Thursday, December 27, 2012

What Then Should We Do? Belief as a Radical Approach to Understanding

What then should we do?


In my last blog, I laid my Christian belief over top of the emotions so normal and so faithful to witnessing the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Now, I want to start with my Christian belief as a radical (in the sense of getting at the root of the issue) approach to speaking about the shooting.


We may want to take the psychological/sociological approach to understanding. There is some benefit to this approach. Coming at the conversation from a psychological approach aids us in naming and defining what was happening emotionally with the shooter. Perhaps, at a certain level, this approach will make the situation understandable by naming and defining what was "wrong with him." There is a long step to make, however, from understandable to acceptable.


We may want to take the political approach. As with the psychological approach, there is some benefit to looking at the situation politically. In this methodology, the problem is quickly identified and addressed. The conclusion from the shootings in Connecticut is that assualt weapons brought about this tragedy, so we address assault weapons. In the political system, identified problems are addressed by laws. Laws will most likely be placed on the book against this type of weapon. Yet, I ponder the reality that there is already a law against shooting and killing another, and yet, that law did not stop the shooting from happening. The power of the law is coercion. There is a threat imposed. If you perform this act, this will be the consequence. We call it a deterrent. There is a sentence set down if the law is broken. The power of the law is external to the person, and does not change a person's character or address a person's mental and emotional state.


We may want to take the religious approach. Unfortunately, religious life has been dminished to moralism. The shoulds, should nots, and oughts of life are as far as religion may go. On one extreme of this moralism, I will be told that I should love everybody and should not have enemies. The pitfall of this moralizing--we need to learn to recognize and address our enemies for our own safety and security. On the other extreme of this moralism, I will be told the root of the problem is the day we removed prayer and the 10 commandments from the schools. Yet, these children came from faith communities that prayed and believed. And, we have seen shootings, in the past, happen in churches.


Certainly, we can also consider the genetic conversation, the decline of the family, the lack of civility, and so forth. While we are unified on the horror of this event in Connecticut, we are divided on how to get at the root of the issue. In that division, we choose one discipline over another. This leads to a dis-integrated society, unable to be brought back to itself.


Perhaps it is this dis-intgration that is at the root of the issue. A dis-integrated society is reflective of dis-integrated people--broken, hurting, diminished, desperate, angry, darkness dwelling people.


At the root of the word "crisis" is the moment that a verdict is handed down, and a person has to live with himself, his actions, and the consequences of his actions. Those filled with pain, rage, and darkness--dis-integrated--have a diminished capacity  to cope with that verdict and are most susceptible to the power in this world that seeks to destroy and undo the goodness of creation. In the moment of crisis, a person's pain becomes more important to him than the lives of others. He violently violates the lives of other people.


By laying my belief in God over my emotions and starting my thinking from my faith, I have a truth, an authority, and axiom that has the capacity to bring life back to wholeness. This truth re-integrates humanity and restores humans to their fullest capacity for good. This truth re-integrates humanity and restores humans through a promise of a time when all is set right. Until that time, while we wait, we believe.

What Then Should We Do? Laying the Truth over Our Emotions

What then should we do?


Our feelings are normal and they are faithful. The emotions of horror, sadness, fear, and anger are signs within us that something is wrong. Feelings of sadness, fear, and anger stemming from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School are normal and faithful for what happened to the children at the school was wrong.


Christians can allow room for the very real feelings of being a human. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, writes about the use of emotions in human community. He acknowledges the presence of emotions in human community, but cautions us about the workings of the heart. He writes that the essence of emotion is desire. These desires include "dark and impenetrable urges." Bonhoefer goes on to write about a spiritual community--at the core of which is truth. "The essence of spiritural community is light."


Over our emotions, we lay something larger than ourselves--the truth.


I believe that this world was created good and created for good. I believe that there is an order to this world that allows all that live within the world to thrive and flourish. I believe that all that lives in this world relates to all other living creatures. I believe that each part of this world has integrity in those relationships. And, most key, I believe that it is God who put this world into place and made the world for good.


I also believe that there is a force in this world that has at is core to work against the goodness of the world. This force strives in unpredicatable, uncontrollable, and horrifying ways to undo the order of the world. When this force has its way in the world, all that lives within the world cannot thrive but is destroyed. This force violates the integrity of other living creatures bringing about havoc, destruction, and despair.


This force can work through the natural processes, such as cancer cells. It can work through the natural processes, such as natural disasters. And, it can claim the heart of people whose lives are formless, void, and filled with darkness. This force can claim the heart of Adam, and bring about the death of so many people.


Foremost, I also believe this. Evil will not have the final word in life. The acts of violation, one person upon another, is not all there is. There is more. God will restore humanity and creation. This act of restoration is the work begun in Jesus Christ, and will be complete on the day of his coming. Death has no more dominion over us. This I truly believe.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Then Should We Do?

What then Should We Do?
Luke 3: 7-18

The question asked of John the Baptist in Luke is a question that comes easily from our mouths today.

If you were to take the story of John the Baptist from the gospel of Mark and from the gospel of Luke and lay them side by side, we would notice that Luke's account is greatly expanded. Luke includes the question, "What then should we do?" and John's answer to that question. Mark is writing to a community of believers who believed that the return of Jesus was not only imminent, but also immediate. Repentance is all that need be mentioned, for Jesus will return any minute. Luke is writing to a community of believers at least a decade later, who, while still believing in the imminent return of Jesus, do not see the return to be immediate. As a result, there is a need for an ethic. Out of that need comes the question, "What then should we do?"

The response to the question comes to people who have lived first hand the brokenness of human life. There are those who live in poverty. There are those who live under the power of extortion. There are those who are the victims of violence. The ethics that John puts in front of the listeners is one that counters the brokenness of society and brings healing.

What we do is shaped by our feelings.

As we sit horrified by the events in Newtown, Connecticut, we have strong feelings. They may be feelings of horror and deep sadness, feelings of fear, and feelings of anger. These feelings are normal and faithful. It is normal to be horrified by acts of violence such as this. It is normal to feel afraid for our own children following this act of violence. It is normal to be angry at the man who committed this crime and the situations that led to this act of violence. It is normal to have these feelings, and it is faithful to have these feelings.

The feelings of horror, fear, and anger are indicators that something is wrong. It is wrong for a man to enter an elementary school and shoot 20 children and 6 adults to death. It is wrong for parents to send their children off to school in the morning, not to see them again, but knowing their bodies are lying on the floor of the school without the sustenance of their love.

Our feelings are normal and faithful, for they tell us that there is something wrong. When we apply the question, "What then should we do?" I think we must consider this concept. Our feelings are normal and faithful, what we do with them, can make the situation better or the situation worse.

