Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jesus Gets Mad

Matthew 21:12-13 (New Living Translation)
Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”

It is likely that this market was what in Rabbinic writings is called “the Bazaars of the sons of Annas,” the High-Priest who is infamous in New Testament history. It seems reasonable that pilgrims to Jerusalem would be able to change their various kinds of currency to temple coinage, and also that some would need to purchase an animal for sacrifice.

So what was Jesus so angry about?

The problem was the greed of Annas and others who profited unfairly by overtaxing a population already stretched beyond reason by Roman taxation. The religious Jews would have been burdened with additional costs because the were sincere about their worship of God. The money changers and sellers of animals were eventually removed, about three years before the temple was destroyed, says one scholar, ‘...on account of the sinful greed which characterised their dealings. The general populace would probably have applauded his actions. The problem was that He was taking on the Jewish High Priestly family, a family known to be unethical.

Both the historian Josepheus and some of the Pharisees gave a picture of avarice and corruption amongst their ranks. Josephus describes one of the sons of Annas as a "great hoarder up of money,” adding that he bought friends with great presents so as to gain influence for himself and, "...he also had servants who were very wicked, who...took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants, without any one being able to prohibit them; so that [some of the] priests...died for want of food’

The Talmud records the curse which a distinguished Rabbi of Jerusalem (Abba Shaul) pronounced upon the High Priestly families after their servants "beat the people with sticks." Given this deplorable state of affairs in what was supposed to be a place of prayer, we can understand why the authorities only challenged the purging of the Temple without seeming to take much action. The unpopularity of the whole shady business, if not their consciences, probably prevented them from doing any actual violence. We can also understand why there seemed to be no resistance by the people towards Jesus' angry actions.

When Jesus came into the Temple courts He already knew what He’d find - and knew of the greed which was at the root of what was taking place there. His anger was directed towards those who made a exorbitant profit from Jewish pilgrims who wished to offer sacrifice and worship to God.

This ought to make some folks uncomfortable when they consider some of what is done in our day, don't you think? He calls those doing such things "thieves. Such a set up also restricted the Gentiles from finding a place where they could serve God through the simplicity of prayer. Mark 11:17 records Jesus' words that the Temple was supposed to be a place of prayer ‘for all the nations.’ The Court of the Gentiles, where money changers were located, was the closest they could come in their approach to the presence of God.

I don’t believe Jesus would have argued at that time with the purchasing of sacrificial animals and offerings in the service of God. He was angry with how it was being done. Partly, I think, because it lined the pockets of the aristocracy at the expense of true Jewish worshippers, and also because the whole shady business prevented others from worshipping God in the way they were able to do at the time.

What does this tell us about priorities, about how the Lord feels about those less fortunate, and about how those in leadership should behave? Lots to ponder in just a few short verses!

God, we ask forgiveness for times we considered our own needs at the expense of someone less fortunate. Help us make room for all people who seek to worship you in spirit and in truth, and to remember what is true, just, right and eternal. May we not be guilty of valuing offerings over people, profit over worship, large buildings over genuine worship. Amen

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Happened to the Celebration?

Just a few more thoughts about the triumphal entry before moving on...We began this week reading the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. As we saw yesterday, only Jesus understood the irony that was unfolding. What happened to the celebration? The shouts of praise all too soon will turn to cries of “Crucify him!”

What happened to Judas? The disciples were with Jesus during his entry into Jerusalem. Judas was probably caught up in excitement along with the others. Yet two days later he makes a deal to betray Jesus. What happened in the meantime? Many scholars believe that Judas was from a family who resisted Rome and plotted overthrow. Perhaps Judas was disillusioned.

And then the incident at Bethany happened. Mary anointed Jesus for burial, as I wrote about here, and Judas complained. Jesus was having none of it and in front of everyone he told Judas, "Let her alone!" And once again the one who is supposed to be the conquering King spoke of his death. What happened to Judas? Resentment.

What about Peter? Peter was in the palm-branch-waving crowd too. He was probably the loudest in the group! And shortly thereafter, he told Jesus that he would never leave or betray him--in fact he will die with him if need be. A short time later he curses and swears and says he does not even know Jesus. Not once but three times! What happened to Peter? Fear.

The crowd along the road on Palm Sunday realized that Jesus is fulfilling an ancient prophecy. He is declaring himself Messiah. The hosannas and cries of him being King are really an appeal for Jesus to help them, to deliver them from their hated oppressors, the Romans. Later, after Jesus is arrested, the religious rulers stir up the crowds and inflame them into crying angrily “Crucify him!” This pitiful man cannot overthrow anyone! They have been fooled. What happened to the people? Disappointment.

And speaking of the religious rulers, the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducee, I think some of them knew that Jesus was a good man, even perhaps suspected that he might be the promised one. Why didn't they help him? Why didn't they rejoice? Because they have become, more than anything, a political party, interested in their own power and prestige. This Jesus will upset the situation. He must go. What happened to some of the leading Pharisees? Jealously and pride.

We are pretty had on the Pharisees sometimes, imagining we would never be anything like them. The fact is, WE ALL STRUGGLE WITH THE SAME THINGS! Disappointment and disillusionment, fear, jealousy, resentment, confusion, and pride are common to mankind.
Can you think of any situations where religious leaders hid their sin, or smoothed something over that should have been revealed, or kept quiet because of position or power? Ah, where do we start? And what about us?

It was a curious sort of day. A day which began with a parade and praises to the Lord. It's a day of wonder as we remember that Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph with all the pomp and circumstance of a beloved king. It is tempting to just stay there and give little thought to what will happen next. Thursday brings a last meal with treasured friends, and a new covenant of love and forgiveness, but it also brings betrayal and denial.

And then it's Friday, a day of accusation and fear. A day of wrenching torment and brutal death. All too quickly the shouts of "Hosanna!" will give way to the call to "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

As you make your way through this week, let yourself be caught up in this most wonderful of all stories. Hear the words as if it was the first time. There is always more to discover on this holy journey. Let yourself be transformed by the passionate love of Christ. Take some moments for meditation and prayer. And consider all that our Lord has done for us. He chose the path which led to pain before joy--the cross before glory. May the cross be planted in our hearts, so that in its power and love we may come at last to the glory of resurrected life!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Jesus Mourns for Jerusalem

Luke 13:31-34
At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you." He replied, "Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.' In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'

Luke 19:41-42 "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, 'If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace -- but now it is hidden from your eyes."

