Monday
Sep242012

Ground Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday
Sep172012

The Tongue is a Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What now?” he asks.

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

“What now?” he asks.

“Now pick up all the feathers.”

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

“Just like the thoughtless words you spoke.”

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

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

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

James sounds rather pessimistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


[1] www.iyouwe.org

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

Monday
Sep102012

Children first

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Genesis 32:22ff.

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

Tuesday
Sep042012

Good Habits

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Monday
Aug272012

Love builds a house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday
Aug202012

To receive or devour

The bishop and his wife went to see a movie; it was a Canadian movie, The Gospel of John. It goes through the Fourth Gospel, word for word, start to finish, in about three hours. The bishop and his wife loved the movie; they found it beautiful and engaging. A few days later, when the bishop mentioned it to a friend of his, the friend said that his wife looked at him midway through the film and asked, “Will Jesus ever shut up?”[1]

The Gospel according to John is known for its high christology, its rich imagery and poetic style, but also for its relentless redundancy. “Wordy is the Lamb,” one commentator quipped, I don’t remember who it was – but who says that the Gospel word has to follow the rules of screen writing?

John isn’t fast food. John’s Jesus isn’t a quick word for the busy who love to quote the memorable one-liner. John is slow food. John’s Jesus is meant for slow reading and ruminating and for the joy of discovering new layers of flavor, texture and meaning. The Gospel of John is no summer blockbuster; it’s daily bread for a lifetime.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” says Jesus; “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” He keeps talking about bread; three times the word pops up in just this one verse. And of course he’s still talking about bread to people who have eaten. Barley bread he had given them, good bread that fills the belly and strengthens the heart. And to some it was all like manna in the wilderness, the bread of angels for men and women who knew all too well that hunger is more than a metaphor.

I love his talk about bread because I love bread; I love making it, I love breaking it, I love how it fills the house with its warm fragrance, I love eating it; I love the many ways each loaf, every slice and piece, tells stories about our life together. But then, and it’s like Jesus is saving it until the end of the sentence, because he knows that this one’s going to be hard to swallow, then he says that the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. And as if that wasn’t enough to raise a few eyebrows, he adds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And he keeps talking about flesh and blood as food and drink. Who can be surprised that many turn away in disgust? Who can stomach such teaching?

Even Martin Luther (certainly not a man known for being squeamish) asked, “What could he mean? Is one man to devour the other? Surely this cannot be the meaning.” And he insisted that this is not the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made.

Is one man to devour the other? Surely not. But that doesn’t mean human relationships can’t be bloody and violent. Listen to this; this is the prophet Micah, crying out against wicked rulers: “Should you not know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron.”[2]

Should you not know justice?—Micah’s indictment finds an echo in the psalms, “Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?”[3]

Should you not know justice? When we talk about bread, we talk about all the ways we relate to one another. Bread contains our relationship to the land, to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor. When we talk about bread, we talk about justice. Without justice, all those relationships become abusive; they become deadly instead of life-giving.

The gospel according to John teaches its attentive, slow readers that the world that didn’t know how to receive the word become flesh, certainly knew how to devour him violently. Receive or devour – the two verbs represent two utterly different attitudes toward life. One knows life as a gift that is given, received, and shared. The other knows life only as a hunger for more that can never be satisfied. One is communion, the other we call these days consumerism.

Years ago, William Ralph Inge said, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.”[4] I eat. You eat. He/she/it eats. We eat. You eat. They eat. I am eaten. You are eaten. He/she/it is eaten. All living things eat. Active and passive. Past, present, and future.

For any creature to live, countless seen and unseen others must die, often by being eaten themselves. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil, animals eat plants and other animals, and microbes and insects eat animals and plants and transform them into soil. And we humans are part of the cycle, no matter how hard we try to pretend we are not. All flesh is grass, and all grass is soil. God created a world in which every living creature must eat. The question remains, how we eat. Are we receiving or devouring?

Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and prophet, said it beautifully, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”[5]

The sacrament is life shared in communion, the desecration is life devoured. We will know the difference, when we know Jesus. Not just his words and teachings, but him. Abundant life is not a question of better knowledge, but of participation. That is why in the Fourth Gospel Jesus encourages us not only to come to him, follow him, listen to him, and learn from him, but to consume him, to eat and drink him, to participate in the life he embodies.

Consumerism is not about whether or not to be a consumer. Everyone must consume to live, because God created a world in which every living thing must eat. But not all practices of consumption are conducive to abundant life for all.

Consumerism teaches us to see ourselves and one another as sovereign choosers and shoppers who are detached from other people and who appropriate our choices for private use, the only real constraint being our respective credit limits.

Communion is a practice that heals that deadly detachment and draws us into the membership of abundant life. In communion, eating and drinking are not acts of private consumption, but acts of mutual abiding.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus. The individual consumer of the Lord’s supper does not simply take Christ into herself or himself, but is taken up into Christ. The life of Jesus becomes part of our bodies, and our lives become part of the body of Christ. In Paul’s words, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”[6]

Augustine of Hippo heard God say, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you (…), but you will be changed into me.”[7]

When we gather around the Lord’s table, the act of consumption is turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it. We do not stand detached, as individuals, from the rest of creation, appropriating, consuming, and discarding to satisfy our hunger for life. Instead, we become participants in the life of Christ who gives himself for the life of the world. We become participants in the love that redeems life.

Men and women who feed on Jesus simply can’t continue to relate to others in ways that desecrate their dignity. Men and women who know Jesus in this most intimate way of mutual abiding can’t go on and use  others, absorbing them to suit personal need and satisfaction, without regard for justice or mercy. Men and women for whom Jesus is food and drink participate in his life of attention and welcome, feeding and forgiving, and healing and reconciliation. That life is the liveliness at the heart of life. It is the abundance that seeks to make its home in us as much as we desire to make our home in it. It is the bread our hearts crave. Let’s eat. Let’s eat well.

 


[1] Will Willimon in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 357

[2] Micah 3:1-3

[3] Psalm 14:4; 53:4

[4] quoted in Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), p. 17

[5] Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981), p. 281

[6] 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

[7] Confessiones, VII. 16 

Thursday
Aug162012

water:360

We drink it.

We swim in it.

We wash our cars with it.

We spend the first months of life immersed in it.

We are baptized in it.

We dam it.

We pollute it.

We waste it.

We thirst for it.

We can’t imagine life without it.

We take it for granted.

Water.

In the fall, Vine Street will do another 360. That’s the name we came up with when we first decided to look at something from every possible perspective and address it with as many of our senses and capacities as possible. We have done hunger:360, homelessness:360, prison:360, aging:360, and now it’s time for water.

We may well have discovered the one thing that touches every dimension of our life: physical, spiritual, political, economical, theological - or try to name one aspect of life that doesn’t participate in water’s flow.

What do we want to learn about water? How do we want to explore its theological meaning? What ways of knowing water have we never thought about? What do artists do with it?

If you would like to be part of a small group that plans this series, please get in touch with Thomas. We’ll find all kinds of ways to bring water into education, worship, service, and other aspects of our congregational life, and you could be part of the group that puts it all together!

Wednesday
Aug152012

Free to a friendly home

I keep a laptop computer (DELL Latitude|D 620 with added RAM and new keyboard, but no battery; still running great on Windows XP), a Logitech wireless mouse (laser), an HP printer (Deskjet 810C; works just fine), and a Targus port replicator in my office. I don't use any of them anymore. Do you have any ideas what to do with them?

I'll gladly give them away to a friendly home or let you sell them on Craigslist. The reason I'm posting this: I suspect one of you will have a brilliant idea for their use.

Monday
Aug132012

Bread line

I hear the word bread line, and I see men and women waiting in line for something to eat. Inevitably, I see a woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg[1] that has become defining for my imagination. It is called Christ of the Bread Line and it shows Jesus waiting in line with others for something to eat.

“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” the righteous will ask, and you know his teaching about the judgment of the nations. Jesus reminds us that we don’t have to look far to find him.[2] He stands in line for bread. He applies for food stamps. He who is the very bread of life, waits patiently with the poor until we know how to eat and how to share the bread of mercy with each other.

Bread is so beautiful because among many other things it contains our shared human need to eat as well as God’s desire to give us all that is needful and more.

It’s difficult for us to know and understand what is happening in Syria, but a few days ago there was a story from Aleppo.[3] Every morning, just before sunrise, some rebel fighters step away from the front lines in the city for another vital and urgent task: baking bread. Bread is a mainstay of the Syrian diet — it accompanies every meal — and the city has been paralyzed by over two weeks of war.

In war everything becomes a weapon, even bread. “The regime has tried to deprive our supporters of water and gas, and now they are using bread,” said one militia member. But he said the rebels had learned how to fight back against the government’s attempts to keep bread out of areas controlled by the opposition. “We took control of the wheat warehouses in Aleppo’s suburbs,” he said. “We have many of them, in several areas, and they might keep us supplied for weeks.”

Some of you may have seen the footage of bakeries in Aleppo that have become opposition outposts, with long, loud bread lines snaking around corners. Abu Mohammed, a rebel baker in eastern Aleppo, said that skirmishes sometimes break out among customers, especially when there is not enough to go around. But his squad — seven to nine rebels baking and distributing bread — try to feed who they can and make sure no one gets preferential treatment, he said.

Bread is so beautiful because it contains the stories of our human hunger for food but also for freedom, our hunger for power but also for peace.

In bread all dimensions of human life come together. It contains the generosity of earth and sky, the blessings of sun and rain, the miracle of growth, the skill and toil of human labor; it contains the hunger of the poor and the appetites of the rich; it contains the poetry of our songs and the prose of our commodities markets; it contains our worries about tomorrow and the feast of the Lord’s table. Bread contains what we do to each other and what we do with life. When we begin to receive Jesus  like bread, we begin to see how in him all dimensions of human life are coming together in new ways, in redeeming ways, in ways that are healing and fulfilling. We receive the bread of heaven for the life of the world.