I can, right away, let you know one thing you can do. You can wrestle with God about this tragedy. Our ancestors in the faith, Abraham, Jacob, Job, the psalmists all wrestle with God. We even hear in the words of Jesus as he dies on the cross an echo of the words for Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Monday, December 10, 2012

Safe in Jerusalem--Humility, Courage, and Idols

Safe in Jerusalem--Humility, Courage, and Idols
Jeremiah 33:14-16

While we have the capacity to come to self-awareness, conversion happens through the power of the Word of God.

Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, asks his readers this question, "To whom do you show humility?" He goes on to write, "Get into the habit of examining fom God's perspective those things that sound so humble to men. You will be amazed at how unbelievably inappropriate and disrespectful they are to Him. We say things such as, 'Oh, I shouldn't claim to be sanctified; I'm not a saint.' But to say that before God means, 'No, Lord, it is impossible for You to save and sanctify me; there are opportunities I have not had and so many imperfections in my brain and body; no, Lord, it isn't possible.' That may sound wonderfully humble to others, but before God it is an attitude of defiance."

"Conversely, the things that sound humble before God may sound exactly the opposite to people...Never worry about whether what you say sounds humble before others or not. But always be humble before God, and allow him to be your all in all."

I want to consider the possibility that one can be humble and have courage at the same time. When our humility is directed toward God who has the power to change our hearts through the Word, we need not diminish ourselves or play ourselves down in the presence of people. In fact we may boast, as writes, Paul, but be sure that we boast in the Lord.

In the Lord, we have confidence and courage. It is that courage that allows us to discern when to say "Yes" and when to say "No." We can take the risk to claim what we believe, what we hope for, and how we choose to live in this in-between time.

We can take the risk to say "No" to that which is counter to the will of God. It is that courage that allows us to speak to the original concern raised in this series of blog entries-idols. We can say "No", at the risk of being offensive to others, to what runs counter to the will of God.

In our time, let us consider idols in this way: Idols are any expert, way of thinking, or practice that we believe will make everything work in our lives, give sense to all that happens, take away our fear and anxiety, and keep us from suffering or difficult moments.

Safe in Jersusalem--Can We Trust Our Hearts?

Safe in Jerusalem--Can We Trust Our Hearts?
Jeremiah 33:14-16

Jeremiah was a prophet. His prophecy--the problems God's people were encountering were a problem of the heart that led to a false trust in institutions and worship of idols. They did not have hearts turned to doing what was right.

In the previous blog, I explored the judgment of God which leads people to the opportunity to make things right. In this blog entry, I want to explore what keeps us from doing what is right.

Bernard Anderson, in his text on the Old Testament, writes that God's judgment comes "as a result of human recalcitrance, not as a result of the arbitrary, capricious wrath of the potter (God)...the imminent tragedy would be the consequences of their own actions."

Jeremiah tells us it is a problem of the heart, and speaks of the human heart in a number of ways:

In 4:18, we read "Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter; it has reached your very heart." However, we cannot quickly conclude that we will "feel the guilt" and want to make things right. For Jeremiah also teaches us this about the heart in 17:9. "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" [Both biblical quotes are from the RSV and used in Anderson's text.]

God's judgment is the examination of one's heart by the eyes of God who looks for truth (5:3). God is not one who exists in the sidelines, ready to be called upon when a need arises--a second or third string quarterback yearning for the coach's eye. God is transcendent and the judge of human motives and actions (23:23-24). We are seen by the all seeing eyes of God for whom we are, what we think, what we do, and what we let happen around us. Can we stand under the power of that gaze? I would say not. We cannot stand under the power of that gaze until God changes our heart. With a changed heart, we acknowledge our sin, repent of it, and set a course for a new way of living.

This new way of living rarely stands a chance in our time. The failure is that we have supplanted the judgment of God--which leads to repentance and a change of heart--with self-awareness.

There is a story of a man who had an ongoing problem of bed-wetting--nocturnal enuresis if you want the medical condition. He went through a long series of therapy, and happily announced to his best friend, "Good news! I have learned why I wet the bed." His friend, happy for the revelation made this conclusion, "Wow. So you are not wetting the bed any more." To which the response came, "No, I am still wetting the bed, but I now know why I am."

Self awareness may, or may not, lead to humility. Or, more spiritually difficult, self-awareness may lead to humility directed to the wrong person.  Humility, diected in the wrong way keeps us from doing what is right. We will look at humility in my next blog.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Safe in Jerusalem--God's Judgment

Safe in Jerusalem--God's Judgment

Jeremiah 33:14-16



Jeremiah was a prophet (as opposed to a bullfrog). His prophecy…the problems God's people were encountering were the result of a problem of the heart that led to a false trust in institutions and worship of idols. They did not have hearts turned to doing what was right.


Today, in part 2, we explore, God's judgment that makes doing what is right possible.


Using Bernard Anderson's text on the Old Testament, we read that for Jeremiah, God's people have an incurable sickness for which there is no healing ointment—no balm in Gilead (Jeremiah 8:22). The people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. Symptoms of this heart disease include:


-They put their trust in institutions such as the Ark, rites such as circumcision, teaching such as the Torah, sacrifice, and the temple.


-The social fabric of the day was torn.


-No one could be trusted. Jeremiah portrays people in 5:8 as well-fed stallions neighing for neighbor's wives.


-There was no concern for the defenseless victims of society.


-Blind nationalism.


-And, the practice of idolatry, sacrificing to false gods and in some places even sacrificing their children.


These are all outward signs of the sickness of the heart, which in the days of antiquity, was the seat of human loyalty and devotion.


God is to judge the people for this sin. Judgment. Now here is where we, in our time of emotional community instead of spiritual community (see Bonheoffer in Life Together) have a problem. In the faith lives of the people of antiquity, there was room to believe in a God who judges.


To further grasp this concept of the judgment of God, we must understand that God is righteous, and that God will not go against the divine nature. God is always true to himself. In the divine nature, we have both justice--reward for what is right and punishment for what is wrong--and we have mercy. These two opposites come together in the nature of God. When the two come together, we can catch a glimpse of the judgment of God. God judges to set things right. Judgment is the action of God that gives people the opportunity to set things right--for God will not accept the world in any other way.


In judgment, a person is truthfully confronted with what he or she has done wrong and shown the outcome (what the person has caused to happen) and the consequences (what the societal group such as family, employer, county has imposed as a result of the decision). The hoped for result is repentance, a change of heart with the chance to make things right. The heart, changed like this, is called righteous, in that it leads a person to fulfill the obligations of his or her relationships.


For Trinity Church, this notion of judgment is at the heart of our Criminal Justice System Ministry. In criminal cases, we have a person who has made a decision that had led to certain outcomes. At times, such as in the case of murder, those decisions have tragic outcomes. The person is confronted with what he has done wrong, shown the outcome (death of another person for example) and the consequences (life in prison for example). This judgment puts into place the opportunity for the person to make things right. We are also challenged, as members of society, to see that those coming out of prison are given the opportunity to make things right with places to live, jobs, a spot in worship on Sunday morning.


