Saturday, February 10, 2018

Lent 2018

This year Easter falls on April 1st. We invite you and your neighbors to join us in about a month and a half as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection isn't just about a guy who was dead, coming back to life. It is after all, not the first time someone was brought back to life; there are both Old Testament and New Testament examples of those who were dead and were raised. The resurrection of Jesus though is special, unique. Paul tells us that this resurrection was of God himself, without any other agent and because of this, Paul tells us that the resurrection of Jesus is the basis or evidence of our hope in the gospel. If Jesus has not been raised, we are the most pitiable of all men. The resurrection then is one of the critical moments, one of the critical truths of our faith. 

The resurrection though only comes – only can come after the death of Jesus. This death was both horrible and beautiful. Horrible in its method; beautiful in the love it reveals and the rejoicing it prepares. Jesus's death is the culmination of his faithful life to God. In the garden we find that Jesus would like to have avoided this death but at the same time he says, "not my will, but your will be done." This is the key to Jesus's life and the place of his death as part of that life. It is the capstone, the finishing of a life that was focused solely on the will of God.  

The will of God was to reconcile the world to himself, which he did through the final death of Jesus, following a life of perfect obedience and faithfulness. God loves us and while we "were yet sinners," Christ died for us because God wants us – wants you – with him because that life is the best life for you. God seeks to bless, to heal, to cleanse, to restore. 

Before Easter, before remembering the resurrection, we have an opportunity to stop, to reflect, to consider why it was that Jesus had to die. What was it that caused God to have Jesus lay down his life for us? In short, we were and are that cause. Our lives are not always lived in the same faithfulness toward God as Jesus's life was. We have separated ourselves from God by our own pride, our own meanness, our own selfishness. Having separated ourselves from God, we have no way to set ourselves right; to fix the breach between God and us. Our separateness from God causes or results in separateness from each other and so we find that we haven't caused only one breach, but multiple breaches and we struggle to repair these breaches and find that we cannot fully do this. Jesus died to repair all of those breaches, between God and us, and others and us. 

Reflection prior to Easter is not limited to moroseness, to silently beating ourselves up for being "bad," to feel the burden we have given ourselves. Reflection prior to Easter also includes how we might move forward from where we are. Are there relationships we can heal, emotions we might soothe, others we might lift up? Having admitted to ourselves our role in bringing about the death of Jesus, we can sneak a glance at the resurrection and grace those around us with a bit of resurrection right now. Fasting is something that is often associated with the time before Easter – and so some will "give up" something during this period. Giving up something, denying ourselves intentionally so that we might join Jesus in his giving up of himself – even just a little bit can be a very shaping exercise. This is most effective if in giving that thing up, we transfer the time, the money, and energy into helping others, giving of ourselves truly in the service of others. As Paul tells us, in dying to ourselves, we look forward to resurrection with Jesu. Another, slightly different idea during this period is to not give something up, but to begin something new or to redirect our lives toward greater imitation of Jesus's love and faithfulness. Have you wanted to pray more regularly, more intentionally? Want to get those extra coats out of the closet and to the shelter? This period is an excellent time to make these adjustments to become more like Jesus and in these small ways of dying to ourselves, we point toward the promised resurrection offered to all persons. 

Monday, January 01, 2018

New Year 2018 Redemption

The work of Jesus occurred on two levels, if you will.

The first is the reconciliation of the world to God. The entire race and creation now has access to God. This is the reversal of Adam's blunder and what Paul attributes to Jesus as the Second Adam.

All things are set right; God and the creation are no longer at enmity with each other. If Adam was the spokesman for humankind, Jesus is now. This is reminiscent of Boaz redeeming Ruth. Ruth didn't have to do anything before Boaz could redeem her. This redemption is actually a family responsibility thus, Boaz looking for whoever had the right of redeemer.

This redemption is grace on Boaz's part; he loves Ruth and he wants to set her life right.

