stories prepare the ground of my heart for a spring planting of hope. I listen to the opening line of Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” And I remember and affirm, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Kolbert’s story, grand as it is, is still too small. Yes, there is the first call that brings into being all living things, the call of God the creator who speaks and there is life, wonderful, colorful, breathing, swimming, jumping, flying, crawling, growing, roaring life. But the one who calls the worlds into being from first light to the Holocene makes a second call.

In the opening chapters of Genesis we read about the creator’s struggle with a repeatedly rebellious, violent, and corrupt humanity as a whole. Kolbert says life’s a mess because humans are human. Scripture teaches us to look at ourselves as creatures in need of redemption, because there’s a mismatch between what we can do and what we are to be and do.

Standing on the threshold of Genesis 12 we linger for a moment at the place where one epoch in the divine economy ends and another begins. Behind is the record of humanity’s sin, and ahead lies the history of God’s redemption. Looking back we see that up to this point, ever since our first parents stepped out of Eden and the gate fell shut behind them, most of the human stories in Genesis add up to tales of human sin: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood and the tower. At the end of the eleventh chapter of Genesis, eight sad words speak of the fruitlessness, the hopelessness of our world in the grip of sin: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”[3] This family, and with it the whole human family of Genesis 1-11 has played out its future and has nowhere else to go. Under the curse of sin, human history is a dead end.

But the one who calls the worlds into being makes a second call. The Lord speaks to Abram, and with that speaking the walk of faith becomes a possibility in the world.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God’s call interrupts the hopelessness of humanity’s exile and opens a new and different history, the end still being the same as in the beginning of creation: blessing. The history of hope, the new humanity begins where God speaks and the children of Adam and Eve listen. “Go,” the Lord said to Abram, and Abram went, as the Lord had told him. He set out, not knowing where he was going when the Lord burdened him with this curious hope, this peculiar combination of command and promise, ‘Go, and I will bless you.’

The passage opens with God’s command and closes with Abram’s obedience. God’s call and Abram’s response are set like parentheses around the promise, the account of what God is going to do.  God’s action is the center of the word, and because God is going to act, Abram must and can act himself. He must go, without a map, without a schedule or an ETA. He must leave behind country, kindred, father’s house. It’s one radical step – and then another. He must leave the security of home and give up his identity and become a sojourner of God’s promise. He must leave his land for the land which God will show him. He must abandon his kindred for the great nation God will make of him and Sarai. He must let go of his present security for the promised blessing. He must move out of his world for the sake of living in the world to come.

This is a call we do not hear easily or readily. We’re comfortable enough in Haran, half-way between Chaldea and Canaan. We like our little world, the familiarity of it all, although we know that everything hyped as new is really just the old stuff with a new façade, just another turn on the old carousel.

“Of all the things in the world,” wrote Jim Mays many years ago, “we are most interested in those to which we can attach the possessive pronoun—my family, my home, my possessions, my plans, yea, my life.”[4]

God’s call creates a crisis. Our response determines whether we live with and for the promise, disengaging from the present barren way of things, or against the promise, holding on grimly to the present ordering of our world, our vision, our life.

In contrast to the resistant and mistrustful world presented in Genesis 1-11, Abram and Sarai are responsive and receptive to God’s presence and promise. They hear God’s call to live as people of the promise in creation gone awry, and they embrace the promise with just enough passion and courage that they relinquish their present for the sake of God’s future.

It is God’s hope that in this new family all human history and all of life can be brought to the unity and peace intended for creation. And the One who keeps watch over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord will keep you from all evil; the Lord will keep your life. The Lord will watch over your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

 


[1] Elizabeth Kolbert in a conversation with Claudia Dreifus http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/science/the-sixth-extinction-looks-at-human-impact-on-the-environment.html

[2] Ezekiel 37:1-14

[3] Genesis 11:30

[4] James L Mays, “God has spoken,” Interpretation 14, no. 4 (October 1, 1960), p. 420

 

Tuesday
Mar182014

Wilderness Days

On a January morning in 1971, John Francis turned on the radio and he got the wake-up call of his life. He wasn’t aware of it at the time. He only heard the news that two tankers had smashed into each other near the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the sea. He drove to the beach and watched residents wade into the black muck to save what they could. Mostly their efforts failed: more than 6,000 seabirds were killed by the spill.

Francis watched, and he wanted to do something, but he wasn’t sure what. How was his life connected to that deadly accident? Haunted by the images of that day, he started wondering about his role in a society powered by fossil fuels. One day (long before we started squeezing the last drop of oil from tar sands) he decided to walk to an appointment rather than drive, and from then on, without fanfare or much thought, foot travel became his sole mode of transportation.

He tried to explain this to his friends and the occasional driver who offered him a ride, but he soon recognized that he couldn’t. Yes, he felt like he had to do this. No, he hadn’t thought it through all the way, how could he have? Yes, it was a radical step. No, it wasn’t a call for others to follow him, let alone a policy proposal for the city or the state. Before long he realized that he didn’t want to explain his decision. On his 27th birthday, Francis made a one-day vow of silence; he stopped talking. What he didn’t know then was that his day of silence would stretch to 17 years. He packed his backpack and embarked on a cross-country pilgrimage, carrying a written note that read, in part: “This is to introduce John Francis, who left his home in California on January 1, 1983, on a pilgrimage to raise environmental consciousness and promote earth stewardship and world peace.” Along the way – on foot and in silence – Francis earned his undergraduate degree, a master’s, and a PhD. He also earned the respect of government officials and the oil industry, as well as the esteem of many whom he encountered on his journey across the United States.

By his own account, as a young man he was an opinionated big mouth who cocked his ear toward others just long enough to determine he was wasting his time. “I had stopped listening, which is the end of communication,” he told a reporter. “When I stopped speaking, I had time to reflect. The silence created a space for me to learn how to listen—not only to another person but to the environment around me and the voice within.”[1]

In the Bible, that space has a name, it is called wilderness. It is a transitional and transformative space. The Hebrew slaves after their escape from Egypt spent 40 years in the wilderness, learning to live in freedom, learning to live in covenant with God and with each other. The prophet Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness before hearing the still, small voice of God on the mountain where Moses had spent 40 days listening to God and receiving the commandments of life.

In the wilderness, Francis’ wake-up call was transformed into a vocation. In the wilderness, a band of escaped slaves were transformed into a people. In the wilderness, Israel’s prophets discerned the voice and call of God.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, his hair barely dry after his baptism. He had just heard the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[2] Like Moses on Israel’s wilderness journey, Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and when he was famished the tempter came. Nothing is said of the devil’s looks, or where he came from. What matters – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil spoke. The wilderness is not a place of quiet retreat, but rather a landscape where conflicting voices demand attention. The voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” but there’s another voice, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I imagine it’s a friendly voice, with overtones of care and reason, “Why let hunger pangs interrupt your prayers? What kind of son of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of helping himself to some bread? Go ahead, just do it.”

Matthew doesn’t tell us this story so we can know what Jesus was doing after he was baptized and before he called the first disciples. He tells us this story so we understand what kind of Son of God Jesus is. Jesus responds to the voice of the tempter by recalling a moment in Israel’s wilderness journey and quoting a line from Deuteronomy.

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”[3]

Bread is good, bread is important, but trusting the word and promise of God is even more essential for our life to be life.

The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, to the top of the temple, and says, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. You know the scriptures, ‘He will command his angels concerning you.’ Think of the publicity you could get with a stunt like that. Word would spread like a wildfire; the whole world would know you. Just do it. Jump and show them who you are.” And again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, echoing Israel’s wilderness experience, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Now the devil takes him up a very high mountain with a view of the whole world. “Look at all the kingdoms. Look at their splendor. I’ll give them to you. Think of all the good you can do. You can bring an end to hunger and war. You can build something perfect and lasting – just show me a little respect. Come on, let’s do it my way.”

Twice in Matthew does Jesus say, “Away with you, Satan!” Here in the wilderness and again later, on the way to Jerusalem. Peter had just declared with great conviction, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” when Jesus began to show them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious leadership, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter took him aside, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! Behind me!”[4]

In the wilderness, Jesus chose to trust in God and God’s purposes, he chose the way of the cross over the way of the world. “Then the devil left him,” Matthew tells us, “and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” Angels came. I hear echoes of Elijah. When Elijah was in the wilderness, it wasn’t because he had been led there by the Spirit of God; he had been driven there by the fury of Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead. Elijah had fled into the wilderness for his life, but he was also exhausted. He was so exhausted, he wanted to die. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of being the lone voice of resistance in a culture that worshiped idols rather than the living God.

“It is enough,” he said, exhausted in body and soul, before he fell asleep. He woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” There was bread and a jar of water. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Like Elijah before him, Jesus was being nourished in the wilderness for a difficult and demanding journey. In obedience to God and in solidarity with us, he resisted the whispers of the tempter and gave himself to establishing the kingdom of God among us.

Lent is wilderness time. Few of us will give up speaking for forty days in order to let silence create a space where we can learn to listen to each other, to our fellow creatures, and to the voice that calls us beloved. Few of us will give up driving for forty days to discover a different pace and a way of life that doesn’t depend on destroying the earth. But this season is still an invitation to us all to find ways to enter into silence and to stop rushing around mindlessly, to make room for wilderness time so we may discern and listen to the voice of Jesus, and not the voices of the tempter.

As a community, we have made a commitment to look at Nashville during this season with our Just City 360. We have made a commitment to ask questions and learn, in an effort to pay attention to how our city is changing. We will look at housing and development and urban planning with eyes sharpened by what the prophets noticed and by Jesus’ own loving attentiveness to those who have been pushed to the margins and beyond. We will seek ways to establish righteousness in our city and our neighborhoods, right relationships that reflect the loyal love of God we encounter in Jesus.

When John Francis stopped going so many places, his world didn’t shrink, but rather opened up and he noticed small things. He began drawing or painting a picture every day: the sunrise reflected on the bay, the faces of his neighbors, the grass growing in a crack in the sidewalk. It wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed these things before. “It’s just that I hadn’t noticed [them] enough to give [them] meaning,” he said. And he added, “It makes me wonder how much of life goes by me that way.”[5]

Lent is an invitation to wilderness time. It’s an opportunity not just to wonder but to notice how much of life goes by us unnoticed. It’s an opportunity to practice being attentive to seemingly small things and to their place and meaning in the world God has made.

