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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Malachi 1&2

Malachi (My Messenger) is the Scripture reading from the Jewish Bible this week.
This short book ends the Christian Old Testament and is the final book of the Prophets in the Jewish Bible (to be followed by “the Writings” which includes the wisdom literature and various other books). It is brief and probably set in the time after the Babylonian Exile, after the Temple was “rebuilt.” At this time, the Jews lived in the land of their ancestors, though many were still dispersed throughout the ‘nations’ (among Gentile). The once great kingdom of David had been reduced to a province in the Persian Empire. A nothing populated by nobodies…

The book is written as a dispute and contains many questions by both people and God. The fundamental problem is that for these Jews, God is apparently inactive. Herein lies the connection for contemporary readers. “Where is God? Does He even care? What is the point?” But however painful our laments, and however sincerely our abandonment issues are felt, in the end, they stir up a response from God which is, to say the least, uncomfortable!
1:1-5 The book begins with the chosen people asking, “How have You/God shown us love?” The knowledge that there is a history of salvation does not generate covenant faithfulness. “What have you done for me lately?” the People ask. [Do we not share such sentiments? How does the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the hope of eternal life inform our daily choices? Are we any different than those who have no hope? Are we noticeably more patient, joyful and peaceful?] The enemy who aided in Judah’s demise was Edom, but now Malachi says that God declares that this rival has been decimated, never to rise again as a nation. Edom, to become Idumea (where King Herod was from), is reduced to living in a desert waste and God declares they are never to rise again. [Judgment is rescue of God's people and destruction on God's enemies. Keep that in mind while you are choosing your affiliation.]

1:6-15 is concerned with ancient priests and animal sacrifice. The plain reading is difficult for us in the 21st century. But a spiritual reading provides numerous insights. The People have asked where God’s love is. God responds, do not a father or a master deserve honor? Am I not your Father and Master? Where is my honor? [Remember, this is an honor culture. It is central to social interactions.]The dishonor is manifest in priests accepting blemished animals for sacrifice. In every age people are tempted to give God “the left overs” because God is not physically present. “Would you give this to your governors?,” He asks rhetorically. Of course the answer is no.
When Christians toss ten bucks in the basket after spending ten times that amount on a dinner the night before, is that not similar? Are our self-offerings to God not usually determined by other demands first? We skip church or Bible study, but go to work because “we have to.” The disrespect for God is something to which we have grown oblivious. God is first, said Jesus. For many of us, He does not even receive votes for the top twenty!
2:1-9 contain a remarkable image, God threatens to throw dung in the face of His priests. Ponder that one! The two pronged demand (“obey and lay it to heart”) is a core of the Judeo-Christian Covenant. God, in gracious mercy, has chosen people to enter covenant. It is a grace, which requires a response: obedience. Since the Garden of Eden there have been expectations, not to earn salvation but to live in right relationship with the Savior. Malachi 2 speaks of the covenant God made with Levi in establishing a priestly line. But they violated God’s trust by misleading people (James also says teachers are held to a higher standard in another reading this week). When priests (pastors, bishops) go bad; it is very bad. In our own age it is no different from previous times, humans abuse their positions of authority (be it a churchman or an autonomous Christian individual) because God can seemingly be disregarded and despised with no consequence. What does that abuse consist of? Many things, one of them is a lack of orthodoxy! Get it right, God says, and teach the truth.
2:10-16 If the previous section poured judgment on churchmen/priests, the next verses strike at the heart of the laymen. Suddenly the speaker is the Malachi the prophet: “Have we not all one Father?” In other words, aren’t the Jewish people united in the same faith? If our commitment to God were primary, instead of other loyalties, then loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves would produce justice and peace. By profaning God and profaning worship the People have broken the first commandment, so is there any surprise that they would then break the second? Infidelity to God (idol worship) is then duplicated in infidelity to human wives. The men of Judah exchange the wife of their youth for a new (and apparently pagan) model. Taking on these wives is compounded by embracing their gods as well. There is no escaping the connection of religious and secular lives. Even if, like them, we cry tears all over the altar (faux repentance) God is not fooled. “I detest divorce,” strong words from God and they refer both to human marriage and the divine covenant with His people.
2:17 This loan verse has haunted me for years. The people are condemned for saying good is evil and evil is good. This is a variation of the unforgivable sin (claiming the work of the Holy Spirit is demonic). Why do I say this? Because God is good. His Christ is good. The anti-christs (the world, flesh and devil) is evil. To equate evil with good is to be unreachable by good. In any age where “men follow their own hearts” (see Judges 21:25) this is the ultimate destination. And the loss of faith in God’s Justice is the fruit.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sin Sick

