Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections On A Life Of Jesus

Something struck me this Christmas season.  I'm not exactly sure why it struck me now.  Maybe because I've been listening to Hamilton and am haunted by the line, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story." 

Maybe it's because I've been remembering a line from Against The Wind, a song both Bob Seger and Waylon Jennings covered:

"Well those drifters days are past me now
"I've got so much more to think about
"Deadlines and commitments
"What to leave in, what to leave out"

Or perhaps it is because I've been remembering my High School literature teacher, Frank Austell, who introduced us to The Odyssey by talking about the different ways in which translators had translated the opening line describing Ulysses; and how that laid the groundwork for how the rest of the work would be.

What is it that struck me?  It is the truth that every preacher tells his/her own Life of Jesus.  We aren't always conscious that we're doing it.  Perhaps we would deny it and claim that we're sticking to the scriptures like glue.  But each of us, in our choices of scripture, our means of reflecting on that scripture, and the emphasis we put on it in relation to other passages, tells a Life of Jesus that is particular to us...even when it is similar to that told by others.

Having been struck by this truth, I begin thinking about what my own Life of Jesus would look like if I took the material I've written over the last few years of blogging and preaching and placed it in some sort of reasonable order.  Where are the gaps that I would want to fill in?  Am I placing emphasis where it doesn't belong?  What would a clear, intentional examination reveal?  What is the picture of Jesus that I carry in my head?  Am I clear, even with myself, on what it looks like?

So my New Year's resolution is to, in my preaching, my writing, and my blog, to be clearer about that picture.  I want to take the pieces of the mosaic in my mind and lay them out for examination.  And when the picture that emerges does not balance with the teachings of scripture I want to honestly address and correct my portrait.

This will be the underlying goal in much of my writing here as we move into the New Year.  Thought it would only be fair to warn you.  Hope you'll stay along for the ride and join the conversation as you're able.

All that being said, I wish everyone who reads this blog a safe and wonderful New Year.  May God's Shalom come a little closer as we seek to explore and imitate the life of Jesus and it's claim on us in 2017.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christianity On A Chip System

Many of us in the Recovery Community (AA, NA, SLAA, GA, etc.) belong to groups that use a "chip system."  What that means is that on a particular day: the first day of sobriety, one day, one week, one month, 6 and 9 months, we receive a poker chip that signifies our progress on the journey.  At a year, and every year thereafter, we receive a chip.  On these "birthdays" often there is cake; and there is almost always a celebration of some sort with a speaker chosen by the one celebrating their birthday.

These moments remind us that recovery is both a gift and a battle; that it does not come easy, and that no one gets there alone.  We grieve the loses and damage caused by our addictions and we celebrate the progress made and the miracles that have happened in our lives.  We mourn those who have "gone back out" into addiction-many of whose funerals we have attended.  This is life and death stuff.  We take it deadly serious, but we also see the joy and the humor in the stories of our own, and others, stumbling attempts to work the Steps and make this life of recovery work. They are a looking back at where we've been and an affirmation that the future ahead will fulfill the promise of "keep coming back; it works if you work it."

In Luke 2:22-40 Jesus' parents take him to the Temple "for their purification according to the Law of Moses" because "every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord."  Israel had built a "chip system" into their worship.

This dedication of Jesus happened also with every male child.  It was a reminder of what God had done at the Passover.  It was a reminder of Israel's movement of freedom from Egypt to the Promised Land. They did it even though they were under the oppressive rule of Rome.  They marked the action of God that had brought them out of Egypt and would, they believed, send a Messiah who would bring them to the final freedom of God's Kingdom.  There was no denial of the current situation; but there was a claiming that it was not the final word.

Israel built much of it's worship life around it's memory and it's hope.  It lived, at it's best in the tension of acknowledging what was, and claiming the alternative story of what could, and would one day be.

Now I'm sure that there were those for whom these rituals were just a "going thru the motions."  This was not so for the two that Jesus' parents met that day in the Temple.  They were committed to the truth of the alternative story....the one in which God will have the final word.  Luke tells us this story, in part, because hidden in it is the promised Messiah Himself....there, squirming in the arms of his mother, wailing at being passed back and forth like a loaf of bread.

On this coming Sunday, January 1, 2017, we'll be celebrating Communion.  It is part of our "chip system."  It, along with  Baptism, serves to remind us of the freedom we've been given.  We don't deny that the journey is hard; or that there are griefs and loses along the way; or even that there are those who "go back out" into the world's vision of what matters (though we pray and trust that God's mercy will follow them in redemptive ways).  It reminds us that "on the night He was betrayed..." Jesus gave us this meal to remind us of how we got this freedom in the first place.  The positioning at Passover is no accident.

This Sunday....especially this Sunday....with the world around us writhing in agony, and the future questionable from every perspective except the one that says, "we will not deny the struggle or the pain, but we will claim that the future and the Kingdom are God's"....on this Sunday we need to not "go through the motions." 

This Sunday we need to join hands, proclaim our faith, and say loudly to the world and to each other: "We have an alternative; we know the way to freedom.  Keep coming works."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Christmas Choice

My friend Maren Tirabassi commented on my last post saying, "You really gonna preach that????"  Now I don't (usually) think that Maren intends her comments as a dare.  But she does often push me past my comfort zone into areas that I would be less likely to enter from the pulpit.  Like many preachers (at least I assume) I am more likely to speak the hard word, the prophetic word, in my poetry that my sermon.

There is good reason for this.  On any given Sunday, in the pews I look out at, will be the broken heart; the failing marriage; the terminal illness; the newly jobless; the one who I know is struggling to find how to find the money for rent, lights, the next meal.  It is not a failure of nerve to seek to offer comfort to the fragile ones.

