Friday, December 28, 2012

Digging In Our Heels On Controlling Gun Violence

Chicago just recorded its 500th homicide this year.  The NRA and other similar groups are spinning issues around controlling gun violence as being about whether or not people have the right to protect themselves.  And the beat goes on.......

Here are some thoughts to chew on:  
  • If you can't shoot well enough to protect yourself with a six round clip, you certainly don't shoot well enough to be spraying bullets everywhere with a 30 round semi-automatic
  • Why not have a "gun show" law that says, "Pay for the gun.  We'll do the background check.  Once you pass, we'll ship the gun to you; if you fail, your money will be refunded within 30 days."  Sounds simple doesn't it?
  • Do you really want to be out deer hunting in a blind next to a hunter who's got a 30 round clip?  You rarely get more than a single shot at a time with a deer anyway.
  • Remember the last time you were in a wreck?  Remember that moment of 'freezing'?  Multiply that X10 and you get a firefight with live ammo.  Even folks who spend lots of time on the range but aren't trained in dealing with a firefight situations (as military and police are) freeze, shoot wild, and occasionally shoot the wrong person.
I'm not going to take on the whole gun control issue.  People should be able to hunt.  If you think you need a handgun to protect your home.......I disagree, but hey! Not the biggest issue for me.  But I think we could make huge strides in preventing massive gun violence by doing three things:

  1. Limit the amount of rounds in ammo clips for civilian persons and make it illegal to own a gun that can be changed into an automatic weapon.
  2. Reform (not abolish) Gun Show laws.
  3. Deal with (and this is probably the most radical change) the mental health crisis in this country.  State as well as Federal budgets have cut so far back on mental health as to be almost non-existant.  Waiting lists are long and the first line of defense is to give you a pill.  Where do you find someone to talk to?
Now I'm really going to go to meddling.  The Church needs to re-examine its stance on pastoral counseling.  Many of us were taught that "3 sessions and then refer" as though it were an edict handed down from God.  Perhaps we can't afford that edict any more.  Maybe we need to make sure more seminary graduates are equipped to deal with the traumas and crises being faced in their communities.....since finding referrals that people can afford is getting harder and government support for mental health is dwindling.  Great strides have been made in what are called Short Term Psychotherapy or Short Term Counseling models.  They don't require that pastors become Analysts or spend 4 years doing therapy with some one once a week.  They do require learning basic counseling skills and some ability to do focused work in a problem oriented fashion.  This, coupled with the ability to spot the persons that need much more advanced help might go a long way in helping to (at least temporarily) affect the mental health crisis.

While I truly believe that the day will come when we "beat our swords into plowshears and our spears into pruning hooks,"  I also believe that doing our part in bringing about the Kingdom where "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" calls for some action in bite sized chunks.  Perhaps the suggestions above will spur folks to think about what those might look like.

Can you imagine a year without a mass killing?  That would truly be a Happy New Year.  What can we do to make that a reality?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Views of Peace


This past Friday, a week after the Sandy Hook shootings, the NRA, through their Exec. Director, Wayne LaPierre, offered their thoughts on how to keep our children safe by stating, "the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun."
 
We should not be suprised that this is their argument; not because it's the NRA, but because it's an idea as old as the Pax Romana.  The emperor Hadrian was probably the first to use it, saying, "peace through strength, or failing that peace through threat."  Ronald Reagan used it.  Conservative politicians and groups continue to use it.  The NRA's version appears to be "peace through firepower" but it's close enough.  It's one of the historic arguments for how peace is achieved.
 
Another historic argument has been lifted up....again....in response to the shootings; one could think of this as the "Peace Thru Purity" argument.  It says that the absence of peace, the presence of violence, the horrors of natural or human caused disasters is that humankind has offended God and God, in retaliation has rained down violence and destruction.  This argument didn't begin with James Dobson or Mike Huckabee.  It is as old as the Pharisees and the Essenes.  These groups believed that the disaster of Roman occupation....taxes, census, Roman control....are the result of failures of purity.
 
These two views are often merged in militant religious expressions.  These expressions can be found in nearly every religious group-including christians.  The idea is that 'we will use our strength to force our definition of purity on the rest of folks and thus bring peace and the golden age of blessing.'
 
Both of these views are represented in some form in Luke's account of Jesus' birth.  The census calls for Joseph to go to his ancestral home (I know Luke probably got the date wrong, but he's making a point that should be clear: God uses even the evil oppressor for God's own purpose).  And the shepherds are people whom the Pharisees and Essenes would have seen as unclean because they dealt with the blood and feces of life in the wild and could not observe the rituals of washing and purification are the ones that get the first message that the baby king has arrived.  You'll notice that Luke doesn't wave a giant flag to point to them, he is much more subtle.
 
Luke's account offers a third view however.  It is the view of the vulnerable God who comes with neither armies nor demands for purity.  It is a God whose birth is announced to 'unclean ones' who will journey to see this same God laid to rest in a feeding trough.  That was the sign they were given as proof that they weren't having some sort of group psychosis induced by moldy bread eaten at lunch out in the fields....."you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger." 
 
God's peace shows up in the strangest of places doesn't it.  I stumbled across an expression of it today while sitting in my car waiting for Carole to finish some shopping.  I was looking at Ted Talks on my Android and stumbled across this:
 
 
The "Peace of God which passes all understanding" comes to us in countless ways and expressions.  The trick is to be able to see it.   Like the shepherds.  Like the folks on facebook in Israel and Iran.  It won't come with "swords loud clashing, or roll of stirring drum."  It won't come with demands for purity and isolation from an impure world.
 
God, through Jesus, our "God with us", has joined us in vulnerable impurity.  God makes our world pure, not by aloofness, but by joining us in the blood and flesh of life.  God continues to call us to join God in acts of vunerability....not acts of force and violence.
 
Our God as Christ has joined us in human form.  We celebrate that coming.  Merry Christmas.....and Shalom.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Response To Sandy Hook Tragedy

Last weeks tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT has left many in our country reeling in grief, anger, and disbelief.  For days I avoided writing anything about it because I wanted to be able to grieve without trying to talk about how to "fix" anything.  Last night's televised Memorial Service at which President Obama spoke was a big help to me in being able to do part of that....though I believe I'll be feeling the pain of this for a long time....as well many people of faith.

Another temptation is to remain silent because of the complexity of the issues involved.  But if we stay silent, there will be no movement toward solutions; merely knee jerk reactions and diatribes.  So here are my thoughts.  They are not, by any means, my final thoughts or total answers.  But they are an attempt to share ideas....ideas that I am also sharing with three of the primary Baptist denominational leaders in my area in an effort to do more than just beat my gums about these problems (particularly the ones concerning mental health).

Theologically there are two things I'd like to say: 1) God neither caused nor condoned this tragedy.  God wept at the death of these children and suffered with them; 2) as the Body of Christ we are called to work toward the Kingdom here ("may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven") and that includes concrete actions that resemble what we believe Jesus represented to us about that Kingdom in His life and death and resurrection.  Building on those beliefs I would suggest the following:

There is no room in our society for the private ownership of assault weapons....none.  You don't need them to hunt.  Their purpose is combat.  If you want to learn to use one, maybe there should be ranges where you can go shot one there.  But an assault weapons ban and one on semi-automatic weapons makes a lot of sense.  Do crimes occur in countries with gun control?  Of course; but you only need to look at the statistical comparisons to know that we can lower the risk of repeated tragedies with some reasonable limitations as to the kind of firearms we're willing to have out there....cause you can be sure that if they're out there, they're going to fall into the hands of folks you don't want having them.  If you don't think this is a faith issues, ask yourself, "are there assault weapons in the Kingdom of God?  Is the Kingdom of God a place where mass murder is made easier by the availability of such weapons?"

Next, and frankly closer to my own heart, is the issue of mental health.  We need to be careful not to let the politics of mental health get in the way here (and trust me, every clinician I know can tell you horror stories about the politics of mental health care, diagnostic fights, insurance claims). 

My call is for local clergy to become more proficient and involved in their contact with families dealing with mental health issues.  If 'Joe Smith' has cancer, the pastor will early on become involved in being present to 'Joe' and his family around his illness.  We need to train and support local pastors in how to reach out to individuals and families struggling with mental health issues of all kinds.  Persons being cared for in community, persons not isolated in shame and/or lack of understanding are much less likely to hurt themselves or others.  They  are much more likely to be able to live productive and healing lives in communities that resemble the Kingdom where the "trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations" are reflected in the compassion and understanding of both pastors and lay persons.

Will getting to either of these goals be easy?  No.  Are the answers complex? Absolutely.  But we are called, as God's people in this time and place to action.  Grieve, weep, act.  Otherwise, we will be like the group in the Book of Revelation to whom the Angel of God said, "because you are neither hot nor cold (because you do nothing) I will spew you out of my mouth."  In other words...or failure to act, to risk being wrong or making a mistake, is nauseating to God. 

