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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Eyes to See

We studied Revelation 4 today in High School Sunday School. Prior to reading the text we enterred the church and walked through the physical plant. We looked at the pews, the place we "live" in the world, we ascended the stairs to the choir. Here is the church at prayer and worship. We call out our praise and thanks to God, we sing His glory, we beg His mercy and forgiveness, we ask for His providential provision. We continue the climb and come to the altar, we kneel and reach out to heaven's Lord. We look at the altar where Jesus has spread out a banquest feast, a table of nourishment, and we see the cross, the meal is a share in His death and resurrection: His body, His blood.

The tragedy is how often we fail to "see" what we see. Our eyes and hearts cannot penetrate the mystery. we are weary and distracted. Our senses dulled and our spirits diminished. There is a glorious reality which our sight does not penetrate. O for the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart to know and worship and obey. Reading Chapter 4 of the Revelation (literally, "the unveiling") was a reminder that we live in a world much richer than we can imagine. In praying and opening ourselves to God the heavenly worship going on all around us can be discerned.

We modern people live in an age of radio and tv. We know, even if we do not think about it, that programs are swirling all about us at every moment of each day. Right now the room in which you sit has songs which cannot be heard, games which cannot be watched, programs which cannot be enjoyed, because you are not tuned in. With a radio or tv you can suddenly enjoy these and more. Our faith and spirituality work the same way. we can hear the unheard angel choirs with faith, we can understand the voice of God by listening, we can know the truth, that God is in His heaven and all is (will be) right with the world.

Today I am more aware. As my son said in class, "Church is boring when we aren't paying attention." Wisdom! When we are attentive and giving ourselves, we might catch a peak into the glory that surrounds us. I pray that all of you had that sort of experience today in your place of worship. Now we begin a new week, a chance to pray, to study Scripture, to serve in His Name---a chance to prepare again for the Sunday gathering!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Breaking Faith

This is confirmation preparation season in our parish. We use a program which employs adult mentors for each child. This year I was asked to do this by one of our young men. So he and I have been meeting. Yesterday we reviewed the Baptismal Covenant. There are six questions which a candidate is asked. The first three relate to conversion. We ask people to renounce Satan, the world and the flesh. These are the powers at work within us that draw us from our Lord. The renunciation of evil has taken the place of exorcism, which in other times and places was a prelude to baptism. The key idea is to recognize the power of evil (in all its subtle working) is real and that we must reject it.

Having turned from sin we then turn toward the Lord. Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your Savior? This question is so important. I personally do not care for the language, I think it would be better "to acknowledge and embrace" Jesus as Savior. But I think it means the same thing. "Getting saved" is a big part of religious expression in the MidSouth. I have written before about how American consumerism and individualism have probably distorted our understanding of salvation. Hopefully, God will not demand that we understand everything correctly in order to be citizens in His Kingdom. In the end, we do need to understand that we are rescued from Satan, the world and ourselves by God's gracious act in and through Jesus.

That fact is hammered home by the next question: Do you put your whole trust in His grace and love? What is our way out of this mess called human existence? How do we escape the wounds and injuries, and ultimately, death? Who can set things right? I love the word trust because it conveys the act of giving one's self over to another. The word 'faith' can sometimes be reduced to a cognitive function, "I believe" means "I think" (or "I guess I think" in a weaker form). Most people claim that they "believe" in God. I know I do. Yet how often do I act as if God does not exist (or if He exists He does not matter)? Even most of the conservative Christians I know regularly engage in behaviors more reflective of secular culture than Christian doctrine. Trusting has to do with hope. My trust in God's mercy (grace and love) is needed because my belief in God fails to conform me to His will!

That brings me to the last question, Do you promise to follow and obey Him as your Lord? When we got to that question, the young man I am working with said to me, "Wow, that is really a big commitment." As we discussed it further he said, "That is probably the most broken promise in the world!"

I agreed with him.

I do not know if it is my congenital condition, if I was shaped into it by Catholic schools and my parents, if at some point I chose it or if it is the work of the Holy Spirit---what I do know is I have always been burdened with a keen sense of my failure to "follow and obey" the Lord. It is helpful to have friends (thanks Rick) who regularly remind me that God is at work in me. Despair and depression are NOT God given. Yet at other times, the awareness of what we are called to do and be, and how far we stray from that, is overwhelming.

As I ponder those commitments, I am aware that the Lord expects obedience. Too often the contemporary understanding of grace makes discipleship a sham. The last century how much of the resources God has blessed Christians with have been utilized for His kingdom? The answer is far too little. This is true of my time, talent and treasure as well! So should I sit around feeling guilty all day???? No, not helpful.

I am sure of this, the Lord would rather have me renounce Satan, the world and the flesh and turn to Him in obedience. He does not call us to endlessly rehash our mistakes, He calls us to repentance and discipleship. So today, my best choice, is to decide, again, to love and obey the One Whom I trust, my Lord, my Savior Jesus. IF the whole church does that today, it will be glorious!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Standing Alone

"McRib is Back!"
The commercials have been running the last week or so, and this morning as I was leaving with the kids for school I saw another announcement that, yes, indeed, McRib is back. Suddenly, I found myself swept through time to my first church where I served as a young priest. St. Michael's was on Summer Avenue and the McDonalds was about half a mile away. I rarely had (or took) time for a proper meal, in part because eating alone was still new to me (and somewhat depressing). I was also trying to serve the Lord and it seemed that having to eat in my car because I had no time was a sign of that commitment. I was young and enthusiastic!

