An uncompromising call

Sunday Evening

Luke 9

51When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

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“Jesus needs his followers to understand that [casting lightning bolts] is not the way of God.  Jesus has come to reconcile the human community not purge it.”

“Jesus is not building a home and a business and trying to pass on an inheritance to his children.  He is living the reign of God.” 

“I remember my father saying, “You have to be realistic.”  What he meant was that the Christian life needs to conform itself to normal society.  Jesus is saying that normal society needs to conform itself to the life of God.”

“Maybe we are all Lot’s wife.  Maybe we aren’t worthy of the kingdom.  But Jesus is worthy.  And he has set his face for Jerusalem.  And he bids us come.”

(From today’s sermon, “Jesus is not a hobby” – posted in Recent Sermons)

It’s warm.  It’s the week of July 4.  Crowds are small.  And in the season when it’s easy to be “on vacation” from church, comes this radical and uncompromising call to the work of the reign of God.  It seems a shame that all these great and challenging texts are put out here in the summer when people are least likely to hear them.

In Capernaum the crowd was so great the friends of the lame man carried him up and let him down through the roof in order to set him before Jesus.  At the shore he had to push out in a boat to teach because of the crowds.  And there were 5,000 the day they were fed with five loaves and two fish.  Have we so domesticated Jesus’ words that we no longer find them compelling?

I have been privileged to be reading the story with someone who had never heard them before.  Her joy and excitement at what she is finding reminds me that the words are still words of remarkable wonder and power.

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Saturday

Galatians 5

Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum....

Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum. The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.NR

The word in the Greek is indeed slaves, but I think it is a misleading translation for those living in the shadow of American slavery.  The images of such slavery are brutal and dehumanizing, broken families, beatings, degrading treatment on the auction block.  But the Greek word does not carry those layers of meaning.  It suggests only that you belong to another to serve them: “You are not your own, you were ought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

And “self-indulgence” is an interesting attempt to translate the theological ideas in Paul’s use of the Greek word “flesh.”  The “flesh” represents the power of our fallen human nature, our inherent rebellion from God.  It is life driven by our wants, need and desires.

The question here is who will govern your life?  What power will direct you?  Whom will you serve?  The “flesh”, our inherent self concern?  Or the Spirit of God that is love for the neighbor?

A life governed by the “flesh” manifests itself in all those things Paul describes as “the works of the flesh”:  “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  Unfortunately, until you get to jealousy and anger, none of these churchy words sound like the stuff of our daily lives.   But it is not hard to see that the clashes at work or home, neighborhood or nation are rooted in our conflicting wants.  Lives governed by our self-centered desires do not know peace.

But the realm of the Spirit of God brings an entirely different set of by-products: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.”  These are often heard as churchy words, too.  But consider them carefully.  These are all the things we want our homes and our world to be.  They are the fruit of lives governed not by selfish wants but by the Sprit of God.

In Christ we are freed from the condemnation the law speaks against the thoughts, words and deeds that show up in a life governed by our fallen natures.  But we are freed from the law’s condemnation because we have been brought into the realm governed by the Spirit.  And the realm of the Spirit is the realm where our teacher and Lord lays down his life for the world.  It is the realm where we become servants of one another.

So whom shall we serve, the tyranny of our wants or the compassion of God?

(Please understand, this is not about a personal preference or desire for vanilla ice cream over chocolate, it’s about eating the last of the vanilla ice cream without thought for your sibling who is allergic to chocolate – or eating ice cream when your neighbor has no rice.  See Luke 16:19-31 or Matthew 25:31-46 or just about anywhere in the scriptures.)

 

Fire from heaven

Friday

Luke 9

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

54“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Fire from heaven.  We still joke about this.  Lightning strikes.  The notion that God would act in such a way should be beyond us, but it isn’t entirely.  We are often haunted by the thought that God might be punishing us.  Or we are frustrated that God does not punish those we are convinced deserve to be struck down.

Stories of extraordinary divine punishment are rare in scripture.  There was the fire and brimstone that took out Sodom and Gomorrah.  And there was the earthquake that swallowed up Korah and his followes.  But many of the stories that sound like punishment – or use the language of punishment – are not, really. The ten plagues visited upon Egypt were not retribution, but opportunities for Pharaoh to repent, opportunities to recognize and turn away from slaveholding and all its brutality.  Most of what we identify as God’s wrath is simply the consequences of our rebellion working its way out in human society – and, unfortunately, often afflicting the innocent.  We poison the water, poison the air, or poison sexuality and people get sick.  It is a consequence of our sins and a chance to repent, to change direction, but we often do not and the consequences simply get worse.  The passenger pigeon.  DDT.  Chernobyl/Three Mile Island/FukushimaGlobal warming.  AIDS and genital warts.