 


[1] Marilyn Berlin Snell, “The Walking Man,” Sierra, March/April 2007, pp.18-22

[2] Matthew 3:16-17

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2-3

[4] Matthew 16:16, 21-23

[5] Marilyn Berlin Snell, “The Walking Man,” p. 19

Thursday
Mar062014

Ashes

This is really just a thank you note for a beautiful moment. 

I used to get the ashes for Ash Wednesday service from St. Mary's Bookstore. No need to get a fresh supply every year - the little plastic bag holds plenty for two or three services. I always loved the fact that the ashes are made from dried up palm branches that had been used to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday. The exuberance of that day really does dry up fast, doesn't it?

Last year, I decided to keep the palm branches we actually used here at Vine Street. I kept them in my study, in a big, blue bucket from Lowe's. At first they looked like an odd potted plant, but soon it was just a bucket full of dead stems and leaves. I waited for just the right day and had a little fire in our backyard.

So this year, the ashes on our foreheads and hands didn't come from a church supply store, but from our own dried up Palm Sunday parade. I like that, but that's not what this note is about.

On Monday before Ash Wednesday, a friend called and told me that our sisters and brothers at Otter Creek would have a service on Ash Wednesday. One of the leaders was about to make the trip to St. Mary's Bookstore to get some of the black stuff that reminds us so starkly of our mortality. Would we consider sharing some of ours? He knew that burning through a bucket of dry palm branches makes a nice pile of ashes (a pile, liturgically speaking, because it's really not even a handful).

And so we shared all that was left of our exuberant welcome of Jesus with our friends at Otter Creek. I can't think of words large enough to hold my gratitude.

In the company of Jesus, even ashes become sacramental. We are dust, all of us, and Christ makes us one.

Wednesday
Mar052014

No Freeze

I received an email from my friend Johnny Wray, the Interim Director of Week of Compassion. It was one of his kind and thoughtful thank you notes, but it included a few additional paragraphs:

While the "official" offering time is ending and we have received a few anecdotal reports from some pastors that their 2014 Week of Compassion offerings are up, I must acknowledge that I am worried about the impact of the severe winter weather we've had across the nation. Many of our congregations have cancelled services or have had diminished attendance because of the bitter cold, snow and ice. 

Unfortunately there has been no "freeze" in the violence in Syria, South Sudan, Congo and elsewhere; no "freeze" in the hunger in Haiti or the Horn of Africa; no "freeze" in the ongoing typhoon recovery work in the Philippines or tornado recovery work in the Midwest. I could go on.

He asked for a favor. Do we have people who haven't had a chance to give (or who would like to give more)? If so, please know that "gifts to Week of Compassion are welcome and needed anytime. Folks can give of course through the congregation as always. They can also give directly to WoC by check or online via our website and in both cases giving credit can be given to the congregation."

Thank you, Vine Street, for your support of Week of Compassion, and thank you, Johnny, for reminding us that bad weather can't disrupt compassionate action. 

 

Tuesday
Mar042014

Awakening

We call this day Transfiguration Sunday. On this day we go up the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John. The journey invites and equips us, after we have heard what Jesus said and did, to see who Jesus is. The hike up the mountain is an invitation to see through all the episodes, anecdotes and moments, to see beyond all of Jesus’ teachings, healings and meals with sinners, and to know him. “He was transfigured before them,” the scriptures tell us, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” How do you talk about such a moment? With great hesitation, I suppose, because there aren’t words to capture it, to capture the fullness of it.

This mountain moment is the point in the story when everything shifts from Jesus’ work in the villages of Galilee to his work in Jerusalem. Everything shifts here from his beautiful proclamation of God’s reign in his words of comfort and demand, his healing touch, and his radical hospitality; everything shifts to his journey to Jerusalem, to the dark hill outside the city where all is lost in betrayal, injustice, and violent death. And here at midpoint, this luminous mountain moment already sings of Easter. It sings of the light of God’s new day when life is redeemed from the power of sin and the glory of God is seen by all in all. How do you speak of a moment when everything sings of the fullness of God dwelling in Jesus, when Jesus, the light of the world is no longer a metaphor but the true light that illumines everything?

Brian Doyle wrote a marvelous biographical piece, seemingly about something altogether different, but perhaps not so different in the end.

Very rarely are we able to reach back into the past and mark a moment when our innermost tides began to flow in another direction; but I think I see one, a moment when I realized with a first hint of cold honesty I was being a selfish buffoon—and possibly the moment when I began to grow up. It is beside the point that it took me another ten years at least to get there, or that I am not quite there yet, even in my fifties.

I was sitting at the dining-room table. My dad and my mom and my sister were sitting there also. I believe it was lunch. My brothers were elsewhere committing misdemeanor. I believe it was summertime. The room was lined with books from floor to ceiling. I believe the meal was finished, and my mother and sister were having tea and cigarettes. My father mentioned casually that our cousins were coming for dinner next Sunday or something like that. I believe these were the Connecticut cousins and not the New York cousins.

I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained. I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that I had of course not shared with anyone else as yet, probably because they were half-hatched or mostly imaginary. My father said something calm and reasonable, as still is his wont. I said something rude. My mother remonstrated quietly but sharply, as still is her wont. I said something breathtakingly selfish. My sister said something gently and kind, as still is her wont. I said something cutting and sneering and angry. My mother slowly put down her tea. Odd that I would remember that detail, her cigarette in her left hand and her teacup in her right and the cup descending slowly to the table. The table had a blue cloth, and just outside the window the yew hedge was the most brilliant vibrant green.

As I remember it was just as my mother was putting her teacup on the table, just as the smoke from the cigarettes was rising thin and blue and unbroken like twin towers, just as my father put his big hands on the table and prepared to stand up and say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control, that I realized I was being a fool. It wasn’t an epiphany or a trumpet blast or anything epic. It was an almost infinitesimal wriggle of something for which I don’t have good words even now. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed, though I was embarrassed, later. It was more like for a second I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was. I understood, dimly, for an instant—I believe for the first time in my life—that I was being a fool.[1]

When I first read that piece, I immediately remembered that moment in my own life. For me it didn’t happen at home with my parents and siblings, but with a group of friends on a Friday night.

For a second I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was.

Brian Doyle calls it A Fool’s Awakening, and awakening is the word, the experience that for me ties his piece to the luminous mountain moment the gospel writers struggle to describe. It wasn’t Jesus who was transformed in front of his friends’ eyes, but their manner of seeing him. Suddenly they saw who he really was rather than who they thought he was, or wanted him to be, or wanted other people to think he was. They saw, not because somebody convinced them or told them what Jesus books to read or urged them to try harder, but because they awakened and they heard the voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We heard a passage from 2 Peter this morning that makes reference to that mountain moment. The text addresses a situation where believers wrestled with disappointment and doubt. For more than a generation, the church had lived with the hope of Jesus’ return in glory. The Risen One will come to judge the living and the dead, but when? Why hasn’t he come yet? What’s taking him so long?

People were making fun of them, and not just the usual despisers of religion, saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”[2] Apparently the argument was gaining ground that the apostolic teaching about Jesus’ return as judge at the end of time was a “cleverly devised myth” and that the prophecies of scripture were unreliable. Cleverly devised myths. Stories made up for people who can’t handle the cold, hard truth that justice is but a dream. Sounds remarkably contemporary for a text from the end of the first century, doesn’t it? I expect commercials and campaign slogans to be cleverly devised myths, designed to tell people what they want to hear, but I can’t think of the apostles’ witness as Jesus commercials, cleverly devised to sell a religious brand. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths,” the author insists, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

The apostles who were with him on the mountain, the men and women who saw him on the third day, they were not a bunch of myth makers bent on deceiving impressionable people, but rather eyewitnesses of his majesty. They were men and women struggling to find words for that moment of awakening, for an experience that opened not just their eyes but their entire being to the presence and promise of God in Jesus. To them the point was not when Jesus would come to judge the living and the dead, but that it was Jesus who would come; that the unsentimental and dependable love of God they had encountered in Jesus was also the power that holds the future; that in the end we would all be answerable not to ourselves or to the powers that want to hold us and God’s creation in thrall, but to Jesus. Cleverly devised myths? No, but rather a transfigured, an awakened way of seeing, thinking, and being.

I want to close with a quote from John Calvin, and I promise I won’t do this often. I know it’s not easy listening, but it’s good, challenging stuff.

True, were I called to contend with the craftiest despisers of God, I trust, though I am not possessed of the highest ability or eloquence, I should not find it difficult to stop their obstreperous mouths; I could, without much ado, put down the boastings which they mutter in corners, were anything to be gained by refuting their cavils. But although we may maintain the sacred Word of God against gainsayers, it does not follow that we shall forthwith implant the certainty which faith requires in their hearts. Profane [people] think that religion rests only on opinion, and, therefore, (…) insist to have it proved by reason that Moses and the prophets were divinely inspired. But I answer, that the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of [people], until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.[3]

We have no great certainty of the word itself, until it be confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit. For the Lord has so knit together the certainty of his word and his Spirit, that our minds are duly imbued with reverence for the word when the Spirit shining upon it enables us there to behold the face of God.[4]

We’re about to enter the season of Lent, a time of deep critique of the cleverly devised myths we tell each other and ourselves. A season that can awaken us to the Spirit’s presence and desire, and bring us face to face with God.



[1] Brian Doyle, “A Fool’s Awakening,” Christian Century, February 19, 2014, p. 12

[2] 2 Peter 3:4

[3] John Calvin, Institutes, 7.4.; see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.viii.html

[4] John Calvin, Institutes, 9.3.; see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.x.html

Monday
Feb242014

To the edge of the field

Mark this day on your calendar, for today we had a reading from Leviticus. The book is mostly known among us for being either skipped or quickly skimmed by folks who make a first attempt at reading the Bible cover to cover. Here at Vine Street, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary through three annual cycles of readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. Leviticus comes up only twice in three years, and one of these rare occasions is today, the seventh Sunday after Epiphany.[1] However, in years when Easter is earlier in spring, the whole calendar shifts, and there is no seventh Sunday after Epiphany, making it even less likely that we will hear a reading from Leviticus in worship.

