Total Pageviews

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Two Paths: A Conversation in the Mud

A 'triad' converged for me on a muddy night at Italian Fest yesterday. Memphians know about this event, it is one of those wonderful local events which are treasured by those who attend. Even better, if you know someone in a tent it is a chance for delicious eating. We ran into an old friend at a funeral at St. Mary's Thursday who invited us to dine at their tent Friday night. Having sampled their wares in years past, and always enjoying their company, we immediately and enthusiastically said "yes!" My mother-in-law watched baby boy so momma and I drove the twenty miles in town for the big night. Unfortunately, the past week has been very rainy and we were driving into a very large and dark sky. The heavens did open, but the rain was not too heavy, so we tramped in with umbrellas and rain gear. Sadly, the weather cut deeply into attendance. The local Catholic church uses it as a fundraiser and many booths are set up to sell wares, I was sorry to see the small crowd for all their sakes.

Aside from incredible Italian food probably the best part of Italian Fest is the endless interaction with long lost friends. I have lived in Memphis since 1970, so there are lots of folks I have know over the years. It is always great fun to grab a former student, co-worker or see an occasional mentor from days gone by. As I said, the crowds were sparse, but even so we did see some folks. A woman I taught in 8th grade was there with her 7th grader (where have the years gone). My insurance man, a former co-worker and two parishioners, a former co-worker (and former parishioner at another church) were all there. I also saw several former students. One of them, now a father of two and a full grown man, shared a story with me from his second grade. He had been sent to talk to Fr. Jeff for lying. I remembered it well, mainly because a month after our talk I asked him if he had told any lies. "No," he said to me. "And why have you stopped lying?," I asked. "Because you told me to," he replied. I still remember the sense of shock (it was twenty nine years ago) I felt when he said that. Sadly, I have not been near so successful with many others...

However, I got the rest of the story in our brief contact on a muddy path last night, and want to share it. "You saved my life," he told me. I thought it was hyperbole until he told me what we had talked about. "You told me that there are two paths and I was making a choice which one I was going to take and a light bulb went off in my head. I realized I was in a decision making moment of life. And I chose the right path and every time I am in a position to decide again I remember that day."

He was like 8 years old when we met on that day. By God's grace and mercy He was saved, in a real sense, right before my eyes. It is the way God works.I had seen him not too long ago when he needed to talk. He told me thanks for that time, as well. I said to him something that probably would be a good motto for my life. "When I die," I told him, "I hope people at the funeral will say that they always knew I would be there if they needed to call on me." [Probably I should rather desire that people would say I brought them to Jesus. I hope our Lord forgives my self focus!]

His brother and I talked about God's working and acknowledged our gratitude for Providence and Grace and then the brief conversation ended, though I admit to a deep joy from what I had heard. Now for the rest of the "triad."

In my Thursday "Bible Study" we continued our discussions around the ancient document "The didache (teaching or instruction) of the 12 apostles." It is an ancient work, perhaps predating Matthew's Gospel. Most think it written between 50-100 AD. It begins, as do numerous ancient Christian works, with "The Two Ways." This is based on Deuteronomy and the two paths God offered Israel and it was a common feature of Jewish books written in the time before and after Jesus. The 'two way' approach to spiritual life has always appealed to me (I am naturally bent toward either/or) and so it is no surprise that I am shaped by such ancient texts.I do think it is an excellent way to ponder our relationship with God. But when this young man told me I had said that there were two paths it immediately echoed in my head with the class the previous day. It felt a bit like an affirmation of what we are studying.

The third component of the triad was a series of rather anti-catholic writings I had encountered. It had the feel of "Catholics are not Christians" or "The Catholic Church is dangerous to salvation." Now living in Memphis for forty years has sort of prepared me for such talk. I have written about it often. Yet it remains frustrating to see it again, especially from people with whom I am otherwise allied in this journey of faith at this time. I am ex-communicated from the Roman Church (and it was by choices I made) and I have some major disagreements on things, but at core I remain affectionately divorced from the church of my youth and continue to deeply love much of what I learned there and many of the folks with whom I grew and worshiped for 33 years. In my mind, Roman Catholics, like all Catholics, embrace the two path model as spelled out in the Didache. We know we are saved by grace and we know faith is a gift and we receive salvation through faith. We also know our choices matter and what we do will be judged. Faith is not only intellectual it is also volitional. Believing in Jesus has a behavioral component. Offering dueling bible quotes to argue the "faith vs works" salvation question is off point (to me). I tend to think much of the catholic-protestant polemic is about semantics and in the end we are more alike than different. But be that as it may, any hold over of self doubt or self loathing from what I had read earlier in the day seemed to melt away as well after my discussion.

