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Friday, September 12, 2014

There's Two Kind of People

It is sometimes tempting to create two categories into which we can easily subdivide the entirety of humanity into "two kinds of people." Reality is much more complex. There are frequently two extremes and people are divided between them in varying degrees.

Thursday's class discussed another variation of the "salvation issue" and the "what abouts..." First, let me clarify the terms. Salvation means "who gets into heaven" and "what abouts" are people who seem to be cut off from eternal life through 'no fault of their own.'

Among the "what abouts" which are most intensely identified are "those people in a far off land who never heard of Jesus" and "the faithful Jews." This issue comes up frequently in my classes. It is because, as orthodox Christians, we believe Jesus is the Savior. We think He is the Word made flesh, God the Son become Jesus the Son of God, and the Incarnate Divine Human. Reading the Lazarus story in John's Gospel the last three days, we have heard Jesus say, "I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." This same Jesus said, NO one can come to the Father except through me." This is generally understood as "only Christians can go to heaven because only Christians believe in Jesus." While this is described as God's grace, the "what abouts" stir up questions in us all. Faith in Jesus seems a pretty arbitrary and limited gift. And in some ways it is like a 'magic word' which one receives through good fortune (someone told it to us). The idea of a loving God and such an arbitrary mode of providing eternal life do not easily go together. 

Now it is true that we are all sinners and saving any of us is a grace; none of us deserves life. No one deserves it. Yet, from a human perspective, if someone who enters a burning school and leads children to safety she would be a hero, until we learned that she had intentionally only taken the boys or kids with brown eyes. Then it would look somewhat malicious...

I have no final answers to the question. As I wrote some months ago, Scripture also makes clear that God's desire is that all be saved. There is no question that salvation is in and through Jesus. How the exact process works out (whether limited to earth time or including some meeting with Jesus/God the Son after death) is not my business. God needs none of my input!

But I do think there is a range between "two kinds of people," the ones who think God is looking for an excuse to save people and the ones who think God is looking for an excuse to send them to fiery torment. Both kinds can believe only Jesus saves. It just ends up looking different as they explain exactly what that means. In the end, that is what drives much of the conversation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Tribulation Has Begun

The Tribulation has begun.
In fact, it began a long, long time ago.

Tribulation is the English word used to translate the Greek word thlipsis. The daily reading today (we will use it at Evening Prayer) is from Acts 14. Paul is preaching and some of the Jews take offense at his message. We are told they stone him and drag him out of the city thinking he is dead. The apostles "circle" around the body and he "rises" and goes back to his vocation. The term "rise" (anistemi) is ambiguous as it also means rise from the dead, in reference to Jesus, and one wonders exactly what took place? At any rate, Paul's fast recovery is certainly a miraculous healing, whether or not it is a re-animation of the dead.

Paul strengthened and encouraged the new disciples to stay in their faith in Jesus. Most people rejected Jesus in that time (like today) and the life of a disciple has always been very much an 'uphill battle.' We who have been raised on the prosperity gospel, looking for countless blessings and assuming smooth sailing, do well to ponder the cost of following Jesus. I find this especially comforting (yet a stern warning as well) as I struggle to keep myself and my parish focused and enthusiastic about the Lord. Success is not obvious much of the time....

Acts 14:22 quotes Paul, "It is through many tribulations that we must enter the Kingdom of God." One recalls Jesus saying you must be born again to enter, or become like a child to enter. Yet, this "tribulation" to enter is part of that process as well. Ironically, the same word (thlipsis) is used by Jesus to describe child birth!(John 16:21) Paul, recently stoned, was no doubt still covered in bruises and scabs from his tribulation, so his words have an added authenticity, intensity and authority.

The word thlipsis (tribulation/persecution) literally means pressing. You get the image---crushed under the forces which fight against God and His rule. Jesus spoke of those with "no root" who will wither when they experience persecution. Jesus promised that they shall persecute, kill and hate His followers. This was not theoretical, nor is it in the Middle East today. Paul adds more in Romans, reminding us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, including tribulations (8:35); so we need to hold onto hope and be patient in our tribulations (12:12).

