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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Lord Giveth, the Lord Taketh Away. Blessed be the Lord!

Kissed some friends good-bye today. Special people who have been personal friends and key church members for my entire time here. They joined the church the first day I preached here. A few weeks before that I buried another dear friend. Death is more final than moving, but the latter is still a serious loss and life changer. In the last five years the losses have outnumbered the gains by a wide margin. Moving is part of living. Dying is part of life. Life is not always pleasant.

The Christian believes in redemption, not prosperity. The blessings from God are not always what we mortals have in mind. In a success culture it is hard to sit on the fringes and see failure. It is hard to be a loser when winning is the goal. Living with less when you want more is not easy. Too often we think blessings are an entitlement and the default option for existence. Not so. We are not owed anything. We are gifted beyond what we deserve.

So what is the response to the pain of personal loss? Faith. Faith is not the belief that everything will be okay. It is trusting God is there when everything is not okay. It is trusting God when your list of friends lost is longer than your list of friends still here. It is standing with Jesus in the Garden and saying "Amen" when He prays, "Not my will, Father, but your will be done."

It is hard to know what the future holds. It is not easy to be enthusiastic or optimistic many times. But faith is not optimism. Revelation is not optimistic. Revelation is a promise that God will redeem the future, no matter how negative. Pessimism is not the calling either. In some ways, our responses determine if things are good or bad. We tend to find that for which we look after all. Look at losses or be thankful for the blessings which make the parting painful. Look to the absence or look ahead to the next presence. Focus on what is gone or on what is provided? In the end, our task is more to focus on the Giver and Redeemer. Focus with a heart on fire with loving trust and gratitude

The Lord gives
The Lord takes away
In all times and circumstances, we bless the Name of God. In all times and circumstances means when we win and when we lose, when we are on top and when we are on the bottom, when we have much or when we have little. This is to see as God sees, not the world. It is to receive new eyes. It is a grace.

Remember: We always have our Lord. Always. And having Him what do we lack?

Sunday, June 26, 2016


2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14      Galatians 5:1, 13-25    Luke 9:51-62
Elijah and Jesus are both “to be taken up to heaven.” Their stories are deeply connected.
Elijah has been a mighty prophet. His job is done, now he begins the last journey. It is a thirty mile trek, and he is followed all the way by the tenacious Elisha. "I will not leave you!" Elisha repeats to Elijah at each stage of the journey. Tenacious. He has a desire: "Grant me a double share of your spirit." A double share is the first born son's share. He wants to be made the heir.
They go to the land where Moses died. Another Exodus reference is the parting of the waters. The mantle is a symbol of Moses' staff. Suddenly, Elijah, “the prophet like Moses” is gone with swirling wind and chariots of fire.  Elisha, like Joshua, replaces the master. His tenacity pays off. Elisha takes up the mantle of Elijah.
We are all tenaciously seeking something. If your deepest desire is the Holy Spirit then the fruits identified in Galatians will be manifest. What are the fruits in your life?
Jesus is also tenacious. His face is set firmly to go to Jerusalem. It takes courage to face death, even more courage to face death by torture. Jesus is tenacious in love and faithfulness.
Luke 9: 51-62 is full of allusions to Elijah and Elisha. Elijah called down fire on the prophets of Baal. Elisha left his plow when Elijah called him. The work of a disciple is prophet work. It is more important than family responsibilities. Family, for Jesus, is based on faith, not biology. The ancient Christians were vilified for that scandalous idea. They were considered impious because they chose loyalty to Jesus over family or Emperor. One must be tenacious to follow Jesus. One must be tenacious to make His church the true family.
"Come follow Me!" demands a tenacious response of faith and love.
But remember God is the Holy Tenacious One. We were created in love and for love, but we rejected love. We are tenacious in sin. We reject God. We walked away and chose death.
God is tenacious. Though we wander far from Him, He seeks us like a shepherd He hunts lost sheep. He offers us life....
Jesus is tenacious because the Father is tenacious. The Holy Spirit is tenacious because the Father is tenacious. Tenacious in saving love, tenacious in redeeming faithfulness. Tenacious and committed whatever the cost. Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem because the Father had set His face toward us.
Tenacious Love and mercy.
Never forget who seeks whom. It is God who seeks us. And if it seems that your response is demanding great tenacity, remember. He is the Tenacious One and we are made in His image. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Praying with Luke 13 (for Sunday School 6/26)

[Lectionary texts are Numbers 21:4-9, 21-35 and Luke 13:10-17]

This week I want to demonstrate a process of prayerfully interacting with the Scripture text. I want to differentiate this from Bible study. We will focus only on Luke. The questions in Bible study include what does the story tell us about Jesus and His ministry. On a second level we can compare Luke to the other Gospels and discern what Luke is trying to communicate. Commentaries would be needed to provide other information which is pertinent (and not readily available to us). Thirdly, we bring it into the "Church" context (the faith of the Body of Christ) and lastly we would analyze it for our own purposes. Other disciplines (social sciences, theology, mission, etc.) would be vital tools for deeper knowledge and insight. Prayer and the Holy Spirit would be included as well.

