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Thursday, April 16, 2015

The End

Thank you for your readership.
I have decided to suspend this blog for the foreseeable future. I think my time needs to be spent in other areas of my work.

I am honored that you spent time here. I hope to have provided some value in your journey of faith. God bless you.
Fr. Jeff

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jesus said...

John 15:12-27
Jesus said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
"Christian Love" is based on "Jewish Love." When Jesus gives the love commandment (in the Synoptics) it is a summary of the Torah. Love is the heart and core of Torah: Love God and love your neighbor. Christians are not any better at the loving than the Jews were, and probably no worse.  What is a difference maker is the model of love. The ruler with which we measure love is Jesus. Too often we try to determine for ourselves what love is (being independent) and we forget "as I have loved you" is the model and the mode of loving. The authentic Christian is about love and that is not true of all religions; and no other religion measures love by Jesus...

Jesus said,"You are My friends if you do what I command you." Lots of "dead and come back" people claim that the judgment they experienced centered on the question, "did you love?" [While I believe something real happened to those NDE people, it does not trump revelation in my mind.] I find this consistent with Jesus' command. Faith, love and obedience are intimately tied together. Being Jesus' friend is an active choice (friendship is that way, isn't it?). Grace is in the offer of friendship, obedience is in the response to grace...

Jesus said, "You did not chose Me, I chose you..." I heard a round table on a Christian radio station where the ministers celebrated the fact that God chooses some of us. We minister to all, one said, because we do not know which ones are chosen. Perhaps that is the point of Jesus saying it to His apostles. Perhaps, but I think not. He says they are chosen to go and bear fruit. I think the fruit bearing is the point. God chooses, Jesus chooses. We respond. But the choice is for a purpose: salvation. We forget that His heart is on all of His creation (recall His argument with Jonah). The love of God is not partial, reserved for a handful. The love of Jesus is not about 'my' salvation (me me me me) it is about 'our' mission to the world. Everything we have is for others. That is God's nature.

Jesus said, "if the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you...the world hates you...If they persecuted Me they will persecute you." I imagine the early church's marketing department was not pleased with this kind of talk. There are lots of billboards and commercials for churches in Memphis. I have heard lots of reasons to join. Usually a diverse (age, race, sex) group of attractive people are accompanied by some slogan about belonging and acceptance. Not untrue and certainly appropriate. However, we tend not to say, "Come with us and be hated."

And who hates Jesus? It turns out, lots of people. It amazes me. I understand anger at the church (I feel it too). I understand disdain for clergy (I don't like myself sometime!). I understand the list of faults in the church (though I think it can get silly, too). I do not get the Jesus hating though. Well actually I do:

Jesus said, "He who hates Me, hates My Father also." Jesus offends the "do it myself" attitude of the human race (and the progressive tolerance movement). Like the ancient Romans, the current social leaders advocate acceptance of everyone's beliefs--as long as they do not impinge on the shared faith. And what is the shared faith? It is secular and civil religion. It is United Nations Millenial goals or save the planet or pro-freedom to abort. It is not submissive to God but compliant with the societal value system. This means: No Jesus. No one way. No I and the Father are one. No if you hate me then you hate God.

Jesus speaks a word which reminds us that if we are His and if we are faithful there will be rejection. The goal is not rejection (being a jerk can also cause people to hate you), but rejection is a fruit of the goal. The goal is to be Jesus' own, to live as His.

I believe the Jesus haters are growing in power. I believe their hate is getting stronger. I believe we need to focus on Jesus. It is going to be harder and harder to love in the days ahead, to love others in response to their hatred.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tennessee's Official Book

Yesterday was a most peculiar day for me. I had been invited to Nashville in order to speak to a sub-committee of the state senate. A senator had proposed making the Holy Bible the official book of the state. I was asked by another senator to explain why it was not a good idea.

I teach many Bible studies: two on Wednesday, one Thursday and another at Sunday School. During Lent I add one on Friday. I am a very Bible focused person. I believe God reveals Himself in Scripture. I believe the Bible is sacred and central to Christian faith.  It seemed odd that I was recommending that they not bring this up for a vote.