This process of correcting the heart appears to be too good to be true. Perhaps it is, as Jeremiah will teach us. Tomorrow, we will look at the deceit of the heart.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Safe in Jerusalem

Safe in Jerusalem
Jeremiah 33:14-16

My brother reached between the seat and the wall of the school bus. When he withdrew his hand, he had 40 dollars. Sitting next to him, I witnessed this miracle of abundance. Immediately, I began to plan how I would spend my portion of the money--an interesting assumption in itself. In my revelry, I was startled as my brother shoved his way by me, and to my horror, walked to the bus driver, handed the money to her, and announced that he had found the money between the seat and the wall.

The next morning, once again on the bus, we were sitting outside Newville Elementary School waiting for the bell. A young woman, impressive, because she was a high school student, boarded the bus. We watched as she spoke to the bus driver. After a brief conversation, the bus driver pointed to my brother. This young woman walked back the aisle of the bus, said "Hi" to my brother, and said "thank you" to him for finding her money and giving it to the bus driver. Then, she handed my brother a 5 dollar bill. The smile on my brother's face was huge.

There is great joy in doing the right thing and receiving both a thank you for that action, but also to get a reward. Would we, however, consider doing the right thing without a reward, and not even a word of appreciation from the other person? It would take, I think, a heart committed to and naturally inclined to do what is right.

Bernard Anderson, in his text on the Old Testament, captures the moment for Jeremiah. The king of Judah, Josiah, was bringing about great reforms among the people. These reforms were being carried on a wave of nationalism. The people believed themselves to be on the threshold of a new time, similar in scope to that of King David.

The people, however, are shocked b a series of event: King Josiah dies. The nation of Judah falls. Close to half the population is led in to exile. Into this moment, many prophets were flourishing among the people as they promised comfort, peach, and that soon all would go back to the good old days.

Jeremiah was not one of those prophets. His prophecy, the problems the people were encountering were a problem of the heart that has led to false trust in institutions and worship of idols. They did not have hearts turned to doing what is right. The situation in which they found themselves was a result of false hearts.

This week, we will explore:
            1. God's judgment that makes doing what is right possible.
            2. Deceitful hearts and the need for more than self-awareness.
            3. Humility and courage in the face of head wrestling.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause--Faithful Presence

Voting for a Lost Cause--Faithful Presence


"You are not far from the kingdom of God." These are the words of Jesus to the Scribe who asked him about the greatest commandment. Not far would seem to indicate close, but not quite. In this series of blogs, I have asked the question, "What are the stumbling blocks to presence in the kingdom of God?" I looked at three stumbling blocks that could be gleaned from the earlier verses of Mark 12. These stumling blocks are highlighted by Clifton Black in his commentary on Mark printed by Abingdon Press.



The stumbling blocks were:

            1. Religious ritual that leads to exclusion of others from the faith community.

            2. Trusting in government to change the world.

            3. Claiming that political parties and ideologies are holders of truth.



Earlier in Mark, Jesus affirms the Scribe by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." When we come to the end of Mark, we hear Jesus caution his listeners to beware of the Scribes who engage in religious practices in which the outcome is the exploitation of those most vulnerable. In this case, the vulnerable one is the widow. Following these words of caution, Jesus calls attention to a widow who is giving all her financial resources to the temple treasury. Counter to his caution of the presence of the scribes, Jesus lifts up the widow as one who embodies faithfulness--one who is in the kingdom of God.


The widow is reminiscent of the widow of Zarapheth. The prophet Elijah puts her life and that of her son in jeopardy by asking for a share of their final meal. In an act of faith, she concedes. From that day on, we read in the story of our people, her jar of grain never ran out and her jar of oil never went dry. We have the presence of one who embodies faithfulness whose life impacts the lives of others, unlike the scribes whose presence devours others.


Oswald Chambers writes, "One of the hardest lessons to learn comes from our stubborn refusal to refrain from interfering in other people's lives. It take a long time to realize the danger of being an amateur providence, that is, interfering with God's plan for others." Chambers speaks of acts of heroism which are momentary and bring public attention to the hero. He writes, "It's one thing to go through a crisis grandly, yet quite another to go through every day glorifying God when there is no witness, no limelight, and no one paying even the remotest attention to us...If you are properly devoted to the Lord Jesus, you have reached the lofty height where no one would ever notice you personally. All that is noticed is the power of God coming through you all the time."


Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, "Spiritual love...will not seek to agitate another by exerting all too personal, direct influence or by crudely interfering in one's life. It will not take pleasure in pious, emotional fervor and excitement. Rather, it will encounter the other with the clear word of God and be prepared to leave the other alone with this word for a long time. It will be willing to release others again so that Christ may deal with them. It will respect the other as the boundary tht Christ establishes between us; and it will find full community with the other in the Christ who alone binds us together."


The presence of one person, through the kingdom of God, who embodies faithfulness will have transformative power on those around them, without controlling, manipulating, rescuing, and consuming the other person.


This emobodied faithfulness has transformative impact on marriage relationships, parenting, work places, neighborhoods, churches, and governments.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause--Politcal Parties and Truth Claims

Voting for a Lost Cause--Political Parties and Truth Claims


"How far are you from the kingdom of God?" This question is based on the claim Jesus made of the scribe questioning him in Mark 12. Jesus states, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Not far appears to indicate, not quite there. That leads me to ask a second question. What are the stumbling blocks that keep this Scribe from the kingdom of God.



Today, I want to look at the third of three of those stumbling blocks--Political Parties and Truth Claims.



In Mark 12: 18-27, good religious folks called Sadducees ask a question about Jesus. The question is reminiscent of "what if" questions by children, who, at every answer, say, "Yeah, but what if...?" The Sadducees present this scenario. "There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married the widow and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her."



In Jesus' response, he redefined resurrection. C. Clifton Black, in his commentary on Mark printed by Abingdon Press, paraphrases Jesus’ response this way. Resurrection is not about which husband gets to dance with his wife in heaven. Instead, resurrection is an announcement that God has the power to remain steadfast to his people both in life and in death.



Now, it is important to remember that in Jesus' day, there was disagreement about resurrection. While the Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees did not. The battle between the parties was for who was right about this claim of resurrection. The battle--which party held the truth in their teaching.



We have the same battle today. Does one party--Democrat or Republican--have the claim to the truth? Does one ideology--Progressive or Conservative--have the claim to the truth? The answer, No. Neither the Democratic or Republican platform fully embody the Word of God. Neither those who are Progressive or those who are Conservative and their ideologies fully embody the Word of God. There is a depth, breadth, and transcendence about the Word of God that cannot be embodied in one platform or ideology.


In the Democratic system of government, the decisions our legislative bodies make are, as Robert Jenson writes in Christian Dogmatics, a functional solution, supported by the majority of people, that may or may not be moral. The battle between Democrats and Republicans; the battle between Progressives and Conservatives is not a battle for truth, as they would claim, but for the power to express, through the political system, their world view and approaches to understanding people, nature, and the cosmos.