This is not a Bible study model but a prayer model. It is asking what God is saying in this particular collection of verses. [fyi, I am using the RSV so a different translation will be different in places!]

Pray. Seek God, open your heart, thanks and praise are best. Open to the Holy Spirit. Ask the Father to speak into your heart in the Word.
Read Luke 13:10-17
1. Read and Summarize
My initial reading is this is a conflict story. Jesus healed a woman. I notice He initiated it--He saw her, He called her, He declared her free and He put His hand on her. She stood up straight  and praised God. The leader of the synagogue was agitated and began reminding people that the Sabbath is a day of rest and they should be healed on the other six days. Jesus seems perturbed and calls them hypocrites who take better care of their animals than they do God's people. It ends with a declaration that Jesus shamed His adversaries this is contrasted with the people rejoice at what He can do.
Generate Questions
[here it is easy to move in the direction of Bible study. How widespread was this attitude? Why would Jewish leaders be led to this sort of thing? What about the actual healing itself? What are contemporary parallels?]
The questions that jump out at me:
+ How does this inform my understanding of the "healing protocol"? Is God saying sometimes He starts it?
+ What is my response to God's gracious saving/healing work in my life? Are there things I need to be praising and thanking God for?
+When am I the 'adversary' of Jesus, blocking ministry because my personal beliefs  are out of line with His? Who is trying to cut me off from His healing word and touch?
+ Where are my priorities out of line (animals over people)? Where am I blind?

Pray. Holy Spirit guide and open us!
2. Read and 'circle' key words. This is more about what jumps out at you. Remember it is a talking with God thing not a Bible study/teaching thing...
For me the words that I heard most loudly were
* a spirit of infirmity
*you hypocrites

Having done that the Blueletter Bible (on line) is my resource to see what these words might mean and where else they appear (once again there is a temptation to slide into Bible study and lots of analysis!)
"spirit of infirmity" is a weakness/illness caused by a spirit. Luke has this language four times. Matthew once, and there it is connected to the Isaiah quote (He bore our infirmities). This reminds me that the healing is Jesus doing just that--spiritual warfare to take away our illness and weakness. It also reminds me that illness is multi-dimensional (physical, spiritual and psychological) and I have to be aware of the 'spirit of infirmity' bending me over double (Early this morning I went to the hospital today and literally saw a man walking to his car bent over double).
"hypocrites" literally means stage actor and is a word Matthew uses much more than anyone else. This causes me to ponder the tendency of humans to "act" a part for the world. We put "our best face" on and convey "an image" so that we are well thought of. Jesus was a big advocate of being genuine. My own hypocrisy is under the spotlight in prayer now...
"shame" catches my attention because in my studies I have learned that this is a shame/honor culture. The idea of shaming his opponents is part of why Jesus died. The enemies of Jesus are competing with Jesus for honor. The leader has shamed Jesus by his critique but Jesus' answer turns the tables. His clever riposte brings Him honor and status (as a prophet) and brings God honor (as He is the Son). While we have shame in our culture, shame is different from guilt (just as being unclean is different from being sinful). It is hard for me to grasp the serious nature of honor/shame in the middle eastern view, but I can think about feeling shame. I can also pray over the conflicts in my life and ask am I standing for God values or asserting myself? I can pray over my debates and arguments.

Pray again. Read
3. Broader Context
What is going on in the whole chapter? Just before this there was a question about victims of evil. Jesus seems to negate that bad things are a punishment from God, but He then turns the event into a reflection on eternal death if one fails to respond to God. "Something worse" is in store for those who walk the wrong path. Then the story today. Then a couple of Kingdom parables (God starts with the small things) ending with another warning about salvation and eternal loss. In this context perhaps Luke wants us to understand the healing as a "grain of mustard seed" (a small thing) which is the Kingdom of God breaking in. But the presentation of the kingdom is an invitation/demand for response. All over this chapter we see salvation and eternal loss contrasted. In our story today the woman is healed/saved and the leader appears to be headed into oblivion for failing to see the Lord Jesus as God's offer.

Pray, listen to Holy Spirit, respond.
*What is God teaching me here? How does this impact my thinking?
*Am I called to do something? Or stop doing something?

The three areas of prayerful reflection may take us somewhere most unexpected. That is fine. It is why we prayed over and over for the Spirit to guide us. This approach to prayer is very focused on listening and opening to God. It would also be hard to do in less than ten or fifteen minutes. I hope it is useful. I will be guiding our class in this on Sunday.  

Numbers 14, Luke 12

In our liturgical church we use a lectionary for daily worship and Sunday Eucharist. This means that numerous texts and psalms are brought together to provide a "chemical reaction". It draws the reader into a rich and fertile place.