This is the first level of Jesus's work. The second level is you, specifically. If the world has been reconciled, so have you in some sense. That sense is that you, as a human are reconciled to God through the redemption effected by Jesus.

Your job is the same as Ruth's was - to accept the redemption and reconciliation, and join God. When you do this, you "enter" the redemption and reconciliation. Paul will call this "in Christ" because it is in Christ that the redemption and reconciliation are.

What about your sins; don't they have to go away? Well yes, and no. If you enter Christ, if you accept the redemption and reconciliation as did Ruth, whatever you've done before this is simply not considered. Sins are not so much forgiven as they are not even noticed. This is sometimes called removing your sins as far as the east is from the west. They don't actually go anywhere and God doesn't "pretend" they no longer exist. In reality, God simply doesn't take note of them. Ruth's obligation is now to remain faithful and as long as she does, she is loved and cared for.

In this connection, read Isaiah 44.22, "I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you" (ESV). Did you notice that flow? God had already blotted out the sin of his people, and then pleads with them to return to him. There is no longer an obstacle to their return, no hate from God, no penance or punishment to accomplish, nothing, wanting only their own desire for God. Similarly, and in a real sense, your sins were forgiven when Jesus reconciled the world to God. If you want to take advantage of that, simply accept God's invitation to life. That's what he wants and that's why he doesn't worry about your sins - he wanted you enough to reconcile himself to you even before you even knew you had sin.

So what happens to Ruth if she blows it after she's been redeemed? Does that change Boaz's feelings and care for her? No; if she burns the toast or calls him a bad name, Boaz isn't going to kick her out. If she joins herself to another man, then all bets are off.

This is the way God treats you. God has redeemed you because he wants you. Mess up on a Tuesday? Not good, but not the end of the world either. Join yourself to another god? All bets are off.

But it gets even better! If you join yourself to another god and thereby separate yourself from God - and then change your mind and want to come home, God will let you!

Because he loves you.

Heard this before? Well yes, used in reference to Hosea and Gomer as a parallel to God's love for Israel. Israel is a model, type, or icon of the people of God. While the Hosea story is a corporate story, the principle is the same between you and God.

Really mess up bad? God still loves you and will take you back just as Hosea did for Gomer, and just as God did over and over again for Israel.

This January first, accept the reality of having been reconciled to God and live into that redemption. Don't sweat too much over the fact that you haven't been and don't think you can be perfect in the future. Yes, that is what God has called his bride to - faithfulness. But, God knows you're human and he really is prepared and has removed your sins as far as the east is from the west.

Lower your defenses and live "in Christ," to become the best image of God you were made to be.

Happy new year!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Veterans Day 2017

Veterans Day. Since 1776-ish, our neighbors, family members, and friends have volunteered and been drafted to protect the freedoms we enjoy. In the United States we think of our freedoms as rights – things we can do or not do simply because we breathe. We live in a bubble though and it’s a bubble that could burst at any moment because our government is made of human beings who have their own agendas and to whom we give enormous power. Around the world and throughout history, the freedoms we hold as rights are not common. In fact, we constitute a small minority of humans in the history of the world who have had such freedoms. Yes, others have similar ones and yet others have had them in the past, but many, many more have never had them at all. 

We are lucky, to be quite honest to have been born into or to have moved to this country which has had both our Constitution, and government officials who have respected the rights in that document and who have rarely, but with some notable exceptions, stayed within the boundaries of their offices. The freedoms we have are tentative and only exist because we as a country have insisted that they must. Over our history, there have been external threats to our freedoms as well. Tyrants and dictators have found it easy to subjugate entire peoples, enslaving, murdering, and oppressing entire sections of the globe; many continue to do so. Thank God we haven't had to endure such an evil.

