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Sunday, September 29, 2013

On the Rich Guy, Lazarus and Us

We often call it the holy Gospel, but this section of Luke (6:19-31) might be better named the terrifying Gospel. The parable of the rich man burning in hell while the poor man enjoys heavenly bliss should haunt the conscience of every middle class American. The possibility that “we have had our good life” here and now is unnerving. The question, “have I done enough for the poor?” is more than theoretical…

The Bible provides no easy answer. There is no exact dollar amount to avoid eternity in Hell; probably because it is not about tossing food to the hungry like they were pigeons. The rich man failed to see the humanity of Lazarus (the only character in a parable with a name!). So caring for the poor needs to include caring for them as a human…

We have all done something for the needy. We also know we could do more, much more. But doing more is also never ending. Sometimes I find our commitment to ‘outreach’ at the church is a never ending pursuit. There is never time to reflect on the joy of helping someone because there are so many others lined up with their own needs. It can get mechanical and become another numbers game, trying to do more and more (with les and less). I understand why some people throw up their hands and give up. “What is enough?” they ask.  However, that is not a Christian option.

On the other hand, stressing and fretting is not faithful either. Jesus did not say we are to “worry” about the poor. Jesus did not say we are to “feel guilty” about all we have. Jesus said, “Use some of what you have to take care of others.” He also reminds us that God loves a joyful giver.

My offer on discerning how to deal with wealth would start with these three questions:
  • are you generous? [if a third world person looked at all you have and all you use to help others would they say you are generous?]
  • are you grateful? [do you ponder your blessings or take things fro granted. Are you more likely to say ‘thanks” or gripe?]
  • how many of your money spending choices are motivated by love of God and others?

Paul tells Timothy a great deal about how to deal with money. He warns him of the intoxicating effect it can have; the addiction to money. Paul warns that the desire for wealth can lead us astray: off the path of life. In the end, that is the spiritual dilemma. Paul’s solution, following Jesus’ teaching, is learning to be satisfied with the basics. As he says, “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment”

Being content is hard. When running a race we see the people ahead of us. We tell ourselves that if only we pushed harder we could do better. Striving for excellence is good. Learning to celebrate success is, too. So many of us spend our whole life stressed and burdened with greater expectations. Nothing is ever good enough—and we are never, ever able to enjoy what we do have.

Being satisfied with fulfilling our needs gives us freedom. It is more peaceful to spend less than you make. It is easier to see the blessings around us (people, places and things) when we aren’t busy trying to figure out how to get more, more, more. We need to stop to enjoy what we have in life, those things that matter most. And nothing adds more joy than truly helping someone in need.

As Paul reminds us; we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything with us. All our stuff gets left behind. All we have is legacy of what we did with what we had; a list of those we helped and blessed, to be laid at the feet of the God from whom all blessings flow.

You cannot buy your way into heaven. You can, however, “ignore-the-needy”- your way into Hell. Jesus asks us to trust. He wants us to believe He will provide. Love of money is the root of all evil because it is not the love of God—which is the root of all good. And loving God we will love others as well. And loving others includes that “Lazarus” at your gate.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Forgiving the Unforgivable?

I heard on TV about the mass murder at a mall in Kenya recently but only read about them yesterday. If you have not read here is an address to get more info (I cannot directly link on my blog, do not know why)  
This follows on a bombing at a church in Pakistan that killed eighty five.

The issue of Islamic violence against Christians is very difficult. I am a Christian, so I enter the story wearing a metaphorical "team jersey" and seeing things through my very Christian (and white, male, middle class) perspective. That said, I am not confused about the ethical evil in these two attacks. Sorry, nothing justifies such wanton brutality and mayhem. And I know enough church history to say that black and brown Christians, including the poor, have said he same thing since ancient times.

Yet, I also know that the perpetrators have their own stories. [Acknowledging that makes some people mad. we prefer our bad guys are pure evil of their own volition.] It is tempting to see them as "animals" or "human garbage" or to claim theirs is "a religion of hate." There is no justification for what they do, but there is an explanation. There are twists and turns (and perversions) in their thinking which leads them to do what should never be done, but there are also experiences in their childhood and education which shaped them. I worked for a decade with kids who were abused. It turns out that people can be made evil, or at least helped along. Sometimes the perpetrator really is a victim, too.

I have little patience for the "moral relativist" folks who equate the terrorist with an American soldier. So do not misread my words. What happened is objectively unjustifiable and evil. I just cannot embrace a dismissive and simple minded "they are evil" as an explanation. The devil is at work here, so is personal sin, but psycho-social influences are also present. Like all human behavior it is complex. Too complex for any simple answers.

Equally complex is our response. Today our Gospel from Matthew was the Lord's Prayer. Matthew has a  more expanded version than Luke. The two Evangelists have a different emphasis. In Luke (11:1ff) it comes just after the Martha-Mary story about listening to Jesus. Jesus is at prayer and his disciples ask for a prayer (like John the Baptist gave his disciples a prayer). Jesus gives them this prayer and follows it with an exhortation to persevere in praying. Ask, seek, knock; be like an obnoxious neighbor demanding help in the middle of the night! The focus is on faith filled praying

Matthew places it in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, a three chapter collection of Jesus' sayings (many of which are dispersed throughout Luke). In particular, it is inserted in three parallel sayings on prayer, fasting and alms giving. In fact, based on those parallels, it looks obvious that Matthew is the one who slid it in here.But with Matthew's version of the Lord's prayer is tacked on an additional exhortation on forgiveness. The basic message: IF you forgive, God will forgive you, if you do not forgive, God will not forgive you. This is found also in other teaching of Jesus (how you judge others is the criteria by which you are judged) and it seems to be a key element of His message. Certainly, Jesus practiced this from the cross ("Father forgive them, they know not what they do"). The unjust torture and murder He experienced produced kindness and mercy. And what Jesus told us to do--forgive--is modeled by Stephen (in Acts) who prays God's mercy on those who stone him. So it is a church responsibility.

So what do we do? Do we just 'forgive' the murderers, overlook their evil and say, "no one is perfect..."? I think NO, NO, NO is a proper response. People who say "all sins are sins, all sins are equally wrong" are nuts. Equating murdering people in cold blood or blowing people to bits in their church service with stealing a piece of candy is so clearly foolish to me that I will say nothing more. These sins are big deal, mortal sins (to quote 1 John 5:17 "there is sin that is mortal...All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.""). Forgiveness of sin is also a big deal, it is grace. So what to do?

My suggestion is we, you and I, do nothing. We are not the victims. We have not earned the right through our blood or pain to forgive anyone anything. Forgiveness of the murderers is the possession of the Pakistani and Kenyan victims. They are the ones to whom the debt is owed. And God. Always God. Those were God's children who were shredded and diced like vegetation. Those were God's sons and daughters who were shattered and destroyed. And the survivors are God's children burdened with the heavy task of answering the question "what now shall we do?" To choose forgiveness will not be cheap words for them. It is unfathomable to me....

How to end the evil? Killing the perpetrators will create more grievances and  more perpetrators. Doing nothing will embolden them and make more as well. What then to do? The answers are complex and in the end nothing works flawlessly. However, I know that Jesus tells us forgiveness is our vocation. It is our duty and task. And in order to do it, we must speak the word of forgiveness from our own cross. God help us. Such a thing seems impossible at times...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tsunami from God

I found the readings yesterday at Morning Prayer/Evening Prayer to be extra-ordinary. The value of the daily office is you encounter numerous psalms and three distinct readings from both testaments. Some days the Word of God is like a tsunami to me. I feel overwhelmed by the power and rushing force. My little brain is on overload. Yesterday was such a day. Each set of verses set my head to spinning. So I am going to continue digging around there. Yesterday we noted that while "sexual morality" is very important there are other pressing sins which receive little or no notice. Churches are inconsistent in exercising "integrity" in obedience the the Word.

Integrity is darn hard. 1 Corinthian 6:1ff for example should have felt like a bomb going off at the Daily Office celebrated by the Episcopal Church bishops gathered in Nashville. I believe that they seek to do the right thing. I trust they want to be faithful. I cannot think the words they heard made them comfortable.