Sometimes we get the impression that tribulation is something stored away for the last weeks of history. Books are written about "the Great Tribulation" as if, in the meantime, what is going on today is unrelated to that grand finale. Truth be told, the appearance of Jesus ushered in the End of the Age. This is God's Final Act and we are characters, you and I. This is the time of the 'birth pangs' and if we notice some unpleasantness in our own lives (and serious mayhem in the lives of persecuted Christians in other places around the globe, especially the Middle East) then we should not be surprised. Jesus is coming back and this is the Final Act (even if there may be a few 'scenes' left before the curtain comes down--or, paradoxically in Revelation terms, the curtain is finally drawn back to reveal the Kingdom in its fullness!!!)

So believing in Jesus and embracing His rule will continue to create resistance, it may cost you at work, and lead to people making unkind comments, even trying to do you harm. (Just make sure it is because of Jesus and not because you are a jerk!) It is the Tribulation, and has been since He was here among us. He is among us, still, in the thlipsis, so do not worry. As He said in John 16:33: You will have tribulation in the world, but cheer up, I have overcome the world!  

see the Blue Letter Bible for more: 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Exodus Grace

[Homily notes for 13 Sunday after Pentecost]

Last week we read in Exodus that God had seen the abuse of the Hebrew slaves, He had heard their cries, He knew their suffering, He remembered His covenant promise and He came down to save them. Moses, standing before the burning bush, was identified as the (instrumental) savior. This, I said, was the Good News. “God Saves His People!”
Today the Exodus account describes the next stage of the salvation process. After much negotiation and many plagues, God is ready to administer the penultimate act in His battle with Egypt and its gods (the final act is the parting of the sea and subsequent annihilation of the Egyptian army) which will set His people free. The fullness of Good News, "God comes to save His people," is in the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ. His death on the cross is the perfect sacrifice and His resurrection begins the new age (the end of “Night” and Dawn approaches).
The death of Jesus is the fullness and fulfillment of the Paschal Sacrifice. Eucharist is the new Passover meal. [In fact, today’s reading, Exodus 12:1-14 is also the first reading on Maundy Thursday.] We are invited to read Exodus typologically: to see Jesus and God’s saving work in Him.

I make this point because Romans is so often the center of discussion about salvation by faith. “Works righteousness” is rejected, and sometimes erroneously projected on the Jewish People in general, and the “Old Testament” in particular. Yet how can the Word of God be in error about something so central as salvation? In fact, it is not.
In Exodus, the salvation event(s) take place before the Law is received. Paul makes a point of this with the Abraham illustration in Romans 4. However, the truth is not limited to that one instance. In all salvation history it is God who graciously sees, hears and acts in accordance with His hesed (covenant love, steadfast mercy, strong act of compassion) toward His people. Such long enduring, patience was never earned. From the beginning, He is the initiator/creator (creation is a grace) and rescuer/redeemer (since the Garden, with Cain, etc.) and we can only receive. There is nothing we can do, or think, or feel which puts God in our debt. Nothing.

What of saved by faith? The word has two dimensions and can mean trust or fidelity; faith or faithfulness.

Another look at Exodus will provide a helpful framework for seeing both. God warns of the approaching angel of death. He gratuitously offers a way out, put the blood of the lamb (another Christ image) on the door post. Those who trust the Word, believe in their heart it is true, act accordingly, right? So faith begets faithfulness. The act of painting the door with the Lamb’s blood does not earn salvation does it? But the failure to act is to “believe without believing”--it is to say, “I believe it is true but I am not acting on my belief.” It is not faith which saves.

What God has done, in Jesus, is offer His first born son for the sins of the world. This means that you, and anyone who is dear to you, has access to the Kingdom by God’s saving grace and redeeming love poured out in the Blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God. BUT...! But our faith in Jesus is not a mere notional assent. It has repercussions in our life. This is the foundation of Paul’s ethical exhortations in Romans 12-15. We belong to God. As 1 John says, “God is Love.” As Jesus says, “Love God with everything and your neighbor as yourself.” We must love one another because love is the life force released by our God’s Spirit within us. There can be no loveless saving faith. So Paul spells out all manner of do’s and don’ts because he provides examples to us of what love looks like concretely. Love is the imitation of Christ. Love is the fullness of life in Christ. Love is the fruit of faith and faithfulness. 

