It’s not Fair!

Jonah and fishMany people are familiar with the story of Jonah and the whale, except there was no whale. A whale is not mentioned in the book of Jonah. In fact, nowhere in the Bible is there a whale. Jonah was swallowed by a fish. I know ancient people were much smaller than we are, but it still had to be a very big fish.

 

Of course, to be swallowed by a fish, Jonah must have found himself in water and for a big fish, it had to be a sea. You see, God called Jonah to implore the people of Nineveh to repent and turn to God, or else. Jonah refused. Jonah knew that they would repent and God would forgive them and Jonah wanted no part of that. So, he ran.

 

He didn’t actually run. He took a ship to get as far away from Nineveh as he could. But the voyage didn’t go well. Believing God was causing a potential shipwreck, Jonah told the crew that God was punishing him and that they should throw Jonah overboard. The crew obliged.

 

God saved Jonah from drowning by having a fish swallow Jonah. I’m not sure how Jonah was able to breath, but that was not part of the story. Jonah is in the fish, undigested, for three days. During those three days, Jonah gives thanks to God and recommits himself to God.

 

God orders the fish to spit Jonah out. Jonah makes his way to Nineveh, which was in what is now northern Iraq. It was where Mosul is today. Jonah is successful and the king and people of Nineveh repent and God forgives them.

 

This makes Jonah angry. Jonah knew God would forgive them and Jonah believes that they were too evil to be forgiven. God’s love and grace was extended to the gentile enemies of the Israelites. Jonah knew God was gracious, but wanted the people of Nineveh punished, not forgiven. In essence, Jonah tells God, “I told you so!”

 

God’s grace appears in various and sometimes unexpected times in the Bible. It’s unexpected, because it appears when our sense of justice is upended.

 

Chapter twenty of Matthew begins with the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The context of Jesus telling this parable comes after an anonymous person comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to have eternal life. (Matthew 19:16-30) Jesus responds that he must keep the commandments. So he asks, “Which ones?” Well, there are 613 of them. The man assumes that neither he nor Jesus believe that all of them are necessary for eternal life. Seemingly, some must be optional. Jesus responds by listing some of the Ten Commandments and adds another law about loving our neighbor. You’d think that would be satisfactory, but no.

 

This young man seems to be a pain in the tukus, because he is not satisfied with any of Jesus’ answers. He responds, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” I was getting the impression that he was looking for way out of getting eternal life as he adds more conditions upon himself. Jesus’ next response indicates that this man was looking for a way to be perfect and to be acknowledged as a perfect human being. Jesus told him that to be perfect, he is to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. He went away grieving because he had many possessions.

 

Peter was upset with this exchange and pointed out to Jesus that they gave up everything to follow Jesus. Peter is told that the twelve will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. He also said that anyone who gives up what they have will inherit a hundredfold and will have eternal life. Then Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30) Jesus illustrates that statement with the Laborers in the Vineyard.

 

Like many of the parables in Matthew, Jesus begins with, “the kingdom of heaven is like” whatever the story is about. This time it is a landowner who needs laborers for his vineyard.

 

We are familiar with grape growing in the Sierra foothills as we cannot drive very far without encountering a vineyard. When we drive through El Dorado County, we will often note, “Oh look. There is a new winery.” When the crush happens, like it is now at this time of year, the vineyard owners must find people to go out and pick the grapes. In our country and in our time, it is usually migrant workers who do this work. It is really seasonal.

 

It was also seasonal in Jesus’ time. There was no such thing as migrant workers in Jesus’ time. There were more than enough poor people everywhere who needed work. More than 90% of the population in the Roman Empire were poor.

 

workers in vineyardNot unlike poor laborers today who hang out in certain places hoping someone will stop by and hire them for the day or maybe a week, poor people in Jesus’ day would hang out in a town’s marketplace hoping for work. The sun was barely up when the owner found laborers in the marketplace and hired all of them. They agreed to the usual daily wage of one denarius, or about $3.62.

 

The workers were too few and the vineyard was too large. The grapes won’t wait. The owner returned to the marketplace at nine o’clock and hired more workers. Maybe they slept in that day. They agreed to be paid whatever was right.

 

Not enough grapes were being harvested. The owner returned to the marketplace at noon and three o’clock. The owner hired more laborers. Maybe they had a long, rough night, the night before. By three, they must be sober. The owner still needed more workers. The owner returns to the market place at five o’clock and lo and behold there are still more laborers. Maybe they were so late because they didn’t want to work, but didn’t want to go home and confess that they didn’t try to get work. “I was at the marketplace all day and no one would hire me!” They were hired also.

 

As the sun was setting, it was time to pay the laborers. The manager was told to pay the last hired first. The first hired were being set up. All of them received the usual daily wage. Those who were hired after dawn were expecting a bonus for all the extra work they did. They were sorely disappointed. And they complained to the owner. They were envious of the later hires. It wasn’t fair that they worked all day in the heat while the last hired only worked an hour.

 

The owner offered a defense that the earliest laborers were paid the amount that they agreed to. Every laborer was paid enough for their families to eat one more day. The owner told them, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Why should they complain because the owner is so generous? Then Jesus concludes the parable with the same statement he made before the parable, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

When Jimmy Carter was president, he chose to communicate with the American people using the format of a fireside chat. Carter revived FDR’s tradition. I remember one, just one of those fireside chats. It was in maybe 1977. Jimmy Carter said, “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair … .”