So let's come together.  Let's risk-even risk being wrong-for the sake of the Kingdom and the God who calls us to be representatives of God's love and will.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas Wasn't All That "Christmas-y"

I was driving into work this morning.....the road was clogged with traffic; a pick-up truck ahead of me kept belching dark smelly exhaust; and the temperature is way above what it should be normally in December.  Add to that the fact that my wife's schedule and mine are working at cross purposes so that the usual Christmas things haven't been done yet....and you'll understand why I was remarking to myself as I drove that it just doesn't feel like Christmas at all.

Then it hit me:  it probably didn't feel very "Christmas-y" that first Christmas either.

There they are...an oppressed, over taxed young couple with a pregnant wife living in an occupied country.  They've had to make this trip to meet government requirements; and finally, the place they were going to stay is so crowded that they wind up bedding down with the livestock and placing the newborn in a feed trough.

The point I'm trying to make here is that beyond the obvious conversations that we usually have this time of year about how Christmas has become so over commercialized that we have to struggle to regain its religious meaning (it has); we also miss the starkness of the moment when God burst into our world and took up bed space in the room reserved for the family goat.

When we grasp this particular truth about Christmas we may be able to really re-claim the meaning beneath the tinsel and the sappy songs about babies that don't cry.  That truth is that God show up when we least expect it.  God shows up when things are at their worst.  God shows up when God's people are at the end of their rope.  God shows up where and when our need is greatest and we are driven to our knees by the anguish of day to day live in horrible situations.

I've been asking myself this morning: if Christmas had happened today, in 2012, where would Jesus be born?  The Sudan?  Ethiopia?  Maybe in one of the rag picking shack towns between the U.S. and Mexico.  Or maybe......????  Give it some thought.  Thinking about that one question has altered some of my sense this morning about this whole Christmas-y thing.

So as we send the cards, buy the presents, decorate the tree....let's remember what God jumped into the middle of when Jesus came, and that God is still jumping into the middle of the messiest and the lowest and the most difficult....because that's where we need God most.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What About Mary

It's a story that gets told ever year.  Over and over and over.  There's Mary; there's the angel; here comes Jesus.  Then come the questions: what does the Bible mean by "virgin"?; was there really an angel?: what does it matter?

My answer to these questions (at least the first two) is "I don't know."  I have some thoughts; I have some things that I personally believe; but they aren't things that I would say are requirements for others to believe for them to be Christian.  My answer to the question, "what does it matter?" is a little different.

From our best guesses and what we know about the customs of the day, Mary was probably 14 (give or take a year either way) when the angel visited her.  Since it would have been very unusual for a strange male to speak to a female in that time, the response that "Mary was very perplexed" is probably putting it lightly.  On top of that, of course, is what he told her.

Now we could look at the fact that the word "angel" in Greek means "messenger."  And without stretching too far, we could say that "a messenger was sent to Mary to tell her about her upcoming pregnancy and the birth of Jesus."  Except, of course, the fact that Luke tells us that this was Gabriel, who shows up in Daniel as well as Luke, and is identified in all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha'i) as an archangel who serves as the messenger of God. 

Now my friends who say that the things in scripture that do not pass their test for Enlightenment understanding are 'metaphors' would say that speaking of the angel Gabriel is a metaphor for times when a particularly powerful message is recieved that one attributes to God.  Now while I would personally disagree with this definition,  that argument is for another time.  What I think we would agree about is that Mary was sent a message.  A message so profound that it was delivered in a fashion recorded only three times in scripture (to Daniel, to Zecheriah, and to Mary).  Joseph doesn't get the message from Gabriel, but in a dream.  So let's agree about the quality of the message.

Now, what about Mary? 

I think that there are three things (yes, I'm probably going to have a 3 Point Sermon on Sunday) that can be said about Mary and this message.  The first is that Mary was open to hearing it.  For whatever reason, and we have no idea really as to why, Mary listened.  The second is that Mary said, "yes" to what was being presented to her.  She heard the message she was open to, and she agreed to what was being asked of her.  The third thing is that she was radicalized by it.

One only has to read the passage in Luke 1:46-55 to realize just how radicalizing this experience was.  The Magnificat is a political/religious statement.  On the lips of a 14 year old female of an oppressed people, it is a radical folk song.  The music of Peter, Paul and Mary (wonderful and revolutionary as it was) pales by comparison.

You can probably see where I'm going here......and where I'll be going on Sunday.  How open are you and I to experiences in which God comes to us with a message...a call....a request....to be part of what God is doing in the world?  Do we say "yes" when that message comes?  Or do we hedge our bets, look around for a better offer, try to find  'safe' way to live out a radical calling?  And finally, do we let that calling transform our view of the world?  Do we let us change us in ways that go to the root of our being?

Even if one only believes in the metaphoric interpretation of Mary's encounter with Gabriel; there is a reality behind the metaphor that we are forced to respond to.  There is a reality to the call.  Our response cannot be merely metaphoric.  It, like Mary's, must be willing to give birth to something brand new.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Waiting A Looooonnnnggg Time

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is a time of waiting.  It can be a time of preparing; of stopping all the frantic running around; of straining to listen.  Or it can be another time that we just rush through on our way to 'Somewhere Else.'  In this case, 'Somewhere Else' is probably Christmas. But what kind of Christmas will our frenetic behavior carry us to?  The one where Christmas evening is a big sigh of relief, a stiff drink, and a "whew, I'm glad that's over"?  All too often, even for clergy, this is where we land.

But there is a different way.  It is to think about this time.....at least for a few minutes each day.....as a time of anticipation.  It's possible that Zechariah and Elizabeth-the couple in this week's scripture-can be some help to us.  That scripture by the way (I'm straying from the Lectionary this week) is Luke 1:5-25. 

They are "getting on in years" a phrase that doesn't necessarily make them candidates for the local synagogue's "Adopt A Grandparent" group, but does indicate that they are past normal childbearing age.  They're good people.  Luke says that "both of them were rightous" which is his way of saying that the lack of a child wasn't the result of some sin (which was often thought in that day).  And...as was usual in that culture....the 'fault' for this fell on Elizabeth, who was barren.

Zechariah is a priest.  Not the kind of priest  that got to hang out all the time in Jerusalem; but a village priest.  There were about 800 priests in the division of Abijah of which Zecheriah was a member.  They got chosen to go burn the incense in the temple by casting lots.  I could be a once in a lifetime experience.

One has to wonder what impact being childless has on this couple.  How did it affect their relationship?  What was it like for Elizabeth when she her the gossip behind her back?  What was it like for Zecheriah, laboring year after year as priest in the village and not getting his most fervent prayer answered.  It was this unanswered longing that colored the texture of their lives.

You really can't blame Zecheriah for wanting a sign when the angel comes to tell him he's going to be a daddy....for asking "how will I know this is true?"  Mary is going to ask "how can this be?" a little while later.  But for some reason Gabriel doesn't seem to like Zecheriah's question and strikes him dumb (this means, by the way, that he can't give the benediction when he comes out of the sanctuary of the Lord).  Elizabeth goes into seclusion until she starts to show....don't want to be announcing you're pregnant until it's really obvious if you're known as 'that nice barren lady down the street.'  Both of them, it seems, want to see some proof of the promise.

But that waiting has a positive side as well.  It is time to dream; to do the "what if it really is true?"  To think and ponder, and maybe to change a little as we anticipate and then believe in what is coming.

What is the pray of longing that colors the texture of your life?  What if Advent was a time to ponder and wait and believe and maybe be changed.  What if we extended that longing into the spiritual rooms in our life?  What if we found time to be 'struck dumb' in the middle of the mad shopping season.  Would we be changed?  Would the Christmas Eve service feel different?  Would we meet the Baby Who Is God in a different way?

On this first Sunday of Advent, maybe going into a little seclusion, and being struck a little dumb, isn't all bad.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thinking About Luke, Thanksgiving, and Preparing for Advent

We talked in the last blog about who Luke might have been and why he wrote his version of the Gospel the way that he did.  This week, I'd like to talk about theology that guides Luke and why this is the lens for us to look through at the Gospel. 

Last week we talked about the ways in which Luke uses the concept of hesed: when "the one from who I have no right to expect anything gives me everything."  This is most clearly shown in Jesus' parable of the Lost Son which Luke records in Luke 15:11-32.  Some people have referred to this as the "Little Gospel."  In it many believe that we have the clearest picture in Jesus' teachings of His view of God and of the salvation/Good News that He came to share with us.

One of the things that Jesus tells us in this parable is that there is no distance so far; no sin so great; no betrayal so foul that God is not still waiting,  looking, longing to see us coming a long way down the road....and to run out to meet us.