In 1983, in yet another armed conflict in our hurting world, Israeli troops pushed north into Lebanon. Members of a church in Beirut began to buy all the food they could – cans, boxes, bags, you name it. They were not sure if the troops would come all the way to Beirut or stop further south, but they wanted to be prepared.

Then the siege came. West Beirut was totally cut-off. No one could enter or leave. No food was allowed in. People ran out of bread. The bakeries ran out of flour.

At the church, they called a board meeting to decide how to distribute the food they had stockpiled. Two proposals were put on the table. The first was to distribute food to the church members, then other Christians, and if any was left to Muslim neighbors.

The second proposal was quite different. First food would be given to Muslim neighbors, then to other Christians, and finally – if there was any left over – to church members.

The meeting lasted six hours. It ended when a much-respected elder – a woman – stood up and said, “If we do not show the love of Christ in this place, who will?”

Her question ended the debate. They had the courage to follow the demands of love rather than fear. The second proposal was passed, and in the end there was enough for everyone in the neighborhood.[4]

Bread is so beautiful because it can be broken and shared, even across lines that appear to be carved in stone.

Now we’ve been in Aleppo and in Beirut, and I think it would be good for us to add a quick stop in New Jersey. Many years ago, Joey Ramone met Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park, and he asked him to write a song for The Ramones. Don’t worry if you don’t know The Ramones; I want to talk a little about the song Springsteen wrote that night. It was a great song, but he didn’t give it to Joey. He recorded it himself in 1980, and it became one of his best-known songs ever.

The opening lines sound incredibly cocky,

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back

But then the tone changes dramatically, and the chorus hooks you,

Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
Everybody’s got a hungry heart, everybody’s got a hungry heart …

I love this song. I love to turn up the volume and sing along at the top of my voice, and I hope that before either Springsteen or I retire, I’ll have the chance to sing it with him and a few thousand others. I love the song because I know the hunger that  doesn’t come from the stomach but from the heart. Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and we tend to try and fill it with a lot of junk before we know what we really want or see what we need.

Bread and Roses is one of the great songs of the labor movement, and it has this beautiful line in it that sounds like a prayer:

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

Our hearts are hungry and they will starve unless they are nourished with beauty and truth and respect and forgiveness and hope. I still think that Isaiah said it best, finding words for the call of God’s voice,

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.[5]

“Come,” the voice cries out, four times in this brief passage, and in Jesus, this urgent, loving word becomes flesh. “I am the bread of life,” he tells us. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He doesn’t just sing Isaiah’s lines, he embodies them.

The deepest human hunger can only be stilled by love, unsentimental and dependable love. And Jesus is the bread that stills that deepest hunger. He is the gift of God’s unsentimental and dependable love. The only way to overcome a world hostile to the purposes of God is to love it – and there is nothing sentimental about that love, as even the most casual glance at the life of Jesus will show. God does not respond with hostility to a hostile world. God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[6]

This bread chapter, like much of the gospel of John, is colored by conflict and anguish. The words were written during a period of painful separation; followers of Jesus were trying to make sense of the fact that many of their fellow Jews did not share their belief in Jesus.

In v45 Jesus says, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me.” These words imply that those who do not come are unteachable or refusing to listen and learn. Perhaps such words did provide some comfort to those who struggled to understand why so few shared their belief; but to me they only sound like a hurtful insult. We must read and listen carefully, lest we turn bread into stones. Belief is not a simple matter of decision. Belief is not a simple matter. Period.

In v44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Belief is not a simple matter of decision, but the process and outcome of being drawn by God, of being wooed and invited, perhaps even seduced by the fragrance of good bread. It’s, “Come and see!” over and over again. “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

The gift of Jesus isn’t this or that or the other. It’s not health, wealth, happiness, or truth. It isn’t some thing. The gift of Jesus is he himself, because with him we find the fullness of life our hearts crave. He gives himself to us trusting that we would soon run a rebel bakery in the neighborhood, serving the bread of heaven for the life of the world. No more front lines. No more lines of suspicion and mistrust. Only one long, loud bread line circling around the table of Christ.


[1] Fritz Eichenberg (1901–1990) was a German-American artist and illustrator. He was a public critic of the Nazis, and when Hitler came to power, Eichenberg was able to emigrate with his wife and children to the United States.

[2] Matthew 25:37

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/04/world/middleeast/bread-becomes-a-staple-of-syrian-rebel-strategy.html?pagewanted=all

[4] See Michael Lindval, The Christian Life: A Geography of God (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001), p. 126

[5] Isaiah 55:1-3

[6] See John 3:17 and 12:47

Monday
Aug062012

What would you tell Harry?

A few weeks ago, Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining down at the Farmer’s Market. It was a fundraising dinner – now I don’t know how many fundraising dinners you have attended, and perhaps yours have all been memorable and delicious. I’ve been to too many where I looked down at the plate in front of me, and all I could say was, “Really?” A sad piece of chicken breast, devoid of any residual moisture, sitting on a bed of overcooked, cold pasta, with three or four stems of asparagus trying hard to cheer up the plate. But Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining at the Farmer’s Market; it was a fundraiser for the Nashville Food Project, appropriately called, Nourish.

Every living thing on earth must eat in order to live. But we all know there’s a big difference between fueling your body and eating, between eating and dining, and between dining and feasting. We know that grabbing a bite is different from having a meal. Food is not just calories, proteins, carbs, and fats – and what we do with our food says a lot about what we do with life. In Scripture, images of life’s fulfillment are visions of feasts, not drive-throughs.

So Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining at the Farmer’s Market to raise funds for the Nashville Food Project to continue to nourish our community. The meal had been prepared by some of the best chefs in the Southeast, the wines were delightful as well as the company, and John Egerton MC’d the evening with charm and grace. Before the meal was served, John talked a little about regional foods and about bread in particular. In the South, bread is hot and delicious: cornbread baked in cast iron, biscuits that play the whole scale from flaky to fluffy, with butter and jam or eggs and ham. In the North, bread is rarely hot. Bread is baked at night so it has time to cool off and rest: crusty sourdough, chewy ciabatta, sweet rye with caraway seeds, and gorgeous challah that shines like the light of morning was braided into it. John talked about the invisible line that runs through the Eastern U.S., with hot breads in the South and cold breads in the North, and how much he loved all good bread (as do I).

Bread tells stories. It tells us about our ancestors, about farms and cities, about immigration and slavery and labor relations. In much of the world, bread is the very essence of food and life. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray – and with bread we pray for all that is needed for life to be nourished and raised to fullness.

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve.[1] The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. Their lives had been uprooted by war, their families killed and their world destroyed, but holding on  to a piece of bread, they held on to hope and peace.

There’s another John who loves to tell us stories about bread; now I’m talking about the one who wrote the gospel that bears his name. He tells us how around Passover time Jesus was sitting with a large crowd and he said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” They were hungry, and he didn’t want to start teaching until they had all eaten (it’s difficult to learn anything when you’re hungry). Philip quickly did the math in his head and said, “Half a year’s wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Andrew told him about the boy who had five barley loaves and two fish and added, “But what’s one boy’s lunch among so many people?”

You know the story, of course. He took the bread, gave thanks, and distributed it among all; so also the fish, and they all ate as much as they wanted. Male and female, young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish – all ate until they wanted no more. He gave them bread to eat until even the hungriest among the teenage boys said, ‘I’m kinda full’ – and then he told his disciples to gather up the fragments, and they filled twelve baskets.

Now fullness of life is not the same as a full stomach, but nobody wants to hear about fullness of life on an empty stomach either. For the hungry, the good news begins with bread, or rather the breaking and sharing of bread.

The next day, the crowd found Jesus on the other side of the lake, and you already heard what he told them. They had this long talk about bread that perishes and bread that endures for eternal life. We all need the bread that fills our stomachs, but we need just as much the bread that nourishes our life together toward fullness. And Jesus offers himself as the true bread from heaven, the bread that our hearts crave when we hunger for life that is fearless, joyful, and whole.

For many in our community and around the world, the good news still begins with the breaking of bread so they can eat and go to sleep in peace. But we’re all nourished toward fullness by the bread that is Jesus’ life of obedience and love.

I’ll tell you another bread story, and this one has a cake in it.[2] Tony Campolo found himself walking the streets of Honolulu at 3:30 a.m. one morning. He had flown in from the east coast, and the time difference meant that he was up and ready to go way before dawn, hungry and looking for a place where he could get some breakfast and a nice cup of coffee. Up a side street he found a little place that was still open. It wasn’t clean and smelled kinda funny, but it was the only place he could find.

The guy behind the counter asked him what he wanted, and he told him, “A cup of coffee and a donut.” So he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee when suddenly the door of the diner swung open, and in marched eight or nine boisterous women. It was a small place and they all sat along the counter on either side of Tony. Their talk was loud and crude (he was convinced they were all prostitutes) and he felt completely out of place. All he could think about was how to get out inconspicuously.

Then he overheard the woman sitting beside him say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.” Another one sitting a couple of chairs down replied, “Birthday? Why are you telling me? What do you want from me? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or something?”

“Come on!” said the woman next to Tony. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. I don’t want anything from you. I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

Campolo just sat there, but when the women had left he asked the guy behind the counter if they came in there every night.

“Yeah.”

“What about the one who sat here next to me?” Campolo asked, “does she come in every night?”

“Yeah, her name’s Agnes. She’s been coming in here every night for the last fourteen years. Why do you wanna know?”

“Tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”

“I like it! That’s a great idea! Hey, Sue! Come out here! This guy wants us to plan a party for Agnes!” His wife thought it was a wonderful idea. “Why don’t you bake the cake, Harry, and I’ll get some candles and nice napkins.”

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back at the diner with balloons and a big cardboard sign that read “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” He figured Sue had done a pretty good job of getting the word out because by 3:15 the diner was packed. At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in came Agnes with a couple of her friends, and they all screamed, ‘Happy Birthday!’”


Agnes was stunned and shaken. Her mouth fell open. They all sang “Happy Birthday” to her when Sue brought in the birthday cake with all of its candles lit, and Agnes just sat there and cried. “Blow out the candles, Agnes!” Harry shouted. “Come on! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And he did. Then he handed her a knife, saying, “Cut the cake, Agnes! Everybody wants a piece.”