Why make such a fuss about it? I recently had lunch with a friend who had just completed reading the Bible cover-to-cover and was getting ready to read through all the books again in six months, and his comment on Leviticus was, “Man, all those weird sacrifices…” Yep, lots of instructions for sacrifices and other strange stuff, at least to our modern ears, but Leviticus also contains the brief verse that became essential to ethical reflection in Judaism and Christianity, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Both Jesus and Rabbi Hillel, who became very influential in rabbinic Judaism, lifted up this commandment as the most comprehensive and definitive one. When we talk about love of neighbor, we talk about Leviticus 19. And when we wonder about how to unfold love of neighbor in our daily lives at home, at school, and at work, the verses we heard this morning give us a great place to start. The chapter touches on a wide spectrum of daily life, from worship to fairness in commerce, from family relations to truthfulness in legal proceedings and support of the needy –and all the instructions elaborate God’s initial statement to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Before you jump too quickly to the assumption that this is for holier than thou people, but probably not for you, let’s take a look at what we say when we speak of God’s holiness. When we say that God is compassionate, merciful, just, kind, and loving, we use familiar words that we use daily in other relationships, and those contexts add layers of meaning to the words. But when we say that God is holy we run out of comparisons before we can begin to compare, because nothing compares to God’s holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that God is other, different, radically different, and that God may not be confused with anyone or anything else. To say that God is holy is to say God is God and I am not, nor are you or we, nor are our idols or various powers that like to dress up in religious garb. God alone is God, God alone is holy. And yet, the Holy One is the Holy One of Israel, the related One. The holiness of God is in and with and for God’s people Israel without ever ceasing to be over against Israel.

And Israel’s purpose is to host the holiness of God. “Because God is holy, God’s people are to be holy by being like God in the world,” writes Walter Kaiser is a commentary. “We can, therefore, do away with all the cartoon pictures of the sanctimonious holy person wearing a halo and a prudish glare. To be holy is not to be narrow-minded and primly pious; it is, rather, to imitate God.”[2] And how do God’s people embrace their call, our call to a holy life? Not by striving to out-compete one another on the holiness scale but by turning toward each other, by seeking to embody God’s holiness in our life together. What an awesome calling, a holy life. Where might it take us, after we drop the halo and the sanctimonious manners?

To the edge of the field. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” The edge of the field is holy ground. We are to stop our harvesting before we reach the farthest boundaries of our fields so as to welcome the poor and stranger, who live at the margins, to take their share. The commandment doesn’t specify how much to leave behind, but the Mishnah, a written record of Jewish discussion on matters of Torah, “recommends taking into consideration several factors, such as the abundance of the yield, the overall resources of the owner of the field, and the current needs of the poor.”[3]

Fewer and fewer of us harvest our own fields anymore, and the poor aren’t looking for food on the edges of the field, but many among us still seek to make a living on the margins. How much of the overall yield of our economy belongs to the poor, especially the ones who can’t earn it? The commandment doesn’t specify how much is theirs, whether by right or by mercy, and it’s up to us to decide how to divide the yield of fields, factories, and investment portfolios and how to make certain our practice reflects rather than insults the holiness of God.

We tend to think of holiness in connection with particular places and moments or certain extraordinary people, but the Holy One calls us to be holy in the most ordinary and everyday. Leviticus 19 connects holiness, the very character of God, to the wellbeing of the needy and vulnerable in our midst, to being impartial in court, to not telling each other lies, and not cheating clients, customers, and business partners. “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”

Why not keep the wages overnight? A reason is given in Deuteronomy 24, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”[4] Again, the commandment doesn’t specify how much laborers should be paid before sunset, but the minimum standard appears to be their livelihood: they must earn enough in six days so they and their family can live for a week.

I can probably find somebody desperate enough to dig my ditch for $5 an hour instead of $15, but when I give him his pay of $40 at the end of the day, I’m actually withholding the balance of $80 he needs in order to feed and clothe himself and his family and pay the bills. The market, of course, will let me get away with paying a lot less, but the market is not holy, God is. And as one whom Christ has claimed as his own, I’ll either dig my own ditch or pay the laborer a wage that won’t insult the holiness of God.

Everyday holiness is not about halos but about building a community that reflects the character of God. I love how all the you-shalls and you-shall-nots in today’s passage from Leviticus are gathered together in the beautiful line at the end, a commandment that captures the essence of holiness like a bowl: You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Jesus quotes this commandment in his sermon on the mount and broadens its scope in ways I find immensely humbling. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor’ and [you may think this allows you to] hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[5] He commands us to love not only those we readily recognize as neighbors, but also the anti-neighbors who oppose, violently even, the holy way of Christ. He commands us to actively subvert the logic of violence and vengeance by following him.

At the conclusion of the passage he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Why would Jesus say such a cruel thing? Doesn’t he know that none of us can be perfect? Doesn’t he know how many of us are haunted by the memories of mothers who always found something to criticize in us, no matter how hard we tried to please her? Doesn’t he know how many of us are still trying to prove than we can be just like our dads who always did everything right, everything? Doesn’t he know what a weight he places on our weary shoulders with his talk of perfection?

If that is what we hear, it’s not Jesus we’re hearing. Being perfect sounds very different to our ears, from being complete, being at one with one’s purpose, or being fulfilled. But these are all nuances of what Jesus says here. Also, we must not forget that the command to be perfect is not a call to isolated, individual achievement, but again a call to life in a community that reflects the character of God.

It is no coincidence that Jesus’ words sound much like the ancient commandment to be holy because God is holy. Jesus picks up the bowl that holds the ethical essence of holiness – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – and he says, Remember, it is not your view of who is neighbor that defines the reach of love, but rather the reach of God’s love that defines who is neighbor. Follow me on the way and you will recognize love’s embrace of all, even the enemy. Trust that love and the Holy One who is its source, and you will find life made complete and whole.

 


[1] Epiphany 7 Year A and Proper 25 [30] Year A

[2] Walter Kaiser, Leviticus (NIB), p. 1136

[3] Baruch Levine, Leviticus (JPS Torah Commentary), p. 127

[4] Deuteronomy 24:14-15

[5] Matthew 5:43-44

Thursday
Feb202014

We are one

“It’s been a year since The New York Times declared Nashville the next ‘it’ city,” wrote E. J. Boyer in the Nashville Business Journal, “and it seems the paper's infatuation with Nashville isn’t over yet. The New York Times’ travel desk released its ‘52 Places to Go in 2014’ list (…) and Nashville ranks at No. 15, between Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, and Scotland.”[1] We’re kinda famous, aren’t we? And it’s not just because of some great new restaurants or because Rayna Jaymes, Deacon Claybourne, Scarlett O’Connor and the rest of the Nashville cast give the world an episode of country music soap opera every Wednesday night. Did you watch 60 Minutes last Sunday? If you did, you may have seen Charlie Biter and Rusty Lawrence on national tv, together with Ingrid McIntyre from Open Table and Anderson Cooper. The segment was about a nationwide effort by cities to end homelessness by providing housing first and saving a lot of money in the process. Nashville became part of the movement just recently, after years of good work by churches, non-profits, and government agencies that prepared the ground for what is at heart a simple and common sense concept: people without housing need first and foremost a safe place to stay; then it becomes a lot easier and, yes, cheaper for the community to provide the care and services they might need.

In Nashville, more than 360 individuals have moved from the streets to a home since last summer, and most of them have been able to keep their homes. This is something to celebrate, because one story of transformation is a heart-warming anecdote, twelve stories are an interesting pattern, but over 360 stories reflect a change in how we understand ourselves to be a community. We know a little better that Nashville is not just a bunch of houses and streets with a bunch of people scattered about in them. We know a little better that a city is a community, and how together we can find  creative ways to address the needs of citizens and other residents. The truth is, we are one, we are made for each other, and not just thrown together and pulled apart by invisible hands.

To me, the more than 360 stories are illustrations for what the yeast of the gospel can do over time, when there are disciples who are patient, persistent, and faithful. In 1977 Charlie Strobel was the priest at Holy Name Catholic Church over on Woodland, and one day he gave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a homeless man at the door of his rectory. Nothing could be simpler than a PB&J, right? Nothing could be simpler than Charlie opening the doors of the rectory to those sleeping outside in the cold, and soon a cooperative ministry by a growing number of Nashville congregations began, known to this day as Room in the Inn. It always begins with a simple, human gesture of compassion that says, “I care about you. We care about you. We are one.” A simple PB&J can be sacramental bread, reminding both the giver and the receiver that the love that made us makes us one; that love heals. Even the very complex problems of homelessness can be addressed with caring gestures we all know and understand, and love will show us a way to greater justice we couldn’t imagine before the bread was broken.

Caring gestures we all know and understand. It was on the evening Jesus and the disciples gathered for one last meal, when he took off his robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, and he washed the disciples feet, and he wiped them with the towel, one after the other. He spoke for a long time that evening, but what we remember better than the words, what we see without even opening the pages of the gospel, is the Lord kneeling on the floor. He taught us how to be the community of his friends with a gesture of hospitality none of us expected but all of us understand. He continued to teach that night, column after column of text printed in red in chapters 14 to 16, and if you’re looking for something to hold onto, grab the vine and the branches: they speak beautifully of our unity in Christ, of our roots in love and our fruits of love.

At the end of the evening, before they crossed the Kidron valley to go to the garden, Jesus prayed. The words are not the words of a man in agony, wrestling in the night with God’s will and the knowledge of his impending death; there is not even a hint of struggle. It is the prayer of one who has complete confidence that the purposes of God will be fulfilled in the events about to unfold. The words reflect the love and intimacy between Jesus the Son of God and the One he called Father, but the prayer opens up to include us, the community of Jesus’ friends. His eyes are lifted up to heaven, but his arms are stretched out to embrace all generations of his friends. He prays for us and our work and witness in the world. He prays for us who live in the world, but don’t belong to it – because as Jesus’ friends we belong to him and to each other, a communion of life rooted in the love and intimacy the Son and the Father share in the Spirit.

We don’t belong to the world, but we live in it as agents of divine friendship, as the living, breathing invitation to life in communion with God and one another. We’re not just a bunch of people scattered about the city and scattered in our pews, brought together for an hour before we scatter again. No, we are one in ways we couldn’t even imagine before he broke bread with us. We are made for each other. We belong together like branches on the vine, and the love that draws us into the communion of life in God is also the desire that longs for creation to be whole. “We are one,” God the Son and God the Father say to each other. “We are one,” Jesus the Son and generations of his friends say to each other. And in the end, “We are one” names the reality of all creatures and the world made whole. We are one, not because we make it so, but because the love that made us makes it so.