In this, we find the stumbling block, blurring the lines between the battle for power and control to assert a world view and holding onto the truth which is not ours to hold, but is revealed to us--as Mark would write, "by the Father."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause--Government as the Solution

Voting for a Lost Cause--Government as the Solution


"How far are you from the kingdom of God?" This question is based on the claim Jesus made of the scribe questioning him in Mark 12. Jesus states, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Not far appears to indicate, not quite there. That leads me to ask a second question. What are the stumbling blocks that keep this Scribe from the kingdom of God?


Today, I want to look at one of those stumbling blocks--Government as the solution.



In Mark 12: 13-17, we read that some Pharisees and some Herodians approach Jesus. They offer their regards, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth." They then ask Jesus this question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" In one of the more commonly known answers from scripture, Jesus states--in accordance with the truth--"Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God's."



In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, C.  Clifton Black writes, "Caesar receives his due, but not more than that. For Caesar and God are neither identical nor inter-changeable."



In the way that the question was shaped, Jesus was offered a limited choice between theocracy or worship of the empire. The choice appears to be clear, a faithful person will choose a nation that has God at the helm. The assumption is that a godly nation will be a prosperous nation. The richness of Israel's story says otherwise. We see the rebellion of Israel in calling for an earthly king similar to the nations around them. As a result, Saul was crowned king leading to a subsequent "civil war" between Saul and David. At times, God's people suffered at the hands of other empires, but at other times, God works through seeming "ungodly" nations and leaders, such as Cyril, even using the term Messiah for them.



No system of government fully embodies the reign of God.  Neither a government nor a governmental leader at all times and in all places speaks for and acts on God's behalf. We can lean toward a pietistic resignation of our situation, or we can lean toward political idolatry. To each of us, Jesus names, in sincerity and truth, our stumbling block. Government is not a replacement for the reign of God. It is the breaking in of the reign of God that transforms the world and impacts the situation of each person.

Voting for a Lost Cause--Tripping over Ritual

Voting for a Lost Cause--Tripping Over Religious Ritual


In my last blog, the question was asked, "How far are you from the kingdom of God?" This question is based on the claim Jesus made of the scribe questioning him in Mark 12. Jesus states, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Not far appears to indicate, not quite there. That leads me to ask a second question. What are the stumbling blocks that keep this Scribe from the kingdom of God.



Today, I want to look at one of those stumbling blocks--chiefly, religious ritual.



Previously, in Mark 12, Jesus had good rapport with the Scribe. In Mark 12: 38-40, it appears that Jesus reverses course. In this text, Jesus offers warnings about the Scribes. They like to wear long robes in public, assume places of honor, and offer long winded prayers for the attention it receives from others. The question becomes "Why?" Why does Jesus reverse course. To get to that answer, we must go to the gloss [added on commentary] on the teaching he made on the greatest commandments. Jesus adds this, "This greatest commandment of the Torah is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." Whole burnt offerings and sacrifices are what priests offer in the Temple.



We find 2 pieces that can move us along in the answer. First, while teaching in the temple, Jesus asserts that the Messiah is Lord of David--claiming the authority of the Messiah. Earlier in Mark, Jesus defines himself as the Messiah. Second, the first verses of chapter 13 of  Mark has Jesus announce the destruction of the temple. With the destruction of the temple, and the claim of the authority of the Messiah, Jesus calls for a change of devotion. Devotion is moved from the offerings and sacrifices offered in the temple to a life of discipleship, following Jesus as the Messiah. Being a disciple and following Jesus is loving God with all heart, soul, strength, and mind. Loving God completely leads us to love others as dearly as those who are most precious to us.



This is the stumbling block. No religious ritual, no matter how honorable, can come close to fulfilling the commandment of loving God.



It is important for us to recall that Israel not only believed that God spoke to them, but that they could stand in the presence of God. Standing in the presence of the Almighty One, the Holy One required the purity of the supplicant. Around this desire for purity came the practices--rituals of cleansing--that prepared a person to be in the presence of God. The risk of practices--of rituals--is that the practices take on more meaning than the reality to which they point. The priority of purity, over being in the presence of God, is the potential pitfall. An establishment gathers and is created around the need for purity. Establishments soon strive to be self-perpetuating. Supplicants become seen as means to support the ongoing work of the establishment. Ritual practices, then, take on a call for conformity, requiring its adherents to fulfill the obligations of the establishment. Those who do not are diminished as unclean and unfaithful--sinners to use theological language.



Religious practices create a population of people that are homogeneous. Religious practices regulate by determining who is in, who is out, who is to be honored, and who is to be shamed. In doing so, those who are invited to stand in the presence of God, may be ostracized for not fulfilling the obligations of the establishment--in the case of this text, the temple cult.



In our own faith communities, we are challenged to be ask, "Do our worshipping communities look like the world in which we live?"



Follow the rules, or follow Jesus. One is close to the kingdom of God, the other is part of the kingdom of God.


Biblical commentary resources are by C. Clifton Black in his commentary on Mark, published by Abingdon Press, Nashville.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause

Voting for a Lost Cause


As a disclaimer, I want to point out that this title for the sermon on Sunday, November 11 was chosen prior to the election on November 6.


The text for the sermon is Mark 12: 38-44. I want to propose that at the center of this text is the question, "How close are you to the kingdom of God?"


Leading up to verses 38 to 44, we read in chapter 12 of Mark that Jesus is approached by good religious folks like the Chief Priests, Elders, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. Finally, we have a scribe approach Jesus. Unlike the trap questions from the other religious folks, this scribe asks a genuine question, "Which commandment is first of all?"


Jesus answers, first by  quoting the Shema, "Hear, O Israel". In his answer, he speaks of One God. Israel is to show the fullness of love to God with heart, life, strength, and intelligence. Then, Jesus makes this connection. Given to loving God fully in this way leads one to love strangers in the same way one loves his or her dearest friends.


His answer is orthodox and consistent with Rabbinic writings of later decades. The scribe compliments Jesus' answer.


To the scribe, Jesus responds, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Thus, the root of the question asked above, "How far are you from the kingdom of God?"


If he is not far, but still not there, what is the stumbling block?


So, to answer the question, "How far is God's kingdom from you?" we must use our spiritual imaginations to recognize the stumbling blocks. These stumbling blocks can be discovered by reviewing the questions asked of Jesus by the religious leaders earlieer in chapter 12 of Mark.


The blogs this week will look at these stumbling blocks:


1. Religious ritual, intended to prepare one to be in the presence of God, can become a way of keeping the faith community insulated from the diversity of the world.


2. We can fall into the trap of believing that the American system of government is the fullest expression of God's kingdom, but can the two be considered identical?


3. Our ideological battles can lead us to conclude that our world view is the fullest expression of the Word of God. Put into play in the political system, these ideologies have the capacity of conviction through the law, but not conversion of the heart.