Those who walk among us, who have worn a military uniform have contributed to maintaining our freedoms, our rights. One day a year we remember and thank those who have served, those who have died, and those who are still living as one large part of our communities. Restaurants will give some of them free or discounted food, stores will have sales, and politicians will make speeches. That’s all fine, even if it does seem a bit commercial and perfunctory. This year, try this: find just one of those old guys (and gals) wearing one of those baseball caps with all the stuff on it, and shake their hand, say thank you while you look at them, and maybe even buy their lunch. Do this in front of your kids and then explain why you did it when they ask you who that guy was.

You and your kids will be better people for it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

What Are You Doing Here, Elijah?

This question, asked twice by YHWH of his prophet - of Israel’s prophet apparently - comes while Elijah is hiding from Jezebel in a mountain cave somewhere in southern Judah. He has come after a number of significant events as a prophet of YHWH. Before we get to those though, let’s rehearse the political situation in Israel.

If you’ve read the history of Israel in the book of Kings, you will have been struck by the repeated descriptions of both Israel’s and Judah’s kings. They are to say the least, a mixed bag of faithfulness to YHWH, with Israel’s kings being roundly bad - evil even. We are introduced to Ahab in chapter 16 and find that he is worse than any king that had come before him. He has married a non-Jew from Sidon who is a worshiper of Ba’al, the infamous Jezebel who will end up being eaten by dogs before her story is done. Jezebel influences Ahab to worship Ba’al and Asherah. He erects a temple for Ba’al and he sets up asherah poles around Israel. To emphasize the evil of Ahab’s reign, we are told that it is during his time that Jericho is rebuilt with the tragic consequences of the eldest and youngest sons of the man who rebuilds it, as Joshua had predicted. It is this characterization of Ahab’s reign as the background that we are introduced to Elijah and his exploits as the prophet of Israel. First, in chapter Elijah prophecies a drought and it is during this drought that we read the story of the widow of Zarephath and the raising of her son. This story is significant in that it will be recalled as a judgment on Israel that the prophet went outside of Israel to work the work of God, rather than within Israel. This story is followed by Elijah’s conflict with the prophets of Ba’al to end the drought. This story involves the building of altars by both groups. The prophets of Ba’al go first and simply can’t get their god to respond and Elijah jeers at them with questions concerning whether or not Ba’al can hear them. Who knows, maybe their god is asleep. The it’s Elijah’s turn and he soaks his altar with so much water that a trough dug around its base fills with water. Then Elijah prays to YHWH and not only is the offering burned up, but all the water in the trough is licked up; Elijah is victorious in this contest. He has the prophets of Ba’al rounded up, taken to the brook, and killed - hundreds of them. The next story follows immediately and involves Elijah praying for rain and sending his servant to look for clouds. When a small cloud, the size of one’s fist is seen, Elijah sends to Ahab and says, get off the mountain because it’s going to rain and you don’t want to get stuck, so everyone takes off down the mountain and it rains cats and dogs.

Let’s review a bit. Elijah has prophesied a drought, has caused a widow’s oil not to run out during the drought and raises her son, wins a spectacular contest against the prophets of Ba’al, and has witnessed the power of YHWH in consuming his offering, followed by praying for an end to the drought just to have the rain pour down. Elijah has been personally involved in all of these demonstrations of YHWH’s power.