In the gospel of John, “the world” is often a way of describing those who oppose Jesus. But it was for love for the world that God sent the Son, and in this prayer, at the close of his ministry, Jesus carries not only the names of his friends on his shoulders and in his heart, but the world. Jesus prays for his friends, “that they may all be one…, that they may be one as we are one…, that they may become completely one…, so that the world may believe…,  so that the world may know that you have sent me.” The vision he puts before us is not of the beloved community surrounded and threatened by a hostile world, but of the world coming to know itself as the beloved community it is. The hope expressed in the words of his prayer is that even those who had been hostile to the coming of the Son may find life in his name. The divine desire expressed in the words of the prayer is the reconciliation of all things in the love we recognize in the life of Jesus.

Reconciliation is one of the big church words, and there’s a story that might help illustrate its power.

Sam Bowers was the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, when, before dawn on January 10, 1966, he and two carloads of his fellow Klansmen drove to a house about five miles north of Hattiesburg, MS. The house belonged to Vernon Dahmer, and he and his family were asleep when the Klansmen doused their home with gasoline and set it on fire, destroying both the house and the adjacent grocery store. One of Dahmer’s three children, a ten-year-old daughter, was injured in the fire. Dahmer himself lived for a few hours but died that afternoon.

More than three decades later, in August 1998, Sam Bowers was finally convicted, after four mistrials, of the firebombing murder of Vernon Dahmer. Witnesses testified that Bowers had ordered the killing because Dahmer was allowing black voters to pay their poll taxes in his store.

One of the individuals present in the courthouse for Bower’s 1998 trial was the Reverend Will Campbell. Campbell had known Vernon Dahmer from his days as a chaplain at Ole Miss when they had worked together on voting rights issues. Courtroom reporters were shocked, though, to see Campbell being embraced as an old friend not only by Ellie Dahmer, Vernon’s widow, but also by the defendant, Klansman Sam Bowers. During recesses in the trial, people noticed Campbell was talking with equal warmth to both her and him. When a reporter asked Campbell how he could possibly be so friendly with both the victim and the monster who had committed murder, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a Christian, G-dammit!”

While writing a book about the integration struggles at the University of Mississippi, Campbell had realized that he needed to spend time not only with his friends and people who shared his views but also with enemies of the movement. He eventually met Sam Bowers and spent time with him. During one of their meetings, Campbell had been riding with Bowers in a car and Bowers had stopped by a local cemetery to visit the graveside of a friend. When he came back to the car, Campbell remembered, Bowers had tears in his eyes. “Animals don’t cry,” Campbell said. “Human beings cry at the foot of a friend’s grave.”[2]

A tear helped him see the human being behind the mask of the Imperial Wizard, and he reached out to the man. Campbell’s testimony in the courtroom wasn’t part of the legal proceedings. He acted as a witness not for the prosecution or the defense, but for the love that desires and accomplishes our reconciliation.

The last time I saw Will Campbell he was the speaker at a Week of Compassion gathering; he was an old man then, holding on to his cane, bent over and moving cautiously, but with fire in his heart. He didn’t say much, but what he said stuck. “The deepest human hunger,” he said, “can only be stilled by love, unsentimental and dependable love.”

The theme for this year’s Week of Compassion offering boldly quotes Jesus’ prayer, “We are one.” Giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty are simple human acts of compassion, as are washing feet, opening a door and noticing a tear. And yet, in those simple human acts the unsentimental and dependable love of God is at work in the world, healing, restoring, and reconciling, until the world is one.

 


[1] E. J. Boyer http://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/blog/2014/01/nashville-lands-among-ny-times-places.html

[2] See Bartholomew Sullivan, “Bowers Convicted of Killing Dahmer. Ex-Klan Leader Gets Life Term in ’66 Murder,” (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, August 22, 1998; http://www.asne.org/kiosk/writingawards/1999/sullivan.html#Aug22 . See also Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2004), pp. 102-103. 

Tuesday
Feb112014

Savoring the words

“The most dangerous passages in the Bible are the familiar ones,” writes the professor, “because we do not really listen to them.” Perhaps you thought that it’s good, even important to be familiar with scripture, but the professor suspects that familiarity breeds contentment, and “the sharp stone of God’s Word, smoothed down by the river of time, no longer cuts. Instead of being challenged by hard thought or hard choices,” he writes, “we lean back and savor pretty words.”[1] The professor wants to counter the “soporific effect of the too-well-known,” wants to give the smooth stone its sharp edge back, and he does so with scholarly depth and precision.

I don’t mean to make fun of the professor, although it may sound like I’m setting the scene for a punch line. I don’t really disagree with him on the dangers of familiarity, especially when the seemingly too-well-known is not known at all. No, I want to suggest that the savoring of pretty words, something he seems to dismiss as merely superficial, is actually a way to open those words for us, and us to the Word of God that comes to us through them. Savoring words of beauty is a mode of knowing that has less to do with penetrating study, and more with not swallowing too quickly what has barely been chewed and tasted. Savoring words of beauty is a more contemplative mode of knowing.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we hear the words read from scripture, and the professor suspects that we stop listening, with our hearts strangely warmed by nostalgia rather than the fire of God’s Word. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” we hear as we have heard countless times before, and yet it is a beautiful, life-giving word when we hear it spoken to us. “Blessed are you, poor ones in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” The word for them, heard so many times before, becomes a word for now and for us, a promise, a blessing for you and me.

When you hear “poor in spirit,” what comes to mind? A group of tired cheer leaders? Folks with an F in spirituality? I find myself in a kitchen with a mother and her 9-year-old daughter. It’s a scene I will never forget; it has stuck with me ever since I first stumbled upon it.[2] The little girl was sitting at the table, eating a bowl of cheerios, and mom was packing her lunchbox. The radio was playing in the background, the news was on, the usual sound track of a weekday morning. Suddenly the child looked up and said, with great sadness in her voice, “Mom, is that war still not over yet?”

She had been listening to the news, and it almost doesn’t matter if the war was in Iraq or Afghanistan, Libya or Syria, does it? “Mom, is that war still not over yet?”

“I could feel my soul draining through the soles of my feet,” is how the mother described it. Do you know that feeling when something’s just not right, but you can’t be angry or sad about it, because it’s too big for ordinary feelings, too overwhelming?

The little girl in her sadness gives voice to God’s own grief, and you tell yourself that it’s not right for such a little one to already know in her bones how broken our world is, and you want to protect her, you want to make things right, and in the same instant you realize that you can’t.

What do you do? You speak the truth as love has taught you. You take her in your arms and hold her; you whisper that it breaks your heart too, and you hold her a little longer before you kiss her on the forehead and say, “It’s gonna be OK, pumpkin, it’s all gonna be OK.” And off she runs to catch the bus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. When you know that the world doesn’t have the answer to it’s brokenness, despite its shoddy promises and props of power and wealth, when you know that none of us hold the answer to our own brokenness, you are blessed in your poverty because the kingdom that has drawn near in Jesus is for you. When you hunger and thirst for righteousness and you feel like you’re going to bed hungry every night, you are blessed because Jesus is bread for you. When you speak the truth as love has taught you, when you speak it with your tongue, with your arms and feet, when you seek to receive and give mercy with your whole being, you are blessed because you speak the language of heaven. When you follow Jesus on the humble path of compassion that leads to the cross, you are blessed because it’s not the proud, the arrogant, or the violent who will inherit the earth, but the crucified one who is risen.

The blessings Jesus utters are words to take along on the journey, words to savor and remember and make our own. It’s gonna be OK, it’s all gonna be OK because God is faithful. The way of Christ may look like fool’s avenue in the eyes of those familiar with the workings of the world and its wisdom, but for us it is the way of redemption, the way of peace, the way of life. In Jesus’ healings and teachings, in his compassion for the poor and his meals with sinners, the joy of heaven embraces the earth and holds it, holds us in all our brokenness. He never lets go as he enacts the justice of God’s mercy and embodies the kindness of God. He walks humbly all the way, pure in heart and fearless, never letting go, trusting that the final word would be God’s.

When we say to the little girl, “It’s all gonna be OK,” we tell her the gospel truth, a truth much bigger than anything we can promise. We tell her, and telling her we remind ourselves, that God is faithful beyond anything we do or fail to do. And so, poor as we are in spirit, hungry and thirsty as we are for righteousness, we serve the kingdom of heaven Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. We savor his words of blessing as they open themselves to us and draw us in. We savor his words of blessing as we open ourselves to them and let them make our hearts their home. We savor his words of blessing and we give the precious gifts of comfort and courage to each other, each time with different gestures the love of Christ has taught us.

Fifty years ago, Studs Terkel wrote and produced a radio documentary, titled, “Born To Live: Hiroshima.” He created a collage of music and voices, strong, gentle, life-affirming voices, cradling the small voices of young children who were afraid of nuclear war, young children deeply worried about the future of life. Among the voices woven into the loving choir of adults, holding the children and surrounding them with hope and courage are Pete Seeger, then in his 40’s, Georgia Turner, an elderly sharecropper from Tennessee, Miriam Makeba, James Baldwin, and many others. And about halfway into this symphony of life and hope, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. begins to pray, “Because we love the world, we pray now, O Father, for grace to quarrel with it, oh Thou, Whose lover’s quarrel with the world  is the history of the world, grant us grace to quarrel with the worship of success and power; with the assumption that people are less important than the jobs they hold. Grant us grace to quarrel with the mass culture that tends not to satisfy, but exploit the wants of people; to quarrel with those who pledge allegiance to one race, rather than the human race. Lord, grant us grace to quarrel with all that profanes, and trivializes, and separates [human beings]. (…) Lord, number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth from this [place] longing for only those things for which Thou dost make us long; [people] for whom the complexity of issues only serve to renew their zeal to deal with them; [people] who alleviated pain by sharing it; and [people] who were always willing to risk something big for something good. So may we leave in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, a little more beauty than would have been there had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not, but still could be. Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them; and take our hearts and set them on fire.”

I listen to this prayer and I don’t hear words that are fifty years old. I hear words of comfort and courage whose time is always now. Words that will rise again and again, as long as the church leans forward and savors the beautiful, life-giving words of Jesus.

 


[1] John P. Maier, “Matthew 5:3-12,” Interpretation 1990, p. 281

[2] I believe it was written by Barbara Kingsolver, but I wasn’t able to track down a reference.