Jesus tells us that if we want to know what God is like; look at the face of the father, robe lifted, running down the road (something no self respecting potentate would ever do), throwing dignity to the winds to throw his arms around his son.

This Thanksgiving many of us will return home to our own version of this parable.  We will go to fractured families where the conflicts between siblings go back for years-perhaps decades.  What would happen if we let this parable guide us?  What if those of us who are parents chose to imitate the father in this parable; welcoming home the child who has caused us the most pain, with love and celebration.  How might living out this parable change our lives?

Finally, how might looking at Advent, the preparation for the coming of Christ, through the lens of this parable change the way in which we prepare for and experience this season?

The love of the father calls each of us as God's children to respond to one another-whether we are the sibling who betrayed and deserted family and community, or the sibling who stayed and worked and tried to be good-with love and compassion....a response rooted in our awareness that we are all loved, all being redeemed, all being made whole.

Take the time to read the parable again.  Think about how it is your story.  Let it shape your Thanksgiving, your Advent, your life.  Here the Good News.
And Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thinking About Luke-Part 1

On December 2 we will begin the season of Advent and the new lectionary year which, for those of you interested in these things, is Year C.  This means we'll be moving from a focus on the Gospel According to Mark to the Gospel According to Luke.

I sometimes think that we 'bust in' on Advent in the middle of the holiday season, and we're so caught up in the Advent/Christmas stuff-not to mention the life that includes shopping and cooking, and planning for parties and out of town guests-that we don't stop to look at the way that the year's Gospel writer approaches what Jesus' coming means, what His living means.  From what 'angle' or perspective did the writer look at the Jesus tradition, and to whom was he trying share it?

Over this past year as I've been studying and preaching from Mark, I've developed a new and strong appreciation for this writer.  He wrote what was the first Gospel; he didn't pull any punches about the disciples and their difficulties understanding what Jesus was up to; and he reminded us over and over that Jesus is calling us to do something-that faith isn't just about some cognative belief system.  He wrote this to an economically disadvantaged, struggling early Church.  If I were to gather all of my study into a single theme it might be: "In Jesus the power of God has been turned loose in the world. You may not understand it all, but follow on the Way anyhow."

Now we move to Luke, and the way Luke tells the good news is different.  Luke's perspective is different.  It's not that he disagrees with Mark; in fact Luke apparently drew a great deal of what he know from Mark.  The rest comes from a collection of Jesus' sayings (sometimes called "Q"), and Luke's on gathering of the oral and written traditions about Jesus that were making the rounds at the time.  He apparently spent a great deal of time talking to eye witnesses as well.  Luke is obviously in love with the story of Jesus; he spent such energy chasing it down.

Some other things are worth noting.  They will help us understand this Gospel better.  Luke also wrote the book of Acts, which means that he wrote 1/3 of the material in the New Testament.  Luke was a gentile; this means that he is the only non-Jew to have written an account of the Gospel.  He may have been (this is debated, but I won't go into all the argument here) a doctor-he certainly has an eye for medical conditions and language.  Building on that, Luke may also have been a slave.  Many of the most respected Roman doctors were slaves; Augustus's personal physician was a freedman (former slave) named Anonius Musa; the Romans promoted the idea of recruiting doctors from the slave community until the end of the first century when the emperor Domitian issued a decree forbidding any more slaves to study medicine-presumably because the profession was becoming overloaded with slave doctors.  This possibility would shed great light on Luke's concern for the marginalized and his focus on how Jesus related to those who were outside the circle of acceptability.

Continuing to build on the stuff above; when Luke writes about the genealogy of Jesus, he goes all the way back to Adam.  For Luke, Jesus is the savior who comes for all humankind-none are left out, none are ignored.

Finally, in Luke's Gospel, Jesus is experienced as eating and drinking with folks....this is God come to fellowship with humankind.  There is an intimacy here in the experience that does not happen in any other Gospel.  And it is an intimacy undeserved and un-looked for.  Micheal Card, one of the commentators I've been reading, goes back to the Old Testament word hesed to describe this.  God uses this word to talk about God's Self again and again in the Old Testament.  Card says that the best translation of this word that he has found is "When the  person from whom I hae a right to expect nothing gives me everything."

This is Luke's good news.  The One from whom we have a right to expect nothing, has come to fellowship with us in Jesus and to liberate us from everything that marginalizes us or seperates us from God and one another.  Over and over; in story and parable, teachings and sayings Luke will drive this point home.

Listen to the Advent scriptures thru this lens, this filter, and see what happens to the way you hear.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Taking Risks

The election is over.  But, as the pundits are reminding us, the balance of power is pretty much the same as it was before we went to the polls.  And the tasks ahead are truly monsterous.  No....this is not going to be a blog about the election; what I hope it, and this Sunday's sermon, are going to be about is about our responses in the face of what appear to be overwhelming obstacles.

The scriptures for this coming Sunday are Mark 12:38-44 and 1 Kings 17:8-16.

The story from mark is one that many of us grew up hearing in Sunday School: the story of "The Widow's Mite."  I remember the picture in my Sunday School classroom of this little old woman, bent with age, dropping her two small coins into the wooden treasury box in the Temple.  Jesus, we're told, said that, "she gave the most of all because she gave out of her poverty everything she had; while the others gave out of their abundance."

Now there are many commentators who would point to the picture of this woman giving her last two coins, and Jesus' scathing denouncement of those who "devour widow's houses and for the sake of apperarance say long prayers" (v.40), and say that this story is a condemnation of a social system that left widows marginalized and forbidden to manage their own affairs (thus allowing their homes and belongings to be devoured).  I don't disagree with them.  I think this story IS that....but I don't think that's all it is.  At one level it is a judgement story about any economic system (one in this case supported by religious rules and an ecclesiastical system) that drains the life out of the poor.  And we need to hear it as a judgement about our own economic system and our personal economic behavior to the extent that they victimize (a sin of commission) or ignore the needs of (a sin of omission) the vulnerable and the marginalized in our American society.  So in this sense, it is a judgement story for all of us.

But, at another level, it is also a story about courage, faith, and taking risks.  Most of us know some version of this widow.  She may have next to nothing; but she'll drop what she has into the offering for victims of Sandy.  Maybe she's often been duped by televangelists....but the sin is theirs....for she genuinely wants to see the hungry fed and the Good News preached.  And she has faith.  Think about the kind of faith it takes to drop your last pennies into the box.  I'm not talking about faith in a reward...this isn't about manipulating God into making you rich by give your last money.  In fact, we're told nothing about what happened to this woman afterward.  What did she do?  Did she starve?  Reward is not the point of this story.

Then there is the story of the Widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings.  She's literally getting ready to cook the last bit of meal she has, feed herself and her son, then figures that they will die of starvation.  Elijah....in what I've always thought was a HUGE bit of hutzpah, says, "first make me a little cake"...now mind you, he first says, "don't be afraid"...but still.  And what is amazing is she does!
In the middle of her desperation, she takes the risk.

My point is this: many of us often feel small, at the end of our rope, like nothing we can do will make any difference.  We look at ourselves and we think, 'there is absolutely nothing I can do that will make a difference.'  These passages challenge us to take a second look; to take a risk; to move out in faith that our efforts-no matter how small we think they are-will make a difference.  They also challenge us to remember who we're taking the risk for.....it is not for the Powers That Be, for the political structures or the religious ones, it is not even for ourselves (though there is a way in which we will benefit)......we take these risks in loving response to the God who has called us....regardless of how small we may feel...to be partners in the New Creation.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Remembering Where We Came From

This Sunday I return to Broadview where I'll be preaching through Christmas. I appreciate being there with folks that I know and enjoy worshipping with.

  I also always enjoy having the opportunity to preach over a period of time because I get to follow the themes that I see emerging in the Biblical text as opposed to doing a "one and done" kind of sermon.  It's like making a journey with the congregation and we can see things unfolding together.  Advent, the liturgical lead up to Christmas, is, of course, one of the great opportunities in the Christian year to do this kind of preaching.  And the pre-Advent time is a good chance for looking at some things that help us understand the Advent season even better.

This week's scripture, Mark 12:28-34, is one of those opportunities. 

At first, the passage just sounds familiar.  Tom Long sometimes describes passages like this as being like a "senile dinner companion who keeps telling the same story over and over;" we think we've heard it all before.  You know: 'the greatest commandment is love God with all your heart....and your neighbor as yourself....blah, blah, blah.'  If we've spent any time in church at all, we know this passage in some form.  If we went to Vacation Bible School (or some version thereof) we may have sung it.  So there it sits; the senile dinner guest, telling us for the 100th time how he once should hands with FDR.  We smile and pass him a dinner roll.