Having been on the 'losing end' of many conflicts in my denomination (where my traditional faith is viewed negatively) it is easy to get competitive.[Truth is always a victim of that competition, winning can crush out Love and compassion.] The day I learned of the proposed resolution I had literally just spent fifteen minutes reading scathing attacks on the Christian faith at the New York Times website (someone had asked me to read an article related to my sermon). I was dismayed by the hostility of the posts, and it felt good to think that in Tennessee the Bible is still the Book. It felt real good...

Understand, I would be glad if everyone, and I mean everyone, acknowledged Jesus as Lord, read the Bible and lived in faithful love. So what better way than to have our senators declare the Bible is the official book of Tennessee?

Well, my initial enthusiasm waned as I thought through the ramifications. It may be another volley in the culture wars, but I grow weary of division for the sake of  'one-up-mans-ship'. I am afraid some group will rise up to sue the state, or demand some atheist work be included, etc. etc. I wonder why are we discussing this at such a  late date? If the state founders had declared the Bible was the state book I would think that would have been more appropriate. Thirdly, it feels like a crossing of the church-state divide. We are not a Christian nation, even if our nation is heavily Christian. Many of the Founders were Deists, a particular form of belief which denies core Christian doctrine. The goal was to create a nation where free exercise of religion would take place. I have no doubt the primary religion was Christian, but there was not to be a state sponsored church.  This leads to a connected concern I have; which Bible is the Holy Bible? I am Catholic, my Bible includes books which Protestants do not count. Jews do not have the same canon. Nor do the Eastern Orthodox. Other middle Eastern Christians have ancient canons which include or exclude other books. The state of Tennessee should not be determining the canon of Scripture (to their credit the proposal was vague enough to avoid that).

Perhaps the bigger concern is the civil religion issue. Sometimes Christians are willing to negotiate Truth to get the 'feeling' of official approval of their beliefs. We want prayer in school, but public state prayer is "generic prayer to a generic god" (even if we know Who we are praying to) which really ends up denying the faith we uphold. The Christian prays as a Christian or it is not prayer at all. We should pray as Christians in Jesus name. However, in our non-theocratic society we should also respect the conscience of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other faiths. Majorities should be concerned not to tread on others. My fear is that to pass the constitutional muster, the Bible will be reduced, officially, to a history book. It is the Law of Unintended Consequences writ large. We deny it as Revelation of God and lower its status to an important literary work so as to get the state to say publicly it is a great book. Mind you, it is both. I agree that no other book has been more influential in the formation of our nation and the molding of its thought and people. Just wonder what political purpose this serves and what is the benefit--and cost.

There were four of us who spoke, but the committee passed it 7-0 with 2 abstaining. I told them I knew it was a difficult position. My guess is they come from a different Christian perspective from me. In the end I do not know if they want the Bible to be the state book or if they did not want to look like they were voting against the Bible. I do know there were lots of Bible loving Christians there who were very happy. I saw them hugging. I cannot fault them, after all, part of me agrees with them. I 'want' the Bible to be the official book. It is just that what I want is not necessarily fair or just or right. 

I also want to remind them that today's solution becomes tomorrow's problem (unintended consequences). Our victory today can become the basis of our defeat tomorrow. In a world where satanism and paganism grows and grows, I wonder what legislation will appear in the future. If today we can make the Bible the official book, what will they be able to do in future votes? We have much experience over the years watching the majority party have its way with the Minority (as it swings back and forth from one to the other). It is human (fallen) nature to desire to win and to punish those who oppose us. I get that, I experience it myself. I prefer to live in a place where I am free to believe, make decisions based on that faith, and publicly declare that the Bible is The Word of God, that it contains Divine Revelation. I much prefer that to a public acknowledgment that it is a history book and very influential in shaping our nation. 

Of course, it is also true that I would not have even known it was gong on if someone hadn't asked me to address the issue.... Sometimes it is hard to know what to focus on.  

Sunday, April 5, 2015


Today in Chicago, the St. Louis Cardinals will play the Cubs in the first game of the season. There is only one game scheduled, but that game means that the 2015 MLB season has begun.The thing is, tomorrow no other teams will have played a game--but the season is still begun. If the rain delays other teams for  a week, the season is still started.

