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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fight, Flight or Light?

We are reading the Apostolic Fathers on Thursday and next week we will read the Martyrdom of Polycarp. He died in 155, a saintly bishop and faithful follower of Jesus, his death was a significant event as he had met John the Apostle when a young man and was an associate of another bishop martyr Ignatius, who died a generation prior to him.

When asked to say "Caesar is Lord" and offer a pinch of incense in honor of the Roman god to save is life he replied eighty six years I have served Him and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? This was brought to mind as I meditated on the lectionary text from 1 Maccabees 2 today, where the priest Mattathias Maccabee finds himself in a similar situation. The king of Syria wants all Jews, like everyone else, to offer the sacrifices. Mattathias bemoans living to see such a day and when the king's representative offers him wealth in exchange for pagan worship he replies much as Polycarp. (my family) will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. However, when he sees a Jew go forward to make an apostasy he "gave vent to righteous anger"...he killed the man...and killed hte king's officer. What follows is the guerilla war against the oppressors, ending in eventual victory over them. The Jews fight.

Today's Gospel selection is of a different kind of response. Mt 16 we read that Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of hte elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Sensible Peter admonishes Jesus that such a thing can never happen, must never happen! It makes no sense, after all. In response Jesus calls Peter a satan. Jesus goes on to educate His followers that following includes let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me... those who lose their life for My sake will find it."

It is tempting to say that this is a fundamental difference between Christians and Jews, but it is only a temptation for those who ignore history. In fact, the churchmen I know are far more likely to embrace the way of Mattathias than Jesus. Recall, in the garden, Peter will wield a sword to protect Jesus. It will be some time before "the Rock" figures out Jesus' call. I think that you and I are no less limited by heads of 'stone' like the chief apostle.

The Maccabees throw off the Syrians, only to fall under Rome. The same Roman Empire which in a couple hundred years would crucify Jesus and a century and a half later would kill bishop Polycarp. That is the problem with wars, WW I leads to WWII. Does anyone doubt in the future there will be new outbreaks of violence? War is darkness. It destroys and does grave damage--even when fought for the best of reasons and within the strict moral guidelines of Just War.

Jesus' self gift is the source of Life and Light in the dark. It is hard to be light in darkness, yet Jesus, Who is the LIGHT has also told us that we are the LIGHT.

I have no easy answer to the contrast of warrior and martyr. Perhaps each has its time and place, perhaps neither is effective in all times and places. Both warrior and martyr end their days in death. Perhaps this is the ultimate answer, that there is, in the end, no escaping death. We are tasked with living and dying well. It is God's task to conquer death by resurrection. What happens to Jesus will happen to us all. That is the final answer. So whether warrior or martyr we live and we die under the hope of resurrection (and the final judgment).

Friday, November 15, 2013

Another Angle

As I read the first reading at our Morning Prayer service people reacted  aloud with gasps. It is rare for that to happen. I want to share, with brief comments, some verses and conclude with a brief refection.

The king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king.
 The desire for 'tolerance' today has echoes of this command from the king. The question, "Can't we all get along?" has an answer. "No" No we cannot just all get along because we have diverse beliefs. Compromise is not always possible. We disagree about things. Civil Religion aims to mold people into a more coherent group. True believers cling to "their particular customs" and do not conform...

Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion...sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath... There is no indication of the thought processes of the ancient Jews, but contemporary folks of a like mind seem to say that they are trying to be reasonable and are "not a Fundamentalist." They probably thought that God would understand. After all the king said "whoever does not obey the the command of the king shall die." In the end, the "tolerance police" in the "Department of Diversity and Anti-Particularity" have to keep the peace and in those who are not on board need to be eradicated. So a "desolating sacrilege" was set up on the altar of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple (and note Jesus makes use of this same term in His end times discourse). If you are too Jewish everyone won't feel welcome so got to get rid of that idiosyncratic Jewish worship! Books of the Law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. (Which is why ancient manuscripts are so hard to come by!) And then the verse which produced the moans:

According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from the mothers' necks.