But if we hang in there a bit, peel back some layers, there is important stuff here.  This is way beyond a lesson in 'say your prayers and be nice to people.'  In the first place, the scribe who asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is doesn't do so until after he's watched Jesus arguing with the different religious leaders.  And these leaders have come from every group.  If we look back to Mark 11:27 and move forward we see that Jesus has been confronted by the "chief priests, scribes, and the elders," the "Pharisees and some Herodians" (the Herodians were Jewish leaders who were okay with Herod being king and were felt, by some, to have sold out politically), and "some Sadducees" (who were an upper crust religious group who were also pretty happy with the status quo).  It's only after this man has watched Jesus handle their confrontations that he asks his question.

The question about the greatest commandment isn't asked to oppose or test Jesus in this story.  It's a "how do we live then in this time and place?" question. The conversation with Jesus is sincere.

Jesus' answer points back to the most significant event in Hebrew history: the story of the Exodus and the covenant made by God with the Hebrews at Sinai.  There God had told these recently rescued slaves that they were to 'Love God and care for neighbor'.....including the stranger in their midst......always remembering that they had once been slaves in Egypt.  Jesus' response is shorthand for "remember where we came from (slavery in Eygpt), whose we are (we belong to the God who brought us out of slavery with a mighty hand), and what we're called to be (that pecular nation that practices mercy and forgiveness toward neighbor, widow, orphan, stranger, enemy).

If one looks at the confrontations with the various groups that went before, we can see that each of them had, in some way, forgotten a part of that history.  These two commandments; to love God and neighbor, were spelled out at Sinai.  The Ten Commandments break down into how to live in relationship to God and neighbor.  They were also the commandments for living a life free from Pharoah and Pharoah's oppression.

Now, here, in the shadow of the Roman garrisons, Jesus tells the scribe, 'remember where you came from, whose you are, and what you're called to be.  This is street level, nitty gritty stuff.  It is subversive at root.  Even in the shadow of Rome, remember that you do not belong to Rome.  You show your freedom in how you honor God...particularly in care for neighbor.

I have to wonder.....particularly as the election approaches.....do we remember where we came from?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Blind Men and A Second Touch

I have the opportunity once again this Sunday to preach at Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, VA.  This makes me happy since I've been there before and really like the people.  I'm grateful to their pastor, Rev. Elizabeth Hagan for inviting me.

I decided that I would play this week with two stories about blindness and Jesus healing blind men.  First of all because they seem to be part of what often gets called a "Markan Sandwich" where Mark either splits a story in half; tells part of it, has Jesus go do something else, and then finishes the story (the passage about the 'barren fig tree' is one of these).  Or, Mark tells two really similar stories and puts important things between them.  This is what I think the case is with the scriptures I'm using this week.

You may remember the cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead.  He would make these really HUGE sandwiches.  Well, this is that kind of sandwich.  Between the first story: Mark 8:22-26 (the story of a man that Jesus had to touch twice to completely heal his blindness) and Mark 10:46-52 (the story of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus) there is a whole boatload of stuff where Jesus teaches about true greatness, what's really important in the kingdom, the importance of the marginalized (particularly children), prayer, and foretells His death and resurrection.

These two stories are strange though.  In the first, Jesus has to touch the blind man twice because when Jesus asks him what he sees, he responds, "I see men, but they're like trees walking around."  In the second story we have one of the few times when Mark names the person who's being healed.  It seems important to explore the 'why' of these facts.

Let's start with Bartimaeus.  It's a very strange name.  "Bar" is the Hebrew word for "son of."  So Bartimaeus would be "Son of Timaeus."  But the name Timaeus is Greek, not Hebrew.  Now it's possible that Bartimaeus' father was a Greek convert, but I think that Mark chose the name for a reason.  Timaeus is a character in Plato's dialogue by the same name.  In this dialogue, Plato outlines his understanding of the make-up of the universe.  In this understanding, everything has an ordered place and should not deviate from it.  Slaves are slaves.  Rulers are rulers.  And blind beggars are blind beggars.  This is the way life is. Don't fight it; keep your head down and keep moving.

So here is Bartimaeus, blind as a bat, because he is a 'son of a world view' that has no real room for the action of God.  One's lot in life is set.  No wonder he is blind.  The good news is that he "calls out"....literally yells or screams to "Jesus, Son of David" to "have mercy."

But it's hard for those of us who have become 'sons and daughters' of a cultural world view.  We've been sold a bill of goods about the way the world is.  We often see people like they were 'things,' like they were "trees walking around."  It's not that we don't love Jesus or want to follow Him.  It's that we need a 'second touch' if we're going to really, truly get a new, alternate vision of our world.

The material 'sandwiched' between these two stories is all about how the disciples don't get what Jesus is trying to teach them.  They are 'blind' to what He is trying to tell them.  They're locked into a world view, a way of seeing life, that makes it hard for them.  This is why I believe Mark took two very real stories of Jesus healing of blind men and placed them where he did. 

Really looking forward to exploring this more with the folks at Washington Plaza on Sunday.  Join us if you can.

Shalom

Friday, October 19, 2012

Thank You Jodi DiPiazza

I watched the video that is linked to below in my office this morning.  Had a little time and figured I'd check my Facebook page.  It's Katy Perry and a young woman with autism named Jodi DiPiazza singing a duet.  It's preceded by some film of the years of therapy this young woman needed-and got-to get to this triumphant place in her life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX-xToQI34I

I really try not to cry when I'm in my office....you know, it disturbs folks who drop in when they find you in tears....but this......

And I started thinking about church....and whether or not we make it a welcoming, comfortable place for people like Jodi and her parents.  I'm sure that some churches do-and some don't.  I'm not looking to get into an argument either way.  I'm just looking to raise the question for each of us to answer for ourselves......How would we react to the 'young Jodi' showing up in the pew next to us; the one who screamed and cried?  I'm sure all of us would be really happy to have the Jodi on this video sing at our worship service.....but how would we feel about her throwing toys in our Sunday School room?

There aren't easy answers to how we can best minister to folks with autism, or folks with other significant issues.....and I don't claim to have more than minimal beginnings to even the easiest of answers.  What I do believe is that Jesus clearly calls us to struggle with the questions; because Jesus calls us to welcome Jodi.....because if we take scripture seriously, in some fundamental way, Jesus is in Jodi.  This really isn't one of those passages where there's a lot of wiggle room. 

There are a lot of passages where we can argue about the context of the story, the multiple meanings of the words in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic...but this isn't one of them.  Jesus said, "whoever recieves one of these little ones receives Me."  Doesn't mean it's pretty; doesn't mean it's easy; doesn't mean it's not sometimes (okay...often) messy as hell.  But it DOES mean that that's what we're called to.

Okay...so Jodi and Katy made me cry.  Big deal.  I got a nice warm feeling listening to them.  But what they did that was so much more important was to ask me the question, "am I welcome in your church?  Will you create a place for me?"  They reminded me that the work of building the community of the New Creation is hard, sweaty, challenging in a multitude of ways.

So....Jodi DiPiazza......from me to you....Thank you.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why Ginter Park and the BGAV Is Important

Readers of my last post on the decision by Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) to ask Ginter Baptist Church to withdraw their membership in that body may wonder why I think all of this is such a big deal.

After all, any church that decides to ordain a gay individual shouldn't be suprised to get some blow back....right?  Particularly if that church is Baptist....right? 

To some degree this is true.  Baptists (with some notable exceptions both in terms of individuals, denominational bodies, groups, and local congregations) have significant issues around gay marriage and the ordination of gay individuals.  I don't agree with their negative stance; but I can live with it.  I can live with it because I believe that as history moves forward the church will move with it (even if very slowly)-this has been shown to be true about slavery, women's rights, women's ordination (okay, it's true that Southern Baptists haven't caught up with history yet).  And I can live with it because I'm Baptist, and Baptists hold certain things as foundational.

Among those foundational things are Priesthood Of All Believers; Autonomy Of The Local Congregation; and the concept of "Call."

Each of these points to a basic belief that God is free to act outside of what we might expect.  They point to a belief that the safeguard against any particular group or person determining that THEY and THEY ALONE understand what God desires is to trust in God's communication of God's self with the individual in prayer and study and the local congregation in prayer, study, and conversation.

We don't talk about "Call" a lot these days; but it's an important belief.  Basically it says that an individual comes into ministry because they sense God's activity in their life leading them to make that decision.  The activity could be as quiet and subtle as a set of gifts, skills, and talents that one thinks are best used in ministry; or as dramatic as dreams in the night and a powerful sense that God is purposefully leading in a deeply personal way.  But all along the spectrum is the sense that entering ministry isn't just something that one decides to do on a whim.

And that is tested by the calling together of an Ordination Council by the local congregation.  That Council includes clergy and lay folk who examine the Candidate for Ministry and ask questions about how they arrived at their decision, what problems they might have carrying it out, and their basic beliefs about their faith.

Then this group, this Ordination Council, will pray and talk (sometimes will decide to re-convene later after some issue is addressed) and will examine scripture and, exercising their role in the Priesthood Of All Believers, make a recommendation concerning the individual's request for ordination.  No one I've ever met made the decision to recommend ordination lightly.

