Doubting Good News

I remember as a kid that I was prone to exaggeration – not that I’m not now. But for a me and my friends, it was this way of looking at the world as more than it really was and maybe safer than it was. My friend John had a set of army men, though I wasn’t in to that too much, it was fun spending time playing with them with John. We had mock battles moving the men like chess pieces, though I never heard of chess at that time.

 

As I grew older, I was attracted to stories that were bigger than life. I can’t remember how old I was when I got a copy of Pecos Bill. It was a book of tall tales by a fictional Pecos Bill in the western U.S. It later became a Disney film. This was a book of gross exaggeration and unbelievable exploits. But it was a fun read for a kid. It is now classified as fakelore.

 

Even older still, I would buy the latest issue of Mad Magazine. After a couple of years, I caught on that Mad was making fun of contemporary characters, fictional and real, and corporations. What still stands out for me was one story in particular, “The Day Perry Masonmint Lost a Case.” Hamilton Bugerbits was delighted.

 

Though attracted to these stories, I learned what was real and what was fake. I also began to learn what was true and what was false when I heard some story or tale from a friend. I struggled with trusting a friend versus being skeptical that something really happened. Slowly, I learned that if I asked questions about the story, I could either get a confession that it was false, or be convinced it was true, or be left with doubts when the story was artfully defended.

 

There was certainly trust in what was broadcast on the news. Reporters were trained to be objective. And when a reporter strayed from the truth, they were typically fired. The news organization had to maintain the trust of the people by verifying their stories.

 

Then came social media. In a hyper-political atmosphere, anything that might put an opponent in a bad light was shared seemingly exponentially. There was no need to check if it was true or not. Just click “share.” It was just too juicy not to share.

 

Which, of course, brings me to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The allegation is that Cambridge Analytica, a U.K. company, used Facebook data gathered from Facebook users, without their permission, to influence the 2016 elections. They are also accused with creating fake news targeted at their preferred audience.

 

These are all problems that law enforcement, but to a greater degree, Congress, needs to sort out. The issue I am looking at is where along in our development did we stop evaluating what was true and not true. Or why are we skeptical of people of an opposing opinion and totally trusting of anyone who shares our outlook.

 

I, for one, have not canceled my Facebook account, if that is even possible. I have dead friends that Facebook wants me to wish them happy birthday. But I have stopped using Facebook, looking at Facebook, except to wish people happy birthday. Otherwise, Facebook is dead to me.

 

Whenever we hear or see something that seems dubious, it probably is. There are fact checkers like Snopes that make it easy for us to check stories for their veracity. There some things that are just too good to be true. Like, maybe, someone rising from the dead.

 

The Sunday of resurrection must have been surreal for the disciples. After their leader was arrested, most of them fled. Jesus was then executed on a cross. Then the day after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene announced that she saw Jesus. Peter and John confirmed that the tomb was indeed empty.

 

They were still huddling together, keeping the doors and windows shut and locked. I would imagine that if they heard a sound or a knock on the door they would all jump. At least Jesus formed them into a community where they could trust and lean on one another. This was much better than all them running off on their own. They needed one another after the shocking events of the past few days.

 

Some may have been wondering about Mary’s proclamation of seeing Jesus. Was she telling the truth? Was she deliberately being cruel with such news? Was it fake news? They likely believed that the tomb was empty, but there could be many explanations for that.

 

Probably sometime around mealtime, Jesus appeared out of nowhere. The doors were still locked. Yet there was Jesus. Jesus greeted them in peace.

 

We need to remember that they understood that once someone dies, they knew they would never see them again. Yet there is Jesus. It was a lot to take in and Jesus knew that. That is why Jesus showed them the holes in his hands and feet where the Roman nails were driven. Once that all sunk in, then they rejoiced that Jesus rose from the dead. As John puts it, they didn’t see Jesus until after Jesus showed them his wounds.

 

So, Jesus started over from the beginning, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:21b) Jesus told them that just as God sent Jesus, so now does Jesus send them. Jesus did not come back to pick up where he left off. Jesus came back as a visible confirmation that death was defeated. And Jesus came back to commission the disciples to spread Jesus’ word and teachings to the world.

 

In order for that to happen, they needed to be guided by the Holy Spirit. This was given to them from Jesus by Jesus’ breathing on them. The Greek is tricky here. Wind, breath, and spirit are all the same word in Greek, pneuma. Jesus’ breath is the Spirit.