The execution of the hundreds of Ba’al’s prophets has made an impression on Ahab and he tells his wife all that Elijah has done. As a worshiper of Ba’al, she can’t let this affront pass and she sends a message to Elijah that by this time tomorrow, the exact same thing will be done to Elijah. So he takes off with his servant and this is how he ends up waiting under a broom tree to die. God isn’t ready for Elijah to die and so he sends an angel to wake Elijah up and provide him nourishment for his future journey. Elijah ends up in a cave and experiences the power of YHWH in a great wind that causes landslides, an earthquake, and even fire. Each time, Elijah goes to the mouth of the cave to see if YHWH has arrived in power, but no, YHWH isn’t in any of those signs. Then finally, he hears a low voice, a whisper so he goes back to the cave entrance and hears the voice say, “what are you doing here, Elijah?” This happens twice and both times  Elijah laments that he is the only one left who is loyal to YHWH, that Jezebel and company have killed all the prophets so that he is the only one left, and they’re looking to kill him. YHWH finally says, nope, Elijah, I have a job for you to do. I am sending you to anoint the new king of Syria, a new king of Israel, and your own replacement. Not only that these three will take vengeance on Israel. Those not killed by the king of Syria will be killed by the king of Israel, and those not killed by either of those two will be killed by the new prophet. And by the way, there are 7000 faithful followers of YHWH; you’re not the only one left. We might be able to insert an unspoken, “so get up, quit hiding down here, and go do the work I’v set you to do.”

Before we go any further, let’s remember who Elijah was and is. Elijah is no slouch. He has confronted the king of Israel and witnessed the power of YHWH in a drought, endless oil, raising a son, being victorious against other prophets, and ending the same drought he introduced. He is now communing with YHWH, will be a king maker, and will not die. He will be translated in the famous story of the fiery chariot and his mantel descending on Elisha. He is also referred by Jesus as the forerunner of the Messiah and his name is applied to John the Baptist, and he is one of three manifested at the transfiguration of Jesus. Even today, Jews have a seat at the Passover table for Elijah. The guy is no minor character in the story of Messiah and the work of YHWH among his people.

With that reminder, let’s see what we might apply to ourselves. First, despite having been involved with and witnessing the power of YHWH, we find Elijah hiding from Jezebel in a cave in the middle of nowhere. How strong is Elijah’s faith, really? Having witnessed all those manifestations of YHWH, does he now cower from Jezebel whose god has been so thoroughly embarrassed, and prophets massacred? Or does he now lament in defeat and despair that he is the only faithful one left and just wants to die under a tree? Where is Elijah’s faith? Where is your faith? Do you ever feel like Elijah - you and God are so tight that you feel like nothing can get in the way or disrupt your Christian walk? And then, and  then, someone says something, or something doesn’t work the way you want it to work, or it just doesn’t seem like God is there. What happens to your faith? Do you react like Elijah did - an apparently normal human response? Elijah is not only faithful to YHWH but he is also human, not superhuman. The work of Elijah was through YHWH and Elijah’s security and succor was in Elijah even when Elijah didn’t remember those truths. How about you? Do you take on responsibility in your humanness, or do you rely on YHWH even when the flash-bang excitement isn’t present, and those around you question the existence of God or his goodness, or his faithfulness?

While we often find it too easy to forget, let’s encourage each other in the midst of insecurity and isolation, that YHWH has kept 7000 faithful and that we aren’t the only ones; that YHWH who has demonstrated his power in our lives remains faithful and near us. We like Elijah have jobs to do even in our faithfulness to God. What would you say to God if he asked you in a small voice, “what are you doing here?”

That’s the big question posed by these stories but there are other details which present themselves. Perhaps the most important consideration is YHWH’s attention to non-Jews. We see in both the widow of Zarephath and this commissioning of Elijah to anoint the king of Syria of YHWH’s care for and authority over people and nations outside of Israel. YHWH is not just the God of Abraham’s descendants, but of the whole world. YHWH doesn’t have care for only residents of Israel, but suffering people wherever they are. We are called to live with that awareness. Our God is the God of the entire world and seeks to bless all peoples and all people in the midst of their suffering, and we are called as his images to have the same care, extending the kingdom of God throughout the world.

Can you do that in the face of persecution, oppression, and seeming aloneness? Will you?

Friday, November 03, 2017

A Hallowed Triduum

Today was the last of a triduum that began with All Hallowed Eve, then into All Saints' Day, and now All Souls' Day. Often over-shadowed by costumes and candy, this period is much better used to reflect on the lives of all those who have gone before us in the faith. Some of these have been tortured and murdered because of our shared faith - those that hated them would have hated you. Even today, martyrs are made daily around the world as those who claim our God are even in the 21st century,  hunted, abused, and killed for the same faith that you hold. Remembering them and honoring their faith once a year is hardly sufficient for their faithfulness to our God.