Finally, the local congregation will vote (or not) to confirm the Council's recommendation and to set a date for Ordination to occur.

Looking at the process; looking at the safeguards; looking at the ways in which basic Baptist beliefs are exercised all along the way; it should be easy to see why the BGAV is so disturbing.  Their actions are tantamount to a Catholic saying, "the Pope's really not the head of the Catholic church" or a Presbyterian saying, "let's forget about John Calvin, we don't need to look at any of his ideas."  The lines the BGAV crossed are foundational lines....and when they crossed them it was the BGAV, not Ginter Park that put themselves outside of Baptist fellowship.  But because that body is numerically larger, they were able to abuse the power of their numbers to make it appear that Ginter Park had stepped across the line.

I truly, and prayerfully hope that there will be a resolution found to this situation that allows Ginter Park to remain in the BGAV and allows the BGAV to continue to truly be faithful to Baptist beliefs.  But if it isn't, we need to remember.....Ginter Park was the one who acted like Baptists; not the BGAV.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Calling The Baptist General Association of Virginia to Repentance

On October 10, 2012 the Baptist General Association of Virginia stepped away from two of the basic tenents of Baptist faith: specifically the Autonomy of the Local Congregation and the Priesthood of All Believers.  They did so by requesting that one of their member congregations withdraw its membership because they disagreed with a decision this congregation had made within the context of it's life.  A decision made after deep prayer and seeking to be guided by scripture.

It would be different if this were a church with a Bishop or a body such as a Prebytery where power to tell local congregations what to to is vested.  But Baptists have, throughout history, clung fiercely to the belief that the local congregation, guided by the Spirit of God through prayer and study makes it's own decisions; and that those decisions, even if abhorant to other Baptist Christians, must be respected as their right.  The fact that, as one Mission Board member (who opposed the action) pointed out, there is no provision in the BGAV by-laws to support the action compounds it even further.

The fact that the issue at hand was the ordination of an openly gay person is, in my mind, irrelevant to the discussion.  One pastor who voted for the move stated that it's not "in the same category as women in ministry or race relations."  The truth is that it is in exactly the same category; and that category is entitled "What Baptist Believe About Soul Freedom."  But this pastor said, "it's not a question of whether to exclude but where to exclude." 

Taken to it's logical conclusion Congregational Autonomy is now "the congregation is autonomous unless we don't like what you do and can muster enough votes to toss you out."  Priesthood of the Believer is now "you may believe whatever you feel guided by the Spirit to believe as long as it doesn't challenge my beliefs or rock the boat."  By the lights of the kind of thinking that governed the BGAV's decision making, the couragous pastors who signed the Declaration of Barmen in 1934 could have been tossed from membership with the words, "we have to oppose this or there will be consequences.  There are other groups that will take our member churches if we don't come out against these folks.  They've crossed the red line."

Christians have always held dessenting opinions of one sort or another.  Baptists, at our best, have always left room at the Table (and by that I mean the Lord's Table as well) for those we disagree with.

As a Baptist and a pastor, I strongly urge my brothers and sisters of the BGAV to repent this betrayal of basic Baptist beliefs, to prayerfully look at the deepest meaning of their actions and reverse this move away from what it means to be Baptist.  I will pray for their return to Baptist principles and that a way can be found for all of us to work together for the healing of both our denominational bodies and our world.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Marriage, Divorce, And (Other) Scriptures I'd Rather Avoid

As I work toward Sunday's sermon on Mark 10:1-16, I'm tempted to flake out on this passage and go to some alternate, easier to deal with text.  After all, this is World Communion Sunday.  I can preach a nice sweet sermon about how, in spite of all the division among those of us who claim to follow Jesus on the Way, we still gather around the Table where ever we are in the world on this particular day.  It's a valid point; a good point; and one we need to remember.  We're all part of the family and we're all gathered at the Table.

But the Revised Common Lectionary throws us this passage about divorce...one of the stickiest issues of Jesus' day-and ours.

I'm not neutral on this issues.  I have a dog in this fight.  I've been divorced for almost 24 years and remarried for almost 22. I'm a pastor.  I counsel couples.  I've watched two of my children from my first marriage go through divorces.  I definitely have 'skin in the game' when this conversation gets started.

So let's look at what happened in this passage.  The first thing is that the conversation did not start because anyone was trying to sort out this issue from a perspective of "pastoral care" or concern for anyone.  "Some Parisees came, and to test him they asked, 'is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'" [italics mine].  Like a trick question in a political debate the question is dropped into Jesus lap.

Jesus fires back: "What did Moses command you?"  Their response, "Moses allowed a man to write a crtificate of dismissal and to divorce her" is an avoidance.  Notice that Jesus asks what Moses "commanded" and they respond with what is "allowed." These great 'followers of the Law' are looking for wiggle room already.  And there was a lot of discussion on this topic historically as well, so it wasn't just a trick question.
During this time there were two basic approaches to what the Law meant.  The Rabbis Shammai and Hillel differed dramatically on this issue.  Shammai taught that the only reason for divorce was for a serious transgression such as adultry.  Hillel taught that even trivial offenses-such as burning a meal-might be a justifiable reason. 

 But it may also have been an even deeper trick question because the House of Shammai tended to side politically with the Zealots where as the House of Hillel was more open to a conciliatory approach.  So there were layers and layers of stuff potentially involved in the question.

Jesus, however, cuts straight to the issue of marriage and divorce.  "What God has joined together, let no one rip apart."  The truth is that divorce happens.  It happens then, it happens now.  When it happens, something live and real is ripped apart.  It is painful.  It is damaging.  It tears apart something that was meant to be reflective of God's fidelity and commitment toward humankind.  I don't believe it is any accident that the next verses in Mark are another Markan incident in which Jesus responds to children.  Then, and now, they are the ones most vulnerable to the damage done by divorce....they are the ones most often seen as collateral victims of this tearing, ripping process.

Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses wrote the commandment allowing divorce "because of your hardness of heart."  Divorce is always a failure.  It may be a necessary decision, but it is always a failure and there is always a ripping of hearts.  It is never a decision to be made lightly.

I believe in marriage.  I believe that marriage is to be Eucharistic (meaning that it is to be one of the ways that God's Grace comes to us), and that God's fidelity should be reflected in our care and love and commitment to our partner.  So I believe in the sanctity of marriage.  I also believe that each of these things I hold dear about marriage can be lived out within a marriage between persons of the same sex.  Marriage is no less sacred, no less sanctified, no less Eucharistic based upon the gender of the person involved.

This means that divorce is no less a ripping of the life of the individuals whom God joined when the partners are gay than when they are straight. 

If this is true, then the Church has a HUGE responsibility to persons preparing to enter into marriage, moving through marriage, encountering issues in marriage, or thinking of terminating their marriage.  Because divorce is the tearing apart of what God has joined, we have a responsibility to ALL married persons, gay and straight, to be nurturing an sustaining their life together.

In Jesus' day, one of the great problems (and Jesus addressed it by His actions) was the social attitude toward women.  This attitude was woven into the arguments over divorce.  Perhaps in our day one of the great arguments is the purpose and meaning of relationships....particularly the one expressed in marriage.  Is it that much of a shift from "women are property that you can dispose of if they displease you" to "marriage partners are here for my satisfaction; if the shiney wears off we can move on to something better"? 

What is the alternate vision that we as Christians offer about the meaning of our lives together in marriage?  Owning up to the damage divorce does, and the pain it brings, may be the first step in healing the wounds of those of us who have been divorced and in committing the community of faith to the walking wounded among us and the careful nurturing of the lives of those who make commitments to live in truly Holy Matrimony.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Who Gets To Use Jesus' Name?

In the passages for this coming Sunday: Mark 9:38-49, Jesus continues to confront the disciples-and us-with radically different perspectives about the Kingdom of God than they-or we-were expecting.

The disciples start off by telling Jesus that they saw someone "casting out demons in your name" and they told him to stop because he wasn't one of them.  My guess is that they expected Jesus was going to tell them what a good job they'd done.  After all, they were protecting the 'purity' of their group and the honor of their leader's name.

What they get instead is some of the harshest warnings in all of the Gospels.  Not only does Jesus say not to stop such people because "whoever is not against us is for us," but He goes on to utter the famous passage about, "whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward."

We could probably handle that.  But then Jesus says, "if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck..." and then goes on to talk about cutting off parts of your body (hands, feet, etc.) that cause you to stumble.

The comment about "little ones" is often taken to be referring to the children from verses 36-37, and that may well be....but it also appears to clearly refer to the one that the disciples had forbidden to cast out demons and others like him....a 'little one' who was not part of their "in group."

