We’re Surrounded by Neighbors

Helping copThis is a true story related by one of my hospice patients. I’ll call him Fred (not his real name). After the war, Fred worked at an airplane plant in southern California. He had a hot convertible sports car that he was quite fond of.

 

One day it was payday and Fred got permission to leave the plant to deposit his check. Fred was told not to be more than an hour. So Fred got in his hot sports car convertible and went off to the bank. He was stopped at light when a little old lady asked him from the sidewalk, “Are you going to the bank up the road?” Fred said, “Yes.” The little old lady asked Fred if he would take her to the bank. She promised that she wouldn’t be long.

 

So Fred told her to get in. They got to the bank and the parking lot was full. The little old lady told Fred to park in the no parking zone. Fred said that that was a bad idea. The little old lady assured Fred that it was okay, that she had done it before, and she knows the bank manager.

 

So Fred parks there and goes into the bank. When Fred comes out of the bank, he is seeing a police officer writing a ticket. Fred explained that the little old lady in the bank said it was okay and she knows the bank manager. The officer said, “You are parked in a no parking zone and for that you get a ticket. And you have pay the ticket now if you want your car back.”

 

So Fred walked to the city hall and paid the $50 fine – an expensive fine for those days. It took a big chunk out of Fred’s pay check. Having paid the fine, Fred walked back to his car and was able to drive it back to work, way later than one hour. Fred worried if he still had a job.

 

Fred explained to his boss what happened and why he was late. His boss laughed and let Fred off the hook for his tardiness. Fred was never sure if his boss believed the story.

 

If we were to ask who was the neighbor in this story, we might say Fred for helping the little old lady. We might say Jesus was disguised a little old lady. I mean, how did the lady know or guess that a random stranger in a hot convertible was going to the same bank she wanted to go to? But I think the neighbor was Fred’s boss for excusing Fred’s tardiness and not potentially firing him.

 

When we hear the story of the lawyer examining Jesus, we might recall that a Jewish lawyer in Jesus’ time was an expert in the Law of Moses. Jesus is teaching the crowds and the lawyer wants to show the crowd that Jesus is not an expert on the Torah and therefore they should ignore anything that Jesus says.

 

Jesus is teaching that there is a resurrection. The Jewish authorities are split on the concept of resurrection. The lawyer knows that there is no mention of resurrection in the Torah. The lawyer also assumes Jesus will not be able to justify the resurrection by citing the Law of Moses.

 

The lawyer asks, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is nothing in the Torah that specifies eternal life. The lawyer taunts Jesus to quote the scripture. Jesus will not fall into the trap. Jesus basically says, “You’re the expert in the law. You tell me what the law says.”

 

The lawyer responds with the Shema. The Shema is to Jews what the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians. Jews are supposed to recite the Shema three times a day. Shema means listen in Hebrew. It begins, “Shema Israel.” The Shema begins in the Torah at Deuteronomy 6:5: “Listen Israel, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”

 

Then the lawyer adds Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms that the lawyer spoke correctly. Jesus is teaching the expert. “Do this and you will live.” Jesus affirms that to inherit eternal life one needs to do three things: love God and love your neighbor, as you love yourself.

 

This interaction pivots not on the Shema, but on that added phrase from Leviticus. The lawyer wants to know how Jesus defines the scriptural reference to the word neighbor. We might say we love God. And we can say we pray to God and we love God, but beyond prayer and worship, how do we demonstrate our love of God?

 

The hard part is how we demonstrate our love of our neighbor. We can’t show love to a neighbor, let alone love to God, if we do not first love ourselves. The lawyer wants to know the limits of love. How is neighbor defined? So it is really important to know who is our neighbor. And I will submit that how we treat our neighbor is a reflection of how much we love God. After all, we are all made in the image of God.

 

The Torah lawyers and the Pharisees debated what constitutes a neighbor. Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Some said Leviticus means everyone. Some put restrictions on that. In Jesus’ time, all agreed that it does not include those dirty Samaritans.

 

Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Samaritans were foreigners who were forcibly settled in Israel after the Israelite exile. They brought their own gods and adopted the God of the land, the God of Israel. So the Samaritans perverted the Jewish religion and God. And the Jews hated them for it.

 

We might picture the lawyer turning to leave after Jesus affirms his answer. The lawyer then stops, turns around, and like Colombo, asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

 

fallen among theivesJesus answers the lawyer’s question with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was well known then for its bandits. Traveling alone on that road was a bad idea. Today, it is a highway dotted with the occasional Bedouin camp. Today’s Bedouins have satellite dishes.