Numbers 14:26-45
This is one of those much maligned "Old Testament God of judgment" readings. (I disagree)
13:1-2 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites..." Each tribe provided a spy, and chapter 13 recounts how the men spent forty days discovering the incredible fruitfulness of the land. However, upon their return, the men said an invasion could not be successful because the people of the land were too powerful and like giants. Caleb alone voiced confidence that Israel would prevail if they attack. Numbers 14 begins with the people wailing and crying. "Why did God do this? Let's head back to Egypt!" I underlined the key statement. God said, "I am giving you this land" and the scouts said, "It cannot happen." This is mutiny against God. Let that sink in...

[If one can allow the narrative to function as a story and if one can allow people in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age to be ancient then one can hear God speak in this ancient epic. The Lord revealed Himself to them and spoke through them, but just as we translated Hebrew into English so must we translate and interpret their thought.] We are confronted in this narrative with people who do not trust God in spite of all He had done for them. This is the key or central revelation. Moses and Aaron exhort the people to see all that is offered and trust. (14:11) God says, "How long will this people spurn me and how long will they have no faith in me?" The narrative sets up the dilemma: Israel has refused to trust God (amazing that they portray themselves in such negative light. That is not the ancient norm.) God says He wants to wipe out Israel and start all over. This would echo Genesis and the Noah story. Moses as intercessor becomes the savior as he provides YHWH with four reasons to relent. Clearly, this understanding of God (being angry, hurt and wanting to wipe out an entire people) does not sit easily with us today. Our view of God is far less anthropomorphic. However, in our time the problem of faithlessness and unbelief would produce similar outcomes. The act of unbelief as rejection would alienate the sinner from the source of hope. Same outcome even if we would explain the process differently. One should ponder the place of intercessory prayer but be careful not to take this portrayal of God too literally. In the end, the (nation) people are forgiven, but they are still to be kept from the land. Why? Maybe they were unready to enter the land. They do not trust and so they are not able. They still are slaves in their minds and hearts. It will be the next generation (take note, those under twenty) which will enter the land. Except faithful Caleb. He will be the lone survivor (except Joshua is also going to be there). The language is graphic--"your corpses will drop dead in the wilderness--God is no politically correct mincer of words...

Why so mean? In the ancient Middle East loyalty was at the heart of faith. Love was attachment to a person or group.  This culture was not focused on the inner world of mental thoughts, beliefs or feelings (like our modern psychological Western culture). Believing was not an intellectual exercise, it was an act of entrusting one's self and being trustworthy. Loving was not a warm feeling of affection or passionate desire, it was living life as a part of a group.The Israelites were being unfaithful, unloyal and were showing a failure to love God. 14:33 has another strong word (zenuth, which means harlotry, fornication or whoredom) translated as 'unfaithfulness.' This captures the feel of the sin of Israel. God's judgment is arguably a declaration of what is taking place. The people have rejected God, they have returned hate for love, infidelity for faithfulness, distrust for faithfulness. God's commitment to the nation extends beyond the current generation. They will perish but some day their offspring (whom they claimed God would let die) will enter the land. God is faithful and merciful, but He also is allowing people to choose their own way and suffer the consequences. How the mystery of divine-human relationship is expressed matters, but what matters more is insight. I think that we can understand this story as a parable on faith and a prophetic warning against unbelief and infidelity--in other words, it is a New Testament story too.

Luke 12:49-56
The opening verse (I came to bring fire) is not found in any other Gospel. One is tempted to look back to Luke 1:16 where John the Baptist says a "coming one" will "baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" for a context. The church Fathers offer numerous options. Cyril of Alexandria (homily 94) says the "fire is the saving message of the Gospel and the power of its commandments" though he quickly says the Holy Spirit is the fire of God at work in us. Ambrose thinks it the fire of love. Although he reminds us that on the road to Emmaus their hearts burned with fire--which is the flames of the divine Scripture. Cyril of Jerusalem points to Pentecost and the flames. Finally Basil the Great sees the "flaming words" of Jesus reveal the malice of sin and baptism "is a type of the cross, death, burial and resurrection."  If we do not know exactly what Jesus means, we obviously discern His impatience. As when He wondered aloud how much longer he would have to be with the unbelieving crowd, so here we sense an impatience. We can easily overlook Jesus humanity, especially those who think He was all knowing. However, these words reflect a Jesus who is also waiting and longing. It is a Jesus who wants to see things happen God's way.

Written words, without benefit of tone of voice, are easily misunderstood. When Jesus says He has not come for peace but division what does He mean? Families divided among themselves on what to think of the Messiah reflects the reality of the early church. Family division carries a heavier weight in the Middle East. It is a loss of identity. Is Jesus warning or bemoaning this division?  Is He sad that the unbelief produces division (unbelief again!) or is He declaring that is His purpose, to divide out folks?

The concluding words hearken back to the parable of the faithful (expectant) servant. Jesus often criticizes those who are adept in the worldly matters while spiritually blind or deaf. In our own day we are no less prone to this malady. The truth is we get good at what we practice and Jesus thinks we practice the wrong things. There is a tension between God's Kingdom and "the world" (fallen creation). In contemporary times, Western Christians are certainly too comfortable with the world. Let the one with ears, hear!