This man may not be "a Christian" to the satisfaction of my Evangelical friends. I doubt he would use the same kind of language that they do, but in some way I have got to believe that Jesus has a hold of him and if grace is amazing than it is all the more amazing that it is at work among people who do not fit the evangelical model of the saved.

There are two paths. Choose, and you are never too young, or too old, to make that choice.
The choice is a difficult one to keep faithfully.
Above and behind and below and within your choosing understand, however, God, in Jesus Christ, is also choosing. Amazing grace. Amazing.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Real Absence

Ascension Day 2014
Every year I have little to say about this Great Feast of Christ's life except "it explains everything."

At times, as I read the latest headlines about murder, mayhem, injustice and untold suffering, it seems like important theological information. While my own life is sufficiently pleasant that I have little room or reason to complain (and it is amazing to me how much I do complain) in reality any number of folks endure great trials. Life is hard for many and very hard for more than we realize. So the question often comes up, "If Jesus is the Messiah and He has defeated Satan, Sin and Death, why???"

There is a triumphalist strain in Christianity. The resurrection does that sort of thing to people of faith. The power of Hope can create such joy that it can border on denial. "Our Lord reigns!' is so true and beautiful that it is easy to forget the location of the throne is "in heaven" and that we are still praying for "earth" to line up with the heavenly realms. Jesus is not here, not like He will be some day!

Ascension Day is the Feast of Christ most focused on church, to me. It is when we hear the angel ask, "Men of Galilee why do you stand here looking up to the sky?" It is a feast which redirects our attention to the work at hand. The work spelled out in Matthew 28:16-20; making disciples, baptizing people and instructing them and calling them to keep the instruction of Jesus. Of course, as He ascends to heaven (He is really gone) we cling to the promise that "He is with us always to the end of the age." In John's Gospel the promise is expressed a bit differently (I will not leave you orphaned) and it is all predicated on the work of the Holy Spirit. The life of Jesus is among us in the Spirit at work in our minds and hearts.

So the real absence of Jesus does matter. He does not reign fully among us. The 'bad guys' still think they are winning, at least sometimes, and there are moments when it appears that they are right. The church is the primary presence of Jesus at this time. That is not music to the ears of individualists (whether baptized or not) but it is the messy reality of our current situation. This is not good news to those folk who have been disappointed and even hurt by the church in its all too human failings. Jesus is here, but it is mainly through people (fallen, imperfect, inconsistent, weak in faith and commitment Christians--like you and me). He is present in Word and Sacrament, we are not alone, He is with us, but those are mediated presence which stir up a longing for more and remind us of the absence. Some days we want more than a book and some bread. Some days we want the church to be more like Jesus.

And such longing is good. Today we celebrate His return to the Father, and we continue to await that day when He comes back. Until then, it is our turn to be faithful and do what He tells us. It is our turn to be His hands and feet, mouth and ears. It is our turn. Pray we do take it more seriously. Please pray for the church until "He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

Please pray for our Fundraising Dinner Saturday night to benefit the Church Health Center and an inner city pastor working with at risk youth and their families. (Donations are welcome; sent to St. Andrews, 106 Walnut Collierville TN 38017)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Love, Law and Instruction