I ran into the McDonalds that day and ordered up "a McRib, hold the onion" when to my surprise the young lady said, "We don't serve those any more." When I asked why she said that they had not sold enough in the last six months to justify keeping them on the menu. "Well, how many did you sell?" I asked. She said, "Six." I looked at her and said, "I wonder who ate the other one..."

Realizing that I had been the sole (with one exception) purchaser of McRibs during that six month period was a surprise. It made me feel out of step with the thousands of people who lived and worked in my neighborhood. As a Catholic priest, I usually felt 'different', so it wasn't the first time. Yet there was a bit of a sting to it. Like most people, I wonder if there is something wrong with me.

Being different can be a positive. There was a time when everyone wanted to be "unique" which meant that they were "special." I do not hear that so much any more. Moods and styles change with different generations. The desire to be different is often balanced by the need for community. We want to belong, to be 'part of.'

This morning as we drove to school (it was 6:40 am) it was dark. My daughter, more an owl than an early bird, muttered, "I am not into this.... this darkness." She then asked when the time change would be so she would not be going to school in the dark. I told her I liked the phrase and would blog on it this morning. It ties in with being alone. The darkness, as Jesus refers to it, is our world. Jesus came into the world to be the light of the world. The darkness did not apprehend Him. The Greek word, like the English word apprehend, is double meaning. It can mean to understand and it can mean to overcome. The world we live in is increasingly secular and hostile to the traditional faith. As such, believers find themselves more and more often standing alone. Even churches are less secure. Fewer people go to church. Many churches teach all manner of things inconsistent with the traditional faith.

The danger is that one can fall in love with standing alone. One can become combative for the sake of being combative. One can be so defensive that one no longer listens to others. On the other hand, the more likely temptation is to 'join the crowd and fit in.' I think that 'not being into the darkness' is the key. It is about being His.

I try not to think too much about the isolation of life as a traditional Christian in a culture and church where tradtional beliefs are held in low regard. Yet, even so, I think about it a lot. Will my faith stay strong as fewer and fewer others believe? Will my faith stay strong when I see people persecuted inside the church and outside for believing? I no longer naively assume that I will stand strong. I pray that God will keep me strong. I remember that the darkness does not understand Jesus, but it also does not conquer Him. I pray, each day, that He would be in me and I in Him. I pray the same for you!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: WWJD?

I am off this week and have spent much time holding the baby and watching the news. I have tried to switch between Fox and CNN to provide different perspectives. I even watched some MSNBC!

I have found it interesting to see the different views on the Occupy Wall Street crowd. According to surveys there is a general support among Americans for the sentiments expressed by the crowds. The general complaint is that rich people do not pay their fair share. Now I am distressed to see signs like "kill the rich" or "taxidermy the rich" because I think publicly advocating murder is wrong (reference the Ten Commandments!). I am also distressed because the main stream media seems to be comfortable ignoring such things. Imagine the uproar if signs read "kill the old" or "slaughter the fat." But I have been around long enough to know (and understand why) that prejudice and assumption blinds us. So, it is not a surprise that the coverage by a sympathetic media overlooks the horror of publicly advocating the murder of people because they are financially successful.

What would Jesus do? Liberal Christians would claim that He would be among the people, stirring up anger and resentment among the poor, condeming the rich. I am certian Luke's Gospel would come in handy here. Conservative Christians would counter with a couple of nice quotes from Paul (those who don't work, don't eat, for example). In the end, it would be a sincere and heartfelt verbal battle between two groups which do not agree on much of anything. They would hear God's Word, especially the parts with which they agree. (That is the way it works for me, too, so I am not just pointing fingers here)

I think it is hard to know what Jesus would do, mainly because He was in a different context than ours. We live in a democracy where we have the right to vote. Jesus did not. He lived in occupied territory. In His day the Roman army put a 'serious hurting' on crowds of people who gathered to complain. Clearly Jesus warned against wealth. The holy people of the Church have historically dispersed their material wealth to pursue spiritual wealth. I think it is fair to say Jesus would say, "use your wealth to help others in need." (in fact, that is exactly what He did say!) On the other hand, Jesus was not a big fan of envy or coveting (sort of follows the Ten Commandments here). I imagine Jesus would not be impressed with someone complaining about the success of others. I also think that the church has never advocated stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Sorry Robin Hood, but there is a reason for that. Stealing is generally bad for the individual and for society. It harms those who steal as much as it harms those stolen from.

I think we need to have a serious discussion about taxing and spending. I wish conservative Christians spent as much time preaching Jesus' warning about wealth as they seem to spend advocating for low taxes. However, that is a choice the person makes with their own money. It is not some mob deciding that they will take it for themselves. It is not a politician taking what someone earns to distribute to others (who conveniently then vote the politician into office). As I said before, pro-tax folks don't have to take deductions and they can pay their taxes on time!

When people are surveyed and they say "the rich should pay their fair share" I wish someone woul actually do some deeper research. I am not trying to sound elitist here, but really, does the 'average Joe' have any clue what the words mean?
  • What is the definition of rich? Are we talking multi-millionaires? Folks making $100,000? Does where you live (cost of living matters) get factored in?
  • Do the people marching and complaining know how much taxes the 'rich' pay? What is a fair rate? Are we saying 10%?, 25%? I hear people talking about not long ago it was 90% Are we seriously saying that at a certain point someone is no longer allowed to earn and keep any more money?
  • Do the people marching know how large a group of Americans pays no income tax? I have seen where up to one in three people do not pay one cent. Should people not paying any taxes really be allowed to complain about people who do without at least a little push back? [and in fairness, when a conservative says that the top 10% pays the lion's share of the taxes, it is fair to point out that it is because they make such astronomically huge amounts of money]
  • Is there a point where legitimate complaints about inequity and injustice collapses into adolescent whining and a childs tantrum that demands "gimme!" without any sense of personal responsibility? What is that point and should we not spend much time trying to make sure we do not cross it?
Being a Christian in a rich land (by the world's standards and by historical standards most of our "poor" are well off) is difficult. Our value systems are influenced by a culture of greed and consumption. (it is a fallen world after all) I am sure that some of the decay of faith in our society is a direct result of Christians who focus much more energy on living the good life than they do living the godly life. Too often we are focused on our 'rights' as citizens of America and not focused enough on our duties as citizens of the Kingdom of God. However, there is something sinister and dangerous about what the mobs are advocating and the way they are doing it.