 

Was it fair that some people in the Houston area had their homes flooded and others didn’t? Was it fair that a family in a Mexican church, celebrating an infant’s baptism, all died when the earthquake collapsed the church? Life is not fair.

 

When we were young, we expected life to be fair and we protested when we were slighted, “That’s not fair!” Part of growing up was a realization that life is not fair.

 

It was that kind of protest that Jesus provoked in his parable. The kingdom of heaven is also not fair, because it is a kingdom of grace. Grace is freely given regardless of how much we think we have earned it. It is not fair that the lazy ones, I am projecting here, got paid the same as the industrious ones in the vineyard. The lazy ones were no less deserving of grace. For the rich young man, it is not fair that having the most toys does not get you a win.

 

Jesus’ disciples were called first, but that doesn’t make them any more special than any other follower. Margaret Shuster said, “The more we insist on our tit-for-tat way of thinking, the more baffled and angry we will be at God’s whole way of dealing with us.”[1]

 

I believe that God’s love and grace are boundless. Someone who grows up in the church and is reasonably faithful all her or his life is just as deserving of God’s grace as is one who converts on a deathbed. Likewise, because God never gives up on us, I believe that God will welcome dead atheists into heaven, if they choose to go. I think freewill continues in the afterlife. God’s beckoning love continues there as well.

 

God is a lousy accountant. God is a lousy economist. Jesus challenges our pride and envy. Jesus challenges our holding on to grudges. Just as God loves us and forgives us, we are to love and forgive others.

 

Text: Matthew 20:1–16

[1] Shuster, M. (2001). Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 114). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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Watch Your Mouth!

Matthew 15:10 opens after Jesus has a disagreement with the Pharisees, the religious authorities from Jerusalem. Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating, which was counter to Jewish tradition. In Jesus’ time, fingers were made before forks. Except for our parents, we do not have a rule to wash our hands before eating. Our parents taught us that, because it is a really good idea and we stay healthier if we do. Now, I do not want to cast aspirations on the disciple’s parents. They were likely good people. I would blame the disciples for wanton disregard for their parent’s wisdom.

 

There was already a crowd gathered around Jesus. Having failed to embarrass Jesus in front of the crowd, Jesus sidelines the Pharisees and speaks directly to the crowd. What Jesus says next may not have sit well with Mary. Jesus says that what goes into your mouth does not defile, it is what comes out of your mouth. I can almost hear Mary thinking, “I taught you better than that. Wash your hands before eating.”

 

There were disciples who must have been close to the Pharisees when Jesus said that. They report to Jesus that the Pharisees were offended by what Jesus said. Jesus responds by implying that the Pharisees are not from God. The Pharisees are the blind leading the blind. If someone blind leads others that are blind, they will fall into a pit. More the pity for them.

 

Obviously, there were at least some disciples who respected the Pharisees and what the Pharisees said mattered. Now they are faced with an awkward choice: continue to follow Jesus and reject the Pharisees or continue to honor the Pharisees and question what Jesus says or just stop following Jesus. There were likely a few that agonized over which direction to take.

 

I believe Peter intuited that this was a problem for some and asked Jesus to elaborate. So, Jesus gets graphic. What we eat goes to the sewer. For Jesus’ hearers, latrine would have been a better translation.

 

Declaring that what goes into the mouth is clean, Jesus says that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. This is what defiles us. Jesus then lists the things that come from our hearts: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. I couldn’t help but notice that Jesus’ list corresponds positively to the Ten Commandments.

 

I think that Jesus and the Pharisees are on different pages as to what defile means. What is the connection between physical ritual purity and spiritual purity. It seems that physical ritual purity is important to the Pharisees. For Jesus, purity is less concerned by our spiritual practices than it is with our moral code. Purity comes from how we treat others. Defilement comes from our wrong actions and words.

 

Which brings us to the gentile, Canaanite woman. In Jesus’ culture, she has three strikes against her: 1) she is not a Jew, 2) she is a foreigner, which makes sense because Jesus is in a foreign land and Canaanites are blamed in the Bible for leading the Israelites from God, and 3) she is a woman. In Jesus’ culture, women had no voice. The woman is also unaccompanied by a male, a social taboo.

 

Jesus ignores her request to heal her daughter. This protects her and Jesus from shame and scandal. Jesus, in this case, is an outstanding first century Jew. Yet she persisted. This is driving the disciples crazy and they demand that Jesus do something about it. When Jesus speaks, it is to reject the woman’s request.

 

Jesus, at this point, believes his mission is only to the Jews. It is curious that if this is what Jesus believes, why is he in foreign territory? Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26, NRSV) In other words, Jesus’ blessings are not to be taken from the Jews and given to gentiles for whom Jesus refers to as dogs.

 

In a great rhetorical retort, “she said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” (Matthew 15:27, NRSV) Jesus was impressed at the faith of this gentile, Canaanite woman and her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus accepted correction from someone below his status.

 

Jesus was willing to admit he was wrong and do the right thing. What came out of Jesus’ mouth in his rebuke of the foreigner was not right and he was caught in an embarrassing metaphor. Jesus didn’t break anything that was on the bad list that he gave his disciples, but his initial response was not a loving one. Yet love won out through the woman’s persistence.

 

What comes out of our mouths defile us. Jesus rejects and insults a woman in need. Everyone one of us has said things that we either instantly or later regret.

