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.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Life in Dying

Lent is a season to refocus or repurpose ourselves in this common faith. The season looks toward the Triduum, as a sober period that focuses on the movement of God in the world - namely the reconciliation of all people to God.

The season calls for reflection on the need of that reconciliation and my part in that need. This period though, isn't primarily about denial or self-flagellation, but intentional and deeper reflection. At the risk of sounding morose, let me observe that this period leads toward, or focuses on our own death; our own self-giving of ourselves for and to others.

Looking toward death, living in death is counter-intuitive in most societies. One of the more interesting ideas in some monastic communities is a reminder of the "moment of death." In these circles, this moment is to remind us that we are mortal and that no matter who we are or what we accomplish, we remain mortal. As mortal, we will all proceed to that moment.

All of us will proceed to that moment, but some of us will progress to that moment - our movement toward it will be characterized by living more and more in death. Our own death. And in that living in death, we will become more and most fully alive. This is one secret of the Christian life - that it is in dying that we gain life, real Life. Not at the end of our physical existence, but right now. Dying to ourselves is the only way to have - to experience here - real Life.

This is the Life of Jesus - self-given for and toward others so that they might both have Life and see the path to it. This is what Jesus really means when he says, I am the way, the truth, the Life. Yes, Jesus is God and we need to believe that on some level. More importantly though, it is his living death that is the way to the Father.

The Friday before Easter is called Good Friday, not Black Friday or Death Friday. Good Friday because it is in the death of Jesus that Life is secured for the world. It is in our death that we gain Life for ourselves and extend Life to others. You are, in this life, a Life-giver to others; a small Jesus; a little Christ. This season reminds us of the invitation of God to find Life by dying.

Joyously dying because in our dying, we declare with the heavens and with God himself that the path to home is in giving Life to others. We do this with relish, with gusto, with intentional desire not only to gain Life, but because we are Living in death.

Take the time to refocus. If you do, you will even more be prepared to rejoice on Easter morning when Life really does erupt from death!

This is Lent.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


The lection for this morning was the latter part of Luke 9, the Transfiguration and the healing of the demon-possessed son. These are tied together by their seeming contrast and yet their similarities, even if those similarities are not overly positive.

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.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


In Luke 6, Jesus tells us that he is "Lord of the Sabbath." Now the purpose of the Sabbath is given as two seemingly different reasons. First, because God worked six days and rested on the seventh, so should we rest on the Sabbath. The second reason is that YHWH had brought Israel out of Egypt - they had been saved and had now been released. The Sabbath then, pictured rest and release from oppression. It is not a large stretch to say then that the Sabbath means life, healing, release for the people of God.

Jesus tells us that he is Lord of the Sabbath. What did he mean? A number of meanings have been suggested but, in it's simplest form, it means that he as the Son of Man can best interpret it; that he can illustrate what it means to observe the Sabbath.

He has to say this because he has been just accosted by those who objected to his followers "working" on the Sabbath by "harvesting grain," and walking through the fields. The Sabbath, they knew was to be free of work of any kind.

After this story of grain harvesting, Luke will tell us of healing of the man's withered hand. This latter story is an interesting setting. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and this man is present. Some of the folks there are wondering what Jesus is going to do and so they are watching. Jesus knows what they're thinking and he invites the man to stand up, and Jesus asks the assembly, "is it good to do good on the Sabbath, or to do harm?" This is a rhetorical question and it receives no reply. Jesus looks around one more time and tells the man to stretch out his hand and wouldn't you know it, the hand is healed.

The folks who were watching to see what would happen, after being put in a corner by his question, and having him defy the Sabbath rules by "working" and healing this man, are furious and their opposition is almost sealed. These folks had majored in the details of keeping the Law and couldn't grasp the healing and blessing being offered by God through Jesus.

This brings us back to our first story - the one of the grain. In response to the religious leaders' objections, Jesus reminds them of another "rule breaker," David. David didn't just work on a Sabbath, but he violated the food restrictions of the bread of the presence. Only priests could eat that bread, but David received it and shared it with his followers. The details of the story aren't as important as the reality that David "broke the rules."

Jesus uses this story to teach the very point he is going to make in the next story - is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or harm? While Jesus' interlocutors won't answer this question, we know the answer is that it is always right to do good on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a gift of rest, of healing, of release and a reminder of God's work in the world and for Israel. The Sabbath isn't supposed to be a burden or a restriction, but one of refreshment for people. Because that is what it is to remember; because it is about life, healing, and release, it is logically and appropriately right to "bend the rules" to benefit people. As we are told other places, the Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.

It is often said that in the Christian system there are no laws - the Law having been taken away. This is not however entirely true. There is at least one law required to be kept - the law of love. The details of that law are not spelled out in Scripture but they are illustrated by Jesus. There are other "rules," and we get some of them from Jesus, Paul, and John. Jesus will give us a set of rules in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Judgment Scene. Paul will give us directions about how to behave in the Christian community, and John will tell us that denying that Messiah came in the flesh is a problem for those who would be disciples.

There are rules but some are more important than others. The greatest? Love. If you have to break a rule, don't break this one. Rather, on the basis of this rule, it is acceptable to break the others. Love conquers everything else. Instructive here is that love itself cannot be seen; we only deduce it from someone's behavior toward others. If that's true, then each of us may express our love differently, based on how we perceive a situation, our relationship to it, and our own experiences. The measure is our motivation in doing what we do even if we might show it differently than someone else - even if we might get it wrong.

Love demands that if understand that about our behaviors, grounded in love, we must extend that same grace to others who seem to love is ways we might not; and even if we might consider their behavior "wrong," we bear with them in knowing that their motivation was love.

The Christian Sabbath is Jesus himself. When we come to God; when we enter Jesus, we enter his rest, his Sabbath. In Scripture though, the blessings we get from God are not for us exclusively. We are to pass on those blessings and in most cases we are to become those blessings. How might this apply to the Sabbath rest we enjoy and the reality that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. It is simply this: we are to become, and to extend life, healing, and release to others just as God does for us.

As you go about your week, imagine yourself as a Sabbath bringer; someone who gives life, healing, and release to others. Make what you do and what you say communicate life, healing, and release for those you meet, those you work with, and even those who rub you the wrong way.

Be Sabbath.

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