What would Jesus do? He would point them (and us) to the Father. "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness," I imagine He would say, "and then all these other material things will be taken care of . After all, your Father loves and cares for you." Without a focus on the Father's will there will be no reform. Only uprisings which produce a reign of terrror. Check out history.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Answered (un)prayers

Reflecting on prayer leads me to share a true story from last week. While it is a fact that countless people have spent countless hours "knocking at heaven's door" with some heartfelt need or other, it is equally true that there are times when interventions seem to occur when no prayer has been uttered.

We were in Bible study last Thursday and the sweet lady who sits next to me was gone. She has had a bad diagnosis and is suffering greatly. All the more difficult in light of how well she had been feeling prior. She went out last weekend, suddenly began to feel ill, and is now in great need.

After Bible study we celebrate eucharist. About four minutes before the end of class a woman walked in. She is new to the church and did not remember about the class until she walked in. She had been headed to the kitchen to pick up a bowl she left at a recent dinner. "May I join you?" she cheerfully asked as she walked into the hall and sat at table. We literally had four minutes to go! So afterwards we celebrated eucharist for which she stayed. At one point the parish administrator slipped me a note, which I held off until the blessing at the end.

The little lady who is ill needed information about nursing facilities. When I asked everyone present if anyone had a suggestion, our visitor said, "Oh, that is what I do for a living!" Everyone, of course, recognized a divine hand at work. A kindness of God in our midst.

This is what I mean by those who have eyes to see. It is a choice. One can acknowledge God or not. One can say it was a freak coincidence that someone wandered in and stayed with the exact skill set we needed. Or one can say that little pushes and pulls occured to make it happen. One can question why prayers go unanswered while unsolicited acts of grace occur. In the end, there are dozens of options to ponder and question. But the fundamental response, to believe or not, includes an act of will. It is a decision to see and believe, to thank and worship. I am not saying that it is easy for everyone. I am saying it is possible. In the end, it is the willingness to enter relationship with God which determines our life.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

(un)Answered Prayers

Two nights ago I was watching a tv show. At one point, the protaganists find themselves in an isolated Baptist church. A young girl is missing and in grave danger. Her mother sits praying and later the sheriff does the same. The focus of their prayer is a large crucifix, one which would be more appropriately situated in an old Catholic church. The scene was poignant. The characters prayed out loud, for benefit of the audience, but their prayers rang true.

The mother, confessing her wrongs and begging for mercy, asked Jesus to punish her and spare her child. This sort of prayer is not found in prayer books. It is not the prefered way to instruct people in prayer. However, in my experience, it is a natural way to pray. When confronting horrible loss and needing mercy, I think most people instinctively realize their own unworthiness. Who can come to God and feel anything less? The offer of self ("punish me, not my child") has a reality about it. It is also, in some sense, reflective of Christianity's main tenant. Jesus Himself made a similar prayer gift. He stood in our place, so one can understand a mother's willingness to do the same.

The sheriff also prays. He is a typical male figure in the media. He is good and heroic. He is a self described "not real religious guy." Faced with more than he can handle, he turns to prayer. He admits to Jesus that "I believe more in my family than you" and acknowledges his limits. He needs help to find the little girl. In one insightful turn of dialogue he says to Jesus, "You don't know how hard it is to believe... well I guess you do." As he leaves the church he makes it clear, "I need some kind of sign." It was a powerful moment, made all the more amazing because it was written for a regular TV audience. It is a reminder that echoes of legitimate faith still remain, even in our secular culture.

In the next scene, the sheriff, his young son, and the deputy continue their search for the missing girl. Suddenly, a larg buck comes into view. The tension seems to diminish as the beauty of the animal enchants the young boy. The two men are  mesmerized as well, partly by the majestic animal, perhaps more so by the boy's response. Slowly the child walks forward, turning back, mouth agape, to share the moment several times with the father and deputy. As he stands a few feet away from the large animal, suddenly, a bullet tears through the buck and passes through the little boy. As he drops to the ground one is overwhelmed with shock and horror.

The episode ends there, leaving a swirl of questions. Is the boy dead? Who took the shot? What of the little girl? Where will this twist take our small group of survivors? Why?

My initial reaction to the scene, as it unfolded, was joy that this show was demonstrating a sign from God with the boy and buck. The sudden turn of events were jarring. Is this the sign from God? Is this an act of mockery by the show's writers, indicating how silly it is to pray? But as I pondered I must admit, that quite often, prayers are not answered as we want.

Hundreds of parents pray for lost children. We drove through Little Rock Monday and got home to hear a young co-ed, a Christian girl active in the church, was found there in a local lake. How could such a girl come to such an end? And every day there are stories just like that. Parents pray, they beg God, they offer themselves in exhange. Every day people cry out to God for a sign. People struggle to believe and await the 'proof.' In reality, it does not always work out.