But Agnes just looked down at the cake, and without taking her eyes off of it, she softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I … is it okay if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?” Harry shrugged, “Sure! It’s okay. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”

“Can I?” she asked. She told them that she wanted to take it home and show it to her kids and she promised to come right back. Then she got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was something that belonged on an altar, she walked slowly toward the door and left.


They were all silent, and Campolo looked around and said, “What do you say we pray?” Now that’s a curious thing to do in a Honolulu diner at three-thirty in the morning, but to those gathered there it felt just right. And so they prayed. Tony asked God to bless Agnes, to be good to her and watch over her. They all said, “Amen,” and Harry leaned over the counter and said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Tony told him that he wasn’t a preacher, and he added, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties at three-thirty in the morning for folks who never had one.”

Harry looked at him for a moment before he responded, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”

I don’t know what, if anything, Tony said to Harry. What would you say? What would you tell Harry about the bread that our hearts crave when we hunger for life that is fearless, joyful, and whole? What would you tell Harry about the bread of life?

 


[1] See Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), p. 1

[2] See Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You A Story (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), p. 216-219; I have modified the text

Monday
Jul092012

incredibly everday human

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

The quote has been attributed to Robert McCloskey, Richard Nixon, and Alan Greenspan, but who said it first doesn’t really matter; it’s a very common experience. You are talking to a person who appears to be reasonably attentive, of good hearing and sound mind, but he or she still can’t hear you. You make eye contact, you speak slowly and clearly, without a trace of condescension, using common English, but you can tell you’re not getting through to them. It’s incredibly frustrating. We just don’t understand each other as well as we’d like to.

Our hearing develops while we’re still in the womb, and we learn to talk in the first years of our life, but we all know that speaking and listening is not just a matter of talking and hearing. Marriage and family counselors are known to spend much of their time coaching their clients how to speak and listen.

The Bible is full of sayings and writings of prophets who saw very clearly what was going on in their day, and they spoke, they declared, they urged and threatened, some even walked around naked to make their point – but who listened? Often their pronouncements were collected a generation later by men and women who wondered how their parents or they themselves could have missed the urgent truth; they sighed as they added the words of the prophets to their sacred texts.

Ezekiel heard a voice saying to him, “I’m sending you to the Israelites, a rebellious people. I’m sending you to their hardheaded and hardhearted descendants, and you will say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ You’ll speak my words to them whether they listen or whether they refuse. You aren’t being sent to a people whose language and speech are difficult and obscure but to the house of Israel – they will refuse to listen to you because they refuse to listen to me.”[1]

The prophets knew that listening is not only determined by language and speech, but by these curious human traits that can only be described as hardheadedness or hardheartedness. “Whether they listen or whether they refuse,” the voice said, “they will know that a prophet has been among them.”[2] Has been – that’s the sad past tense of regret. But it can also become the gentle healer of our hardheaded and hardhearted inclinations. It can open our stubborn hearts at least for the desire to listen more attentively and carefully to each other.

When Jesus began his ministry, he left home and went to Capernaum, and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. The people there were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.[3] He continued to teach and heal in the villages of Galilee, and word about him spread. His family wasn’t thrilled, though. They were embarassed; the neighbors heard them say, “He has gone out of his mind.”[4] The people who had known him all his life didn’t know what to make of this sudden urge of his to leave home and walk from town to town, talking about repentance and the reign of God. They tried to convince him to come home, but once, when people told him that his mother and his brothers were outside, asking for him, Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”[5] Now that is a beautiful word for all those who recognize the wisdom, love, and power of God in Jesus, but imagine what a harsh word that was for his mother or his little sister.

So eventually Jesus came back to his hometown, and on the sabbath he went to the synagogue and began to teach, and people were astounded. Their astonishment, however, wasn’t the wide-eyed wonder that erupted in Capernaum and elsewhere, it was bewilderment riddled with bits of outrage. Where did he get all this? What is the source of his power? Don’t we know this guy? Who does he think he is? Nothing he said and did in his hometown was any different from what he had done elsewhere, but the outcome was the exact opposite: no miracles and wonders, no more signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign, only upset and angry people.

Jesus, Mark tells us, was amazed at their unbelief. I imagine the disciples were pretty puzzled as well, scratching their heads, wondering what was going on. They had been there when he silenced demons and drove them out. Even the unclean spirits obeyed him! They had been there when he stilled the storm, commanding the wind and the waves, and they obeyed![6] But in this little town, it was like his words hit the walls and fell to the ground. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. “Prophets are not without honor,” he said, “except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Mark tells us that the people who should have known Jesus best, didn’t grasp who he was. It would be easy for us to dismiss them as hardheaded or hardhearted – but only if we can’t see ourselves in their shoes.

“Isn’t this Mary’s boy who used to work in construction?” they said. “We know you, Jesus. We know your family. We’ve known you ever since you were a little boy in diapers – who are you to come here with your newfangled ideas and God talk?” It was inconceivable to them that God could be at work in the man who had grown up just a couple of houses down the street from where they lived. And so they didn’t bring their sick for healing. They didn’t bring their children for his blessing. They didn’t come to hear his teaching. They quickly jumped to, “Who does he think he is?” and stopped listening to what he was saying and went home and left him standing there with his hands tied behind his back. They didn’t expect anything, and Jesus could do no deed of power there. There wasn’t a sadder town in all of Galilee that day. It was a drab and dreary place, with no expectations, little wonder, and little hope.

A miracle, the story suggests, is like the tango: it takes two. We know it takes one who performs and another who perceives the miracle. But Mark invites us to consider the reverse: it takes one who is open with expectation for the power of blessing to become manifest. Without faith, the wonders cease.

Communities where everyone knows everyone else feel comfortable and safe; but for those who want to look at life from angles that aren’t defined solely by family and by what the neighbors might think, life in Mayberry can be suffocating. Small communities have lots of unwritten rules of how things are properly done, and that’s why they can be hardest on their most creative people. If anyone has an idea that breaks the mold, the first response is not, “Tell us more!” but more likely, “Who does she think she is? The King of China’s daughter?”

Churches, of course, are small communities, and I wonder how many times we stifle the wisdom and power of God in our midst, and we don’t even notice. How often do we want to make sure everybody knows their place? How often are we simply not receptive to God’s surprising intrusions? These questions get to the crucial difference between having known Jesus all your life and listening to Jesus now. And Mark’s story suggests that it might well be the difference between “no deed of power here” and “it was a time of miracles and wonders and he was amazed at their belief.”

Between the lines of his story, Mark says to us, “People who have never seen Jesus face to face know him better than his own family and kin because they dare to believe and expect that God speaks and acts through him.” Perhaps we all secretly wait for a god who pops onto the scene like the Incredible Hulk popping out of David Banner’s suit, and so we miss the God who now and then looks a lot like the kid who grew up a couple of houses down the street or our cousin from North Carolina: incredibly everyday human.

But when we begin to believe that Jesus indeed embodies God’s love, word, power, and wisdom, and when we begin to believe that God is not too big to meet us in each other, deeds of power begin to happen. Acts of mercy. Works of compassion. Miracles of understanding.

Jesus sends us out, two by two, like tango dancers. He tells us to take nothing for the journey, but to travel light. On the kingdom trail the gear doesn’t matter. It never was about the gear, and it never will be. It’s just baggage more likely to slow us down than to help us accomplish our mission. It never was about steeples, pews, robes, and bells, and it never will be. It’s all about the miracles and wonders of God’s reign. It’s all about the authority and the power we make manifest when we receive the word of God in Jesus with expectant hearts and respond to it obediently. It’s all incredibly everyday human.

 


[1] See Ezekiel 2:1-7

[2] Ezekiel 2:5

[3] Mark 1:21-22

[4] Mark 3:22

[5] Mark 3:32-35

[6] Mark 1:27; 4:41

Monday
Jul022012

Into the depths

Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord, hear my voice. Some cries are beautiful. Loud shouts of joy from the top of the mountain or cheers of victory from the track and the bleachers at the end of the race. The beautiful racket rising above a pool on a hot summer day, children playing and splashing, shrieking with delight.

Some cries are beautiful. But the cry out of the depths comes from a different place, it comes from a great distance, far from where life is at home. Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord hear my voice.

The psalm gives voice to the love and the despair of a father who falls at Jesus’ feet begging him to lay his hands on his little girl so that she may live. And the words give voice to an unnamed woman who doesn’t dare speak as she comes up behind Jesus to touch his clothes, reaching up from the depths of twelve years of suffering.

A couple of Sundays ago during worship I remembered Cheryl Bridges Johns, a professor at the Church of God seminary in Cleveland, TN. I hope I will never forget her challenge to make room in our worship services for unscripted things to happen. “Make room,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing her words, “make room for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it.”

The depths of chaos are frightening. We know they are there, some of us are sitting in them right now, but it takes a lot for any of us to cry to the Lord from the depths, unless we’re alone or have a pillow to muffle our cries. Make room, Cheryl said, for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it. Have yourselves a little festival of tears every now and then, she said.

When did we begin to believe that grief, despair, and helplessness must be transformed into well-written litanies before we can bring them before God? Why do we insist on projecting that everything is under control, that we have it all together? I don’t know, but I suspect it is because we want to be in control. We are afraid of chaos and we are afraid to fully trust the power of God to tame the chaos. We are afraid of what might erupt once we take the lid off. We are afraid it might overwhelm us.

And so we script our worship services carefully and expect them to be over on time. And we talk about praise and worship and create an entire industry that writes the songs for it – but who gives voice and melody to the cries that well up from the depths?

Some poets do.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.[1]

There is no setting of this poem or anything like it in the hymnals of the church. We don’t do laments, nor do we weep or wail; we cry in movie theaters, silently and grateful for the darkness, and at home behind closed doors. There is no room for a ‘festival of tears’ in our public gatherings, and so the Holy Spirit must find other ways to tame the chaos that threatens to undo us.

Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, a prominent and influential member of the community, a man people recognized and greeted in the market place. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet, his hands and knees in the dust, and he begged him, not just once, but repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He was a man used to having things under control, and he was powerless. The love for his daughter made a beggar of him. He could have sent a servant to ask Jesus to come to his house, but he didn’t; he was no longer afraid to reveal his love and helplessness in front of the whole town, he fell to his knees and begged, a desperate man.

In one of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner recalls his own helplessness as a father whose little girl was very sick. “One of our daughters began to stop eating. There was nothing scary about it at first. It was just the sort of thing any girl who thought she’d be prettier if she lost a few pounds might do – nothing for breakfast, maybe a carrot or a Diet Coke for lunch, for supper perhaps a little salad with low calorie dressing. But then as months went by it did become scary. Anorexia nervosa is the name of the sickness she was suffering from.” The hardest part: there was nothing he could do. “No rational argument, no dire medical warning, no pleading, or cajolery or bribing would make this young woman he loved start eating normally again. … The psychiatrists we consulted told me I couldn’t cure her. The best thing I could do for her was to stop trying to do anything. [But] the only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her – to move heaven and earth to make her well, and of course, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have … the power to make her well.”[2]

“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live,” Jairus begged. Jesus went with him, surrounded by people on every side, and suddenly he stopped, turned around and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

The disciples were like, “You’re kidding, right?” – they didn’t know that a woman in the crowd had come up behind Jesus and touched his cloak, convinced that if she but touched his clothes, she’d be made well. They didn’t know she had been bleeding for twelve years. They didn’t know she had spent all she had on medical bills, and was no better. Had they known, they might have told her, “This is not a good time, Mam. A little girl is dying; look, you’ve waited twelve years, a few minutes more won’t be much of a difference, but for the little girl it’s a matter of life or death.”

The woman touched Jesus with a mixture of desperation and hope. Out of the depths, too tired and poor to be afraid anymore, she reached out and touched his clothes. That was all the faith she had.

Immediately she felt that she was healed. When Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched me?” she fell down before him and told him the whole truth. She told him the truth of twelve years of suffering and poverty, of loneliness, hopelessness, and shame – and who knows how long it took her to tell the whole truth of her suffering.

And then Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” The truth was and is that she was not just some anonymous, marginalized and impoverished woman in the crowd, but a member of God’s family. The truth was and is that God hears even the silent cry from the depths and invites us into wholeness and peace through Christ.

But what about the little girl who was only twelve years old? It was too late, they said. “Your daughter is dead,” they said, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.” He went into the room where she lay and took her hand. “Talita, cum,” he said, “little girl, get up!” And she got up.

Out of the depth we cry to God, “Lord, hear our voice!” and God comes into our depths, where we are so far from where life and peace are at home; God comes with healing mercy.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories; he does it quite a bit throughout his account of the gospel. Here he begins telling us the story of the little girl, then he arranges an interruption to tell us about the woman who had suffered for as many years as the girl had lived, and then he returns to the first story to finish it. And he finishes it although so many said, it is too late. Finishing it is his way of saying it’s never too late for the love and power of God.

The little girl was dead when Jesus told her Dad, “Do not fear, only believe.” Believe what? Certainly not that if we believe just right, Jesus will do a miracle for us. Thoughts like that cross our minds when we are helpless and despairing.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories so we can begin to see how our own stories, even our entire life story are woven into the life of Jesus. Our lives are his and his life is ours. Even the depths of our helpless and hopeless despair are his. He sits with us and says, “The depths of chaos are frightening, but they will not overwhelm you.” The final word of the story is God’s, and God says, “Get up.”

This word may be too big for our imagination, but it’s just the right size to tame the chaos of our fear and give us the courage to hope. May it be so.

 


[1] Written by W. H. Auden; known as “Funeral Blues” and by other titles; see http://www.wussu.com/poems/whafb.htm for some background

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 23, 26

Wednesday
Jun272012

7x7 Autumn book study

After the summer, I would like to lead another small book group. I'm leaning toward N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Wright is one of the leading New Testament scholars of our time, a prolific author, and the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England (he retired in 2010). I don't agree with some of his positions, but I always learn from him, and I love his passion for the church.

I think we could read and discuss his book without hurrying in 6-8 weeks. If you'd like to be part of this small book group (6-8 people), let me know, so we can start looking at our fall schedules.

Tuesday
Jun262012

To the other side

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God we sang at Jack’s funeral on Wednesday, one of the great hymns of the church. With steady beat we sang of God, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills. I sing those lines and I see a stronghold built on a rock, surrounded by a raging sea, waves relentlessly battering the walls, but to no avail: this fortress is a mighty one.

And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear. The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them; their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure: One little word shall fell them.

One little word. But how much easier it is for us to sing fearlessly against the storm from the walls of a fortress on the shore than from a little boat tossed about by the waves.

Water is one of the most powerful symbols we know, life-giving water and life-threatening water. Our lives begin immersed in a little ocean in the womb, and we imagine it to be a world of perfect peace. Nothing can bother us – food comes to us, steady as our mother’s heartbeat; all other noises are muffled, the temperature is always right, we just curl up in the water and float in complete happiness – until the water breaks, that is. Then, suddenly, it’s gravity and bright lights, cold air, strange sounds and voices, and very soon – hunger. We must learn that being born also means being welcomed by parents who hold us, keep us safe and warm, feed us, whisper in our ears, and continue to surround us with love and care.

It may well be the fact that we spend the first months of our existence immersed in water like fish in the ocean, that we have this life-long attraction to water. There’s nothing like soaking in a hot tub when your muscles are sore – or your soul. You just float in memories of complete happiness, and the tensions melt, the muscles relax, and your soul sings a little song of peace. We love water; the pleasures of splashing and swimming and jumping in puddles; the satisfaction of a drink of cold water on a hot day; the sound of summer rain drumming on the leaves of the trees; the fun of water slides and surfing, kayaking and snorkeling; the beauty of rivers, lakes, and water falls; the rhythm of waves rolling up on the beach. We love water – it flows through our cells, it freshens our skin and it revives our spirit.

Jesus was baptized in a river, and he did much of his teaching by the lake, the Sea of Galilee. When the crowds who gathered to hear him got larger, he asked his disciples to have a boat ready for him, so he could pull away from the shore and teach from the boat.[1] People heard his stories about the sower scattering seed on the ground with the sound of water in the background, little waves lapping up onto the pebbles and rocks. People listened to his kingdom parables while looking at the vast, open stretch of sea and sky; I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine anything more beautiful than sitting by the water’s edge, listening to Jesus’ stories about God’s reign.

On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side,” and leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.

Most of the people on the beach had gone home, they had things to do, animals to look after, meals to prepare, kids to get ready for bed; but some stayed and watched the boat go east. “What business does he have going over there,” they wondered, “it’s only Gentiles on the other side, idolatrous people, it’s an unclean land, full of unholy spirits. It’s not our people over there, not his people, what business does he have going over there?” Dark clouds were moving in, casting shadows on what had been a sunny day on the beach.

Meanwhile, in the boat, the disciples were enjoying the evening breeze and quiet. It had been a long day, they were tired, and the gentle rocking of the boat almost put them to sleep. But then the wind picked up, and soon the storm broke lose. The waves beat into the boat, and it was being swamped. Some of the disciples were fishermen; they were accustomed to wind and waves, but nothing like this. Chaos had been unleashed, the raging wind whipping the water into a frenzy of waves and whirls – their little boat nothing but a nutshell.

The disciples got a very close look at water’s other face, the reality that makes us wear life jackets in our boats, and stay close when our little ones are in the tub, long after they have learned to sit up on their own. There’s danger in the water, and we better learn to respect it, because the moment we learn to breathe, we can drown.

The disciples knew the danger of capsizing and going down into the deep. But they didn’t know Jesus. They saw him, curled up on a cushion, sleeping like a baby, a picture of peace in the midst of the storm. They woke him, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Now why do you think they woke him? Did they want to hear one last story before the boat went down? That seems unlikely. Did they need him to help get the water out of the boat or hold the rudder? If so, why didn’t they say so or hand him a pail? To me it sounds like they were anxious and it bothered them that he didn’t seem to be the least bit troubled. “Do you not care that this little boat is going down and all of us with it?” They were frantic and the fact that he wasn’t made it worse.

Jesus woke up; Mark doesn’t even mention if he got up from the cushion. He woke up and rebuked the wind and the sea. “Peace! Be still!” And it was so. He spoke and it came to be. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.[2] One little word, and there was great calm.

And the disciples? They were sitting down, wide-eyed, barely breathing, their hands clenching the wall of the boat with white knuckles. Before, they had been anxious, now they were afraid.

Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

There is a popular reading of this story where Jesus isn’t rebuking the wind and the waves, but the disciples for being afraid in the storm. According to that reading, we ought to always remember, no matter how high the waves or how violent the winds, that Jesus is in the boat with us – and that we shouldn’t be afraid, and if we had faith, we wouldn’t be afraid. According to that reading, we ought to tie ourselves to the mast of the cross with strong ropes of faith and laugh at the storm, “Bring it on! Is that all you got?”

I believe this is dangerous nonsense, because the next time your little boat gets hit by a storm, and you know it will, you’ll be afraid, and on top of everthing else, you’ll feel guilty for being afraid. As if fear wasn’t enough.

Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples, he commanded the wind and the waves to be still. Remember, the whole trip was his idea, “Let us go across to the other side,” he said. This was no evening cruise to a restaurant on the other side of the bay. He took them out to sea, away from the land and the life they knew, to the land of the Gentiles. Why? Because idols and demons ruled on the other side and Jesus invaded their territory to proclaim and bring the kingdom of God. Because sin and death ruled on the other side and Jesus crossed over to bring forgiveness, healing, and wholeness to life. This was no pleasure cruise, this was D-day. Little wonder the forces of chaos tried to stop their little boat with waves bucking like bulls and wind gusts strong enough to break everything in their path.

Jesus’ life and mission is one dangerous crossing after another. His presence, his teaching, his actions lead to confrontation between the way things are and the way they are to be – within us, between us, and beyond us. The truth is, when Jesus is near, the storms aren’t far.