As a modern, or post-modern, citizen of this world, I am unduly influenced by cultural beliefs, assumptions and values which are not the same as the ancient world. A-historical Christianity does not exist. The Bible reflects the beliefs of the ancient world. Anyone writing since the Reformation is modern. We who read the Bible, rarely recognize that our mind is full of assumptions, values and prejudices which impact how we read, what we notice and how we interpret it. Exegesis (taking meaning from) and eisegesis (inserting meaning into) are always part of any reading we do. When we visit the ancient church we can gain insights into how faithful believers in another time from another place understood the Christian life. They have values, assumptions and prejudices, too, but they are different from ours. They are also closer to the time the Bible was written...

We assume what we assume without even knowing it is an assumption. People from "other Christian worlds" help us see those assumptions. The Philokalia is probably second to the Bible in importance. It is a four volume collection of teachings from the Ancient Orthodox Church. Skylight Paths Publishing has a nice introduction to these extensive writings called Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts. It is more manageable (200 pages) with excerpts from the Philokalia and notes to clarify. The first chapter is on Repentance. I want to share what I encountered there (p12): God is better understood as a Physician than a Judge, just as sin is better understood as illness than as transgression... The penitent comes before God and the priest (as God's agent) not to plead guilty but to seek healing. 

Heal/Saved is the same word (sozo) in Greek, not so in English. The idea of sin in our time is greatly influenced by the moral/ethical and judicial worldviews. We think about 'right and wrong,' 'good and bad' or 'legal and illegal.' Seeing God as a Judge Who evaluates our life and actions is not wrong. It is certainly  Biblical. However, the "court room" as we know it is not exactly the same as the ancient world court room. Words change meaning over time.

The need to be rescued from sin (Paul personifies sin in Roman 6-7) includes the recognition that we are somewhat powerless before it. Pure discipline seems always to cave in at some point. Sin, like water, finds a way to get in whether we want it or not!

I do not advocate ignoring the other insights into sin (moral, legal, relational). All have their place, but illness and the cry for healing/salvation does make sense. In the health model our choices do make sense. We are responsible for nutrition, exercise, etc. We are also responsible to get the illness diagnosed and to take our medicine. That seems to ring true to me. If sin is a disease of the soul which kills us, then it is more organic and less arbitrary than punishments assigned for transgressions. The judgment of a doctor is clinical. It assesses the situation and offers a recommended treatment protocol.

Suffice to say, the oldest Christians have used this understanding and read it in the Bible. If we do not see it there, it may be fair to ask, "Who is missing the point?" The centrality of healing in the church has been sadly lost in our modern age. We need to heal and exorcise more vigorously, especially in this time of grave spiritual illness.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thanks, but no thanks

Today we read from Luke 17. It is a familiar story. Jesus is "on His way to Jerusalem" though He is traversing an indirect path. I think Luke's point is Jerusalem is the final destination. No matter where He is going, that is where He is headed. (Sort of like being behind in a game doesn't mean you are losing, the victor is winning the whole game long, even if it is not obvious from the score at every moment!)

Along the way, Jesus enters "a village" (unnamed) and ten lepers, standing at a distance, cry out to Him for help. "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" They kept their distance because that was the theo-legal protocol; the ritually unclean/impure are not to infect the ritually clean/pure. It is a different way of seeing things from us. We tend to think in terms of morality (right/wrong) or hygiene (clean or sanitary v. unclean/germs) The words they use are a variation of the Jesus Prayer, which many Orthodox saints repeat upwards of hundreds and thousands of times a day. In a sense it is a complete prayer, honoring Jesus, entrusting our needs to Him (without listing) and crying out for His covenant loving kindness and mercy. Try repeating it a hundred times a day while breathing slowly and focusing on the Savior's love!

Unlike many healing miracles, Jesus does not immediately cure them, rather He sends them on their way with a command "Go and show yourselves to the priests." So off they went, in acts of trusting faith. Along the way, in response to that faith, the healing happens. Only one man returns, and Jesus is startled that it is a Samaritan. He is also disappointed. He bemoans that a foreigner comes to thank Him while the other nine were also healed. He tells the man, "You were saved/healed by your faith." An interesting point, this man was alone because the priest he went to see was not at the Temple in Jerusalem. He had a different priest at Mount Gerizim. Crying out for mercy in need is much more pressing than saying thank you, isn't it? Try to say 100 thanks a day to the Lord...