It seems that not all of the Pharisees were of one mind about this upstart from the country. Some accounts reveal that several were secret followers and some became believers later on. For some, this whole incident must have been distressing, confusing, convicting...and others (who likely started out with hard hearts, in my opinion) became more determined to get rid of the troublemaker.

The short road from Bethany to Jerusalem crosses a ridge and dips down the western slope of the Mount of Olives. As Jesus, his disciples and the crowd reach this point, the city is spread out before them --a beautiful site to these eager pilgrims. Jesus has just ridden toward the city on a donkey in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. The people have recognized the symbolism, as was revealed in their response, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord..." We would expect this to be a highlight of Jesus' life. I'm sure the disciples were feeling ecstatic.

Suddenly the procession stops, and those closest to Jesus are shocked to see him convulsed in sorrow. The word translated "wept" is the Greek verb klaio, "weep, cry, bewail." This is no genteel grief requiring dabbing at the eyes with a hankerchief. Jesus bursts into sobbing. He weeps for the blindness just observed in those who wanted him to tell the crowd to hush.

Here he is, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), the King riding his royal donkey into Jerusalem, the holy city, and he is unable to bring them peace. He is not accepted as those who "proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation" to Zion (Isaiah 52:7). The only other alternative to Messiah's peace is sorrow.

Jesus describes the siege of a city."The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." (Luke 19:43-44)

Josephus, an eyewitness to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, writes: "[General Titus] gave his soldiers leave to set the suburbs on fire...he placed... archers in the midst of the banks that were then being raised...those that threw javelins, and darts, and stones...So the trees were now cut down and the suburbs left naked....the timber was [carried] to raise the banks, and the whole army was earnestly engaged in their works. Romans were able to surround the city completely. So all hope of escaping was now cut off from the Jews...Then did the famine...devour the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine, and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged....afterwards, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath."

This horrible account sounds a great deal like Jesus' grief-stricken prediction, "They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls." Josephus goes on to describe the total destruction of the temple and the slaughter of more than a million people. No wonder Jesus sobbed as he saw with prophetic vision what was coming to the beloved city and its people.

We know, of course, that the destruction of the temple by Titus' army was not the end of the suffering and persecution of Jewish people. Whenever I hear stories of so-called "Christians" taunting Jews with the epithet, "Christ killer" or read of those during the time of the Nazis who decided that the Jews were just getting what was coming to them, or any of the other numerous occasions of despicable action towards Jewish people, I think of this passage. (Thankfully, genuine followers of Jesus did not do these kinds of things, but risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors.)

Jesus was not angry or vindictive about what was about to happen. He did not say they were getting what they deserved and he took no joy or smug satisfaction in what he saw as he looked at the future. His heart was broken.

Do our hearts break for the sorrow of others?

God of Jews, Gentiles, men and women, red, yellow, brown, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak, forgive us for our misguided attempts to assign blame. May we, like Jesus, feel sorrow for those you love. Grant us courage, strength, and boldness to do what is right without being self-righteous about it! Amen

Sunday, March 28, 2010

For Palm Sunday

From Philippians 2, Psalm 18, Zechariah 9 and John 12

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.

Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! The King of Israel!

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God... made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! The King of Israel!

Let Israel now say, His mercy endures forever. Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, and I will praise the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD, through which the righteous one shall enter. I will praise You, for You have answered me, and have become my salvation.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout O daughters of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever!

A great multitude that had come to the feast of the Passover, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! The King of Israel!

Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt." His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered!

Therefore God has highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!
Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!
Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!

This day is usually one of celebration in Christian gatherings. We sing joyful songs, wave palm branches, and recall the incident by calling it "The Triumphal Entry." It is important, however, not to cut this happening from the context in which it occurs.

In both gospels Matthew and Mark, the story is told in a similar fashion. This is the fateful entry which will take Jesus to his death. The dramatic irony which celebrates Jesus as king and reaches its climax with Jesus crowned king of the Jews on the cross, is beginning. The praises and accolades of the crowd are the prelude to a chilling challenge recorded in Matthew, "Let his blood be upon us and our children." The scene is full of danger, even as the people shout in joy. For what it is worth, I do not believe that the crowd in the coutyard was representative of most of the people. However, even the disciples did not really understand what was happening or what it meant until later.

For now, praise the Lord with Hosannas and song! Tomorrow we will consider how this triumphal entry came to a shocking halt.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Are You Listening?

Mark 10:32-45
32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again."

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

This passage is the epitome of chutzpah. In both Yiddish and English this word is sometimes used in a positive sense (rather like 'spunk") but the original meaning from Hebrew is used indignantly to describe someone who has over-stepped the boundaries of accepted behavior with no shame.

These two brothers, James and John, step over the line not once, but twice. First they say, "Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you." And then they proceed to ask for positions of power and authority in God's Kingdom.

Almost everyone has has times of wondering if words are evaporating like soap bubbles in the air before they reach anyone. Or what preacher does not know the frustration of feeling passionate about the need to communicate something important and pouring heart and soul into a message-- only to notice someone yawning, or clipping their fingernails, or texting.

Mark's gospel records three similar occasions when Jesus spoke of his death and must have felt like He was preaching to stones or to brick walls.

The first time was not long after Peter confessed to Him, "You are the Christ" When Jesus began to speak of how he would "endure many things" (Mark 8:31) it did not sit well with His congregation. Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke him. (That encounter didn't turn out so well for Brother Pete!) The next time, no one rebuked him, but that was because "they did not understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask Him" (Mark 9:32).

Today's reading is the third time of bringing up the subject. Jesus began to tell them what was about to happen to Him in Jerusalem, saying that he would be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, condemned to death, delivered to the Romans, mocked, spit on, beaten, killed--and would rise again!" (Shouldn't that, if nothing else, have provoked a reaction?)

On the first occasion, his listeners reacted negatively, but at least they reacted. In the second instance, they wanted to say something but didn't because of confusion or fear. The third time they acted like they hadn't heard a word.