Prayer is not mainly about manipulating God. For eyes that believe, there are already signs everywhere. We have a task. To live and love, to obey and serve. Whether our prayers are "answered" or not we must pray. Our minds cannot comprehend enough to ever understand it all. We must continue the journey, not putting too much stock into 'signs.' In the end, there is no proof which is sufficient. One needs constant renewal. What was enough one day fades the next.

Fortunately, our Lord is on a cross. There is an insight into the world we live. Jesus provides us a glimpse into life well lived. Sometimes it looks like a cross. Sometimes it looks like a tragedy impacting us or those we love best. But death and cross are not the last word. The prayers will be answered, some day. After resurrection. So do not lose hope.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Wedding Garment and Torture 4

Having looked at how Luke shaped the parable yesterday, we are now ready to see how Matthew (22:1ff) has done the same.

The first thing we notice is that Matthew has placed the parable much later in the Jesus story. It follows after His entrance into Jerusalem. Jesus rides in, fulfilling Scripture, prophetically cleans and then heals the blind and lame in the Temple. The day culminates in Jesus defending the children who have called Him the Messiah (Son of David).

The next day, in the morning, a hungry Jesus curses a fig tree. (Mark says the next day it is found withered up, while Matthew indicates it happens immediately.) This prophetic image (the tree is Jerusalem, temple and people) sets up an angry exchange as the Jewish leaders demand to know the source of Jesus' authority. He asks them a question in turn, was John the Baptist from God? The leaders, aware that they are being set up, declare that they do not know. Jesus says, "I will not tell you either." What is noteworthy is Mark and Luke share this same basic narrative flow to this point. Like Matthew, they have the parable of the landowner next, but Matthew has created a different context for that parbable.

He has sandwiched the parable of the landowner between two other parables. The first, which occurs only in Matthew, is about two sons. A father asks them to do something, one says yes, the other no. The one who said yes does not follow through, while the one who said no repents and does what he is asked. Jesus then declares that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom ahead of the Jewish leaders (who reject Him). John the Baptist is a preacher from God whom the sinners trusted. This theme, the conversion of the lost and outcast, is a key to our parable.

Next, the parable of the landowner, is about fruits (refer to the cursed fig tree). It is also about the son of the owner being killed. Matthew rearranges the words. In his Gospel they take the son out of the vineyard and killed him. (This minor detail seems significant as it conforms to the death of Jesus, who was crucified outside the city) The parable ends with the threat that the owner will kill the tenants and replace them with other people who will produce. A not so veiled reference to the outsiders previously mentioned.

Finally, we get to our parable of the wedding garment. It is only found in Matthew and Luke. Mark does not have it. As we saw yesterday, Luke places it earlier in the Gospel in a meal setting. Matthew uses it here. The setting is the first major change. Matthew has others.

Luke's parable, about a man having dinner, is expanded in Matthew. Now it is a king having a wedding feast for his son. It is an allegory. Earlier in the Gospel Jesus identifies Himself as the groom. The wedding feast is a dominant image in the Apocalypse for the Kingdom. Matthew, using images from Jesus, now adds another layer to the parable. It is also an allegory about salvation history. Matthew adds others slaves to Lukes single one. The group of slaves goes out in two groups (representing OT prophets and Christian prophets). The second group are given the excuses but it is summarized briefly (one goes to his farm, another to his business) with an amazing addition. Now the rest, we read, harm and kill the messengers.

This is a turn which makes little sense in the original parable (about rejected invitations). Now, Matthew's allegory is in full force. It is about rejection of the King (God). It is about harming and killing His servants (the prophets). It is about what has been taking place since the beginning of Israel. It is about the death of the Son (tied back to the previous parable of the vineyard).

What follows, the destruction of the city, reflects actual history. Jesus' prophetic warning to Jerusalem is encapsulated here. Matthew is speaking to his church, reminding them of the warning Jesus gave (and the real life destruction of the real city). So, when the King says, afterward, the food is on the table, get others to eat, we understand that what makes no sense in the parable (how can one have time to fight a war while food sits on the table) is actually directed to us.

But Matthew makes two other additions. While Luke identifies the outcast as invitees, Matthew says those gathered are "good and bad." Matthew is more focused on the morals of the church. He is also focused on the final judgment. There is no escape from that. We are accountable. The church, even in his time, was a mixed group. Throughout the Gospel there are warnings about this. The church is not "all saints, all holy, all pure." It is a mixed bag.

The man without a wedding garment represents those within the church who have been "saved by grace" but have been unfaithful. He was invited in for no reason beyond the King's kindness. However, Matthew wants it made clear (as clear as Paul makes it in Romans) that the offer of grace is not without expectation. "Where is your wedding garment?" the King asks.

This question is not logical in the flow of the parable. How could someone scooped up off the streets be prepared?  My guess it is a teaching of Jesus from another setting which has found its way here. Matthew is less concerned with the past, when Jesus explained how God's offer extends to include the outcast. Matthew wants to focus the church's attention on God's demand of righteousness (to them). The wedding garment, as is indicated in the Apocalypse and interpreted by the Church Fathers, is our righteousness. Judgment.

So the speechless man, he has no defense, is cast out. An image (horrible and terrifying) of the Last Judgment. This is not an act of senseless torture, though it originally seems to be. Instead, it is Matthews taking a turn. His image of Jesus shines through. His warning to the church is clear.