 

For most of us, there is a filter between our hearts and our mouths. We might harbor, at times, something from Jesus’ list, or least, something milder. For example, we might not have murder in our heart, but we would like to slap somebody. So, we might not give that slap or even mention it because we have that filter. Still, the thought and the feelings are still in our heart.

 

This filter is very important. The human race might not have a large population now without that filter. But some people’s filters don’t work well. They say and do things that harm others. Please remember, Jesus implied that everyone has defiled hearts. Jesus exempted no one. But what we do and say can escape being defiled if we utilize our filters.

 

We get angry. Even Jesus got angry. Even Jesus needed correcting, even from a gentile Canaanite woman. There is righteous anger that compels us to right wrongs. And there is destructive anger that leaves people hurt, devastated, and even angry also.

 

Then there is hate. Hate eats at the soul. It destroys the soul. If not corrected, it leads to evil. Everyone hates someone or something sometime. It is a cruel twist on the Dean Martin song, “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Where hate gets out of hand is when people hate a group or groups of people. Most of these people find like-minded others to help fuel their hateful feelings and ideas. It is almost like they know this might not be right so they need others to affirm that their hate is righteous.

 

I have been a member of the Southern Poverty Legal Center for several years. They send me their publications listing the locations and activities of hate groups. I remember telling my wife last year after one of those publications arrived in the mail that I hate reading it because it makes me angry. It made me angry that there were people who were doing heinous acts against other people. I also felt hopeless and helpless that more cannot be done to stop these people.

 

The counter demonstrators at Charlottesville decided not feel hopeless. They were going to confront evil and hate. Their righteous indignation against hate was personified by Heather Heyer. She was determined to have a voice. She was persistent. And for that, she lost her life.

 

I live in politically blue California. Liberalism reigns supreme here. Yet, California has more hate groups than any other state in the country.

 

Violence solves nothing, whether it be Charlottesville, Barcelona, Paris, London, Turku, or anywhere else.

 

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said August 13, 2017, “Through the way of love, he has shown us the way to be right and reconciled with the God and Creator of us all. Through his way of love, he has shown us the way to be right and reconciled with each other as children of God, and as brothers and sisters. In so doing, Jesus has shown us the way to become the Beloved Community of God. St. Paul said it this way: ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” and now he has entrusted us with ‘the message of reconciliation.’” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

 

We cannot fight hate and racism by ourselves. Community can reign over chaos. This can only be accomplished through the love of God, taught to us by Jesus, with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Our weapon against hate is love.

 

Text: Matthew 15:10–28

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Fathers and Sons, Part 2

King Duncan shares this story: “A substitute Sunday School teacher couldn’t open the combination lock on the supply cabinet. So, she went to the pastor for help. The pastor started turning the dial of the combination lock, stopped after the first two numbers, looked up serenely toward heaven, began moving his lips silently, turned to the final number, and opened the lock.

“The teacher gasped, ‘I’m in awe of your faith, pastor.’

“’Really,’ he said, ‘it’s nothing. The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.’

“I wish the answers to all of life’s problems were on a piece of tape on the ceiling, don’t you? Then, when we hit a difficult time in our life all we would have to do is look up.”

(King Duncan, The Idiot’s Guide to Christianity)

 

What was Abraham thinking when he looked up at his knife before striking his son? They didn’t have tape in those days, but they did have angels. Angels did what tape on a ceiling does for us. They gave important messages. Sometimes, those messages meant life or death.

 

The emotional impact of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is lost by just reading the story itself, in isolation to the greater Abraham story. Abraham and Sarah struggled to have any children. In fact, they gave up hope. This in spite of the fact that God promised them descendants who would be too numerous to count. Though Abraham is depicted as having faith in God, there is, perhaps, a sense of Abraham hearing God repeatedly promising all these descendants that it just got old.

 

So, Sarah gave Abraham permission to lay with her servant so that there would be someone to receive their inheritance. Ishmael was the product of that union. Sarah became jealous and had Abraham cast them out. Arabs claim Ishmael as their ancestor and their connection to Abraham.

 

When God promises them a child to come in a year’s time, Sarah laughs at something to preposterous for this to happen this very old couple. That’s how Isaac got his name.

 

God decides to test Abraham. Just the first verse of this passage makes this story strange. God has twice made a covenant with Abraham promising him that Abraham’s descendants will be numerous. Abraham has already proved his worthiness. God should know our hearts without testing, but God is going to test Abraham – even though Abraham’s name means “exalted father.”

 

Now God orders Abraham to take this son of theirs, their only present heir, because Ishmael was already cast out, and this blessing in their old age, to a specific mountain, slit his throat, and burn his body on an altar. Sorry for being so graphic, but sugar coating this would only hide the impact of the story.

 

If someone were to come to me and tell me that God told them to kill a child of theirs and ask me if they should obey God, I would think they were schizophrenic. That is not the God I know. And I would be convinced of the mental illness, if they told me the details of how God wants it done.

 

It is hard to continue this story without empathy for Isaac. His father, whom must really adore this almost only child, tells him to go on a journey to make a sacrifice to God. Isaac obediently obeys.

 

Three days later, they arrive at the place with two of Abraham’s servants. You see, Abraham is really wealthy. I suppose the other servants were left behind.

 

To add insult to injury, Abraham has Isaac carry the wood he is going to use to cremate his son. Isaac might be getting nervous or at least confused, at this point. They have everything they need for the sacrifice, the wood, the knife, and the fire. The only thing they lack is the lamb. Isaac is looking around and there is no lamb or any other animal to be used for the sacrifice. Abraham assures his only beloved son that God will provide.