The quote from Stud Terkel's radio program is from the liner notes of the Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Monday
Feb102014

Salt and Light

We welcome this morning some friends and neighbors from across the street at Westminster Presbyterian church. They have been working for several years with Living Waters for the World, helping communities and households gain access to clean, safe drinking water, both here in Tennessee and in South America. We are partnering with Westminster to strengthen the global efforts of Living Waters for the World and to take our first steps of hands-on mission in another country with brothers and sisters who have done this work well and who are eager to have us serve side by side with them. Our friends from Westminster came over today to talk to us about their experiences in Peru and in Macon County, and they brought with them a complete water purifying system for show and tell; this way more of us can take a look, even put our hands on it, and become familiar with the simple and highly effective technology.

So today is a good day to remember that God’s people are not new to the water purification business. Perhaps you remember the story from the second book of Kings, where the people of a certain city turned to Elisha and said, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.[1]

I couldn’t help but tell this story today when in the gospel reading Jesus tells his followers, “you are the salt of the earth.” When I listen to his words in the context of Elisha’s spring purification, “you are the salt of the earth” sounds like “you are agents of healing, you are agents of wholeness who serve the flourishing of life.”

Water and life, of course, go hand in hand, but so do salt and life. We love the taste of salt, and for good reason; our bodies need it to function well. In addition to helping maintain the right balance of fluids, salt helps transmit nerve impulses, and it allows our muscles to work properly. We hear so much about salt being bad for us, when in fact it is essential for our wellbeing. Unrefined salt contains just about everything you find in a bottle of Gatorade, except the artificial color and flavor. Unrefined salt is a convenient package of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, as well as other vital minerals. It is as though we carry in our bodies the ancient memory of the sea, and we thrive as long as we have a tiny dose of the ocean in us. A tiny dose, my internist would want me to emphasize in the interest of public health.

Salt has also been, for thousands of years, one of the most widely-used food preservatives, especially for meat and fish. Long before the days of Elisha, Egyptians and Phoenicians traded salt fish and salt from North Africa throughout the Mediterranean. The soldiers in Rome’s armies were paid with salt allotments, called salaria in Latin, and many of us still work for a salary. In ancient times, salt was precious as gold, and salt pressed into cakes is one of the earliest currencies in the world.

Salt has been a crucial ingredient in just about any known human culture, and it is no surprise that it gave rise to a variety of symbolic uses. Because of its use as a food preservative, salt came to represent permanence and protection. In ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Israel, a pinch of salt was eaten by the parties to agreements and treaties. Sharing salt expressed a binding relationship. In the Bible, the expression “covenant of salt” illustrates the permanent nature of God’s covenant with God’s people. We like to talk about “rules written in stone” or “iron laws,” but God’s covenants are “covenants of salt,” based in a living relationship of partners who have bound themselves to each other.[2] “You shall not omit from your grain offering the salt of the covenant with your God,” we read in Leviticus, “with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”[3] There certainly was the notion that salt would purify the offering to make it acceptable as a sacred gift, but the pinch of salt also served as a reaffirmation of and recommitment to covenant fidelity.

The preservative power of salt may have been the reason for it becoming the substance of choice to ward off evil forces in general. Perhaps you remember, as I do, a grandmother, maybe on the Italian side of the family, who would throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder, mumbling a well-worn prayer whenever she felt she needed to keep the devil away. Cultural anthropologists are quite confident that Jewish mothers began rubbing their newborn babies with salt to protect them against evil spirits, as mothers and midwives continue to do to this day in many parts of the world. But I can’t help but wonder – when a mother in Israel rubbed her infant with salt, didn’t she also rub that little one, head to toe, with the covenant promises of God? Didn’t she also put a grain of salt on her child’s lips to give the little one a taste of God’s faithfulness and wisdom? I like to think she did, and that salt – that wondrous, precious substance – never meant just one thing, but was a vessel that contained ever new layers of meaning, generation to generation.

There still is an expression in modern Arabic, “there is salt between us,” meaning, “we are like family, we are close friends.” There is another expression in English, “below the salt,” whose origins date back to the days when salt was rare and expensive. In the houses of people of rank, a large saltcellar was placed near the middle of a long table. The places above it were assigned to the guests of distinction, the seats ‘below the salt’ were for dependents, inferiors, and poor relations. They also could say, “There is salt between us,” but it meant an entirely different thing. Jesus, of course, loved to talk about seating arrangements at the dinner table, and at his table no one was or is considered ‘below the salt.’

These are all echoes I hear when I hear him say to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” You are precious as gold. You bring healing and wholeness. You add flavor and zest to the world. You are a symbol of divine hospitality, friendship, and faithfulness. The earth cannot be without you.

“You are the salt of the earth,” he says to us, right after he said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Our faithfulness to his way will evoke rejection and  resistance, he says, even persecution – and he tells us to rejoice, because we are on the way to our reward and life’s fulfillment.

We may feel like avoiding the confrontations that come with living as followers of Jesus; we may feel like a little religion is all we want, all we can take. We may feel like adding a little spiritual icing to the world’s cake is just fine. But he tells us what we are: the salt of the earth. Not sugar, not syrup, but salt. A group of people that adds a particular, essential quality and flavor. A group of people that is vital for the wellbeing of the whole. A group of men and women whose way of being in the world is the living reminder of God’s faithfulness to the world and all who live in it. You are the salt of the earth. You are in the world to remind even your enemies of the covenant of grace that binds us all to God and to each other.

We live in a culture that is incredibly creative, but more and more of our collective attention seems to revolve around consumption and entertainment, and not around building strong communities. There is plenty of hostility toward the gospel that calls us to live as brothers and sisters, and little of it comes in the form of outright persecution. It’s more like an endless loop of commercials: friendly faces, beautiful images, great music, and clever lines inviting us 24/7 to believe that life really is all about us and that only the things that can be sold have value.

There are powerful alternatives to covenant living; there are powerful alternatives to understanding our lives as part of Christ’s mission in the world. But the God of righteousness calls for people who share their bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house and clothe the naked, instead of worrying about what they will eat or drink or wear.

When Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, we know one thing for sure: we are good for something, we are meant to add something. We have been called to live with a holy purpose. The way of Jesus Christ reveals to us the unfathomable depth of God’s grace, and our life together in service and in joyful fellowship around the table of Christ gives the world a taste of that ocean of grace, gives the world a glimpse of the sun of righteousness. We are salt because Christ has drawn us into fellowship with him. We are light because the light of the glory of God has been revealed to us in the face of Jesus. The church is salt and light. We are in the world as a living expression of God’s desire to live in covenant with all humankind.

 


[1] 2 Kings 2:19-22

[2] Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5

[3] Leviticus 2:13

Tuesday
Jan282014

We ain't what we was

It is a great comfort to have Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth included in the Bible. It is a great comfort to the church to realize and remember that dissension and division are not signs of decline that brought to an end some golden age of Christian unity, but have been an issue since the earliest days. It is a great comfort to have Paul’s words and thoughts to remind us, generation after generation, whose we are, to whom we belong, to whom we really belong, and what that entails for our difficult life together.

How are we to be the church of God together? Let’s go back a few years. The reformation in Europe began in the first half of the 16th century with a renewed emphasis on essentials: Solus Christus – Christ reigns, and no other. Sola scriptura – Scripture as the revelation of God’s word determines what the church proclaims to be true. Sola fide – We are saved by faith alone. It was an emphasis on essentials, but the passionate effort to renew the church quickly became a bloody mess. The conflict over how to be the body of Christ in the world and how to remain faithful to the word of God turned so deadly that the English Protestant John Foxe compiled a history of Protestant martyrs, popularly known as “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” Published in 1563, the book was enormously successful and went through four editions in Foxe’s lifetime. Foxe himself fled England to Frankfurt and Basel when the Catholic Mary came to power in 1554, when he was in his late 30’s. Sixteen years later, in a Good Friday sermon delivered in London, outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he talked about the Turkish invasion of Hungary and Austria, and the fears that threat continued to stir. But having witnessed the best and the worst of the reformation efforts across Europe, he lamented,

Here (alack) cometh another mischief, as great, or greater than the other. For the Turk with his sword is not so cruel, but the bishop of Rome on the other side is more fierce and bitter against us; stirring up his bishops to burn us, his confederates to conspire our destruction, setting kings against their subjects, and subjects disloyally to rebel against their princes, and all for thy name. Such dissension and hostility Satan hath sent among us, that Turks be not more enemies to Christians, than Christians to Christians, papists to protestants; yea, protestants with protestants do not agree, but fall out for trifles.[1]

With less than a decade or so of genuine peace, Europe of the Protestant Reformation endured almost two centuries of constant warfare.[2] Two centuries of violence and destruction, and all for thy name. You’d think that with a track record like that, Protestants would have learned to speak a little less forcefully, a little less certain of our tidbits of truth, but rather with the humble confidence of disciples who follow Jesus on the way of the cross; but no, the last two hundred years have only confirmed how good we really are at falling out for trifles.

It was around the year 50, when Paul first came to Corinth and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Corinth was a bustling town with two ports, it was a commercial and religious hub with a reputation for wealth without culture. It was a city where a lot of money could be made, and the social pyramid was steep. The church in Corinth was young, and perhaps that meant it hadn’t had time to split into congregations along the lines of the city’s socio-economic contrasts and differences in education and influence. The church in Corinth was an incredibly diverse mix of people. Wealthy merchants and slaves had been brought together by the power of Christ as brothers and sisters, and they didn’t quite know what to make of it.

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.”

Thirty-eight times in this letter, significantly more than in any other of his letters, Paul uses this simple address, brothers and sisters. Thirty-eight times he affirms the common ground and the equal standing of all who are in Christ. Brothers and sisters he calls them repeatedly, so that when the letter would be read aloud in the assembly, they would perhaps remember that all of them belonged to the family of God. That they didn’t “belong” to Apollos or Cephas or Paul or any other earthly authority, but that Christ had made them his own; that they belonged to no other master, not even to themselves, but to Christ, and therefore, in a radically new way, to each other. 

Brothers and sisters he calls them, not ladies and gentlemen, or senators, slaves, merchants, and sailors, or Romans, Greeks, and Jews, but brothers and sisters. “In order to form a Christian community identity within a pluralistic pagan world, Paul repeatedly calls his readers to a ‘conversion of the imagination,’” is how Richard Hays puts it.[3] A conversion of the imagination. A complete rethinking and reordering of their inherited cultural norms and practices. A resocialization of Corinthians from all sorts of backgrounds into the new family of God. A conversion of the imagination would mean the undoing of everything that used to define their identity. Ethnic and family background, gender, status, language, income, politics, education, everything is subverted by their being one in Christ.