 

Jerusalem is roughly at 2,000 feet. Jericho is at roughly 850 feet below sea level. The only thing Jesus’ traveler has going for him is that he is walking downhill. The robbers were vicious. It was not enough to rob him. They beat him nearly to death and left him by the roadside.

 

A priest not only sees him, but goes out of his way to avoid him. A Levite, an assistant to the temple priests, did likewise. In all fairness, speaking of the Law of Moses, if a priest or a Levite touched the man and he was dead, they would be ritually unclean and could not go to the temple. Of course, it could be argued that they should have risked their ritual purity and helped the man.

 

We are assuming and I assume that Jesus and the lawyer believe the man to be a Jew. After all, who else would count? Another reason I assume that the man is a Jew is that Jesus introduces the next character as a Samaritan. He is not a man. He is a Samaritan.

 

The Good Samaritan has pity on the victim, gives first aid, and brought him to an inn, likely in Jericho. There is no water along the road. Jericho has a prolific spring.

 

Jesus gives the lawyer three options as to who was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves: the righteous, respected, and religious priest, the righteous, respected, and obedient Levite, or the despicable Samaritan. The lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word, Samaritan. Instead he says, “the one who showed him mercy.”

 

Jesus could have said, “you answered correctly.” But he didn’t. It is not enough to know the right answer. You must act. The lawyer is to “go and do likewise.” If someone is in need, help them out of love. Even if it is the one you hate the most.

 

There are times when we hate someone. After all, we are only human. Jesus does not deny hate. Jesus does deny acting out in hate. We can be angry with someone. But we cannot act out in anger. As moms the world over might say, “Use your words.” But even then, words can be mightier than physical blows. Maybe the advice should be, “Use your words after you have cooled off.”

 

Jesus never advocated violence, even telling Peter that we are to forgive someone 70 times seven. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “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.” (Matthew 5:38-39, NRSV)

 

When a large number of people congregate, police need to be out in force. Even in the most peaceful protest, there are knuckleheads who think that violence and vandalism are justifiable activities. As we have seen in Oakland and elsewhere, they do not participate in peaceful protest. They just take advantage of a situation.

 

The Dallas police, on the night of July 7, 2016, were there to keep the peace and make sure a large gathering of people were kept safe. The Dallas police were there for the people. One person decided that he was to use violence for justice. Anyone who does something like that is the anti-Christ, because they do the opposite of what Jesus taught. We are to love our neighbor, not shoot them.

 

Being a Christian requires us to follow only two commandments, the commandments that Jesus gave us: love God with everything we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. It is hard to express love to anyone, if we first do not love ourselves. And Jesus defines the person who is our neighbor very broadly. It is very simple, but very difficult. Being a Christian is hard.

 

How we treat another person is a sign of our love of God, even if that person is the one we hate the most.

 

Text: Luke 10:25–37

Posted in Behavior, Bible, Church, Forgiveness, Giving, Health and wellness, Hope, Jesus, love, Relationships | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Unexpected Angels

Josh McGillJosh McGill is a nighttime bartender and a daytime nursing student. On June 11, 2016, he had the night off and went with friends to the Pulse.

 

Josh and his friends were having their last drinks of the night when they heard three loud bangs and thought it was something wrong with the sound system. Josh thought it was fireworks or firecrackers and ran outside, someone playing a joke. Then he heard more gunshots and saw staff members running.

 

When he realized what was happening, he and his friends jumped a fence and ran into a parking lot. Not knowing where he gunman was, Josh hid under an SUV. When he heard the shots were in the distance, he decided to find a police line.

 

It was then that he heard a man mumbling and panting. Covered in blood. The man repeated, “I think I got shot.” Josh could see bullet wounds in each arm. Josh took off his shirt to wrap up Rodney’s wounds. While doing that and telling Rodney that everything was going to be alright, Josh saw that Rodney was shot in the back. He applied pressure to the man’s back.

 

Josh guided Rodney through the parking lot to a police officer. Josh kept pressure on Rodney’s wounds while the officer drove them to the emergency room.