And yet, there are times when the text screams out, judging, challenging, kicking us in the seat of the pants.  This Christmas Day's scripture that I've chosen to preach on in just such a passage.  You wouldn't necessarily think so on the first read, or the second, or even the third.  But it's comments like Maren's and the quote below from Fredrick Buechner's The Faces of Jesus that challenge me to take another look.  The passage is John 1:1-18.  It is familiar, perhaps too familiar, to many of us.  But first, Buechner's quote:

"As long as he stays the babe in the manger he asks us nothing harder than to love him and accept his love, and the temptation is thus to keep him a babe forever, for our sakes and for his sake too."

The challenge is in verse 9, "The true light, which [enlightens/lights/lightens] everyone, was coming into the world."  The temptation is to use the word "enlighten" and think we're talking about some cerebral, intellectual happening.  But this is the coming of the Light who pushed back the darkness when "the earth was void and without form and darkness was on the face of the deep."  This is the Light that "shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."  This Light sets us on fire, causes us to burst into flame. It gives us the "power to become the daughters and sons of God." 

Unless, of course, we are counted among those in verse 11, "he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."  Then, like I said in the previous post, the only possibility is exile.  Exile into the darkness.  Exile into a life focused not on being light on behalf of the Light, but on acquiring stuff to plug the hole in the middle of our spiritual guts.  A hole only the Light can fill, but the commercials tell us will be closed over by a new car, the right medication, or a pill that will fix our inability  to get it up.

I am deeply drawn to Howard Thurman's poem The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To bring music in the heart.

It seems to me that from the very first lines of his Gospel, John is throwing down the gauntlet; be light or live in the darkness.  Our choice is clear from the beginning.  Will we let ourselves become light from Light or will we be those to whom He comes who will not receive the fire He brings.

Many of us will attend Christmas Eve services in which we exit the church, clutching a lit candle in the darkness of the sanctuary, singing Silent Night as we drift into the cold December evening.  Perhaps we'd be better off if we went out singing this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.

Maybe we'll do that Christmas morning.

Friday, December 16, 2016

An Advent Fable

In the cool of the evening
God walked in the new Garden.
It was a mess.
God called,
but the humans were not there.
God found them at the mall.
"Why didn't you come when I called?"

Well God, we were feeling empty,
really, really empty.
So we figured we'd hang out,
hide out,
at the mall a while.
Catch a movie, get some presents
for the grandkids
since Your Son's birthday is next week.

"The presents are....nice...I guess,
I see you've packaged them for mailing.
But who told you you were empty?"

Well the guys on TV
channels 16 and 3
(all the others show bad news all day)
so we come, shop and dine
split a bottle of wine
and the emptiness just goes away.

God sighed
as God always does
when the humans rhyme
like a commercial jingle.
"Speaking of your children,
I need to speak to your children,
the blood of their sisters and brothers
cries out from the ground in Aleppo.
The water screams
from the taps in Flint,
and the prayers going up in Standing Rock
have joined the groaning of the earth.
I have heard these cries
and come to see what's going on.
You and I need to set things to right."

The created ones
did not hang their heads in shame
but pushed back their shoulders
and looked straight ahead.
Not our problem,
not our culture,
not our color.
They said,
You're really very demanding, you know.
We don't mean to sound harsh
but we've learned in therapy to set boundaries.
We need to wall ourselves off from all
that interferes with our greatness,
And fill ourselves with good stuff
if we ever want to stop this empty feeling.
we hope to see You Christmas Eve.
The kids will stop thru on their way
to wherever they're going this year.
Even the grandkids will be here.
We'll try to stop by your place
for old times sake and tradition you know
share a carol or two
I've always been fond
of O Come, O Come Emmanuel

And God
speechless in sadness
Terrible in an anger
that the humans had lost their ability to see or hear.

So God left.
Just as sure as Ezekiel
had seen God's throne chariot
leave the Temple.
And it was evening,
and morning
and the beginning of the new Exile.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Dreamer Who Stepped Up

This past Sunday we looked at Matthew's description of Joseph's genealogy.  It was very, very interesting. 

First is the fact that, unlike most genealogies of that day, Matthew included women.  not just any women.  Matthew includes four women of dubious reputation:  Tamar who disguised herself as a harlot by the side of the road to get the justice of an heir that she was being denied; Rahab, an actual prostitute (probably a cultic prostitute) in Jericho who helped the spies that Joshua had sent to case the city; Ruth, who, with advise; from her mother-in-law, seduced Boaz; and Bathsheba, who is only referred to by Matthew as "the wife of Uriah."

Plus, at least two, and probably all four, of these women were Gentiles.  So here we have Matthew describing the genealogy of Jesus as being full of women who are not the ones you'd expect.

And then there is the fact that this is the genealogy of Joseph.  Joseph, who wasn't even Jesus' real daddy.  And that's when it hit me.  It was if Matthew was describing God as saying, "look, I'm sending my Son.  Sending my son.  He's going to need a daddy; and a daddy that comes from a family that will tell Him stories about strong women who took risks.  And a daddy who will step up and do what needs doing.

And that is where we get to this blog.  The "step up and do what needs doing" thing.  For comparison to the stories of Joseph found in Matthew chapters 1 and 2, I give you King Ahaz.  King Ahaz was the grandson of King Uzziah.  Isaiah was prophet in those days.  Now King Ahaz had two kings (for what it's worth, their names were Rezin and Pekah) who went up to attack Jerusalem but they couldn't mount an attack.  So Isaiah comes to Ahaz and says, 'look, God told me to tell you not to worry.  They won't succeed.  But to help you know, ask me for a sign...any sign...and I'll give it to you.'  Ahaz's response is a bunch of pious B.S.  He says, "I won't put the Lord to the test."  But basically his response is a lack of faith.