Easter 6
If you love me, keep my commandments…
In 323BC Alexander the Great died. His extensive empire, a product of endless wars, was subdivided among several generals. These political divisions did not erase the unity of Greek cultural or Hellenism. The Greek language, like English, transcended its borders.
In 332BC Alexander had founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt.    When Alexander’s general Ptolemy conquered the holy land some 120,000 Jews were uprooted and moved to Egypt. However, the Ptolemy dynasty (his sons) proved to be fairly liberal and a large segment of the city weres Jews, who were free to practice their religion. Rather quickly the Jewish population became fluent in Greek and lost their mother tongue. As a result in a few generations a Greek translation of the Jewish Bible was needed. Called the Septuagint, it made the Bible accessible to the Greek speaking Jews of Egypt and the wider empire. The Septuagint is the Bible used in the early church, including Paul.
The Hebrew word torah means instruction. [The first five books of the Jewish Bible are called the Torah]. The Bible teaches that God has saved His people, in a gracious act of love, and given them instruction on how to live their lives. However, the word Torah, was translated in the Septuagint by the Greek nomos (rather than didaskalos), which means law. I was shocked to learn that the word ‘obey’ does not occur in the Jewish Bible. The concept is there, but the preferred words are to keep (watch over), to listen/hear (shama) or to walk (walk in my ways, walk in my statutes, etc.) Jewish thought is not philosophical, it is practical and pragmatic. It is also concrete.
Translating the word torah/instruction as law creates a mental shift: from instruction/directions to law/legalities. The first Christians used the Septuagint as their Bible. In the West, we are shaped by the legacy of Roman Law. Our church is culturally derived from that. And the Reformation, with its focus on grace, has caricatured the Jewish legalism to the extent that too often Christians reduce the Jewish faith and its Bible to “the Law.” If this is in error, and it is, then the simplistic claim that Christianity is about grace and Judaism is about law is also in error. Fortunately, we live in a time where much of the ancient world is being rediscovered.
The Jewish concepts of hearing, walking and keeping are more consistent with the actual Biblical meaning. And Jesus embraces this approach.
Last week Jesus said “I am the Way…” Walking is a journey word and well reflects the comprehensive nature of our relationship with God. Our faith response to God is 'walking in a way.' That way is both a person (Jesus) and a way of life (in imitation of Him). Many Biblical stories, including the primary paradigm of salvation (Exodus), have a component of travel/journey. This is picked up by Jesus who invites men “to follow” Him. The students/disciples of Jesus are usually called “Followers” for that reason. The act of following incorporates both active and passive elements of behavior and belief. It is what people do when they trust Jesus. to follow is an activity, but it is not to lead, so it is also passive.
At His journey’s end, the night before He died, Jesus gathered His friends for one last meal. On that night He prepared them for what lay ahead and gave them a gift of Himself in the meal (reinterpreting the bread and wine of the Passover celebration). The last weeks of the Easter season are typically taken from this section of John 13-17.
The message at the Last Supper has many elements. One focus is the identity of Jesus and His unified relationship with the Father. Another focus is on the disciples. What shall they do now that He is returned to the Father?
Jesus is understood as the new Moses. The commands He gives, often times based on the Jewish Bible, are the way of life He has embraced and the way of life to which He calls us. Make no mistake, the word love has not been reduced to warm feelings by the Lord. Love means something concrete and real. Affections and feelings are not the measure of love; living it out is.
"If you love me you will keep my commandments." In simplest terms, love is an action verb. At the end of Matthew Jesus says that we are to baptize in people and teach them everything He taught us and tell people to keep His commands. The faith of a disciple is seen in a desire to know His will and a decision to live in His ways.
Love in Jesus’ day was not about feelings or affections (He predates the 1960's). In fact, love can be a struggles. Love seeks the best for another and it is shaped in a cross.The temptation is always there to embrace a counterfeit salvation. Our language betrays us; how often we use the word “love” to translate a number of feelings, usually centered on our own pleasure. We ‘love’ chocolate, We ‘love’ cute babies, and We ‘love’ the Hollywood beauties. Love, love, love—and none of it has a thing in common with keeping the commands of Jesus.
We who claim to love Him must obviously walk in His ways. There is a lifestyle involved, the sort of things we find in our mission statement: worship, service, prayer and study, helping others, remaining unstained by sin, and constant repentance in a spirit of thanks and gratitude. The concrete expression of these values differ depending on time and circumstance, but they are at the core of loving Jesus. [in fact you may sometimes have no 'feelings' about Jesus when doing them]

Jesus promises to prepare a place for us. It will be wonderful and marvelous, but to get there we have to go. 
Each day. 
Every day. 
Learning His commands and keeping His commands, not as a burden or duty, but as a gift and freely embraced task.
Do you love Jesus? Then you know what to do!

Friday, May 23, 2014


Reading this morning from the seventh chapter of Matthew.