 

They arrive at the place God pointed out to Abraham. They build an altar. What this would involve would be piling up stones into a structure where an animal would be slaughtered and burned.

 

Once the altar is constructed and wood placed on it, Abraham ties Isaac’s hands, likely behind his back and puts him on top of the wood, which is on top of the altar. Abraham then takes out his knife and raises it to slit Isaac’s throat.

 

I believe Abraham stalled during the construction of the altar. God must have a change of mind. When will God intervene? Just as the knife reached Isaac’s throat, an angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” Abraham replied, “I’m here – I’m here!” There is urgency to stay Abraham’s hand, which I might add was at the last second. The angel told Abraham not to touch the boy. The test is over. Abraham’s faith is confirmed. The angel acts as God’s messenger to give Abraham his grade and to stop a horrible act.

 

Instead of God saying, “I was only kidding,” God was satisfied that Abraham was worthy of being the progenitor of God’s people. This certainly questions God’s omniscience. But I think that human beings are way too unpredictable.

 

A ram was caught in a thicket and Abraham offered the ram instead of Isaac, probably to Isaac’s great relief. I can’t help but wonder how Isaac felt about his father after that event. There was no such thing as psychology in those days, but how messed up would Isaac be after that trauma?

 

Abraham names the mount, “God will provide.” Jewish tradition believes that this is place that Solomon built the temple. The place certainly has a tradition of sacrifice. Muslim tradition is that it is near the Kaaba in Mecca. Many scholars put the place near Shechem in northern Israel, which would have a symbolic connection to John’s story of Jesus encountering the woman at the well. In other words, we don’t know where Mount Moriah is.

 

After the sacrifice is made, the promise of a multitude of descendants is once again repeated and it is added that the promise will be met now through Isaac.

 

The Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. There were times when the Israelites also took up the practice. The prophets railed against them for doing so. They could argue that the Bible says that all first born belong to God, animal and human. But the Israelites engaged in child sacrifice because they adopted the Canaanite gods. It is hard to know if this story was meant to stop the practice of child sacrifice.

 

This story is one of the stories read during the greatest liturgy of the church year, the Great Vigil of Easter. There are parallels with Jesus’ sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Jesus is crucified not far from where Isaac would be sacrificed, if Jewish tradition is correct. Isaac carried the wood. Jesus carried his cross. Except, Jesus is not crucified by God. Jesus is crucified by pagans. Granted, Jesus willingly goes into their power, except their power turns out to be no power. Jesus didn’t stay dead.

 

Back to the person I referenced earlier who believed that God wanted him or her to kill their child. We hear many voices in our lives, some internal and some external. The recent trial of the young woman who encouraged her friend to kill himself is a tragic example.

 

How do we know what is from God or what is consistent with God? The answer is love. If what we are being asked to believe or to do is not consistent with love, then it is not from God.

 

This is what Jesus commands us, to love. St. Paul wrote, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32) Jesus died on the cross for our sins out of love for us. That horrible act of violence was turned into one of love. Such is the power of God.

 

The power of God’s love is greater than we can understand. Where we might see death, there is life. Where see despair, there is joy, or least a joy to come out of the situation. Abraham was promised countless descendants whom he would never see.

 

God’s power of transformation is love. We show our love to others whom we never know through our gifts to our communities. We show our love in caring for one another. It is this power of love that will feed us and keep us whole. Negative thoughts, despair, feelings of giving up are not acts of love. Love is life. May you always be in a place of life.

 

Text: Genesis 22:1–14

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Fathers and Sons, Part 1

There are many instances in non-fiction, fiction, and film about mother and daughter relationships, both positive and negative. The movie Terms of Endearment comes to mind about a mother-daughter relationship. There are fewer father and son writings and film examples, though the Godfather comes to mind.

 

The Bible, on the other hand, has few mother-daughter relationship stories, though Ruth is a mother-in-law-daughter relationship. There are many father-son relationships in the Bible. This reflects the patriarchal society in those times and the complexity of those relationships in that society.

 

I am writing about two father and son relationships with this being part one. Both involve Abraham and they are not particularly pleasant stories. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. This Old Testament story is mainly about Ishmael and his mother Hagar.

 

In Genesis, God often tells Abraham that he will have so many descendants that it will be impossible to count them. God says Abraham will have more descendants than the stars in the sky. And back then without all the light pollution, they could see a lot of stars. God says that Abraham will have more descendants than the sand on the sea shore. Only the hardiest bean counter would make the attempt to make these kinds of counts.

 

Yet in spite of these promises, God seems to fail at following through. Abraham and Sarah have no children. Abraham and Sarah struggled so much, they gave up hope. This in spite of the fact that God promised them descendants who would be too numerous to count. Though Abraham is depicted as having faith in God, there is, perhaps, a sense of Abraham hearing God repeatedly promising all these descendants that it just got old. “Oh, it’s you again God. A lot of descendants, right. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before.”

 

They might have thought it cruel for God to continue to promise descendants and not to give them even one child. How can they have descendants without any children?

 

Out of desperation, Sarah gave Abraham permission to lay with her slave, Hagar, so that there would be someone to receive their inheritance. Ishmael was the product of that union.