Here's where it gets fun.  Isaiah give Ahaz some of the same info that the angel gives Joseph:  a young girl (in Joseph's case, Mary) will conceive and God will use the child and he will be named Emmanuel; God with us.  Joseph doesn't say a word.  He just does.  No argument.  No discussion.  He just obeys.  Four...count'em four times....Joseph has a dream in which and Angel of the Lord tells him to do something.  And it's always something that is going to radically alter Joseph's life.  Each time Joseph obeys.  He just obeys.

In Luke, we get the idea that the writer is trying to represent Mary as the perfect disciple.  She's responsive.  She says that whatever God wants to do, she's ready.  Her answer echoes the one that Jesus will give in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

In Matthew there is a lot of stuff going on.  Matthew wants to portray Jesus as the New Moses.  So Matthew tells the story of Herod killing the baby boys.  And he tells about the flight into Egypt.  But he also tells of a Joseph who listens to his dreams (something valued in Hebrew scripture) and who is obedient and responsive to God's leading.

Joseph never says a word is scripture.  But he is presented as a man of compassion.  A man unwilling to hurt Mary by exposing her to public disgrace.  A man who was "righteous," which includes both justice and mercy as well as "doing the right thing."  He is presented as thoughtful; as someone who took time to think before "resolving" to live out his decision.  But when God points him in another direction, he is a man who listens.

I find it amazing that this man, who says not a single word in all of scripture, has such depth, if we know how to look for it.  No wonder he is the one that God said, "my boy needs a daddy, and you're the one I want for the job."  And, it is no wonder that when God asked, Joseph stepped up.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

From Numbed Silence To Hope

Advent begins in numbed silence.  After all the warnings from the various prophets, Israel's elite were carried off into exile.  In Ezekiel 3:15 the prophet Ezekiel says, "I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar. And I sat there among them, stunned, for seven days."

After all the warnings.  After all the arguments (even among religious leaders) about what would actually happen.  There they were, in Babylon. Stunned. Numb. Silent in their anguish.  This is where Advent starts.  Numbness gives rise to lament; both from those carried away into exile, and those left behind (see Lamentations).

This is where we have to start.  Unless we want Advent to be "countdown to Santa Claus," we need to begin with the acknowledgement of how truly broken both we and our world are.  Advent means "coming." It is a focus on the "on it's way, but not yet"-ness of our faith.  But it's not an ordinary “it’s on it’s way.”  It is a coming that takes place in the middle of some of the worst of what can happen.

When we prepare for Advent, we do well to remember that the prophets that we quote to talk about this Coming were speaking to Israel in the midst of Exile. They anticipated that Exile was coming and tried to warn; they talked about it when it arrived; and they spoke of Hope while the Exile was still going on, not just to tell them it was on its way, but to help them prepare for it. It is exactly in Exile that there is this explosion of Prophecy of hopeful possibility....even when all the data on the ground speaks against it.

But that Hopefulness cannot happen without the acknowledgement of our reality.  This is not a cheap grace; there are deep and dangerous words of warning to be spoken.  Much of our ability to prepare for this Hope and to embrace its coming is based on our capacity to engage and acknowledge the depth of our pain and brokenness.

The first of the 12 Steps reflects this when we say, "We admitted that we were powerless and our lives had become unmanageable." It is only after this admission that we can hear the Hope of , "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."  Our behaviors have consequences.  They make our lives powerless and unmanageable.  The Jewish rabbi and theologian, Abraham Heschel said we needed to remember that "God is not a nice uncle."  God will be God; and God will not be mocked.  It is dangerous to approach Advent or our life with God as though God is some sort of warm fuzzy that we can carry around in our pocket.

We cannot live our lives without consequences.  We cannot have life on our terms:

We cannot smoke and smoke and smoke and not pay a price for it in our bodies.
We cannot pump toxins into the atmosphere and not pay for it in our environment.
We cannot continue to engage in personal sins until they become obsessive habits and not pay for it in the depths of our souls.
We cannot continue to treat others (Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, the poor, members of our families) without justice or mercy and not pay for it in the social fabric of our nation and our world.

We move from the initial numbness of a stark awareness of our condition into crying out.  That cry creates cracks in the wall of denial we have built around ourselves, both personally and nationally. Leonard Cohen said, "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light breaks in."  God used, and continues to use, our very brokenness; the places we are most wounded and ashamed of; as the place where God’s grace will break through and heal us….if we will acknowledge that the wounds are there.  This is how God in Christ comes to us.

There are a lot of “Second Coming Christians” out there who pay lots of attention to scripture about the Second Coming of Jesus; but who don’t seem interested in what Jesus had to say the FIRST time He came.   Could this be because we are more comfortable with a kind old uncle of a God than one who puts demands on our lives?  Or is it that somewhere deep within us it is easier to focus out in a future after death, a future in which we don’t need to take any responsibility, than to look at our lives as this intense, demanding relationship with a God who is capable of creating miracles out of our wounded, aching lives.

This is the same question that haunts us all: whether Israel in exile or us in our own personal and national brokenness; can YHWH create a new history after the old history has come to a dismal end?  Is the God of faith contained within what the world knows to be possible? Or is it within the capacity of God to create a newness that defies the categories of “possible” and reasonable acceptedness.

Scripture maintains, our faith maintains, that YHWH has the capacity to form new worlds out of the chaos at hand.  The creator’s capacity to work a newness, unemcumbered by our failures and sinfulness; and unassisted by any other power, becomes a joyous assertion that YHWH will work a newness right in the midst of Israel’s most dire circumstances of grief. 