It is true though, that most believers no longer with us have not been martyred, but all of them have influenced someone. Have any of those who have died influenced you either to believe, to return to God, or perhaps to own your faith more strongly and more assuredly than before? Who were they; can you bring them to mind and remember their faith as it was lived before you?

Take a moment to remember, to reflect, to realize that you stand in a great river - or even flood - of believers who for two thousand years, have kept our faith alive in the world. Determine to join them in that faithful steadfastness that mimics our God through the remainder of your life and in so doing, push the faith a little further out in time so that younger people and those yet to be born, can know of the goodness and the grace of our God.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Who Is My Neighbor?

The lection this morning was the Good Samaritan, and Mary and Martha; two very familiar stories from Luke’s Gospel. Seemingly two different stories, Luke places them together for a reason. Let’s see if we can figure out why.

In the first story, a teacher of the Law decides he’s going to have some sport with this itinerant rabbi, and so he asks, “how can I inherit eternal life?” A couple things here with this question. How would one inherit eternal life anyway? Well if you’re a child of Abraham, you likely thought you could – the Children of Abraham, the People of God – because it was passed on by natural birth (didn’t Paul say something about “not by the will of man?”). For now though, let’s pay attention to that question – how can I get eternal life. Don’t lose sight of that question.

Jesus doesn’t say you’re a child of Abraham, so you’re in. No, he turns the question back: what does the Law say? The teacher responds with the two greatest commandments (we’ll be told that combined, all the Law and prophets hang on them as the greatest command), and Jesus says “you’re right!” The second of those two commands is “love your neighbor as yourself.” The teacher is right to be a bit wary of this approval because in his world, neighbor is somewhat constricted. He has probably treated his friends, other teachers, and most Jews of his caste pretty well, but he has a sneaking suspicion that there’s a catch here some place. And so he asks (seeking to justify himself), who is my neighbor?

Jesus again doesn’t answer the question but tells a story this time. We don’t need to review the details here because you know the story, but there are a couple details we want to examine. The first are the two who pass by the victim, the priest and the Levite. The text doesn’t give us much detail about these two or why they crossed the road and avoided the victim. We do know that they serve in the Temple of God in Jerusalem – the priest and the Temple functionaries, the Levite. What is interesting here is the contrast between the jobs of these two and their behavior in relation to this victim. The job of a priest – the definition of the function – is to mediate between God and people; to speak for the people, to lift them up, to help them in relating to their God. The Levite, as a Temple functionary has the same sort of job in a supporting role to the priest. What Luke presents us with here are two people whose very jobs are to intercede for people in their misery and yet they avoid this one; not lending a hand or lifting him up. Contrast the behaviors of these two countrymen whose functions should compel them to help, with a Samaritan. Samaritan are outcasts, marginalized people, unclean and detestable. Jews don’t like Samaritans because they’re not “true Israelites,” and Samaritans don’t like Jews because well, who would like someone who treats your people in the ways that Jews treat your people?

To address the teacher’s question, Jesus asks this question: who is his neighbor? The response again is spot-on – the one who “had mercy on him.” OK, go and do likewise.

Let’s review. The question the teacher asked was, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Our response is likely that of the teacher – keep the Law, do good, get the stuff right.

But that’s not the answer Jesus gives him. Jesus’s answer?

Do mercy.

You want to have eternal life?

Do mercy.

To people you don’t like – and perhaps more especially – to those who hold you in contempt.
Who is your neighbor? Those guys over there who are spitting on you, that’s who.

Show mercy to them, and gain eternal life.