The man who thanked Him was not part of the in-group. We do like our in-groups, don't we? The Jews had them and so do we. I often wonder what Jesus thinks of Muslims praying seven times a day while Christians, who talked about being saved and all that, are hard pressed to show up once a week on Sunday. I am sure all the blather about "works righteousness" and "empty rituals" and whatever else we come up with can be made to sound theologically correct. But I also wonder if we are thanking Him like we should. I am wondering if "the foreigner" is getting it right. I wonder if we assume that we are deserving and so not feeling grateful and He is dismayed by us!

Gratitude is a challenge, especially for people suffering from entitlement, envy and resentment...

While this story has lots of meanings and many things can be drawn from it, based on Luke I know one meaning is that God's Kingdom is effective in unexpected places (like the lives of people we consider foreign). Grace is amazing after all. Something to ponder on our journey of faith.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Talent and Trust

In chapter 25, Matthew has gathered three parables related to the Last Judgment. Today is about “The Day of Reckoning.”
In Jesus’ real life experience there were many “absent land owners.” The sunairo,  a reckoning or accounting, is a sign of respect. To hold someone accountable means you take them seriously. 
Let’s be clear, a talent (Greek is talentos)  is a huge sum: 200 pounds of gold. (One talent is worth $840,000 in our money today.) The three men are entrusted with enormous wealth. The message of the parable is clear, "Do not bury your treasure. Do not accuse God of being unjust or unfair--and if you do, understand you are judged by your own words."
Unfortunately, the word talent in English means something different for us. It makes us focus on our capabilities so we may not feel we are that talented to equate it to a million or a couple million dollars. But that is the wrong interpretation, our personal talents/abilities impact how we invest the "Talent/Wealth" God entrusts us with.

As Jesus says elsewhere, “Fear not little ones, it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom!” IF God is like the absentee Landowner, then that is what He has done with each of us is given us the Kingdom. Let’s look at it logically.
1.    God is King, He owns the world.
2.   God gave dominion to Adam/Mankind and then He goes away.
3.   God left us in charge, to rule and subdue in His Name.
4.   The talent is the Reign of God, we rule as His Chosen ones (children). 
5.   We messed up, so God came among us as a human. Jesus shows what God wants (Servants who give their lives in obedience to the Father)
6.   Christ incarnate, Christ faithful, Christ crucified, Christ risen becomes Christ Spirit-giver, Christ mission-giver, Christ the absentee Landowner
7.   We are given "the Talents" meaning His mission/kingdom. 

Someday God will excitedly ask us, “So how did you do?”
Let's clarify: What is Jesus mission? 
Proclaim God is King. Proclaim God is a good God who loves His children. Proclaim God’s rule is already breaking in for those who trust/believe and love Him. So that proclamation becomes: healing (mind, body, spirit, relationships), exorcism (disabling demons and reclaiming God's territory from them),Teaching (truth in place of lies and confusion).  It is reconciling sinners and freeing them from sin, satan and death. It is freeing people from fear, selfishness, conflict, doubt and despair.
 This is the “millions bucks” in the parable. When Jesus comes back He will ask: “How awesome is it when you preach, teach, heal, exorcise, worship, forgiven, evangelize?” “How wonderful is it bring truth, mercy, love, kindness, holiness, humility, love, trust?”
If we say, “I wouldn't know, I buried it,” what could possibly justify us?

In the first reading, Barak had a promise from God that God would deliver his enemies. What follows is a missed opportunity. Barak did not trust God and he said he would go only if Deborah was with him. So he lost his chance and another woman won the day (something more shameful in his time than our own). The point: GOD HAS WON THE VICTORY AND YOU ARE HIS TOOL, IF YOU OPT OUT HE WILL FIND ANOTHER TOOL. DON’T THROW AWAY THE VICTORY PARTY 1. TRUST GOD. 2. OBEY GOD 3. ENJOY THE VICTORY OF GOD AS HIS TOOL

Hear Paul, You are children of Light. Your destiny is salvation. That is God’s goal, plan, intent. It is Good News: So live in light, sober and awake.
Be ready for the day of reckoning. 
God has entrusted you with the Kingdom. The reason is so you can celebrate His victory (for two of the three it was joy). 
That is the plan: Joyful celebration. 
God TRUSTS you. Don’t betray His trust. 
Seriously, be faithful ministers in word and deed. Let the Victory of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, transform you into the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I Changed My Mind

Today was a perfect storm on 'repentance' in my readings.  We have moved on to Joel this week, so we are on 2:12-19 today. The last two days are the same words we read on Ash Wednesday. It is all about "returning" to God, the Hebrew expression for repentance. The Jewish Bible uses the image of journey (Exodus is the Big One, but think of Abraham, Jacob, Moses; travel is a model for Luke in his Gospel as Jesus heads to Jerusalem and His destiny) and to obey God is "to walk in His ways." Hence, to betray God is "to wander off" the path. To travel the the wrong direction requires that we "turn around" and go back to God. Joel talks about a two way "turning" and "repentance"--if we repent and turn back, he says, perhaps God will do the same. 