In Advent we have the coming of Hope in the midst of numbing despair and brokenness. It is a Hope rooted in the freedom of God.  We are saved by God’s faithfulness, not by our own; by God’s goodness and mercy, not by ours. Our Hope is not based in our ability, or our goodness, or even in our repentance; it is based solely on God's initiative, who acted and acts "while we were still sinners."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Stumbling Over The Big O

I keep stumbling over the big O
As in "Our"
As in "Our Father"

There are days I hate that word
that phrase.
I much prefer "mine."
I want to scream it like the seagulls in Finding Nemo
Mine, Mine, Mine.

Then I trip
over that damned "our"
and land face down
at the feet of Our Father.
The One who demands
that I both speak the Truth
and speak the Truth in Love.
That while I shout with one group that
Black Lives Matter
I shout in love.
And that while I speak the Truth
about immigration and structural
to another
A group that angers and saddens
and frightens me
I must do so in love.
Because Our Father says so
because Our Father
because Our

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Requirements of Covenant Faith

On the morning after the election, I went in to the Pre-K room of the Preschool at my church.  I spend time with each class every Wednesday.  We sing songs, tell a Bible story, and talk about what's important to them.  Obviously, the conversations change based on the age of the kids.

On this particular morning, I asked the children what they would like to sing.  Now normally, this group asks for "Jesus Loves Me," "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," and "ABC."  This morning, for the first time since I started doing this, they said, "Jesus Loves The Little Children." 

You know the words:
"Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and Yellow, Black and White,
they are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world."

I think, young as they are, they needed the security of singing about Jesus' love for them in the face of all the rhetoric swirling above their heads.  I looked into those faces as we sang; black, white, brown, mixed...and I prayed for their safety in the coming days.

When I preached later about my concern about safety; the safety of those children, the safety of the disabled, the safety of the homeless, the immigrant, the safety of folks in the LGBTQ was difficult.  It was difficult because I work hard not to bring my politics into the pulpit.

But by "my politics" I mean who it is I voted for, or will vote for.  But what I cannot escape, if I am going to be faithful to my calling as a Pastor, is the commandments of God from the OT on about justice and mercy for the poor and the marginalized.

The “historic” part of scripture begins with Abraham and God’s promise to make him a great nation.  From the beginning, Abraham’s call was to be “a light to the nations.”  That “light” was always, in part, about treatment of neighbor and care for the marginalized.  It was also, in some way, always about food, land, and survival.  This should not be surprising in a place and time prone to famine and reliant on an agricultural society.

Abraham flees to Egypt during a famine.  Generations later, Joseph’s family comes there because of a famine as well.  Genesis does not shrink from the fact that Joseph’s behavior set the stage for the future slavery of the Hebrew people.

When God brings the Hebrews out of Egypt, God makes provision in the Torah, the Law, for the treatment of the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger among you” in both daily practice and in worship.  This phrase, “widow, orphan, and the stranger among you,” is a kind of shorthand way of talking about those who don’t have any power; those who don’t have anyone to speak for them.  Always God reminds them that they are to do this because “you were slaves in Egypt.”  In other words, “you’ve been there too and God helped you; therefore you should help others.  You were once powerless and had no one to speak for you.  God spoke for you when you were powerless; so you should treat others this way” or “I will hear their cry.”  God is saying, “make Justice your business, or I will make it mine.”

As scripture moves on in historic accounts of the life of the Hebrew people, Solomon gives  up the practice of care for neighbor and the marginalized by becoming an arms dealer; by using slaves (even Hebrew slaves) to build his house; and by striking treaties with countries in ways that promoted self reliance rather than reliance on God.  This, many believe, was the beginning of a downhill slide in Israel.

The destruction of the Temple in 587 was Israel’s 911 moment.  Both in warnings before this actually happened and in their words afterward, the Prophets offered a number of answers as to why their Covenant God would allow this to happen.  These tend to fall into two or three major categories:  issues around purity  (for example, marrying foreign women); worshipping idols like the fertility god Ba’al; and making treaties with other nations to provide for their safety rather than relying on God to take care of and protect them.

This conversation was still going on in the time of Jesus.  It was still going on because Israel had continued to be ruled by, taxed by, and oppressed by a string of foreign powers.  One can view Jesus’ life and teachings as Him taking a side in that argument as well as saying that all the things that the Prophets had said about God creating a new Kingdom were true….but it wouldn’t look like folks had imagined.

Jesus lived and taught a view that includes intimate relationship with God (see the Lord’s Prayer) as well as a radical way of living out Justice and Mercy as the ultimate form of worship (see Jesus’ description regarding how our treatment of the most marginalized, “the least of these,” was our treatment of Jesus Himself.)

The above quick "walk through" of scripture is not exhaustive.  But it does point to the idea that care for the marginalized is not something out on the fringe of faith.  It is a central theme.  It is an expression of fidelity to our part of the Covenant with God first made at Sinai and expressed in Jesus' call to us.  Without this justice and mercy we get what God says in Amos 5:21, "I hate, I despise your religious festivals and your solemn assemblies stink."  

Our personal relationship with God thru Jesus needs to be cultivated in prayer and devotion; but it needs to be expressed in acts of justice, mercy and humility. 

May we seek as the days go on to live out this commitment as God's people.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Dirge For A Veterans Day

"They're not like us at all, at all
"these Gypsies, Jews and queers.
"They snuck into our country, taking over and doing strange things.
"The world does not respect us.  Our enemies have shamed us.
"We must make Germany great again."

So they went inside and closed the doors, shut the windows tight
Against the stench from the ovens down the road.
And when the trains rolled by with the stick people inside
they covered their children's eyes
in the selfsame gesture caught of a mother in the camps
giving the only mercy she could offer to her child.