 

Having received the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives them the authority to forgive sins and to retain sins, if necessary. Only God can forgive sins as the religious leaders often pointed out to Jesus. But by having God the Holy Spirit, they, too, can forgive sins.

 

The only gum in the works was that Thomas was off doing something and was not present. Perhaps, he was shopping for dinner. Needless to say, the disciples were really excited to see Jesus alive. When Thomas returned they probably jumped Thomas with their enthusiasm at seeing Jesus.

 

Well, Thomas would have none of that. Thomas needed to see Jesus’ wounds in his hand and his side. Maybe someone was playing a hoax on his friends and Thomas thought them gullible. Thomas thought they were just giving him “fake news.”

 

A week from that Sunday, Jesus appeared again the same way he did the previous Sunday and with the same greeting. This time Thomas was there. Jesus went directly to Thomas. Jesus challenged Thomas to put his finger in the hole in Jesus’ hands and to place his hand into Jesus’ side. Jesus told Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.”  (John 20:27c)

 

This incident has forever plagued Thomas. When someone is skeptical, that one may be called a Doubting Thomas. We seem to be more and more bombarded with announcements and stories that are not true. We have a right to be skeptical. Yet we trust the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection to know that it really did happen.

 

Thomas’ response is the only time these words are uttered by anyone in John’s gospel, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28b) Of all the disciples, Thomas is the only one, in John’s gospel, to declare Jesus’ true identity. All the others were just too excited to make any declaration. They were just excited to see Jesus again. Yet it was Thomas, the skeptic, who sees and declares who Jesus really is.

 

Even then, Jesus doesn’t give Thomas a pat on the back. Jesus doesn’t say, “Thomas you’re so smart in figuring out who I am.” Jesus, instead, tells Thomas that seeing him and recognizing the true Jesus is no big deal. Thomas didn’t believe when he didn’t see Jesus. Thomas only believes because he saw Jesus. So Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29b)

 

Blessed are we who have not seen and yet believe. Now there are mystics who did see Jesus, but very few have done so through the centuries since Jesus’ resurrection.

 

John concludes that Jesus did many signs that John did not record. John just picked out the stories that he thought would be the best ones to convince a reader that Jesus is who Thomas said he is. And that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. These are two titles found in Jewish scripture and tradition. John must be writing to Jews more than gentiles, even though John is rather hostile to Jews in his gospel.

 

John gives us a contrast through Thomas. There is the pre-appearance, skeptical Thomas. Then there is the true believer, post-appearance Thomas. John says that through believing we will have life in Jesus’ name.

 

We have been harsh, over the years, with Doubting Thomas, but maybe we should be more like Thomas. We need to verify what we see and hear and then we can proclaim the good news rather than fake news.

 

 

Text: John 20:19–31

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Fighting for Non-violence

“Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida walked out of their classrooms Wednesday, (March 14, 2018,) gathered on the campus football field, and embraced each other. As the school chorus played inspirational music over a loudspeaker, the students chanted in unison: ‘MSD! MSD!’

“It was a month to the day after a former student wielding an AR-15 assault-style rifle strode into one of the school buildings and opened fire, killing 14 students and three staff members.

“The Parkland protest was echoed in schools across the nation as students staged 17-minute walkouts — one minute for each of the shooting victims — aimed at pressuring federal lawmakers to enact gun control laws. The Parkland students argue such laws will protect others from having to face the kind of trauma they experienced.

“More than 3,000 walkouts were planned around the world, organizers said (which included many in California: including Sacramento, El Dorado, and Amador Counties).

“Said Stoneman Douglas junior Susana Matta, ‘We are here to protest because we know that more can be done, not just statewide but nationwide.’

“The students are working hard to maintain the momentum of their movement; they know such persistence is necessary if they are going to persuade lawmakers at the state and national level to take more action.

“Thousands of students also gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, holding colourful signs and cheering in support of gun control.” (CBC News)

Guns are not evil. People can be evil and evil people can be violent. Human beings have invented many tools. Human beings seem to naturally invent tools to get a job done. When human beings took up war to settle differences or to violently take what another group has, tools were made. Some the greatest inventions in history are products of war.

