Hope in the Struggle

A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole.

 

Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further.

 

So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.

 

The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

 

The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time.

 

Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

 

What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were God’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

 

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives.

 

If God allowed us to go through our lives without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as what we could have been. We could never fly!

 

When we read the gospels, they are stories of struggle: Jesus struggles on the cross, the disciples struggle to figure what Jesus is talking about, the religious authorities struggle with what to do about Jesus, and Jesus struggles to make himself understood.

 

Life is struggle. We would think that after the resurrection that all would be clear and all would be well. Well, it wasn’t.  Even after the resurrection the struggle continues.

 

Jesus was conspicuous and not conspicuous after the resurrection. He was very selective as to time and place he would show himself. And he was unpredictable. Jesus’ appearance in John 21 was just such a time.

 

Some of the disciples returned to Galilee and did what they always do. They had not earned “an honest day’s living” for three years. Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two unnamed disciples went out on a boat to fish. They caught nothing, maybe because they were fishing at night.

 

You know when you try to do something and the more you do it and it is not working, you get more frustrated? That’s the disciples on the boat. They struggled getting their nets in the water, pulling them up, and not seeing a thing in them.

 

Dawn comes. Now they can see their failure. They struggled for naught.

 

A figure calls to them from the shore, “You have no fish?” Is this guy a smart aleck? The stranger puts salt in the wound of their failure. At least one of them admits their failure to the stranger. The stranger tells them to try their net on the other side. Why not? They have nothing to lose.

 

load of fishThey find that their net is so full of fish that they cannot pull it in. They struggle to pull the load in and they don’t want to sacrifice even one fish. They tug and they tug.

 

For at least one of the disciples, a thought process like this was likely happening: We couldn’t catch a thing. A man tells us to cast on the other side. Now we have more fish than we know what to do with. This smells fishy. I know of only one person who does these kinds of miracles. I want a good look at this man. “It is the Lord.”

 

With those words, Peter gets decent and jumps into the water, heading for shore. They continue to struggle against the weight of the net. And now their strongest has decided to put his clothes on and go overboard.

 

Peter leaves the others to struggle with the net and get the boat back to shore. I wonder what grumbling was happening on that boat after Peter left them high and dry. Now they have no choice. They must drag the net full of fish to shore, dangling over the side of the boat.

 

When they arrive, they see Jesus cooking a breakfast of fish and bread. There seems to have been a Last Supper, but Jesus isn’t through with meals. Now you know where lox and bagels came from. (I’m kidding.) Jesus asks for some more fish from their catch to add to the meal. Adding another weird element to the story, Peter goes to the boat and hauls the net full of fish to shore all by himself – the same net the disciples were unable to haul up. I wonder if Peter rolled his eyes up at their struggle to get the fish to shore.

 

After Jesus invites them to breakfast, John adds an interesting note. Now remember that the whole doubting Thomas thing is in the recent past for them. Yet John says that none of them, maybe especially Thomas, dared ask who it was that was serving them breakfast. If any of them did, maybe Jesus would roll his eyes up. “As theologian Michael Welker likes to say, after the resurrection you don’t find anyone casually clapping Jesus on the shoulders and saying with a grin, ‘We’re so glad you’re back, Jesus!’”[1] Instead, it’s “are you really Jesus?”

 

This was Jesus’ third appearance since the resurrection. The first was the night of the resurrection when Jesus appeared while Thomas was out. The second was a week later when Thomas was present.

 

The really good part happens after breakfast and it takes a little study of the Greek to put it into context. The crux is the English word “love” that, in ancient Greek can be one of four to seven words, depending on who you ask. In the New Testament, four are used. For the dialogue between Jesus and Peter only two Greek words for love are used: agapao and philio. Agapao maybe more familiar to you in another form agape. Agapao was used in Greek literature to designate the love a god has for a human or a parent for a child. Philio express a fondness for another person. One is hierarchical and the other is familial.

 

do you love meJesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. The first time Jesus asks if Peter agapaos him. Peter replies that he philios him. So Jesus tells Peter “Feed my lambs.” Jesus repeats his first question and Peter repeats his answer. Jesus responds, “Tend my sheep.” The third time Jesus asks if Peter philios him. And Peter replies, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I philio you.” And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus gives Peter a parable about Peter’s death and then tells Peter, “Follow me.” Peter likely did not think he had the necessary status to reply to Jesus using agapao. Jesus was the master, the teacher, the rabbi. The third time Jesus places himself on Peter’s level. Jesus is no longer the master but a brother.

 

Faith is a struggle. Life is a struggle. Whether we struggle with faith or life or both, we do not have to do it alone. Jesus’ message to Peter and the rest is that we have each other and we have Jesus. We gather here, in community, to be reminded that Jesus has our back and we have each other’s back.

 

If we find ourselves lost or we can’t seem to get where we want to go, Jesus can point the way. Sometimes it can be just as obvious as trying the other side of a boat. Being experienced fishermen, they could have written off a landlubber from the shore. Instead, they trusted and succeeded. They were willing to accept that they didn’t know it all and swallow their pride for help.

 

It is not enough to know that Jesus loves us, as Peter came to know. We need to express our love for Jesus. And after we have had our meal, then we can go and take care of Jesus’ sheep. We are Jesus’ sheep. We need to take care of each other. We need to take care of those who are not of our fold. In so doing, we might catch some sheep for the fold.