I can never, ever, discuss circumcision and New Testament Jewish-Christian debates on the subject without that image in my head. I cannot imagine anything worse for a mother. I cannot. And to write off Jewish practices (as many Christians do) so flippantly as works righteousness or self salvation seems arrogant and ignorant and unfair. Would Jesus have told those women, in the face of such suffering, "you messed up"? Maybe the sell outs were actually right, but I doubt it. Maybe the Jewish martyrs, some no more than a week old, were fools who do not understand Gospel and grace, but again I doubt it. God's grace is an idea found throughout the Jewish Bible.They got it. They believed it. They trusted God. They were faithfilled and faithful--not like we are, but  just as authentically.

They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant and they did die.

They did die.
Just like Jesus.... and James.... and Stephen.... and Peter... and Paul
and based on current trajectories perhaps you and I.
not for food but for the holy covenant and our particular customs as servants of Jesus.
The debates about Jewish faith and Christian faith are best when they include genuine insight into each other. I think Maccabees adds much of value to those debates. I a a Christian, but I follow Jesus with a love for Judaism and a respect for Jews. And a realization that I feel tied to their martyrs, whether they would feel the same way or not.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Love of Instruction

It has been one of those weeks. My work schedule has been heavier than normal and blogging is something of a luxury. I did produce one post the other day, which disappeared into cyber space. It was about the medical insurance situation, so government conspiracy theories are welcome. Perhaps God thought it a bad idea and zapped it, or the Evil One? My best guess is I did something wrong and erased the work I had done....

Today our MP reading is from Maccabees. Sadly, it is not in the scriptures of many Christians so it is never read. That is tragic because it provides insight into the time period of the prophet Daniel (in a notably non-apocalyptic style) with which the writer was a contemporary. The book provides valuable insight into the persecution and suffering of the Jews in the centuries before Jesus and it helps explain the Pharisees in a more sympathetic light. These were the Jewish culture warriors battling against the temptation to go along with the Gentile culture and to sell out their religious heritage.

The last few weeks we have been reading Nehemiah and Ezra. One major component of those cycles is the rebuilding of the Temple and the city. Sunday I preached on the Temple as a type of Jesus (recall He refers to His body as "the Temple" when He prophecies His resurrection). When Jesus says that He fulfills (remember the word means Fully Fill Up) the scriptures and He explains His identity by opening the apostles minds to the meaning of Scripture it is just this sort of thing we are talking about (and not 'predictions'). Jesus is the truest presence of God among us (emmanuel) and as such the Temple is a type of Jesus and rebuilding the Temple is a type of resurrection!

Ezra 7 tells us that Ezra had dedicated himself to study the Teaching of the Lord so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel. Law and rules has a bad name among many today. We hear much of grace and freedom. Ezra would have been much perplexed by such a concept. He would have quoted Psalm 119 (Happy are those whose way is blameless, who follow the teaching of the Lord. Happy are those who observe His decrees...) Psalm 119 is a gushing love poem about God's Word (and Torah), no Bible lover has ever more mystically, even romantically--he uses the Hebrew root d-b-k which means cling, as in Adam and Eve clinging to one another. My favorite verse in the RSV is 119:29  Let me find grace through your Law. The use of those two words in concert delight me. However, in the Jewish Study Bible (where I found the romantic insight above) the translation is favor me with Your teaching and the NRSV graciously teach me Your law, neither of which has the paradoxical turn of phrase which I find so invigorating.

Torah as instruction and identity is an important truth of Judaism. Whatever issues emerge in later generations, Jesus was a faithful Jew and He kept the Law, even intensified it at times (taking it deeper and more demanding). Our knowledge of our Jewish heritage is vital for knowing Jesus. Our love of God's instruction is part of the grace that sets us free.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What's Up with Jesus?

Morning Prayer provided a Gospel (Mt 13:54-58) which gives insight into the frustrations of Jesus. He has returned "home" (Capernaum, not Nazareth). Matthew said He taught them in their synagogue. The choice of pronoun is interesting, perhaps because when Matthew wrote the separation of Christians from the synagogue was well underway (us and them language) and the Jewishness of the believers  had receded into the past. Or maybe it is not theologically intended at all. We are told the crowd marvels at both His wisdom and His deeds of power. The preaching, teaching, healing and exorcisms were mind boggling to those who encountered Jesus. The people who knew Him "before" He hit it big are more skeptical it seems. This is important because it reminds us that believing in Jesus was no easier for the ones who knew Him than it is for us. The ordinariness of Jesus is a stumbling block to understand the extraordinary at work in and through Him.