In 1 Cor 6:1ff Paul condemns the practice of suing other Christians. He does not leave much room for doubt. For example: "I say this to your SHAME. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one brother and another, but a brother goes to court against a believer--and before unbelievers at that." The idea that we would waste millions of dollars on law suits makes me heart and soul sick. It upsets me much more than gay marriage. [If gay people who sincerely seek God are wrong about their sexual behavior that is their concern. Yesterday made clear that there are a number of us having to answer for all manner of sins of which we have not repented and continue to do. FACT: All have sinned and fall short. Everyone will face God carrying particular sins to the Judgment seat.] However, the evil and damage done when churches fight over property is more extensive and more horrible.

The Episcopal church could have been loving, tolerant and understanding in dealing with the conservatives. There could have been ways to divide resources so everyone. [Paul also says, "Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud--and brothers at that"] The millions of dollars being paid to lawyers (and the horrible press that shows us to be greedy and malicious toward one another) could have been used to fund a settlement which would have allowed us to feed the hungry, educate and employ the poor, provide ministry to the elderly and needy. It makes me so sad I could despair of God even being active in the church. It shakes the faith deeply.

My fear as a priest in this church is that I am answerable for such waste of resources and misappropriation of God's gifts for lawsuits. Now, I know that some would say, "But that is Paul speaking. We follow Jesus." Ironically Jesus addressed the situation as well in Matthew yesterday. (I said it was a tsunami)

Mt 5:38-48, "You have heard it said, "and eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer...and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well....Give to everyone who not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you....But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...."

I think God's Word cuts both ways. Those who have left are answerable as well. But I am not in their church. I have no voice among them. I am in this church, the Episcopal Church. I am responsible for stewardship of resources here. And I am sick to heart that we continue this scorched earth policy fighting in courts over property (which we cannot even use because the people are gone). WE have taken food out of children's mouths and thrown it away. WE have stolen funding for ministry to the elderly or support of missionaries bringing the name of Jesus to those in darkness. WE have chosen the way of hatred and force in the name of love and peace. We have not repented of it, either. God has spoken... How much longer will we insist on ignoring Him? and at what cost do we turn from the Lord we serve? Lord have mercy on me, and my church. Save us Lord we are perishing!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

One Problem with Culture Wars

for reference

I heard about the sports announcer (Craig James) losing his job at Fox Sport for "socially conservative " comments he made while running for Texas' Senate. Most articles are saying the same thing. The justification seems to be that the HR Department would not allow someone to say such things... Nothing implies he was fired for his performance. This raises the question, for those of us who do not believe in same sex marriage, is this part of a trajectory toward criminalization of our view point? [In fairness it wasn't that long ago that the same man, if homosexual, would have lost his job for that reason. People hid their sexual identity for that reason. Now traditional beliefs are under fire. People grousing about 'persecution' need to see it cuts both ways. That is the problem with culture wars: winners win and losers lose.]

With that in mind, reading 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:8 this morning was a real interesting meditation. Paul's words are a reminder, for a Christian, of a wider swath of offenses for which we are to "be guilty." Paul begins by reviewing a statement he had made earlier. (I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons. The Greek word is pornos (where we get "pornography") and according to Strongs' refers to male prostitution of any illicit sexual activity, i.e. fornication. So Paul said to exclude such folks from your circle.)

The obvious problem with this statement required that Paul explain further in this follow up letter. Obviously, he says, I do not mean 'anyone' who does such things because to do that you would "need to go outside the world." No, what Paul meant was anyone who claims to be a Christian (literally "adelphos onomazomenos" or "those being called brothers"). He says do not associate, do not even eat with them. Many Christians, who generally share Mr. James perspective, would say that 1 Corinthians 5 is a reason to break communion over the issue of gay marriage.

Now comes the ironic twist. While I do not support the idea of gay marriage and while I support the traditional understanding of marriage, I do not advocate not associating with them. Here is why, Paul does not make his statement in isolation. It is, rather, part of a series. Look what else is included:

  • Greedy (pleonektes--those who want more) Actually, in the Bible this is a much more grave sin and it receives far harsher consideration. That most Americans (including American Christians) have a disordered appetite for wealth and  "stuff" is easily overlooked. If churches exiled every greedy member we would see a dramatic decline in attendance. 
  • Intoxicated (methos--drunkard). While some churches disdain alcohol, others are more comfortable with it. My guess is those who abuse alcohol are challenged about this.
  • robbers (harpax--rapacious, ravenous, swindler) is probably more tricky. It is really about ripping people off rather than a strong arm robbery. This is a huge issue in the Bible. Many upstanding citizens are actually doing this regularly. How much ruckus is kicked up in "traditional values" circles on this one?
  • Reviler (loidoros-- railer)  To revile is to use abusive language but I had to look up 'railer.' It is a person who expresses objection s or criticism in bitter, harsh or abusive language. Think about that for a moment. Think of the language used in discussions of gay marriage, for example.
  • idolator. This one is less tricky. We do not worship idols (literally) although technically we probably do create 'idols' of a sort of all manner of things (including family, job and favorite sports &/or team).
The dilemma is how to be consistent and fair. My guess is Mr. James was not gravely concerned about the over-focus on sports, in particular football. My guess is lots of well-to-do people with whom he associates use their position and power to advantage themselves in dealing with others. I also bet that there is plenty of greed in sports. Excessive drinking at football games???? People speaking harshly toward others (like opposing teams or referees)?

That is the problem of getting holy. It is the challenge of taking a stand. We can get pulled into "teams" on a debate and cherry pick our favorite sin on the list to rail about (and ignore others). Oops, railing would be on the list. See I am doing it too.

I am greatly concerned with the injustices against traditional beliefs. I have spoken about this many times before. I also see the past unfairness done in the name of traditional beliefs. Even so, if I want to speak out I need to be consistent myself. I think Paul's words are very hard indeed. It shows how seriously the early church took holiness. But Paul did not advocate focusing on just one sin on the list. That is something which the culture warriors love to do. If we shift the focus from argumentation to sincerely seeking the Lord then perhaps we will receive the wisdom to understand the words of Paul and implement them in a loving, just and faithful way. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Word of Hope

for link go to  
readings                   Jeremiah 8:18-9:1   Psalm 79:1-9   1 Timothy 2:1-7     Luke 16:1-13

I believe we should interpret Scripture with Scripture. However, I also think that the church has done that work for centuries (about twenty of them) and so I can be safe in listening to God's voice speaking there. In light of that it seems that one of the best 'starting places' is 1 Timothy 2:3-4 "God our Savior,  who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."

Does God, first and foremost, want to save people, all people, each one and every one? Did He send Jesus into the world to save because of that desire? I find when I answer that question affirmatively, with enthusiasm, that my mind and heart seem better. When I think God is looking for a reason to damn me and every one else, I get sad and worried. If we are all just kindling for Hell it is hard to get motivated to do much of anything. And it is hard to have faith in a God, love and trust a God, Who is often portrayed as an angry (justifiably, we are sinners) Judge Who intends to wipe us all out as our just desserts.

Jeremiah portrays judgment, but with a twist. The emotional response of Jeremiah to the plight of God’s people can only be described as a dirge. What did the prophet “see” to break his heart? Perhaps he had an image of a sweaty farmer and his wife toiling in the sun with a child playing nearby. Suddenly, a lone rider appears, spear in hand. Just as suddenly, the rider is joined by others, dozens at a time. In that moment it all comes clear. The farmer will no longer worry about crops or family life. The riders descend, horses hooves trampling the man and toddler. The demise of man, woman and child is a personal tragedy which is to be played out tens of thousands of other times. Total destruction: A normal day swept away by a moment of sheer horror and death. Jeremiah’s reaction would be similar to our own response on Sept 11: weeping and sadness. Yet Jeremiah does not cry alone. He speaks in the voice of God; the God who weeps, who feels pain and sadness, the God whose judgment breaks not only His people but His own heart.

God's judgment breaks God's heart; is this not the meaning of the cross? Like a parent who  has rescued an errant child for the last time, God withdraws and allows the punishment to happen. A parent dies inside as they see their beloved child ruin a life with bad choice after bad choice. So it is with God.

The world hangs in the balance in most times. Human sin and evil produce immeasurable misery and suffering. At this moment around the globe there are any number of people planning or plotting widespread terror and destruction. Some of it sanctioned as "legitimate war." Others the creation of smaller groups with diverse motivation. In every case, it will mean loss and suffering for fellow humans.