But when Jesus speaks, we hear the word that spoke light and life into being. When Jesus speaks, we hear the One who prescribed bounds for [the sea], and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”[3]

The disciples in the boat were not half as afraid of the storm as they were of Jesus’ sovereign power to tame it. They were afraid because it finally dawned on them that it wasn’t them who had taken Jesus into the boat with them; Jesus had taken them into the boat with him, and this ride to the other side was an invasion of enemy territory by the forces of grace and wholeness.

“Why are you afraid?” he asked, “Have you still no faith?”

Our Bible translation is very kind, suggesting that we read, “They were filled with great awe,” when the words can also be translated, “they feared with great fear.” They were afraid because they were beginning to understand that this little boat they were in was going to keep crossing to the other side, and that nothing, neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor anything else in all creation would be able to keep him from completing his journey.

They didn’t jump ship. They stayed in the boat with him, as they were, with their great fear and their little faith, and they sailed with him, all the way to the shore where life in fullness is at home.

 


[1] Mark 3:9; 4:1

[2] Genesis 1:7ff.; Psalm 33:9; Psalm 107:29

[3] See Job 38:8-11

Monday
Jun182012

Nothing more important

Jean Giono, a French/Italian author, was working on a story. It was a story about a shepherd who lived up in the mountains and a hiker who met him when he was looking for water.

Giono worked on that story for twenty-three years, and in the end it was only seven pages long. It’s the story of Elzéard Bouffier who, after the death of his wife and son, moved to the mountains, and over a period of fifty years planted hundreds of thousands of trees. He began planting trees, he said, because the land was dying for want of trees, and he had nothing more important to do.

The publisher didn’t like the story because it was fiction. It was based on actual people and events, but it wasn’t journalism or biography. It was just a story. Since his publisher didn’t want it, Giono gave up the copyright, so whoever wanted to print it or tell it or turn it into a movie or a song could do so. And today countless people around the world have been touched and inspired by the classic tale of the man who planted trees.

Evening was approaching, and when he asked me if I needed a place to stay for the night, I gratefully accepted. We gathered his sheep and walked to his cabin in a steep valley.

After dinner, the Shepherd left the room and returned with a small sack. He dumped the contents – about two hundred acorns – out on the table. He scrutinized each one carefully and sorted them into piles. He discarded all with cracks. Through this process he eventually ended up with ten piles of ten acorns each. He placed this carefully selected piles of acorns into a bucket of water, then showed me to a corner where I unrolled by blanket and made my bed for the night.

The next day, he invited me to join him as he walked to the top of a nearby ridge. He carried an iron staff the thickness of my thumb and about shoulder height in length. As we reached the top of the ridge, the Shepherd began poking his staff into the ground, making small holes about two inches deep. Into each he placed one of his carefully selected acorns. He was planting trees.

I asked if this was his land. It was not – he did not know who owned it. Perhaps it was common land, or owned by the parish. It did not matter to him. With the same care with which he seemed to do everything, he planted one hundred acorns.

At midday, he returned to his home for lunch. Afterward, he again sorted out one hundred acorns.

When I told him that in thirty years his ten thousand oaks would be a magnificent forest, he responded by saying that if God granted him health, in thirty years these ten thousand oaks would be but a drop in the ocean.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Jesus didn’t give us a timetable for the coming of the kingdom of God, nor did he provide a blueprint or a constitution to tell us what he meant by the kingdom, reign, rule, realm, or empire of God. Instead of answers, we get stories about shepherds and farmers – and these parables are incredibly short and rich and frustrating.

Who is this gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and then nothing is mentioned about watering or weeding or keeping the rabbits or chip munks away? Is God the gardener or Jesus? Or are the followers of Jesus the gardeners who sow seeds of mercy trusting that every small act will bear fruit? Or are the followers of Jesus the soil in which the seed of God’s word takes root and flourishes into a harvest of life? Is the kingdom of God like a gardener who slept through the growing season but wakes up for the harvest?

“We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us,” says Wendy Farley, “that we can just go to sleep. In fact, it might be better if we did sleep through the whole thing, snug and safe, resting like babies in our mothers’ arms.”

I imagine the man who planted trees slept like a baby every night. And he didn’t go back day after day, anxious to see how the acorns were doing. He just got up every morning and went out to poke holes in the soil and plant seeds, because he had nothing more important to do.

We can enter the parable imagining ourselves to be gardeners, seed, or soil, and each door takes us into a different story that is still the same parable. Martin Luther clearly saw himself as a sower when he said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses on it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” But Luther was also able to see his life as the soil in which the seed of God’s Word took root and bore fruit, grace upon grace.

Parables resist complete explanation. They just won’t sit still long enough so we can turn them into simple one-liners that can be embroidered on a couch pillow or printed on a mug. Parables don’t offer answers that settle things, but rather point us back, again and again, to the one who speaks the word to us with many such stories that keep us wondering. They point us to Jesus whose life and cross unsettle the status quo and inaugurate the kingdom.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” Jesus asks, “or what parable will we use for it?”

And he wanders the whole realm of nature, teeming with lion and eagle, bull and bear, gladly offering themselves as symbols of power and might. The oak stands in quiet strength, and the cedar looks as if it knew the beautiful lines from Ezekiel who spoke of the great empires as mighty trees:

Say to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and to his troops: With whom do you compare in your greatness? Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon: beautiful branches, forest shade, towering height; indeed, its top went up between the clouds. Waters nourished it, the deep raised it up, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; all the animals of the field gave birth to their young under its branches; and in its shade all great nations lived. It was beautiful in its greatness and in its lush foliage; for its roots went down to abundant water. The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; the plane trees were as nothing compared with its branches; no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty.[1]

The same Ezekiel dared to dream of God planting a tender shoot on Israel’s mounainous highlands, and how it would send out branches and bear fruit. How it would grow into a mighty cedar, and birds of every kind would nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs. “Then all the trees in the countryside will know that I, the Lord, bring down the tall tree and raise up the lowly tree, and make the green tree wither and the dry tree bloom. I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do it.”[2]

Throughout Israel’s history, any story that mentioned trees with birds in them was a story of hope that in the end God’s kingdom would prevail over the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Rome or any other empire.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” asks Jesus, “or what parable will we use for it?”

And he returns from his walk through nature and Scripture and talks about – mustard. Disappointed? There’s nothing mighty or majestic about mustard. Yes, it has medicinal properties and it is useful for flavoring and preserving food. But the mustard plant is a garden pest, and no one would sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over first the field, then the farm, and then the whole county. The mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher; and it tends to take over where it is not wanted. It’s fast-growing, drought-resistant, and impossible to control.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” asks Jesus, “or what parable will we use for it?”

And he talks about mustard, an invasive weed. Mustard grows just about anywhere, not just on the hights of Lebanon or the hills of Rome or by the great rivers of Egypt or Babylon. The kingdom of God is like this annual plant that perpetuates itself with tiny seeds.

As people who seek to live in the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, we do small things and lots of them, acts of kindness and compassion that may seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of global politics, but Jesus tells us, “You’re scattering seed on the ground, friends. What you’re doing may be as common as mustard, but it’s also as resilient.”

We plant kingdom seeds because we have nothing more important to do. And God’s kingdom is like a weed that finds the tiniest crack in the concrete and it grows and nothing can stop it. It grows until the birds of the air make nests in its shade, and the nations find peace under its branches.


[1] Ezekiel 31:2-8

[2] Ezekiel 17:22-24

Monday
Jun112012

Wherever you're with me

This scene in Mark opens with beautiful simplicity. Then he went home. If somebody collected the life stories of any woman, man, or child who ever lived, some version of that line would be part of each: Then she went home. Then they went home. Then he went home. Whatever it was that came before – a long day of work or a lifetime of wandering, a short stay at the hospital or three generations of exile – whatever it was that came before, then they went home. These words are heavy with peace. We think about familiar faces, a table and a bed, the sound of the rain on the roof, a window, and the way the view changes from season to season, and from year to year. Home.

It’s easy to imagine Jesus at the end of a long day that took him to the synagogue, to the beach, and up the mountain – and that’s just where he’s been in 19 quick verses in chapter 3 – it’s easy to imagine him coming home to his favorite chair where he loves to sit and watch the sun go down behind the hills. Home is always a good place to go, or it’s not home.

Now the passage in Mark could also open with slightly different wording, and, with everything that follows, I believe it should be translated to say,

Then he went into a house and again a crowd gathered so they could not even eat.

People had heard all that he was doing and they came. He had healed so many that everyone who was sick came and pushed forward in order to touch him. The same scene had happened earlier on the beach, when Jesus told his disciples to get a small boat ready for him so the crowd wouldn’t crush him. They kept coming, they kept pushing.

Now he’s in a house that sits like an island in a sea of people who want to touch him. They are drawn to him because of his power to heal and forgive. And then his family shows up. These are the people closest to him, men and women who have known him for years – and they’ve come to restrain him. They are convinced he has gone out of his mind. Perhaps you want to think that they are concerned about his well-being, that they are afraid that he might get hurt, that his mom is here to say, “Are you out of your mind, son? Come on home now, eat a decent meal, and get some sleep.”

But that’s not what’s going on here. They have come to tie him up. The verb translated restrain here is also used later when Jesus is arrested.[1] His family are here to pick him up and take him home, in chains if necessary.

It’s not just people who are saying, “He’s out of his mind;” it’s his own family. The people closest to him do not recognize the power at work in him. They think it’s madness, and they’ve come for an intervention. But there’s another group pushing onto the scene, a delegation from Jerusalem. They are scribes, scholars, religious experts, and they demonize Jesus accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul, the master of demons. They also do not recognize the power at work in him and accuse him of sorcery and black magic.[2]

We look at this scene from the other side of the resurrection, and that makes biased readers of us. We are reading too quickly, though, I think, if we smugly dismiss Jesus’ immediate family as slow and the scholars from the city as blind. Like us, they live in difficult times, and like most of us, they want to maintain what little stability is left in their domestic and religious life. They have been watching what Jesus does, they have witnessed how he brings God’s love and grace to life, regardless of where he is or with whom or what time of day or year – there’s no proper order to it, it’s so extravagant and reckless, and it frightens them. Like us, they live in difficult times and they cling to and wish to protect what little normalcy and peace they know and have. Jesus is just so disruptive that to them his power feels like chaos.