The folks had a list of reasons to question "what's up with Jesus?" He is the son of a tekton which means carpenter, or stone worker. He is from a laborer's family. The father is unnamed here. His mother is named ("his mother called Mary") as are four brothers (James, Joseph, Simon, Judas). His sisters are mentioned without names. And there you have it. In the ancient world when we know the family we also know what the status is. Jesus can not receive accolades above His family status in a honor/shame culture. Remember, the Ancient Middle East is different from middle America!

The lack of faith keeps Jesus from working miracles among them. It is important to understand that there is a strong element of faithfulness and loyalty implied by the word faith in its original Jewish context. For us, faith means believing (i.e. thinking, feeling) Jesus can do it. For them believing meant giving yourself in faithfulness to Jesus and entrusting yourself to Him. The mental/cognitive & emotional functions were not emphasized. The ancients were NOT psychologically centered as we are. The internal workings of the psyche were less significant than the outward behaviors and choices. They still cared about integrity, but the 'real' for them was more external than it is for us.

It is hard to reach across time and culture to fully appreciate Jesus. We tend to repack Him in our own terms. What else can we do, it is the only terms most of us understand?!?! Perhaps it may aid the interpretation to note that the rest of Chapter 13 in Matthew has  been a collection of many parables with an emphasis on who is fruitful, the last judgment and the cost (everything) of finding/entering the kingdom. The story immediately following will be the death of John the Baptist. The story of Jesus' rejection at home, nestled amongst the teaching and the death of John Baptist (foreshadowing His own) provides us with the material to ask two questions:

What then do I do in response to this Jesus?
What are the implications of my response?

Choose well!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Too Good to be True?

Luke 19:1-10

Why do we go to church?
Like Zacchaeus, do you want to see Jesus?
Do you want to hear Jesus?
Do you hope to encounter Him here?
Why do we go to church?
Are you guilty or ashamed of something and need forgiving?
Are you broken or hurting and need healing?
Are you sad or lonely and need genuine love?
Are you in the wilderness looking for “the way out”?
Why do we go to church?
Do you believe it is possible that Jesus sees you in the crowd?
Do you believe that He could want to go home with you?
Do you really trust that Jesus wants to abide with you?
The Gospel message is “emmanuel” God is with us!
Jesus came to seek the lost and save them…Jesus came to abide with us. Healing, forgiveness, new and abundant life are all fruits of that abiding.
I know Jesus wants to go home with you today.
I know Jesus wants to abide with you today.
And so do you.
You believe it because you come up for communion. In communion literally Jesus abides in you. He truly stays in your “home”—your body and soul!
 Maybe we take it for granted.
Maybe we don’t ponder it or meditate on it.
He comes to us as surely as He went to Zaccheus.
Why do we go to church?
  • To see Jesus and hear Him speak His word
  • To receive Jesus in communion and invite Him to abide within us
So what is our response to this gift of salvation?
Zaccheus was overjoyed and excited. He had a genuine conversion.
He saw everything differently: new eyes, new mind, & new life!
  • He had been accepted and he wanted to live a life worthy of the Lord who accepted him…
  • He had been called and set apart and he wanted to live a life that was holy…
  • He had been set free from sin and he wanted to live the life of perfect freedom as a servant of Christ…
  • He was lost and had received the gift of salvation so he wanted to give to others with outrageous generosity.
Zaccheus gave half of what he had away and he did so with joy.
That is our goal to be a Zaccheus parish, to give half our budget to outreach.
But I want you to know it is in response to God’s grace.
First, we must understand God’s love and mercy in Jesus.
First, we must experience salvation.
Then we can give.
And the giving will be a joyful celebration and not a duty or burden. My prayer is that we can open ourselves to the life and love which God pours out into your heart; see everything from a new perspective and become very generous with gratitude

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Meditation on a Funeral

A funeral is a jarring event, especially for middle class Americans. Death is not our constant companion as it is in third world or war torn places. Many of us can go months or even years without being touched by the death of someone near or dear to us. Death is not something we easily talk about, it is considered to be a ‘depressing subject’ and is actually avoided by some people.