We cannot earn salvation, but without fruits, we can buy damnation. That is the rest of the story. Another angle on the message of Jesus. I hope I have given some insight into how imporant comparing the Gospels is and how helpful it is to look at the context to hear the message.
i will not be blogging for most of the next week. God bless!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wedding Garments and Torture 3

thanks for the e-mail message telling me this is helpful. I appreciate the feedback and will try even harder to make this worthy of your time!
(open Bible to Luke 14:16ff) Luke's parable is less complex than Matthew's.The story line is simple. A man has a banquet and sends his slave to tell the invited guests that it is time to come and eat. This was a common practice in ancient times. An invitation went out far in advance and then the reminder came the day of the event. We notice that the scale of the story. There is a man with a slave. Only three guests respond, but one assumes that they are representative. The excuses which are given are mundane: one bought land, another oxen, and the last is newly married. (The first and third excuses echo Deuteronomy 20, where young men could be excused from war) So the man sends his slave to gather up the street people (poor, crippled, blind, lame) but the hall is not yet full. So the slave is sent out again to get more people in the outer reaches of the city.

The original parable of Jesus provides an insight into God's offer of inclusion to all people. No doubt when told to the Jewish leaders it had a judgmental edge to it. (Hence the parable's conclusion "none of those who were invited will taste my dinner") For such an audience, the parable serves as a declaration (and rationale) for doom. However, one can also imagine other settings where Jesus is showing the 'outcast' that they have access to the Feast! In such a case, the story would have a wondrous dimension. People who were destitute were invited to imagine a scenario where they are scooped up, off the road, and brought into the home a wealthy man. There a grand feast is spread out before them and they sit in the seats of honor intended for others. As I said yesterday, Jesus no doubt told this story, or a variant of it numerous times to different groups in diverse settings. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that in some cases he even shaped the characters to reflect his actual audience. One can picture Jesus talking about the outcasts, and then, gazing at the dirty face of a poor mother holding  her child, adding that "a woman and her child, a child of three" (as he looks at her child) "hurried into the meal, and ate with great joy." Would a tear roll down her cheek as she made the connection between her plight (and salvation!) and the story of Jesus? Would a divine tear roll down His human cheek as he gazed at the woman?

As Luke works this story into his Gospel, we notice several things about the setting. First of all, it occurs at a dinner party (14:1 it is a Sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees). Jesus heals a man (which creates an uproar). Then Jesus notices how people are vying for a place of honor. Luke quotes Jesus on humility. The Jesus tells the host, "when you give a dinner invite, not your friends, but the "poor, cripple. lame, blind." Notice, this is the same group who populate His parable! Luke had a heart for the poor and his Gospel refers constantly to the needy.

(Lk 14:25) Immediately after the parable Jesus is teaching a crowd where He demands that we love Him more than family and friend. He continues, that those who follow Him must crry their cross. He concludes, "none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up your possessions." [The announcement of grace is always balanced with the total demand of the Kingdom. Everyone gets in free, but it costs everything!]

Now the parable is illuminated further. Luke is certainly keying in on inviting the poor, but we can see the 'excuses' in new light. The people who were originally invited in the parable are not street people. One is a land owner, the second is quite wealthy (ten oxen is a huge number). The third, newly married, is at least of sufficient means to have a wife. Luke's concern, that we understand Jesus' commitment to the poor and outcast, is present throughout the chapter and is woven into the texture of the parable itself. He narrows the outcast to the poor and needy (as opposed to the 'sinners,' tax collectors and whores, in other Gospels)

Now some might ask, "Did Luke emphasize the poor because Matthew and Mark got it wrong?" The answer of course would be, 'yes and no.' Yes, Luke emphasized something which they didn't, but the others were focused on other areas of Jesus' identity. Keep remembering, Jesus is bigger than any single protrait of Him. Once we escape a shallow, wooden literalism (while avoiding the cynical, unbelief of the Liberal/Modernist or post-Modernist) we can emerse ourself in the revelation of God, through the human writer, about our Lord. Like facets of a diamond, the different angles on Jesus provide us a richer, complementary view, not a contradictory one.

Luke has given us Jesus' teaching from a particular (valid) angle. We know Him as He confronts us with an immensely difficult collection of stories (who among us regularly feeds unknown needy people instead of our families?). The difficulty is intensified as we live our generally materialistic Western lifes. Jesus would be stunned at how rich His followers are, and how reluctant we are to share our abundance. That is enough to ponder for one day.

Next we turn to Matthew, and we will see how thoroughly he reshapes the parable, placing it in a totally different setting and actively making it an allegory about Jesus (and us).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wedding Garments and Torture 2

One of the advantages of four Gospels is we are provided comparisons. In trying to understand what the inspired Gospel writer is telling us, it is sometimes helpful to see how a particular story is reshaped or how it is bundled with other stories.

The parable of the wedding feast occurs in two locations in the New Testament. Matthew 22 and Luke 14. Luke places it much earlier in his Gospel than Matthew. That is a helpful reminder that much of the Gospel story is not on a time line. This should come as no surprise. In the early church, one of the first mentions of the authors of the Gospel tell us that Mark wrote down the teaching of Peter, 'though not in order.' This is how human memory works. Many of us can recall in great detail some event from the past, yet we can not remember if it is ten or twenty years ago. "Remember the time...." we enthusiastically ask. Another problem is Jesus' life style. The trouble with Jesus is He was a traveling preacher. He spent hours teaching and preaching in one town after another. No doubt some people came to Him to talk and ask Him to explain things. Probably, He told and retold stories, each time with a twist.

Last night I watched the debates. I can tell you Herman Cain has a "9-9-9" tax plan. Yet there are probably four different, though similar, quotes from that event alone which refer to his plan. So three 'different' versions could be produced from one single appearance. How many times did Jesus tell stories about crops, sheep, and landowners?