James and John, the two with chutzpa, were thinking how they could better their position. They were unmoved by Jesus' words. Apparently they thought they deserved title and rank. The other disciples weren't much better. "When the ten heard it, they were indignant." They were interested in getting their own share of the Kingdom pie.

Jesus was speaking about holiness and the coming of the kingdom and the accomplishment of the will of God when he talked about his death. And it was as if the disciples were saying, "Enough about the cross thing, Jesus! Don't you care about us? We need to maintain a certain level of honor and reputation and comfort, no matter what happens in the future."

If the closest disciples of our Lord were capable of such negligence and such hard hearts, so are we. Their preoccupation with their own position and their desire for recognition and comfort are uncomfortably familiar. All too often I read the scripture only to follow it up with a prayer that is mostly a list of my own needs and wants. Or I am preoccupied with my own happiness, my own fulfillment, my own satisfaction, my own little view of the world.

Yet, even as the Word sometimes reveals our worst, it shows us the best of God.

He began to tell them what was to happen to him. Jesus preached the heart of forgiveness and salvation. Did they deserve it? What do you think? Yet, God does not repay us as we deserve. Instead he offers us mercy, forgiveness, love and grace.

Do not take the words lightly and go on as usual. As St. Paul said in another place, "He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)

Thanks be to you, O Lord our God, for your unspeakable gift! Forgive us our selfish ambition and foolish jealousy and pride. May we be willing to become a servant of all--and we know that is impossible without your enabling power and grace. Help us to hear the words you speak to us, and to see the things you show us. Amen

Thursday, March 25, 2010

We'll Understand It Better By and By

Psalm 102
1 Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you.
2 Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
3 For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
6 I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
7 I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
8 All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
12 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
14 For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
15 The nations will fear the name of the LORD,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
16 For the LORD will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
17 He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer.
18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the LORD:
19 that he looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die;
21 so that the name of the LORD may be declared in Zion,
and his praise in Jerusalem,
22 when peoples gather together,
and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.
23 He has broken my strength in midcourse;
he has shortened my days.
24 "O my God," I say, "do not take me away
at the mid-point of my life,
you whose years endure
throughout all generations."
25 Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall live secure;
their offspring shall be established in your presence.

The paslmist is depressed. He is lonely, feeling forsaken, crying, miserable, can't sleep, and his enemies loom large in his thinking. Everything is going wrong. No one understands. He wonders if he will accomplish anything or if all his plans will be cut short. Ever been there? Me too.

Even when still struggling, the singer of songs makes a deliberate choice to take his eyes off himself, struggle up out of his pity party, and look instead at God. His days are shortened, but God endures forever. He does not understand, but God knows all about it.

God's ways are right, and even when we do not sense God's pleasure or presence, we can affirm, as the psalmist does, that God will have compassion, and answer. There is a sense, in these rather desperate words, of the big picture--that God is at work, that down through the generations God's name will be praised--and when the time is appointed it will be made right. May we do what we are called to do so that a generation yet unborn will praise the Lord!

Here's an old southern gospel song. I don't know why that's the music that I'm finding lately, but it is another of the ones I grew up hearing. Live in the sunshine...we'll understand it all by and by.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Everything We Need

Psalm 51
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy,
blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.

5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt-offerings and whole burnt-offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

This Psalm was written after King David sinned by 1) committing adultery with Bathsheba and 2) having her husband, Uriah, murdered to cover up the resulting pregnancy.

Some time ago I had a serious conversation with a close friend who was involved in a twisted and potentially destructive situation. My friend was struggling with guilt over her involvement in behavior she knew was wrong. At the same time, she seemed unwilling to face it for what it was--sin. After some tears and much conversation, she rather defiantly excused the behaviour on the basis that God had not given her the power to break away from it. Sadly, I saw that she really did not yet want to be free.

I Peter 1:3 declares, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). If we believe in life lived in and by the Spirit of God, we must understand that we already have from God all that it takes to be free. That does not mean the process will be without difficulty, or pain, or that we may not need to humble ourselves.

David is asking for help. “Lord, grant me a willing spirit,” he says, (help me want to) and follows up this request with a statement that shows he understands that God's help requires subsequent action.
Do not wait to feel forgiven. One of the wisest things I was ever told was this, "Just because you feel something does not make it true." Conversely, just because we do not feel something does not make it untrue. Feelings are wonderful things, but not an infallible barometer of what is genuine. God declares we are forgiven. Do not wait for some mystical feeling of power to come to you. God has already given it to you. As you believe God (faith) you can do what you need to do and what God wants you to do.

That is what happened with David. It happened with my friend too, just not quickly. She endured much more misery before one day acknowledging her part in the mess she was in and crying out for mercy, help and deliverance. It did not happen overnight, but it did happen. She later said, "I was too tired to fight anymore."

We can choose to be helpless victims of our own habits , but God provides an alternative. Are we willing to be set free?

Lord, thank You for giving us all that I need. Thank you, too, for being ever ready to receive me, forgive me, and heal my broken spirit. Show me any hardness of heart and renew a right spirit within me. When my joy is restored I will praise you and tell of your greatness to everyone! Amen

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jesus Loves the Little Children

Mark 9:36-37 and 42-50
He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones...better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

"For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

Today's passage, is one that many find strange. I cannot begin to plumb the depths of the message it contains in one blog post!

Tragically, some deluded or mentally ill individuals have even taken these instruction literally. To do so is to misunderstand the entire point of Jesus' teaching. Jesus did not contradict God's laws; on the contrary he stated that he came to fulfill them. He knew that evil does not come from body parts--it begins in thought. He continually emphasized that the "letter of the law" is not enough. It is the spirit of the law that truly matters--revealed not just by our outward actions but by our heart's attitude.

Study the words of Jesus carefully and you will see that they are filled with literary devices: similes, metaphors (there is more than one metaphor right in this passage), and hyperbole. Hyperbole is exaggeration for the sake of effect. The strength of Jesus' words is an indication that he feels very deeply about what he is saying. There are no soft words here for those who would deliberately harm a child.

The following prayer is re posted from "Lent and Beyond: An Anglican Prayer Blog."

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
Father, defeat the purposes of all those who would molest children or expose them to pornography. Bring them to repentance, but if they won’t repent, stop them anyway you can.