Repentance is expressed in the heart: it includes fasting and mourning. It is a core orientation towards God. The Gospel, Lk 15:1-10, emphasizes the points made by Joel. God is the one who is jealous for His people and takes pity on them. This is because, Jesus explains in His parable of the lost sheep and lost coin, "there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than ninety-nine not needing to repent." God, it appears, is hungry for salvation!

In the Philokalia (Eastern Orthodox collection of Ancient Church writings) I read two excerpts from Peter of Damascus on Repentance. He reminds us not to despair though we sin the same way each day. Keep God's mercy in mind, for God will save the one who is sorry for his/her sins, even if they are too weak to conquer them. In the East, sin is best understood as a 'disease' in need of the Divine Physcian. Healing and Health are the same as salvation; the word in Greek means both. The realization that repentance, returning to our relationship with God, is fundamentally a response to God's initiative, brings us full circle to the core of Christian faith. We are saved by grace, and that salvation is activated by our trust and repentance. 

No despair, only trust and repentance and joy in response to His love and mercy. Each day, every day.  .

Sunday, November 9, 2014

No Fair!

It is one of the most troublesome of Jesus' parables for most people I know. Matthew 20:1-16, a landowner goes out to find laborers for his harvest. Harvest time was a pressure time. There is suddenly much more work to be done, gathering each fruit, and there is a window of opportunity. The time between unripe to overripe is not long.

The day laborers were no doubt similar to the men who do such things today. In Memphis many are out of towners, if you will, people of limits lacking in the right contacts. For those desperate for work, it is common to literally earn one's daily bread. That is what the "day's wages" is in the parable. What one needs to live for another day.

We all know the story, every few hours the owner comes to find more unemployed men standing around. Each time he offered them a chance to work. "I will pay you whatever is right," he promised them. Grace. Faith.

What is right for a partial day's work? We tend to pay by the hour, it is the purchase of 'time', but even among us there is a practice of measuring output, production, what is concretely accomplished. One senses that this was not the case here, it is a day's pay for a day's work. Yet, we must keep in mind, time spent working is not always the best measure of the amount of work done. Even if it is true that the one in the hot sun all day has a prolonged experience of the work....

The story ends and the landowner has given each man the same pay, whether for all day or a brief few hours. We know that anyone who is paid "enough to live one more day" can hardly survive on less than that. If the local kitchen offers a meal for ten dollars, offering a man two or three is not going to make the difference. The landowner knows this, these men will return home at day's end and their hungry families will want food for the day. He is generous with them and provides it.

Those who work all day are right, it is not fair. We have no reason to doubt they worked hard. So what is their sin? It is the same sin which Jesus constantly emphasizes, the sin of indifference to the plight of others. The sin of not loving the neighbor. Every workman knows the struggle of life. Everyone knows the precarious nature of things. In he face of difficulties, they fall prey to competition. They see the other as enemy, not companion. So rather than rejoice that the owner is kind and many families can eat, they band together and want more than the agreed wage.

It is also not fair to make a contract and complain. It is also not fair to wish ill on others, who because of things beyond their control (no one would hire them when they were willing to work) are in difficult situations. But most of all, and this is from God's perspective, it is unfair to expect grace and mercy for yourself and hold others to a different standard.

Treat others as you want to be treated. The measure with which you measure out is the measure with which you will be measured. These are divine principles governing God's interactions with us. The parable is really about insiders (faithful Jews) and outsiders (sinners and Gentiles). The latter are the late arrivers, those who do not belong to the ancient people. Jesus made clear to His opponents that the Kingdom was open to all, and any who respond, even later, are welcome to full membership. You and I can count pennies and harbor offenses. We can decide God is not fair and we can gripe about the slights we suffer from Him, but in the end, He is the owner and His fairness is a mercy to us all. Because, in the end, in truth we are all the late arrivers enjoying unmerited grace!