 

It is in the meal of the Eucharist that we are spiritually filled. Once we are spiritually filled we have the necessary sustenance to do God’s work in the world. We can feed Jesus’s lambs. We can tend Jesus’ sheep. We can feed Jesus’ sheep. It can be a struggle, but we have faith in the result and no matter where we go, Jesus will be there.

 

Text: John 21:1–19

[1] Hoezee, S. (2001). Third Sunday of Easter, Year C. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 600). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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Today, You Will Be with Me in Paradise

hospice chaplainNot everyone I visit, on my day job as a hospice chaplain, wants to talk about their death. Of those, most politely say that they don’t want to talk about it. Though I did have one patient who absolutely denied he was dying, even though he was on hospice. Talking about a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate, was out of the question. Even when I suggested he look at an Advanced Directive, he said, “Are you trying to kill me?” Some people will not confront the fact that we all die.

 

I, for one, want to die in my sleep. Most people I talk to wish for that very thing. Actually in most cases the way the body typically declines before death, most hospice patients do die in their sleep.

 

On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In the burial office in the prayer book we read, “We return to dust and yet we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

 

I do get questions and discussions about God’s role in dying. In hospice, we get people who die slowly. Our role is to make sure that their last days are in comfort and free of pain. Since these people are slowly dying, some wonder why God would allow such a thing. Then there are others who recognize that we don’t get to choose how we die and do so with grace and dignity.

 

Some people want to blame somebody, anybody, for their predicaments. I hear many times, “Why does God allow suffering? Why does God let babies die?” When a patient asks me that, I bite my tongue and do not tell them what I think. In a pastoral setting, especially where one is dying, it doesn’t seem to be the time or place for a theological discussion – for most people. For some, they want a serious discussion and I am happy to oblige.

 

You see for most people that ask why God does or does not allow something, they have a simplistic view of God. This is a God who is like Santa Claus who will give us whatever we ask or is a puppet master who makes all our decisions for us and makes sure that a rock will magically be moved before we stub our toe on it. Why does God allow us to stub our toes?

 

God has a master plan for us. It is called Eden in Genesis. We failed to obey God in Eden and were expelled. We can get back. We simply need to decide that we will not harm anyone and we will live in peace and love. Sounds simple. We just can’t seem to pull it off.

 

A small part of the Passion gospel might add perspective.  I want to focus on one little part of the passion story. This little part is only found in Luke’s gospel.

 

Crucifixion is an extremely painful way to die. That’s likely the main reason the Romans did it. A crucifixion victim dies of asphyxiation. Their lungs collapse. Even if they had things like morphine, lorazepam, and other drugs, the Romans would never give them.

 

jesus crucifixionOn the day of Jesus’ trial, we remember three people hanging on crosses, Jesus and two unnamed criminals. The first criminal believed that God or Jesus can simply wave a finger and all three of them would be back down on the ground. Why would God allow such suffering as this?

 

The second criminal had a broader perspective. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” The second criminal has the same viewpoint as Job. “I’m in a terrible mess, but I will remain faithful to God.” The second criminal takes personal responsibility. Instead of asking Jesus to end his suffering, the second criminal asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

 

The second criminal accepts that his death is near. Instead of being saved from the cross, he asks to be with Jesus. The second criminal knows that death is not final. The second criminal seems to intuit that Jesus will not save himself from the cross. Jesus will endure the same suffering. Jesus will endure death.

 

And so Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” There is another word for paradise, Eden. They died that day. And after death there is a return to Eden.

 

Jesus did not tell the first criminal where he will be after he dies. Maybe he did but Luke failed to mention it. I suspect that if Jesus made the offer to the first criminal, that one would just throw it back in Jesus’ face. The first criminal wanted someone else to fix his own mistakes.

 

Jesus describes, usually in parables, the kingdom of God. Jesus is describing Eden. Jesus is also trying to tell people that it is up to us to remake the world into Eden. Hate, violence, wanting our own way to the exclusion of others is not Eden. We all have a part in seeing that that happens. What can you do?

 

Text: Luke 23:1–49

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In Rejection, We Are Loved

Most of the time, people like to hear a sermon and feel refreshed or given an insight or somehow be in a better spiritual place than before the sermon. For Jesus’ first sermon, the good people of Nazareth wanted to kill him. At least they didn’t fall asleep.

 

rejectionWe have all felt the sting of rejection. It is impossible to get through life without it. We always don’t get everything we want as was reinforced by Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. But Mick Jagger noted that if we try, we might just get what we need.

 

There was a time when we were at the Utah amusement park named Lagoon. Our son Brian was maybe three or four at the time. Before we left, I thought I would try my luck at Whack-a-Mole. While I was playing, Brian indicated he wanted to play also. When he was told no, I don’t remember a blood curdling cry as bad as what came out of that boy. Of course, the immediate reaction was to let him try, but that would reinforce that crying can get your way. We let him calm down before lifting him up letting him take his whacks.

 

Brian received two rejections that day, at least two that I remember. The first was being told no to play the game. The second was whacking away and not getting one mole. But the failure of hitting a mole and being given the opportunity to do so was likely the one of the most satisfying part of the day for him. Though I think the rides were more memorable for him.