Jesus probably talked for hours every days, formally or informally. Add it up. Imagine He spent a minimum of two hours a day doing some kind of sharing, instruction or reflecting. If His ministry was one year, that is easily 700 hours of teaching and even up to 2500. If His ministry was longer, maybe three years we are now looking at 2,000 to 7,500 hours. Our Gospels record less than a couple of hours of dialogue each. Mark has less than an hour's content. Think about all that content....

So every parable of Jesus is two things. One, it is a particular version of a teaching. Little details about characters or numbers could be changed without damaging the point He was making. My guess is those details were fluid in the disciples' retelling. The other thing each parable is (and this is important)  is an opportunity for the Gospel writer to explain who Jesus is and what He means. In other words, the authors have a vision of the Lord which shapes their telling. Matthew uses different terms than Luke or Mark. Each one emphasizes different aspects of the story. Each one places the parable in a context to shed light on the identity of the Lord. We can learn as much from that as we can the actual parable!

Whatever else we know, it is clear that Matthew, Mark and Luke have followed each other closely in many places. Someone wrote the initial Gospel. The others wrote to supplement, and I assume, to improve on, what they read. They wanted to clarify the Jesus story for their readers (and us). So changes are made to do just that. The changes are based on the eyewitness testimony of many. The changes are made to give a fuller view. The church acknowledges four of these as authoritative. They are trustworthy.

As we look at Matthew and Luke we will see how each has shaped the telling of the parable. God inspired these two men to tell us, not a newspaper account of a singular event, but, rather, a teaching of Jesus, shaped by other teaching of Jesus, and influenced by teaching about Jesus (remember the Gospels are written some fifteen to fifty years after Jesus). The Gospels are a venue to encounter Jesus. We are blessed to  have them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wedding Garments and Torture 1

This was an interesting weekend. I preached on the assigned Gospel, Matthew 22:1-14. It is the famous 'wedding garment' parable which has confused me for many years. You have probably heard it. There is a king who has a wedding feast, the invited guests refuse to come and instead they maim and kill the messengers. The king raises an army, destroys the city and then says, "Hey the food is on the table, let's get some guests!" So the servants go round up everyone they can find and the party is on. Then as the king walks through the party he spots one guy with no wedding garment. So he asks him, "Where is your wedding garment?" The guest is speechless. So the king ties him up and tosses him into the alley. We then hear, "Many are called but few are chosen."

Most people, including me, think this is a strange teaching from Jesus. It isn't that we do not want to honor and obey Him, it is just that we cannot follow the logic. How, for example, can a king find time to raise an army and destroy a city in a couple of hours? More pressing, why would you tie a guy up and through him in an alley because he didn't have on the right clothes? And why would you expect someone who was invited, unprepared, to show up in anything else but what he was wearing? (and who wears wedding garments around all the time, just in case?) So why is a man tortured like this?

The key to the answer would seem to be the man, but he is speechless (not unlike Jesus at His trial). Who is this man and what is the rest of the story? Most of the explanations I have  heard did not help me terribly. One is that a wedding garment is really just clean clothes. Can an 'unexpecting' guest be expected to carry a change of clothes? And wouldn't it be enough to ask him to leave? Why tie him up? Another is that the host provides the wedding garment. Well, why did the king not simply redirect the guest to the place where he can get the garment?

My thinking is this was a hard parable for lots of people. My thinking is that we frequently try to "cover for" Jesus (or the Biblical writer) when a reading is hard to understand. We live in a world where people reject the authority of Scripture so we get worried. For years I did that. But, now I think I understand the parable. My sermon is online at the church website, but I intend to walk through the interpretative process the next couple days. It is pretty exciting to me. I think I can make sense of the parable, even the 'torture.'

Friday, October 7, 2011

The End of the Age

We are studying 2 Esdras on Thursdays and the High School Sunday School class is doing Revelation. So I have been reflecting a bit more on apocalyptic writing lately. In the last few years I have been more intent on trying to understand ancient writing. What exactly is their purpose?

These two lines, 2 Esdras 4:26-27, jumped out at me yesterday:
  • "If you are alive, you will see, and if you live long, you will often marvel, because the age is hurrying swiftly to its end. It will not be able to bring the things that have been promised to the righteous in their appointed time because this age is full of sadness and infirmities"
The centuries before Jesus and the first century were times of great upheaval. The prophetic wrtings morphed into a new literary style. This style increased the use of symbolism and emphasized a coming time of judgment and deliverance in a different way. It had two dimensions, the current situation and God's final solution. Sometimes when reading it is hard to know exactly which one they are focused on. Jesus was part of this tradition, as is the first century church. Even in places where the wilder aspects of apocalyptic is missing, some of its core assumptions are prevalent. The scholars debate alot about how Jesus understood the end of the age. I have found it helpful to understand that the "End of the Age" may refer to a transition in time, "it is the end of the world (as we know it)!"

The world's history is measured by two types of time. Linear time is the long stretch from creation (Beginning) to Final Judgment (The Harvest). However, the movement from beginning to end includes cycles. Cyclical time is the repetition we see throughout history in the proverbial "rise and fall" of one Empire after another. This is why we divide history into ages. We often refer to "the end of an era" when marking the passing of a significant time period. (I am sure the death of Steve Jobs is just such a marker for his industry.)
So a cyclical 'end of the age' is a type of the linear final 'end of the ages.'

No one quakes today at the Italian army, but the Roman legions were certainly the world power for a long time. Babylon and Persia were Empires while Iraq and Iran are their truncated remnants. Our biblical apocalyptic writings were written about the Roman Empire, but often used the name Babylon (symbolic metaphor). The are a model for understanding the rise and fall of any empire set against God and His people.  For Americans, the current shifting of global power to China has all the feel of another such end/beginning.