 

We continue to perfect more efficient ways to kill each other. Of course, the ultimate is nuclear weapons. They are very efficient. Short of nuclear weapons, we also continue to perfect conventional weapons with the goal to kill the most people in the shortest time. The one of the latest innovations of this is the assault weapon.

 

Some think that we live in very violent times. However, a careful review of history reveals that ancient times were much more violent. The Romans invented a way to produce the most pain and torture to kill someone – crucifixion. It seems that the Roman aristocracy were immune to violence. Crucifixion was a gruesome way to pacify a vast empire.

 

For Jesus and his followers, things were dangerous and tense. Jesus travels to Jerusalem, against advice for his safety, to raise Lazarus from the grave in Bethany. Bethany is just over the hill, the Mount of Olives, from Jerusalem. The disciples rightly knew that the religious authorities would likely seek Jesus’ life. Jesus ignored their advice.

 

After Lazarus was raised from the dead, the religious authorities conspired to have both Jesus and Lazarus murdered. Jesus was threatening their authority. Jesus’ popularity was diminishing the people’s piety for the temple rituals.

 

Then to add insult to their misery, Jesus rides a donkey triumphally into Jerusalem. Everyone must have noticed the commotion. Jesus’ riding into the city on a donkey would be known by everyone, including the Romans, that it is kings who ride into their capital city on donkeys. The crowd is behind Jesus, making it difficult to arrest him, at least, not openly. They can’t kill Lazarus without killing Jesus, because Jesus would probably just raise him up again.

 

Jerusalem was abuzz with the story of Lazarus rising from the grave. With the Passover approaching, people from everywhere were in Jerusalem and for many of them, this is the first time that they learn about this prophet from Galilee.  They join the Jesus bandwagon too. The Pharisees throw up their hands because “the world has gone after him.” (John 12:19b)

 

Jews from all over the empire and outside the empire were in Jerusalem for the Passover. Practically all Jews from outside Palestine spoke Greek. When John says that some Greeks wanted to meet Jesus, John means Greek-speaking Jews. These Greek speakers seemed to have noticed that Philip was among Jesus’ followers and asked if Philip could arrange a meeting. It was likely that Philip knew Greek.

 

Philip does not seem confident enough to speak to Jesus directly, so he asks Andrew to help him out. This also may be out of concern that potential assassins might try to get close to Jesus and these Greek speakers needed some sort of vetting.

 

When Philip and Andrew approach Jesus with the request, typical Jesus does not give a yes or no answer. Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23b) Perhaps there was some discussion about how safe it would be for strangers to get close to Jesus. Jesus is saying that it didn’t matter if they were assassins or not. Jesus is about to die anyway.

 

Jesus explains his statement with a brief parable. You can’t get wheat unless you take a seemingly dead seed and put it in the ground. You bury it like you would a dead person. Only then can this dead thing live and bear much fruit. I think what Jesus was saying is that the Jesus movement cannot thrive unless Jesus dies. Only then can Jesus’ message flourish.

 

Jesus then says something totally outside logic and our instinct for self-preservation. Those who love life will lose it. Those who hate their life will have eternal life. Again, I think what Jesus was saying, not literally, is that we are to live our lives with a goal of eternal life and not with a goal of living life to its fullest or hedonistically.

 

Jesus is trying to give Andrew and Phillip eternal lessons, one more time. Jesus knows his time on this earth is short. His disciples are still not clear on what Jesus is about, but Jesus hasn’t given up on them. Jesus could ask to be spared from what will soon happen to him. But he knows that that is why he came to the world. His demise is part of his mission.

 

Anyone who serves Jesus must follow him. Wherever Jesus is, the servant will also be. If we serve Christ, we will one day be with Christ. God will honor anyone who serves Jesus.

 

Jesus confesses that his soul is troubled. Jesus knows how he will die and it not by an assassin’s blade. Nobody in her or his right mind would be willing be crucified. Jesus is aware of the agony that awaits him and he is rightly apprehensive.

 

Jesus seems to be arguing with himself out loud. Should he ask God to forget the whole thing and prevent this horror from happening? No. Jesus is in Jerusalem to face the cross. The grain of wheat must die to flourish.

 

Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name.” God responds from the heavens, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:28b) The crowd around Jesus, Andrew, and Philip heard the voice. It was so unexpected and out of line with nature that many thought it was thunder. Others said an angel was talking to Jesus.