 

It was common in ancient times for wealthy men to take slaves as concubines. It was less common for such a liaison to be proposed and condoned by the wealthy man’s wife. Of course, jealousy would almost always be the product of such a union. The practice was also common in this country when slavery was condoned, even for presidents of the United States.

 

When Ishmael was still young, God appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. God appeared to Abraham as three persons. There are obvious Christian implications here, but it is likely God had two angels as companions. Abraham was told that when they return in a year’s time, Sarah will have born a son. Sarah was in her nineties. Menopause was a long, long time ago.

 

Sarah overheard the conversation from their tent, for they were nomads. On hearing she was to give birth, Sarah laughed. They accused Sarah of laughing and doubting God. Sarah said, “I did not laugh.” God said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

 

Sarah bore Isaac, whose name is rooted in laughing.

 

Abraham threw a big feast when Isaac was weaned. Isaac is about three years old and Ishmael is about 17. Sarah became jealous of Hagar and her son. Ishmael was older and might inherent. Sarah feared that her son would have to work for the son of her slave. So, Sarah told Abraham to cast them out. Abraham didn’t like the idea. Ishmael was Abraham’s flesh and blood.

 

God assured Abraham that God would care for Hagar and Ishmael. God will make Ishmael a great nation. Arabs claim Ishmael as their ancestor and their connection to Abraham. Abraham feared for Hagar’s and Ishmael’s livelihood and their very lives in the wilderness. Yet, Abraham trusted that God would keep them safe.

 

Abraham gives them food and water and sends them out into what the Bible says is the wilderness of Beer-sheba. The wilderness of Beer-sheba is the Negev desert. Hagar is given a few things to eat. Isaac and Sarah get a feast.

 

The Negev is a very desolate place. It is a place of dirt and rock for miles and miles. Negev in Hebrew means dry. There are occasional wadis where some plant life survives. Beersheba is an ancient city and is one of the largest cities in modern Israel. It’s really hot there.

 

It is in this desert that Hagar finds herself as she struggles to survive so her son may live. Hagar could not bear to see her son die of thirst so she walked away from Ishmael, about 50 yards, and turned her back on him so she may not see him. Hagar wept tears she could not afford to lose.

 

God seemed to have been busy with other things and then hears Ishmael. Ishmael means God hears. A messenger is sent to give Hagar assurances and reminds her that Ishmael will be a great nation. It was then that Hagar sees a well and life.

 

Ishmael grew up to be skilled with the bow. Hagar, the Egyptian, not the Horrible, obtained a wife for Ishmael from Egypt. It is unlikely that Ishmael ever saw his father again. After all, Abraham told them to leave and not come back. Fathers and sons have it rough in the Bible, in Greek myths, in Shakespeare, and on and on.

 

In spite of being a tough love story of a father and his two sons, this is a story of salvation to those who are outcast. When all hope is lost and death is inevitable, God will be there.

 

I was recently asked at hospice to call the sister of a patient who was not assigned to me, but I was the only available chaplain, at that time. The sister was distraught at the decline of her brother whose body was being ravaged by cancer. She was a nurse and took over the caregiving needs, assisted by the patient’s spouse.

 

She was seeing her brother, whom she loved, slowly losing abilities as the tumors spread and grew. She was so deeply grieved that she could no longer feel God’s presence. She felt alone and spiritually adrift in her grief. Her tears kept her from seeing the well that was in front of her.

 

She confessed that she typically saw the negative. Her brother, on the other hand, would always see the positive. When the tumors in his shoulder took away the use of his right arm, he said, “I still have my left arm.”

 

By the end of the call, she said she was in a better place than she was when she called the night on call nurse.

 

Like this caring sister, like Hagar, no matter what kind of wilderness we find ourselves in, God will be there. Sometimes, we just need to wipe away the tears and see what is front of us.

 

Yet fear can keep us from recognizing God’s presence. We typically call this presence, the Holy Spirit. Jesus tried teaching the disciples over and over again that God will always be with them. What need the disciples or us fear if God is with us? We, too, are Jesus’ disciples.

 

Fear is, perhaps, the most primary emotion we have. Some might argue anger should be considered, but most of our anger is rooted in fear. God’s love transcends fear. Yet fear is so primal that it is hard to discard. With God’s help, we can mitigate it.

 

Perhaps this prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola is one we can use to help us in times of anxiety and when we have feelings of being lost:

 

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous, teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to seek reward, except that of knowing that I do your will. Amen.

 

Text: Genesis 21:8–21

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Saying Good-bye

At Snowline Hospice, I work with people who bravely say good-bye. I work with people who struggle to say good-bye through their tears. I have people who can’t say good-bye because they are in denial that their loved one is dying. And unfortunately, I have a few, a very few, who are very glad to say good-bye.

 

Being in denial is a defense mechanism. If denial is helping a loved one cope with a death, then that is okay, just as long as they do not have later regret. We help families during this time by giving them all the information they need, if they are ready to hear it and to read it.

 

The difficulty of saying good-bye increases as the level of attachment that exists between the two people increases. For someone we barely know, we may be sad that they are gone, but little to no tears are shed. For a beloved family member, the grief may seem unbearable. We grieve losses, great and small. The degree of grief is proportional to the degree of attachment.

 

In English, saying good-bye seems more permanent than saying something like “so long.” Some people don’t like saying good-bye. We might say, “See you later,” which implies a temporary parting and a commitment to reconnect that good-bye does not impart.