Yesterday's headline, "World's Economy Worst Ever" may be another such 'apocalyptic' message. Sir Mervyn King says that the current global disaster is the worst since 1930 and quite possibly the worst ever. My grandparents lived through the depression. My parents were born in 1934, smack dab in the middle of it. I recall their stories, but they are all long dead and my living connection with that period of history was buried with them. I wonder about my newborn son, will his world be like theirs?

Ten years ago I read a prophetic blog pretty regularly. In it, he shared visions of a coming time of great upheaval. He warned of judgment and exhorted to greater faithfulness. My preaching has often included a warning of the coming days. It was almost a vague feeling. I remember telling folks, "it is coming" not always sure what the it was. At times I feared I was just being morose. (Thats what people tell me, that I am pessimistic....) I have noticed that I do not preach about it so much the last couple years. As I ponder why, I think it is because the time has come. Now it is more imporant to preach repentance and hope.

I know that we are in the end of the age. The 'foundations' are being shaken. The changes in Europe, the Middle East, China, and the US are all substantial. I am not an economist, but I can figure out that the ongoing employment and financial problems are a big deal. I do not know if this end is the final end. I am not sure Jesus would have me speculate on that. I do know that Jesus warns me (and you) that we need to get our own house in order. It is time. The way it was is not the way it will be. This age passes away. Will the next age be better or worse? It depends on what matters most to you. Perhaps we are given a second chance to reset our priorities: a chance to worship, trust and serve the Triune God more completely and to love one another in word and deed. It is an apocalyptic end of the age, there is suffering and there will be more. Wars and rumor of wars (check out the Israeli military preparations today), earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, economic collapse and widespread riots---these are NOT the end, but they are the birth pangs. And so the church prays, "Maranatha!" Come Lord Jesus!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Even Tax Collectors are welcome

Yesterday's Gospel at Morning Prayer was from Matthew 9. It included the story of the call of Matthew the tax collector. In the other Gospels (Mark and Luke) the tax collector is named Levi.

Some months ago when we were whittling down the baby names, I remember discussing the name Levi as a possibility. The next morning, in my prayer time, I opened to the Gospel and the headline over the section I was reading was Jesus chooses Levi. I remember thinking to myself, I guess Jesus has told me what name He likes. The rest, as they say, is history.

One wonders, why did the name Matthew replaced the name Levi? Obviously, it is not terribly important but it does impact for how we understand the Bible. The first option is that Levi-Matthew were the two names of the same man (like Paul-Saul or Simon-Peter). Another theory is that Matthew is a pun on mathetes which is Greek for disciple. Matthew is written in the Jewish style of the Old Testament where such puns are rampant. Another theory is that Matthew was a significant figure in the community which produced this Gospel and his name is enshrined for that reason. Whatever the cause, it shows us that the authors have a purpose which influences how they compose their Gospel. Divine inspiration includes human input.

In all three Gospels, the story is basically the same. Jesus calls him to follow. The tax collector responds. Jesus is at table with "outlaws" (tax collectors and sinners, although Luke changes sinner to 'others') which upsets the Pharisees (and Scribes in Mk&Lk). When asked why Jesus eats with "tax collectors and sinners" (here Luke includes that word, too) Jesus responds that healthy people don't need a doctor, the sick do. "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

That is the Good News. The invitation from God extends beyond the usual suspects (religious and pious people). As a member of that latter group, perhaps I am being confronted with the truth that Jesus desires a different type of approach. It is hard, especially when one is older and tired. It is safer to teach Bible studies and provide counseling. I am good at those sorts of things. I am less certain where I should go and what I should do each day to be more like Jesus. Who are the outlaws in my area? How receptive would they be to eating with me?

Of course, it helps to remember that all of us, even the "religious," are sick and in need of a (Divine) Physician. It helps to know that we are all sinners. Perhaps that is the point: recognition of that fact. Jesus came for all of us and we need to recognize our need. All of us. In that case, my counseling and Bible study may be just what the Doctor ordered!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Temporary Marriage

I heard on the news this morning that there is a movement in Mexico to create a short term marriage option in Mexico City. So before I blogged on it, I read a couple articles which were interesting. One view from a US tv station focused on marriage counseling and divorce mediation. Another from the Huffington Post emphasized the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to this move, while explaining it as a pragmatic response to a high divorce rate. The Telegraph (a right wing paper), out of  the United Kingdom, said it was a move by liberals, who had already approved gay marriage, which angered conservatives. It indicated that there was a liberal/urban vs. rural/conservative issue. UK's (left wing) The Guardian began with the humane aspect (making it easier on people who suffer in divorce) although it also identified the liberal nature of the event and tied it to gay marriage as well. The Guardian ended the story mentioning Roman Catholic reaction.

My intent, to blog on marriage, got a bit sidetracked as I read the different slants of the articles on the event. I guess because I am doing some Gospel studies (taking note of differences between Matthew and Luke in the same parable) that I am finding myself drawn to look at the differences in the articles about this event. It really does demonstrate that we must use multiple sources when forming an opinion.

Is it reasonable to offer temporary marriage as a curative for the cost and pain of divorce? I am sure there is probably some truth to that. And with divorce rates at such high levels one can imagine a well intentioned effort to provide some support might look like this. Of course, that assumes a pragmatic approach. But if marriage is sacred (the Christian position) then the idea of an intentionally temporary marriage is a contradiction in terms. A covenant of love meant to be life-long cannot be whittled down to a two or three year commitment.