 

Jesus corrected them. The voice came for their sake, not for Jesus’. The time of judgement for the world was right then. The ruler of the world will be driven out.

 

When Jesus is lifted up from the earth, he will draw the whole world to himself. This tells the crowd how Jesus will die. When the Romans lift Jesus on the cross, the whole world will come to Jesus. We are drawn to God only through the cross. Without the cross, nothing else makes sense of Jesus’ ministry.

 

According to John, Jesus takes his throne on the cross and judges the world. What Jesus is judging is a world that embodies domination, violence, and death. This is the world that is represented by the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, these things didn’t die when Jesus died. They didn’t die when the Roman Empire died. They continued and we still see them today. When those things die, Jesus’ kingdom will come.

 

Whenever anyone uses power over another, there will be judgment. Whenever anyone harms another person, there will be judgment. Whenever anyone dies, there will be judgment. Jesus went to the cross without a fight. Jesus died on the cross to expose the ugliness of the world. We, as Jesus’ followers, are called to expose the ugliness of the world so that the world can be redeemed.

 

This means that silence is not an option. We cannot accept conditions in our localities, state, and nation when love is not the standard. Like on The Body Snatchers movie, we are to point and screech. Jesus passively succumbed to a violent empire. We are to reject violence and hate. We cannot use violence to meet violence. Our voices shall not be silenced.

 

 

Text: John 12:20–33

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Confronting Evil

I was at Our Saviour, Placerville, about a year when a couple told me about the home they bought in south El Dorado County. It was on several acres with a pond and a barn. They then said they were disturbed about some things happening at their home. There were things happening that they could not explain. They told me about a prior owner who did things around the house that are happening at that time without their help. There were other unexplained things as well.

 

I can’t share the exact details with you, because I don’t remember them. Except for these unexplained phenomena, they really loved their house. They didn’t want to sell it, if they could avoid it. They said their home was haunted or possessed. They wanted my help. They asked for an exorcism.

 

I had never before had a request for an exorcism and I have not had one since.

 

There are a lot of things about parish ministry that they don’t teach in seminary. Exorcisms are one of those things. I remembered that there was a page about exorcisms in The Book of Occasional Services. The entire subject was covered in one paragraph. Basically, it reads, ask your bishop. I told them I would have to talk to the bishop and I would get back to them.

 

So, I called Bishop Lamb. I related their story and their request. What Bishop Lamb told me was to do a house blessing. I thought, “I can do that.” Way back when we lived in Ogden, Utah, we saw “The Exorcist.” I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to do that.

 

So, we scheduled a house blessing. I said the liturgy and prayers from The Book of Occasional Services, splattering holy water to and fro.

 

They reported to me a few weeks later (they weren’t regular attenders) that the strange goings on in their home were gone. I served at Our Saviour for 15 years. In those 15 years their home was normal after the house blessing.

 

I am a skeptic when it comes to supernatural stuff. Yet, there I things I have heard about that I cannot explain and no one else has explained. What happened at this couple’s home, I cannot explain. These are very rational people. I had no doubt that what they saw and what they heard was real.

 

Like the man born blind in John’s gospel who said, “I could not see and then I could see.” Well, all I know is that there were weird things and then there weren’t weird things. I have no idea what it was. All I know is that it left.

 

I have never had anyone stand up in church and ask, “Have you come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24c) I hope it never happens. Now, I have had some schizophrenics tell me some really weird stuff that they think they saw, but nothing like what happened when Jesus went to synagogue. Mark sets up the scene by identifying a man in the synagogue who had an unclean spirit.

 

I am a little puzzled what constitutes a clean spirit and an unclean spirit. Jews labeled almost everything as clean and unclean. Clean is good and unclean is to be avoided. We might assume that an unclean spirit is evil. Someone with an unclean spirit will not act rationally. Maybe that is why booze is referred to as spirits.

 

I hope that no one in Capernaum ever had a seemingly crazy person yell out during the service. This man, and they were men in a first century synagogue, stood up and addressed Jesus as Jesus was teaching.  In this early stage in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is already known as a rabbi or teacher.

 

The man knows Jesus’ name and where he came from. Whatever Jesus was teaching about, the man took personally. “What have you to do with us?” (Mark 1:24b) The man identifies Jesus as a man from Nazareth, but then he says he knows who Jesus really is, “the Holy One of God.”