 

Rejection can be bitter for us. But it is what we do with the rejection that counts. Evaluation is the key. Was the rejection our fault or the fault of the rejecter or both? If we had a part in not measuring up then we need to decide what we want to do or not want to do to move on.

 

Applying for a job involves dealing with a lot of rejection. We may need to work on interviewing skills, or do better matching our skills and experience with the particular job, or try to figure out how we stack up to the competition. Some people might even decide to settle for a job that is not what they want but it is a job anyway.

 

Several candidates for the presidency have said that they know that God called them to be President of the United States. It’s unlikely that God called all of them. And the ones that feel the most strongly about this were near the bottom of the polls. At that same time, I cannot say that God did not legitimately call someone to be President. If the call is legitimate, then we will know it either in this lifetime or in history.

 

One of the reasons we gather as a community is that we believe that Jesus was born the Son of God. This is beyond call. God became incarnate. Not everyone bought into that idea. Jesus faced rejection.

 

Certainly, Jesus’ arrest and execution is a violent rejection: a rejection by the religious authorities and a rejection by the Romans of Jesus’ divinity and kingship. But very early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is rejected by the people he knew all his life. They heard about all the things Jesus had done. But when Jesus reads from Isaiah and claims to be the messiah, it was too much for them. After all, Jesus is the son of Joseph. Jesus can’t be a very big deal.

 

When Jesus recounts how others called by God were rejected, the good people of Nazareth get angry, so angry that they move to commit homicide. Ironically, they are so angry they are ready to violently reject one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus escaped death just as his ministry was beginning. As far as we know, Jesus never again returned to his hometown of Nazareth.

 

Jeremiah 1 recounts God’s call to make Jeremiah a prophet. Though God calls Jeremiah to go and speak God’s word to the nations, Jeremiah is pretty much restricted to the kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah has a lot to say to the kings of Judah and the kings don’t like it. That’s the thing about God’s word. Powerful people don’t like it. How can a powerful person feel all puffed up if there is someone far greater, whose agenda is not the same?

 

With God behind Jeremiah, Jeremiah is rejected by the officials and people of Jerusalem. Jeremiah is ordered to be executed. He was thrown into a dry well to starve to death. A friendly court official arranges Jeremiah’s release. We aren’t sure what happens to Jeremiah after Jerusalem falls, but it is said that he is bound and taken into Egypt where he likely died.

 

Being called by God is not some paradise on earth. Following God does not produce another Eden, though that is the goal. Following Jesus involves working toward a re-establishment of Eden on earth.

 

The slings and arrows that are a consequence of being called by God are put into context by the psalmist and by St. Paul. Psalm 71 praises God’s saving power. In God, we have nothing to fear. We may be rejected in life, but God is always with us. Our hope and trust are in God.

 

loveThen we have Paul’s’ love letter in 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter is very popular at weddings. We all have gifts to further God’s kingdom and to one day help bring about the return to Eden. But whatever gifts God gives us, they mean nothing if we do them without love.

 

Everything in this world is transitory. We don’t get to take anything with us after our demise. Our wealth, our possessions mean nothing in the long run. But there is one thing that lasts beyond us, beyond our lives – love. “Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:8a)

 

The people of Nazareth either came around to believing Jesus or not. Jeremiah’s words have lasted the test of time, but the context changed. The Psalms give us comfort in times of need and rejection. What moves us forward is the timelessness of love.

 

No matter how many times we are rejected in this life, we are loved. We are loved by our rock who creates our fortress. It is this love that transcends time and space. It is this love that continues with us in the next life.

 

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) I believe that it is through love that we can get a glimpse of God. But it is an imperfect glimpse. It is like seeing in a fun house mirror. It is in the next life that we will see perfectly. It is in the next life that rejection becomes a forgotten concept.

 

The people of Nazareth became violent because they chose not to love. The officials of Jerusalem wanted Jeremiah dead because they chose not to love. No matter how many times you are rejected, know that you are loved. It is love that gives us the strength to move forward after rejection.

 

Jeremiah never faltered in his prophecies after he was released from the well. Jesus shared the Word hoping everyone would accept it, but knowing that not everyone would. That did not deter him. Jesus’ execution did not stop his followers from spreading the Word. Love cannot be stopped no matter how many times love is rejected.

 

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

 

Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

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It Is Precious to Me

I don’t remember for sure where it came from. I was quite young when it was given me. I kept in a box. From time to time, I would look at it. Flip through its pages, maybe reading a part of it, then putting it back where I kept it. A few times a year, I would bring it out again. Though underused, it was like the ring of power. It was precious to me. It moved with me from Southern California to Salt Lake. My name was written in the front of it.

 

Gideon New TestamentIt – was a small Bible that contained the New Testament, the Psalms, and Proverbs. In retrospect, it must have been from the Gideons, though I have a recollection that it came from my Sunday school at the Covenant Church we attended in southern California. As precious as it was to me, I have no idea what became of it.

 

One time when the Gideons made a presentation at Our Saviour, they left some of those New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs Bibles. I took one. It remains in my glove box.

 

I’ve had several Bibles since then. The Jerusalem Bible, when it came out, was my favorite for several years.

 

When I went to seminary, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible had just come out. The buzz on campus was that it was the best English translation to date. In the first semester of seminary, two of the required courses are Intro to the Old Testament and Intro to the New Testament. I decided I needed an NRSV for those classes.