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:43)
Holy Spirit, help us recognize and repent of all those patterns of thought and behavior that lead us into sin.

“For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.” (Mark 9:49)
Jesus, baptize us anew with the fire of your Holy Spirit: cleanse us, refine us, renew us, make us fit for the kingdom of God.

“Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50)
Jesus, anoint and salt us with your peace. Shower down your love on us and give us your peace with one another. Thank you. Amen

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Party in the Midst of Danger

John 11:45, 53-57 and 12:1-9
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples. When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, "What do you think? Isn't he coming to the Festival at all?" But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it). Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.

Today's scripture passage from the Gospel of John is a sort of theological sandwich. One story provides the filling for the two pieces of "bread."Just before the dinner-and-anointing passage, we read that the authorities plot to kill Jesus. And afterwards we read of a plot to kill Lazarus.

There is danger on every side now. We begin to sense the gathering clouds of darkness, of intrigue, of sorrow. Jesus "no longer walked openly" but retreated to an out-of-the-way place with his closest followers. Danger lurks there as well, as we see in the parenthetical comments about Judas Iscariot.

Right in the middle of the gathering storm, amidst plotting and imminent betrayal, Mary, Martha and Lazarus invite Jesus and his disciples to a dinner party--a party of celebration for the return of Lazarus from the grave (read about that in John 11).

How could anyone consider a celebration in the midst of all that danger? Maybe it is simple denial. Maybe they just don't understand or are fooling themselves, trying to pretend all is well.

No, it is not denial that allows the celebrating. Jesus has spoken clearly about what is ahead, even talking about his burial. He says that Mary understands that he is about to die. Jesus is not in denial about the danger. He just doesn't fear it.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear... (1 John 4:16b-18a)
In a sermon preached at Duke Divinity School chapel some years ago, homiletics professor Richard Lischer told a story which I have excerpted below.

Our friend had already endured chemotherapy and through it all had somehow managed to complete a doctoral dissertation. To celebrate, she and her husband rented a VFW hall, hired a band, and threw one of the biggest parties I've ever seen--for the whole church and half the community. Two days before graduation, her doctors confirmed that the cancer was back. The experimental treatments would begin the day after graduation. Only a few of us knew it, and my guess is that [if this were happening to us] we would have chosen to limp through the ceremony and cancel the party.

But she had the party. And I tell you, I have never heard the gospel of God's Yes preached more powerfully than I saw it danced on the floor of the VFW. An outsider would have seen only the vintage 1960s, arthritic gyrations that we were all doing, but this was a woman of faith and she danced her Yes in the grip of the No. And that's the way we do it. The best celebrating is done in the face of the enemy, the best dancing on the devil's dance floor.

You can't always separate the Yes from the No but at least one person has done it definitively. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we trust that there is this distinction, and that it holds true for us.

What a phrase, "dancing on the devil's dance floor!" A party to celebrate God's love and power, right in the middle of approaching pain and sorrow--what a statement from Rev. Lischer's friend. In a sense, she was doing what Jesus did at the party in Bethany. Can we do this? In the midst of things we cannot understand, facing the NO, can we say with God, YES? Can we rejoice in the mercy, grace and love that is ours and comes from God?

God, help us to refuse the way of fear. Help us to choose to "dance" in the face of difficulty, to affirm the way of love and to move with confidence as we hold fast to our faith in you. Amen

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sowing in Tears, Reaping in Joy

Psalm 126
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses of the Negev.
Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Some believe today's Psalm refers to the time of freedom from Assyrian invasion under King Hezekiah, others that it is from the time of Ezra and the beginning of the return from Babylonian captivity. I tend to think it is the latter, but the point is the same. God's people are emerging from a time of captivity, sorrow, struggle--and they can hardly believe it. Is this really happening? Are we dreaming? Dare we trust this--and then comes the laughter, joy, and shouting. This is a "Psalm of Ascents" meaning that it was one of a group of Psalms that pilgrims to the holy city of Jerusalem sang along the way. What a glad song!

Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. No, not just because they cried. It is not the tears in and of themselves. Those who persevere who keep hope in God, those who continue to do the hard things because they are the right things--these will be the ones who will sow seeds of love, change, righteousness, justice, and hope. There are dozens of biblical examples of such people, and there are others in our world right now who are among those who continue to do right and speak the truth in the face of opposition and even persecution or death. Some glad morning, we will rejoice at what the grace of God, empowering ordinary human beings, has accomplished.

We just returned from an annual conference where we saw one of those individuals. He works long hours at City on a Hill in one of the worst areas of Milwaukee. He wears "many hats," one of which is working with boys in a program called Royal Rangers (a sort of Boy Scouts with a spiritual emphasis) I don't know how he withstands the schedule he keeps--I know sometimes he is exhausted. He is a relatively young man and was once engaged, but his fiancee died tragically. I feel sad for him, because (considering the schedule he keeps and the life he lives) there is no time in his life for romance. He is a wonderful guy who deserves a wonderful wife. But then I see him with some of the boys from the city. They love him, and more importantly, they know he loves them. When he shares stories of what has happened as he and his colleagues work with these children, he always wipes tears from his eyes (and those who are listening usually do as well). This year he was able to report that the crime statistics from the area of City on a Hill have declined. They, and others like them, are making a difference. Our friend is sowing in tears, but he will reap in joy.

From Psalm 30

I will extol You, O LORD...
Sing praise to the LORD,
And give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name.
For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.

I cried out to You, O LORD;
And to the LORD I made supplication:
Hear, O LORD, and have mercy on me;
LORD, be my help!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

Most people tend to think of The Salvation Army when they hear the song, "Bringing in the Sheaves" (VERY loosely adapted from the Psalm). Here is a version we heard in my house when I was a child--an old "Southern Gospel" song. Don't say I didn't warn you! :-)

God of the harvest, may we not grow weary in well doing. We will not faint, and in due season, we shall reap what has been sown. Grant wisdom, strength and courage to those who labor in sometimes obscure places. We praise you that while "weeping may endure for a night, joy comes in the morning." Amen

Friday, March 19, 2010

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Mark 8:27-9:1
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with* power.’

Who do people say that I am?
A prophet, a priest, a king?
A good man, a teacher, a fraud?
A liar, a madman, a myth?