 

Jesus did not ask his bishop what to do. Jesus did not do a synagogue blessing. Remember that in Mark, Jesus’ identity is a secret. Yet, it is the demons who out Jesus. Jesus ordered the unclean spirit to be quiet and to come out of the man. The man convulsed and the unclean spirit left with a cry.

 

The people who heard Jesus were astounded at his teaching. It was not anything that they had heard before. Jesus’ authority comes from God as was mentioned in the Old Testament reading, that a true prophet “will speak in my (God’s) name” (Deuteronomy 18:19). On top of that, the unclean spirits obey Jesus. The synagogue story spreads throughout Galilee.

 

This is the first of many people who are to receive an exorcism from Jesus. My rational mind might think that maybe what they considered to be possessions by demons or something else were really physical sicknesses, like epilepsy. Several of Jesus’ exorcisms probably fall in this category.

 

Yet, this story seems different. This wasn’t epilepsy. It doesn’t sound like schizophrenia. Jesus was challenged by something that had a rational fear for its existence. Jesus does not destroy the unclean spirit. Like the house in El Dorado County, it leaves and presumably goes somewhere else. Some other poor bugger will be possessed. That makes me wonder how many times Jesus exorcises the same unclean spirit.

 

Evil does not always appear supernaturally. Almost all evil in the world is done by human beings. We state in our baptismal vows that we “will persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever (we) fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord.” (BCP p.304)

 

Resisting evil begins with us. We must repent our wrongs. Once that is done, then we can call out the evil around us. Evil likes to live in darkness and the shadows. It likes to do its work in secret and behind the scenes. Only when evil thinks there is a sanction for its work, does evil show itself for all to see.

 

When evil is made manifest, evil counts on silence. It the duty of Christians, obeying our baptismal vows, to name evil.

 

I assume that the people of Capernaum ministered to the man who had the unclean spirit. Once someone repents of evil, it is also our duty to minister to that person. We are to forgive and bring people to the light of Christ.

 

Christmas 2009 It is unfortunate that Larry Nassar refused to take responsibility for his actions. The judge was disgusted with his letter to her. We condemn Larry Nassar and pray that he repents. Even if we did not do anything as horrible as Larry Nassar, repentance is still our duty. Let us pray that Nassar comes to the light and that our institutions will reform themselves and resist evil.

 

 

Text: Mark 1:21–28

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An Inauspicious Beginning

Death and taxes. The earliest use of the idiom was in The Cobbler of Preston by Christopher Bullock (1716), “’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.” It continues to be quoted by many.

It was true in the 18th century, it is true today, and it was true 2,000 years ago in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. Taxes are the price to pay for civilization. Luke’s mention of a census for the purpose of levying taxes was a way to date Jesus’ birth. There are problems reconciling Luke’s description with historical events, but we are certain that Jesus’ birth took place over 2,000 years ago.

Luke’s purpose, also, was not to say what day of what year Jesus was born. We don’t know that detail. No gospel writer provides that. Birthdays may be important to us, but they were not important to ancient Jews. In fact, birthday blessings were thought to be witchcraft, by ancient Jews. Instead, Luke’s purpose was to say that the birth of this child is very important.

Though from Nazareth, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem. The messiah must be a descendant of King David, Joseph’s ancestor. David’s hometown was Bethlehem where it was expected that the messiah would be born. Luke checked off these important details.

The next detail is embarrassing. Mary gave birth to a child whom our translation says was engaged or betrothed, not married, to Joseph. One of the many criticisms of early Christianity was that the religion’s founder was illegitimate.

However in ancient Jewish custom, once a marriage was arranged and the contract signed, the woman and man were considered married even if they not yet lived together until after the marriage ceremony. It was rare, but a contracted couple could live together. By including an embarrassing detail implies the story of Mary and Joseph’s marital status at the time of Jesus’ birth was true.

Mary and Joseph did not have decent living arrangements in Bethlehem and so the messiah was born where stock animals were kept – not very sanitary. After being swaddled, Jesus was placed in a feeding trough. Not quite a bassinet.

Luke then shifts the story to shepherds in the field. The West Bank may be dominated by Muslims today, but even so, it is has Christian churches seemingly everywhere. There is a church where it was believed the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth kept their flocks. It is called the Church of the Shepherds in the Field. All significant events in the gospels have a church on the site.