Mark paints a scene for us suggesting that the presence and work of God in Christ is not unambiguous, and that it can indeed be quite difficult to tell the inbreaking of God’s reign from what we might consider madness or, God help us, evil. Now perhaps you think it couldn’t possibly be that difficult. But consider marriage for a moment, or more specifically, think about marriage between a woman and a woman, or a man and a man. To some of us in the churches such marriages are God’s way of ordering human relationships in holy covenants that allow us to grow in love; some of us recognize in the hopeful and painful conversations we’ve been having in this country the healing work of the Holy Spirit who frees us from the demons of homophobia and calls us to justice. To others in the churches a marriage that is not between a man and a woman is unthinkable, and where others speak of liberation, they can only see rebellion against God’s good order. Wherever you find yourself in that debate, think about just how close you might be to calling good evil and the holy demonic.

Mark paints a scene for us. It’s a little house with Jesus in it, and around it a throng of people old and young, rich and poor, men and women; people of all ethnic backgrounds and political convictions, people on crutches and on stretchers; all of humanity with our hopes and our fears, our flaws and our dreams, with our hunger and thirst for life, and we’re pressing in at the doors and windows, aching to be near Jesus and to touch his cloak. The only ones to remain on the edge of the scene are the ones who have made up their minds because they already know what’s best for the family and for religion: Jesus needs to be restrained. The presence and work of the Holy Spirit needs to be kept under control.

Jesus is at odds with his family and he is in conflict with the religious authorities, but it’s not because he’s a young man with wild ideas. When the scribes accuse him of being in league with Beelzebul, the master of demons, he points out that their charge makes no sense. Why would Satan cooperate in the eviction of Satan? If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And Satan, one must assume, would have a strong interest in keeping intact arrangements as old as human memory.

But Jesus has plans to rearrange things significantly and permanently. To illustrate the point he quotes a line from the burglary manual:

No one can enter a strong one’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong one; then indeed the house can be plundered.

Jesus sees himself as the thief who has come to rob the biggest thief of all. Human beings and all of creation belong to God the Creator, and not to the whispering lier who sows lovelessness and robs us of life’s fullness. Jesus has plans for the strong one’s house. He ties him up, demon by demon, fear by fear, and plunders his property, leading the captives home.

Mark paints a scene for us; it’s a little house with Jesus in it. And that little house is the new home for all of us. Jesus’ mother and his brothers are standing outside and they call him. He is out of his mind, they say. He is beside himself. He’s completely out of it, they say, and there’s truth in their confusion. Jesus’ life, in contrast to ours, revolves entirely around the will of God. The whisperer of loveless lies simply can’t get a handle on him. They say, “He is out of his mind,” and the truth is, Jesus is completely in sync with God’s mind. They say, “He is beside himself,” and the truth is, Jesus doesn’t follow the path of the self-absorbed, but entrusts himself completely to the flow of love and grace he offers with such reckless extravagance.

A crowd is sitting around him and they say, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he looks at all the humanity sitting around him, all of us with our hunger and thirst for life, and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus sits in the midst of those who long for healing and freedom. The beauty of his mission is that the closer we draw to him because of our own desire to touch and be healed by wholeness, the closer we draw to each other. And the closer we draw to the reality of suffering, longing, and joy in each other, the closer we draw to him and the wholeness he brings to creation.

There’s a little house with Jesus in it. And that little house is big enough for all of us. Jesus’ mother and his brothers are standing outside and they call him. They’ve come to take him home like we all come wishing to take him home with us and show him his room.

But he knows better and he sings,[3]

Ahh home
Come on home
Home is wherever you’re with me
Ahh home
Come on home, home, home
Home is wherever you’re with me

 


[1] Mark 14:1, 44, 46, 49

[2] Beelzebul is a Philistine deity, ridiculed in Hebrew tradition as Baal Zebub, Lord of the Flies cf. 2 Kings 1:2; in the first century, the name apparently had become one of the names of the Tempter

[3] With thanks to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros for a lovely song; the wording was changed only minimally

Monday
Jun042012

Nick at night

At the beginning of the fourth Gospel, the Evangelist sings the song of light and life, sings of the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ, sings of the light that the darkness did not overcome, sings of rejection and welcome.

“… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”[i]

The Gospel and the Epistle for this Sunday, read side by side, appear to be engaged in a little competition over who can be bolder in spelling out the consequences of our new relationship with God, our new life in God. John unfolds in a dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus what he already touched on in the opening song: we are given a new identity as children of God, “born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of human will, but of God.”[ii] And Paul writes of the spirit of adoption bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ.[iii] One speaks of birth, the other of adoption; one chooses his metaphors boldly as a poet, the other sounds a bit more like he’s been to law school, but both proclaim our identity as children of God. I like imagining the two on a walk together after reading each other’s writings, and what a fascinating conversation that would be. John says, “We have beheld his glory and from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” and Paul nods and smiles.[iv] Paul says, “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh,” and John responds, “Amen.”[v]

We are children of God, and it is not our doing, it is the gift of God; it is the offer to live lives in which all brokenness is healed by grace. It is a gift, an offer, nothing about it is coercive. But why is that new life not being received universally? Both Paul and John wrestle with the difficult reality of the gift being rejected. There are people, friends and neighbors who do not recognize Jesus for who he is and do not receive him. And our own embrace of this new life is not nearly as whole-hearted and complete as we ourselves would like it to be. Is it because we are afraid of radical newness? Is is because we have a hard time letting go of the things and thoughts that have shaped us?

Early in the gospel narrative, Nicodemus comes to Jesus. He is a Pharisee, a good and pious man, a leader in the Jewish community who speaks not only for himself when he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” But he comes by night. This conversation is private. Perhaps he doesn’t want to put his good name on the line. Yet he comes; there’s something about Jesus that draws him to have a more personal conversation.

“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

He has seen the signs. There was a wedding feast, and Jesus was there. When the wine gave out, he told the servants to fill six large stone water jars with water; and when the chief steward tasted it, it was the best wine.

Jesus came to Jerusalem and went to the temple. He drove out sheep and cattle, poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables, and said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Jesus’ actions raised some eye brows, but many believed in his name because they saw the signs that we was doing. That’s where Nicodemus is coming from. He has seen the signs, but he can’t see all that’s there to see because his knowledge limits his perception.

Jesus responds with a teaching, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The presence of God’s reign is there to see, but who can see it? Our English Bibles render this phrase either “born from above” or “born again,” but the Greek word means both, and Jesus is having a great time playing with the double meaning: the new life he offers can’t just be put into words or contained by simple categories. This new life messes with the capacity of our language and therefore our knowledge.

Nicodemus hears only one dimension of the word’s meaning, “born again,” and he reacts with disbelief, “How can it be?” He talks about what he knows. It is impossible to reenter one’s mother’s womb and be born a second time. But that is not what Jesus’ words mean. Jesus speaks of a newness so radical that of all the words in the human vocabulary only “birth” can describe how life as a child of God begins. Jesus’ invitation to see and enter the kingdom is an invitation to embrace a grace-dependent and grace-shaped identity that will not be determined by blood or the will of the flesh or human will, but solely by God.

Nicodemus talks about what he knows, and Jesus’ offer of new life does not fit inside the house of knowledge he has built. He cannot see what is happening outside and he cannot hear Jesus’ presence as an invitation to come outside. He clings tenaciously to his categories of the possible. He knows it is impossible to reenter one’s mother’s womb and be born a second time.

But grace is pretty tenacious as well. Nicodemus thinks of birth in very concrete and physical terms, and Jesus meets him there. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” We are quite literally born out of water, but to speak of our identity as children of God we need language that doesn’t limit God to what we already know. Water is life-giving. Water is familiar. But God invites us to live life that is born of water and Spirit, of the familiar and the radically new.

Little children ask, “How come the clouds sail across the sky? How come the field sometimes rolls like the ocean? How come the trees stand still and sometimes they dance?”

“It’s the wind, honey. You hear the sound of it, you watch it play, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes, and neither do I.”

Nicodemus talks about what he knows, and Jesus says to him, “The wind blows where it chooses. The Spirit blows where it wills.” Nicodemus talks about what he knows, and Jesus speaks of two of the most uncontrollable, uncontainable of human experiences, birth and wind. Jesus’ offer of new life is beyond what we can know and control; our language and imagination simply do not stretch enough to include that offer. The new life is about living it in order to know. Jesus doesn’t say, “Come let me explain.” Instead he continues to invite us, saying, “Follow me. Come and see.”

Nicodemus is startled by this talk of wind and spirit, water and birth; all he can say is, “How can these things be?” I am reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah who were childless and old, and one day they were given a promise of new life: In due season, Sarah, old Sarah, would give birth to a baby boy.But Sarah, like Nicodemus and the rest of us when we try to contain the horizon of God’s possibilities within our own horizons of knowledge and experience, Sarah chuckled. She knew her husband’s age. She knew her own age. She knew about menopause and the life cycle. And God asked, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”[vi] The answer was a baby boy, born in due season.

We have our own experiences of barrenness, of hope drying up and future disappearing from view. We think about employment numbers, student loans, government debts, church budgets, political deadlock, and environmental decline. We work so hard (and so well) building systems of knowledge and control that we forget how to trust the possibilities of God. We maneuver ourselves into dead ends where the only options left are denial or despair. But the truth is that the houses of knowledge we have built will always be too small to contain the possibilities of God. We will never only be what we have become because of the circumstances of our birth, or what we have made of ourselves or of each other. Jesus offers us new life in his company; he invites us to discover what life is like for those who receive its fullness from him, grace upon grace. Jesus invites us to discover our identity as children of God and as members of a community defined by mutual love.

