You and your kids will be better people for it.
Friday, November 10, 2017
You and your kids will be better people for it.
Tuesday, November 07, 2017
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
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
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?
You want to have eternal life?
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?
Friday, March 03, 2017
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.
Wednesday, March 01, 2017
Sunday, February 26, 2017
The Transfiguration begins when Jesus take Peter, James, and John and in a seeming premonition of the scene in the Garden, these three seem oblivious to what is happening around them. In the Garden they will sleep; here Luke tells us that they are heavy with sleep. Not quite asleep maybe, but their heads are nodding. Jesus has come up the mountain to pray and these three probably expect the same sort of non-event as is normal for Jesus when he “goes away to pray.”
An interlude on identity, if you will. Jesus has, a week earlier, asked the disciples who people and they think he is. Various options are offered, John the Baptist (odd since John and Jesus had been baptizing at the same time, but their messages were similar), Elijah, or one of the prophets. But who do the disciples think Jesus is? Peter is quick with, Messiah. Pete gets this one right, but apparently not right enough. Jesus is Messiah, but as we will find out, he is much more than that.
While the Apostles are dozing and nodding, Jesus meanwhile is praying about what is coming up in the not-too-distant future. We already know that he intends to go to Jerusalem where he will be killed by the very people who should have known better, aided by some folks who just don’t really care as long as peace is maintained in the empire. His prayer is conversation and not only with God, but with Elijah and Moses. This reminds those of us who know the larger story that YHWH is not the God of the dead, but of the living. These are not specters, but actually Elijah and Moses and Luke tells us that their conversation is specifically about his impending “departure.” Later in the Garden, Jesus is going to pray that if possible, he might not have to drink that cup. Perhaps this is the conversation now – Elijah and Moses are encouraging him and reminding him of his purpose of living and dying. Elijah who has been known to hide in a cave and being confronted with the embarrassing question, “why are you here;” and Moses who both led the People of Israel through the wilderness, and failed to enter it. Elijah and Moses, two of the most important people in the history of Israel, both took the work of God into their own hands and blew it. Jesus has been given a task that he must fulfill and God is with him.
As these three are talking with each other, the sleepy heads get a glimpse of something rather odd. Jesus, it seems has begun to – glow. Shimmering and bright, apparently, this gets the Apostles’ attention and they don’t quite know what to do about. Peter though – true to form – jumps up and fairly gushes with, “Oh Jesus, let me build three arbors for you three!” Luke tells us in an aside that this is just Pete being Pete, “he doesn’t know what he’s saying.” We don’t know if the other two are starting to collect arbor-making material, but immediately there comes a cloud that engulfs them all – maybe so they can’t find any branches, but more likely this is the presence of God who seems to make a habit of cosmic entrances. It is God, after all, and he speaks to the Apostles. This is the second time YHWH has said these words concerning Jesus. The first was at his baptism, and now here. Both times they serve to separate Jesus from others; from what has gone before. At his baptism, the voice serves to take the focus off of John who has been baptizing folks; it was time to end the parallel work of John and Jesus, and Jesus’s work was to take precedence. Here, in chapter nine, the voice serves the same purpose. Peter has just wanted to make shelters for the three men and so YHWH needs to tell Pete and the other two that the Law and the prophets were for an earlier time; it’s time to separate Jesus from them. The work of God, the world, and the disciples have entered another phase of God’s enterprise for the world. This is a new era, a Jesus Era. Jesus will himself make reference to this shift when he tells his disciples that the greatest command is to 1, love God; and 2, love your neighbor. He then will say that upon these two laws hang all the Law and the Prophets. Jesus will give his followers a “new law,” that they love one another. Just as the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus and are overshadowed and fulfilled by him, so are they and their teachings overshadowed and fulfilled by love.
The Apostles don’t quite know what to make of this and they eventually come down off the mountain. In the flat land there is a crowd that comes to meet Jesus and in this crowd is a man whose only son is tormented by a demon. He had asked Jesus’s disciples to heal his son, but they couldn’t and so the man has brought his son to Jesus for healing. Jesus eventually will heal this boy and return him to his father, but first he makes an observation about a faithless and twisted generation. Jesus is frustrated it seems. We have read of his “who am I” question and Peter’s apparently correct response and the eight days later, Peter is ready to build three shelters and has to be told by no one else than God that it is to Jesus they should paying attention – the Son of God. This vignette is now replayed with a larger crowd and God will speak here too.
Jesus’s disciples couldn’t heal this boy and we are tempted to think that it is because they have made the same mistake the Three have made – Jesus is a great miracle worker, but that’s about all there is. Maybe they are also in the habit of jockeying for position – who’s the teacher’s pet; who is the greatest among the followers of this wonder worker? Faithless and twisted. They don’t know who he is, and they are still interested in who’s Number One. They have not fully embodied God and as a result, they can’t heal this boy. Jesus says, send your son here and as the boy is coming, the demon throws him to the ground.
And then God speaks.
“Leave the boy alone.”
That’s all God has to say and the demon leaves. Jesus then gives the boy back to his father. God has spoken and the sign should be sufficient for all who have eyes to see that it is Jesus – in his complete essence – that should have our attention. Not our own “power” to heal, nor our one-upmanship games in the kingdom of God. They won’t get this either, as the next pericope demonstrates.
The point of both these stories is the identity of Jesus as the Son of God; the Son of Man. God incarnate and living among us. Emmanuel as he is called.
The last part of this section has Jesus saying something. He seemingly has to say this slow and with a deliberate tone because they have yet to figure out who he is. He says, “let this sink into your ears.” The equivalent to a parent’s “listen closely this time,” Jesus tells them that he is going to die. You and I know the story, but these folks don’t. It’s one thing to claim to be a God; quite another to tell them that this God is going to be killed. If the first is fantastic, the second is even more so. God’s don’t die; they certainly don’t get themselves killed by people.
But this one does, and he’s telling them up front what is going to happen.
What are we to make of this story other than the obvious, “this is my Son?”
First, mountain top experiences are really cool, but the work of God is not done in mountain top experiences. Those experiences refresh us and bring us sometimes palpably into the presence of God, but they aren’t the point and ultimately, they aren’t about you. Having been refreshed, it’s time to get to work, and that’s done off the mountain, in the dirty, frustrating, and deadly world of and with other people. Another observation we might make is that while Jesus was on the mountain, he expected his disciples to be doing his work, but they were failing, being faithless and twisted. Does your life not seem to have the power or presence of God in it? Maybe a bit less of me, and a bit more reliance on God would help it flower even more thoroughly in your life. As we approach Lent, a period of self-reflection and yet reassurance, make it a point to focus on Jesus and to live his life in your world.
We can’t end this discussion without mentioning a bit more about glowing as Jesus did. When we are in close communion with God, we glow too. Don’t believe me? Think about those you know who are closest to God; those who have lived long lives toward him; those who are patient, and loving, and compassionate. Their faces and their demeanor do glow; you can see it in their eyes and in their countenances. Everyone who lives that closely with God can’t help but glow.
One last point. Jesus in the second story heals the returns the son to his father. This is what God does and wondrously it is what Jesus does for you. Jesus heals you and returns you to your Father. That’s why he came and that is what his life and his death accomplish for you. Would you be healed, would you be washed, would you be fully alive? Let Jesus give you back to your Father.
Now, go glowing into the world and point people to Jesus.
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