This is why we are urged “to make supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings for king and all who are in high places.” Prayer is one of our “super powers.” In Jesus and powered by the Holy Spirit we are gifted with the burden and the blessing of standing before God in the name of the world.  Jesus is the great high priests and we share in His ministry. Since our baptism and in our faith we are set apart for this holy work. Our power is not military might or financial holdings, it is not a skilled tongue or friends in high places. Our power is a bent knee, a humble heart and a fervent prayer. It is opening ourselves 'to and for' that salvation which God so desperately wants to pour out on everyone, everywhere, in and through Jesus Christ.
Whatever else the convoluted parable of Jesus tells us, it teaches that we children of the light—Kingdom folks—need to be more clever about how we use our power. We need to understand every temporary resource (Mammon) as a foretaste of the perfect treasure of God. We need to not amass our wealth for personal benefit, a fruitless enterprise for finite, mortal, passing-away creatures. Rather, Jesus commends the use of our wealth to make friends on earth, and more importantly, though subtly, friends in heaven.

Proper use of our resources is a choice. Our wealth in prayer can be used in intercession, thanks and praise. This is a clever (wise) use of wealth. Our material gifts and blessings can be used in the same way; an offering to God to benefit the needs of others. Doom and destruction causes the prophet to cry, it seems this reflects the heart break of God. Today we have a chance to wipe away those Divine tears by our fidelity with all our blessings.

[I hope it is not blasphemy to suggest that we humans can wipe away the tears of God. I do not underestimate the perfection of God. However, as His small children, perhaps, as we sit on His lap and He loves us beyond what words can express and He 'suffers' with/for us, perhaps, like a small child our little hands can reach up and do just that....]


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cancer Run

I ran in my first 5K in many years today. It was to raise money for Ovarian Cancer. I had told my wife I thought we should do a 5K some day and to my surprise she called me yesterday (Friday) and said she found one. Our motivation is a young woman whom we both have known for decades. I met her in my seminary days, right before I left for Leuven. She was about 12 or 13 then. Her family sort of took me under their care. Her mom and dad were both dear to me and in the almost 35 years since then although we do not see each other often, every time I do is a source of joy. I love their family.

The race itself was a typical experience. I was able to meet my goal (and exceed it a little). The distance is not really a long run, but it is long enough. At the end you are tired. You are also energized. There were 751 runners so it was a big group. [There are always people behind you to make you feel like a winner!]

What was most moving to me was the connections between people. A woman from the parish joined us as she had played ball in high school with the young woman whose team we ran on. A former parishioner was also there, she herself being a survivor of ten years. "Every day is a gift" she told me "and I try not to sweat the small stuff." Sage advice indeed.

Many shirts included memorials. I choke up when I see "for my mom. I still  miss her" taped to the back of one runner or another. My mom got cancer twice. Her heart eventually did her in. Or her lungs. Doctors argued that one back and forth. The loss of someone so important in your life is never easy. It is a reminder to tell people you love them when you get the chance.

Being in a large group of people on a sunny day was very exhilarating. It puts you in a good mood. (No doubt running adds to that). Exercise. Raising money for a good cause. Seeing old friends. Taking a moment to be aware of how each day really is a gift. All of it a blessing. I wish I could find a way to pack it up and send it out to all my loved ones. I guess I can only tell them: it is there for us to grab if we choose.

I have run into several people recently (last night and today) who told me they read the blog. It is nice to know. I always wonder when I see a number each day who that represents. In many cases, it is you, someone I love dearly and spent some part of my life sharing daily adventures. Maybe you were in high school then and now are the father (or mother) of your own teens. Maybe it was at a parish, or at school, or at youth villages. Whatever it was, know that I count it a blessing to have known you and shared the moments. Know also, that however wonderful it was, we have not seen anything yet! The glory of a sunny day or seeing old friends is as nothing compared to the glory to be revealed. Good news indeed. Even for folks struggling with cancer, loss and other pain!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pope Francis: Beyond the Headlines

There is a young man in my parish who is much drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. One of his  habits in written communication is to end with the words, "forgive me." The first time I read them they shocked. "What," I wondered, "had he done to ask my forgiveness?" Over time I realized it was the Orthodox spiritual principle at work within him. Conscious of his sin, he reminds himself and others of the need for mercy.

While this principle is also at work in the West, it seems to have a different twist. Here it is more "filthy rags" and the "worthlessness of our good works."  While no doubt true such statements also breed a certain distrust in me. If the medical care giver's works of mercy are equated as garbage on the level of the rapist's heinous act is there any point in anything? Yet the humility of recognizing "I am a sinner" can, and does, provide a fitting place to begin (without the unneeded denigration of any goodness I as a sinner perform).

I wanted to reflect on Pope Francis' latest media splash. However, the words in the paper left me wondering what he had really said. [Once again, the media reports are not really accurate, even when the quotes are verbatim. Go here for the actual text] The Pope's first words in the interview: Asked who he is his response was “I ​​do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

His words confirmed my initial reaction to the quotes being bandied about in the media. This is a man acutely aware of his sin as a personal experience, not just a theological position. It is a man broken down by his own guilt, even shame, and who has come on bent knee, humbly, to seek God's forgiveness. It is a man on a mission to 'reform' the church. He will not  be the first pope to try to do such a thing. Like all fallible humans he will make missteps and errors. [Even devout Catholics understand that papal infallibility does not extend to any opinion of the Bishop of Rome. It is only when he speaks ex cathedra (a very, very rare occurence) that such a claim is made.] He admits that his style was 'authoritarian' when he led the Jesuits and it seems he is trying very hard to avoid such an approach again. Perhaps this is driving some of his worry and concern about how the Roman Church expresses Herself?

His vision of church is a "field hospital" where the broken world is ministered to on the front lines. He talks about the danger of the confessional, where the priest can be tempted to be too rigorist or too lax. He says neither is merciful; one focuses solely on commandments and the priest withdraws, while the other denies sin. In reality we are called to accompany sinners on their journey, proclaiming "Jesus has saved you from your sin!" [The media has only emphasized his anti-rigorist concerns and ignored the "less Liberal" statements] Over and over again he emphasizes that the minister must accompany the people, to be with them in the darkness of night (without getting lost themselves!) and to forge new paths for the flock so that no one is left behind. As he said, "God accompanies people and we must accompany them." Such words find their inspiration in the Gospel, the story of the Lord Jesus who was condemned for eating with sinners (read that one last Sunday!). "Being with" seems to be fundamental to his understanding of the church.

The judgmental or bureaucratic minded cannot do this work. "Pharisees" and "Sadducees" stand against Jesus as much as the lawless and decadent. In spite of what the newspaper articles seem to imply, the Pope is not against moral teaching. Neither is he changing it. He is, however, against using morality to identify and ostracize small groups or focus solely on a particular sin while ignoring the pastoral care that needs to be provided for any sinner.

His stance on the hot button issues (gays, abortion, birth control) are what the media love to focus on. However, the media is generally apathetic (or hostile) to religious faith. Journalists, by and large, do not love Jesus. They cannot be trusted to understand and convey the full content of the pope's words. For them it is "a story"; a headline to catch attention and drive sales. It is their job. I do not fault them.

Catholic faith embraces the person's ability to make decisions. Personal responsibility (an informed conscience, i.e. one studies Scripture and church teaching, asks the Holy Spirit to guide, and struggles honestly to discern the will of God) was hammered into my head for years. The internal forum (where I meet my God and decide what He wants) remains an option. Please not, I do not believe in gay marriage, but this does not mean I feel driven to condemn gays. I believe that each stands before God on their own. I know what the Bible says. I understand that heterosexual marriage is the God given norm. I also know, to return to the beginning of this post, that I am a sinner. All fall short. Everyone. I will not bless a gay marriage, but I will bless a gay person. More importantly, I think Jesus does, if they come on bent knee confessing their sins.

Anyone familiar with my writing on the topic will attest that I have a traditional stance (I will not rehash it here. I have been condemned for hate speech by the Left and do not see a need to prove my 'bona fides' to the Right). The pope does as well. He says the church's teaching is quite clear. He also says, and I agree, that the love of Jesus for all also extends to gays. And if the church does not exclude the unjust, the greedy, the mean, the selfish, the liar, the cheat and all other sinners, then it is fair to call the hyper focus on homo-sex sins as an obsession.