 

When I went to the bookstore, I discovered that everyone else had the same idea. All that was left were three copies of a red letter edition of the NRSV. You know, the red letters are printed wherever Jesus says something. I bought one. The TA in the New Testament class immediately made value judgements of my theology.

 

Whether the letters of a Bible are printed in black, red, blue, or green, it is all the Word of God. We say it is the Word of God because of belief and tradition. The Old Testament is a little more complicated, but the books of the New Testament are in the New Testament through a consensus of the church over several centuries. The leaders of the church in all places settled on the books of the New Testament by the 5th century. The church decided that it was these books that were written by human beings, inspired by God, and who were witnesses (or at least close to the witnesses) of Jesus.

 

Except for the literary Prophets and the wisdom books, the core of the Old Testament was edited into its final form during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. The source documents have never been discovered and are likely lost to history. The edited version is what was considered to be sacred and preserved. It was after the return from the exile that Nehemiah and Ezra enter into history.

 

EzraNehemiah 8 has nothing to do with the Nixon presidency. The gates of Jerusalem all had different names. In this case, the people of Jerusalem and Judah were summoned to gather at the Water Gate.

 

The books of Nehemiah and Ezra describe what happened in Judah after the return from the Babylonian exile. After the Persian king Cyrus allows the exiles to return home, many did but it was a dribble that happened over many years. We don’t know the exact dates Ezra and Nehemiah went to Jerusalem, but it was something approximating 80 to 100 years after Cyrus’ decree. Even after all this time, Jerusalem is still in ruins. There were already several waves of returnees before them. The only knowledge Ezra and Nehemiah had of the exile is the stories that they were told and the history that was edited during the exile that we know of as Deuteronomy through 2 Kings.

 

In these two books, Ezra and Nehemiah are the primary figures. Who were they? Nehemiah was a court official of the Persian king Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah to be governor of Judah. Nehemiah went to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and finish the process of building a new temple. The Samaritans and the governor of Syria both opposed these measures and complained the Artaxerxes. For Nehemiah, it is good to have the king as a friend.

 

Ezra was a scribe – the same group of people who often opposed Jesus in the gospels. A scribe literally wrote. In this case, scribes are the people who copied the scriptures, in the form they had them then, letter for letter over and over again. This process made the scribes experts in what the scriptures said. Also at this time, Hebrew was essentially a dead language. The people spoke Aramaic.

 

We are told that it is the people who demand that the Law of Moses or Torah be read to them. That seems farfetched to me. How did they know about the Torah? And why would they want something read to them in a language they don’t understand?

 

In any case, Ezra reads the law to the people so they could understand it. It was read to them in Hebrew, because a good scribe could do no less. We are told it was interpreted. The Levites and likely some priests taught the people. They likely translated the Hebrew into Aramaic and added some commentary. To do this would require much planning, coordination, and teaching. So I don’t think this was spontaneous.

 

Picture the scene: Ezra opens the book (technically a scroll), likely dramatically, in front of the people elevated above them. This is a solemn occasion. The book or scroll is likely Deuteronomy. Ezra blesses God: God, the author of the Law of Moses that is for the people to observe and obey. It is a law that they are unfamiliar with. They are going to hear it for the first time. In anticipation, they give their assent by saying “Amen, Amen.” They then “bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord.” (Nehemiah 8:6b)

 

This reading of the law happened on the first day of the seventh month. This is a holy day set aside in Leviticus as a day of rest, of sabbath. The Jewish calendar is still a lunar calendar. In the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, this is 1 Tishrei. Ezra and Nehemiah declare that this day is holy. It is so holy that the day is a Jewish holy day called Rosh Hashanah.

 

This day is also thought of as the beginning of the Jewish religion. They can no longer be a nation. They are a province of the powerful Persian Empire. Since they cannot be a nation, they can be a religion, Judaism, named after their province, Judah. The foundation of Judaism is the Law of Moses.

 

The people wept hearing the words of God in the Law of Moses. This was much more than a recount of the Sinai experience, an event that happened many centuries before. The people weep because this is their story. God intervened in human history to save them. It was the same God who intervened in history and sent them from exile to home. The laws that Ezra and Nehemiah are trying to impose are not arbitrary. They were given by God.

 

The people of Judah are subdued.

 

To celebrate the day, Ezra and Nehemiah encourage the people to no longer weep, but to rejoice. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) The next verse that was not read says that the Levites among the people reinforced this command. (You will have fun and you will like it!)

 

The Word of God just doesn’t seem to be as influential today. Ezra and Nehemiah gave the people a purpose and a goal and an identity. That doesn’t happen in this country today. Here everyone is their own expert of what is meaningful to them. Now this is not a bad thing, unless someone is ignorant, delusional, or both.

 

The thing about the Word of God, as we know it, is that it has been tested and criticized for centuries. And it still stands up. Most people who reject God’s Word do not read it. They did not have Ezra or anyone else read it to them. They didn’t have Levites around to have it make sense to them.

 

Some do study the Bible but do so as a piece of fiction. My Uncle Lloyd was such a person. When he read Genesis, he assumed that it was a book of history and was therefore, ludicrous. Genesis is no such thing. It is a story, but it is a story of humanity pushing away from God and God’s multiple attempts to bring humanity back to God. As history, it made no sense to him. But he failed to see the big picture of the book.