But, as Jesus makes clear: Love frees the other from sin! Love is not "too nice to 'bother' the other." It does not tolerate the decadence of the flesh. And, as Jesus says, in today’s Gospel, love is actively seeking reconciliation. It is confronting the one who harms us in the pursuit of communion. Next week, we will hear, that this is done with a spirit of forgiveness. However, Jesus is not na├»ve. Sometimes it doesn’t work and we need the help of others, perhaps even the whole community. Without repentance there can be no community. There can be no reconciliation.
True love confronts. True love forgives.

True love also gets crucified--shed blood of a lamb--awaiting God’s act of redemption. Living the Exodus life is a struggle. A living faith centered on repentance, reconciliation and love is exhausting! Yet it is the desert land which we must cross on our way to the joys of the promised land.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Hope on a Dark and Gloomy Night

"One of those nights" left me with lots of time to pray and think and read the Bible as I could not fall back asleep. It is a blessing and a curse (sort of like the verse "sweet on the lips but sour in the stomach) as you get a chance for extended 'holy time' but you are also tired. 

As I have shared, in MP we are reading Job each day. Today's reading (Job 19) was very painful. Job is wisdom literature. It seems to be a (Holy Spirit inspired) reflection on God's activity in the world. Ironically, most of what good Christians say about sin and suffering is heard from the mouths of "the three friends"; with a key theme being "no one is righteous before God, all have sinned and God is just." The end of the book turns this on its head, as God rebukes the three for speaking wrongly (while Job speaks right). It does get the head spinning a bit. We will visit that later when we read it.

Today Job says:
How long will you torment me, and break me to pieces with words?
...God has put me in the wrong...He has walled up my way...He has set darkness on my paths. He has stripped my glory from me, and taken the crown from my head...He has kindled His wrath against me...He has put my family far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me. My relatives and close friends have failed me...My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. Even young children despise me...and those whom I love have turned against me.

And in a sense, most of us have been able to say such things at one point or another. Job provides a mirror to reflect our own experience of being a "Loser" or a "Reject." It is the experience of depression or despair. It is a common feature of human existence. Awful, yet common.

Job is, more importantly, also a type of Jesus Christ. The spiritual reading of the text (stripped of glory/crown from my head=emptied Himself and became a man. Also alludes to being stripped of clothes/crown of thorns on cross) Jesus was deserted by His "family=disciples" (only a few women with His mom, and the Beloved Disciple are there at the end). Jesus is rejected by "His own" (children, those whom I love) who despise and turn against Him. The story of Job is a prophetic parable about Jesus, for only Jesus is truly righteous and sinless. The reason I believe that Job, the innocent and perfect man, is not about real guy, is because there are no sinless and righteous people (numerous places the Bible says "all have sinned"); yet, in a sense, it is about a real guy: Jesus!

It is also an open window into the Dark Night of the Soul. Few Christians have been trained in the classical spirituality which helps explain the progress of the person's life in Christ. Job's experience, in a way, is the Divine work of purifying the senses and the soul. "Is there anybody like Job?" God asks. "Sure he is good," replies Satan, "because of all the benefits!" What follows is a test. He is tempted by all he endures. He is tempted by his closest loved ones: "Curse God and die!" The purification of love requires a purging of the seven deadly sins (Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth) which affect our body concretely and our soul spiritually. We want God for what we get. When God takes away the joy all that is left is a purity of love. And isn't that what true love is? Focus on the other for their sake, not our own? Isn't much of what we call love really self-seeking and pleasure-seeking? Aren't we all in need of purgation and purification?

So, that is a bit of what I pondered and prayed about this early morning. I hope it is of some use to you on your own journey of faith. 
Love God not for what you get, but because He is worthy of love. Even in the midst of the worst sadness and pain, hold on to the hope which allowed Job to conclude chapter 19 with these words: For I know that my Redeemer lives...then in my flesh I will see God, Whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold and not another.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Problem of September as a Clue to Reading Scripture

So I was quizzing the three year old yesterday about what the new month is. After a brief and pensive pause the face lit up and in his own special pronunciation he declared, "September!"

Which reminded me; (Latin roots) Sept=7, Oct=8, Nov=9, Dec=10. September, the ninth month of our year means seventh. You gotta figure something is up (and the history of the calendar coupled with our loss of Latin has made the issue a non-issue). No one notices, no one cares. They are just names of months after all....