This pope is important. His words ring true to me (his actual words, not the new stories). [An aside, I think abortion is different from the other two.] I hope people will react to what he says not what the newspapers cobble together. I hope, more importantly, that we would all take seriously the words "I am a sinner" and the Good News "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners"! We need more focus on ministry to sinners (everybody) and that is what the Pope is advocating.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Hate Him

Ahab is one of the most infamous Kings of ancient Israel. His endless sparring with Ellijah is a stereotypical contrast between the holy man and the bad king. While the Biblical portrait emphasizes his weak and vacillating nature (and Jezebel's pagan idolatry) passing references to his military prowess and building campaigns remind us that there was more to the story. Fundamentally, the books of Kings judges a king based on one criteria, faithfulness to God. Ahab's failure comes to fruition in the readings today and yesterday (Kings 22).

Yesterday we read that Ahab asked the King of Judah (Jehoshaphat) to join him in an incursion of Aram. The three years of peace come to a violent close because of a land dispute (Ramoth-Gilead). Jehoshaphat is subservient to the King of Israel pledging his loyalty in the endeavor. However, he thinks it best to consult the prophets to determine if God is in support of the venture. We are told four hundred prophets are gathered and they give the divine thumbs up. Not satisfied with this, Jehoshaphat asks if there is another. Ahab responds that there is, Micaiah, but he continues, "I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune." The more pious Jehoshapat tells Ahab, "Don't say that your majesty."

Micaiah is thoroughly prepped by the messengers sent to fetch him, and he is informed that the Lord is supposed to say "Yes!" Micaiah declares he will only speak what the Lord tells him, but upon meeting the Kings he gives them a positive prophecy. Obviously, his non-verbals betray him (something a written text cannot convey) because the king is exasperated and demands the truth. (To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men---'you can't handle the truth' Ahab)

Micaiah' message is one of doom and death. Israel will be scattered on a  hill like sheep without a shepherd (recall Jesus uses the same words of the Jews in His time). Ahab says, "Didn't I tell you...?" and ignores the fatal message. Micaiah explains that God has sent/allowed a deceitful spirit to entice Micaiah. The revelation of "the plan" to mislead the king, however, does not deter Ahab. However, one of the prophets steps forward to slap Micaiah. Then Ahab has him locked up in prison on bread and water to await Ahab's return. Micaiahs' response to this chills the blood: "If you return then the Lord did not speak through me..."

Ahab did not return. Even though he disguised himself in the battle, he was struck between the breastplate by an  arrow ("A man drew his bow at random"). It is not clear if it is enemy or friendly fire. What is clear is God's judgment has come to pass. The king bleeds out in his chariot on the hot day. His gory ends fulfills the prophecies about him (dogs lick up his blood) and the people of Israel are dispersed as Micaiah said that they would be. In the days ahead we will read about the equally horrible end to Jezebel. Not a pretty story.

We always live in a time when God's word can rankle. In every time and place the message of God can produce disfavor. People in leadership are no more likely to be angry and not like the prophet in their midst. However, people in power can, and do, exercise that power in ways to silence the contrary voices. We are not told what happened to Micaiah. Perhaps he was left to starve to death in the prison. Maybe he was recognized as a truth speaker and released. If the former, he is a type of John the Baptist and a grim reminder that fidelity to God can be costly.

The temptation "to speak words which men love to hear" is strong for anyone who has been rejected, over and again, or grown weary of preaching "a hard word." We mentioned yesterday that Jeremiah frequently was on the brink of turning in his resignation. In troubled times it is easier to keep silent and avoid the conflict. It might even seem prudent, or pastoral, or humble. When one hears the mighty powers utter the words, "I don't like him, he never says anything good about me," it seems like a reminder that "there is good in everyone" and "accentuate the positive"! It is, therefore, a temptation to avoid the hard word and speak sweetness. The problem is bitter truth is true and sweet lies are not. Reality has little concern about its flavor--it just is.

All of us are tempted to play the compliant one. All of us are tempted to twist God's word into a more appealing form. It is especially the case when patriotism or team spirit or group honor is at play. It is especially the case in dark and difficult days. The early church fathers, Ignatius and Polycarp, knew such things. Both martyred in the early second century, they were hated because of the their simple holiness and refusal to say the things which kings (and other men in power) wanted to hear. I close with Ignatius message to the (then) younger bishop Polycarp, as Ignatius prepared to die for his faith and Polycarp served as a bishop in his church: Critical times like these need you, as a boat needs a helmsmen or the storm tossed mariner a haven, if men are ever to find their way to God. Those words are as true today as they were in 115AD. Our choice is to seek to be liked or to be true (come what may).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Viable Threats

We are reading Jeremiah in our Sunday lectionary so each week I am praying over the Jeremiah text (as well as something from Paul and the Gospel of Luke) as I discern what I am to preach on. While I do think the Holy Spirit is involved, I also think my own agenda and baggage is at work. It is hard to know what is my mistaken pondering and what is God-given...

Jeremiah preached dark words. He also was sad much of the time. His message was a heavy burden to bear and I get the impression that Jeremiah would rather have done something else with his life. I have been especially struck by the contrast of this model for living ("the weeping prophet") vs. "the joyful/happy Christian" model which I have grown up with. Which of the two is more authentic? [and how much of either is a function of genetics, situation and choice?]

Jeremiah's agony over fallen Judah is heart wrenching. I have read contemporary 'prophetic' warnings of a similar stripe the last ten years. The basic message is "time runs short, return to the Lord." That was Jesus' preaching (The kingdom is near, repent and believe) so I do not have any issues with that message. I think the question for a lot of us is the exact form and time frame of that judgment. I believe my own denomination is under God's judgment. I see things which confirm, to me, that the time is now. The American culture seems to also be begging God for a fresh batch of 'correction' and renewal. However, I do not believe America is God's covenant people (a theme in some periods of American history and certainly something some of the religiously inclined immigrants seem to have embraced from time to time) so the strict parallels with Israel are off a bit. That being said, the Jewish Scriptures make clear that God's dealings with other nations was impacted by the people's righteousness and many times the prophets preached against the sins of a foreign nation... So there is no reason to think the USA is exempt from God's hand of judgment.

Yesterday the CDC announced pending doom because of the abuse of antibiotics. For a decade now there have been warnings that we are creating new super-bugs (resistant to our current supply of medications) because people are misusing antibiotics. To compound the issue, drug companies no longer do research in this area because there is no money to be made. This is a function of human decision making (both the companies and their critics). I think the prophet Jeremiah is able to look at a two year old and imagine some untreatable respiratory infection which slowly suffocates the child. I think it makes him weep. I guess the joyful Christian counters with the good news that the Lord will receive that same child into the Kingdom. [in the end we all die]

Seeing the frustration of the CDC as their dire warnings are ignored reminds me of Jeremiah. As does the warnings of economic collapse as we continue to add billions in debt. What happens when the weight of all that debt capsizes the economy. Once again, the vision of a future where jobs are even more scarce and people are reduced to struggling for food to eat (think of much of the third world). It couldn't happen here, right? Think again.

Jeremiah's threats are not unrelated to human choices. The warnings from secular agents in our own culture are a reminder that "prophetic vision" may not be limited to the overtly spiritual. God's Wisdom permeates creation. The call to repent does as well. As I sat holding baby boy yesterday, with such grave threats booming in the background, I contemplated his future. Should I weep or rejoice? I think both: cross and resurrection are each real.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

God's Desire: Salvation

[readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost (RCL): Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; PS 14;1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-10]

Jeremiah is not all about ‘judgment’ in spite of what the reading seems to focus upon. In 4:14 God says, “wash your heart of evil that you may be saved.” Time is run out on God’s people. A wind (ruah) comes from the north. The same word, is used in creation accounts, hovering over the primordial chaos. Here it is a wind of judgment: Babylon, or the Chaldeans. Creation and salvation are interconnected angles on the same reality.

Strong words are used to describe God’s daughter who has gone astray; “foolish” and “stupid” are synonyms which mean people who despise wisdom. The term can also be translated as impiety or licentiousness. Wisdom literature says “Wisdom” was present at the beginning of creation, even acting as an agent of creation. Here the absence of wisdom (foolishness) shows that God’s people have chosen the way of death (and un-creation) so the judgment reverses creation: the earth is waste and void (Genesis 1).The land quakes (apocalyptic). People are gone, birds are gone, and vegetation is gone: all the reverse of Genesis 1.

In the archetype of this literature we recall the great flood. (v27) “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” Like in the flood some hope remains. It is not totally over. God finds a way to save from chaos yet again! There is Good News even in the starkest judgment texts of the Bible. Ruin…. Destruction…. Devastation…. But always some hope. Always there is a promise that it is “not a full end.” It is hard to convey in human language the judgment of God. Suffice to say even damnation seems hell bent on salvation.