I am given to say “so long” rather than “good-bye.” When I hang up the phone, I say “bye-bye” rather than “good-bye.”

Poet Les Murray writes, “People can’t say goodbye anymore. They say last hellos.

“Take, for instance, a recent experience Murray had with some good friends. They had packed the last of their belongings for a cross-country move and showed up at (his) door before hitting the road. (He) tried to make small talk, awkwardly fending off the inevitable parting. Finally, they gave (him) a hug, and (Murray) blurted out, ‘We’ll have to get together again this fall. Maybe I can make a road trip down to see you.’ A last hello is what (he) was saying, not a goodbye. (Murray) couldn’t bring (himself) to say the latter.

“Once, at the end of a degree program, (Murray) went to (his) favorite professor’s office for a similar parting. (Murray) had taken multiple classes with him, and his teaching had left a permanent mark on (Murray). (Murray) wanted to say that (he) would miss (their) regular conversations. (They) talked uncomfortably for a few minutes. (Murray) rose to leave. ‘Well, I won’t say goodbye,’ Murray mumbled, avoiding eye contact. ‘You can ask my wife—I don’t do goodbyes.’”

When Jesus said good-bye to his disciples, he chose to do so in the form of a prayer, though, I guess, he could have said, “See ya later.” John 17 is the prayer Jesus gives his friends. Jesus begins that prayer by acknowledging that his time has come. Jesus asks that he may be glorified so that God may be glorified.

 

It is so easy to gloss over the beginning of this prayer and that is what I prefer to do. However, the question is still begged: If Jesus is God, who is he praying to? Jesus is very explicit in John’s gospel that he and the Father are one. If they are one, does Jesus really need to pray? If they are one, to whom is Jesus praying?

 

I do not have definitive answer, because my brain is too small to understand God. But if God is a being who transcends time and space, then being in two places at once should be very easy. One being, I take myself as an example, can have competing and even contradictory ideas at once. That’s my best shot of explaining this part of the Trinity in John 17.

 

John thought the content of this prayer was important enough to share with other Christians and Jesus seemingly wants the disciples to know what he is communicating.

 

Jesus has authority over all people. Jesus gives eternal life to all God gave him. Eternal life is knowing God, at least as much as we are capable of knowing God. Again, I think our brains are too small to understand the whole nature of God. Jesus also implies that though God is aware of other Gods, knowing God also means excluding the others. This is likely a shot at the Greco-Roman gods. Knowing God also has Jesus as part of the package. Jesus also acknowledges that he is the messiah.

 

Jesus’ glorification is not just the cross. Jesus’ glorification is his ministry of teaching, preaching, and performing miracles. Just one quick note: Jesus’ miracles were not done as a sideshow. Jesus miracles were done to show people that there is something greater than what they know. Jesus’ miracles were about bringing wholeness to a broken world. Jesus will be glorified again as he was before he was born in human form, as Jesus was before creation.

 

God’s name was made known to the disciples by Jesus. I don’t know how Jesus means this. If it was literal, there are issues. If it was meant figuratively, then it may just mean that they have an idea of who God is. They certainly should know God, because they know Jesus. The literal problem is that God’s name is to never be said in Judaism. In the ancient world to know the name of something or someone, gives power over the thing or person. That’s the problem. We can never presume to have power over God.

 

I think Jesus was speaking, not of power, but of intimacy. Traveling around Galilee and Judea for roughly three years would produce an intimacy among Jesus and the disciples. They knew Jesus quite well. And since they knew Jesus, they knew God.

 

Jesus says that God gave them to Jesus. Jesus did choose some disciples and others volunteered. Jesus is satisfied that they were faithful. Of course, though, there was that one guy. At this point in John’s gospel, Judas was long gone.

 

The disciples understand that the words that Jesus gave them were from God. They know that Jesus came from God.

 

Jesus is interceding for them. All that God has is Jesus’ and all that Jesus has is God’s. Jesus is glorified by God. Jesus is glorified by his ministry. Jesus is also glorified by the disciples.

 

Jesus has already separated himself from the world before he is even arrested. Though Jesus has left the world, the disciples remain. Jesus asks that the disciples be protected in God’s name.

 

The disciples are to be as one. Jesus’ message cannot be divided and the spreading of Jesus’ word cannot be divided. The disciples are to be united. The example of their unity is the object of Jesus’ prayer and of Jesus himself. Jesus and God are not separate.  The disciples are not to be separate.

 

The amazing part of this prayer came to fruition several years later. A rabbi was arresting and overseeing the execution of Christians. On the road to Damascus, Saul was struck down and blinded by Jesus. Saul was made to see that Jesus was son of God and he spread Jesus’ message throughout the Roman Empire even though he never personally knew Jesus. Paul said good-bye to a life of hate and said hello to love.

 

It is love that makes saying good-bye so hard. Maybe saying a good-bye prayer isn’t such a bad idea. Jesus gave us the structure of the prayer. In God, love abides with us. As Jesus’ love of the disciples abides, it also abides with us.

 

In his book A Severe Mercy, a memoir of Christian conversion and student life in Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken tells the story of his last meeting with C. S. Lewis, who had become a friend. The two men ate lunch together, and when they had finished, Lewis said, “At all events, we’ll certainly meet again, here—or there.” Then he added: “I shan’t say goodbye. We’ll meet again.” And with that, they shook hands and parted ways. From across the street, above the din of traffic, Lewis shouted, “Besides, Christians never say goodbye!” (Wesley Hill, October 31, 2014)

 

As Christians, good-bye is never a permanent separation. This is Easter. This is resurrection. We will, one day, be in a place where love abounds and good-bye has no meaning. Love may cause grief, but love abides forever.