So how do these two readings interact? They convey a sense of God's impatience waiting for His people to become His people. They remind us that choosing is a response to being chosen. In some case only one is a Caleb. In other cases many embrace God. The readings remind us that love is passionate and mercy has its limits, that relationship requires choices by all parties and that grace, while an unearned offer and an unmerited kindness  

Friday, June 17, 2016

Forgiven. Forgiving. Matthew 18

Every time we pray the Lord's prayer, most of us say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." This, however, is not what Matthew 6:12 actually says. There we read "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors." In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus explains that if we forgive the trespasses of others, ours will be forgiven, but if we do not forgive the trespasses of others, then ours will not be forgiven. In Luke the word used is "sins." As Jesus probably did not speak in Greek, all of the New Testament is a translation of the Aramaic which He would have spoken; and in Jewish thought of His time debts, trespasses and sins were interchangeable concepts. Their meaning would overlap. I think that English does provide us some interesting depth though.

Today's MP Gospel is from a section on forgiveness in Mt 18:15-35. It begins with how to confront those who have sinned and then goes on to say that when two or three gather in Jesus' Name He is with them. For many Christians, this is a very uncomfortable word from the Lord, because He says that the Church (humans) are an extension of God. In other words, there is no simple division between God and Man, as is so popular among many. Jesus says (in other places as well) that when we are in Him, our words and actions carry the Divine imprimatur  and convey the power and authority of God. Jesus takes the church very, very seriously.

Our reading today begins in verse 21, where Peter asks how many times must we forgive, "seven times?" This is a Biblical number and conveys the idea of generous mercy. However, Jesus ups the ante considerably (the Greek can be translated as seventy times seven [490] or seventy seven [77]). There is probably a reference here to Genesis 4:24 ("If Cain is avenged seven fold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold") and makes clear that we, as Jesus people, are in the mercy and forgiveness business.

The Lord then illustrates the principle with a parable. A man is in debt, owing ten thousand talents. One talent is about six to ten thousand denarii. A denarii is a day's wage. So it is at least six thousand days wages or about seventeen years wages. Multiply that by ten thousand and you have many, many lifetimes of debt. It is totally unpayable, the equivalent of a billion dollars for us. So the man is to be sold into slavery and his family as well. However, after begging for mercy (and making the ridiculous promise to pay it back if given time) the man receives gracious kindness and the Master writes off the debt. Then, the same man bumps into someone who owes him one hundred days wages (just over three months). However, he ignores the pleas for mercy and imprisons his debtor. In the end, other servants distressed by his cruelty go to the Master and inform him of this turn of events. So the Master confronts the man and points out the mercy which he received, the lack of mercy he demonstrated and the punishment. He receives what he gave the other, prison...

In English, the words sin and trespasses are negative. They refer to an act which transgresses. Debt, on the other hand, has a broader meaning. A debt is something owed. Sin focused western Christians can be so sin aware that we are at risk to overlook the blessings for which we are also indebted to God. We also have an unpayable debt of gratitude. Too often people view their minor sins as unworthy of a death sentence, even if God is perfect. It does not resonate that He cannot bear to be in the presence of flawed humanity. Perhaps, if that is how you think, it is easier to imagine God's problem with people who are so far in debt for blessings (as well as sins) not being grateful and graceful to others. Let's ponder.

Every breath is a gift, hundreds of gifts each hour, day after day. If you don't believe it ask someone with COPD or asthma or lung disease. Every breath a gift, a debt.

Each heart beat is a gift. Sending life sustaining blood throughout our bodies. hundreds of heart beats a day, day after day. If you don't believe ask someone unable to walk because of congestive heart failure or other heart disease. Every beat of your heart, a gift, a debt.

Is seeing a blessing? Yes the debt of eyesight.
Is hearing a blessing" Yes, every sound a blessing, a debt.
Is beauty around you a blessing? Yes, and each beautiful thing a blessing, a debt.
What of love, acceptance, laughter, companionship --- every act of kindness we receive, any good thing which enriches us, each moment and every blessing, another debt.

Food and drink, rest and sleep, painless moments and pleasures---each one, every second it lasts, a blessing, a wonderful gift, and another debt.

Even if I were sinless and could stand before God in righteousness, my debt would remain unpayable, because all that I am and all that I have is a gift. Existence is a gift. Thinking and feeling and being all gifts. What is my debt? Millions of heart beats and breaths. Thousands of sunlit days and gentle breezes, glorious rains and sparkling stars. Hundreds of loved ones to share my life journey. Memories of days gone by, good days (and ask those whose memories are gone what a blessing  memory is---more debts)

Yes, I owe God billions and billions. Many blessings, blessings I take for granted, blessings which I assume I should have. Everything I have I owe to God. All things. And He writes it all off. Every debt. Every good thing He has done, and every bad thing I have done. Written off.
Except, says Jesus... Except, as we pray... Except unforgiveness. Except the refusal to give mercy as we receive it. Except the rejection of His life in us. The one debt that must be paid by us is treating others with love and mercy. Unforgiveness cancels His gracious mercy. So says Jesus.