 

Then Joshua McGill posted what happened on his Facebook account: “There was a very tragic thing that happened tonight. Thoughts and prayers for everyone at Pulse or that know anyone that was at pulse. It was very crazy and a traumatic experience. I’m very thankful I got away safe and a lot of other people I know and care about did as well. I hid under a car and found one of the victims that was shot. I tied my shirt and his shirt over his wounds to stop the bleeding and got him secretly to the nearest officer who then transported us to the ER. Words cannot and will not describe the feeling of that. Being covered in blood. Trying to save a guy’s life that I don’t even know regardless that I’m fine…just traumatized. The things I had to say to the guy and make promises I didn’t know I would be able to keep or not to keep him conscious while holding him as tight as I could and blood everywhere on me. Saying a prayer for him and letting him know I will be here waiting for him. It sucks because all I got was his name and I can’t even see if he’s okay because I’m not related. If anyone knows of a guy named Rodney that was shot and injured tonight. Please let me know he is okay. I felt God put me at the club and made me stay behind to help a complete stranger. For whatever reason that may be. I don’t know, but I do know it was hopefully to save his life. Maybe (sic) God be with us all in this time of need.”

 

One of Rodney’s friends reached out to Josh to tell him that Rodney will be okay.

 

Josh wanted to run and did a short distance. Josh believes that God wanted him to stay and help a stranger who was bleeding out. Josh wasn’t the only hero that night.

 

We all have that fight or flight instinct. It is a reptilian instinct that helps keep us alive. There are times when other factors cancel out that instinct. That happened also to Elijah.

 

Elijah defeated Queen Jezebel’s prophets of Baal and they were killed on Mt. Carmel. When King Ahab told Jezebel what happened, she was more than a little upset. So Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah to tell Elijah that he is a dead man.

 

Elijah flees to Beersheba. Beersheba still exits to this day in the Negev desert. In Elijah’s day, Beersheba was in the Kingdom of Judah, south of Ahab’s kingdom of Israel. It is the southernmost part of the world of people who worship the God of Moses. Elijah leaves his servant there. After all, Jezebel is after Elijah and the servant has a good chance to be safe. Israel and Judah had a love-hate relationship and Elijah’s safety in another country depended on what stage of the relationship was in, in these two successor’s to Solomon’s and David’s kingdom.

 

Elijah did not feel he was safe. He flees further south into the desert. It was probably best not to tell his servant where he was going, but it seems from the story that Elijah did not have a clear idea of his destination. Elijah begs God to let him die in the desert.

 

Elijah finds a broom tree: for shade and if there is a tree, there must be water. An angel provides food to get Elijah’s strength up for the journey ahead.

 

Strengthened, Elijah walks 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai. It was a 300 mile journey. In the Bible, 40 days and 40 nights is a euphemism for a long time. From Mt. Carmel to Mt. Sinai, Elijah found a cave and rested. Centuries later, Christian mystics will travel to Sinai to be with God. People will come to them for spiritual advice and counsel.

 

Of course, Sinai is a holy mountain. It is the place that Moses received the law. In Moses’ day, only Moses could go up the mountain. It is now Elijah’s turn. The mountain is holy, because there is a sense in the Bible that God lives on the mountain. We know from the Transfiguration story that Jesus talked to Moses and Elijah, on a mountain. The first represents the law and the latter the prophets. The two greats of the Old Testament are first linked to Sinai.

 

God is aware that Elijah ended up at God’s home. Uninvited, or maybe invited, God wants to know why Elijah is there. It is a reasonable question we might ask if we were to discover a friend showing up in our home.

 

Elijah recounts what God likely already knows. Jezebel killed all of God’s prophets save Elijah. The Israelites have ignored the law God gave Moses. All the places where the Israelites worshipped God were destroyed. Elijah stood alone, prevailed, and now is running for his life.

 

God orders Elijah out of the cave to encounter God’s presence. A similar event happened on Sinai many centuries earlier. God places Moses in a crack in the mountain while God passes by. Moses is not allowed to see God’s face. Now it is Elijah’s turn.

 

I want you to picture what happens. Elijah is standing somewhere on the mountain. Elijah is anticipating seeing the unseen God. Elijah is attentive. Then a wind so strong that that it shook the mountain and split open rocks came, a hurricane. Moses split a rock to give the people of Israel water. Elijah did not find God in the wind.

 

Next came an earthquake. When God talked to Moses on Sinai, the mountain shook. God was not in the earthquake, either. Then there was a fire. God talked to Moses through a burning bush. Only God was not in this fire.