1 Timothy is a reminder that “the grace of God overflows” with “mercy.” Even an enemy of God can become a friend. Even the worst of sinners can be redeemed and reclaimed. Paul, “formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” has been appointed to God’s service. Planted deep in his heart is the experience which he shares today “this saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Paul’s version of John 3:16….

The Gospel spells out the theme more clearly. Jesus is surrounded by sinners and tax collectors who have come to hear Him. The religious leaders are upset that Jesus is offering table fellowship to them. At the table (communion altar) we encounter Jesus as well. We are probably similar to those sinners (busy making a living with little time for religious disciplines and the closely guarded life of obedient faith). We do not focus on God. Yet when we hear of the Father’s love and mercy it stirs something within us. There is a hunger and need which wakens.

Jesus tells a story of lost sheep and lost coins. He talks about the joy of finding and equates sinners to treasures. Jesus says there is a party in heaven when some one is found. [The joke is the idea that there are 99 righteous who have no need to repent.] It is hard to imagine God and the whole of heaven is hooping and hollering because I finally say, “I am sorry” and return to Jesus. Hard to believe, but true. That is the point of today’s message from God. No matter how bad you might think you are, you are loved and desired. God wants to save you. Think on such things and enjoy the mercy and grace!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Temporal and Spiritual

The Thursday Bible Study group, a long standing institution at St. Andrews, has not studied the Bible in many years. We have instead wandered the Apocrypha and are currently reading the "Early Christian Writings" (Penguin Classics). From time to time someone or another reports back that there is grave concern "out there" and people wonder why we don't just read the Bible. Maccabees was an easier sell, the vast majority of Christians recognize it as Scripture. 2 Esdras has no such legs to stand on, though its first century roots allow it to serve as a helpful comparative to NT writings and it provides special insight into the literature of the time. Reading Ignatius of Antioch is much simpler for me. It is not Scripture, but it is someone who knew the Apostles' disciples which makes his knowledge of the faith significant to me.

Ignatius is most important to us because of  his writings on early church leadership. He saw the bishop as the visible sign of God on earth. For him, there was no room in the church for false teaching (especially Gnosticism) and a church must listen to the bishop even as the bishop must listen to God. The practice gets tricky, but the theological foundation of such an ecclesiology (nature, constitution, function of church) remains solid. Reading Ignatius one sees constant references to Paul (in style and content) as well as the entire Bible.

We began his letter to Polycarp of Smyrna Thursday. Polycarp, a holy man and bishop, had caught Ignatius' attention because of his respectable reputation (like Ignatius, he too ended up a great martyr for love of Jesus). Ignatius' exhortation to Polycarp was simple and pointed: You must do justice to your position, by showing the greatest diligence both in its temporal and spiritual duties. We read those words and forty minutes later the class came to an end. Did not get any farther. The conversation seemed to help many in the class so I wanted to share a couple points we made with my readers.

First of all, we live in a time when people are want to identify themselves as "spiritual." I do not doubt that this is true. I just reject it as a means of salvation (more on that Sunday). Many people reject the nomenclature of Christianity and opt for the more preferable term, "spiritual." That is honest. However, it is likely that this non-Christian, spirituality is also Gnostic. Ignatius makes a big deal of not being a Gnostic in his letters. [This is why they are so important, it demonstrates what the first Christians faced as the Scriptures replaced the Apostles as the primary witness.] One of the Gnostic tendencies is to deny the human life of Jesus and His flesh & blood experience.

This anti-Gnostic sense of things seems to underlie his concern here. Gnostics care about saving souls and negate 'this world' (see the article on heaven yesterday for another angle on that). The thought that bishops should be concerned about "temporal" things is a scandal to the Gnostic-minded (which shows how wide spread the ideas of Gnostics are!). Shouldn't a bishop be about spiritual things? Isn't the spiritual realm the one that concerns God and His church? Not the Biblical God.... Not by a long shot.

The mission and ministry of Jesus were very much concerned with both dimensions. He healed sick people, fed hungry people and confronted everyone on issues of (social) justice. He was temporal minded from an eternal perspective. So must we be.

The challenge is to be temporal without being seduced by this or that human political philosophy. So often right wing Christians (or left wing) end up sounding like Conservatives (or Liberals) with little reference to Jesus' teaching. It is hard to be temporal and faithful. On the other hand, the 'spiritual' can often slide into the land of "doesn't it sound nice" with little reference to the nitty-gritty details of real life. The dreamers and the poets bring beauty to life, but real-politick reminds us that the Hitler's of the world manipulate and then execute those who blindly & naively trust in the "good in all people."

The mission and ministry of the church is here and now, with an eye on forever. keeping that balance was tough in 115 AD in ancient Syria. It is just as hard today in modern Syria (and Collierville). No one has all the answers. No one does it completely right. But when the church abides by the will of those who would  have us "focus on spiritual things and remain silent of temporal matters" she fails in her God-given ministry and call. She fails to follow the concrete footsteps of her Incarnate Lord--Who was executed as a King and an enemy of the State and called His followers to take up their own cross.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Problem with Believing "in Heaven"

I think the question, "How do I get to heaven?" is a problem.

It is ironic that I say this as my main quest in life for dozens of years was to answer that question. I worked hard to understand the proper relationship of Jesus as savior and me as faith filled (or is it faithful) recipient. I pondered what faith means (a cognitive assertion, acceptance of certain belief statements, trusting, obeying, submitting, etc). I asked Jesus into my heart (many times over the years, it never seemed completely "to take") and I went to confession and communion regularly. I tried to be good, I tried to trust, I tried to live in peace and joy, I tried to live in serious obedience, I tried to live in covenant, I tried to have a personal relationship, I tried to live in the church, I tried to be open to the Spirit, I tried to die to self. I tried to figure out what "carrying my cross" meant concretely in my real life and I tried to pick it up each day and follow Jesus. I tried to go simple and just "let go, let God" and I tried to be faithful in prayer and study of Scripture and the Spiritual Masters.

In most of this I am terribly ordinary and normal. Most of us are not 100% clear on exactly what (beyond the obvious, "trust God' or "believe in Jesus") it is we need to be doing and how we need to be living. (And those who claim to be do not inspire confidence in the rest of us.) I think I am finally comfortable that I understand what "faith in Jesus" means. Now, however, I think there is another problem, "heaven." 

When I was eight years old I was clear about heaven: Giant fields of green grass where we played baseball all day long. (Ironically, my mom seemed to think such a heaven would be hell; the first seed of the concept that heaven and hell might not be geographically separated but rather a response to the environment). Over the years, other ideas took the place of playing baseball but it always shared one common feature; heaven was  place where I was going to get to do what I wanted and enjoyed.

In seminary I figured heaven would be more like a worship service (based on Isaiah and Revelation, there is not a lot about heaven in the Bible after all). One of my classmates said he thought it would be boring to sit around all day praising God. This was probably because he did not find worship terribly exciting all the time, certainly not exciting enough to do it for hours and hours on end. Prone to distraction and less motivated by emotions as I age, I kind of get his concern. I am not so good at worship myself.

Anyhow, the idea that heaven is "about my likes and wants" is a problem. The fundamental cause of Adam's fall was his decision to focus on what he wants, and disobey God. Most people I know have painted a picture of heaven where that focus on self continues. In fact, God does not function much in most of the pictures people paint of heaven. I hear lots of talk about seeing "momma/daddy" or "husband/wife" or "child" or some other lost loved one. In such a vision heaven is something God supplies to us and for us; but always He is peripheral.

The Kingdom of which Jesus speaks looks more like a place where we are in conformity with God. It seems like it will require rewiring of my basic desires if I am going to be at home there. I love God, but not near enough. (I still tend to love me more.... Not a good thing, I might add, but it is the honest truth.) I am terribly self centered in all manner of ways and I rarely meet anyone who is prone to care more about others than themselves; including, and sometimes especially, Christians. So often people who love Jesus talk about loving Jesus but if you listen close the motivation seems to be heaven (i.e. a reward). What is in it for me?????

I think this condition is not fully in our control. I do not think any discipline or effort will wash is or exercise it away. In fact, the focus on self required to not focus on self is the paradoxical twist of the whole thing. It is just hard to not end up re-centering on self. And "heaven" (meaning reward and a place where I will  be happy) just feeds into that self centering tendency.