However, this is exactly what I expect in light of the myriad changes in thinking on marriage. I guess what is most stunning is it is a world-wide issue. Traditional beliefs are under attack EVERY WHERE. The escapist dream of finding a place where all is well, is, well, a pipe dream. You are I are in the midst of a conflict which is global, foundational, and showing no signs of slowing down. There are forces at work which will undo the Christian faith. But Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against His church. Gates are defensive, not offensive. It means that WE are on the offense. We are called not to react to the latest secular attack. We are called to non-violently but strongly proclaim God's vision for the world. Courageous Christians. Perhaps it is time for us to get clear in our thinking and get clear in our proclamation of the faith. The alternatives are certainly not wasting time in their efforts to recreate the world.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Walking Dead

The last few years there has been an absolute glut of vampire books and tv shows. I have noticed a similar spike in zombies lately. There was even an episode on vampires vs. zombies on a military history show recently, which analyzes military effectiveness of different warriors from different times/places. All this raises the question in my mind, "what does it mean?"

Symbolism and allegory play a huge role in the Scriptures. The Church Fathers, following Paul, embraced typological reading of the Old Testament as the primary way to find the story of Jesus in those sacred writings. I think that the 'fulfillment of Scripture' is often times a typological reading. Having an "analogical imagination" is a key to doing theology. I do not think I am especially gifted in that area but I have made an effort to actually try to work towards it. With that in mind, I want to reflect upon some of the symbolism in these cultural horror icons.

The Christian faith says that we will die and rise again, but we are commanded to die to self. Our source of salvation is the blood of Jesus, given for our life. The Vampire is dead but risen. In a sense the vampire is in an improved human state (more power, speed, and attractiveness), however, the vampire is diminished, too. He feeds on the blood of others. His interactions are homicidal, he takes from others so he can live. I think, at some level, the vampire story is the alternative to the Christian story. There is a (mythic) sense where it communicates that we gain life by taking from others (rather than laying down our lives for others). As my daughter quickly figured out when we discussed this recently, vampires are an anti-Christ. I am thinking that is part of the draw to these stories. It is a view into the trajectory of life without Christ.  It is a story-mirror in which we see reflected our culutre's hopes and dreams. These stories play out in the world in which we live. They are a warning to  us because there are real life examples of those who 'feed' on others, using seductive skills and power to do it.

I watched the tv show Walking Dead last night. It is standard zombie story telling. It, too, raises questions. I went on line and found numerous serious philosophical papers on zombies. I (jokingly) told my wife that I am interested in zombies lately because I feel I have become one (one of the less appealing side effects of new baby!). I think that the show resonates with viewers who feel that they live world where there are forces at work which threaten us constantly. Although these are fictional, they also convey a real concern. The world is fragile. Society is held together but it can collapse. Anyone who has seen riots knows that the people we live among can just as easily feast on us. The tension in these programs echoes the tension so many feel living in a world where the economy and social structures are collapsing.

The idea of soul-less people is not too far fetched. In Deuteronomy God says "I lay before you life and death, choose life." Some people choose death in its myriad forms. Are there people who are 'walking dead" among us? Yes, if we mean spiritually dead. Once again, such people feed on others. That is the world without Christ. It is the world of flesh without Holy Spirit. I think the glut of zombie & vampire literature is a good thing if it raises questions in people's minds. What is the true source of imortality? How should one live? Is existence all there is to life? Dare I believe Jesus and give my life for others, rather than take the life of others so I can survuve?

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I heard the last few minutes of an interview with Ken Burns on NPR this morning as I drove to church. Apparently, he has a documentary on Prohibition which starts tonight. Burns created a sensation with his wonderful history of baseball and since then is well respected for the work he does. Obviously, history is complex and no one perspective can do justice to all the twists and turns, but I am sure he will provide insight into the world of American some one hundred years ago.

One statement which he made took me back. He said that there was concern, based on extenisive alcohol consumption (some seven times more than today) that we were becoming a nation of drunkards. What was more upsetting, were anecdotes about the Temperance Movement. Dominated by women, he told of cases where the ladies were hosed down in the winter, as they stood outside of taverns praying. It caught my attention because it is not the sort of thing which we talk much about. It is a reminder that history is so much more than data points from the past. It is the rich, lived experience of countless souls on their own life journeys.

Burns said that when Temperance blossomed into Prohibition, one of the exceptions was houses of worship. Sacramentl usage was legal. He said that synagogues boomed, many led by rabbis with Irish names. I am not sure how widespread the phenomenon was, but no doubt it occurred with enough frequency to register as a statistical trend.

We have such a distorted view of things. We live in a time of incredible blessings. We are ignorant of life in the past. It is hard to believe that not that long ago, the New York Yankees sometimes slept in the park because it was too hot in their hotel rooms. Babe Ruth, on a mattress in the park. It was not that long ago that the flu killed twenty million people. That people were crippled for life by polio. That babies perished for lack of medical care. That people with cancer just died. It was not so long ago that fresh fruits and vegetables were available only part of the year and the term 'out of season' was in common use. School was a luxury for many, and it was not uncommon to know people who quit school in fourth or fifth grade.

History is called boring by many so they learn little or nothing about it. Unfortunately, you are allowed to have an opinoin and voice it without knowledge. I wish I knew more. Too often I am swept up in the assumption that things were 'so much better' in the past. In fact, we probably live in a much better time, for all its problems, than we can imagine. Yes, things could be better, much better, but they have been worse, much worse. Struggles and problems started in the Garden and have continued to our own day. It is good to learn a bit more about the way we were, especially if you are upset with the way we are...