Nicodemus is offered new life, but to embrace it he must let go of the contentions that tell him such newness is impossible; he must learn to trust the holy possibilities of God. His incredulous question, “How can these things be?” is not the last word of the conversation. Jesus tells him and us, that the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. He points to the cross that we might see his own life in communion with the Father and the Spirit as the source of new life for all, life defined solely by the possibilities of God.

I imagine John and Paul walking along a river, and John says, “Jesus invites us to live and serve in a grace-shaped community as children of the cross,” and Paul responds, “Amen.”

 


[i] John 1:12

[ii] John 1:13

[iii] Romans 8:15f.

[iv] John 1:14,16

[v] Romans 8:12

[vi] Genesis 18:14

Tuesday
May292012

Hope for the hopeless

Lewis Smedes was a professor of theology who loved to have a little fun with his students on occasion. He didn’t just do it for the laughs, though, but to help them become better theologians. At the beginning of a unit on hope he asked them, “How many of you want to go to heaven when you die?” And everybody raised their hand.

Then he asked, “How many of you would like to go tomorrow if you could?” And all the hands went down; he was happy. He didn’t have to worry about young people wanting to go to heaven too quickly.

Then he rephrased the question, “How many of you would like to wake up tomorrow in a world where no one was afraid to play on the street at night, where no child ever starved, where nobody ever pointed a gun at another human being, where nobody ever put you down because you were different,  where no mother ever wept over a sick baby? How many of you would like to live in a world that finally worked right?” And all hands went up again. “Then you want to go to heaven tomorrow, because that is what biblical hope is about. God created this world. The good Lord is not that interested in getting us off of it. What God is interested in is getting it to work right.”[1]

God created this world not merely as a testing ground to find souls worthy of living the life eternal way beyond the blue. God’s desire is for life on earth to flourish, and God acts to reclaim all that makes for life. “Because God is a God of life and blessing, God will do redemptive work, should those gifts be endangered,” writes Terence Fretheim. “The objective of God’s work in redemption is to free people to be what they were created to be. It is a deliverance, not from the world, but to true life in the world.”[2]

When we talk about heaven we often get dangerously close to skipping the world, the very world God has made and has given us as a place for true life. Stephen Moseley played a song for us at the end of a talk he gave on a Wednesday night, a few weeks ago. Heaven by Brett Dennen is a simple yet thoughtful song, and you probably won’t hear it on Christian radio.

Beyond the rules of religion, the cloth of conviction
above all the competition, where fact and fiction meet
there’s no color lines, casts, or classes
there’s no foolin’ the masses
whatever faith you practice, whatever you believe

heaven, heaven, what the hell is heaven
is there a home for the homeless
is there hope for the hopeless[3]

I like the song for a number of reasons, but I love how it moves with such ease from the big word HEAVEN to everyday hope in the chorus. True life in the world certainly means homes for the homeless. What about hope for the hopeless?

In Romans 8, Paul writes that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”[4] It’s not just human beings who long to be who we really are, who we are meant to be as creatures made in the image of God; the whole creation is waiting, because its own freedom from bondage is tied to ours. We have a particular calling in creation. Human beings are created in the image of God to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing on the land, in the sea, and in the air.[5] And dominion in God’s creation is all about naming the wonders, and knowing them, and caring for them with the same attention, wisdom, and passion for life as God. But sin distorts our powers of naming, knowing, and caring into destructive modes of living; our dominion becomes oppressive and abusive. We don’t get freedom and power right, and as a consequence we lose our place in the world and live like exiles far from home. But our homelessness impacts all.

Listen to this lament by the prophet Hosea, “There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.[6]

The land mourns, and all who live in it languish, because human beings don’t get freedom and power right. “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither?” cries Jeremiah.[7] And Isaiah cries, “The heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth.”[8]

We know, says Paul, we know that the whole creation has been groaning until now. But God is a God of life and blessing, and God will do redemptive work, should those gifts be endangered.

Israel knows this because God made a way for them out of bondage to Egypt. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out, and God heard their groaning.[9] And just as God was faithful to God’s people, so God will be faithful to God’s creation. No groan will go unheard. Our freedom from bondage to sin and death and creation’s freedom from bondage to decay go hand in hand. The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah has opened the horizon of our hope to include the redemption of all that God has made. Our hope is not a private one for a seat in heaven, but for the redemption of heaven and earth. In hope we were saved, and we wait with endurance for our hope to be fulfilled.

And where is God in all this? Not watching from a distance nor mysteriously pulling the strings from far away. God is present, and in the Spirit God shares the groaning of creation. In the Spirit God suffers, waits, and works with us.

Paul calls the gift of the Spirit to the church “the first fruits,” which sounds a lot like the beginning of harvest time, doesn’t it? It sounds like the joy after a long time of waiting for the first strawberries, the first corn, the first tomatoes. Paul taps into a beautiful Torah tradition that instructed God’s people to bring the first fruits to the temple. It was an act of gratitude for the gift of the land, for the gifts of sun and rain, and for the blessing of growth. It was an act of joyful recognition that all of life is indeed God’s good gift.[10] Paul taps into that tradition and uses it to speak of the great harvest of redemption for which the life of Jesus was the seed. The gift of the Spirit is the first fruits, the first taste, the first glance, the opening line of the symphony of creation redeemed. We hum along, we sing along, we whisper, we groan, and Paul assures us that it is God’s Spirit in us who kindles a fire of holy restlessness that cannot put up with the world as it is.

First fruits – we know there’s more where that came from, and we lean into that future. The image of God, distorted and fractured through sin, is restored in Jesus the Messiah; and the signs of that restoration become visible in those who trust in God’s life-giving power. Led by the Spirit, they reflect the image of God into the world – and the hills burst into song, the trees clap their hands, and the land smiles.[11]

We have witnessed such moments of redemption and joy when the whole world is at home and we in it; but God’s Spirit is with us particularly when we face the ruin and misery of the unredeemed world, and we find that there are no words left to express the sense of futility and the longing for redemption. Then, says Paul, it is the Spirit of God who utters the prayer the community of Christ wishes to offer, “with sighs too deep for words.” Creation groans, we groan, and the Spirit groans with us. The fire of holy restlessness that cannot put up with the world as it is, makes the unredeemed world’s suffering our own, and in bearing that pain we are being conformed to the image of Christ. In the one Spirit, “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”[12]

God’s work in redemption is to free people to be what they were created to be. It is a deliverance, not from the world, but to true life in the world. God’s work in redemption is the deliverance of the world. It is God’s own Spirit who inspires us to ask, Is there a home for the homeless? Is there hope for the hopeless? And the same Spirit inspires and empowers us to give the answer with our lives, to the glory of God.

+

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [13]

 


[1] Lewis Smedes, 1993 http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/smedes_3709.htm with some minor edits

[2] Terence Fretheim, The Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus, Interpretation 45, p. 359; italics in the original

[3] Brett Dennen, Heaven, Hope for the Hopeless, 2008

[4] Romans 8:18-21

[5] Genesis 1:26-28

[6] Hosea 4:1-3

[7] Jeremiah 12:4

[8] Isaiah 24:4-6

[9] Exodus 2:23f.

[10] See Deuteronomy 26:1-15

[11] See Isaiah 55:12

[12] Romans 8:17

[13] Romans 15:13

Monday
May212012

Joy in the world

The other day it occurred to me that my grandfather, who was born in 1903, never went on vacation, not once, and I don’t think he missed it. Perhaps you remember somebody like that. I found myself wondering when people started going on vacation and where the word vacation came from.

What I learned is that, until the 1850’s, Americans used the word the way the English do: vacation is the time when teachers and students vacate the school premises and go off on their own – not necessarily to play, though. The custom of  summer breaks, first for the law courts and, later, for universities, was introduced by William the Conqueror from Normandy, where its purpose wasn’t leisure, but assuring a successful grape harvest.[1] Now that’s the kind of vacation my grandfather would have been familiar with: a break from school so everybody can lend a hand during the harvest. I also remember from my earliest school days that some grown-ups called the week of fall break, Kartoffelferien, potato break.

Cindy Aron wrote the first full length history of how Americans have vacationed – from eighteenth-century planters who summered in Newport to twentieth-century workers who headed from the city for camps in the hills.[2] At first, vacations were taken for health more than for fun. The wealthy traveled to watering places, seeking cures for everything from consumption to rheumatism. But the notion that people need a break from work and get away from it all, took quite a while to develop.

For Puritans, work was blessed, and idleness suspect. They worked six days a week and on the seventh day they went to church where the preacher affirmed from the pulpit the goodness of work and warned them against the vices of idleness. But in the 1850s, things began to change quickly and rather dramatically. The railroad allowed people to get to the shore with relative ease, and railroad companies built resort hotels to give the growing white-collar middle class a reason to ride the trains.

Part of what made the middle class was that they had strong values like hard work, discipline, and sobriety, which allowed them to accumulate enough resources to go on vacation. But when they got there, they were tempted to idleness, drunkenness and other worrisome things. So there needed to be a form of vacation where middle class people could relax without worries. The churches were paying attention, and they developed their campgrounds in Martha’s Vineyard, in the Delaware shore, and in other places into worry-free resorts. No drinking, no smoking, no gambling. You couldn’t even bathe on Sundays.

Middle class people were still uncomfortable with the notion of leisure, though, and the resorts responded with a host of programs to keep vacationers busy. They developed schedules of lectures, classes, and courses, and organized hiking and competitive sports absorbed the idle hours. Working on self-improvement – spiritual, educational, physical – helped people feel productive while at play.