So believing in "heaven" may not be helpful. Believing in the Kingdom, however, is. In the Kingdom God is on the throne. In the Kingdom Jesus rules. In the Kingdom He is KING, I am slave, servant, unworthy and subservient (and so glad for the change to attend to His will). In the Kingdom I am a citizen in compliance with His rules, laws, ordinances and general good advice! I am in a place living with others (different others with their own tastes and tendencies) and learning to love and get along, because I am here for the KING (not me). If friends and family are there with me, so much the better, but it is in no way diminished if they are not, because I am looking to the throne, not the crowd. And I trust that He will provide the new family and friends which I need.

How can I get saved from me (and sin and death at work in my selfishness) and become a citizen of a different kind of world? How can I learn to have a kingdom  heart and be a kingdom servant? Those questions do not seem to invoke the same feelings that  "going to heaven" does. And I think that may be closer to what Jesus proclaimed to start anyway. At least that is what the Bible says.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On Syria

Last Thursday in our "Bible Study" class we continued to read the letters of St. Ignatius, a martyr who lived in the first century in churches connected to the Apostles and the second generation of Christians. I wish we had more information from this period. Ignatius, on his way to die for Jesus, writes various churches. The influence of Paul is obvious in places. We also see how immersed in the Scriptures Ignatius is by the constant allusions he makes to the Bible. One of the lines was especially poignant at this time. He was exhorting one local church to send ambassadors to his home church because God had granted "peace to Syria." Two thousand years later aren't we praying for that same peace?

We are all confronted with difficult decisions. It is tempting for us to impute bad motives to politicians in general and to politicians of "the other party" in particular. We like to speak of "purity" in beliefs and practices. We all do it, it is hard not to. I find myself saying, "the politicians this" or "the politicians that" out of habit. I actually know a few politicians and I think they are good people. Well, as good as people get (we are all sinners after all). It is easier to impugn folks whom we do not know.

I do not know the President's motivations in Syria. I tend to be less sympathetic to his views because he and I disagree about a great deal (except we both love the White Sox, currently a painful endeavor!). I must admit I find it uncharacteristic of him to talk about bombing Syria. This is not what one would expect from such a vocal, even harsh, critic of Bush. And as always seems to be the case, the pro-military Republicans can always be counted on to support military interventions, except when led by a Democratic. Politics does impact our view of things.

The Pope has come out against violence. No surprise there. Since the Middle Ages ended the popes have tended to be more spiritual than temporal rulers. Their value systems have been corrected by faithfulness to Jesus and the Gospel Kingdom rather than the seduction of earthly power and kingdoms. I found it strange that the Pope's stance was viewed with such disdain by some commentators. It appears it was spun as an attack on Obama. Odd.

I think the Pope's view is pretty much in sync with the majority of American's views. Bombing Syria does not seem to be a good idea. First of all, what is to be accomplished by it? Bombing a place several weeks after you promise to bomb it would seem to be guaranteed to have diminished impact. The atrocity of chemical weapons may warrant some outside intervention, but the make-up of the warring factions (which includes the radicals of Islam which are our dire enemies) seems to muddy the waters. Today they announced there have been multiple massacres, though the government has done the most. One can assume the government has an advantage which has led to this imbalance. Once someone else is in charge will the war crimes continue with a new set of victims? One would think so.

The last decade has shown many of us the futility of interventions. American families have buried their dead. Millions and millions of dollars have disappeared to create large explosions and devastation, or provide medical care for men and women who are shattered in mind and body. This cost seems far in excess to what has been accomplished. Many of us get WWII. It was awful and evil but the purpose made sense. What does it mean to intervene in a country where the soldiers you are training turn around and blow up your mess hall or drop a hand grenade in your meeting? What really has been accomplished? Has it been worth it?

Most of my life we have been in one "police action" or another. The carnage has always been in the name of some greater good. I do not believe the politicians are motivated by sinister desires. I do not think that they are trying to be evil. I think they are in over their heads, it is hard to understand all the connections and consequences. It is hard to know if one should act or not. And in the end, we citizens are always free to change our minds. Politicians are stuck with the follow up.

The Bush years is a good example-- there was  overwhelming support for military intervention. The same people who cried out "Let's Do It!" now say "It was a bad idea." I am probably one of those people. That is why the fact that most of us think Syria should not be bombed cannot be totally trusted. In three years, if we do nothing, it may be that people (us) will be saying "We should have bombed then when we had the chance, then "this" wouldn't have happened." Perhaps.

I think I am siding with the Pope this time around. War is evil. Always. It is just sometimes other evils make war necessary. Bombing Syria seems empty to me. It seems like wanton destruction which could potentially lead to more. Maybe the President will make his case for doing it. I am doubtful.

I think we need to pray for peace. We need to seek a way to live without the constant recourse to guns and bombs. We need to seek first God's Kingdom. Nothing less will satisfy. I feel for the people who have to make the decisions and pray for them. However, I did contact my Senators to let them know what I thought. Hopefully, we will celebrate peace in Syria again, some day....

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Cost of Unconditional Love

a meditation on the Sunday readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33
To find today's readings go to this website

God loves us unconditionally. His unmerited mercy is an expression of that love. He desires a life-giving relationship. So, if GOD loves me unconditionally does it matter what I do? It depends.
  • If you desire to be loved unconditionally by Someone with whom you are not in relationship; then no it does not matter.
  • If you do want to respond to God’s unconditional love and be in relationship with God, however, all sorts of conditions kick in.
Jesus says: “sit down and estimate the cost.” What is the cost? Jesus is clear; love God more than your family, your stuff and yourself. Such a statement is even more outrageous in Jesus’ ancient Middle Eastern context where “the extended family meant everything. It was the only source of one’s status and the primary economic, religious, educational, and social network.. To lose one’s family was literally ‘to lose everything.’  Why would Jesus ‘love us unconditionally’ and then lay down such a horrible condition?
Because Jesus seeks to do good for us. SIN has infected us. We “ruin” whatever we touch. We do not know how to worship, love and serve God because we worship ourselves, obey our appetites and serve our desires.
So even the best family is going to be perverted; it will not function as God intended. Jesus has come to save us from the distorted and twisted love of family which damages us all.
Jesus died on the cross to save us; then tells us to pick up our own cross to be saved. Why this; another horrible condition? Because the world rejects Jesus. If you want to join Jesus…., He is over there, in the cross section.
Saying ‘good bye’ to possession means “Jesus comes first.” Why this condition? Stuff has a way of taking possession of our souls. We want to hoard and protect our stuff. We become slaves to our possessions. Jesus has come to free us of these shackles.
But understand: Our possessions and families are not the problem. Our attitude is. E.g., Wine is God’s gift; until an alcoholic shows up. In the wrong hands wine becomes deadly. So, too, family and wealth can become spiritually deadly.
The Unconditional Love of Jesus is passionate, so the language used to convey it, taking up crosses, hating family, selling everything is hyperbole. It is the language of love. (When people love someone they express it in outrageous claims “I would walk 100 miles to see you.” More to the point, in how many TV interviews after a tornado does a victim dismiss the loss of their entire home and say, “it is fine, my family is safe.”)
 God seeks a reciprocal relationship. He cannot be satisfied with a halfhearted, indifferent response. There is a reason God is called ‘jealous’ in the Bible. He offers us everything and waits our response—and it better be everything we have.
Jeremiah paints a similar picture of God’s love. In my opinion even in the Old Testament God has already begun the process of incarnation. His self limiting and self emptying enable Him to interact with us, but note the emotional anguish and the pain that causes God (according to the prophets). How can this be?
For love, God has entered our realm.
For love, God interacts with us here in time and space.
For love God gives us freedom to choose: love Him or reject Him. 
For love God gives us power to impact Him.
That is why He can change His mind. He has emptied Himself in unconditional love. Now our choosing has consequence. God’s plan for you is life in abundance. Your response to His call determines whether His plan works out. Jesus promises the Kingdom: the fullness of life. To receive it requires death to self.
God weighed the cost of becoming human. (In Jesus, what began earlier in the Ancient Covenant is now perfectly filled up and realized in thh New Covenant.) He became incarnate, and He was rejected, ignored, tortured, mocked and murdered. He was placed in a borrowed tomb, stripped of everything. That was the cost! He was able to redeem this fallen world and its occupants, He unconditionally loves you, but He invites you to respond. God’s plan is for you to be there, but you can refuse. God has chosen you but He will “change His mind” if that is what you prefer.
The conditions are not a burden. We trade the mortal existence for immortality. We trade the flawed goodness for perfection. We trade our poverty for divine abundance. We trade this existence for life eternal. The choice should be easy!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Loving Them Foreign Women

In our daily readings at Morning Prayer we have been in 1 Kings. Last week we learned of Solomon's prayer for wisdom. He was heard and became the wisest king of all. (It may be noteworthy that the description of  Solomon's wealth, wisdom and 'abundant living' resembles the stereotypical description of the kings of Israel's foreign neighbors. Perhaps he is spoken of in the same way not to glorify him but to make a subtle insinuation that he was just like them?) This week we have read about King Solomon's prayer to God in the Temple. We also heard, again, that conditional covenant which God strikes with the ones He loves.