 

Shepherds were very low on the social scale. In a story where the messiah was not even born in a house, stinky shepherds are inserted. The setting is not awe inspiring.

 

The shepherds were minding their own business when God intervenes on the earth, through the presence of angels. The primary purpose of angels was as messengers. That is what angel literally means. Angels can, at times, serve as God’s enforcers. Angels were not cuddly. They were terrifying.

 

In the night, a supernatural visage emitting a blinding light appeared before a bunch of lowly shepherds. The angel did not come to smite the shepherds. The angel did have some messages. The first one was to not be afraid. The reason they should not fear is that the angel is bringing good news, gospel, and great joy for everybody. It is unclear how a bunch of social outcasts are to share any good news that is for everybody.

 

The next thing the angel tells the shepherds is that the messiah was born in David’s city, Bethlehem. The very thing that Jews have prayed for and hoped for has come to pass. Though they were hoping that the messiah would come and free them from the Roman yoke and from Herod’s erratic rule. They probably did not think it was realistic to expect it to actually happen. Yet this message of great importance to the future of Judea was shared with a bunch of shepherds in the middle of the night.

 

The angel doesn’t say that the messiah can be found in a great room in a great building. Rather, the messiah can be found lying in a manger. Except for a show of force by angels, not one thing about the messiah’s birth makes sense. This is the most important event in Jewish history for centuries. And yet, the messiah is resting in a feeding trough and the birth is announced to shepherds, of all people.

 

Paraphrasing Obi-wan Kenobi, Luke seems to be saying that this is not the messiah you are looking for. This is not a unifying military leader who will defeat all the foreigners from Judea and maybe Samaria as well. It is a poor child announced to poor shepherds. This messiah has come to free the poor from their misery.

 

If one angel is not terrifying enough, a bunch of the angel’s buddies show up. They praise God in front of the shepherds, doing something they would do in heaven. The shepherds are given a glimpse of what it is like in heaven. This was not shared with the religious authorities or with King Herod’s court. It was shared with the poor. Social outcasts were given a glimpse of heaven.

 

After the angels left, the shepherds were probably wondering what they should do with the information they just received. They decided to leave their flocks to fend for themselves and go to Bethlehem. This is a very un-shepherd thing to do. Jesus would later say that a good shepherd would not do such a thing, unless one sheep was lost.

 

They hurried to Bethlehem and somehow found the place where Jesus was born. Perhaps Jesus was crying, catching the shepherd’s attention. It was highly likely that Jesus was the only baby in a manger.

 

The shepherds shared their story. It is unknown how many people were there, but Luke implies that it was more than just Mary and Joseph. The hearers were astonished. Some may have thought the story incredulous, except for Mary. Mary treasured the shepherd’s story. Yet, Mary also wondered what it all meant, even though Mary had her own visit from an angel.

 

After seeing the baby messiah, the shepherds return to their flocks. As they went back, they praised God, perhaps in the same way that they saw the angels do it. After all, the angels probably knew how to do it right.

 

Luke does not mention that the shepherds told anyone else about the angels and the messiah. Perhaps they thought that once Mary and Joseph were told, their job was done. Though, it is hard to believe that they wouldn’t share such a miraculous story with just about anyone else they encountered. I can just picture some of the shepherds during a day off in a nearby inn and after a few glasses of wine telling everybody about the angels visiting them.

 

Luke chose to be sober when recording this story in writing. This isn’t a birthday story. It is the story of the coming of the messiah, the king of kings, and prince of peace. In this one event, God has changed the course of human history. The messiah’s followers end up conquering the Roman Empire from within.

 

More importantly, Jesus changes an attitude of indifference to the poor to a concern for taking care of the poor. Jesus gives a vision of a better world, without need or want. Through Jesus, the barriers separating humanity from God are broken. Through Jesus, the human and the divine are united. In the incarnation, we are heirs with Christ and of God’s heavenly kingdom.

 

 

Text: Luke 2:1–20 (NRSV)

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Encountering Evil

Sometimes, our brains go haywire. We will do things that we know is wrong, but we do them anyway. Things might come out of our mouth that we suddenly wish it wasn’t said. We might break a speed limit. We might jaywalk. We might buy something that later ends up in a yard sale.