Lightening did strike two companies of men who came to arrest Elijah. Yet even this is more than simple divine vengeance; God was protecting his prophet.  God was guarding his word.  (It was only the leader of the third company coming to “escort” Elijah from the mountain who showed by his humility and regard for the prophet that Elijah would be safe in his custody.)

But God’s defense of his word somehow becomes, in our mind, God’s vengeance upon our enemies.  These Samaritans treated Jesus with dishonor.  “Do you want we should ask God to strike them dead?!”  We like revenge, which is why God takes vengeance away from us, “Vengeance is mine, saith the LORD.”

With Jesus’ rebuke of James and John, God removes the possibility of religious war.  Period.  It may be necessary to exercise violence to protect my neighbor against violence, but vengeance is forbidden.  We are not a religion of lynchings or crusades – though we are, in our fallen humanity, a people who like them.  In contemporary America we do such things verbally now, rushing to judgment and condemnation, but we do them.  Oh, the heady rush of crusading.

Were Jesus to call down lightning you would think he would call down lightning on those religious people so eager to invoke lightning.  (See, I can crusade even against crusading.)  But Jesus does not.  He continues on with us: a rebuke followed by teaching.  “If you are going to follow me, don’t think it will be easy.”  “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.”  Love of neighbor is a bigger challenge than smiling and waving and not playing basketball in your driveway after 10:00 pm.

The stories mentioned above can be found in 2 Kings 1 (Elijah), Genesis 13 (Sodom & Gomorrah), Numbers 16 (Korah) and Exodus 7 ff. (the plagues on Egypt).

You show me the path of life

Thursday

Psalm 16

Lord lovelace bridge

Lord lovelace bridge (Photo credit: wimbledonian)

2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

The word LORD in capital letters always represents the name of God, those four Hebrew letters YHWH whose vowels were not recorded when they were added to the ancient text, for the Jewish community never said the name out loud.  Whenever they came to the word while reading the scripture in public they spoke the word for lord/master.

We are supposed to recognize that when the poet says, “the LORD is my Lord,” he is declaring his allegiance to and service of the God who led Israel out of Egypt.  There are always other gods to be served.  We know some of them from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament): Ba’al, Ashtoreth, Asherah, Moloch, gods who promised power or prosperity or fertility, gods we still worship today without their ancient names.

2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

The poet looks over the landscape of his life and acknowledges that all good things come from that power that is beyond our understanding, who formed the sun and waters the earth and blesses the crops and cattle.  The breath of life, the joy of kinship, the pleasures of life are all given from the LORD not the gods of war and sea and sky.  All that is good, not just in the created world but in the social world, is rooted in the god who rescued and gathered a people, formed the nation and provided laws to sustain peace.  The guiding hand of the LORD is the source of all good.

4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows.

Those who chase after wealth or power, who put their hope in sexual fulfillment, who trust possessions to bring life’s goodness “multiply their sorrows.”  Sometimes those sorrows are obvious to all; sometimes they are carried in secret; sometimes they are simply the sadness of a withered spiritual life – those who wake up at the end of a long pursuit and wonder what it has gotten them.  “There must be something more.”

There is a kind of buzz that comes from buying a new possession, but it is a quickly fading joy.  It’s promise of fulfillment it never keeps.  There is a thrill from fame, but it is a fickle mistress, casting down as quickly as it has raised up.  There is a heady illusion of security and importance to wealth and power, but they can be knocked down with a simple word like cancer.  What cannot be taken away is the joy of kindness and generosity and faithfulness.  A good deed never vanishes.  Kindness is never forgotten.  The love of God that prompts love of neighbor is not undone even by death.

For you do not give me up to Sheol [the realm of the dead],
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

Because “The LORD is my chosen portion,” the poet can say “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”  His eyes are drawn to the good.  No matter what trials or troubles come, the poet sees himself surrounded and sustained by the faithfulness of God.  “I have a goodly heritage.”

And so the poet declares anew his allegiance to and service of the LORD who opens prison doors, who frees from slavery, who leads through the wilderness to a new life in a new land, whose way of justice and mercy is the path of life: “You are my Lord.”

11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.