Trying to picture Jesus teaching folks. The message today was one worthy of repetition wherever He went. The crowds included any number of poor and very poor. I coined a phrase, "the dirt eaters" to help my Bible study classes understand this. We tend to read the Bible from our own setting. Well off white, middle class Americans unconsciously assume Jesus talked to people "just like us" (except wearing robes). Clean and bright and laden with all manner of middle class concerns. We assume that they voted (and probably voted for the same liberal/conservative values which we espouse!) even though democracy was not part of their political system. We think they honored division of church and state and that Jesus advocated individualism and personal freedom, and was maybe even an advocate of gun rights or gay marriage.In fact, the indoor plumbing, electricity, and mobility which we take for granted did not exist. When you think Jesus think Third World. There were lots of poor, and poor did not have access to much of anything (except hard work, disease and hunger, and struggle).

A dirt eater is figuratively someone with no power. They are prostrate before the ones with power (the word for worship literally means to fall on the face). With their face to the ground they are 'dirt eaters' and the powerful and oppressors take turns striding over and upon the lower class. Literally, sometimes the hungry eat dirt to fill their bellies. The need for eating anything is also a dirt eater. They are poor, hungry, needy and powerless. Those are the ones to whom Jesus proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom.

So when Jesus said, "Ask and you shall receive, Seek and you shall find, Knock and it shall be opened to you" He was saying this to a crowd of people who had no rights. It was expendable people who mattered only to their small kinship groups. No status, no rank, no importance--until Jesus announced that they belonged to God. Those who dared not ask were invited to ask, those with no hope who had stopped seeking are told that they will find. Imagine their faces. Imagine their minds and hearts. Invited to knock on the door of Heaven's King and invited to trust that same door would be opened for them and they would be brought in.

Can folks like you and me, filled with all manner of rights and expectations (and a serious case of entitlement) really appreciate how radial Jesus' message was? And the final verse, utilizing flawless logic, is the climax of the fireworks. If you evil people know how to provide for your kids.... If you evil people feed them and do not mock their needs... If you evil people know how to care for your loved one... Well how much more will your Father in Heaven (the God of love and mercy and kindness and compassion) provide for you.

Lesser to greater, a classic rabbinic teaching tool. Look at you and the good you do. And you are not good, yet you do good. Look at God who is perfect in goodness. What goodness is in store for those whom He loves? A Beautiful thought to ponder as we begin a long weekend....

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is Getting a Tatoo a Sin?

We are reading Leviticus 19 the last couple days. The Jewish Law is a very difficult thing to deal with as Christians. On the one hand we often say that we are not bound by the Law, yet there are expectations of Christians which nuance the previous statement. Some Christians say that the Ten Commandments are still binding, but truth be told at least some of them (especially Keep Holy the Sabbath) are not kept at all. One popular approach is to separate moral law from cultic law. In other words, the worship rules are not in place but ethical ones are. This is fine when you get rid of animal sacrifice, or forbid murder, lying and stealing. However, the Torah does not divide the laws into two categories. Reading Leviticus the "instruction" mixes all types of expectations together. It jumps from one category to another, and some "laws" do not easily fit into a category.

The tatoo question comes up because it was listed today in the reading. It was couple with a warning: you shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar he edges of your beard. Neither of those drew any notice from my morning congregation. There, for me, is the problem with Biblical Law. When we see something we do not like we grab a Bible verse which backs us up and we point it out (all the while ignoring other verses).

Now, while we might be tempted to write off the "no tattoos" as OT Law and unbinding, it cannot be denied that Leviticus 19 is filled with relevant and theological primary material. 19:1 You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy." Jesus says the same in Luke's Gospel and the concept is certainly a feature of the NT teaching. [A side note, as much as "God is love" is popular in our own time, "God is Holy" is certainly a more frequent declaration of the true identity of God.It is a Holy God who loves us, His holiness defines love.]

What follows after are three verses containing Ten Commandment material: honor your parents, keep Sabbath and no idolatry. Then a few verses discussing how long a sacrificial meal can be kept (two days) and eaten. Certainly not relevant to us, in a literal sense.Then an exhortation to not harvest everything but leave it for the poor and foreigner. There is something of value here in discussing the Biblical mandate to care for the needy. In a sense this says let them have an opportunity to work for their food. It is a command to the wealthy to not squeeze the last cent of profits our of your resources, and it says to the poor, be willing to earn by your labor what you receive. [a hard message for rich and poor to hear]. Then a list of moral expectations about honesty and fairness which no one would question culminating in the demand to love your neighbor as yourself.