We are all debtors, debtors beyond imagining. Treat others debtors as God the Father has treated you. Forgive them their debts. Forgive as you have been forgiven.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On Saving Faith

I will not preach on the first reading but want to share a reflection on it.
[1 Kings 21 Naboth and the Acquisitive Monarchs
The Bible narrative has so much cross references and interconnection to Deuteronomy and other stories in Kings that it would make a delightful study, but I will share only one important insight in the language. The "vineyard" and the "vegetable garden" is connected to  Deuteronomy 11:10, which contrasts the life in Egypt with the blessings in the Promised land. The ancestral land is a sacred gift of God. The King's request is an insult and the verb for taking it is a conquest term.
The problem with governments is that they have power and huge appetites. Individual people cannot stand against the power of a government. God warned Israel that human kings would be self serving. The solution to acquisitive kings has been democracy, but in our own time we have seen that we debate the line between just taxation and robbery. Clearly, the exercise of power to take from another is under God's watchful eye, whether we be kings or citizens, and the just use of this power opens one to judgment.]

In Galatians 2:15-21 we read from Paul's master work on salvation by faith. I often find debates on Faith/Works to be confusing and frustrating. In the narrative from Luke 7:36-8:3 the confusion seems to melt away. It is a more helpful illustration. Jesus simply says, "Go in peace, your faith has saved you." I get this. It makes sense to me. Trusting Jesus for forgiveness, redemption, healing and rescue is to give our self to Him. Lets look at the story again:

A woman who had made a mess of her life comes to Jesus. She is a "public mess," the kind of woman who gets talked about around town. Simon the Pharisee was well respected. His mess was less public. All sin is sin, but some sins are louder than others. Public sinners are socially unacceptable and serve as scapegoats. Other folks project their own guilt upon them.

Behaviors are a fruit of our heart. Jesus says sin a malady of the heart which produces bitter fruit. For public sinners the bitter fruit is compounded by public disapproval and social rejection. Imagine her experience in that small village. Imagine her sadness, self loathing and despair. Imagine the power of Jesus' love setting her free! She wept with relief and clung to Jesus' feet with love because her guilt and shame were taken by Him. She trusted Jesus and gave herself to Him. It was a public act of trust, too. She had no private confession behind closed doors. Everyone saw the shocking public spectacle as she lay on the floor kissing His feet. She was forgiven so much that she loved very much.

Simon had been reluctant to provide hospitality. Simon did not recognize God's gift of salvation in Jesus. Simon had it backwards. He was scrutinizing Jesus! Simon doubted Jesus was a prophet because he thought Jesus did not know she was a failure. Ironically, Jesus was able to read Simon's thoughts and knew his heart. Simon was blinded by his own 'legal' righteousness. Perhaps Simon felt no need for mercy salvation because he thought he was fine. But Jesus says sin is a malady of the heart. Simon loved little because he did not know his own need for mercy and forgiveness. Simon loved little because he confused public respect and a reputation for holiness among people with worthiness before God.

The tragedy of Jesus ministry is that while He offers loving mercy to all, so many fail to seize upon it. Let's be clear, church people are not the villains here. Christians are not always self righteous. Pubic sinners are often reject Jesus. This story simply says. Trust Jesus. Give your whole life to Jesus, sin and all. His gracious loving mercy kindness and forgiveness are available. You are saved by faith. But faith is expressed in gratitude, generosity and love. Leave sin behind and follow Jesus. Don't judge others. Weep and cling to His feet when you need to.

But as the story ends today our story begins. The earliest church is twelve disciples and a bunch of women freed from demons and infirmities. And the women are providing for their ministry!That is us. Misfits who know the sin within their own heart. People who follow Jesus. People set free by Jesus. People who support His ministry--a ministry of proclamation, teaching, healing, exorcising and reconciling others. This is the loving response to all Jesus does. It is our story!


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sunday School Notes on Numbers 6:22-27 and Luke 12:41-48

Numbers 6:22-27 A Blessing
The Book of Numbers is foreign to us. The ancient (instruction) law is filled with many expectations which confuse and even offend modern people with its talk of clean and unclean, blessings and curses. We are outsiders religiously and culturally, which means we easily fall into the sort of judgemental attitude of an outsider. 

Early Christians (first six centuries) struggled with the place of the Jewish Bible in the church. This is the "book" (actually a collection of scrolls, so really a library!) which Jesus used to explain His identity. When Jesus "opened their minds to the Scriptures" these were the writings to which He opened them. These books, especially Torah, were the Bible for Jesus. The idea that Jesus "fills up" these books and that these writings "point to Him" is worthy of reflection. Those early followers of Jesus who rejected the Jewish Bible in total were condemned as heretics (false teachers). Likewise, those who failed to see that Jesus (the Son of God and Messiah King) had established the New Covenant (promised in the "Old") were also outside the walls of mother church. Jesus' ongoing conflicts with the Temple (in the priests and Scribes) must be factored into our own reading of Numbers (which is a priestly composition).