 

This theme of pulling away from God is repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament. The apex of the story happens when the Word of God takes on flesh. In the person of Jesus, we are literally joined with God. We are heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:17)

 

As Timothy Saleska notes, “We too have God’s word to sustain us. That word is not just a history lesson to us, nor is it a dry list of rules we have to follow. It is our story. It is the story of our life and death and resurrection in Christ. It is a story with the power to make us weep and fill us with joy.

 

“In other words, the word does for us what it did for ancient Israel. It gives life. And, like the postexilic community, we gather around the word on our ‘day of Sabbath rest,’ our Sunday. It is a day of feasting on the Lord’s Supper and celebration of the resurrection and our resurrection hope. It is a day of joy when we are reminded of the Lord’s grace in our lives and in which we receive strength to live ‘between the times.’”[1]

 

As Jesus read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

 

This is Jubilee. This is for all people. Let us rejoice and have fun and like it. Let the one who has ears, listen. (Mathew 11:15, 13:9, Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8, 14:35)

[1] Saleska, T. E. (2001). Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C. In The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume one (p. 256). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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The Word that was the cause of things to come into being became a being.

In my tradition, we use a lectionary. This means that the Bible readings for each Sunday are predetermined. We use a three year cycle of readings. After three years almost all of the New Testament is read in church and significant parts of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is just too big to get done in three years.

 

We use the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is used by several mainline denominations. This replaced the Episcopal lectionary several years ago. Only we didn’t quite accept all of the Revised Common Lectionary or RCL. The exception is the First Sunday after Christmas. In the RCL, a post birth Jesus story is the gospel. In the Episcopal lectionary most of John 1 or the prologue of John is the gospel. We changed the RCL to our customary Christmas readings. So, instead of hearing about Jesus in the temple, we hear John’s gospel prologue, like the good ol’ days.

 

The Episcopal Church leaders (by that I mean the bishops) in their great wisdom overrode the RCL on the First Sunday after Christmas. So after the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, we either look wide-eyed or sleepy-eyed at the deep theology of John.

 

Incarnation - JONGWANG LEE

Incarnation – JONGWANG LEE

I do not mean to put John 1 down. This is very significant theology for the church and Christians everywhere. It just seems like a jolt from adoring the baby Jesus. Now Jesus is the Word and the Light. We shift from goo-goo dada to holy smokes this is cosmic, literally cosmic.

 

Maybe what the bishops want us to remember is that Jesus is a lot more than a baby in a manger. Jesus came to save the world. I think my grand-daughter is really cute, but she is no savior of the world.

 

The commercialization of Christmas seems to shove the whole purpose of the season to Santa Claus and buying. The baby Jesus gets lost in the shuffle. A Sacramento TV station observes the twelve days of Christmas with the 25th being day 12. Actually, the 25th is day one.

 

Luke has those wonderful birth stories. John brings us back to the reality of the incarnation, the Christmas. Something really stupendous took place at Jesus’ birth. And it was a lot more than a birth, angels, and shepherds. The angels and shepherds are very important, but not as important as this birth.

 

God, whatever God looks like, took human form. The creator lived alongside the creation. The Word that was the cause of things to come into being became a being.

 

That is why John begins by aping the first verse of Genesis in his first verse, “In the beginning ….” Matthew begins with a genealogy. Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke begins with the birth stories of John the Baptist. John begins with the beginning of everything.

 

Ironically, the creator, the Word, came into the world and the people did not recognize him by whom they who owe their very lives. It is a paradox that the creator was not recognized by the creation (or at least most of creation). He went to the people who had a special relationship to God, but they did not want him (or most of them did not). We, who promise to seek Christ in all persons, also fail to see Christ.

 

Still, there were people who did accept him and they believed him. To those people he empowered them to become children of God. They were not God’s children through any natural act or desire. They were God’s children through God’s actions.

 

word took fleshThat Word through whom we were created became one like us and lived among us. The Word became a human being, Jesus. Jesus had a particular face, stature, and eye color. The Word became flesh. This is a person who experienced life as we do. To become flesh is to know joy, pain, hope, suffering, and loss. When we read the gospels, Jesus is thirsty, tired, angry, loving, and weeping. He is also one with the Father.

 

We were always meant to be God’s children. We just forgot. Even after so many years when Jesus dwelt among us, we still forget. Even so, Jesus never gives up on us. Jesus always brings us reconciliation, forgiveness, and salvation. Jesus’ gift to us on the first Christmas is that we may now have the same relationship with God as Jesus enjoys.

 

We are children of God not because we will have all our religious questions answered, but so that we become related to God. We are given the opportunity to know God as Jesus knows God. The story of God’s self-revelation and God’s self-giving love for humanity is still being written.

 

We are descendants of those who had that first century spiritual hunger. We know we don’t have all the answers. And so we seek a community of believers. We study at home and other places. We search for the truth. It is this search that leads us to Jesus. To know Jesus is to know the truth. (Only Jesus makes us hunt for it nonetheless.) It is a lifelong hunt. We find the truth, the Word, not in this life, but only in the next. When we do encounter the Word in the next life, we will recognize him because of what we learned in our hunt.

 

Where do we find Jesus in this life? We find Jesus in all the people we encounter. We find Jesus in the Eucharist. We find Jesus in the joy of a newborn baby.