We will conclude the week by looking at the move from sitting and critiquing systems, to being a converted person whose faithful presence changes the system in which the person finds him or herself.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Where Is Heaven? When Is Heaven?

Where Is Heaven? When Is Heaven?


What do we do when all human capacity is exhausted? Are we willing to allow for the possibility that a divine power breaks into the reality of our systems? In the story of our people, the divine power that breaks into our systems is called God, LORD, revealed through Jesus Christ. With the presence of God, there is a metaphysics. For us, that metaphysics is called heaven.


The commonly held belief is that heaven is a place, and thus we ask, "Where is heaven?" When we ask that question, too often our reflection is upon: Who gets into heaven? What must one do to get into heaven?  Will those with whom I disagree or those that offend me be rejected from heaven? We ask what is right, what is wrong, and replace faith with what Professor Willie Jennings from Duke Divinity School calls "ethical oughts."


I want to put forth the possiblity that heaven is a time as well as a place. We can then ask a second question, "When is heaven?" At the point of asking that question, we can follow up by asking, What will God do when heaven happens?"


Some scriptural references to the concept of heaven being a time as well as a place include:

-Now is the acceptable time.

-Now is the day of salvation.

-The day of Lord.

-Jesus, "I go ahead [future] of you o prepare you a place."

-The phrase eternal life connotes an aeon, age, epoch.

When we add the image from revelation of the Holy City being established on earth, then the vision for the future is when God's kingdom is established here on earth.


When we allow the possibility of heaven being a time, we allow room for the following ideas:


Walter Brueggeman writes that "God is unwilling to go the whole way with creation...God cannot tolerate this possibility for God has too much at stake in creation...God's grace continues to mean something." See Genesis 6: 7 and 8 for an illustration of this belief. So, while, in times of disaster, we can believe all has come to an end, there is yet "to dawn a more glorious day" of restoration.


If the future holds the power of God at work in restoring creation to something even greater that before, then we must ask ourselves, "Do we look far enough into the future?" In the midst of the passion, despair, fear, and angst of a calamity, our sight lines are short. Perhaps, we do not look far enough into the future. Perhaps, then, we can be motivated by a vision of the future more so than a fear of the future because we are no doing what we ought. Inspiration can come through vision instead of motivation through despair.


Allowing room for heaven to be a time as well as a place opens up the possiblity for theology and science to have a conversation. Rev. George Murphy writes of what is called the Final Anthropic Principle. The principle states, "Intelligent information--processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out." Murphy goes on to write, "Those who espouse FAP assume that life will evolve toward ever greater knowledge and control of the universe...The most extreme of these ideas is Frank Tipler's 'Omega Point' theory, which claims to predict, purely on the basis of physics, the coming into being of an omnipotent God and the resurrection to eternal life of all who have ever lived in the ultimate future of the universe."

When we ask "When is heaven?" The answer is the source of hope and inspriation.

Where Is Heaven? Guilt and Shame

Where Is Heaven? Guilt and Shame.


In Psalm 39, we read And now, what is my hope? O Lord, my hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions and do not make me the taunt of the fool. I fell silent and did not open my mouth, for surely it was you that did it. Take your affliction from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand. With rebukes for sin you punish us; like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us; truly, everyone is but a puff of wind. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears.



In a blog earlier this week, I lifted up the story of our people that holds that God, as ruler of all, has conquered the power of chaos. Yet, we also read that on occasion the power of chaos rears its ugly head. At those times, our people look evil in the eye and challenge God to intervene.



Our ancestors in the faith give room for another understanding of God and the power of chaos. This understanding holds that God has conquered the power of chaos, and at times of dire necessity, God uses the power of chaos for divine purposes. Chiefly, God uses the power of chaos as consequences for the sins committed by God's people. This belief is expressed powerfully and painfully in the excerpt from Psalm 39 used above. And, God uses the power of chaos to test people. This belief is expressed in stories such as that of Job. Walter Brueggeman raises this concept in his work and draws the conclusion that "Israel can live with this view of God and is neither in wonder or embarassment about it.



I urge readers to visit some of the following passages from Scripture: Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 45:7; Job 40: 15-24 and 41: 1-34. Also, please see Leviticus 26: 16, 23-25, 28.



In our time, this concept of God is terribly difficult to accept by many, and I fear, many times pushes people away from God. To help unpack this belief of God using the power of chaos, I want to draw a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt, in scripture, is a legal term and connotes that a person has broken the law and stands convicted of that crime. Shame, however, is a feeling that is ever present in human life. Shame can accompany a guilty act ( I am both guilty of breaking the law and ashamed of myself for doing so.) but, shame can also speak about the overwhelming feeling we have that takes responsibility for actions and consequences that are not our fault. (I witness a man slip on ice on a sidewalk at distance from where I am standing and ask myself repeatedly througout the day why I did not do more.)



The poet, Wendell Berry captures the essence of shame.


The times are disgusting enough,

surely, for those who long for peace

and truth. But self-disgust

also is an injury; the coming

of bodily uncertainity with age

and wear, forgetfulness of things

that ought to be remembered,

remembrance of things best forgot.

Forgive this fragmentary life.



If we accept the story of our people, we have a deeper expression of faith that gives us the strength to face making difficult decisions that include risk to self and pain to others. We have a deeper expression of faith that helps us live the reality of one person losing a house in a hurricane while ours is still standing.


The most difficult challenge this belief poses is a challange to human capcity. It challenges the trust we have in our systems and our capacity to cope through ingenuity, resolve, and mustered inspriation. This belief poses the possibility of a power, a force, a divine presence that is outside the system, that breaks into the system, and has the strength to restore the system. In doing so, we are reminded of our weaknesses, our failures, and our temptation to put trust in powers that cannot conquer death. We, as Christians, call the divine presence God. The metaphysics that come with this belief is called heaven.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Where Is Heaven? A Divine Wrestling Match

Where is Heaven? A Divine Wrestling Match


Along with a faith life being portrayed as a runner in training and a boxer conditioning, the faith life is portrayed as a wrestling match. Jacob takes on God in an all night wrestling match. Our faith story shows us times when we wrestle with God.


When turning to our faith story, we find a people who trust that God is ruler of all creation. God has subdued the power of chaos. Yet, at times, this chaotic power rears its ugly head. In its wake, we find destruction.


Walter Brueggeman speaks of this power in his book An Unsettling God. Much like a strong man who has been captured but continues his taunts, the power of chaos threatens creation. This power, Brueggeman shows, can come into being through the action of an unfaithful leader. In the story of slavery in Egypt, we read about the actions of Pharaoh leading to a series of plagues that grew in severity.


The image of the strong man appears also in Mark 3: 20-30. It is as if a strong man breaks into our home. We are able to subdue the strong man, but have not gagged him. He sits, restrained but taunting, hoping that his taunts will bring about fear that leads to some action on our part that would set him free.