Who do people see that I am?
Blue-eyed and pink-cheeked and blond?
Golden with slanted, dark eyes?
Black skinned with crisp, curly hair?

Who do people think that I am?
A man on a cross in the church?
A cool dude with beard and long hair?
A nice bedtime story for children?

But who do you say that I am?
The question is still just the same.
Can you follow me through fire and water,
Through chaos and trouble and pain?

Can you lose your life so you may find it?
Can you die to your old dreams and plans?
Will you follow the Savior to Calvary
To lay down your life for the world?

Will you trust in God's mercy and kindness,
God's grace and God's way and God's plan?
Will you seek God so that you may find Him?

Who do you say that I am?

Dorcas George

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Of Miracle Bread and Hot Dish*

When Ken and I headed to our first church as neophyte Revs, we weren't at all comfortable about what lay in store. Not only were we in Wisconsin (was there anything in the state besides cows and Green Bay Packers?), we were in the northern part of the state, a rather sparsely populated place I tend to think of as the redneck area of Wisconsin. (For those of you who have followed the posts about Pastor Dee Anna and Little Big Foot, it is very loosely based on some of what we experienced there. Dee Anna will be back here soon.)

*"Hot dish" is Wisconsin-speak for a casserole.

Mark 8:11-26

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation." And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.

Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, "Watch out - beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod." They said to one another, "It is because we have no bread." And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" They said to him, "Twelve." "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" And they said to him, "Seven." Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"

Today's passage makes me grin. Can't you just see Jesus looking at the 12 and sighing, maybe trying not to roll his eyes? Come on, get a clue, dudes! You still don't get it, do you?

We once were pastors at a church in "the northwoods" of Wisconsin, an area of tall trees, lots of hunting and fishing, and some rather colorful people. We met many folks who lived in tiny cabins in the woods, heating with wood stoves and subsisting on venison and sometimes little else. A woman I'll call Betty was one of those. She was short and wide, round faced, cheerful, helpful, and a devout Christian with a childlike faith in the goodness of God. She was also just a little "slow." She attended a neighboring church, and her daughter was a faithful member of ours. The women each moved easily between the two churches, two women's groups, and so on. We saw Betty often.

One day I saw the mother and daughter at a local restaurant. At the urging of her daughter, Betty shyly told me a miracle story. She had invited several ladies from church to her home for lunch. Her daughter came too, partly to help her mother and partly because she knew many of the guests. Betty never had much to spare, but she did love social gatherings. She made a large crock pot full of pasta and hamburger with some kind of sauce. She planned carefully, she added, and she figured she had enough for the number of women who had said they were coming.

Her childlike gaze grew even more round-eyed as she told me, "Pastor, those ladies came hungry! They ate all but a couple of spoonfuls. And then three more knocked on the door! They came in apologizing for bein' late, and I thought, 'Oh, dear Lord, what am I gonna do?'" She went on, "While they were taking off their coats I headed to the kitchen. And I started to praying and looking in the 'fridge to see what I might throw together. Then..." she paused and her daughter nodded encouragement. "I felt like crying, and then I thought about how Jesus fed all those people in the desert with just a little bread. I went over to the crock pot and put my hands on the sides of it. I'm telling you, there was only a little bit on the bottom. I closed my eyes tight and prayed, 'God, if you could multiply bread you can multiply my 'hot dish.' I don't want to send these ladies away hungry." She said softly, "I opened my eyes, and Pastor, my crock pot was full of more noodles and hamburger!" Her daughter's eyes twinkled as she looked at me nodding gently and saying, "It happened. I saw it too--the empty pot, and then the full one."

I don't know what I said. But I remember that just as I was leaving she smiled and added, "Oh, there were leftover too."

God, may we come to you in simple trust. Help us to be able to listen, and look, and wonder, and praise you. Enlarge our hearts and minds and spirits as we ponder the works of heaven and earth and as we live as your children in this world. We acknowledge that we don't know as much as we sometimes think we do--and we thank you that sometimes miracles happen. Amen

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The "Social Gospel"

One more in the series, but this turned out to be more of an essay or a sermon than a Lenten devotion. Ah, it happens sometimes. :-)

Psalm 146

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;

Who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.

The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the LORD!

I know a young woman who escaped a Communist country. Life after arriving in the West was not easy, and my friend spent some time on the streets and then in various shelters before landing more or less on her feet. She began to attend a conservative evangelical church. One day she learned, to her shock and surprise, that the term "social gospel" was used in a derogatory sense at her church. She found that inexplicable and confusing, later relating to me that if it were not for the kindness and charity of strangers she has no idea what might have happened to her.

"The social gospel" was an epithet in my world too. It meant that too much emphasis was placed on charitable works and dealing with the ills of society and the eternal aspects of God's Kingdom were minimized. Was that really always the case? Sometimes. Probably not all the time--and all too often, I now believe, it was an excuse to bash people who were from different traditions--and to feel "righteous."

Where did this all begin? In the mid-nineteenth century, Rev. Washington Gladden declared that he was offended by the idea of a God who would offer his own Son on behalf of sinful humanity. A little later, Walter Rauschenbusch wrote two books which urged the church to leave behind "old evangelism" which was all about salvation from sin through faith in Christ, and to embrace a "new evangelism" which was about salvation from social ills and injustice. Of course, many churches and denominations reacted to what was seen as a misplaced emphasis, and the opposite swing of the pendulum happened (as is so often the case). Many churches strenuously avoided, and sometimes repudiated, any outreach or activity that did not include a clear, unmistakable call to repentance of sin.

Romans 1:16-17 says "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.'"

I believe in God's power--not just the power of the human spirit, or the power of change (powerful as those are). I believe in the power of God, the power of faith, the power of the Holy Spirit to transform and make us "new creations." If the Gospel of Jesus is simply about social issues, then ministers are really social workers.

Some time ago, radio show host, Glenn Beck urged church members to flee congregations that promote social justice, saying, "Look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can..." Some angry church folks asserted that social justice is the very heart of the Gospel, while others said that Beck was right and that Christians should flee liberal churches that had abandoned the Gospel. (I think Beck's agenda is political, not religious. His remark, however, was foolish, unless it was calculated to get attention. Hmmm...)