 

“We affirm a belief in the Son, Christ Jesus. We say that God took on human form, came and lived among us, suffered the same trials that we suffered, experienced the same feelings that we experienced. Jesus was purely human and purely divine. …. Jesus was God incarnate. …Jesus never drew attention to himself but always pointed to God.

 

“Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian of another century tells a story of a prince who wanted to find a maiden suitable to be his queen. One day while running an errand in the local village for his father he passed through a poor section. As he glanced out the windows of the carriage his eyes fell upon a beautiful peasant maiden. During the ensuing days he often passed by the young lady and soon fell in love. But he had a problem. How would he seek her hand?

 

“He could order her to marry him. But even a prince wants his bride to marry him freely and voluntarily and not through coercion. He could put on his most splendid uniform and drive up to her front door in a carriage drawn by six horses. But if he did this he would never be certain that the maiden loved him or was simply overwhelmed with all of the splendor. As you might have guessed, the prince came up with another solution. He would give up his kingly robe. He moved, into the village, entering not with a crown but in the garb of a peasant. He lived among the people, shared their interests and concerns, and talked their language. In time the maiden grew to love him for who he was and because he had first loved her.

 

“This very simple, almost childlike story, written by one of the most brilliant minds of our time explains what we Christians mean by the incarnation. God came and lived among us. I am glad that this happened for two reasons. One, it shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is with us, that he is on our side, and that he loves us. Secondly, it gives us a firsthand view of what the mind of God is really all about. When people ask what God is like, we as Christians point to the person of Christ Jesus. God himself is incomprehensible. But in Christ Jesus we get a glimpse of his glory. In the person of Jesus we are told that God, that mysterious other that created the stars and the universe, is willing to go all of the way, to be one of us, talk our language, eat our food, share our suffering, and die on a cross. Why? So that a single person, you, me, might be redeemed and grow to love him.”

 

On our small, insignificant planet, in all the universe, the Word of God came among us and dwelt with us. This is a big deal. This is Christmas. This is more than enough reason to celebrate. And so I say to all: Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad.

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The Prince of Peace Is Coming

The reaction of French President François Holland after the Paris attacks was to bomb Daesh, what some call ISIS. That got a lot of press. Reports wanted to know what President Obama was going to do. Of course, we were already bombing Daesh.

 

What got little attention from the press was another reaction to the Paris attacks. I think most of us have seen the images. They were incidental in the press but more wide spread on social media. What I am referring to were the messages and symbols of peace.

 

I’ll share some of these.

A Jewish prayer:

Jewish Paris prayer

A Hindu prayer:

Hindu Paris prayer

 

A Muslim prayer:

Muslim Paris prayer

And a Christian prayer:

Christian Paris prayer

But the symbol that caught the imagination of many people was by illustrator Jean Jullien. I think we all know the peace symbol made popular in the sixties. He drew the peace symbol with a twist. He put the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of Paris, in the middle of the symbol. It has come to be known as the “Peace of Paris.”

Peace of Paris

Jullien tweeted the symbol as a reaction that night of the attacks. “His original tweet has since been retweeted more than 49,000 times, and it has appeared on signs, memorials and even T-shirts in countries around the world — from Berlin to New Zealand. And, frankly, he says it has made him a little bit uncomfortable.

 

He said, “’You know, it’s putting me in a spotlight that I don’t necessarily want to be [in], because I don’t want to benefit from this exposure, in the sense that it’s a tragedy first and foremost.’

 

“Still, despite his discomfort, Jullien says his work achieved what he’d hoped. (Jullien continues,) ‘The idea was just for people to have a tool to communicate, and to respond and to share solidarity and peace. It seems that’s what most people got out of it. So in that sense, if it was useful for people to share and communicate their loss and need for peace, then that’s what it was meant to be.’” (NPR)

 

Peace is an action, not a reaction. Holland bombed as a reaction. Spreading the “Peace of Paris” is an action. Peace is a vision for the world that is prayed for by the world’s religions. Peace is a vision that is found in scripture.

 

Then Wednesday December 2, 2015 happened. What happened in Paris came to San Bernardino. Many Americans reacted with bitterness and worse to Moslems who live in this country. And probably many of those haters profess Christianity. Again, they reacted not acted. They ignore Jesus’ teachings.

 

Just because there are some Moslems who pervert their religion to violence doesn’t mean that all Moslems are violent. Just because some Christians burn crosses and hang black people doesn’t mean that all Christians are violent haters. As John wrote, “those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16, NRSV)

 

Peace is our hope. Peace is the action of love. Zechariah’s poem of hope, The Benedictus, is a guidepost for us. (Luke 1:68-79)

 

Every one of the gospel writers focuses on one person to introduce the Jesus story, John the Baptist. Luke is no exception. John the Baptist is the herald, the one to come before Jesus, the one to announce Jesus to the world. Granted, it’s a very small world who hears the announcement, but it is an announcement for anyone who has ears to hear.

 

Apparently, it is an announcement that not everyone was clued into. Jesus has to explain to his disciples that John the Baptist is Elijah or the prophet who proclaims the coming of the messiah. We know from historical writings and Christian writings that the followers of John the Baptist continue on well after the birth of Christianity. Luke, in the Book of Acts, describes followers of John the Baptist converting to Christianity. The followers of John the Baptist continue to this day in the Mandaean religion.