Dissension and division, quarrels and status anxiety are indications that this “conversion of the imagination” is still incomplete. In his letter to the Romans, Paul calls this conversion the renewing of our minds. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[4] Be transformed by looking at yourselves and each other not through all the usual lenses of who matters and who doesn’t, who knows and who doesn’t, who is wise and who isn’t, who has a voice and who hasn’t, but instead through the complete and radical undoing of all of that in the cross. Be transformed by looking at yourselves and each other in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Some in Corinth, and God knows not just there, some are easily swayed by sparkling rhetoric. Some have aspirations for wisdom. Some are impressed by knowledge. Some are awestruck by the faith and the gifts they recognize in themselves and in others. Some place importance in power and status—and all of them (and that is not the easy ‘them’ that doesn’t include us), all of them lose sight of the power of God and the wisdom of God shown through the cross.

Christ sent me, declares Paul, “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” He dissociates himself and his proclamation from clever speech and sparkling rhetoric, precisely because some Corinthians were so easily impressed by that kind of eloquence. Cultured speech, delivered in a refined fashion, was the telltale of high status and privilege, of power and wealth. Eloquent wisdom, pleasant and persuasive as it may be, would only reinforce the ways social relations were currently arranged in the city, with a lot of distance between the top and the bottom of the ladder. Paul points to the cross, to the event that demolishes all pretensions to status and standing in the world.

We live, just like generations of Christians before us, with competing affiliations and allegiances, and we must be very attentive and careful to not let something else, something less than the God of the cross occupy the governing center of our imagination and our life. Our many differences are not a problem as long as we remember that we belong to each other because Christ has made us his own; that in our baptism, God has claimed us each equally as members of God’s household, regardless of who we were. Brothers and sisters, no matter how steep the social pyramid is in the city, it is subverted by the cross so we can come together around the table of Christ, see each other face to face, hear each other out, and finally realize that love rules, that love is Lord of heaven and earth.

The conversion of our imagination for life in this new family of God. I was listening to the radio and heard that last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure. As they sifted through box after box, they pulled up a little reel-to-reel tape with a piece of masking tape on it, labeled ‘Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.’” It’s audio no one knew existed. That year – 1962 – fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since.

I listened to it on NPR’s website and I was struck by Dr. King’s closing words:

And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher, who didn’t quite have his grammar right, but uttered words of great symbolic profundity. They were uttered in the form of a prayer: Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be, we ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what we was.[5]

The old preacher didn’t quite have his grammar right, but he spoke words steeped in the power of God to liberate and reconcile. He spoke words for all of us, brothers and sisters who struggle to live more faithfully as the family of God.

Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be, we ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what we was.

 


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2004), p. 335.

[2] MacCulloch, p. 648.

[3] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation) (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), p. 11.

[4] Romans 12:2

[5] http://www.npr.org/2014/01/20/264226759/a-promise-unfulfilled-1962-mlk-speech-recording-is-discovered

Tuesday
Jan212014

Servant people

“Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”

John of Salisbury wrote this in the middle of the 12th century about his teacher, Bernard.[1] Some seventy years later, the huge south rose window was installed in the cathedral of Chartres, and below it five tall, slender lancet windows [picture] showing the four evangelists and the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Christ.Each evangelist is portrayed as sitting on the shoulders of a major prophet, Luke on the shoulders of Jeremiah, Matthew on the shoulders of Isaiah, John on Ezekiel, and Mark on Daniel. We don’t know if this rare depiction was perhaps commissioned in part to honor Bernard as a teacher and chancellor of the cathedral school, but it certainly illustrates memorably the close connection between the apostles and the Old Testament witnesses who before them had spoken and written of God’s will and ways.

From early times, the prophet Isaiah stood out as particularly large among the giants. Jerome, who lived from 342 to 420 and was one of the most influential figures in the history of the Bible, wrote of Isaiah, “he should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” Others didn’t hesitate to call Isaiah, with holy enthusiasm and gratitude, the “Fifth Gospel.”[2]

Sadly, the enthusiasms that led Christians to read and interpret Isaiah weren’t always holy, and his words were often used in hurtful, violent ways, particularly against Jews. Perhaps we can learn to read as servants rather than masters, so we don’t create interpretations that only serve us and our desire to lord it over each other. Perhaps we can learn to read as disciples of Jesus, that is with the attitude of servants who receive scripture with gratitude and in community with others.

Last Sunday, at the Baptism of the Lord, we heard a passage from Isaiah where God says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[3] We heard the beautiful words and their many echoes in Jesus’ beautiful, faithful life. Today we heard another passage from Isaiah that speaks of God’s servant, with its own echoes of last week’s reading. I want to encourage us to hear the words not like masters who are eager to determine who the servant is and what the servant’s work might do for us; I invite you to hear them as fellow-servants who want to learn how our own calling is related to that of the servant of whom Isaiah speaks.

The Lord said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”[4] Israel is named as God’s servant, but then we read, “the Lord formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him.”[5] The servant is both Israel and an individual with a mission to Israel. How can this be? How can the servant be both God’s people Israel, the tribes of Jacob, the children whom Moses led, and an individual whom the Lord called before he was born, whom he named while he was in his mother’s womb, whom he sent to bring Israel back to Zion? How can this be? Perhaps our insistence that the servant can only be one or the other is too rigid, too stiff for Isaiah’s proclamation.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the giants on whose shoulders I sit when I read the scriptures. He turned to music when he was looking for  a way to describe the book of Isaiah as a whole, and he compared it to “a great fugue, always advancing to fresh statements, at the same time continually returning to pick up and restate themes already sounded.”[6] The overarching theme of the book is the destiny of Jerusalem, that old and troubled city in which according to Isaiah all the purposes of God and all the claims of Israel are concentrated. Over the centuries, the city was pummeled in turn by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians, but the book of Isaiah asserts that in all the ups and downs of geopolitical change throughout history the will and purposes of the Lord God of Israel are at work. The pivot point of the book is in the unwritten, inaudible silence between the end of chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40. In the text, there’s only a period and a new line, but in the city’s history the gap represents two centuries, encompassing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the deportation of the population into exile. 39 chapters, with insistent warning, move toward that destruction and deportation, and then chapter 40 famously begins with words that point to a way out, a way home, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

The great themes of the fugue are exile and homecoming, the judgment of God upon Jerusalem and the deliverance of God for a new Jerusalem. The theme of judgment is massive and pervasive in chapters 1-39. The city has failed to practice justice, its people, its leaders have failed to embody neighborliness to all in the community. But there are also other themes woven into the great fugue. At the beginning, just after a forceful condemnation, there is an invitation to repent, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”[7] Reorder your life for neighborliness while you can – a possibility the city didn’t embrace. The other and more defining theme, however, follows the steady beat of God’s faithfulness beyond judgment. The final word to the city is not destruction but restoration and redemption, righteousness and peace, which the Holy One of Israel will create. [8] After the judgment, new life.

Chapters 40-55 sing of God’s resolve to love, save, and deliver Israel. “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God,” the prophet tells a people frightened and intimidated by Babylonian power.[9] “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine,” the prophet tells the exiles, encouraging them to claim their identity as God’s beloved community, to be God’s servant people in the world, to participate in establishing God’s purposes, to faithfully be and do what Jerusalem in chapters 1-39 refused and failed to be and do:[10] to be servant people who reach to the socially rejected and the poor so that they may be fully at home in the city; to be servant people whose witness and work shine to the end of the earth.

The servant prophet who tells of his commissioning in today’s passage from Isaiah is just one individual, but he is not a replacement of Israel as God’s servant. He has been called and anointed by God to be a servant among the exiled, discouraged, perhaps forgetful servant people to embody their own calling among them, to unsettle, encourage, and remind them that they don’t belong in Babylon but in Jerusalem.

That’s not just ancient history. When God’s servant people become too comfortable in our cities far from Zion, in our disconnected neighborhoods with little neighborliness left in them, far from the beloved community we are, we actually are as God’s chosen ones, God calls and anoints servant prophets who embody among us our own calling, our own true identity. (Quite a lovely move by the Spirit to give us Isaiah to hear on the Sunday after the Baptism of the Lord and just before the day when we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was such a faithful servant prophet and disciple.)

I want to go back to today’s passage one more time.

The Lord said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.”

What servant of God hasn’t, in words laden with exhaustion and defeat, lamented that her work was in vain, that he spent his strength for nothing, that all their labor barely made a dent? The servant who speaks in Isaiah has a good word for us.

I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely, yet surely my cause is with the Lord.” Justice, compassion, neighborliness, and reconciliation are not the exhausting causes of over-scheduled servants who have so many other things to do. No, they are expressions of God’s will and purpose and work that point us in the direction of the wholeness and peace we all long for. As servants of God, we’re not pursuing a pile of causes or checking off endless to-do-lists, with barely five-and-a-half hours of sleep at night. No, we trust that our life and work are with the Lord, and that in the company of Jesus our feet are on the road to Zion, to the city where all are at home. We don’t hurry, we don’t worry, we rest in the movement of God, grateful for giants on whose shoulders we get to ride.

 


[1] Metalogicon, 1159 C.E.