So now let’s visit Mary and Martha. Jesus comes to town and comes to the house of these ladies. Mary sits down to listen to Jesus and Martha busies herself in the kitchen. It is premature for us to jump from here to lesson application. This story isn’t as neat as, “the better part is to listen to Jesus when he’s in town.” Oh no, Luke didn’t put this story here for such a mundane reason.

How do we know this? Because twice we are told that Martha is distracted and worrying about “stuff.” You see, it isn’t that Martha is fixing dinner – that would be fine. It is that she is distracted and worried. About what? That Mary isn’t helping her. Poor Martha is slaving away in the kitchen to take care of the company – we’re going to really honor this rabbi, and she’s grumbling about Mary’s lack of helping. This is Martha’s problem and this is what blinds her to what is happening in the front room and makes her complain to Jesus. If you’ve raised kids, you can hear this – “Daaaaad! Tell Mary to help me!” And you know, if you were raised with siblings what Martha would have done if Jesus had said, OK Mary, go help your sister. Martha wouldn’t have stopped grumbling. Oh no; she’d be muttering things like “oh yeah, now that the rabbi told you come help, here you are. Why didn’t it dawn on you to help me from the beginning? You just don’t appreciate all the work I do around here. Well never mind, I’ve got it almost finished already – no thanks to you, miss prissy!”

Or some such. You’ve heard it; you’ve probably done it. You’re Martha in this story, believe it or not.
OK, so what’s the connection between these two stories?

You can’t show mercy if your life, your attention, your focus – your pride – is wrapped up in grumbling about other people. Wrapped up in how you’ve been dissed, hurt, ignored, taken advantage of. It’s hard to be merciful when you’re in that frame of mind – or frame of life.

And here’s the rub:

If you can’t show mercy, you can’t inherit eternal life.

Because, if you want to inherit eternal life you have to be merciful – even toward those who don’t like you, to those who insult you by leaving you to do all the work, to those who you think are trying to show you up by currying favor with the new rabbi.

To those who spit on you and call you all sorts of pejorative names.

Want eternal life?

Do mercy.

To everyone.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Set Your Face

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In the first half of this reading, Jesus has set his face - he has purposed - toward Jerusalem. This is to be his final trip to Jerusalem, the center of God's people, and the place of God's own house. He has set his face toward Jerusalem because he has to be killed there. He came to Earth to both live and die - two ways to give his life for mankind. His life has been lived dedicated to doing the will of God - healing, raising, blessing - to declare that God has come into the world and to show us how God would live if he were living among us. Which he was. Now, he will die. His death will not be just to die, but will be the culmination of a life lived in subjection to the will of God, just as all that has gone before has been. This death will declare that his faithfulness in life is of such depth and strength that he will let his creatures kill him without cause and will not protest against the injustice. His love for mankind will result in this full submission to the will of God. This cup will not pass and Jesus is on his way to drink it.

The second half of this lection tells of the need for his followers to be as faithful in their calling and lives as he has been in his. Once committing to follow Jesus; to return to God, faithfulness demands complete focus on his life, rather than competing interests. Worried about comfort? Don't come. Worried about other obligations? Don't come. If you come, don't look back. There is an interesting brace in this second half of our reading. It is this, ""Lord, let me first go and bury my father." And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."" Instead of burying the dead, proclaim the kingdom of God. Or, instead of caring for the dead, proclaim that Life has come into the world.

Not having a place to lay one's head when you've walked through Samaria to Jerusalem is problem enough. If you set your face in the same direction as Jesus's, there is the unstated assurance here that having joined with God, you will have whatever is needed for your task. You may not have a pillow or a comfortable life, but you will have whatever is needed to be a disciple - to do the work of God in the world.

This Lent be Jesus. Set your face toward your own negation and lose your life so that you might find it in Jerusalem, after having been faithful to and dying to yourself for the kingdom of God. This is serious business though. Once you start on this road, you can't look back, you can't be distracted toward other, lesser things. Don't return to death, but continue on to Life with God.

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