 

Most of the time, these things we do that we later regret can be rectified by either asking for forgiveness, doing some kind of restitution, or just living with the act and/or consequences. This is normal living. This is being a normal human being. Certainly not ideal, but we are flawed.

 

Then there are more systemic issues. This is when our brains go really haywire. Some people are psychopaths. Some people are sociopaths. Some people have anger control issues.

 

God makes it quite clear that killing someone else is wrong. It is one of the Ten Commandments. God declared that all life belongs to God, not us. God said that human blood is sacred and is not to be shed, because it belongs to God. And Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-45a)

 

Jesus addresses evil. Jesus talks about people who are wicked. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is about greed, violence, and murder. It is about a vineyard that is a biblical metaphor for Israel. God is the owner of the vineyard.

 

It is harvest time. The absentee vineyard owner sends slaves to collect the produce of the harvest. The tenants who worked the vineyard chose not to share the fruits of their labor. The vineyard owner was due his share of the harvest. When the owner attempted to collect his share, the tenants beat one slave, killed another, and stoned yet another. The owner responds by sending more slaves than the first group. There should be safety in numbers. The tenants treated the second group like the first.

 

So, the owner thinks that they will treat his son with respect and the son will be able gather the harvest. However, the tenants saw an opportunity to seize the vineyard for themselves by killing the son. According to Jewish law, if a landowner died without an heir, the tenants who lived and worked on the land could have the final claim.

 

The whole story was troubling. It provoked a visceral response of a need for justice. When Jesus asked the authorities what would happen to the tenants when the owner shows up, they reply that owner will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to other tenants who will do their job and give the owner what belongs to the owner.

 

The tenants forgot that they were guests in the vineyard and not management. We, too, forget that we are guests of creation and not management. The produce of the vineyard is entrusted to the tenants. They do not own it.

 

Jesus then quotes Psalm 118:22-23. The builders rejected the cornerstone. The capstone completes the building project. Then Jesus gets explicit. The kingdom of God will be taken away from the religious authorities and given to a people who will bear fruit for the kingdom.

 

The religious authorities likely already knew that the vineyard is Israel. Seemingly, it is only after Jesus connects the dots for them that they realize that they are the wicked tenants. Matthew tells us that they wanted to do to Jesus exactly what the wicked tenants did. They feared the crowds and bided their time.

 

Our actions are formed by our thoughts and feelings. The main motivation for the wicked tenants was greed. When the owner sought to get his cut, he did nothing through labor to earn any produce. What he did have was the land without which, there would be no produce. The owner was also an absentee landlord. The owner had no apparent access to any enforcement agency. The tenants saw no consequences for exercising their greed.

Once the tenants resorted to the murder of the owner’s slaves, any means would justify their means of keeping all the produce.

 

The religious authorities, for whom the parable was about, were willing to kill, especially if they were to outsource the killing to someone else, namely the Romans. The Romans were the law. Jesus was a threat to the religious authorities. The authorities were the only source of religious arbitration and teaching. Usurpers were not welcome.

 

On Monday morning, October 2, as I was watching TV report after report, I screamed out, “Why?” We want to know what motivates people, especially if they do horrendous things. How could anyone think or feel things that would motivate them to kill people they don’t even know. We may never know why Stephen Paddock did what he did. We do know that he planned the killings.

 

I am assuming that Paddock thought that the shooting at a mass of people was a means to an end. Yet what was done was indiscriminate violence done with weapons of mass destruction. Like the tenants, Pollack may have assumed that he is a free agent and not accountable to our vineyard’s owner.

 

Though we don’t know Paddock’s feelings, there must have been hate and, likely, anger. Everyone who had contact with Paddock, except Paddock’s brother, knew him as an angry man. It is very difficult to premeditate murder. The tenant’s resentment of the owner and everyone associated with the owner grew to hate. The religious authorities developed a hate for Jesus and everything Jesus stood for.

 

We may feel helpless in the face of such violence. There were people in Las Vegas who did not feel helpless. They took action and saved lives. In the face of evil, there were people who reacted with hope and helped others.

 

We are called to be faithful and grateful tenants of the vineyard. We have a message to share. We have the gospel, the good news. The good news is that God loves us and will be with us in this life and the next. Our response to God’s love is to love others. Love is the destiny of the earth and we are the messengers in word and deed.

 

Text: Matthew 21:33–46

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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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