While Chamberlain waved his treaty
proclaiming "Peace in our time,"
a false prophet reconciling with an unrepentant dictator.
And a national church profaned the name of God
by blessing a despot.

Til our fathers, and fathers around the world
left homes and wives and children
some never to return
and a Confessing Church put life and blood on the line
proclaiming that this would not stand.

"They're not like us at all, at all
so very, very different.
These Muslims, gays and Mexicans.
They sneak into our country, taking jobs from real Americans.
Our enemies do not fear us, they all desire to hurt us
we must make America great again."

So we put our hands over our own eyes
so that we will not see the ghosts of the internment camps.
We plug our ears so that we will not hear the ghost voice of McCarthy
whispering in the words that promise political witch hunts again.

While a church calls for unity and reconciliation
with an unrepentant demagogue.
There will be no peace in our time.
We have no one but ourselves to blame.
We cannot even use Santayana as excuse
for we know our history
and have chosen it's mistakes in the face of the sacrifices of our fathers.

The Battle Is Not Done

This is Veteran's Day.  This is my father.

An athlete all his life, his feet froze in the snows of Europe and he spent months in a hospital in England with the very real possibility that they would have to amputate his feet.  Luckily they did not.
My father was part of an effort at defeating Hitler's Nazi regime and the very real risk that such ideas about who was acceptable, who could be killed on a whim, who could be marched off to the gas chambers.

We've just had an election.  Many of the people who supported Trump favor the same ideas that my father, and other fathers, went off to combat.  It is a scary thing.  It is also true that some who supported Trump do not favor racism, sexism, and promote hatred.  But if history teaches us anything (and as a pastor I mean history as far back as the OT prophets), it is that good people can blind themselves to what is happening.  And in that self blinding they become co-opted into the demonic behaviors of others unaware.

The poem below by Leonard Cohen makes this clear

We need to watch closely in the coming days and weeks.  We need to keep our blinders off.  We need to speak the truth in love, but we need to speak the Truth.  Watch who gets named to run what.  Listen for the old rhetoric in softer form.

If you're into such things, read your Bonhoeffer again.  Or Howard Thurman.  Or Martin Luther King.  Or the book of Jeremiah.

If you are a Veteran....I thank you.  We will be faithful to your memory by not allowing this country to become what you fought so hard, and risked so much, and paid so high a price to defeat.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Now More Than Ever

The Bible is a very political book. 

My friends on the right believe that when it comes to abortion, women's roles, and gay rights...they believe it without any examination of context or nuance.  I believe that they are wrong in that regard; but we would agree that the Bible is a political book.  And this morning, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, I am viewing this new world situation through the lens of that Book.

Last night the United States fell into idolatry.  They elected a man who worships power and money. Who denigrates the marginalized and the infirm.  Who seeks to do ill to the "widow, the orphan, and the stranger within our gate."  He was elected because he played to the fears of one segment of the population and to the hatreds that still lurked in the shadows concerning race and ethnicity and religion.  He watered the semi-dormant seeds of hatred and talked the language of exclusion and bigotry.  He lead the nation to the alter of "Great Again."  I can imagine a king in the OT standing the foot of a statue of a Ba'al (a fertility god) saying, "our crops are down, the rains have gone, our enemies do not fear us.  But we will worship Ba'al and he will make our nation great again."

This man is NOT my president.  Not because I think I have the right to say that since so many on the right claimed that Obama was not THEIR president.  He is not my president any more that Jeremiah would have said that King Jehoiakim was his king.  Jeremiah's job was to speak the Word of the Lord to Jehoiakim.  That word is a word of judgement and call to repentance.  Trump would do well to hear it.  Should he hear it and repent, truly repent, there is some possibility that we, as a nation, might escape the tragedies that lie ahead.  I will pray for his and our nation's repentance. But I do not expect Trump, nor the politicians who worship with him at the alter of power and wealth to repent.  And so, I say with Hosea, that "those who have sowed the wind will reap the whirlwind."

Which brings me to what I think those of us in the Faith Community are called to do in a time of whirlwind:

Our task as people of faith has not changed. It is still to be the Beloved Community; presenting an alternative vision to Empire (read that as the Trump Administration for this conversation), and modeling how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  The cost, however, may be higher than we expect.

We are to speak truth to power.  We are to speak the truth in love; but we are to speak the truth. 

We need to anticipate the places of need that are going to arise based on the actions we anticipate when we project the political rhetoric into the future government.  This means stepping up our abilities to care for the homeless, the hungry, and the marginalized.  We will need to be prepared.

Without hedging our bets or backing off of what we believe, we need to work to build bridges across the gulfs that now exist within our national community.  Our world is broken. But we are called to be agents of reconciliation.  We do not get the luxury of standing on the side throwing stones; we are to bridge the gulf wherever possible.

Prepare to go into exile.  When God's people fail to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly," God sends them into exile to force them to look at their failures.  I do not know what our exile might look like.  Many of the images I have in my imagination are terrifying.  But I do not doubt that a failure to repent will bring about an exile (and I believe it is possible to be in exile while still inhabiting the same land we used to inhabit).

Pray. Even when our prayers are lament or curse.  Pray.  Pray for our enemies, for the leaders who are leading us into idolatry, for our own tendency (at least it's mine) to become self righteous and fall into my own sins.  But pray.

Imitate Jesus.  Imitate Jesus recklessly.  Imitate Jesus recklessly til they crucify us like they did Him.  Imitate Jesus in forgiving those who crucify us.  Imitate Jesus in, having done all of this, in placing it in God's hands....not before, as an escape from the hard tasks ahead....but when we've given our the widow who tossed in her pennies in reckless love....say "into Your hands I commend my spirit."