[2] John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel. Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 1

[3] Isaiah 42:1

[4] Isaiah 49:3

[5] Isaiah 49:5

[6] Walter Brueggemann, A Story of Loss and Hope (Sojourners Nov-Dec 1998)

[7] Isaiah 1:16-17

[8] Isaiah 1:26-27; 2:1-4

[9] Isaiah 41:10

[10] Isaiah 43:1; 42:1-4

Tuesday
Jan142014

The Old River

Friends and colleagues of mine who studied and worked in Jerusalem always came back with fascinating stories. They loved to talk about the history, the politics of Israel and Palestine, and about the deep spiritual impact of walking on the ancient roads and across the hills of Galilee. None of them, though, ever said much about the Jordan River. Apparently it is much more impressive in our imagination than in physical reality. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see it in person, but mentally I’m prepared to lay eyes on something much closer in size to Richland Creek than to the Cumberland River. Folks who have stood on the banks of the Mississippi may look at the Jordan and ask themselves, “What’s all the fuzz about?” Of course that’s exactly what Naaman, the great commander of the army of the king of Aram said, when the prophet Elisha told him to go and wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be healed.[1] “Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel?” he declared angrily, and in those days the Jordan was still considerably larger than today. The people who measure this kind of thing tell us that the lower Jordan today only has about 5% of the flow it had in the 50’s. Irrigation and other water usage are taking a heavy toll. What Naaman couldn’t fully grasp was the particular role of that river in the life and faith of Israel. For one, the Jordan is one of very few rivers in that dry region that actually flow year-round, turning the river valley into a lush, fertile band in an otherwise rather dusty landscape. More importantly, the Jordan marked the border between Israel’s wilderness wanderings and the land of promise. It was in the plains of Moab, beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness, where Moses expounded one more time the covenant commandments before the people crossed the river to live as God’s people, according to God’s will, on God’s land.[2]

The Jordan is a mighty river because crossing it means entering into freedom and fulfillment. The Jordan marks the border between exile and home. African slaves who fled the South didn’t have their geography mixed up when they lifted up their eyes upon the Ohio River and sang,

Deep river, my home is over Jordan;
deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
that promised land where all is peace?

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea and proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” he called people to reaffirm their willingness to live as God’s people, according to God’s will and purpose, on God’s land. A lot of people from Jerusalem and the surrounding region were heading down to the river to listen to John’s preaching and to be baptized by him, confessing their sins. One by one they stepped into the water. They could see the fire in his eyes. One by one they said what needed to be said. Then they trusted themselves to his strong, sun-burned arms as he plunged them beneath the surface, into the silent depth of the old river. Their ancestors had crossed this river to enter the promised land and to live faithfully as God’s covenant people. Now they sought to be baptized in this very river because they wanted to be worthy of being counted among God’s people, worthy to live in the coming kingdom of God. They prayed that the river would wash away their sins, their shame, their fear, and that they would emerge from the chilly depth refreshed and renewed.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” the Baptist said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[3] A mightier one was already among them, and he would bring the fire of judgment.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized. He came like the rest of them had come, walking the same dusty roads and down the same rocky paths to the river’s edge, waiting in line in the heat of the day, and finally stepping into the water to be baptized. It is good for us to notice and remember that Jesus began his ministry where sinners gathered; some full of fear of the coming judgment (just like some of us), others much too comfortable in their presumed righteousness (just like some of us).

John looked at Jesus, and he was convinced that the days of preparation and repentance were over, that the day of truth and fire had come. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he asked. It wouldn’t be the last surprise the Son of God brought with him. And so Jesus got in the water with all who had come to the river for a new beginning, who wanted to step out of the past and welcome God’s new day with freshly-washed lives.

We get into the river hoping that it will carry away all that weighs us down, our failures and our worries, our self-condemnation and our broken promises, all that gets in the way of our living a life that is faithful, real and whole. We get into the water, and Jesus gets in with us. He steps into the river and is baptized along with all who gather there, not because he needs to repent, but because he wants to be with us. This is what righteousness fulfilled looks like. Obedient to God’s will and purpose, Jesus is baptized in solidarity with us. He is Immanuel, God with us in our broken humanity. He gives himself to the murky water of our sinfulness, trusting that the river of God’s grace will carry not only him but all of us with him. He gives himself to the path of humble servanthood that is greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Stepping into the water with us, he gives himself to the path that leads to the cross where the muddy water of human sin washes over him and kills him, carrying away to the sea of oblivion his love and compassion, his mercy and wisdom – all for naught?

The little scene at the river is like a sketch of his entire life and ministry. When he came up from the water it was a glimpse of Easter, a first glance at the first day of a new creation; the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended, and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

When Jesus got in the water with us, something wonderful and beautiful happened to that old river that marks the border between wilderness wandering and home, between life as a slave and life as a servant of God. In his baptism, Jesus made our lot his own, he let himself be immersed in our alienation from God, our sin, our lives far away from the kingdom; and in our baptism, his beautiful, faithful life becomes ours in the forgiveness of our sins, in our reconciliation with God and with each other, and in our call to participate in his mission.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” God had said through the prophet Isaiah, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[4] The words the voice from heaven spoke were not a quote, but there’s enough of an echo for us to notice the deep connection between God’s delight in God’s servant people Israel and God’s delight in this servant. There’s enough of an echo for us to recognize in Jesus the kind of obedience that will not break a bruised reed nor quench a dimly burning wick, but establish justice in the earth. There’s enough of an echo for us to hear in just a few words the whole promise that the life of the obedient servant would be a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, the liberation from prison for all who sit in darkness, a blessing for all the families of the earth.[5] Jesus entered the water in solidarity with us, making our lives his own and his life ours. The old river has been changed forever by his beautiful, faithful life.

Some of you probably remember the day of your baptism, how cold the water was, and how you didn’t feel any different at all and at the same time like a whole new person. Some of us, including myself, can’t recall that day or that moment because we were babies when we were baptized. Christians have fought long and hard over when and how to baptize people properly and it took us many years to realize that the church of God is big enough to accommodate a variety of traditions and practices. No matter what particular form of baptism we undergo, in it God claims us as beloved sons and daughters. Our lives are woven into the life of Jesus and we become members in the body of Christ. We no longer worry about whether or not we are worthy of life in the kingdom, because Christ has made us his own. In baptism as in all of life, what Christ has done for us far outweighs anything we do or fail to do. Whether we were immersed in a river or had a little water poured over our heads in a chapel, when we were baptized the life of Jesus became our life, the story of Jesus our story, and the mission of Jesus our mission.

We discovered last year that Vine Street’s role in that mission would include our commitment to help vulnerable communities gain access to safe, clean drinking water. Beginning today, you will be asked to volunteer to be trained for that work. Think about it, pray about it, and if necessary, be a little braver than you thought you could be.

The mightiest river in all the world is the river of God’s mercy and justice, and Jesus has called us to step in.

 


[1] 2 Kings 5

[2] Numbers  36:13; Deuteronomy 1:1-5; Joshua 3-4; see also 2 Kings 2:6-13

[3] Matthew 3:11

[4] Isaiah 42:1

[5] Isaiah 42:3-7; Genesis 12:3; Matthew 12:18-21

Monday
Dec232013

The quiet teacher

Wednesday night we watched and listened as the children performed their wonderful Christmas pageant. What a great story… it changes year to year and yet remains the same, generation to generation. This year we followed Gloria who had just moved to California from Vermont, and her new friends and co-conspirators, all of them determined to show Molly Hollywooder, the Mayor that wanting to keep Christmas out of her town was not only a bad idea, but also impossible. We heard happy songs and funny lines, and saw some exquisite acting and even dancing, all in celebration of the birth of Jesus the Savior.

I thought of Christmas pageants past, many years ago when I was a kid and we didn’t even dream of wearing a microphone over our ears. I don’t know how many times I had a part in a pageant, but I remember playing a sheep (no lines to learn), a shepherd (just do what the older kids do), and one of the angels (we sang Gloria and worried about our wings falling off). The high point for me was the year I got to play Joseph, and the girl who played Mary and I got to sing harmony in response to an unkind inn keeper who told us he had no room for us.

Imagine that, Joseph, the strong, quiet type had a few lines of dialogue and even a song! Usually, you know that, all the attention is “round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild” and Joseph gets to hold the lantern. When Mary birthed Jesus, ‘twas in a cow’s stall, with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all – what about Joseph?[1] Can you think of a carol that has Joseph in it? There are few, very few; in our hymnal, just one.[2] Compare that to twelve with mother Mary. Last night at the choir Christmas party, when it was again, “Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day…” I turned to Micah and said, “Somebody needs to write a song about Joseph.”

The Christmas story is big, with plenty of room for details from Luke, Isaiah and Matthew. In nativity scenes and pageants it got bigger and bigger, proclaiming year after year the good news that there’s plenty of room in God’s inn for all to come home. Kimberly Richter is a colleague from North Carolina who wrote about her family’s nativity set:

We delight every year in unwrapping each figure and arranging the scene. But every year, just which figure is Joseph is a matter of personal opinion. Any one of five or six shepherds is a likely candidate for Joseph. Every year, I’ll admit, I look in that stable and wonder if I have the right man as the father of the baby Jesus. … of course, that was Joseph’s question, too. Who’s the father?[3]

Of the four gospels, Matthew is the only one that deals with the question of Joseph at all. Otherwise, he just disappears among wise men and farmers and shepherds and all. Luke barely mentions him. And even in Matthew, he appears in chapter one, disappears by chapter two, and never says a word. But watch him listen.

Joseph and Mary were married but not yet living together, and Mary was pregnant. Matthew tells us that the pregnancy was the work of the Holy Spirit, but Joseph didn’t know that; all he knew was that the child wasn’t his. Matthew doesn’t tell us what thoughts went through his head or Mary’s. In the entire passage, neither one speaks a single word. Matthew does tell us that Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose his wife to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. Being a righteous man, a man who always sought to act in accordance with God’s commandments, he could have chosen to condemn Mary to life-long shame by publicly demanding a divorce. He could even have chosen to have her stoned to death for adultery – he could have, it was perfectly legal, and some of his friends and neighbors, had they known about the situation, probably would have expected him to do just that. But from among the limited options the law provided Joseph didn’t just do what the book says but chose the path of kindness. Joseph listened to the commandments of scripture with his heart inclined toward mercy.

There are of course other inclinations, other paths. Fred Craddock was reflecting on this short scene with Joseph when he almost lost his temper recalling how some people read scripture,

I get sick and tired of people always thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up. You can quote the Bible before killing a person to justify the killing. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ the Bible says. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘If a man finds something displeasing in his wife, let him give her a divorce and send her out of the house.’ It’s in the Book. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘Let the women keep their heads covered and their mouths shut.’ Do you want me to find it for you? It’s in there. I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three pound Bible and say, ‘Just do what the Book says.’ [4] 

Righteousness is not as simple as just do what the Book says. Joseph could have read the law with his heart inclined toward anger and vengeance, but instead he read it with an unwillingness to expose Mary to public disgrace and chose to follow that path. And just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and Joseph listened:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The law against adultery didn’t apply at all, no matter what inclination one brought to it, because Mary wasn’t an adulteress. The child in her womb, the angel said, was not a violation of God’s holy will, but an expression of it, a gift from the Holy Spirit.[5] Joseph was to keep his marriage to Mary and he was to name Mary’s child ‘Jesus,’ thus becoming his adoptive father and crafting the baby into the tree of Jesse. Did he tell his family about this or his neighbors? Not according to Matthew, which I take as a strong hint that our question might be beside the point. Matthew wants us to watch Joseph listen. When he awoke from sleep he didn’t say anything, but his life became a faithful response to the revelation received in his dream. He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and through his obedience the child became a son of David.