Duane Priebe, professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, is quoted as saying, "every time you draw a line between who's in and who's out, you'll find Jesus on the other side."  Jesus' comments in this passage would seem to support that. 

Jesus does not seem terribly concerned with this stranger's creditials or their status.......things that the disciples-and we-appear to have put great emphasis on.  Jesus didn't appear to be concerned at all with whether or not this man was theologically correct, or lived a particularly upright life, or even whether he was a Jew or not.  The phrase "did not follow us" that the disciples used to justify their ordering this man to stop is interesting....did they mean 'because he's not one of the followers of Jesus' or because 'he doesn't do things the way the disciples do?'  Is the issue for them that this man isn't a regular follower?  Or that he isn't someone who does what the inner circle of the disciples approves of?

We live in a time when all too many of us are willing to pass judgement on what others do in Jesus' name.  I'm terribly prone to this.  As a moderate theologically, and a psychotherapist, I often cringe at the advice given on Christian Talk Radio to people calling in with their life problems.  The 'demons' of addiction, or difficult marriages, or mental illness, or unresolved grief, or trauma are addressed in ways that I would never talk about them.  And yet, I know that there is healing that takes place, that there is help that is given, and that many of those offering this care are doing so from a genuine care offered in Jesus' name.

It's much easier for me to use this passage to rant at those who have drawn a line that put me on the other side than it is for me to turn this scripture's spotlight on myself and see where I have been the one who has drawn the line-and in so doing put Jesus on the other side.

There are days and days of reflection there for me; and maybe for you as well.  The other bits about cutting off things that cause us to stumble....I'm hoping I'll be ready to address those on Sunday.  Maybe you can join us at Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, MD when we look at them.
http://broadviewchurch.net/about/ will give you directions.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Honor Turned On It's Head

This week's lectionary scripture is Mark 9:30-37.  Even after all that's happened, or maybe because of all that's happened, the disciples are bickering over who's going to be a Big Shot when Jesus establishes His kingdom.

In the sections immediately preceeding this one Jesus had told them that He is going to suffer and die (remember the screaming match between Jesus and Peter); Jesus has had to do a healing that the disciples couldn't pull off; and He's taken Peter, James and John up on a mountain where they've had this extra ordinary experience in which Jesus is transfigured and Moses and Elijah show up.  Then, at the beginning of this passage, Jesus tells them again that He's going to die.

So as they're walking down the road, what are they talking about?  They're arguing about which one of them was the greatest. 

Now before we get too down on the disciples, we need to remember that in their culture and time this would not be an unusual discussion among members of a social group.  This is an "Honor-Shame Society" in which ones status, based on honor, is the most important thing.  Listen to Bruce J. Malina's description of "aquired honor":

"By contrast, acquired honor is the result of skill in the never-ending game of challenge and response.  Not only must one win to gain it, one must do so in public because the whole community must acknowledge the gain.  To claim honor the community does not recognize is to play the fool, since honor is a limited good, meaning that if one person wins honor, someone else loses.   Envy is thus institutionalized and subjects anyone seeking to outdo his neighbors to hostile gossip and the pressure to share."

By this definition, being taken up the mountain with Jesus would be a source of honor; not being able to heal the epeleptic boy (Mark 9:14-29) would have been a negative challenge to the disciple's honor due to their inability to exercise a skill they claimed to have.  You can see how the discussion might have gone.....and you can see the kinds of parallels one might find in today's communities of faith.

Here's where it gets interesting.  Jesus is going to tell them that if they want true greatness, greatness in the Kingdom, they're going to need to become servants.  But not just any servants.  One could establish honor by being the servant of someone great.  Jesus is going to challenge them to become the servant of the 'least.'  He's going to take a child and make that the focus of His description of who they should serve.

We will miss a huge piece of the meaning here if we put this picture in 21st century thought.  We elevate children (at least some children) and we get all dewy eyed about them (at least I do-I'm a grandpa, what do you expect).  But childhood in Jesus' day is a time of terror.  Children were always the first to suffer from disasters, the mortality rate was extreme, and most of the children who were brought to Jesus would have been sick and dying.....their mothers begging Jesus to touch them and heal them.  It was probably one of these that Jesus pulled into the middle of the group and wrapped His arms around.

Servanthood without hope of status.  Making ourselves humble in the care of those who have no social value whatsoever.  There are no "deserving poor" no "people brimming with promise who just need a hand up" in this commandment.

Jesus is gonna take a sick child-one who may well be dead before the season is over-wrap His arms around it and say, "whoever welcomes one of these, welcomes me."  Honor turned on it's head.  Honor bestowed in secret.  We think of Mother Teresa and her work in Calcutta;  but how many are there who rock babies dying with AIDS in Africa, who give pedicures to homeless men so that they can walk without pain; who teach school in slums......these are the nameless ones Jesus says have recieved Him.

Our culture, though radically different in many ways, shows many of the signs of the Honor-Shame Society.  We chose our jobs, our partners in life, and often-God forgive us-our ministries...based on the status and honor that they will bring us.

This is finally a judgement story.  But it is a judgement with the opportunity to correct ourselves.  We can begin to see Jesus in the face of those who are 'least.'  We can learn to correct our vision.  But to do so will mean that we have to live and work from an alternative vision of what is truly important in our world.  Learning to do this is part of what it means to "follow Jesus," to be "on the Way." 

Asking ourselves the question, "just for today, what would it mean, what would it concretely look like if I followed this teaching?" is a dramatic beginning.  What would happen if we did?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Protecting Jesus

If I wanted to be a real wise guy (well more than usual) I'd keep this week's blog really short by writing something like "Protecting Jesus-Don't Even Try," and end it right there.  But I think that this week's passage from Mark 8:27-38 deserves a little more commentary than that....though the sentence I suggest is totally true.

In verses 31-33 we have a screaming match between Jesus and Peter (I also thought about titling the blog this week "Screaming Jesus").  Jesus has begun talking about what He thinks is going to happen to Him.  He will, by the way, have three major conversations about this in Mark in which He outlines His expectation of suffering and death.  This doesn't sit well with Peter at all.  Peter has just said that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, who will rescue Israel.  In Peter's mind (probably) and that of many at this time, the Messiah is going to come with an aggressive counter to Rome.  The Anointed One will drive out all those who oppress Israel and restore Israel's independence and prestige. 

To hear Jesus talking about suffering and death is more than Peter can take.  He pulls Jesus aside and begins to scream at Him (that's what the word means.  When Jesus "rebukes the demons" He screams at them).  Jesus, who is clearly not in the mood for Peter's attitude, screams back.

The next lines are the ones that we'll spend most of Sunday's sermon on....about 'denying ones self and taking up our cross.'  But right now, I want to focus on what's going on here.

Peter seems to have the idea that he needs to protect Jesus from Himself; or to instruct Jesus about how the Kingdom really is supposed to come in.  Peter isn't that different from me and you at this point.  All too often we think that our job is to somehow handle, manage, protect, guide, or defend Jesus' work in the world (particularly as it comes through the Church).  Jesus' response to Peter should give us a pretty good idea where Jesus thinks we can put our condescending, patronizing attitude.

Jesus doesn't need our protection.  Jesus doesn't need us to help keep the Church on solid ground.  Suprising as it may seem, the major thing Jesus calls us to do is very simple:  follow Him.  Jesus doesn't ask us if we're "saved," or tell us to believe a particular creed, or any of the hundreds of other ways that we build fences around Jesus' work in the world.  He just says "follow me." 

Oh yeah, and He says, 'pack your own lynching rope and be ready for them to treat you the way they do Me.'  No wonder we're happier sometimes defending doctrine. 

Please don't get me wrong.  This is not me thundering down on anyone from some lofty height of personal discipleship.  I'm not in the judging business.  Got too much stuff of my own to condemn anyone else's discipleship.  I'm just saying that here, at this point in Jesus' ministry; when He's getting clearer and clearer about what bringing about the New Creation is going to cost; He doesn't have time for petty arguments....it's follow or get out of the way.

I need to hear this.  I need to hear it every day.  I need to hear it every time I am tempted to focus on doctrine rather than relationship, interpretation vs. action.  Jesus can set His own direction just fine without any help from me at all.  In fact, He has.  My job is to follow.  Follow to the places out on the edge where Jesus spent most of His time.  Follow to the people who were hurting the most, at the point of their pain...again, where Jesus spent most of His time.  Follow because I am called (as are we all) to root my identity in who He is, not who I am.  Follow to the point of crucifixion if necessary.

I don't do it well.  Most days I probably don't do it at all.....I can make a good showing, but I am way too concerned with how it looks and who is in control.  Learning to follow is hard stuff.  Self denial is often a real drag.  And this crucifixion thing....But, if that's the Way that Jesus is going, it's a pretty good bet that there isn't any other Way to go.