Numbers begins with narratives on the camps of Israel and in particular the division of clean/unclean and sacred/profane. The latter issues dominates the first four chapters. God is holy (people are not) so Israel must be holy to interact with God. Ritual purity (clean/unclean) has to do with keeping holiness unpolluted. The complexity of the ritual purity and metaphors to explain it are foreign concepts to us.
Today's short reading is found in chapter 6. Most of that chapter focuses on the Nazirite vow. This was a temporary vow of consecration. Acts 18 indicates Paul took such a vow.
[see for some discussion on this issue ]

The priestly blessing in 6:22-27  feels a bit out of place, though its place in the entire narrative may have been clearer to the ancient author (or final editor). It is powerful and beautiful and remains in use in many churches today. Friedman (Torah commentary, p.445) shares that in 1978 he saw an archaeological dig of iron age tombs which contained thin silver foil on which this benediction (slightly altered) was engraved.
"Bless" the Hebrew word barak (to bless, to kneel, very rarely (6x) means curse or blaspheme) occurs 330 times, the vast majority of times it is translated as bless. [The word 'sanction' can similarly be either positive or negative.] In Genesis 27:30-38, the blessing by Isaac is almost of magical power (he can not withdraw it from Jacob), yet in other places the word is little more than a greeting. One calls down God's power upon the one who is blessed, providing them with an abundance in life. To bless God has a related though different meaning which including praise and thanks. In Genesis the term barak occurs some sixty times; God blesses animals, then humans, then the seventh day. God blesses at creation. Then later, God is invoked as the one who blesses.
"Keep" the Hebrew word shamar is used to describe man's function in the garden. It means to watch over, guard, keep, tend and occurs over 460 times. One is reminded of God telling Moses that He has seen and heard Israel and knows their situation. The protective nature of God comes in parallel with His desire to bless and prosper.

The 'face' of God being 'light' is an image of His benevolence. One of the contrasting metaphors in the Jewish Bible is the idea of God "hiding His face" when angry. The face of God is chanan (gracious, 78x). The Christian contrast of Law and Grace is probably a misread of the Jewish Bible. Arguably, Paul is claiming that grace is actually the foundation of God's relationship to Israel and that Jesus is the fullest expression of what has always been the case. Psalm 4:7 repeats this image as an invocation to God for those who seek better days. In places to see the face of God is death (emphasizing His surpassing holiness) here it is life (emphasizing grace). This is a reminder of the metaphorical nature of all God talk!

The next verse reuses the same word, "face" which this time is paired with "shalom" peace. Once again Freidman offered a comment which struck me--that Numbers is the only book of the Torah with extensive narratives on war and it has the prayer of peace, too. What strikes me is the face of God is paired with grace and peace; these two words are the greetings found in the Pauline letters (echoing the customary Jewish and Greek greetings). Peace, as we often say, is far more than an absence of war, but rather the state of perfect balance and abundance in the God's kingdom. Such a blessing is indeed a blessing!

The final sentence speaks of God's name (sham, sounds like shame) being upon the people. 1 Kings 8:18ff some thirty times the word "Name of God" appears in reference to building a Temple to the Name of God. The Name of God resides in the Temple (Dtn 12:5; it started with the Tabernacle). The Name is almost a mediator of God's presence. Ps 22:22 (I will proclaim your name to my brothers in the assembly) indicates praise. Recall the commandment said to not take God's name in vain. Also at the Last Supper in John Jesus says (John 17:6, 12) "I have made your name known to them...I have protect them in your name that you have given me." The Name is an expression of one's personality and power. In fact, there is reason to believe that the mystical practice of speculating on the names of God dates to early times. The mystery of naming the Unnameable and the mysterious presence of God through His name underlie the idea that God's name is upon His people and this is connected to blessing.

Luke 12:41-48
The Gospel is a continuation of last week's reading where Jesus exhorted the apostles/people to stay alert and be on watch for the return of the Master. The note last week indicated that Luke and Matthew have parallel accounts which include numerous important differences. The first verse (41) which we see today is an example, as it appears only in Luke. "Peter said, "Lord are you telling this parable for us or for all?" In a three layered approach to the Scripture (past, present, future) this question can be seen as an inquiry in the ministry of Jesus, an issue in the early church at the time of Luke's composition and/or a starting point for contemporary reflection upon the meaning of the text for the church/myself today. Why did Luke add the question (or Matthew omit it?). One clue might be the shift in tense (Mt has present, Lk uses the future "who is the faithful servant the Master has (Lk 'will') set over His household). Commentators think that Luke is applying the teaching to church leaders in his own age, saying that the role of the leader is to be servants (following Jesus' example). The word oikonomos (compound word household +law= household manager, very often a slave over slaves) occurs four times in Luke (here and in a parable Luke 16) but in no other Gospel. However, its appearance in 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 ["This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy."], Titus 1:7 ["For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain"], and 1 Peter 4:10 [As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace] indicates that the apostolic age employed this terminology in reference to church ministry and church leaders.