 

Text: John 17:1–11

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A Good Friday Reflection

My name is John Mark. It’s all my mother’s fault. Actually, it is probably my cousin, Barnabas’, fault. You see, my cousin is a follower of Jesus. It was he who talked my mother into becoming a follower as well. Yesterday when Jesus asked for a large room to have supper with his followers, my mother quickly obliged. Then when Jesus asked for a secluded place to pray after supper with his disciples, my mother obliged again with her garden on the Mount of Olives. You see, my mother is quite wealthy.

 

I met Jesus for the first time yesterday. It was an experience like no other that I have ever had in my young life. When he looks at you, it is like he looks into your soul. And there is an arura about him that there are just no words for. I just wanted to be with him and follow him, myself.

 

Last night was strangely subdued. We had a rabbinical meal with Jesus. Jesus seemed sullen. He called the bread his body. And he called the wine his blood. I have no idea what he was talking about and as far as I could tell nobody else did either.

 

I looked at Peter for some guidance, but got none. Peter has a bigger than life presence. I look up to Peter. I mean, Peter is a little rough around the edges. Peter just blurts out whatever comes into his mind. But there is a certain charm to that. I think Peter is a born leader.

 

After we ate, Judas left in a huff. That guy is really emotional. Peter is emotional too, but Peter knows how to channel his emotions. Judas is all over the map.

 

Jesus had talked about being betrayed. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. This seems a very loyal group to me. Of course, everyone denied it. That’s when Judas left. Maybe he was sore that Jesus might think he was not loyal. He takes things so personally. Of course, Peter made a big deal out of his denial of betrayal. Then Jesus said that Peter would deny Jesus three times that every night.

 

Why would Jesus accuse Peter of such a thing? Peter is really close to Jesus. Peter is loyal. I really believe that Peter would die trying to defend Jesus from any foe. Peter is the bravest man I know.

 

It was late and it was dark when we made it to my mother’s garden. I told her that I would also take the watch for it. It was so hard to stay awake. I heard a commotion that woke me. There were torches and temple guards and there was Judas leading them. They had orders to arrest Jesus. Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of a slave. I’m sure Peter wanted to cut off more than that. I told you Peter is brave.

 

Jesus stopped the violence and healed the man’s ear.

 

After they grabbed Jesus, we thought we were next. We ran. We ran and ran. One of the soldiers tried to grab me and only caught my linen cloth. I knew I was naked but I ran anyway – as hard as I could.

 

I knew I needed clothes and went home. Then I wondered if I should stay there and hide or if they recognized me, they might come and arrest me too. I was so tired. I fell asleep and woke at sunrise.

 

I decided it wasn’t safe to stay, but I didn’t know where else to go. If they captured and tortured a disciple, they might give up my mother’s home. I told my mother, Mary, what happened last night and told her it might not be safe to stay.

 

We decided to wear peasant garb and blend into the crowd. As we walked into the city, we heard that Jesus had been tried by the Sanhedrin and now they had taken Jesus to Pilate. That can’t be good. Pilate is well known for his butchery.

 

We arrived at the Praetorium. There was Pilate, some Roman soldiers, the high priests, and bloodied man standing before Pilate. I gasped when I recognized Jesus. Then I caught myself in case anyone noticed. I could see a tear coming down my mother’s face. There were so many people crowded around, it was hard to make out what was said. But it became apparent the that this trail was a sham. The verdict was decided before Jesus arrived.

 

Roman soldiers took a bloody, beaten Jesus. They gave him a crossbar. He had a thorny crown. You know, like the ones that Romans like to give to victors. Only instead of grape leaves, this was just thorns. They gave him an expensive, purple cloak, the kind that only royalty or rich people can afford. They were going to crucify him.

 

We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it over and over again. Many Jews have lined the roads here with their bodies. And not just here, but all over the empire that the Romans claim men are crucified. In some places, like in Galilee, they leave the poles permanently in the ground, because crucifixions are so commonplace. That’s what they did at Golgotha, outside the city walls.

 

And that is what they did. They nailed Jesus’ hands to the crossbar and lifted him up on the pole. They secured the crossbar and then they nailed his feet to the pole. I noticed Jesus’ mother crying. She has the same name as my mother. The Romans told her to back off, which she did but only by a few feet.

 

I just can’t believe this is how it ends. I guess it is okay to have goodness, you just can’t have a lot of it. Evil doesn’t like goodness. Is that all there is to life? Hoping for the best and expecting the worse? If someone like Jesus can’t change the way things are, then how can we hope for something better?

 

We remembered that we didn’t know if Barnabas was okay or not. We went to look for him.

 

Maybe Jesus’ death will not be in vain. Maybe there is something more. For now, we need to lay low. Evil is afoot. I then wondered. Is anyone writing this stuff down?

 

Text: Mark 14:12 – 15:47 and John 18:1 – 19:42

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Understanding the Uniqueness of Jesus: “Only Son of God”

Let’s begin with a love story.

 

“Upon my bed at night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

2’I will rise now and go about the city,

in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.’

I sought him, but found him not.

3The sentinels found me,

as they went about in the city.

‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’

4Scarcely had I passed them,

when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go

until I brought him into my mother’s house,

and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

5I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

by the gazelles or the wild does:

do not stir up or awaken love

until it is ready!” (Song of Songs 3:1-5, NRSV)

 

How do we know when we are ready? If we wait for love until we are ready, does that mean we can stave off love or does that mean we have some kind of control over love? I think not. Love can sneak up on us. Love can come to us, ready or not.

 

I will submit that love begins in the womb. Case number one: Isaiah says that God knew him in the womb. This is in the context of God’s call to Isaiah as a prophet. There was a connection to God before Isaiah had a conscious mind. This might indicate that love is not a mind trip.

 

Case number two: There is an ad on TV where Jennifer Love Hewitt rubs her pregnant belly to sell a stretch mark product. But she also expresses her love for her baby before it is born.

 

I will now submit that the love we have for others is a small sample of the love that God has for us all. God’s love is persistent. The story of God’s persistence is called the Bible. It is a series of stories and writings that expresses God’s desire for a loving relationship with us and our continual rejection of God. No matter how many times we reject God, God continues to reestablish that relationship.

 

The apex of that story, the apex of trying to cement that relationship is when God takes human form. God is willing to lower Godself into human form. How that works, we have no idea. Three of the gospel writers try to take stabs at it, with Mark being smart enough to not even try. As St. Paul writes in Philippians, “but (God) emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8, NRSV)

 

Back in the seventies and eighties one person, in particular, and some others took it upon themselves to hold up a sign at televised sporting events. The sign read “John 3:16:”  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is John’s version of saying what Paul wrote to the Philippians.

 

The phrase, only Son of God, vexed the church for centuries. The result was the first draft of the Nicene Creed written at the Council of Nicaea. The council was convened by the Emperor Constantine because there was so much conflict over the nature of Christ in the church and Constantine wanted a united church to sell to the empire. Christianity could not be the true religion of the empire if Christians couldn’t even decide who Jesus was.

 

The controversy was about the origins of the only Son of God. Was Christ ever present before time or was there a time, even a split second of time, before the only Son of God existed? Parents exist before children, so it is reasonable to assume that the son came after the creator. The controversy was a splitting of hairs over how a Greek word was used, homoousios. Homoousios means the son is of the same being with God. Homoiousios means the son was similar to God. A one letter difference sent bishops into exile and death on both sides.

 

There are still Christian churches today that accept the latter interpretation of the nature of Christ. Of course, there are some that don’t consider those church members to be true Christians. The Coptic Church of Egypt is one of those anti-Nicaean churches.

 

John is ambiguous on the point. Paul is explicit. For Paul, Jesus is fully God in human form.

 

Leaving the theology aside, let’s get back to love. Paul is also saying that the Jesus event was an act of love. The way I see it is this way: God tried over and over again to bring humanity to Godself to only have humanity reject God and for the Jews to look inward, out of self-preservation, instead of bringing the world to Jerusalem where God dwelt. The world was one of rejection, of hate, of sin. God’s goal was Eden, but we didn’t want to go in.

 

After all else failed, God’s solution was to take human form. Not only was it a humbling experience to be so limited in the flesh, but it also made God vulnerable to sin. Only if God could reject sin’s temptations would God be able to break sin’s hold on humanity and thus unite humanity to God. We hear that story when Jesus is in the wilderness. None of this works unless Jesus is the only Son of God.

 

I think that the phrase, Son of God, was the best way for people to conceptualize what Paul said to the Philippians. Certainly, Son of God is much more succinct. But it also has baggage. There is an implication of a biological event that I think is unnecessary. Certainly, Jesus never came into existence without biology. Matthew and Luke ran with the biological issue. Mark ignored the whole thing. John took Jesus back in time as an actor in the creation of everything.

 

All four gospels say that Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism. It was only after Jesus’ baptism that he began his ministry. Somehow, somewhere Jesus became fully human and fully divine.

 

Paul said that God’s humility came even to the point of death, even death on a cross. It is on the cross that John 3:16 becomes relevant. It was on a cross that the sins of the whole world were wiped away. It was on a cross that humanity became reconciled with God. Paul called our new status “heirs with Christ.”

 

God, having taken on human form, assumed mortality of the flesh. Once Jesus was born, he was going die. Our bodies wear out and fail. Had Jesus died of old age, I don’t think John 3:16 would have been written. Had Jesus died of old age, I don’t think there would be a Christian religion, maybe a Jewish sect, but not a religion of its own. Had Jesus died of old age, the disciples would also have faded away in old age. If Jesus had died of old age, there would never have been a St. Paul. If Jesus had died of old age, there would be no churches to worship in.

 

I mentioned earlier that God wants us to be in Eden. Jesus emphasized that goal. Jesus called Eden the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. This Eden is to be where the first Eden was, on Earth. How that happens is up to us. We are to apply Jesus’ teachings in how we live and treat one another. When violence, hatred, and malice are gone and peace and reconciliation reign, then Eden will return.

 

This is also the message of the prophets. The prophets oftentimes railed at the Hebrews to reform their ways and turn to God. The goal was well stated by Ezekiel, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

 

The story of the Son of God did not end on the cross. The last barrier between us and God was death. Our bodies will wear out and cease to be. For we are ash and to ash we will return. But Jesus broke the last barrier, giving eternal life. Only the Son of God could do such a thing. The only Son of God, who took on flesh, was able exist after the flesh had died, thereby giving us entry to God’s abode in eternal life.

 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

 

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