God is just. The prophets, speaking for God, called the people of God to live justly, to care for widows and orphans and strangers in need. The one who pleases the Lord is he who will "keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice." Israel is told to "do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor." God "has established his throne for justice" and "loves righteousness and justice." Princes are to "rule in justice" and the Lord "will fill Zion with justice and righteousness." The prophet Amos declared, "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Micah reminded Israel: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). Today's passage, Psalm 146, emphasizes God's concern for those who might be in extra need of compassion and care.

The true message of the church is not social reform alone. In this season of pondering death and resurrection, our message must be about new life--life lived by faith and the power of God's indwelling Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, the church is, in and of itself, a social reform movement. Why? Because it is made up of redeemed sinners who are called to faithfulness in following Christ. Following Christ is going to mean we sometimes get radical! We can debate just what that might look like as we seek to bring light to a dark world, and we may come up with different ideas of just what it means to be a disciple. Still, in every case, justice is our concern because it is God's concern.

Christians believe that injustice will not exist forever. The Kingdom of God will bring the end of injustice, the end of misery, the end of war, the end of wickedness of all kinds. We have much work to do in this world, but true justice will be achieved when God's purposes are complete. Meanwhile, the church must share the "Good News" and Christians must live out its implications.

How are we living out this call to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hollering for Transformation

Christ and the Canaanite Woman
Germain-Jean Drouais c.1784

Mark 7:24-30

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. "First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to dogs."

"Yes, Lord," she replied, "but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter." She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

The Gentile (non Jewish) woman asks Jesus to save her daughter, and Jesus responds with something surprising and disturbing. Jesus seems to be playing favorites and being exclusive. “First let the children eat all they want," (or "let the children first be satisfied") he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to dogs."

The Gentile "dogs" he refers to are the very ones Jesus has just (in a sense) included (see 7:1-23) by declaring that all foods are clean. Why is Jesus now apparently upholding the intolerance he has just criticized?

There are two primary explanations. One says that Jesus was reflecting his own understanding that his ministry on earth was directed primarily toward Israel. Although "dogs" is jarring to us, it would have matched the manner in which Jews of the period thought of the uncleanliness of their Gentile neighbors. The woman seems to accept the differences, even while she is about to offer an argument. One writer even says that the human Jesus did not yet completely grasp all the implications of his earthly ministry, that he continued to grow in his understanding as the days passed.

Another explanation is that Jesus was using a teaching moment for disciples who still found it difficult to understand much of what he did. Finding someone who would respond in the proper way, he could show the shame of an attitude that considered Gentiles as less than valuable. In other words, Jesus expected her to rise to the occasion--and she did.

I'm not certain of the explanation, but in any case, the woman's response is the real point. She does not dispute the Jews' ideas of who could be holy and who could not. Still, she declares that although a dog may be unclean and therefore lower than even a child in the household, it still receives some notice. Jews considered dogs unclean and generally did not allow them inside. Gentiles, however, were more likely to domesticate them and keep them as pets. A dog would have access to leftovers. Even as she seems to recognize the difference between Gentiles and God chosen people the Jews, she builds a sort of bridge by suggesting that Gentiles, too, should receive God’s blessings. Jesus grants her request because of the power of her argument, recognizing her remarkable faith and tenancity.

African American Brian K. Blount, President and Professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary, has this to say. "Why is this such an important story in Mark’s Gospel? Mark wants us to holler for transformation the way that woman hollered for the transformation of her daughter’s life situation, even when all the signals say, you ought to shut up, give up and go home. If that woman could stand up to Jesus, I think Jesus was telling us we ought to be able to stand up to anybody else or anything else on this planet. You want change? Then you’re gonna have to fight for it. You’re gonna have to be relentless. You’re gonna have to raise your voice!”

Are we bold and courageous enough to "holler" for what is right and good and holy?

God, help us to be strong in the face of opposition. Give us tenacity and unshakable faith, and the courage of our convictions. May we refuse to be silent in the face of wrong, injustice, and evil. Amen

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Elder Brother

From Luke 15

A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed. This younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. A local farmer sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good. When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me as a servant.'

He returned home and while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I have slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’

I know that the parable is about the boundless, generous and loving grace of God to us, his sometimes wayward (and extravagant children, children who sometimes waste his good gifts and ignore his love). In context, Jesus has just told the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd and the lost coin and the housewife, so we know that it is about the father's joy upon his son's return.

But even though Jesus' parables are simple and short, if we spend some time pondering them we find that they often are many-layered. I don't like the section labels that many translations insert into passages (usually this one is tagged,"The Prodigal Son"), and I think the story is more about the father than about the thankless child. What do you suppose was happening in this home before the son took off, or how might the father have felt? Or try imaging that you are the unseen mother in the story. Or the farmer who takes in a Jewish boy who is willing to feed pigs.

I grew up in church, so this story is so familiar that, frankly, it is difficult to read it with "new" eyes. As a child, I appreciated the love of the father, and I even smiled at the image of him dashing down the road, robes flapping around his ankles. However, I never felt any resemblance to the prodigal son. I was not prodigal (a word which does not mean backsliding or ungrateful or runaway, but means carelessly extravagant). I don't know what it feels like to be carelessly profligate with either my money or my behavior. I was always distressed by the younger son's lack of love for his clearly loving parent. I never hurt anyone if I can avoid it, and I'm generally self-controlled and thoughtful about what I determine to do--sometimes too much so.

Some time ago, while in the midst of a devastating situation, I realized that the one I absolutely could identify with was the elder brother. I read the story, and for the first time I did not see him as simply unreasonable, jealous, and bitter. I saw him as hurt. I related to the resentment, the frustration, the sense of feeling invisible--maybe because he had been too good!

I wondered why it was that nothing seems to have come easily in my life. Why did I try so hard only to feel ignored and overlooked? Why did I hear stories of others being healed while I, and even more significantly, my husband, were not? Why did it seem to count for nothing with God that I had been honest, faithful, ethical and had tried hard to love my enemies?

This unsettling insight, and my subsequent conversation with God about it all, did not completely end my struggle in this area. I'd love to relate that God and I cleared it all up and that all is different now. I can't do that. Not yet. Maybe someday.