Turning toward Jerusalem

Wednesday

Luke 9

51When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Cross & Clouds

Cross & Clouds (Photo credit: John H Wright Photo)

Those who are listening to the story of Jesus know what will happen in Jerusalem.  This is a turning point in the narrative.  On the horizon lies the cross.

We have skipped several stories since we read last week of the man among the tombs:  the healing of the woman who reached out and touched Jesus; the raising of the synagogue leaders daughter, the mission of the twelve to herald the kingdom, the feeding of the five thousand, the question “Who do people say that I am?” and Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ followed by Jesus’ first clear statement of his coming death and resurrection, the transfiguration with the voice from heaven saying “This is my son, listen to him,” the disciples failed attempt to cast out an evil spirit (remedied by Jesus) and their argument about who is greatest.  Now Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, and the tension is rising.  We are running out of time.  The followers of Jesus need to understand, but they are stuck in the world of a partisan God willing to smite God’s enemies (the Samaritans) for failing to receive Jesus with appropriate hospitality.  They are arguing over honor and position.  The want to silence those who are not from their group.  They are stymied by a demon.  They don’t yet understand what Jesus means when he says God’s reign is at hand.  This is not a victory tour.  This is not a triumphal march to an ecclesiastical kingdom in Jerusalem.  This is about the rebirth of the world.

Watching for the morning of June 30

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 8 / Lectionary 13

To follow after Jesus is to leave something behind.

ARADO ROMANO

ARADO ROMANO (Photo credit: titoalfredo)

The texts for Sunday speak about the cost of God’s call.  Elisha burns his plow, letting go of his former life in order to follow Elijah – a story that echoes in three discipleship sayings of Jesus, including the declaration: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

To embrace the kingdom of God is to let go of the embrace of the world.  This doesn’t mean we become monks and nuns; It means we choose to live in God’s forgiveness and let go of bitterness and revenge.  It means we choose to live in God’s generosity and let go of our innate self-centeredness.  It means we choose to build one another up rather than tear one another down.  It means we choose to be servants of God’s will and purpose for the world rather than servants of our wants and desires.  It may cost us, when we stand up for what is right rather than yield to the crowd, but we are leaving behind the realm of zombie-life (where the spiritually dead use and devour one another) and entering into the realm of imperishable life.

Prayer for June 30, 2013

Heavenly Father, Lord of All,
you call people of every age
to walk in your paths
and to herald your kingdom.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
go where we are sent,
and bear witness to your love,
that all may know your reign of grace and life.

The Texts for June 30, 2013

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

“He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” – the call of Elisha by Elijah.

Psalmody: Psalm 16

“You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy” – a song of trust in and fidelity to God.

Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for “the flesh” [our innate self-focused desires], but serve one another through love.” – the works of our fallen nature are contrasted with the fruit of the Spirit)

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  – three sayings about the cost of following Jesus. 

The Scandal of Particularity

A look back on Sunday

Psalm 22

Earth_from_the_moon

Earth_from_the_moon (Photo credit: My American Odyssey)

27All the ends of the earth shall
remember  and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.

Sunday, for the first time ever, I was uncomfortable with the words of the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer reciting the history of God’s saving work said as we gather around the table for Holy Communion.  They are familiar words, the same ones we have been using in this season, and similar to all other such prayers.  It talks about God’s creating, God’s call of Abraham and Sarah, God’s bringing Israel out from bondage in Egypt into a new and promised land.  Before today I had never considered how those words might sound to people from the Middle East.  In what way can this be their prayer?

Western Christians are used to thinking that we are participants in the promise once given to Israel – a promise that has been extended to us not by birth but in Christ Jesus.  We see the promise to Israel not just as a promise to one particular people, but as a means to bring blessing to the world.  We see the promise to Abraham not as a promise of land and descendants – but a promise of the Christ and the salvation of the world.

Sunday, I heard these words with new ears, for a young person from one of those Middle Eastern countries had come to be baptized.  How would she hear this story we tell of God’s work in the Exodus and in the gift of the law?  Can she hear it divorced from Israel as a modern nation-state?  Can she hear it divorced from our current conflicts of Muslim, Jew and Christian?  Does the story sound universal to her or partisan?

Christians have always acknowledged that the God revealed to Israel as seen through Jesus reflected the truth about the single transcendent reality of the universe.  But this seems like a Michigan alum having to recite a story of their identity that roots them in the story of Ohio State.  I can’t see my daughter doing that.  Nor myself, without some discomfort.