Friday, September 7, 2012

When Scriptures Turn Snarly

This has not been a good morning!  Driving into my office this morning I realize that, though I had already written two blogs on the scripture passage and my sermon-I thought-was safely finished, this passage of scripture wasn't done with me yet.

If you've been reading the last two blogs, you'll know that I've been wrestling with the encounter that Jesus has with the Syrophonician woman in Mark 7:24-30.  And while my thoughts haven't changed in terms of what I think is happening, I think I let it go too early.  Here is why:

Dealing with the stark nastiness of this story is really hard. As much as I tried to deal with it head on, I still (like a lot of the commentators) don't want to face how downright vicious the language Jesus uses is.  It's not okay with me.  I think I know the reason and I agree with confronting folks with what their bigotry looks like....but that's another human being He's talking to. 

Imagine that you're gay, or black, or Muslim...and that we're friends.  We're hanging out with some people that I want to confront about their soft core bigotry, so I begin to talk to you using the worst racial, ethnic, or sexual slurs I know.  Are you going to be feeling okay that I'm talking to you that way....even if you know what I'm doing?

Not only that, Jesus did this to her on her home turf.  She didn't come to Galilee...Jesus is in Tyre-Gentile territory.  This would be like my going into a gay bar to use my conversation with you to confront my other friend's bigotry!

Am I still impressed with this woman's handling of the situation?  Absolutely.  Do I think Jesus was making a point to His disciples about their own bigotry?  Yes.  Do I think the later verses about healing a deaf man and feeding the 4000 say something really important about Jesus bringing the Kingdom to the Gentiles?  Sure, no doubt about it.  But the truth is that if we deal with what we have in this story....all those other things being true....Jesus still comes across like a Class A Jerk and I don't like it....it creeps me out.  I understand why Luke and John didn't want to talk about this incident.

I believe that this woman impacted Jesus.....a lot.  I believe, as I said in my last blog, that her fingerprints are all over Jesus' parable in Luke about the Widow and the Unjust Judge.  Maybe Jesus even saw a bit of injustice in the way that He treated this woman....we don't know.  I also stand by my thought that when Jesus thought about her dealing with all this in later time, He smiled.  What bothers me is the question: when the Syrophonician woman thought about Jesus later, what did she do?  That question bothers me, it bothers me a lot.

And it raises a question about we as Christians and mission/ministry stuff.  We may feel really great about what we do; we may learn boatloads from folks, be blessed by the contact, see the world in new ways.  But do the people we're trying to share God's care with have that same feeling?  Or do they walk away feeling like they had to trade some piece of their soul, some piece of their self respect to get what they needed?  Is that what bothers me most?  Do I see in Jesus' treatment of this woman the expression of my own, hopefully softer, version of bigotry and biase toward some of the desperate people who come to me?

Thanks for listening and struggling through this passage with me.  I'm sure it'll follow us around for a long time.....kinda like I think it followed Jesus.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jesus And A Gentile Woman-Part 2

So...if you've been following the blog, you know that this week I'm struggling with the story from Mark 7:24-30 of Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman who came to Him asking Him to heal her daughter; and Jesus' response was (to but it mildly) not very nice.

Over the last couple of days, I've been looking at various ways that different commentators have explored what is happening here.  Here is the short version of where I've landed.

There is no way to soften the words that Jesus uses.  Even though some of the commentators try to say that Jesus was teasing, that his using a word that can be translated "puppies" or "little dogs" in reference to the daughter-it just won't work.  Imagine the most ugly, dispicable thing you could call a woman...now imagine calling her that, and calling her daughter a "little (what ever you came up with)."  Does this feel like teasing?

Nor do I think this was a "turning point" in Jesus' own attitude toward gentiles.  Now I don't have a problem with the idea that Jesus kept growing in His understanding of what God had called Him to do and be (that growing understanding may well be part of what it meant that Jesus was human as well as God).  But Jesus has already healed an insane gentile man in Mark 5.  And He treated him with compassion and care.

So what is happening here?

To answer that question, I think we need to look a few verses earlier to the argument that Jesus had with some Pharisees who attacked Jesus because He and his disciples did not follow the "Traditions of the Elders."  Now the Traditions of the Elders were the ways in which particular groups had interpreted the Torah.  They had parsed the Law into extreme demands-particularly about ritual purity.  In their defense, they believed that keeping this ritual purity would help to hasten the coming of the Messiah and God's Kingdom.  But their picture of that Kingdom was one in which everyone looked like them: culturally, religiously, ethnically.  They had become spiritual bigots.

I also, in viewing this story, have come to believe that Jesus' disciples-who were present when Jesus clashed with the Pharisees-were present as silent witnesses to Jesus' encounter with this woman. I believe that because it's the only way the story makes sense to me, and because they are present in the next things that happen while Jesus is in this gentile territory.

What the disciples witness is Jesus acting out the bigotry that the Pharisees had wrapped in pious language.  Jesus is saying to them, to the ones He will trust to spread the news about what He came to teach, "if you buy into the kind of pious crap that they made sound so holy, this is what it looks like when it's lived out in the street where people hurt and need and bleed and die."

Some of you who are closer to my age have seen this in our own time.  I can remember people who would never have used a racial slur for black persons, who still refused to believe that they were equals culturally, politically, or spiritually.  They would never strike someone because of their race; but they stood by while police turned dogs and fire hoses on peaceful marchers and refused to integrate schools, and resturants, and (especially) churches-all the time wrapping this hatred and bigotry in the pious language of religion....often quoting the Bible to do so.

So the lesson Jesus is trying to teach is close to our own issues now as well as there's then.  Perhaps the question we need to be asking is 'who are our Syrophoenicians?' Who are we blocking out of the New Creation, the New Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim has come among us?  Maybe we (and I include myself in this question with a lot of shame) need to ask ourselves what our own bigotries look like when stripped of their 'niceness' and carried to their logical conclusions.

A final word about this woman.  I believe she showed incredible tenacity on behalf of her daughter.  She managed to find just the culturally proper way of responding to Jesus' questions.  I believe that she partnered with Jesus in this moment to teach the disciples.  This took an incredible amount of trust that Jesus would, finally, treat her with the same care that He had already treated other gentiles she had heard of.

And I think that Jesus not only rewards her by healing her daughter.  I believe that she so impressed Him that she became an ongoing part of His teaching.  Remember how I said in the last blog post that Luke avoids telling this story?  Go look at Luke 18:1-8.  This story about presistence with God....a story that Jesus obviously told more than once for it to be passed down in oral tradition prior to being written....has this Syrophoenician woman's finger prints all over it.  Whenever Jesus told His listeners to pray like a pitbull, to keep banging on the door, to not ever give up; because a loving God would give so much more than an unjust judge....I think He smiled and thought of the woman who wouldn't let go.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

In Praise Of Scriptural Problems And Contradictions

There are those who claim with pride that there are no contradictions in scripture; that the Bible represents a smooth, seamless presentation of God's word.  They often also maintain that should it be found that this is not the case, that every truth of the Bible will crumble like a house of cards.

Let me offer, instead, another view.  It is that those who told the stories that found their way into scripture....stories that survived the test of time in oral tradition and were still found to have lasting meaning for God's people when it came time to gather them in written form....these stories are the attempt of persons across centuries and cultural context to speak of their encounter with the Living God and their attempt to make sense of that encounter-interpreting and sharing it in a meaningful way.

It is a testimony to their trust in that encounter that they-both those who gathered the Old Testament scriptures into canon and those who did so with the New Testament-share so many of the conflicts in viewpoint and the warts on the characters with us.  While there is some visible attempt in scripture to "spin the story" there is much less than one might find in, say, a political campaign.  Those who edited and compiled the canon appear satisfied to let the disagreements stand, trusting that each has something to teach us and that God will speak through it all.

A quick look shows us that there are at least 3 versions of the meaning of Torah (the first five books of the Bible); that the prophets were often in conflict about how the people were to view the experience of exile; and that each of the Gospel writers told the stories from the early church's memory in a manner that was chosen to attempt to speak to a particular community's deep needs.

Rather than believing that this somehow challenges the "truth" of scripture, I believe it speaks to the Truth of the encounter with the Living God, the courage of the writers, and the faith that God will continue to breath through these stories where ever and when ever they are told.  They are a conduit through which the cool, clear word of God's presence and love come to us; but we do not worship the conduit.  The Bible is not the "4th Person of the Trinity" to be worshipped along with God in all of God's manifestations.

Having said this, it means that scripture often presents us with situations that call for us to struggle and sweat.  The story of Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark 7:24-30 is one of these.  Matthew tells the story also in Matthew 15: 21-30.  Luke and John avoid it all together.

It is a difficult story first of all because it is the only time in the Gospel that Jesus refuses (at least initially) to heal someone.  Second, Jesus speaks to this woman in a way that is cruel, rude and demeaning.  It's not a comfortable story.  The commentators on the gospels have twisted themselves in knots trying to deal with it; and the variety of explainations range from 'Jesus was teasing the woman' to 'the woman taught Jesus to include the gentiles in the Kingdom' and everything in between.