Yet here we are. Death is real. The process of dying is painful and grace filled. Death raises questions and challenges us to provide answers. What is the answer to the mystery of death? It depends on where you look.

We can Look at the deceased. Death is loss and letting go. We can find ourselves wishing our loved one were here or even looking for them for a brief moment. The reality of their absence takes time to settle in. We can forget and start to dial their number and then it hits us…0Where is he? What is she doing right now? What is “the place” they are in like? We do not know, we can only speculate, but we hand them over to Jesus with trust and hope.

We can Look at the past. Death closes the book on our lives. The deceased one’s life is now captured in memories. The past provides us with happy memories and perhaps some regrets. We can learn to “do it better” from our memories. We can also be grateful for all God has given.

We can Look at the loss. For some the pain at this time takes precedence. We live in a culture that is uncomfortable with pain, sadness and emotion. Crying has a function, there is a reason why we cry. It is built in to our nature by God. Medicine and denial may mask the pain, but they do not heal it. So perhaps it is healthy, even holy. After all, it is recorded that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. So do yourself a favor and cry.

We can Look at Jesus. Hanging dead on the cross we remember that He suffered and He died and in the Incarnation God has sanctified not only living but also dying, not only happiness but also loss and suffering. Therefore, what we do at funerals includes looking to the hidden face of God. It consists of prayers for forgiveness, we are sinners, prayers of thanksgiving, we are blessed, and prayers for healing mercy, for we are all broken and in need of the love and peace of God.

And God, while invisible, can still be seen. In and through the church--called the Body of Christ by St. Paul--Jesus is present among us. So we can also LOOK around at friend and family, fellow pilgrims on this life journey.

The Holy Spirit is here to fill us with wisdom and understanding, compassion and love. To use this time to reconcile us to one another and to teach us to share one another’s burdens. To fill us with the Life of Jesus, a life more powerful than death, a life which is a promise of resurrection, not just for the ones we have lost, but for anyone who gives themselves to Him in trusting faith and loving obedience.

So we must also look into our own hearts and determine if we are prepared for our own time of passing; and if not, we need to make choices right now which will bring us to the new life in Jesus.
 this was reworked from a recent homily

Friday, November 1, 2013

Why is the world like this?

On occasion Jesus answers the question, “Why is the world like this?” Ironically, because today is  All Saints Day there are special readings at Morning Prayer, but I prayed with the normal week day cycle of readings as well. I was glad I did because in it Jesus told a story. The Kingdom of God can be compared to a man who planted seed in a field. While people slept an enemy came and sowed the field with weeds. Soon the wheat and weeds began to grow and the workers asked the Master, “what happened?” The Master replied that an enemy’s hand was at work. However, He told the workers not to try to pick the weeds, because some wheat would be lost as well. Instead, He asked them to wait for the harvest at which time the two would be divided.

Jesus spoke often about the “Harvest” at the end of time and He alluded frequently to the time of dividing the “good” from the “bad.” Jesus’ outlook was apocalyptic. His understanding of history was based not on progress but on divine intervention. And for all His love and kindness, He was firmly convinced that there would be a judgment. We all await the “dividing up” day whether we know it or not.

Why is the world like this? We do not have a full explanation of the mystery but we do have an answer. An enemy’s hand is at work among us, sowing weeds to choke our fruits with evil. There is someone, or something, at work in our cosmos for ill and evil, in opposition to God. There is The Enemy.

Why is the world like this? We do not have a full explanation of the mystery but we do have an answer. God waits. God waits for the right time. It is hard to know wheat from weed, they can look a lot alike. Some day we will be known for what we are, weed or wheat, but in the meantime, we wait. We wait on God’s Day.

Why is the world like this? Many questions are not answerable this side of Judgment Day. Perhaps it is not ours to ponder and speculate. Probably we are supposed to be busy producing the fruits for the harvest. Ours is an age of maximal chattering and minimal fidelity. We need to talk less, complain less, argue and fight with God’s ways less. We need to spend less time spinning theories and weaving explanations about things too great for our feeble minds to grasp. We need to recognize that this is the way the world is. Period. God has His plans. We know what He wants us to be and do; so it is time to get on with the business of being obedient and fruitful, it is time to glorify His name.