 

Only Luke mentions John the Baptist’s parents. Many scholars doubt the lineage. In any case, Luke found the story somewhere. I doubt that he made it up. Like many Biblical hero stories, John’s mother Elizabeth, was barren and became miraculously pregnant. John’s father, Zechariah, is a priest. While he was in the temple, Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel told Zechariah that he would have a son. Zechariah questioned this news because he and Elizabeth were too old to have children. Because of the doubt, Gabriel made Zechariah mute.

 

After John the Baptist’s birth, Zechariah speaks his first words since becoming mute. He confirms the name of his child is John, a name uncommon in his family. Zechariah continues to speak his prophecy now known as The Benedictus.

 

Benedictus is Latin for blessed which is the first word of The Benedictus. Canticles and psalms are typically named by the first word of the reading in Latin, an old holdover from when everything was said in Latin.

 

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” I once had someone ask me why we could ever bless God. He thought that we are just not worthy of blessing the one who blesses us. That may be true. However imperfect we may be, can we not bless the one who blesses us? Should we not honor the one who honors us? Blessing God is a form of hospitality. God knows we are not perfect. But I believe that God receives joy knowing that we that we love God enough to offer a blessing.

 

Zechariah also offers a further explanation. We can bless God because God has looked favorably on us and has redeemed us. Certainly, as Christians, we believe that it was Jesus who redeemed us on the cross and in the incarnation.

 

Zechariah confirms this by referring to the mighty savior born of the house of David. This mighty savior is the one that the Jews of Zechariah’s time are expecting, the messiah. The biblical prophets predicted the coming of the messiah.

 

God acts through people. They were expecting the messiah, a human being, to be God’s agent to release them from the yoke of Roman oppression. God will save people. But God will save people through a person. What few recognized is that God did show up in person. That person was Jesus, who took human form.

 

Zechariah then dips in to salvation history. For all the screw ups in history, God has shown mercy. God remembered the covenant made with Abraham and his descendants, even though Abraham’s descendants broke the covenant many times. Abraham was the example of the righteous person. Abraham set an example for all of God’s followers to live by.

 

God remembered Abraham and God remembered Abraham’s children and the covenant God made. We are to serve God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness.” (Luke 1:74b) There are several instances in the gospels where Jesus teaches his disciples to be without fear, even if they had to take up their crosses to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is to even be without fear of death. I had one faithful patient tell me that she did not fear death, just the process of dying.

 

Zechariah acknowledges his son will be a prophet, like the prophets of old. John will prepare the way of the Lord. John will show the people that the path to salvation is the forgiveness of sins.

 

What Zechariah says next is unclear if he is talking about John the Baptist or Jesus. Perhaps he was talking about both. To live under Roman military occupation was to be in darkness. Roman justice made sense to the Romans but made little sense to everyone else. And Roman justice was swift and final. It was a lot easier to execute someone than bother with a trial, unless it is a show trial. Only Roman citizens were afforded trials.

 

The end result of this birth and the birth soon to come, for Zechariah, was peace. But the people needed to be taught peace and how to attain it. Jesus taught peace. Jesus taught us how to attain peace. Simply put, the way to peace is to reject violence. The way to peace is to reject revenge. The way to peace is to overcome our reptilian fight or flight fear response. It is to act in love and not to react in fear.

 

It may be just a coincidence that Luke has Zechariah talk about issues and beliefs that were rejected by the followers of John the Baptist. The Mandeans reject Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as false prophets. The only true prophet, for them, is John the Baptist.

 

Salvation begins in baptism but does not end there. There is much to do beyond the message of John the Baptist. We are united with God through Jesus. God becomes like us in the incarnation that we will celebrate in a few weeks. All of this was setup by the birth and ministry of John the Baptist.

 

In this early part of Luke’s gospel, the stage is set for the proclamation of the gospel. We are to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness. God is not going to wave a magic wand and suddenly peace will break out. What God did do was send a son – a son who taught the way of peace. First, we need to conquer fear. As FDR said, “All we have to fear is fear itself.”

 

In this time of Advent, we wait for the herald of peace, once again. We wait to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. We wait in anticipation to be inspired in our efforts to change a world of violence into one of peace.

 

For “the dawn from on high (broke) upon us, (giving) light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78b-79)

 

Text: Luke 1:68–79

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Open the Gates for the Marching Saints

The notion of private property is important to modern production. It is certainly important to agriculture. Private property allows a farmer to have certainty that the primary means of production will always be available. The farmer needs to buy seeds. The farmer needs labor for planting, maintenance, and harvest. None of that is possible without the land.

 

The notion of private property was alien to the ancients, mostly. Certainly the 1% of antiquity held property, including slaves. Property allowed them to produce income to keep them in their lavish lifestyles. For the most part, the 99% did not have the money to own property. Principally farmers, they worked on a rich person’s property or they simply planted on open fields. Any land that was not owned by someone was open for anyone to work. Most land was open.

 

sheep herdThe patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were sheepherders. Sheepherders were nomads. Many sheepherders in the Middle East today are also nomads. Sheep have this bad habit of eating their food to the roots. Sheep denude an area that they feed on. This requires the shepherd to always move them to a new pasture. They can only be shepherds if there is no private property.

 

The Bible is very clear on who owns everything around us, God. Jews have no theological concept of private property. Everything belongs to the one who created everything, God. This is the concept of tithing in the Bible. Everything we have belongs to God. But God is generous. God only wants 10%. You can keep the rest. God makes no claim on the 90%.