What then is the 'parable' saying? The abuse of power and authority is an ever present temptation. What is true in our own time was even more true in the ancient world where the rights of citizenship were limited to very few and the vast majority of folks were either slaves or destitute poor. This story itself reflects that, a slave in charge of slaves remains a slave (think of Joseph in Potipher's house in Egypt). Jesus is arguably reflecting the dictate to love your neighbor as yourself in the parable. How the slave treats other slaves is judged by the Master. I think the parable is being used by Luke as an illustration of how the church must conduct business--those in roles of leadership must refrain from acting like the leaders of that day (and likewise we must practice servant leadership). The pomp and majesty of the church must always be in dialogue with the towel wrapped Jesus at table, the parable of the proper behavior of His followers making clear that He looks with disdain on those who act as rulers instead of servants.

What does it mean to be a church in preparation for the return of the Lord? How do we understand our mission as we live each day under the promise of "That Day."? Jesus makes it clear that we must think and act like those who expect the Lord to return. In other words, judgment is real. We will give an accounting and that accounting will in large part reflect our treatment of one another. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Wisdom, Limits and Trust

Ecclesiastes  6:1-12
Luke 12:32-40

Wisdom Literature is included in the Jewish Bible under the heading of "The Writings" (Kethuvim in Hebrew), which includes the Psalms, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, First and Second Chronicles and "The Scroll" (The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Eccelsiastes, Esther). The place of Wisdom Literature is much debated. Different churches disagree about the canonical status of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. The variety of materials makes it a loose collection at best!

The content and style of the Wisdom genre are different from Torah and Prophetic literature. There is a notable absence of reference to the central theological content of the Jewish Bible (Promises and Covenants with Patriarchs, Exodus and the Sinai Covenant). It might be said the the goal of Wisdom literature is leading "a good and the good life." A good life would be one where a person exhibits good manners and social skills, cleverness, artisan skill and a knowledge of the world and nature. The good life includes wealth, health, good social standing and progeny. Often times Sages reflect on experiential knowledge, so as one reads different books one encounters some tension. If Proverbs seems optimistic about the benefits of a good, our reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us that Qoheleth emphasizes the futility of a passing world. For me this is important for understanding what "revelation" is. God is found speaking to us in two books communicating through humans who are offering competing schools of thought. However, is this terribly different from the different religious orders in the Catholic church, or the various denominations which make up the Protestant world? Perhaps the particulars are always but one aspect of a whole too great to be encompassed by one school!

The Bible has compiled numerous works which seem to "contradict" one another. As one approaches Scripture as "Divine Revelation" our view of the trustworthiness of Scripture can take many forms, I have written about this many times in the past. It is simply not helpful to see the Bible as a series of factual statements and the declaration that there are no contradictions is based on a rejection of reality. The Bible is trustworthy, but it is true about a world full of contradictions, nuances and "on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand"! Quite obviously "look before you leap" and "he who hesitates is lost" can both be true, but circumstances determine which is true in a particular moment. The lazy man is reduced to poverty, but all poverty is not a result of laziness. Life can not be simply reduced to one size fits all pithy sayings.

Chapter 6 gives Qohelth's ruminations upon the worth of wealth and the "bad/evil" of the many who cannot enjoy what they have. Much of this chapter focuses on the lack of satisfaction people experience, in spite of their blessings. "Is that all there is?" crooned the singer, and many human hearts resonate with that experience. The Teacher then points out that in some ways to die at birth is to spare one the miseries of life. In the end we all end up in the same place, and our lives are spent trying to fill an appetite which will not be satisfied. In a later age, Augustine will say our hearts will not be satisfied until they find God. That never-filled emptiness of the soul is a proof of God for Aquinas. The insatiable human soul witnesses to a greater fullness in the Kingdom. This is not where the Teacher takes us, his beliefs probably did not include communion with God in the hereafter. Yet his insights are a valuable "pre-Gospel" meditation in that they remind us of the limits which we face in this limited human existence.

Luke 12:32-40
Jesus' teaching today provides an interesting complement to the Teacher's reflections. The Father has (eudokeo) gladly given us the Kingdom. There is a command not to fear. We pause to consider how often "do not be afraid" is commanded in Scripture. Fear is a great enemy of the Kingdom. 1 John 4:18 "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear." Luke 8:50 "Do not fear. Only believe and she will be saved." Fear then is a lack of trust and love. As we understand God's purpose (giving the Kingdom) and His disposition (with enthusiasm) we are able to be at peace to receive. As we read Friday in MP, Mt 14:22-36, Jesus told the apostles, "Take heart, is I; fear not." Bravery is a Christian virtue.

Luke 12:32-34 parallels Mt 6:19-21with a notable shift in emphasis. In Mt the exhortation is "do not store up treasure on earth" which Luke makes a positive injunction, "sell your possessions and give alms." The Greek word (works of mercy/alms) eleemosyne occurs eleven times in eleven verses, ten of those in Lucan writings. Luke has a focus on the poor which is consistent with the rabbinic faith of Judaism. Alms were considered salvific (much as the early church seemed to advocate) and the practice of giving to the poor was considered the most appropriate response to grace. The principle of generosity as gratitude (what you receive as a gift you give as a gift) is the concrete expression of faith and love. James 2:16 (what is the value of saying, "peace, keep warm and well fed," but do nothing to help?) is a common sense and practical expression of this. Both Mt and Lk conclude "where your treasure is there your heart will be." In other words, "you are what you value/care about deeply." Jesus seems to be emphasizing an organic or holistic understanding of the life of faith. Our faithful choices and behaviors cannot be sliced off from cognitive believing. Trusting God is not an emotion---it is a lifestyle choice.