 

God is cagey. Elijah was likely fearful by now. If God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, then in what form will God become known? It must be incredibly fierce and powerful. Maybe Elijah was thinking that he is on the run from Jezebel only to be consumed by God on Sinai.

 

Elijah at HorebBut after the fire there was silence. I like the translation that reads, “there was a still small voice.” A literal translation might be, “a sound of gentile stillness.” There is a sound. Elijah hears it, a sound so soft that it is greater than an earthquake. Because that is what God is putting in motion, something bigger than a mighty wind, an earthquake, or fire.

 

During the commotion, Elijah returned to the cave for safety. After Elijah hears the silent sound, he goes out the cave entrance. The voice asks again what Elijah is doing there. Elijah cannot do God’s work holed up in a cave. Elijah gives the same reply as earlier. After the displays of nature rent asunder, Elijah’s situation remains the same.

 

God tells Elijah to return and do three earthshattering things: 1) go to Damascus and anoint the gentile Hazael king of Aram, 2) anoint Jehu king of Israel (Ahab wouldn’t like that too much), and 3) anoint Elisha as Elijah’s successor.

 

Christians would recognize the silent sound as the Holy Spirit. That is how God talks to us. This passage was a big deal in seminary, because everyone could relate to it. It was because we heard the silent sound and heeded it that we were there at seminary.

 

Hearing and heeding the silent sound or the Holy Spirit is not limited to those seeking ordination. The Holy Spirit is with us all. Sometimes when we hear the Holy Spirit our lives can make dramatic turns.

 

The heart of discerning the Holy Spirit is prayer. We might say we hear God in prayer. We might say we hear Jesus in prayer. We might say we hear the Holy Spirit in prayer. It doesn’t matter. The messenger is one and the same. We might get meaning. We might get comfort. We might get insight.

 

And we might get marching orders. We are always free to say no. But my experience is that God is persistent. We don’t know how long Elijah stayed on Sinai before he got the nerve to go into harm’s way. But he did go. His life was still on the line. God was with Elijah and those three things God had him do changed history. God was with Josh and a bleeding Rodney. God speaks to us in the midst of fear, despair, isolation, and failure.

 

With God on our side we can change history. When we cook for the homeless, we change lives. When we say “thank you” for service, we change lives. When we pick up our own trash and maybe someone else’s trash, we change lives. Providing a garden for the hungry significantly changes lives, those that receive and those that give. That’s how the silent sound of God works.

 

Text: 1 Kings 19:1–16

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A Gift of Words

This is from Leonard Sweet: Recently, a judicial friend was presiding over a case in a small, rural county. The defendant was charged with drunk driving and trying to assault the police officer who arrested him. To convict the defendant on the assault on an officer charge, the District Attorney had to prove that the defendant knew the person he was assaulting was a police officer. And the easiest way to do that is to show that the officer was wearing a police uniform, and therefore the defendant knew that this was a police officer.

So the District Attorney asked the officer on the witness stand, “And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?”

The witness looked at him blankly. It was clear he didn’t know what the District Attorney meant by “attired.” Everyone saw this but the District Attorney.

“Would you repeat the question, please?”

In a slightly irritated voice the District Attorney said, “And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?”

The witness still was puzzled. “Say that again,” he pleaded.

“How were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?” barked the District Attorney.

My friend said you could suddenly see the light bulb come on in the officer’s head, and he proudly proclaimed, “I was traveling on standard issue radial tires!”

This officer needed an interpreter even within the English language!

That’s what I’m getting at: We all need our own personal interpreter, full time, 24/7. So much of what we hear, even within the English language, we don’t understand. And nowhere is that truth more evident than with people who are new to the church.

 

I am a hospice chaplain. The first few months on the job, I needed to learn the medical jargon that was used. We have regular Interdisciplinary Team Meetings to coordinate care for our patients. At one such meeting when I was still fairly new, I wanted to ask a question.

 

I noticed on the clinical notes for a patient that a term was used that I didn’t know. And I also wanted to get a chuckle. So I asked, “What’s SOB?” I got the desired chuckle and was told, “Short of Breath.” I learned many more medical terms, BID, TID, Q this, and Q that.

 

Recently, I came across a term on the face sheet for a heart disease patient. It said “stenosis.” So I looked it up. Stenosis is the narrowing of something, like one of the many tubes in our bodies. In this case, it is a narrowing of a heart artery. Why not just say narrowing? Naw, that’s too simple. We have a 2-bit word we can use instead.