Today in MP we continue reading from John's Gospel. In the eighth chapter Jesus is having a conflict with the Jews. (Screeching tires as we come to a stop!) "The Jews?!?!?!" Why Jesus is a Jew. All the Apostles were Jews. Most of the people He preached to and healed and exorcised were Jews. In fact, in Matthew, Jesus is explicitly reluctant to even help a Gentile girl because His mission is to "the Lost sheep of Israel." The wording here is a strange as reading that the Pope is dealing with "the" Catholics or that in the US there are conflicts with "the" Americans.

Over time language reflects the audience. Originally, the historical Jesus was at odds with the Temple authorities (Priests and Scribes) and Herodians; and of course, the Romans. No doubt He debated with some Pharisees about theology, but much of what He taught they also taught. The Pharisees emerged after the destruction of the Temple as the primary authority among the Jews; and by then, the Pharisees who believed in Jesus (folks like Paul) were in the church and their descendants were probably born into the church. The Jewish Pharisees, who reject Jesus, are in a 'clear and present conflict' with Christians (and writings at this time emphasize their role in conflict with Jesus--both in the historical past and the historical present). Christianity continued spreading among the Gentiles and becomes a separate entity so that its Jewish roots are lost (in the minds of many who had never been Jews).

Remember, the early Christians believed Jesus was in and with the Church (recall Paul being asked, "Why do you persecute Me?" by the Risen and Ascended Lord). As such their language reflects that in the Scripture. Like the word "September," the Bible language reveals that there was an earlier time when things were different.

We know now that hating Jews has a long history and it is an ugly history. Currently, that hatred is being seen on a world scale. Knowing that the generalized "the Jews" in John's Gospel is not a condemnation of Jewish people is important. And it is why we, today, might need to see that word "translated" yet again into a contemporary context.

Jesus speaks to His own people. What if we read the text like this:
Jesus said to the Christian Leaders (or the Christians, or 'Me'): It is my Father Who glorifies Me, He of Whom you say, "He is our God," though you do not know Him. But I know Him...

That is the issue; it is the people who think that they know God who are confronted with the TRUTH of God in Jesus' ministry. People like us, whose minds are perverted by our own sin and the twisted nature of our culture. People like us, who in every generation must hear the words of Jesus with repentance, faith and conversion.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Saturday night was a powerful. A small group of us gathered with a young woman in need of prayer. The details are personal to her and her family but one of the things i learned was general and open to all.

I have shared before that I believe there is a spiritual dimension to life which interacts with and impacts the physical/material. This is why I think the "mind" is not the brain, but it works with, in and through the brain. It is why I believe the Holy Spirit can inspire and work with us even as no one can easily put a finger on exactly when and where and how.

One issue you prayed about Saturday was curses. The idea of curses as real things is probably considered silly and outdated by most folks. It smells like "magic" and is ruled out. In the Bible, curses are real, though not in the cinematic way of magic and super powers. Rather, they have their way of working by their mere existence. Influencing and corrupting are the work of the Evil One. Curses are on of the venues open to It for this foul work. 

What to do? Acknowledge the possibility of a curse. It may be as subtle as your mother's wish that "you have a kid just like you!" (full of problems) It may be even more sinister with actual demonic aspects and someone invoking the Black Arts against you. (Not so likely, but ...) Prayers to bind up Satan and to cover over curses is not a main focal point of prayer. Like I said, we do well to acknowledge that they exist and to dispose of them quickly in prayer.

The more important part of the prayer is invoking blessing. The promises of God are for our good. Take time to read and reflect on particular promises of God. Pray for an open heart to receive the fullness of the Promise (the Blessing). The twin components of declaration and thanking are vital in the blessing process. Look at how often blessing takes place in the Bible (from Jacob blessing his sons to Jesus blessing the children). Each time someone sneezes we bless them, we invoke God's power to save!

The experience on Saturday was powerful and life giving. There was a sense of God's nearness. There was joy in remembering He is a God of blessings. The thoughts of blessing stuck with me. And the book of blessings I read the next day included a reference to the reading I am preparing to preach next week, always an indication to me of God's blessing.