This will be an uphill battle.  It will be a long battle.  I do not believe it will be over in my lifetime.  It will take years to heal and rebuild what came to a head last night at the polls.  But we have our marching orders: "take up your cross and follow me...and this is how they'll know you belong to Me-if you love one another like I have loved you."

Amen.  Shalom.  Let it be.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Reclaiming Stewardship

In J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings there is a remarkable set of characters known as the Stewards of Gondor. The Steward administered Gondor on behalf of the absent king, swearing an oath to do so "until he shall return."  The did not sit on the throne, but on a simple chair of black stone on the lowest step of the dais which surrounded the throne.  Though the characters, and citizens of Gondor, in Tolkien's work had difficulties which we would do well to remember, this is an image that I believe we might want to capture for our own use as communities of faith.

Part of the reason that pastors, including myself, have come to hate "Stewardship Season," preaching Stewardship Sermons, and, frankly, anything to do with the word "Stewardship," is that it's been diminished to being simply about some cash.  Tolkien's image can help us reclaim both the word and our own role as Stewards.

The biblical image of stewardship begins in the Garden when Adam is given dominion over creation.  This stewardship is responsibility on behalf of creation's True King.  We have been tasked with the care of ALL creation.  It is a responsibility to care for this creation until the joining of heaven and earth takes place; til God's Kingdom comes and God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  It is not a license to abuse, pillage, or drain the resources of creation.  Further, we are given Stewardship of a particular Power.  Acts 1:8 say that we, "shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And in this power you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and to the ends of the earth."  That power, of which we are Stewards points to another Stewardship role: that of being Stewards of the Story. 

When Peter and John, in Acts 3:1-10 heal a man who has been lame from birth, they are exercising their Stewardship of the power given to them by Christ through the Holy Spirit.  It is a power we are expected to use to fulfill our job as God's people working to set the world to rights on God's behalf.

What if we were to apply this overarching image to our yearly focus on Stewardship.  What would change?  Could we begin to see everything that we have and do through this lens?  The money we give; the time we commit to various ministries; the way we use the resources of the world around us; even the way we chose to vote....could these become an expression of our care for the King's domain "until he returns?"

The lame man who Peter and John heals then becomes the recipient of a gift from God of which he has now become the Steward.  What will he do with this new life he has been given?  How will he shape this healthy being that he now is?  We too, as those redeemed and reconciled by the love of God in Christ Jesus are Stewards of a gift.

In Mark 10 Jesus tells a rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor, "then come follow me."  Jesus held up a mirror for him about what was interfering with his being a good Steward, someone using the gift of Torah to change the world on God's behalf.  What he heard in Jesus' invitation was that his riches were blocking his understanding and ability to relate to those he was supposed to be treating as family: the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  Faced with this invitation, he went away; shocked and sad, because he had lots of stuff.

Stewards.  Not kings on the throne.  Stewards.  That's our call.  Our task.  The care of God's creation.  The love of God's people (which is all us). Using every single gift we've been given to care for this creation until the day it is joined to the Kingdom of Heaven when Heaven and Earth come together.  What would happen if this was our definition of Stewardship?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Picking Up Our Cross; It Isn't What We Usually Think

This post is a follow up to my "Screaming Match" post.  If you haven't read it, please do.  This will make so much more sense (at least I hope so).

I ended my sermon this past Sunday talking about Japanese art of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold or silver.  As a philosophy, it treats the damage, the brokenness, and its repair as part of the history of the piece rather than something to be disguised.  The art uses the repair to create a new thing of beauty out of the old.  The jar below is an example of this.

In my sermon, and in my last post, I talked about the need for Christians to be involved in bringing our broken, divided nation together with acts of love and peace.  I believe that we will not do this by trying to ignore or deny the brokenness.  However, I do believe that in owning that brokenness the "gold" of the Gospel, of the Holy Spirit working through us, of the love of Christ alive in us, we can create something new and beautiful.

This week, I did some more research on Kintsugi and discovered how long this process is.  This isn't a matter of super gluing things back together.  It is a painstaking, time consuming process.  As it will be for us.  There have been two examples that have moved me lately:

The first was my police ride-along a couple of weeks ago.  I've spent a good deal of my life working in some form or another, in, or with, the criminal justice system.  I have friends I love who are law enforcement officers of one kind or another.  I am also an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement and have deep concern over the systemic racism within the justice system.  Working as a volunteer Chaplain with the local Police Department is my way of holding those two things in tension.  Of denying neither the reality of the national problem or racism in policing, nor the needs and challenges of the officers I try to pastor.  It will be a painstaking, time consuming process.  There will be people (on both sides) who do not understand what I'm trying to do, or why.

The second example is, in some ways, more personal.  I was as a clergy luncheon for the Mid-Atlantic CBF this past week.  At the table with me was an African American clergyman with a last name that I recognized from my childhood.  I asked him if he had family is Spartanburg, S.C.  "Yes, but most of my people came from Union." (Union and Spartanburg are separated by about 30 miles).  I responded that my father grew up in Union and that my people came out of the mills there.  I mentioned a particular Sheriff who, in the early 1900's had a name identified with racism and the KKK.  This pastor responded with a story of how his grandfather had been forced to move north after an encounter with this Sheriff.  I, with some embarrassment, said, "I believe that my grandfather was this man's deputy sheriff."  The silence at the table was palpable.  The wounds in our nation run deep.  I am not responsible for the sins of my grandfather (which were many); but I ache for the pain caused to this man's family-pain that passed through generations.  I am shamed by the fact that someone in my family might have been part of creating that pain (though I will probably never know).  This pastor and I talked.  We will talk again.  What we create out of acknowledging the brokenness in both our stories will be an act of the Spirit.