In Matthew, the story of Jesus begins like the story of creation, with the stirring of God’s Spirit. This child is entirely God’s initiative, and through this child, God is making all things new. Now the law and the prophets must be read, understood, and obeyed in light of this newness – not to be left behind as old, but to be illumined from within with the light of Christ.

Joseph’s righteousness is in tune with the living and saving God. Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who reads the scriptures in light of what God has done in Jesus. According to Matthew, Joseph is the first person in the world to hear the word God is speaking in Jesus as the culmination of God’s promises and saving purposes. He will save his people from their sins and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. In Jesus the Savior God is with us, teaching, healing, and forgiving, serving, pleading, and reconciling.

Joseph is a quiet teacher, but he shows us what righteousness rooted in God’s mercy looks like. He shows us that doing what is right and in accordance with God’s will involves more than looking up a rule in a book, even if the book is the Bible. It involves listening for and responding to God’s will for us in light of Jesus’ life.

Joseph is a quiet teacher, but he tells us the gospel truth, “If in reading the Bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself,”[6] you better think twice if that really is what God wants you to do. You better sleep on it, or better yet, pray on it, and let an angel from heaven remind you of what God has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do.

The impression we’re getting from our Christmas pageants, paintings, carols, and Christmas cards is quite accurate. All the attention is “round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild” and Joseph gets to hold the lantern. Some say he’s just a regular Joe trying hard to make himself useful.

Maybe, but I see a man who quietly directs our gaze to the new beginning this child embodies for the world.

 


[1] I Wonder as I Wander, Chalice Hymnal #161

[2] Chalice Hymnal #155 Angels We Have Heard on High (v4 Mary, Joseph lend you aid, while our hearts in love we raise). Joseph, Dearest Joseph Mine is a lovely lullaby/carol, but it’s not included in Chalice Hymnal. The Cherry Tree Carol presents a Joseph very different from Matthew’s!

[3] Kimberly Clayton Richter, “The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship”, Journal for Preachers Vol. 28, No. 1 (Advent 2004), p. 8

[4] Fred Craddock, “God is with us,” The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 5

[5] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 13

[6] Craddock, pp. 5-6.

Monday
Dec162013

Not waiting for another

John the Baptist is in prison. The wilderness preacher who used to sleep out by the river, under a blanket of stars – Herod has locked him up. Night and day he stares at the walls; there’s no window that would allow him to see the sun or the moon. The door is shut, and it can be opened only from the outside.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he used to declare with conviction and urgency, certain that the days of sin’s old regime were counted. So convinced was he that the reign of heaven was about to erupt, he could feel it rumbling under the soles of his feet like an earthquake. Any day now; he knew it.

John ate wild honey, but his words had little sweetness in them; he spoke with fire on his breath. One stronger than himself would come after him, and he would gather the wheat and burn the chaff and clean up this mess sinners had made of the world. John had seen Jesus. John had baptized Jesus. And when Herod shut him up in a cell he thought it wouldn’t be long before the prison doors would fly open. Soon, very soon, divine justice would rule and all the fruitless trees would be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

But he didn’t hear any reports of the wicked being punished. No cries of terror from the threshing floor of divine judgment, no shouts of vengeance from the streets of he city. I can see him pacing up and down his cell, barely four steps to the door, he turns, another four steps back to the wall; he’s being tormented by questions, “What is Jesus doing? What is taking him so long? Where is the fire?”

Then reports began to trickle in about Jesus’ work in the towns of Galilee, bits and pieces about him healing the sick and forgiving sinners—what had happened to the ax that was lying at the foot of the trees? John was confused. I can see him sitting in the dark, waiting for the walls of his cell to crumble and light to pour in; but the only thing crumbling was his certainty; disappointment and doubt were creeping in. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Everything is at stake in that question, and not just for John but for anyone who has encountered Jesus since.

A year ago yesterday a boy named Adam threw a blanket of death over a school, a town, and a nation. We sat in the dark, our hearts broken, waiting for light to pour in. Defiantly we lit an Advent candle that Sunday and with shaky voices we sang of peace. Faithfully we lit a candle of remembrance Sunday after Sunday, praying for healing for the families of the victims and for all the brokenhearted, and honoring the women who had given their lives to protect the children. Many of us thought that such a horrifying act of violence would certainly, finally shake the conscience of the nation and move us to talk about weapons in our culture, about the sorry state of our mental health services, and about the violence and vengefulness that saturate our imaginations. Appallingly little has changed, and perhaps one more moment of silence yesterday was the most honest and honorable thing our leaders could ask us to do.

But some of us sit in this darkness and wonder, “Did we get it all wrong? Is it really just the same old mix of fear and self-interest that determines our being, our thoughts and our actions? Are we so trapped in ourselves that the gentle and courageous way of Jesus will always remain just a side road for dreamers?”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Are we to wait for one who doesn’t tell Peter to put away his sword? Are we to wait for one who will call for legions of angels for one final battle of cosmic proportions in which evil will forever be eradicated?[1] Is Paul proclaiming a fantasy when he urges us in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[2] Are we fools when we insist on seeking non-violent responses to violence? Are we to wait for another?

John looked at Jesus when he came to the Jordan to be baptized, and he just knew that this was the one whose coming he had been announcing. John saw the one whose power he had envisioned, the one carrying the winnowing fork in one hand and the ax in the other. John looked at Jesus on the river bank, and he knew that the reign of God, the new regime of everlasting righteousness was now but a fire away. But then Jesus insisted on being baptized together with all the sinners, and perhaps that was when John started to wonder. But he wasn’t puzzled enough to allow the Messiah’s complete identification with sinners to call into question his own ideas about divine vengeance. He still waited for the fire to be kindled. Locked up in Herod’s prison, with little waiting time left, he asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

We take the question with us to Bethlehem, on to Galilee, and to Jerusalem. We look at the child and ask, “Are you the one?” We spend time in the company of the friend of sinners and ask, “Are you the one?” We look at the curious king riding into town on a donkey and being crucified under the old regime, his head crowned with thorns, and we ask, “Are you the one who brings the kingdom of heaven to earth or are we to wait for another? One who is more powerful than you? One with a bigger hammer, a bigger sword, a bigger army?”

Jesus’ response doesn’t take the answer away from John or from any of us; we still each give it with our lives. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he says. And pointing to the life erupting around him, Jesus sings a few lines from Isaiah: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Tell John what you see. Sing him a song of heaven embracing the earth with grace and compassion. Sing of showers of forgiveness falling on thirsty ground. Sing of streams of mercy refreshing the parched places. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Jesus’ presence transforms lifeless wilderness into a lush garden; his deep knowledge of our brokenness opens the gates of healing in a thousand places. We are still only beginning to grasp that Jesus didn’t come to bring the fire, but to be the fire that burns in our hearts and the water that makes the desert sing. Jesus didn’t come to bulldoze a highway across the mountains and valleys of our life, but to be the way that leads us all from sin and death to righteousness and life. In him the consummation of God’s work has burst into the world and is wondrously unfolding in and around us.

John was bewildered because in the reports he heard about Jesus he didn’t recognize the Messiah whose coming he had announced. I think of John as the embodiment and voice of our longing for the world made right. He is Advent in person, preparing the way, watching, waiting, wondering. I don’t know if his eyes were opened to recognize the glory of God’s reign in the words and deeds of Jesus, but I like to think that he began to open up to the possibility. I like to think that his expectations only for a moment got in the way of seeing the fulfillment of his hope in Jesus. I like to imagine it for John in his dark prison cell, because I have the same hope for you and me in the darkness that surrounds us: that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear how in the coming of Jesus the end time of God’s mercy has entered into our history. His coming, his Advent calls into question everything we think we know about God’s power and justice and then our notions of human power, human justice, human judgment.

“The ransomed of the Lord shall come to Zion with singing,” Isaiah declared. “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Sorrow and sighing are still present, but there are weak hands that need to be strengthened and feeble knees that need to be made firm. There are fearful hearts, our own included, that need encouragement against the temptations of cynicism and despair,  “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

A year ago yesterday, a boy named Adam threw a blanket of death over a school, a town, and a nation. We can’t pull it away, but we can refuse to sit under it. We can refuse to let the twisted logic of violence determine our actions.

We can declare with our lives that the gentle and courageous way of Jesus is not some obscure side road to nowhere, but the highway to Zion. That’s why we decided to observe this painful anniversary with small acts that affirm life in community, small acts that express our shared commitment to nurturing our children. We could of course call it a school supply drive, but that doesn’t get to the heart of it. Faithfully and defiantly we light candles of hope and peace and joy and love, and we declare that we are not waiting for another.

 


[1] Matthew 26:52-53

[2] Romans 12:17, 19, 21

Tuesday
Dec102013

Christmas Eve

I love worshiping in our sanctuary. I love the large windows, the open view on the changing patterns of sky and clouds, the trees giving shape and color to the seasons.

I love worshiping in our sanctuary any time of year or day, but I have some favorites. Christmas Eve is one of them. The darkness outside. Inside, the hushed voices of worshipers before the services begin, the eyes of old and young reflecting the light of the star. The tiny flame topping candle after candle as the light travels from hand to hand in the beautiful circle of Silent Night. And the songs, the carols, the music blending ancient hope and childhood memories with the miracle of birth, proclaiming once more the wonder of the night of nights when the word of God became a human being. I hope that many of you who read this will join us this year for one of our Christmas Eve worship services.

The service at 4:30 p.m. is designed with small children in mind. At the center are the nativity scene and the birth stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and around it we sing our favorite carols and light our candles.

The service at 11 p.m. tells our story from creation and fall to the birth of our Savior with scripture lessons, carols, and gifts of music. We share the Lord's Supper to proclaim God's faithfulness beyond all that sin divides and destroys, and we give thanks for the birth of Christ. And right around midnight we pass the flame from candle to candle in a circle of joy: the light of Christ will fill the world!

Come and worship with us. Come and take part in bringing the good news of great joy to all. Merry Christmas!

  

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