Now there is a tendency among some to blame the destruction of Hurricane Sandy on choices people or leaders in our country have made. Before the accusations land on a person or certain people, I want to call our attention back to the section of Mark in which we speak about the strong man. Mark follows this account with the challenge of the blasphemy of the spirit. Simply put, be cautious of calling that which is good, evil and that which is evil, good.


Perhaps we should ask, "What do we want this storm to be?" An answer that leads us toward that blasphemy warrants caution.


Brueggeman also speaks about the suffering of people due to the power of chaos. This concept is found in many Psalms of Complaint. Psalm 30: 7-11 reads, "While I felt secure, I said, I shall never be disturbed. You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains. Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear. I cried to you, Lord; I pleaded with the Lord, saying, What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; O Lord, be my helper."


We hear the words of Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus himself picked up this cry at his death on the cross.


Appears, at times, that God is inattentive. In those moments, the power of chaos shows forth. God's people have done nothing wrong, but suffer from the inattentiveness of God.


At those times, God's people "take God on." Listen to the words of Mary, after the death of Lazarus, "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died."


There is room to wrestle with God. We wrestle with God in trust. Trusting that God will hear our complaints and cries for help, and be our helper. Throughout Scripture, we find a God who is not distant, but hears the cries of His people.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Where Is Heaven? Disruption!

Where is Heaven? Disruption! On Sunday evening, October 28th, I felt the muscles in my shoulder blades become more tense. This tightness slowly went from my shoulder blades, to my shoulders, to the back of my neck. The end result, a "Skuller." A skuller is what my mother in law would call a bad headache. Stretching my neck muscles, using a heating pad (which made me feel quite geriatric), and Advil did not solve the problem. Only after I awoke two mornings later, Tuesday morning, when my family had come through Hurricane Sandy unscathed, did I notice the tension wash away. No trees had come down. The electricity stayed on. With eletricity, the sump pump continued to work, so no flooded basement like during Irene and Lee--with 3 feet of water in my basement. So, while the shoulder and neck pain may have been due in part to the last minute clearing of the gutters on my house, more than likely it was related to the anticipated disruption of Hurricane Sandy. I trust in a world that is orderly and a world that has integrity. In its order, the world can be described in scientific terms, classified, understood at smaller and smaller levels. Ecosystems, at their ideal, allow all parts of the system to be fruitful. In integrity, there is the point where one life form ends and another begins; there is the point where water and land separate; there is a point where membrane separates one cell from another. Yet, this orderly world, in all its integrity, finds itself at times disrupted. Chaos exerts itself over order. The integrity of one form--body, land, cell--is violated by another. Hurricance Sandy was such a disruption. We can certainly turn to our remarkable human capacity to weather the storm. I am thankful to our local television stations, WGAL, for their outstanding warnings, coverage, and follow-up from the storm. I am thankful for government officials and first responders, leaving care of home to a spouse, to watch over others. I am thankful to colleagues who open their buildings for emergency shelter. We have the capacity as humans to be prepared through anticiaption. We have the capacity as humans to ride out the storm. We have the capacity as humans to recover from the storm. As people of faith, with this remarkable human capacity, we have a metaphysics that is laid over these disruptions. To grasp this metaphysics, we go to the stories of our people as recorded in Scripture. These stories call to light many thoughts, but this week, I want to focus on the following: First, in this world, while we believe God reigns supreme, there is a force--Karl Barth calls is the force of nothingness--that brings about chaos from order, an undoing of creation. Our relationship with God is shaped by the power of this force. I will take a look at this in Tuesday's blog. Second, much harder for us to hear, Scripture shows us that at times, God, Himself, in the source of the undoing and move toward nothingness. This very much challenges our modern mindset which clouds the difference between being guilty and being ashamed. I will take a look at this in Wednesday's blog. Third, our metaphysics is commonly expressed through what we call heaven. The questions quickly becomes, "Where is heaven?" I want to consider the possiblity that heaven is not only a place, but also a time--an eternal age, if you will--and how that may impact our response to the disruptions of order and integrity in our lives. I will write about this in Thursday's blog. Fourth, if heaven is a time, as well as a place, then there are new avenues opened for our understanding of the present moment in our lives. I will take a look at three possilible avenues in my Friday blog--1. The final outcome of the world, 2. Looking far enough into the future, 3. A connecting point for theology and science.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