All of this brings us to Jesus' commandment that we are to "take up your cross and follow me" that we find in Mark 8:34-37. 

This passage is NOT about some personal burden in our lives, though this is how it is most often used and quoted: "I guess that's just my cross to bear."  Now we could have a good discussion about how we continue to follow Jesus in spite of the burdens of our lives: an addiction from which we struggle to recover; a seriously ill child; a troubled marriage.  The Apostle Paul writes about following Jesus in the face of hardship, and it's an important topic.  But it isn't what Jesus is talking about here.

Even before His own death, Jesus is using an image that wasn't used in polite society to explain the potential cost, the inherent risk, of following Him.  It is a risk that He demands we take if we're going to follow.  "Deny yourself" isn't a phrase we like to hear.  Leaving ourselves that vulnerable isn't in our playbook.  We prefer to hedge our bets, to hang back just a the disciples who watched the crucifixion from afar.

Jesus says to us, "You can't hold on to yourself and follow me.  You have to be willing to risk it all.  What will it matter if, by holding back, you gain everything you ever thought you wanted, but loose yourself in the process?"  See, it's in holding on that we "forfeit their life" or "lose their soul."  Coaches call this kind of living, this denial of self, "leaving it all on the field."  That's what Jesus wants from us.  And that is what it will take to heal our world.  Christians committed "leaving it all on the field."  No holding back.  Willing to die, to go to jail, to be abandoned by friends and loved ones.  As I heard someone say once about the depth of these demands, "This ain't aroma therapy we're talking about." 

This demand to take up our cross; to find ourselves in loosing ourselves; to risk everything to follow Jesus in the task of healing the world makes me very uncomfortable.  It should make us all uncomfortable.  It's extremist talk.  It does not leave us much wiggle room at all.  We are to put it all on the line.  It is here, we are told, that we will truly find ourselves. It ain't aroma therapy.  But it is the Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Jesus In A Screaming Match

I had coffee this week with a friend who is retired career military and a man of deep and committed faith.  Our conversation revolved around how we, individually and as congregations, were supposed to be part of putting our nation together again in light of the deep divisions that we're currently facing.  I've been turning this question over and over in my mind ever since.

I think that there is a way that we see a reflection of this in the passage from Mark that will be our focus at FBCH this week.  In Mark 8:27-33, Jesus has asked His disciples who they think He is.  Peter has said that he believes Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the one that God has sent to set things right.  The problem comes when Jesus begins to tell the disciples that the way God is going to do that is for Jesus to suffer and die. 

Peter isn't having any part of it.  You can imagine him taking Jesus by the arm and pulling him away from the rest of the group.  The word used here has been translated, "rebuke," "admonish," "speak sternly to," and "ordered."  I have also heard it translated, "screamed at." You don't have to have much imagination to realize that minimally there were some voices raised in this conversation.  Peter "rebukes" Jesus.  Jesus "rebukes" Peter.  Peter, Jesus tells him, is voicing the viewpoint of humans, not of God. 

There are a series of passages in the book of Isaiah referred to as "The Suffering Servant" passages.  It appears that these are the passages Jesus believes are most reflective of how His role as Messiah is going to be lived out.  It will not be as a military leader.  It will not be as the head of a revolt.  It will be by putting Himself on the line to suffer with and for God's people.

What if we took our cue from Jesus here?  What if we decided that the way we were going to engage in trying to help put our nation, our communities, back together was by being willing to suffer with, and for, them.  It would mean refusing to take sides; but understanding that there is truth in the experience of all involved.  It would mean trying to understand the fear that has drive some people to the extremes of ideology.  It would mean risking being vilified by both sides of many conflicts while continuing to try to love and maintain contact with them.  It would be to live a "cruciform life" as we try to imitate Jesus in the here and now.

I keep coming back in my thinking to the prayer of St. Francis:

"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life."

I believe that 2016-2017 is going to be a difficult time.  Our country (and our world) is deeply wounded and divided.  We will not heal....or even survive.....if our solution is to move to the extremes and throw rocks, or worse, at one another.  Nor will we help the healing by sitting out the conflict.  We're going to have to risk, and risk big....sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large.  But this seems to be the way of the Gospel.  It is the way of the healing of the world.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Following The Trail Of The Pink Bunny To Jesus

Last Saturday my friend Maren sent me an email with a comment and a picture.

The comment was about the fact that Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte had said how happy he would be to slaughter the 3 million drug addicts in his country. This was not an idle comment.  Duterte has been linked to the vigilante killings of some 1,400 drug addicts, petty criminals, and street children while he was mayor of Davao City.  When the United Nations human rights experts noted that "extrajudicial killings" had increased since his election to the presidency of the Philippines, Duterte threatened to withdraw from the United Nations.

The night before, on Friday evening, I had done a Ride-along with the Hyattsville City Police Department.  The invitation to local clergy to become more active and to provide Chaplaincy services to the officers of the Department and to develop ways to assist with certain kinds of calls (mental health, death notifications, etc.)  is part of the Department's attempt to improve the quality of their community policing.

I need to be clear that I am an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement and am deeply concerned about the inherent racial bias that permeates the criminal justice system at all levels as well as our entire American culture.  I've also spent a good deal of my adult life working in that system; as a therapist in prisons and  residential treatment centers, collaborating with Probation and Parole around treatment for sex offenders in the community, and being honored to have friends who serve as Police Officers whom I admire and respect.

So it seems to me that holding those two realities in tension and attempting to support ways of improving community care for the marginalized and community relations with law enforcement is a difficult, but imperative position for me as a Christian and as a Pastor.