Typing this "confession" out now brings tears to my eyes and a heaviness to my heart. It was only a month or so ago that I said to someone dear to me, "Why is it always me who does the hard thing? Why do I do it? It never does any good!" It is quite likely that my frustration and my questions will not be answered.

What helps me in this story is the realization that my Heavenly Father says to me, "Dear daughter, everything I have is yours and always has been." Perhaps this older son needed to pay attention, or needed to be more honest about his feelings, or needed to recognize all that was already his because of what his father had done for him, or...?

In the end, the prodigal younger son would not have had a party every day. Next day it would be time to get back into the swing of work and responsibility. The ring and robe were put back in the cedar chest and life went on. And he had, after all, spent his inheritance. Even though he was forgiven and loved and back in the family, he had created difficulties that would likely affect him for the rest of his life. The faithful son would have been better off in many ways, I expect.

I know the story is a parable, but if the story were about a real family I'd find myself hoping that Elder Bro found the strength to face his hurt, his anger, and his resentment, to confess them honestly and to receive the open-armed embrace that I have no doubt would have been offered to him.

Which brother are you? Both are loved, both are forgiven, and both are still children of the Father.

God, I still struggle with this story. I think it is very likely that I'm not the only one who does. I pay that our hearts will not be closed or hard, as it seemed happened in the story. I ask that both the returning runaways and the faithful, and sometimes seemingly overlooked, children of your house will find the strength to confess our sins, share our hearts honestly with you, forgive others, wish blessings for them, and refuse the path of either carelessness or bitterness. Forgive us our sins, dear Lord of grace. Amen

Friday, March 12, 2010

Love -- the More Excellent Way

1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

A few days ago I heard an NPR interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was remarkable because, even simply listening to his voice on my car radio, I could sense something of what it would be like to visit with him in person. His humor, gracious manner, and gentle humility were a lovely start to my day.

He shared that he had always loved church and recalled a childhood memory of often singing the song, "If God be for us who can be against us?" Then he sang the song, and as he finished he said, "I recalled that song later in my life when the big challenges came. If God be for us, and I knew God was, I also knew we would ultimately prevail."

He went on to relate that he had contracted tuberculosis at a young age and had spent nearly two years confined to a TB hospital. He observed that those patients who coughed up blood were all dead a short time later. Then came a day it happened to him, "It just gushed," he told the interviewer. He went on to say that he sat on his bed and talked to God. "I told God that my life was His to take or to save, and in that moment of complete surrender I experienced profound peace."

He said that as he has grown older he is more content to be in silence with God, "Not always bringing my laundry list of needs but just sitting with God. It is like how it is to sit quietly and peacefully by a fireplace. No words need be spoken, but the warmth is there."

He spoke of love being the greatest aim of believers, and added that Nelson Mandela had been a amazing example of that as, after 30 years of imprisonment, he urged South Africans to forgive those who trespassed against them. He concluded by reminiscing about someone whose name he never mentioned. I think it is likely that he did not recall it. But the memory of the man himself, a bishop, was still fresh. Tutu said, "He loved and cared like no one I had ever known. I wanted to be a doctor, not a priest, but I think without either of us really being aware of it, he was a role model for me. I loved to follow him and observe his way with people"

I smiled, driving along, because I could picture the nameless clergyman, leaning over from Heaven and smiling as he heard this famous man speaking of a long-ago influence of God's love. He, of course, would have had no idea that the young "urchin" (as Tutu called himself) who loved to travel around villages with him would one day grow to be one of the most well-known ministers in the world.

God, thank you for brethren like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and for the many like them whose names we do not know. Thank you for those who are shining examples of the power of love to transform and heal lives--and even nations. Bless those who, like the unknown Anglican priest, labor quietly but whose lives will leave ripples that go on and on. May I be such a person, leaving behind a legacy of love that only comes from your divine heart. Amen

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Longing for the Presence of God

From Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’

These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival...
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you...
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me? adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me..
‘Where is your God?’

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

In 1984 Martin Nystrom took the words of this psalm and put them to music:

As the deer panteth for the water
So my soul longeth after Thee
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship Thee

For more than 20 years, this simple song has been one of the most popular in the praise and worship genre. It seems that a longing for connection with God is a somewhat common experience. Reading today's passage, I was struck with this particular question, "When shall I...behold the face of God?"

The psalmist recalls happier days, days of joy, celebration, and exuberant worship. Reading these emotion-packed words, one can sense the tumult in the writer's heart--longing and despair compete with hope, frustration, unanswered questions, loneliness, and once again he returns to hope and a determination not to give up on God.

Can you relate? I certainly can.

This Psalm reminds me of the time when Jesus was speaking of eating his body and drinking his blood--one of the numerous metaphors Jesus used. Many took him literally and became upset.

John 6:66-69
From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Where indeed? Join me today in seeking God's presence. We can find him in scripture, in prayer, in the words of a book, in the care and embrace of a loved one. And sometimes God shows up at the most surprising moments and unexpected places! Some of you may have heard my workshop on "God's Presence" where I share a story how God met me in a profound way while I was watching the movie "Rocky." God will use many things! Watch for them.

Thank You, Gracious God, for times when I can’t handle life’s challenges on my own. In these times, as much as a part of me hates them, I am compelled to recall how much I need You. These are the times when my soul most longs for you. Without your sustaining grace my soul would be parched. You alone can satisfy, refresh, and renew me. When I am actually aware of the presence of your Spirit--ah, these are wonderful times. But I will not give up, and I will not turn back, even if the wilderness in which I find myself stretches on. Amen

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What We Do for Approval

The tragic and sordid tale of John the Baptist's death is the subject of numerous paintings. This one, "Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist" is by Bernardino Luini and hangs in the Louve. Somehow I suspect that her attire was not nearly as modest as the painter depicts.

Mark 6:13-29
They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not,for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Salome came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

There is so much wickedness alluded to in this short passage. We first read that King Herod has a guilty conscience, and then we find out why. The catalogue of sin in these verses reads like something we might see on Jerry Springer, doesn't it? First there is an illicit relationship between Herod and Herodias, jealousy, murderous rage, deception, likely a drunken debauch (what else accounts for a king promising "half his kingdom" because of a girl's dance?), lust, foolishness, a mother involving her daughter in murder. Of course, the result of it all is an almost unspeakable horror.