All Things to All People: The Challenge of Inclusivity

TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN In this sermon, I will use the term progressive in lieu of liberal, in that liberalism more accurately refers to the revolutionary moment begun in France and became the philosophical force behind the American revolution. The battle today appears to be between the progressives who advocate what is called inclusivity--welcoming of all people and behaviors--and the conservatives who are accused of exclusiveness—bringing judgment upon those who differ from themselves in ideology. I think that inclusiveness and exclusiveness are two sides of the same coin--neither of which is fully representative of our Christian identity. GOD WHO IS RULER OF ALL AND MERCIFUL Psalm 145: The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. AND. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is mysterious. Our human language is limited in its capacity to describe God. One attempt to capture the essence of God is to bring together opposite expressions, such as the ones from Psalm 145. 1. God is ruler of all and gives commandments that must be followed. 2. And, God is faithful and the divine mind will change with the plight of humans. Conservative Christians capture the sovereign nature of God well, and point to the need to follow God's commandments, but at the expense of the merciful nature of God. Progressive Christians capture the faithful nature of God well, and point to the need to be merciful as God is merciful, but at the expense of the sovereign nature of God. Rooted in each ideology is fear. Both ask, "What must we do?" If the proscribed actions are not performed, chaos. Three sections of the brain: Reptilian (earliest part of the brain that we share in common with reptiles), Mammalian (later development that is shared in common with other mammals and includes the capacity for compassion) , and Human (the most highly developed that includes logical capacity). 1. Higher the level of anxiety, the more the primitive section of the brain dominates. 2. Reptilian section of the brain dominates. 3. This is part of the brain is concerned with survival. 4. Fight or Fight Instinct Kicks In. Either vitriolic aggression against others in violent forms (fight), or taking offense/being offended and using that as an excuse to walk away from the problem. PROTESTING FROM THE PIT Psalm 40 Paraphrase. "I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry. He lifted me up, out of the Pit, out of the miry clay. I will sing a new song." (U-2, "40") Notice the sections of the paraphrase. Pit. Cry. Act of Uplifting. New Song. The metaphor of Pit is used in scripture to capture a moment in the life of a human being in which a person is in a desperate situation. Progressive. The problem of acceptance. The Pit, instead of being a place where one is found unjustly, is seen as a condition that calls for empathy. This empathy accepts people for who and what they are. The end result, their situation is acceptable. That is just the way I am. Max Lucado raises a concern about this function. If we have a broken arm, we do not say, that is the way it is, and refuse to seek out a doctor. Conservative. Highly moralistic. The Pit, instead of being a place where one is found unjustly, is seen as a punishment for wrong-doing. Thus, allow for the ranting of pundits who claim the problems of a person are due to her political leanings, immoral lifestyle, or even punishment by God for the sinfulness of life. Both replace protest--demanding from God, that God do what God has promised. In doing so, block the possibility of the situation being set right. SCARCTY IN A TIME OF ABUNDANCE Psalm 85. "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good and our land will yield its increase." Notice the abundance in this psalm. Compare this notion of abundance with that of scarcity found in our current ideologies. For conservatives, we are at the point where every decision we make is about survival. If we don't recapture what made our country great, we will fail. If we do not hold onto core values, all will collapse around us. Fear is the missional energy that opens the door to Tea Party candidates; those who over-arm themselves; and those who stockpile necessities in their homes for the day that might come. For progressives, we are at the point where compassion has been replaced with empathy. Empathy is less about seeing the suffering of the other person and walking with the person in the journey to restoration, and more about one's own inability to live with the feelings in oneself brought on by the struggles of others. Thus, the need to rescue, helicopter in, save the day. Empathy needs people to be weak, so that they may be continually rescued. This need for weakness--I only feel better about myself if I am helping another person--is a theology of scarcity. Progressives claim they love all people, but there appears to be a lack of love for conservatives and others with whom they disagree. The missional energy in either one is rooted in scarcity. CHILDREN OF GOD, IDENTITY OVER INCLUSIVENESS OR EXCLUSIVENESS Our inheritance as the children of God leads us to a new place theologically. In our anxious need for dichotomy, we adhere to the standard categories of progressive or liberal, and thus, inclusive or exclusive. In doing so, we diminish our capacity to function as human beings, and at the best show no higher function as animals or reptiles. As children of God, we have the capacity for wisdom. In Scripture, wisdom is the capacity to see the world with its limits and its possibilities. A guard against legalism and puts into check any notion that refuses the restraint of values. Imaginative capacity to take positive initiatives for the well-being of creation. Counters the immaturity of following one of these ideologies, which diminishes the capacity of human beings. (Bruggeman, An Unsettling God) As children of God, we have the capacity to protest. In protest, the human being treats ones troubles as serious, and unacceptable, refusing to be silent, instead raising a cry to the Lord, a protest to God that demands to be taken seriously. God hears these cries and restores the fortune of the person. In thanksgiving, the person expresses full trust that God has acted. (Bruggeman, An Unsettling God) As children of God, we have, in abundance, all that we need. Jesus tells us, "I came so that you could have life, and have it abundantly." What moves and motivates and is our missional energy is the abundance of the kingdom of God. And, we, as God's children, are inheritors of that abundance. These are free gifts, given by God, to us, not out of any sense of worth rooted in pride of place in life, hubris of being ideologically pure, from a better race, out of a higher socio-economic class, or from a certain country. These gifts are cemented and promised through death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Give to Washington, what is common to Washington, the two sided (perhaps two faced) coin that is divineness cloaked in inclusiveness or exclusiveness, and give to God, what comes from God, a new age, where all people live in the presence of God and justice flows down like an unending fountain. Amen.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ability and Opportunity

Mark 14: 3-11
Ability and Opportunity
Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trust in a dying man. In some Christian traditions, it is the practice of worshippers to bring their Bibles with them. That is not commonly our practice, but if it were, I would have you open you Bibles to Mark 14. The beginning of this chapter reveals a practice Mark uses throughout his text. Mark takes 2 stories, splits the first story in 2 sections, and places the second story in the middle. In today's text, Mark takes the story of religious leaders seeking a way to arrest and destroy Jesus, splits it in two pieces, and places the story of a woman anointing Jesus with costly perfume. This combination allows us to seek the difference between a woman who trusts Jesus with all she has and men who seek to destroy Jesus.

An Unnamed Woman Always Remembered
At the home of Simon, a man cured of leprosy by Jesus. An unnamed woman enters, opens a small container of ointment/perfume worth the average annual wage of a blue collar worker. This act, Jesus states, is an act that prepares him for his burial.

The act of bathing an anointing normally happens after death, a before burial. John Grisham, in the Chamber, writes of a mother, whose son wrongly accused of murder, is executed by the state of Texas. Her son's body is brought back to the local funeral home. The mother asks all to leave the room, and she slowly and tenderly bathes her son's body, as she did when he was a child.

I have seen wives bathe the bodies of their husbands after their death, to prepare him for burial.

We do not know the name of the woman who performed this act for Jesus, neither do we know her life story, but what we do know that her act was consistent with what Jesus had been teaching his disciples--he was to die and be buried. While many rejected this prophecy, it appears as if this faithful woman trusted Jesus, and took him at his word.

In the Gospel of Mark, trust does not typically come after an amazing sign of miraculous act, but trust precedes the act, and receives the sign or wonder as an act of God's kingdom breaking into the world.

The unnamed woman always remembers reveals the ability to trust.

Looking for the Right Moment
The story wrapped around the story of the unnamed woman, always remembered, is the story of the search for the opportunity to destroy Jesus, and the willingness of Judas to play the role of betrayer.

In the Gospel of Mark, there is an ongoing give and take about those who are insiders and those who are outsiders in the kingdom of God. We read about the call of the 12 disciples of Jesus in Mark, from a large crowd. But the list of those called insiders concludes with the mention of Judas, and his description--the one who will betray Jesus.

The desire of the religious leaders of Jesus' day to destroy him is revealed as early as the beginning of chapter 3 in Mark. The desire to destroy Jesus, appearing in the beginning of chapter 3 comes at the end of a conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders over the issue of sin. The argument starts with the question of who can forgive sin, and concludes with Jesus redefining sin. Perhaps the destruction of Jesus is rooted in how sin is defined.

In every culture, there is a purpose and there is a personal need for naming what is wrong. There is a purpose in naming what is wrong, for it allows for reconciliation; for justice; for healing.

There is also a personal need to name what is wrong--a personal need that may not serve a larger good, but is self-serving. There is a personal need for sin, to name what one believes others are doing the go against the will of God. There is a personal need for laws against what we think is wrong. Consider the moments when, offended by the actions or words of others, you have said, there should be a law against that action. There is a personal need for diagnosis. To have a diagnosis can take away a person's responsibility for creating the situation in which they find themselves. Parents, not wanting to see their own contributions to their child's problems, can actually be relieved with a diagnosis.

Jonathon Haidt, author of "Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion," writes, Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to ge started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning...if you thing about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas--to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to--then things will make a lot more sense.

Perhaps the personal need to define what is a sin, what is illegal, and a diagnosis is a later construct to justify one's self, and an attempt to control what happens next.

Is not control the opposite of trust?

Trust, Control, and Money
Fascinatingly enough, these two stories about one who trusts and one who destroys through control have repeated references to money. Money is mention three times. We first hear of the value of the ointment of nard that is being used to anoint Jesus. We also hear of the statements of those around the woman, claiming she could have sold the ointment and given the money to the poor. Finally, we hear about the money Judas was offered to betray Jesus.