I do not know how the spiritual realm works, but I do know Jesus thought words had power. So be careful whom you curse and be attentive in prayer to freedom from curses; but most of all, be one who shares blessings!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book of Names and the Nameless

Shemot is the Hebrew title to the book we know as Exodus. “Shemot” means names, and the Hebrew title of this book comes from the opening sentence of the book. Exodus, a Greek word, means the way out.
The Jewish Study Bible says “Exodus is arguably the most important book in the Bible” (p. 102, in the introduction of Exodus). It is certainly one of the most familiar to Jew and Christian alike. I would argue it contains THe Gospel preached by Jesus.

I focus on the Hebrew title, “shemot” because of the role names play in the early chapters of Exodus. After listing the names of the sons of Jacob, Israel, the “sons of Israel” pass from the scene. Verse 7 reads “The Israelites were fertile, and prolific; they multiplied and increase very greatly, so the land was full of them.” Those verbs are used in Genesis at creation and are a reminder of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The blessing, however, is viewed as a sinister and dangerous thing by the Pharaoh.
What is Pharaoh’s name? He has no name. We only know a Pharaoh emerged who did not know Joseph (lost history, forgetting, is the besetting sin of the Jewish Bible; remembering is the highest virtue, for to remember is to act on that memory). The Hebrews are oppressed (2x) and the Egyptians are ruthless (2x) and the situation is bitter and harsh—yet the worse things got the more they increased! [the war is between God's plan, life, and the Principalities and Powers which seek to destroy]
The nameless Pharaoh declares genocide, “Kill the baby boys.”

Suddenly we read two names—Shiprah and Puah—midwives who disobey the Pharaoh because they fear God (who blesses them). So the king demands that they throw the boys in the river. The two little Named women thwart the Nameless King, a world turned upside down, but other women will join in the rebellion! It would be easy, however, to overlook, a subtle message being communicated by the Word of God--He knows the name of the "no body," while the king is not named (to quote Mary, "he raises up the lowly and humbles the mighty)...

Chapter two
No names are given, just a story: A man, a Levite, marries a woman, of his clan. They have a baby. They see he is a “fine baby” (Hebrew tob; the word used by God to describe creation; Gen 1:31). He has a sister. They hide the baby until he gets too big, they put him in a small ark among reeds (ark//Noah, reeds//Sea of Reeds at exodus; connection to water death/salvation in two directions). The daughter of Pharaoh sees the baby, takes pity and saves the boy. The sister gets the mother, who is paid by the daughter of Pharaoh to care for the child. When he is of age, she takes the boy and names him Moses.  Finally, a character with a name!

Moses is an Egyptian name (cf. Ra-meses) meaning begotten. It sounds like a Hebrew word which means ‘drawn out.’This will factor into later Hebrew puns. Pharaoh is further thwarted in his plans by these three women, including his daughter.

The book of Names has no names, to this point, except two midwives and the young boy Moses. Prior to this, he had no name. Where are the names? Why the names of the midwives? I think it highlights that they are known, these two obscure women, they are known because they were faithful. They are known by God—a reminder to us when we feel obscure and unimportant.

What follows is familiar. Moses intervenes to save a Hebrew slave. The Egyptian strikes the slave, Moses strikes the Egyptian, who dies and s buried. The next day Moses intervenes between two fighting slaves. In a bitter foretaste of what he will deal with the entire time he leads Israel, the slave asks him, “Who put you in charge of me? I know what you did yesterday.”

Moses flees for his life and Pharaoh seeks to kill him (//David and King Saul). Moses ends up in Midian, where he meets his future wife at a watering hole. This story echoes Isaac and Jacob. Moses “saves” the women, something he will do for his people. He becomes a shepherd, another David reference. Then the author gives us a view from heaven.
God looks down. He sees, He hears, He knows, He remembers His covenant. (The Gospel) He comes down to meet Moses (as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob before), this time in a bush which burns but is not consumed. God speaks the sublime words of salvation: I have seen their suffering, I have heard their cries, I know, and I have come down to save. God is God of all, especially poor and needy.

I am who I am; I will be who I will be.
The God who sees, who hears, who know, who remembers
The God who comes down to save.
But for the suffering, nameless Hebrew slaves, who are sore oppressed and treated ruthlessly by the Egyptians, perhaps it feels too little, too late. Perhaps it feels like the long struggles of their life have no meaning and perhaps they feel they have no value.
It is easy to imagine people who think: no one cares about me.
This is the first message of the book of Names.
God, the one who is, knows your name.
He knows, He sees, He hears, He cares, He comes to save.
Trust Him