The great and good John, miracle son of Elizabeth and Zachariah the priest, herald of Jesus the Messiah, preacher, baptizer and prophet--this man is the prisoner of a maniacal puppet king. Herod is afraid of him, but Herod is captivated by him as well. He knows there is something special about this man of God, and he resists Herodias' wish that Herod get rid of him. He even likes to listen to John's words.

Then comes the night of the big party, a night that ends with the prophet's head on a platter. As I read this familiar story, I noticed something. I had always assumed that the king was the victim of his drunken lust--caught in a despicable promise made while inflamed with a loathsome passion.

But look again. "The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her." He likely knew that Herodias was behind the request. He was "grieved," and he knew he was about to do something vile. The first part of today's scripture lets us know he was later haunted by his deed.

But the trap cleverly laid for the king wasn't simply his lust or even his incredibly foolish promise to Salome. It was pride. Quite simply, he killed John because he did not want to lose face in front of his guests.

One of the fears common to humankind is of rejection. In my experience, this fear is almost universal and is often deeply rooted. How often we hear of someone doing a foolish or even horrible thing because of peer pressure, because they were showing off, trying to fit in (usually with the wrong people), trying to seem like something bigger and more important than they were. In that, we may have more in common with Herod than we like to think!

I was compelled to take a look at my own life, my own heart. No, I have not done anything remotely like Herod did, but I had to admit to myself and to God that many, perhaps most, of the foolish things I've done in my life were because of a misguided attempt to fit in or to please people. Because of pride born of fear.

As we come nearer to remembering the last days of Jesus' life on this earth, it seems an appropriate time for us to invite the light of God's holiness to illuminate the darker corners of our fears. We can do so with confidence, even though it might be difficult, because we know that God's mercy is abundant, his grace is boundless and his forgiveness is available to all.

Light of the World, illuminate our hearts. Leave no hidden closet, no little private sin, unseen. Darkness builds strongholds in the secrets of our lives and reinforces them by our denial and our silence. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, and cleanse us anew by your Holy Spirit of grace. Remind us of who we are, to whom we belong, and what we are called to be. Amen

Monday, March 08, 2010

God's Liberating Grace

Romans 8:1,3,5,8-10

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death... So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins...who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit...Letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God.

I once had a friend who often said that his most fervent wish was "to be as unlike my father as possible." His father, it was true, was an autocratic, mean-spirited, selfish man who made his wife and children miserable. Sadly, as my friend grew older he became more and more like his father--the man he most despised. I found myself wondering what would have happened if he had set his thoughts on what kind of man he wanted to be rather than what he hated.

This passage asserts that whatever we set our minds on will ultimately determine our behavior. Minds set on the flesh lead to death. But the minds set on the spirit lead to life.

Many believers who find themselves enslaved to “do’s and don’ts” may believe they are being transformed to be like Christ. How tragic! God is the source of grace through Christ. “The Law is indeed given through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17). A legalistic mindset brings perpetual spiritual defeat--an attitude that actually inhibits us instead of setting us free to follow after the Spirit of Life. God’s grace is exhilarating and liberating and leads to genuine holiness and humility.

"Life is both loved and held loosely in the grace of God." Dr. Joy K. Kim

Spirit of Grace, forgive us for sometimes thinking that holiness can be reduced to a list of things we are allowed to do--and things we are not. We do want to bring honor to your name, and we do want to please you. We also want to help others find your exhilarating and liberating grace. Help us to set our minds on things that bring life. Amen

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Judgement, and Surprising Mercy

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

This passage touches on one of those BIG QUESTIONS. The problem of suffering, or: "Why does God allow terrible things to happen to innocent people?"

The Old Testament contains many passages (the Prophets) that warn that if people did not turn from wickedness that judgement would come. The Psalmist too tells us that while wicked people may flourish for a time, the day of reckoning eventually arrives. Jesus says this too--"Stop trying to figure out if someone else is sinning and look to your own selves, because if you do not, God will not look the other way. " So sometimes bad things happen as a consequence of our actions. (I experienced that one just yesterday when a man with flashy lights on top of his car stopped me, and I did not like it one bit.)

Then there is that tricky book of Job, where along with some New Testament passages, we learn that sometimes there may be a reason behind bad things that happen, and that sometimes these testings and trials can be a learning opportunity or work something good in us. (And sometimes not. Bad things don't always make me "bitter or better." Sometimes they just make me tired. Careful of those cliches that can hurt people.)

But these questioners were not so much asking with genuine sorrow or perplexity. It seems that, once again, some were hoping to trap Jesus, to trip him up with a trick question--especially one with political overtones. If Jesus was not sufficiently scornful of the hated Romans, maybe the Jews would stop listening to him. Or if he did criticize Pilate, even better, because they could tattle on him.

This passage is one of the reasons we'd best be careful when attempting to assign reason to disasters (as happened in Haiti and Chili most recently). Perhaps there is some cause and effect, perhaps God's judgement does play a part...but Jesus is having none of it. He gets to the heart of the matter. It is not whether good or bad things happen. What really matters is how we choose to live, to respond, to be. The poor people who were victims of Pilate's horrible act, or those who were the hapless victims of a bad accident are not really what Jesus' questioners should have been concerned with.

Then the unsettling parable. It was long past the day when the owner should have been enjoying some of his wife's homemade fig newtons and his patience is gone. And yet, the servant shows "mercy" to the tree--just a little more time, a little more care, a little more tenderness. We tend to focus on the lack of fruit in this story. God is the owner and Jesus is the gardener.

But what if we are the impatient owner? Read it again with that thought in mind.

II Pet. 3:9:
"The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."

If justice is what we really want, we would all be finished. Mercy is what we need. One more year. Finally, however, we have the goal of the wait--fruitfulness.

By reframing the original question, Jesus brings us to the heart of God--a God who will judge, but one who is persuaded to grant a little more time. It is not our responsibility to figure it all out. It falls to us to live our lives humbly before our Creator and to show love and care. God, and only God, will decide when, or if, judgement will come. Don't presume on the kindness; embrace the mercy; wonder about the justice, but we must not bad things be an excuse for failing to change our own hearts and embrace the surprising mercy of God.