Our reading ends with two parallel illustrations of preparedness. The first is the image of the wedding feast, with a focus on men awaiting their master. It is a far briefer version of the wise and foolish virgins. "Waiting for the Bride Groom/Master" parables easily lend themselves to becoming a metaphor. An attitude of expectant hope is a Christian duty. We must live each moment in anticipation. We are like Secret Service agents ever scanning and prepared. Jesus often warned against the numbing effects of daily life and worries. It is hard to stay focused. We often focus on the wrong things. We tell ourselves there will be time to set things straight. The future stretches before us as a promise of better things. The Christian must live each day as our last. The preoccupations and worries of the pagan, fallen world seduce us. What really matters? We do not have timers at birth which tell us how long we will live. God the Father has not revealed the day or time to His children. What then must we do? We return to The Teacher's reminder of the folly of storing up riches which cannot satisfy, which will all disappear. We hear Jesus, the Lord and New Teacher, tell us to value the riches that will sustain us---Kingdom treasures, the treasure of giving alms!

Jesus' view is: trust God, live in generous gratitude by helping the needy, and scan the horizon in anticipation of the Lord's coming. For those who argue this goes against "saved by faith alone" I would simply ask, "and what does Jesus think faith alone consists of?"

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Faith: 'Faithfulness and Trust'

Second Sunday after Pentecost
[cf. 1 Kings 18:20-39 and  Luke 7:1-10]

Elijah was a prophet in very difficult times. He performed amazing signs and wonders yet was prone to fear and depression (crying out for death!). The pagan queen Jezebel had exterminated many of Israel's prophets. Elijah stands alone, facing 450 prophets of Ba’al, and boldly asks: "How long will you go on limping between two opinions?" [will you choose YHWH God or Ba'al?]

The Hebrew word for limp is pasak and it occurs seven times total in the Bible. It occurs twice in today's reading, once to describe the indecision and infidelity of the Israelites, the second time (to mockingly) describe the prophets of Ba'al. (perhaps to contrast: “If one does not walk with God, one will limp with Ba'al.”)

However, the first three times that the word pasak is in the Bible (Exodus 12 in verses 13, 23, & 27) it is translated as "Passover." The final time it appears is in Isaiah 31:5 it has a similar meaning, God passes over and saves His people. Over half the time it is a salvation word! In ancient Jewish Biblical interpretation one model of scripture study is to look for the same Hebrew word in different passages and bring together the disparate readings to interact. This connection of 'limping' with pagan gods versus YHWH's 'pass-over' salvation is a revelation of God to hear and contemplate a deeper reality in the text. Are we embracing the pass-over salvation of God? Do we "limp" in uncertainty with other alternatives to God? Is our faith transforming our life into a prophetic ministry?

To stand alone is intimidating, yet strangely empowering. When you say "I am the only one left" you know that your only hope is God. Elijah--a struggling human like us--is strong here because He turns to God in faith; and God did not fail. The fire from heaven consumes everything! Elijah stands to witness to God’s holy Name in absolute trust; so must we. We are all called to stand for God, no limping, only faith! You yourself are called to such faith. As you stand alone (and with others) in this hostile world, you may be a disheartened, fearful prophet; yet if you turn to the Father in trust and call others to faithfulness, God will sustain you. Those times when you think, "no I can't," the Holy Spirit is saying “I can in you!” So trust the Holy Three God and be faithful!

In our Gospel today, however, it is the pagan who has faith in Jesus.  The Roman Centurian sees the world as structured and believes in authority. (we know that classic military personality!) He sees authority in Jesus. He sees himself as sinful and unworthy. He confesses this unworthiness and professes his faith. He trusts Jesus can do it and will do it.

Like him, we are unworthy sinners, but are we also convinced that Jesus can do all things? It is good to know you are unworthy to have Jesus come to your home. However, don’t simply focus on yourself, turn to Jesus. There is no other name given for salvation. He has the power and authority and your faith opens you to receive it and share it. Jesus came to save sinners, open to that salvation!

We need to stop limping and trust the Holy Three.
We need to stop limping and confess our Father is the God of Passover Salvation
We need to stop limping and ask Jesus to bring salvation.
We need to stop limping and let the Spirit be our strength

...and when you feel unworthy, remember you are unworthy. Everyone is unworthy. Jesus comes to us, not because we are worthy, but because He loves us. He lives in us, our body and soul, in the Word and eucharist! We are the Temple of God and earthen vessels filled with the Holy Spirit...

So stop limping. Believe. Trust. Receive Him. Give.