IF you keep in my ways, THEN I will bless you forever. The word everlasting and forever takes on a different tone when used in conditional contexts. The Temple where God's Name will be forever (1 K 9:3) will be destroyed by the end of 2 Kings, only to be rebuilt (Ezra/Nehemiah; later by Herod) and leveled again in 70AD. Today it does not exist...

Conditional Covenants are notoriously unstable. While God seems able and willing to keep up His end of the agreement, we humans have a terribly difficult time returning the same fidelity. David, for all his many flaws, never chased after other Gods. He was faithful to the One God of Israel (even if that faithfulness was riddled with all manner of selfish and sinful behavior). The descriptions of David as one who walked faithfully and with integrity seem overblown in light of his biography. [It is an insight into Biblical prose to understand that sometimes it means something that may not be literal.] But this is not a reflection on David, it is about Solomon, the wisest man ever.

A preview to the trouble appears in 9:24 when we learn Pharaoh's daughter had a house built and then Solomon built the Millo [ ]. Her presence is a foretaste of 1 K 11:1-13 where we read King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh. We read that this includes Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian and Hittite. These are the very nations, the text goes on to explain which God had commanded the people not to mix with and intermarry with. (see Dtn 7:3 & 17:17) Israel is told "to hold fast" (Hebrew dabaq) to God alone repeatedly (Dtn 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Joshua 22:5; 23:11) but now that Hebrew term appears in a different context. Solomon, we are told, 'cleaves/holds fast' to his many wives (definition of many? "among his wives were 700 princesses and 300 concubines"... St. Augustine writes of this "Solomon's libido was not a passing guest, it reigned as king")

Chasing skirts seems to have been a full time occupation for the wisest man in the world. It does not appear his wisdom saved him from his folly. That is worthy of meditation. How often we say "if only I were smarter I would not have made such mistakes" when in truth any one with moderate intelligence can see 1,000 wives is not a good idea and marrying foreign women against God's direct command is a truly bad idea.

The end result? Solomon's heart is "turned away" and "his heart was not true to the Lord his God." He follows the god's of his pagan neighbors (Astarte, Milcom) and "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord." Please note, Solomon did not reject YHWH; he simply did not go "fully" (Hebrew male') after God. To me this is the defining element of what is called "tolerance" in today's church.

The Progressives are "loving them some foreign women" who lead the hearts astray. It isn't that they want us to reject Jesus, they just want us to tone it down. Call Jesus "a" way, one of many, not "the" way. Back off on the total demands and leave room for alternative practices and different view points (different view points which are beyond the limits). It sounds "nice" to accept into our faith community those who stand against our faith, and would restructure our community. [The foreign women here are not meant in terms of xenophobia. This is no clarion call to exterminate other peoples. They are, however, a type and a metaphor for something vicious and deadly: infidelity to God, the key is "leading hearts astray."]

In other places the condemnation of foreign wives (see also the restoration in Ezra/Nehemiah) is tempered by a more universalistic understanding (the underlying theme in Ruth and Jonah, see also Psalm 87; so also Ps 67). The point is not to hate other people and their teaching. However, one must be clear of the danger. It is the problem of "cleaving to" that produces the infidelity. It is what is quite literally destroying the foundations of many churches. Tolerating Milcom provides that demon/god the opportunity to unseat the Lord of Israel. (I am reminded of the Catholic school which considered removing crucifixes so as not to not offend its Muslim students) Solomon is a warning to us of many things: the danger of opulence, the socio-economic issues surrounding exploitation of labor, the deadly sin of unjust taxation for the benefit of the few... However, it is his failure to be faithful and exclusive in loving and serving the Lord which produced the downfall of his people. We act foolishly who duplicate his errors in the name of "tolerance" today.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Iconic Figure Dies

Robert is dead. We do not have exact details, but we heard it was his heart. Rumors and hearsay have clouded the issue. We think the service is Saturday at St. James. Lots of people "have heard" but nothing is set in stone.

Robert was, in simplest terms, an icon. He was a bald headed black man, often seen riding his bike on the streets of Collierville, and just as often biking down Poplar Avenue in Germantown (some thirteen miles away) all the way into Memphis (a thirty mile jaunt). A priest friend of mine who worked in the city was familiar with him. He was as close to a street person as Collierville has. How, you may ask, was such a man an icon? He constantly spoke of God, Jesus and faith. I always saw Jesus whenever I saw Robert. He was a witness to Jesus as well as one of the "least, last, and lost" through whom Jesus is present. Robert was a sign of Jesus among us.

I am not sure exactly when I first met him. I had been here for a while, maybe a year. I know he attended an evening service once, it was dark as I saw him walking off. I called out to him; I try to show hospitality to visitors and a black man stands out in our little church. He simply lifted an arm to wave, without turning back, and continued on his way. (That lifted arm was a gesture which, aside from  his smile and laugh, I most associate with Robert. I saw it many, many times)  It was many months later that he began to appear more regularly. He would show up at Sunday services, always late, and then became a regular at MP (morning prayer). I wish our members came as often as Robert did. This has all been going on now for at least eight years. As his comfort level increased, he began reciting his own long prayers during the appropriate time in the period for petitions near the end of the MP service. His prayers would sometimes go on and on, but I always felt convicted by his love of God and simple faith (though often it was hard to discern what he was saying, beyond a string of religious words and indistinguishable syllables).

For much of his time among us his mouth was a collection of empty spaces and gaps. His wide face and large ears, coupled with that toothlessness often appeared thoughtful and pained. It is  hard to know exactly what took place inside that head. As I said, he often talked but was never totally clear. However, his visage could also explode with delight and his laughter and big grin indicated he had a sense of humor, even if at times he seemed to be the only one in on the joke. He laughed much of the time and interacted with people here like an old friend. Even when those people had never met or seen him.

In time he came to know the names of many of our staff. We regularly gave him food at parish functions (he always managed to appear at such times). He also was beneficiary of countless donations from kindly parishioners who provided him his daily bread. In addition, our more official ministry to the needy gave him gift cards to local establishments. These gifts were measured, he did not receive something every time. It is the nature of a small church's outreach to deal with demand which outstrips supply. [Memphis has lots of poor and needy. A million dollars could disappear in a matter of weeks.]

When my kids were young and we were driving places they would recognize him. Before we knew his name we simply referred to him as "the walking man." On a few occasions we gave him rides and fed him. The kids learned to have affection for this man who was so different from most of our friends and neighbors. One day Madison suggested that we buy him a bike. I thought it a great idea. The next time we saw him he had a bike. Somehow the idea must have been shared by others, who acted first. A couple years ago he was riding that bike and was hit by a car. He was airlifted to the Med. Somehow he survived. I remember the first time he came back, in the same good humor, proclaiming his faith in God.

While Robert was hard to understand, most of what he said had to do with love and God. He was simple. His words were challenging. I can still hear him walking, repeating over and over "Yes, Lord!" He often told me "I don't boost and I don't brag" (the word boost always struck me) and then he proceeded to talk about God. He called me father, many people do, but he always added "Son and Holy Spirit." He seemed incapable of using the word Father without mention of the Trinity. At communion he never said, "Amen." He would just repeat, over and over, "thank you, Father, thank you." I think he was addressing me, but I hope it was God.

Robert's gratitude to God seeped out of him. One parishioner wrote an amazing reflection on trust. This man shared with me that the only word he ever understood that Robert said was trust. In a recent, harrowing experience, this same man said every time he was worried about something he brought Robert to mind, and his message of trust. That same man's experience of God's hand at work reinforced how sufficient trust in God could be. Robert  had so little, trust in God was his only option. That is why he became as icon. He was an example of trust.