Today we celebrate Easter. The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of The Truly New "Season": the Kingdom of God. The rest of us will be raised some day, but for now Jesus is unique.

The resurrection of Jesus baffles the mind. We do not know much about His body, but we know it is a body resembling the body He had prior to death. He looks the same, even if He is very different. The Gospel stories also remind us that the same women who watched Jesus die and stood weeping at His tomb returned that Sunday morning after the Sabbath rest. It is they, the eye witnesses of that crucifixion,who  become the eye witnesses of the resurrected Lord.

Let us be clear, the reasons for believing Jesus was dead were rock solid. He had been beaten mercilessly and His body was ravaged. Nailed to the cross, His broken body gave out within hours. There is reason to believe He died of a heart attack, this is consistent with the spear wound which poured water and wine. Professional soldiers were satisfied that He was a corpse. His momma was there, she was satisfied He had died. The disciples were so sure He was dead that that hid away, cowering behind a closed door. They were bereft of any hope. There was no reason to think that Jesus would rise from the dead. Such things do not happen.

Ironically, the Gospel story of the women does not even enter into Paul's list of witnesses. This is consistent with the legal status of women at the time. No one in the ancient world would make up a story about something as unimaginable as Jesus resurrection and claim women were the first ones to see Him. If you were going to lie about it you would choose a reliable witness: a man. The only reason for saying it was women to whom Jesus first appeared is the fact that it was women.

In Corinthians, Paul provides the only non-Gospel account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Note that it is men whom he mentions by name. How wonderful it would be if each of those events were recounted for us, including first person reactions to the events. Sadly, we only know that there were many, including one to five hundred at the same time. 

Perhaps the best summary of Easter is the one found in Luke's Book of Acts 1:3--- After His suffering, Jesus presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs. My assumption is that those men and women, especially the ones who saw Him die with their own eyes, would have had a very high standard for determining what was convincing proof. They are no different than you or I. They know that dead people stay dead.

So what does this resurrection mean for us? It means that God has vindicated Jesus as Messiah. It means that the first game of the Kingdom has taken place. It means that we can be very sure that God has kept His promised to save the world and gather into His Kingdom those who love Him.

It means, for each of us personally, that we must choose to embrace Jesus as our Messiah King and the life He offers. He has shown He is alive, only a fool would choose death in the face of that wonderful Good News!  

Tonight the players will show up for the game, they will not go off and toss balls against a wall by themselves. Sadly, the church will not have the same enthusiasm and commitment to the Team Jesus. If we immerse ourselves in the Gospel Resurrection message, all our worries and fears will have a new frame of reference. God is faithful. Death is conquered, Jesus is risen.


Read It

Preaching Easter is both a thrill and a challenge. It is, after all, the central proclamation of Christians, the thing that sets Jesus aside as unique (to the eye). The resurrection remains the Big Event with which even peripheral Christians are familiar.

That said, preaching on the readings can be little more than recounting the words and applying them to our lives. In order to enter the reality, one must do a work of reading. Reading and thinking. Reading and thinking some more. Reading and noticing what is being said. Reading John (which we will today) and reading Mark (which we did last night) and pondering the differences and the similarities.

Too often we skim. We do not take time to consider what it all means. What it means for the World, what it means for us. If this is true (I think it is) it will dramatically impact what we think and how we act. Or it should impact us. But for that to happen, we must read. And read again. And think and ponder.

I will share my reflections on Easter later today.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Berit -- Covenant

The word berit means covenant, treaty, or alliance. It occurs some 285 times in the Jewish Scriptures. Among the covenants God makes are included Noah, the whole world, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Israelites, Levi and the priests and King David.

The oldest recorded covenants are from the Hittites who ruled from 1400 to 1200 BC. (This time period is probably between Abraham and Moses). The covenant treaties consisted of a promise to submit as a vassal state to the King, and in return the people were assured of the King's protection. The basic composition of the Hittite covenant treaties seem to serve as a model for Israel's covenants (berit) with God. The basic outline is found in the Biblical records as well: preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, public reading and preservation in a sacred place, witnesses, and a list of blessings and curses. In our Bible we read that God graciously offers Himself to His people and calls them to pledge their lives in obedience and love to Him as their King and Master. However, a King-Vassal covenant is not the only model. The Bible also speaks of the marriage covenant, where God is the husband and His people a beloved wife. Or the parent-child relationship, where God is a Father and His people are His children. We do well to remember, however, that the words 'husband' or 'father' in the ancient context would still be similar to the royal status of God.