A lengthy discourse on sexual relations with a slave girl acknowledges the sinfulness. Then a declaration that you shall not eat the fruit of the tree until the third year. The Eden echoes did give me pause. What is the connection of forbidden fruit here and there? Next is the series with which we started (hair, tatoos) as well as an admonition not to make your daughter a prostitute or use magic. One assumes this is all connected to pagan practices. Respect for the elderly is followed with respect for the alien.

Clearly the double vision of the Torah for non-Israelites can be seen here. While much of the exodus story centers around the demand to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land, that is supplemented with a requirement like this, to treat the foreigner well "because you were foreigners in Egypt." Most scholars think this bipolarity is a function of different situations in Israel's history. In different times and places the situation dictates different behaviors.

Probably, for me, the most stunning verse was 19:34 You shall love the alien as yourself.
Let that one sink in for a while.

The Biblical instruction makes it clear that "love" did not mean full citizenship with the same rights. however, the fact that the foreigner is to be loved in the same way as the neighbor (like one's self) is breathtaking. And it is why a simplistic "we don't follow the OT laws" does not do justice to the complexity of the place of these teachings in the Christian ethic. I am still not sure what I think of the place of the Law (Instruction) in the life of the church, and at this late point in my life that is probably not a good thing. I do know that the theories and explanations which I have heard do not do justice to the complexity and maybe that, in the end, is what it means to live in a "Fallen" world.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

To Die For

The martyrdom of Stephen was a brutal execution performed by religious zealots for the sake of “purity of faith.” (This is a  warning to the “orthodox” in whatever form they take. We do love to force others to do it our way. In the realm of faith, it is probably a good rule that: Authentic Christians die for Jesus—not kill.)
In Stephen we see Jesus. Like Jesus he forgives those who kill him and hands over his own spirit to the Lord. Stephen has a vision of Jesus. A true Christian has his/her eyes on Jesus and imitates Jesus.
We have not been asked to physically die for Jesus. (Maybe someday). Yet, in baptism liturgically and spiritually, we have made that choice. In baptism we die to self. In baptism we die to sin. In baptism, we die, and are raised again. As Paul said, “it is not I who live, but Christ lives in me…” So each day should manifest our “yes” to Jesus. Those who die to self every day are prepared for martyrdom. Character is shaped by each day’s behaviors.
Stephen proclaimed the story of God’s covenant and salvation history.  Every Christian must be able to do the same. Dear friends, if you cannot then please study the speech of Stephen. You must know the story if you are going to take a stand for God.
Martyrdom is not ancient history; a woman in Sudan and another in Pakistan face execution for their faith today. Many Jesus people are still dying. “What makes a person willing to die for a belief?” A few answers come to mind:
1.    The Holy Spirit; faithfulness is always a gift of the God Who gives the grace and courage to His beloved.
2.    Personal integrity. You have to be authentic and a person of substance.
3.   Belief. Faith is key as it provides the mental and emotional reason to take a stand, even onto death.
Stephen was willing to die because he believed what Jesus said to His disciples at the last supper.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust God and you can trust Me, too. I am going away, and right now you cannot come with. One of you will betray me, Peter, you will deny me. None of you will be faithful. But I go to prepare a place for you and I will come back for you. Trust!
Jesus says: I am the door to God. I am the One sent by God. The Father is in Me, when you see Me you see the Father. I am God’s revelation to you. I am Life and Truth. I am the Way. So do not fear. Trust God. Trust Me.
The words of Jesus bring offense: no one comes to the Father except through Me. What are non-Christians to think hearing such words? So many contemporary church folk pretend Jesus never said them, pretend the Book does not contain them. The Christianity espoused in many churches is devoid of its central tenant: in Jesus we find God.
Stephen knew what we all know. He never met Jesus, all he had was the apostolic witness. He knew Jesus was crucified for us and our salvation. Jesus was raised and exalted to God’s right hand. In Jesus we see the face of God…. Knowing this, everything else is relative. Jesus is more precious than life itself because He is LIFE itself!
Do you believe Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you? Do you believe that Jesus is the Way to God? Do you believe?
If you do then of course you would die for Him. More importantly, if you believe then you are willing to live for Him. Each day choosing to commit your spirit into His hands!

In the end that is what the story addresses in our daily life. We are a people who keep our eye on Jesus and imitate Him. We forgive others and give our core /spirit into God's hands each day. Living in this way, our life becomes a daily martyrdom (in Greek martyr means witness).