Robert had another side, he was no angel. I know he was arrested for shop lifting, and probably numerous times for vagrancy. He would disappear for weeks at a time, perhaps to serve time. Some years ago he showed up with a mouth full of teeth, compliments of the dental department at the penal farm. Sometimes parishioners had a negative encounter, on a few occasions a request for cash got more aggressive. He was on his best behavior around the church, but he got around and when he met parishioners elsewhere they did not see the "same" Robert all of the time. So what, we are all flawed. Would I expect a man living as Robert did to never have a bad day? I have my own collection of faults and failings to confess.

Robert attended our church, the Roman Catholic church, the Methodist Church and the Baptist church each Sunday. He also came here on Saturdays. This is what I have heard for sure. I would guess there were others. He could disrupt a service when he began clapping and talking out loud "Yes, Lord! Amen!" On occasion I would have to say "Robert, please be quiet." I do not preach with notes so my train of thought gets derailed. Others would be distracted. The week before last he showed up in church in a pair of pajamas. As always, they looked nice and neat. His constant change of clothes were one of the mysteries about him. Last week, he was in suit and tie. Several people told me when I announced his death that they had talked to him and he was quieter than usual. He had eaten his plate of food quietly by himself. I did not see him except in passing. I was dealing with a good bye to our three retiring staff. Little did I know a fourth was also making his last appearance.

It is not unusual for street people to become familiar. In the 1980's there was a long haired man many called Jesus, who walked the midtown Memphis area. There was another guy, more scarey, who talked to himself. In more recent years a large black man with a loaded grocery cart wandered the same environs. Most of these types are non-social. Not Robert. I think I know why his brain was diminished, I know he had a wife and kids from a time when his function was higher. Perhaps he became a better man when he lost it all and was reduced to the marginal existence which I saw the last decade. Whatever the case, it is God to judge, not me. I do know I will miss him, even if there were times when i avoided dealing with him in my busy day. I always knew that Robert was an icon on Jesus. A reminder of the total abandonment to trust in God. The constant repetition of thanks and praise. The constant declaration of God's glory.

Collierville will be a less magical place without him. He added something, which ironically is more than can be said for many of us white-middle-class-and-successful types who are busy with so many "important" things. Rest in Peace Robert. Thanks for all you taught us. May you enjoy the fullness of God's presence in eternity.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Role of Christians in the World

I stumbled across Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog is Glory to God For All Things. He wrote about the role of Abraham interceding with God for mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah and contrasted it with the tendency among some Christians to pray for God's Judgment and destruction (on others). His approach to the Bible, at least in what I have read, seems to resonate with my own understanding. It is worth looking at.

The other day in MP we read from James, the famous "faith without works is dead" line was the 'loudest' verse in my meditation. It reinforced something I discussed in Bible study last week. In my experience, Protestants tend to quote Paul (especially Romans and Galatians) and Catholics tend toward the Gospels (though James is popular as well).How one approaches this issue is not going to be based on the Bible. In other words, the Bible does not explain to the reader how the Bible should be read. It does not spell out which texts are the "beginning point" from which the other texts are to be read and understood. In the end, different traditions and different people create their own "canon within the canon."

Fr. Freeman's reflection on Abraham laid out an argument that our vocation in the world is intercession for God's mercy. I think he made a fine case (with the limits of a short post). One can certainly see that the vocation of Jesus was connected to such a purpose (He came to save sinners) and by extension the church retains that calling as well. However, in a world of "culture wars" and endless political conflicts, it is also easy to see how a "win-lose" mentality from the culture would infiltrate into the spiritual realm. As such, we end up reading the Bible with that frame of reference and those assumptions. There are plenty of wars in the Bible, and warrior images (both physical and spiritual) abound. In a win/lose culture with a strong emphasis on competition (our culture) it is easy to see how the interpretation is shaped by the assumptions and values of the reader. [if my comment section were easier to get to I am sure there would be plenty of strong cases made for numerous approaches]

Jesus told His ancient Jewish audience, "You are the Light of the world!" What if that were our starting place? Would it impact how we understood our place? Paul said make prayers and intercessions for those in roles of leadership (which meant an unfriendly and decidedly pagan Rome). If we emphasize that rather than "this faithless and adulterous generation" might we also find our understanding of vocation shifts?

I had hoped by now I would be firmer in my understanding of things. I have been at this for four decades after all. Yet I find I am constantly shifting focus and changing direction (within obvious limits, I believe in Jesus and embrace the orthodox faith and creeds). It is just that "what should we do in the meantime" (until Jesus comes back) is not always crystal clear. Prayer, Scripture study, proclamation and service (especially of the needy) are obvious. Jesus at the center of understanding who God is. Church affiliation and worship attendance. Trusting God alone for all things, yet acting in obedient fidelity. Receiving the gift of salvation even as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Loving God and neighbor (and enemy). Being generous. Truth be told it is not terribly difficult to come up with a substantial list of things to be and do.The problem is the details and the concrete expression of such things.

Each person must answer the question for themselves. In the end, we are accountable to God for our decision. We are even more accountable for our integrity in living out that understanding.We must remain in dialogue with the larger church (across time and space), and we must never kid ourselves that our views are incomplete and a particular, limited, incomplete and sometimes erroneous expression. So our decisions are made in humility with an openness to the fullness of the faith.

I like the idea of Christians being friends to the rest of the earth. I like the thought that we have come to preach--most importantly through our lives--to the world the Good News of God's coming reign. I like the idea that we should pray for others, especially those we find despicable. That we should remind folks that we are to be held accountable (Jesus will come to judge the living and  the dead) and that our last, great hope is His mercy and forgiveness (trust/faith saves). I am sometimes drawn toward a more combative approach, but win/lose paradigms tend to produce lots of losers. In Christ, losing (dying on the cross) was winning. I also know that tomorrow I will have a slightly different angle on it all. Which in a sense is okay, because I do not have it right, yet. Nor do you, friend! So let us continue the journey...

Sunday, September 1, 2013

15th Sunday after Pentecost

The Revised Common Lectionary provided us with three diverse readings (Jer 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Lk 14:1, 7-14) which provide food for thought for those on the journey of faith.

The Gospel at first glance seems almost pedestrian. Jesus was at a dinner party on a Sabbath. We are told "they were watching Him closely." Jesus under constant scrutiny because He challenged the authorities.As they are "watching" Jesus, He is also watching them. Finally, he notes that they were all tying to get the seats of honor at the banquet. Ouch! Jesus nailed it. He recognizes our love affair with honor and glory. Our culture is smitten with celebrity. We love accolades. Any one who plays sports is called "a star" and the words "best" or "greatest" or "awesome" roll off the tongue so frequently that one is really stumped what to call anything which is truly superior. Feeding our egos is a preoccupation; Jesus thinks such silliness is worthy of comment. Perhaps God takes a dimmer view of our nonsense than we might think.

Hebrews gives a series of exhortations. I think in the past I have written that some scholars perceive it to be a homily rather than a letter. The demands are basic fare for any successful church: Mutual love, show hospitality, care for people in prison, honor marriage, do not love money too much, imitate the lives of faithful church leaders in the past. Then in a flourish he concludes: through Jesus offer praise. A pleasing sacrifice to God is offered by one who does good and shares what  s/he has with others.

Most of us have little contact with prisoners. (We are involved in a cookie ministry at our parish. It is a small token but if they like cookies as much as I do then it is well received.) Marriage today is being redefined and that is not, in my mind, without some costs. Loving money is the besetting sin of most folks. Doing good and sharing, is something we were supposed to learn in kindergarten. Most of us still struggle with that as well. Once again, some of this is regular life stuff. Even so, God seems to care and we all can see areas for improvement here.

Jeremiah's words are typical of his constant concern. God asks, why do you break covenant with Me? From the priest to the man on the street, Jeremiah identifies the failure of all people to hold up their end of the covenant. My view of God and grace is much informed by Jeremiah. God saves by grace (Exodus) but has covenant expectations (works). The judgment is hard: the twin sins, two evils, are relevant today as well. You forsake ME the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for yourselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

The double edge: losing God we find the alternative is not life giving. It "doesn't hold water" and therefore we perish. So often people hold faith in God to a criteria to which they do not hold their own (un)beliefs. The alternatives are cracked. Some of our discontent is a function of that frustration.

We prayed today, among other things, that God would "graft in our hearts the love of His name." That is worthy of repetition. There is probably no reason to think that loving God less will produce greater abundance in our lives or in the world. In light of that, the growing indifference does not bode well, especially as thirsty people become increasingly disenchanted with their cracked cisterns. Sitting with the readings is a splendid way to enrich our Sunday afternoon...