The purpose of God's covenant is to bless and save the world. This is evident in the first covenant in Genesis with Noah and the revived world. However, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Israel, Levi and the priests and King David and his royal line are all intended to bless the world. Jesus, the Son of David and Son of God, the Royal Messiah, comes to save the world and fulfill every covenant promise. The older ones are not former covenants which are annulled, they are superseded, fulfilled and perfected in Christ. It is that covenant which we celebrate tonight, the covenant in His Body and Blood.

Seven weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, I reminded you of that covenant with God. Then I told you that God is not the only option. There are others, false deities, which would also have your allegiance. Those idols claim our hearts and souls. Those idols lie and mislead us into sin and death. I advised you, each day, to begin by breaking covenant with those false gods and renewing covenant with Messiah Jesus. Those who fail to submit as vassals to God our King end up making peace with the world, the flesh and the devil. Our covenants with that diabolical trinity are part and parcel of life in a fallen state. God wants us to love Him and choose Him, but gives us the freedom to choose otherwise. Accept or Reject the covenant with God: the choice is ours.

Sadly we live in the aftermath of The First Rejection. In fact, that original rejection has been multiplied by trillions of trillions of trillions of other rejections. The insurrections, blasphemies, heresies, apostasies, sins and evil in the name and service of the world, the flesh and the devil are compounded with each new day. We are sought out by and brought into alliance with the unholy three to our own destruction.

On Ash Wednesday, I invited you to start each day rebuking satan and any demonic activity in your life, rebuking the world and its false values, and rebuking your own fallen flesh. This call to repentance is a happy work--one which faith, joy, hope and peace should permeate. When we break covenant with the evil three we make room for covenant with the Holy One in Three.

If the word covenant is found 285 times in the Jewish Scriptures, it is much rarer in the Christian Testament (about 28; 16 of those in Hebrews). In fact, it only occurs four times in the Gospels, each one in the Last Supper narratives. The words we hear tonight.

If you have broken covenant with the world, the flesh and the devil, then right now you are prepared to open your heart to the covenant Jesus offers us.

The bread: My Body
The wine: My Blood
The ancient covenant of Passover, now a renewed covenant in Me.
The saving blood of the Passover Lamb is now the saving body and blood of the Messianic Lamb on the cross.

We who eat and drink submits to Him. As His people, His wife, His child--as a people who believe in Him and trust Him, a people which submit to and pledge to obey Him.

We eat Him, we drink Him---and He lives in us and we in Him.
In covenant love and covenant peace.
The eucharist is our covenant because Jesus is our covenant. A covenant offered to us by God. A covenant modeled after the covenants of the Ancient Near East.

A covenant with YHWH the Lord God, whose hesed (covenant mercy and love) is ever faithful. A covenant with the Holy Triune God who is love and calls us to faithful love in covenant with Him.

Tonight we celebrate the great gift of this covenant in the eucharist, but tomorrow we learn, again, the horrible cost of God's free gift to us.

God Brought up on Charges?

The daily office readings today can be overlooked easily as we focus on the eucharistic celebration of the Last Supper. It is, after all, Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday in Roman churches). Maundy is related to the word mandate--Jesus' command to wash feet/serve as He did--and the readings will focus on eucharist because today is the day Jesus gave us that most wonderful gift. More on that later, as I will share my sermon notes.

The section we read from Jeremiah from the Morning Prayer/Evening Prayer lectionary is stunning. Jeremiah 20 is a powerful text and it provides us insight into the reluctant prophet who is faithful. (Sort of the anti-Jonah)

Pashhur the priest was offended by Jeremiah's preaching, so he had Jeremiah flogged (think typology and Jesus) and then briefly jailed. Upon his release, Jeremiah pronounced a word of doom upon this man and declared there will be "terror all around", all the wealth will be taken away, exile and death is forthcoming. The "false prophet" Pashhur is condemned. Yet, Jeremiah has no delight in such a message. One would think it would be vindication for him, being flogged is no small indignity (and it was terribly painful--it is torture). However, the verses that follow are an accusation against God of mind-boggling proportions.