But Americans’ uneasy relationship with leisure remained. Robert Siegel, in an interview with Cindy Aron, quoted the saying that Europeans work so they can go on vacation, and Americans go on vacation so they can go back to work. And the author responded,

I think there’s something of a truth in that, and I think it’s an old story. I think if you look at the history and you look at this tension between work and leisure in American culture, I mean, we have this love-hate relationship with our vacations, and I think we’ve had it from the beginning. Some people maybe really like work better. I think being on vacation means dealing with your family, sometimes in ways some people would rather not.[3]

Now that opens another can of worms, and I may have to get to that another time. For now, I want us to think about this desire, this need perhaps, to get away from it all. Feeling the need to get away tells us that things are seriously out of balance where we are. I don’t want to make my grandfather the standard of a balanced life, but I am curious why he never said, “Man, I need a vacation so bad.” I suspect it’s because he took a walk in the woods every day, and a long one on Saturdays. And he worked in his garden every day, and talked to his chickens. He never worried about finding a rhythm for his life, because his life already had a gracious rhythm of work and rest. I never heard him use phrases like running on empty or needing to recharge.

We go on vacation to the beach, to the mountains, to the little house by the river, and inevitably we come back sighing, “I wish I could bring back with me that sense of being alive. I wish I knew how to nurture my mountain soul (my beach or river soul) in the city.” This language is very close to religious sentiments. “I wish I knew how to nurture my heavenly soul in this world.” The language is similar because the longing expressed in those words is very similar, and at its root, it may well be the same. We long for life to be whole and we experience our lives to be out of balance, out of tune, out of sync.

Now we encounter Jesus who says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[4] We struggle to name the thief who robs us of life, because in so many ways it’s our own doing, our own misguided ambition, our own misunderstood appetites that, while promising fullness, never fail to drain us.

Jesus was sent by God that we may have life, and have it abundantly. He embodies a life where holiness and wholeness are one, and giving himself to us he draws us into this fullness.

It is Thursday night in the part of John’s account we heard earlier. It is the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion. He has given his friends everything that was given him from God, and only one thing remains for him to do to complete the gift. He doesn’t give them last-minute instructions, though, no hurried notes about the good life, lest they forget. He prays, and we get to hear what he says. He lives this moment, like every moment of his mission, in the intimacy of his relationship with God. He is at peace, not because he knows he’s going home, but because he already is at home.

In the gospel of John, “world” is not another name for “earth” or “universe.” The “world” is that part of creation that doesn’t know God, it is that part of life that is out of tune, out of sync to the point where it is actively opposed to God’s rhythms and seasons.[5] But the “world” is also the object of God’s love. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[6]

Jesus is at peace, he is completely at home with God and his friends, and we overhear the words of his prayer. He prays for them and for us. He asks God to sanctify us and protect us. He asks God to set us apart for the sacred mission of testifying to the truth in the world, the truth and the life that has found us in Christ. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.

The evil one, the ruler of this world, the thief, that reality we struggle to name because we find ourselves so thoroughly entangled in it, the evil one has been judged and condemned,[7] but we need God to keep us safe.

The holiness and wholeness of life is not found through separation from the world, getting away from it all, but through our being sent into it, through our participating in the mission of God, through our sharing in the intimate relationship between Jesus and God. And as much as we live in that relationship of mutual love, we are in tune with life and at home. In that relationship our ambitions and appetites are healed, and we know who we are and what we are to do. We are at home already, which allows us to live amidst the tangled complexities of the world without getting trapped and exhausted. We know that we do not belong to the world, but that the world is God’s. And that allows us to stop serving the ruler who robs us and drains us. Knowing that the world is God’s, we praise the giver for the beauty of earth and sky and sea, for the rhythms and seasons of life.

We overhear Jesus saying, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” He speaks of joy, and I can’t think of a better way to describe in a word what fullness of life feels like. Joy is that wondrous gift that is more enduring than the best vacation. Joy is the song our soul sings on the beach and in the mountains. Joy is the tune of our one-ness with God and God’s creation and the people with whom we live our days. The joy of being at home with God allows us to live fully and faithfully in the world, engaged with its needs and its wounds, knowing that we are participating in God’s mission of loving all things into wholeness.

Now this may sound like I figured it all out, but I didn’t. All I did is spend a few hours listening carefully for the word of God in scripture, and come Monday morning, like most of you I will struggle to remember. But what I heard and tried to put into words, will still be true, beautiful, and promising.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacation

[2] Cindy S. Aron, Working At Play: A History of Vacations in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1999)

[3] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105545388

[4] John 10:10

[5] See John 1:10

[6] John 3:17

[7] See John 16:11

 

Monday
May142012

We are one

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.

It’s Mother’s Day, and God drops a scripture passage in our laps that speaks of the love between the Father and the Son, and you think, “Isn’t it ironic?”[1] And then God drops another passage in our lap, and it speaks of God giving birth to us and, like any mother and her children, wanting to see us all live together in peace as brothers and sisters.[2] We are children of God and we love it, but most of us know how difficult it can be to live with siblings.

On Mother’s Day we tell our mom that we love her, we send her a card, we give her a call, we insist that she stay in bed until we bring our best breakfast to her, we take her out for lunch and draw her a picture. Mother’s Day is all about her, except that it’s also about us, or, more precisely, about me, because I want her to love my picture better than my brother’s, I want her to know that I made the near-perfect scrambled eggs and that it was my little sister who burned the toast and spilled the coffee. And Mom? “I LOVE these eggs,” she says with a broad smile and I grow an inch and a half, but then she continues, “and this is the BEST toast I ever tasted. And the pictures you drew, I must say, you’ve outdone yourselves. Thank you so much! You are the kindest, most thoughtful and generous children any mother could wish for.”

I don’t know about you, but I always found being my mom’s child much easier than being the brother of my siblings, and I guess the same is true for them. Rivalry and love make an explosive mix, and I imagine that many a mother had to step between her feuding children, telling them to stop it and be more loving with each other. “Why should I love him? He hates me!” they both protest, and she doesn’t say, “Because I say so.” She says, “Because I love him and I love you.” You gotta love your brothers and sisters, because she who gave birth to them and to you loves them as much as you.

I thought I’d sing us a song today in honor of our mothers. It’s a great song for brothers and sisters to sing together.[3]

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
They’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
They’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
They’ll know we are Christians by our love.

All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus, God’s only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
They’ll know we are Christians by our love.

This simple, little song was written in 1966 by Peter Scholtes. He was a priest at St. Brendan’s, on the South Side of Chicago, and the parish was Irish-catholic and black-catholic, about 50/50. It was the height of one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history, and Scholtes was moved by the testimony of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, and others in the civil rights movement. He was also steeped in the worldview and language of John: By this we will know whose we are, the writer of 1 John says midway through his composition, by the love we enact as children of God “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”[4]

Truth and action. “We are one,” Father Scholtes taught the youth choir at St. Brendan’s to sing; he had written the piece in less than half a day. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and our faith, our walk, our work, our lives are for the restoration of that unity.

When Dr. King came to Chicago on his first trip north, Scholtes and a friend hung a welcome sign outside the church, a testimony to love in truth and action, and he weathered the protest of white parishioners that ensued. And he watched in disappointment as white congregants continued to move out of the neighborhood. He wanted to teach them to sing, “We are one in the Lord and we hope that all unity may one day be restored.” He taught them to sing “one day” hoping that today might be the day of restoration, that the day of love’s faithful labor toward unity would be today, always today. But those who could, moved away; to them “one day” meant “some day, not today; not us, not now.” The writer of 1 John insists that love and love’s demands cannot be postponed but must be lived, must be inhabited.

Love, love, love, parent, child, obedience, commandments, and conquer, conquer, conquer, this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. The phrases grow like branches on a vine, they spiral and twist, interlace, entwine, they twirl and tangle, and a reader may get carried away by the current of words and experience verbal vertigo. The vision given expression in this tangle of words and phrases is a vision of life: God and the children of God, inseparably united in love. Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down, weaving us and all things together in one covenant of love, making the joy of heaven complete in life on earth, all the children of God living as brothers and sisters in God’s garden, receiving, sharing, and fulfilling the most excellent gift of God.

The extravagant whirl of words in 1 John, aiming to match the exuberant circling of God’s love throughout creation, this swirl is centered in a life, in a name and a testimony: Jesus is the Christ. It is a name. It is a life, not a simple answer to all questions. It is a testimony that all things converge in Jesus the Messiah. He is the center at which life in its confusing complexity and life in fullness come into focus: “Abide in my love,” he says, abide in the love my life embodies. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. This is my commandment that you love one another as I haved loved you.[5]

The love of God poured out in the gifts of creation is our dwelling place, our habitat, our home. Likewise, we become God’s dwelling place when we allow love’s flow to continue through us. Obeying Christ’s commandments we abide in love and love abides in us, and his commandments are not burdensome. Wait a minute; not so fast. Not burdensome? Loving one another is not burdensome? You have to wonder if the author lived alone all his life. Perhaps he never had to put up with a sister who occupied the bathroom for an hour every morning. Perhaps he never had to put up with a brother who not only ate the last two pop-tarts, but put the wrapper back in the box and then put the box back in the cabinet. Perhaps he never had to put up with a spouse who paid no attention to the toilet seat, never put the cap on the toothpaste, and thought the floor was a perfectly good place for dirty clothes.

Loving one another is not burdensome? Our life says otherwise, doesn’t it? Putting up with each other’s foibles day in and day out is indeed a burden, and I think he knows that. I think he wants us to understand that love is of all the burdens the lightest. He wants us to fully grasp that lovelessness is always the heavier burden. Love is not burdensome because love and love alone has the power to overcome estrangement, to drive out fear, to reconcile and heal. All things have their beginning in love, and only love can bring all things to fulfillment by restoring the unity of creator and creation.

Believing that Jesus is God’s Messiah, we are born into the family where love flows freely. In this family, love is invited and offered, never forced; it is motivated by faithulness, not by fear or shame; it is mutual in the back-and-forth of giving and receiving. This is the faith that conquers the a loveless world, like light shining in the darkness. The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining, we read in 1 John 2:8. The true light is already shining brightly at the center where the word of God became flesh and lived among us, and the true light is reflected in every act of obedience among Christ’s brothers and sisters, in all our deeds of love in truth and action. The true light is already shining, and one day it will shine through all things, and all unity will be restored.

 


[1] John 15:9-17

[2] 1 John 5:1-5

[3] With thanks to Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p.490-94

[4] 1 John 3:18f

[5] John 15:9-10, 12

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