The truth is that I don't have an answer to what's going on here.  I have some thoughts, but I'm not ready to land yet.  Hopefully by Sunday I will have a better sense of what I think is happening; but I'm not ready to stake a claim yet. 

This I do know:  I believe it to be a true story from the life of Jesus.  It's too disconcerting to have been invented.  It's one of those stories that you're tempted (as I believe Luke and John were) to leave out.  I believe that it has something important to tell and teach us.  And I believe the context in which it happened is important.

With those things in mind, I'm going to leave it with you for a few days.  I want to invite you to read the story in both Mark and Matthew.  Struggle with it as I'm going to do.  Pray about it, that God will speak to us through it.  And I'll post another blog on it before the end of the week.

You and I may not agree about what the story means.  But that is part of the joy and challenge of being called to faith in a Living God.  Looking forward to where this takes us.  Hoping too that maybe you'll be able to join us at Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach MD this coming Sunday as we look at the story as a community of faith.

Til later, Shalom

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Picnicking On The Storm; An Introduction

I'm going to have the privilege during the month of September to fill the pulpit at Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, MD.  Broadview is a congregation affiliated with the Alliance of Baptist and committed to being a progressive Baptist voice in Southern Maryland.  I've preached there before, and it's a real pleasure to be going back.

Part of what this means, though, is sermon preparation.  I'm once again wrestling with specific texts and seeking to understand how they might have something to say to us in the here and now-without forgetting their meaning for the "there and then."  In fact, it is most often in understanding the "there and then" that the "here and now" meaning becomes clearest.

The Gospel of Mark is the Gospel which is being explored this year (Year B) in the Lectionary.  Mark was probably the first Gospel written, it is the shortest, and it was most likely written to a Church that was being persecuted by the Roman government.  There were also conflicts with the synagogues (Christianity was first a sect of the Jewish faith, seeking to live out their belief in Jesus as the Messiah within the Jewish community). 

When I first began hearing discussions about Mark, it sort of got the "short straw" when it came to popularity.  Folks didn't give the Gospel writer a lot of credit for literary skill in the same way they did Luke for instance.  But as time has gone on, commentators and scholars have grown to see some really interesting things in the way Mark's Gospel is written.

Two of them that impact where I hope to go this week in the sermon are 1) doublets, and 2) what Tom Long calls "re-reading" devices.

Doublets are when Mark tells two very similar stories, or tells the same story twice in slightly different ways.  An example of this are the feeding stories in Mark 6 and Mark 8.  We'll be looking at the one in Mark 6 on Sunday.  Another example is what I call "storm stories."  The first is in Mark 4, the second in Mark 6.  One of the purposes of the storm story in Mark 6 is to get us to go back and re-read the feeding story in the same chapter.  Listen to verse 50-52:

"But immediately he spoke to them and said, 'Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.'  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.  And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened."  [italics mine]

What?  What has stilling this storm (much less the 'walking on water' bit) got to do with the feeding of the 5000?  Mark invites us with this device to go back a re-read that story and the storm story before it....and all the material between the two....again.  And to now look at all of it through a different lense.

If the feeding of the 5000 (and the feeding of the 4000) are stories that harken back to the Exodus accounts of manna in the desert; then to still the storm in Mark 4 and to walk on the stormy water in Mark 6 are both statements to this small, persecuted, chaos driven group of Christians that Jesus, in God's name, is in charge.  The New Exodus has come.  The New Creation has begun.

{By the way, just for fun, take the verse from the Feeding of the 5000 where it says that Jesus had pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd....then go read Ezekiel 34.  It would have been an obvious connection for Mark's readers, but we often miss it because we for get the Jewish roots of our Christian faith and that Jesus guided in His sense of His calling by the stories of the prophets.}

Thus we see Mark taking the stories that have been passed along about the life of Jesus (He stilled the storm, He feed the multitude, He walked on the water) and framing them in such a way that his particular reader/listener would hear the Good News that "Jesus is Lord" applied to their particular situation.

In the middle of our own chaos-personal, national, world wide-what does it mean to us to hear that Jesus is in control.  What does it mean that the New Exodus is still going on and that the New Creation is still bursting into bloom?  Can we hear the Good News?

Perhaps we need a re-read of Mark today.  It's a fascinating Gospel; particularly for us who surrounded by chaos echo the words of the disciples, "Lord doesn't it matter to you that we're perishing?"  The answer to that question is truly profound.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Being The Face of Love

In the movie Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon) is speaking with death row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) right before his execution.  Sister Helen says to Poncelet, "I want the last face you see to be the face of love; look at me-I will be the face of love for you."

It seems to me that this is our call as Christians, as the Body of Christ: to be the Face of Love; particularly to those who will not see it anywhere else if not in our face. 

This week I have been privileged, through blog posts, tweets, and facebook to follow the travels of Kevin and Elizabeth Hagan as they travel through Africa on behalf of Feed the Children.  You can find out more about this wonderful organization at www.feedthechildren.org.  Kevin has only been President and CEO for about 3 months now, but the energy he's brought and the vision he has are contagious....even to those of us watching from a distance.

Hearing about Feed the Children's work as Elizabeth and Kevin report their travels has reminded me about the desperate needs in our world for the basics: food and clean water.  There are other things as well:  health care, clothes, housing, education......but the ground level basics are food and water.

Feed the Childen is the 'Face of Love' in the places that they serve.  You can help them with that if you want; there is a way on their website to donate.  And you can pray for their work.

But we can also all think about how we are called to be the 'Face of Love' where we are.  Who needs to see the Face of Love when they look at us?  This is one of the ways that we participate with God in the New Creation...the "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven".....the "we are laborers together with God".....all of that can be expressed in the shorthand of "I will be the Face of Love for you."

Notice.....there is nothing here about being deserving, or worthy, or meeting any criteria at all.  Matthew Poncelet was a murderer, and the crime he committed was horrible.  That doesn't matter.  The Grace of God expressed in our lives as the Face of Love is not about our making judgements.  It is about our being  a conduit.  Love flows through us freely....like the water so much of our world desperately needs....and suddenly one tiny piece of the world is changed.  For we have joined God in the New Creation.

Thank you Kevin and Elizabeth and all at Feed the Children.  Thank you Sister Helen and all who work for justice and mercy.  Thank you each one who reads this blog and who has been the Face of Love to me.  And thank you to each one who will read it and be the Face of Love to someone on Monday morning.

Shalom

Monday, August 13, 2012

On Not Trading The Gospel Story

I want to begin this blog with a quote and a story.

The quote is from Thomas Merton.  It's been making the rounds on Facebook (I've reposted it myself) and I find it particularly powerful:

"Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.  That is not our business, and in fact, it is nobody's business.  What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can."

The  story is one I heard told by the Rev. Dr. Tom Long who was talking about Bishop Desmond Tutu and how there were those who were upset with Tutu's willingness to forgive those responsible for the oppression in South Africa.  Dr. Long quotes a lieutenant of Tutu's as saying, "the problem with Desmond is that he believes the Gospel.  He knows the story and he will not exchange it for another."

It seems to me that both of these can point us in the right direction; not just in an election year where such things as entitlements and care for the marginalized are clearly part of the discussion, but also in our personal lives as we struggle with our own attitudes and responses to those who have harmed us or those who we are invited to 'write out' of the story of God's love and care.

As the Body of Christ, we are to be extensions of God's love.  Thus Merton's comment helps us understand that in our love of neighbor God's love of our neighbor wraps around them and its Grace makes them worthy.  In mirroring Christ's love that same Grace embraces us. 

My pastor, Rev. Abby Thornton, talked this Sunday about what a HUGE part of Jesus' teaching was His desire that no one be left behind, no one be left out, no one remain on the margins; not just of what we would commonly interpret as "salvation" but also of the broader description of the "Kingdom of God" which Jesus taught in which basic necessities, healing, forgiveness, liberation, and wholeness were a part.

Someone who I otherwise respect a great deal posted a blog on entitlements with a picture above it of a group of reaching, grasping zombies with bloodstained hands.  Now, frankly, I really don't think this individual believes this....but the problem is that our culture all too often-from pulpit and political podium-has portrayed the marginalized and the needy as just this.

You and I as followers of Jesus have another picture; one that Jesus gave us.  It is His face superimposed upon the face of all who reach out, and on the face of those too weak or too broken or too deprived of hope to reach out.  This is a key part of the Gospel message.  This is where we meet Jesus.  When we fail to respond, the bloodstained hands are our own.

The judgement expressed in this blog falls on me as much as anyone else.....sometimes more.  But we keep trying.  We keep reaching out.  We keep encountering Jesus.  For we know the story and we won't exchange it for another.

Shalom