The theological term for this is the scandal of particularity: that God chose one people through whom to bear witness to God’s identity and character.  We subconsciously turn the Biblical narrative into universal and timeless stories of deliverance, wandering, guidance (laws) and rebellion, but they are not.  They are stories of a specific people.

Jesus is pretty deliberate about crossing boundaries – welcoming outcasts, healing foreigners, sending his followers to Samaritans, the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Roman centurion Cornelius, and on to the Gentiles through Paul. Christians look back through the Old Testament and see a god always concerned about all the nations and peoples of the earth.  God’s choice of Israel was a tool to bring blessing to the world.  And the borders of the people were always open: Ruth, the Moabite woman becomes the grandmother of King David; Naaman, the Syrian, is healed by Elijah; Uriah was a Hittite; when Joshua calls the people to “choose this day whom you will serve” it is clear he is speaking to many more people than those who came through the Red Sea.

This universality is deep in scripture, especially when seen through Jesus.  The genealogy in Genesis is a genealogy of all nations.  God declares his blessing on Ishmael and his descendants, though the promise to Abraham falls to Isaac.  The prophets speak not just to Israel but to nations who have never heard of the God of Israel.  Jonah is sent to Nineveh and is not allowed to escape that task.  The Persian King Cyrus is declared to be God’s “anointed” (in Hebrew, Messiah).  We hear the promises about a great banquet on Zion as a banquet for all the earth.  When the lion lies down with the lamb and swords are beaten into plowshares, it is the whole earth that is brought to peace.  The New Jerusalem is not a new capital of Israel, but the world made whole.  Still, behind it all is the God who first showed himself as the God of Israel.

What if God had revealed himself in the history of Ohio State?  What if Woody Hayes were part of that narrative?!!  To look past this, to see God in Israel’s story, this young woman has seen God more truly than I ever have.

I don’t know how to change the prayer without robbing it of something essential.  But I pray it with much more humility and awareness than I have before:

It is right that we should give you thanks O God,
who by your Word called all things into being
and breathed into us the breath of life.
You called Abraham and Sarah to trust your word of promise
that they might bring your blessing to the world.
You led your people out from bondage and through the wilderness
and with bread from heaven taught them to trust your wise providing.
You met your people with your commandments at Sinai
and through the words of your prophets called them to lives of justice and mercy.
In the fullness of time you taught all people and worked redemption
in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Now in the mystery of this holy table Christ comes to us anew,
offering us the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calling us into the unending song of heaven:

And the congregation sings “Holy, Holy, Holy” recorded in Isaiah as the exclamation of the creatures around the throne of God.

PS   The baptism was wonderful, a reminder of the joy of God’s love, and a sign for us all of the promise of a world gathered into one human community when “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”

Freed for the Dance

Saturday

Galatians 3:23-29

Ruler

Ruler (Photo credit: Auntie P)

24The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

The son of a prominent family was escorted to school by a “disciplinarian.” The stereotype that should come to mind is your own private nun with a ruler.  I apologize to all those wonderful women religious I have known over the years – but it gives us a vivid picture of that time when all instructors carried a rod or paddle of some kind.

The covenant law of Israel is much more than Paul describes here; it is first of all a gift.  To a motley collection of tribal peoples fleeing bondage and suddenly finding themselves in possession of lands and cities some law, some code to guide them, is a protection against chaos.  And the law given to Israel was a remarkable body of teaching intended to keep the tribes of Israel from falling into the ways of the nations round about them.  There was no distinction in Israel’s law based on wealth or power, no separate code for high status and low status persons.  Indeed God declared himself the protector of the low status persons – the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  The law is not and was not a collection of strange and arbitrary rules; it was a revelation, a glimpse into the character of God and his vision for human life: care for the poor, protection for the weak, justice for all, remission of debts, manumission of slaves, care of the earth, care of your neighbor.  If we read it with careful eyes we will see there the face of God.

But in our hands law gets turned from vision into a schoolmaster’s ruler by which we measure ourselves righteous and our neighbor not, and by which we beat upon those who deviate from the norm.  It becomes a “disciplinarian.”

Even at its best laws can never transform the human heart.  Rules limit misbehavior; they do not create generosity of spirit and true compassion.  And the law has a way of acting as if it were God, as if obedience were the source of salvation.  In that role it terrorizes the tender conscience and becomes a powerful weapon of guilt and manipulation.  If law does not serve the God of mercy, then it becomes our jailor not our liberator.