 

The church is no different. What does Pentecost mean? Well, literally, it means 50. It is 50 days after Easter. Why not call it Easter + 50 or Holy Spirit Day or Church Birthday Day? That’s too simple. We have this other word we have always used.

 

What does Eucharist mean? It means thanksgiving. Why not call it Holy Thanksgiving? Naw, that’s too simple. We have this other word we have used since the beginnings of the church, a Greek church, that uses Greek words. Only we ain’t in Greece. We need to make it easy for the unchurched to become the churched. If not, they will become frustrated and not come back.

 

PentecostPentecost is about the story when the Holy Spirit, in great power, transformed a cowering group of Jesus’ followers and gave them great power to share Jesus’ story. They shared the story to a group of people from all over the Roman Empire and who spoke many languages. In their day, Greek was the common language, the lingua franca. But rather than speak to them in Greek, they spoke to each in their own language. To share the Word of God and spread the word to a wider church, they spoke to the people plainly and in their own language.

 

The Holy Spirit transforms frightened disciples into bold proclaimers of Jesus. The Holy Spirit chooses to arrive when Jerusalem is crowded. The potential audience is large. In essence, the gathering of a crowd was an evangelical model of people coming to hear a message. Now granted, a big commotion is what caused a crowd to gather.

 

But after that Pentecost, the disciples gradually left Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They were compelled to tell the story about Jesus and the world wasn’t going to go to Jerusalem, a backwater province of the Roman Empire. They went to places where people gathered. They went to synagogues where Jews and those sympathetic to Judaism would gather and would understand their references to Jewish scriptures. They went to the marketplaces.

 

You know what? By today’s standards we might say they were failures. They converted very few people in those first centuries. And in those odd places where they had a visible percentage of the population, they were persecuted. Who would join a group who lived under the threat of arrest and worse? But people did. The Jesus story was just too compelling. It could not be kept a secret.

 

Pentecost marks a strong contrast. We have the disciples huddled together in the upper room, afraid to go out to the populace. Then the Holy Spirit comes in dramatic fashion and they can’t stay in the room any longer. They are compelled to go out and tell the story of Jesus.

 

Peter is the primary example. Peter is a pretty compulsive guy. We have no evidence that he did public speaking during Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus did all right doing all the talking. Even if the disciples had a crisis or question, it was another one of the disciples who would verbally engage Jesus, not Peter. Peter was a doer.

 

Yet at Pentecost, Peter was the one who addressed the crowd. He saw Jesus do it many times. Now he was the one to step up. Peter assumed his role as the group’s leader. Jesus saw this in Peter. Peter was a part of Jesus’ inner circle.

 

Peter probably always had a knack for public speaking but may not have done it because he couldn’t lick the butterflies in his belly. On Pentecost, Peter either didn’t feel those butterflies or he didn’t get them or he ignored them. The Holy Spirit compelled Peter to take charge and to speak for the group.

 

spiritual giftsPeter had the gift of public speaking and Peter had the gift of leadership before Pentecost. After he was infused with the Holy Spirit, those gifts were enhanced by the Holy Spirit.

 

We all have gifts. We all have abilities that we do better than an average person. These gifts from God are improved by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul talks about spiritual gifts in several of his letters. These Pauline gifts edify the church. But our gifts are not just for the church. They are a part of us in whatever we do.

 

If we were to imagine a room of twenty people, there may be two or three who share the same gifts. Collectively, all twenty are necessary to accomplish the big tasks. The twenty share their gifts for the goal of the group. Smaller tasks can be done with smaller groups.

 

All of us can do most projects. Depending on the project, we may do it well or we may do it less than well or maybe we do it superbly. If we can do something superbly and we like doing it, that is one of our gifts. Most people have at least two gifts. Two of Peter’s gifts were leadership and public speaking. Those gifts he already had were enhanced by the Holy Spirit.

 

No one can say that I have no gifts. Everyone has gifts. But no one person has all the gifts. It takes a group or even a congregation working together to do the work they are to do, even the work of God. Peter did not continue the church all by himself. Paul did not further the work of any of the churches he founded. Paul allowed the people, gathered together, to do the work of God in their communities. They were successful when they shared their gifts.

 

We gather into congregations on Sunday to be spiritually filled and strengthened. To do God’s work, utilizing our gifts, can drain us. We need recharging. We need encouragement. We gather so that we may re-enter the world filled with the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.

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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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