 

Technically, what God gets is even smaller than 10%. The 10% is given to the priests. The Law of Moses specifies what animals and grains are to be given to the priests, with an allowance to be made for the very poor. So the priests and Levites, the tribe of Levi, receive the 10% tithes. The priests and Levites are not allowed to farm. The tithe is their living. But the priests and Levites are also required to tithe. So 10% of what the priests receive are burned to a crisp, making a smoke and smell pleasing to the Lord.

 

It is this theological mindset that begins Psalm 24. The earth and everything in it belongs to the Lord. Everything that lives on the earth belongs to the Lord. Why? God established the earth on the waters. This is referring to Genesis 1. In essence, we are owned by God. The implications of this would be yet another blog for another time.

 

Throughout the Old Testament, God has parts of the earth that are more special than others. We all have parts of the earth that are more special than others. For me, they are Hawaii and Yellowstone. I think that the Sierra foothills is a special place to live.

 

For God, these special places tend to be in what we call the Holy Land. God called a Middle Eastern people to a special relationship. Where they lived made the land holy and because God wanted them to live in this land.

 

There some high places, hills, that are special to God. One in particular is Mount Zion. This is the place designated by God for God’s temple. Since this is more holy than other places on the earth, only those who are special and have made special preparations can set foot on the holy mount, the temple mount.

 

What are these preparations? Have clean hearts and clean minds, follow the truth, rejecting lies, and when you swear, do not do so deceitfully. In other words, keep your word. Be sincere.

 

It is to such as these that receive the Lord’s blessing. It is to such as these that receive salvation. These are the ones who seek God, the God of Jacob (not to be confused with any other gods). They are saintly.

 

Another term to describe someone as set apart for God is a saint. Properly, we think of saints as someone who is exceptional. The apostles are all called saints. Special people in the history of the church are called saints. When we see someone acting in a particularly commendable way, we might say, “That person is such a saint.”

 

little all saintsSaint Paul referred to saints. Anyone who was baptized was called a saint by Paul. To be baptized is to be set apart. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. As part of creation we belong to God. As a baptized person, we belong to Christ. We become members of Christ’s tribe, the church.

 

For the ancient Israelites, they were not only tribal, but power was held by clan leaders. There was never really any tribal leader. Judges came along and united some tribes but never all eleven. The priests and Levites were prohibited from being soldiers. Justice was decided by the clan leaders. For minor offences that system remained even to the time of Jesus. There was no need of a king, because they already had a king, God. The tithe was a religious obligation and it was also tribute to the king, the God of glory.

 

The tribes of ancient Israel were united by two things: worship of the one God and claiming descent from Jacob, who was renamed by God as Israel. Otherwise they had little in common. They formed a loose confederation for trade and self-defense, except the call to arms was usually never answered by all the tribes. It was an attitude that so-and-so isn’t threatening us so why would we risk our lives for you?

 

This system worked somewhat well until a significant military presence arrived threatening the existence of the tribes. A sea-faring people called the Philistines arrived on the coast. They were much more militarily advanced than the Israelites. They had an ancient super weapon, the chariot.

 

To meet this threat, the people clamored for a king to lead them against the Philistines. The Judge, Samuel, anointed Saul as king. Saul was a king without a palace, without a capital city. Saul’s palace was a tent because he was constantly at war with the Philistines.

 

Thus the Israelites became like the other peoples and they replaced their spiritual king with a human being.

 

Some people attribute the authorship of the psalms to King David. However, many the psalms describe situations that existed long after David’s death. I think it is likely that some of David’s songs became accepted by the priests as songs of the temple and were incorporated in the psalms.

 

Psalm 24 is ascent psalm. It was likely sung as the priests led the people to the temple during a religious holiday. The psalm affirms that God is sovereign, certainly not any human king. The psalm specifies who is worthy to process to the temple.

 

Then the procession arrives at the gates of the temple. Oh gates: wake up and open up! The king of glory needs entrance. Who is this king? It is a king who is strong and mighty. Oh gates: wake up and open up! The king of glory needs entrance. The God of heaven is the king of glory.

 

The only time we typically process, en masse, into  church is on Palm Sunday. The traditional ascension psalm or song is “All Glory Laud and Honor.” We enter the church as being made worthy through Jesus’ death on the cross and by Jesus’ birth or incarnation.

 

In our time and place where private property is valued, there are many gates. We have gates because we have fences. We even have a sense that we cannot get to heaven without going through the Pearly Gates. This would imply that we can’t sneak our way into heaven. We have to go through a gate and get a seal of approval from St. Peter.

 

This concept seems to have come from an idea that we have to prove our goodness to be accepted by God. I, for one, do not think that God is clueless about my goodness or lack thereof. I also don’t think that my goodness is an issue about whether or not I get into heaven. Jesus did die for the sins of the whole world. St. Paul was very specific in his writings that we are saved by grace, not our grace but by God’s grace.

 

Jesus made us worthy. Our clean hearts may get smudged. Our clean hands get dirty. We might spare someone’s feelings by swearing deceitfully. Jesus erased all that. We are blessed. We are vindicated. We are saved. Blessed are those who seek the face of the God of Jacob!

 

Text: Psalm 24

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