But our liberator has come.  And we who are washed in Christ are clothed in Christ: no longer minors under a slave’s supervision but free sons and daughters; no longer defined by our past but our future, not by the accidents of birth but by the gift of our birth from above.

27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 

Instead of a nun with a ruler we have the living Christ, the spirit of God, the joy of the eternal dance, and hearts of stone become hearts of flesh.  We have become sons and daughters of light, bearers of the word of Grace and agents of heaven’s mercy.

Stilling storms

Friday

Luke 8:26-39

Backhuysen, Ludolf - Christ in the Storm on th...

Backhuysen, Ludolf – Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee – 1695 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

26Then Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes.

The translation “arrived” is perfectly good, but it obscures what is happening.  Jesus and his students have arrived by sail.  That reference to sailing matters because what happens to the man among the tombs is connected to the stilling of the storm from which they have just arrived.  Fierce storms sweep up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee and can quickly sink a small fishing boat.  They have faced destruction and witnessed Jesus rebuke the wind and raging sea and bring calm came upon them.  Now Jesus is met by a man in whom another storm rages.

The only way the ancients could describe this man was to say he was possessed of demons.  His soul and spirit are out of control.  He lives naked among the tombs, unsheltered in the land of the dead.  He cannot fit into the human community.  When they restrain him, he breaks loose the chains and is driven by his demons into the barren places.

We all know something about emotions and thoughts – and sometimes lives – that spiral out of control.  We know that emotional chaos we call a tantrum in a child and a breakdown in an adult.  If we have not been there, we have probably walked near the border.

I have sat with patients in the hospital who were hearing a cacophony of voices and wished with all my heart I could cast them out with a word.  I have seen families dissolve into rage and wished that there, too, I could cast out the chaos.  And have listened to a sweet and terrified women with dementia, convinced that she had been kidnapped, begging me to help her escape what was not foreign agents but a reasonably nice nursing home.

We yearn for that day when we are each restored to our right mind and sitting at Jesus’ feet.  But, until that day, we will come each Sunday to sit before Jesus’ word, to share the banquet, to taste some small measure of the peace of Christ, and rejoice in the perfect peace to come.

Here I am! Here I am!

Thursday

Isaiah 65:1-9

with open arms 両手を広げて

with open arms 両手を広げて (Photo credit: jessleecuizon)

1I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
      to be found by those who did not seek me
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
      to a nation that did not call on my name.

The prophet’s poetry is exquisite; the cry of God plaintive.  A God eager to be found.  A God of fabulous promises and great mercy.  A God who brought the people back from exile in Babylon, home again to the land once promised to their ancestor Abraham.  A God with outstretched arms, both here and on the cross.  “Here I am!  Here I am!”  But we do not call on his name.

2I held out my hands all day long
      to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
      following their own devices;
3a people who provoke me
     to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
      and offering incense on bricks;
4who sit inside tombs,
     and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
     with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
5who say, “Keep to yourself,
      do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
      a fire that burns all day long.

Fabulous, brutal poetry, speaking the truth of a people who look everywhere for prosperity and goodness except to the one who has already given it, the one who holds out his hands and cries “Here I am!”

Our constant worship of the gods of security and profit, the sacrifices offered in the bodies of the poor for the clothing we covet at bargain prices, the sacrifices offered in the lives of our children who are sexualized before their time, the sacrifices we offer of family life to the gods of work and wealth.  “Here I am!  Here I am!” cries the one who is the bread of life, the living water, the light of all creation.

We think we are special, elite, ‘holy’, when our honoring of such gods is an acrid scent before heaven: a face full of diesel exhaust on an urban street, the inescapable smoke in the eyes that follows you round a campfire.

I will measure into their laps
      full payment for their actions.

There will be consequences.  We suffered some with the greed that led to our last economic near collapse – and many suffer still.  We have laid many in the ground for our trust in violence to bring peace.  Sexual diseases repay our worship of sex.  But God is not done with us or the world.

8Thus says the Lord: As the wine is found in the cluster,
      and they say, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,”
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
      and not destroy them all.
9I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
      and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
      and my servants shall settle there.

Português: Igreja da Misericordia, Pernes,Portugal

Português: Igreja da Misericordia, Pernes,Portugal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The God who gathers, the God who blesses, the God who redeems the earth, the God who loves without limit, who remains faithful despite all human faithlessness, will bring joy from sorrow, goodness from evil, life from death.

Here I am!  Here I am!  Waiting to be found.