You enticed me O Lord (Hebrew 'patah' is used for sexual seduction in Exodus 22:16, Hosea 2:16 Judges 14:15, 16:5), and I was enticed; You overpowered me and You prevailed (Hebrew verbs connote rape). I have become a constant laughingstock, everyone jeers at me.

By verse 14, Jeremiah bemoans the day he was born (accursed be the day that I was born) and curses those who were happy at his birth "because he did not kill me before birth."  He wishes he had never been born.

To bring God Almighty up on such charges is certainly not pious talk, so why would a prophet do such a thing? 

In the end, one reason I think the Bible is true is because of such lines as this in the text of Scripture. It is so true to our human experience. Life is not always pleasant. Being faithful to God can feel like a burden. God is love, but love is not only gentle and soft--it can also be hard as nails.  Jeremiah, a man who knew God intimately, certainly in ways that I have not ever claimed to know Him, was able to speak such words because He truly knew God. His God talk is not foreign to the real world, in fact, it illuminates it. 

You and I need not only embrace pious-talk and say things which are G-rated and happy clappy. We are not required to pretend that everything's perfect. We are not required to sanitize everything in an effort to sound like we are better than we really are.

God is faithful. Jeremiah knew that, too. God's fidelity means salvation, in the end, for all those who embrace Him. Yet embracing Him, especially in ministering in His Name, will not be easy or pleasant. It may feel like abuse at times. And that is okay, because God knows how to redeem everything.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April Fools

My favorite time period in the church used to be the Middle Ages. Perhaps the love of King Arthur and shiny knights fueled it. Certainly, the marvelous philosophical expertise was a draw. It was a time of great (and often not so great) imagination and theological inquiry. Without remembering the particulars, I do recall being especially taken aback by one theory which basically seemed to say that the crucifixion was God's trick played on Satan.

In our day, the word comedy means funny. If my memory serves me right from my college literature days, the more ancient understanding of the word is that comedies "turn out well in the end." (Tragedies turn out badly) So, in that sense, the passion and death of Jesus is a comedy, i.e., a story with a happy ending.

Today, April Fools Day, is a traditional day of joking and fooling people. The day brings back memories of things that I did in the past, some of them things which still make me smile or laugh. The humor, however, is always more apparent to the trickster than the trick-ee! 

When Jesus dies on Friday, we will recall what appears to be a desperate day for God. His Man, His Messiah, His Son, His Beloved, His Chosen One--Jesus is tortured, crucified and dead. It appears that "the Prince of this world" has won a victory. Evil has the day. The Healer and Forgiver, the Reconciler and Truth Teller is silenced and dies alone (or near alone). Jesus even cries out Psalm 22, declaring God has abandoned Him (though reading the Psalm reveals there is more to that story). From Hell's perspective it had to seem like a great day. Insidious happiness (can Satan and demons experience the purity of joy?) with evil's victory over good made the earth dark and quake. It had the feel of a terrible tragedy.

Yet, in the end, "April Fools"! Jesus rises. "Gotcha!" We imagine the befuddled Prince of this world looking at an empty tomb and wondering how this happened.

I do not use this language to desecrate the sacred sacrifice or belittle the Divine work of salvation. But know that at one angle (Thursday and Friday) the death has a different meaning than it does in the end (Sunday). Tears turn to laughter, sorrow to joy. In the end, isn't that what the tricking is all about? Isn't it a chance to think things are bad and then, relieved and energized, to celebrate that it is all worked out?

There is something pleasing to think of a God who deals with the hostile rebels in such a way. There is a delight in knowing that they were played, that their efforts to thwart God's plan was actually a scam which accomplished the very thing they wanted to avoid. I love a good joke and I love April Fooling. Perhaps, at the heart of the universe, is a Creator with a sense of humor. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing funny about the horrors we will be remembering tomorrow night into Friday. There is nothing funny about the passion and death. But the resurrection, now there is something to make us laugh and sing and clap our hands. The grinning Jesus telling the sputtering devil, "yes, I guess you did not see that one coming!"