When reading scripture, we can unwittingly connect place in assume that commonly used phrases come from somewhere outside of scripture, such as "A house divided against itself cannot stand." This is attributed to Lincoln, but comes from scripture. Or, "Those who do not work, do not eat," which is attributed to John Smith, but comes from scripture. We can also place into scripture lines like, "God helps those who help themselves," which is not in scripture. And, we can adjust lines from scripture, such as "Money is the root of all evil." The actual line is, "The love of money is the root of all evil." That line is helpful to our conversation today.

In our modern day culture, money represents power and control.

Lottery. When lottery jackpots get large, more people buy tickets. Many will say, "If I win, my life won't change much. I will still go to work, but it would be nice to know that if I got tired of my boss, I could quit, and not worry about money." There is a level of control in that claim.

Giving. I once had a parishioner who rarely gave money to what he was asked to give to. For instance, if there was a death in the parish and the family indicated that memorial contributions were to be given to the music fund of the church, he would give the money to the mission fund instead. Surface wise, sounds honorable that he is striving to help those in need. Here is the curiosity, this man was the chairperson of the mission fund. He had control of the money he gave away.

Good Reasons. We have this troublesome line in the text from Jesus, "You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me." This offends our sensibilities related to acts of charity for those in need. Perhaps this line challenges our assumptions. Perhaps giving to the poor becomes a good reason to avoid giving up control of our money. Each time I receive my paycheck, I sit at my desk and write my offering check to Trinity Church, believing that I give first to God through the church, before I do anything else with my money. Then, I write checks to the community organizations in Lancaster that I support--organizations that serve those in need.

Money, I believe is mentioned, because how we use our money reflects our desire for control over our lives and over the lives and actions of others.

My cousin recently told me about a colleague of hers who had adopted at son when the child was a year and a half old. Any attempt that he and his wife made to draw the child close to them, and hold him met with complete resistance. In fact, they had to be carefully that in his efforts to push away from them, the child did not fall. One evening, at a church meeting, as the man was speaking, he saw, in the corner of the room, his wife, sobbing with tears running down her face. Concerned, he went toward her to see what was troubling her. Then he saw it, the child had stopped fighting, and was resting his head on his mother's heart.

Control gave way to trust, through the patient, loving, and trusting presence of the child's parents.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Not Understanding. Not Asking. Not Getting Along.

Mark 9: 30-37
Not Understanding. Not Asking. Not Getting Along.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Not Understanding. Not Asking. Not Getting Along. In speaking of personal surrender to God, Oswald Chambers writes, "I became thrilled with something infinitely greater than myself.

Not Understanding
In the Gospel of Mark, this is the second, of three times, where Jesus defines the nature and character of the Son of Man. He re-states, "The Son of Man will be betrayed, killed, and on three dies, be raised from the dead." This definition finds resistance among those closest to Jesus, for it does not match their expectations.

From the post-Easter perspective, we claim that we would get it. Yet, we must remember that to believe after having heard it came true is much different than believing, before it came to pass.

Yet, even in the post-Easter perspective, the Christian tradition has struggled with defining the Son of Man and what he requires of us. There are, for example the Nomian and Anti-nomian struggles. The Nomian--the commandment driven, legalistic, law centered approach to understanding God and discipleship. The Anti-nomian--the love oriented, suspend the rules out of love for the other, acceptance through love approach to understanding God and discipleship.

We are an eclectic smattering of both approaches. I have my definitions, my beliefs about God. I prefer to think that the values that I draw from these definitions are reflective of who God is, but it is possible that I have chosen values that serve me well, and then laid them over God, expecting God to conform.

Gerhard Forde speaks of these definitions as masks we place over God. God, with divine omnipotence, power, all authority, is an overwhelming burden of judgment upon us. We mask God. Our definitions of God are the masks.

Jesus, as he offers the definition of the Son of Man, as one who is betrayed, killed, and is raised from the dead, unmasks God. When God is unmasked, we are terrified.

Not Asking.
We hear that the disciples, not understanding, were afraid to ask. Too terrified to ask.

What does this mean?

Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Lord's Prayer, offers this comment on the petition of "give us this day our daily bread."

God provides without us having to ask, yet it is good for us to ask. It is good for us to ask, for then we are reminded from whom our daily bread comes. God is the source of our very lives and all that sustain our very lives. God provides for us all that is good for us, including his Son. The God of whom we are afraid is a God who is good.

Not Getting Along.
Holding onto and defending a definition of the Son of Man, too afraid to have God revealed and unmasked in any other form, the followers of Jesus find themselves with a narrow definition of discipleship. This definition of discipleship is rooted in the paradigm of winner and losers. When defining discipleship, the argument turns to "Who is the greatest follower, most consistent with the definition of Son of Man?"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "Violence stands condemned by its failures to evoke counter violence." I would say that the word anger could be inserted in place of the word violence. Anger is condemned when it fails to bring about an equal or greater level of anger in the other person. If you want to convince a person, who has done something wrong, that he or she is right, then be angry with him or her. At an expression of anger, the person who has done something wrong will find all of the physical and emotional systems engaging, be offended, and become convinced he is right. Blow your horn at another driver who has illegally turned in front of you, and the other driver will yell at you. Being angry at another convinces the person he is right.

In that, we find the age old division of humanity--those who hold positions of honor and those who are reduced to shame. The desired position is honor, of being right, of recognition, of contentment with self. In order for one to be in a position of honor, more than likely another person will have to be shamed, relegated to a place of being wrong, opposed, and labeled undesirable.

Were there to be a power that would overturn this carnal desire? Where the first would be last and the last would be first. Where life brings about death and death brings about life.

Through the Word of God, God's righteous kingdom is established on earth. A new world order is established. As God is unmasked in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God redefines human life, and life for all creation. All eyes are on God, as all people stand in the same place, on the same plane, in the unity of faith.

Arts and Music
I do not have to work very hard to make a case that we live in a divided time, full of disagreements of what is right and wrong. I do, however, want to point out a symptom of a divisive time that we may not normally consider. In divisive times, parts of our culture that unify people are victims of budget cuts. One area of cuts is the area of the arts. I want to speak in particular about the musical arts today.

Most of us, if asked to recall a picture in our minds of community responses after the 9-11 attacks, would remember the Congress gathered together on the steps of the Capitol building. And what is it they did there? They sang God Bless America. I think that the more poignant piece of that moment is not asking for God's blessings--which is most desirable--but that they were joined in song. Male and female, gay and straight, hawk and dove, democrat and republican. Music, especially collective singing, unifies.

In communal singing, much the same in instrumental music, people full of their own oddities, can, for a brief moment, be on the same page, be of one voice, in full harmony with one another. In that moment of harmony, we experience beauty. Perhaps, in that moment of beauty, our imaginations will be inspired to something greater than ourselves.

Surrender to God, wrote Chambers, is to be thrilled with something infinitely greater than myself.