I rode with an impressive veteran of 13 years on the Hyattsville Police force.  He answered every question I had with thoughtfulness.  I noticed that every time we got out of the car to respond to a situation, I could see the little green light on his body camera. It was a natural move for him.  Everywhere we stopped (and this was a rough section of the city) people came up and spoke to him, told him how they were, made contact.  He commented at one point when we got back into the car, "you know, I've had to arrest most of those people."  His connection to the beat he drives was remarkable. What I saw (and mind you, it was just one 8 hour shift) was community policing at its best.

This week I've been working on Sunday's sermon.  It's on two passages from Mark.  In Mark 7, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment.  In Mark 8 He heals a blind man; but He has to touch him twice because the first time the man sees people "but they're like trees walking around."

Now First Baptist Hyattsville has been in a two week period of prayer when we have committed to praying daily that Christ would allow us to look at the community around us through the eyes of Jesus.  That we would ask ourselves how we would respond to the need we see if we were responding to Jesus Himself.  The goal is that by engaging in this spiritual discipline we will discern our call as a congregation moving into the new year and would frame our efforts and our budget accordingly.

So the scriptures for Sunday take us naturally to the questions:  "Who am I blind to?"  "Who am I not hearing?"  "Where do I need a "second touch" so that I can see those around me clearly?"  And "once I have seen and heard, how do I learn to speak the truth about what I have seen and heard?"

Which brings me back to the Ride-along.

Toward the end of the shift, I accompanied three of the Officers on a walk through of a car lot attached to an auto body shop.  It is known to be a place where drugs are dealt and where addicts and/or homeless folks will crawl into one of the cars parked on the lot for a place to sleep or get high, or both.

One of the men who was removed from a vehicle claimed that the car he was in belonged to him.  Though obviously intoxicated (the bottle was placed on the roof of the car) he said he was "working" on his car.  The Officer I was riding with asked one of the employees of the body shop about this and was told that, indeed, it was his car.  Apparently, when reasonably sober, this man does good body work.  So he's allowed to keep his car on the lot, and work on it on his own time, etc.

The car in question is older.  Patches of Bondo mark it like leprosy spots.  As we walked by on our way out of the lot, I looked in to the vehicle.  The inside was gutted.  There were no seats.  There was no gearshift in the floorboard.  A crumpled blanket was pushed back into the area that would normally be the trunk.  And where the gear console would be was a small, pink, stuffed bunny.

This car was this man's home.  He lives here.  He drinks/gets high here.  He sleeps here.  All under the eye of a small, pink, stuffed bunny.

Oh.....and the picture my friend Maren sent me?  Here it is

I guess we should be careful what we pray for.  When our eyes are opened, we might see a pink stuffed bunny that leads us to Jesus.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Creating The Other And A Call To Repentence

In the past week I have actively engaged in a number of discussions, both in person and online, about the killing of unarmed black men in America.  I am deeply concerned about this issue.  I have spoken a little less, but continue to be concerned, about the situation at Standing Rock and the ongoing issue of water there and in Flint and Washington D.C.  Our nation's attitude toward refugees and recent immigrants (Muslims, Hispanics, other people of color) makes up the third side of my personal "Triad of Concern."  They may not seem connected to some, but I think that if we step back a bit, we can see both a connection and the challenge it presents to our Christian faith.  So below, I'm going to attempt to offer a reflection on what I is, at least part, of the problem.  I will post it here and on Facebook with an invitation for people who wish to to continue to engage with me at a deeper level.

I want to begin with three Biblical texts.  The first is in Deuteronomy 24 and is a series of instructions about how to treat the "widow, the orphan, and the stranger in your midst" in regard to food and debt.  The second is form Luke 13 when folks came to Jesus to ask His response to Pilate having murdered a group of Galileeans in the Temple, "mixing their blood with their offering."  The third is the "Parable of the Rich Fool" found in Luke 12:13-21.

You may ask how these three passages could possibly link together.  Let me try to weave them together in a way that is not just "proof texting" but is following the themes of God's call to God's people through the scriptures.

One of the primary marks of God's people beginning with Torah at Sinai was their treatment of the "widow, the orphan, and the stranger among you."  God called, and continues to call, God's people to drawing a circle around these who are clearly definable as "other"...a circle that drew them in as part of the community.  A part of the community in need of assistance, yes; but a part of the community, a part of the family none the less.  In God's Kingdom, God's Economy, the Other is included, their concerns addressed, and our response to them (in both the OT and NT) is seen as our response to God, as our response to Jesus the Christ.  In these commandments, both old and new, we see that the vilifying and demonizing of the Other is a sin, a rejection of what and who we are called to be.

Unfortunately, our nation has not learned this lesson well.  In our fear, over the life of our nation, we have created the Other in demonized form.  The Irish, the Italians, the Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, Japanese.....all of these have been "Other-ized".....defined as subhuman in a way that allowed their mistreatment.  In doing so, we have wounded our own national soul almost to the point of terminal woundedness.

In addition to Other-izing we have militarized.  In the passage from Luke 13, Jesus is asked about an incident of terror that occurred in the Temple.  Galileeans were notoriously opposed to Roman rule.  They were often part of the groups known as Zealots and Sicarii ("dagger-men") who favored the violent overthrow of Rome.  When asked what He thought of this incident, Jesus said, "do you think their sin was any greater than others?  If you do not repent, you shall all likewise perish."  He was talking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem if everyone continued to rely on a militarized solutions.  Their version of miltarization was not as extreme as ours...they had no nukes, no armoured vehicles....but the mindset was the same.  And we have bought it to it as well.  Do we think that we will escape the results of this approach?

One of the results of this is the militarization of our police.  We have trained a generation of police officers-good people for the most part, of all races and sexes, who want to do good-to see their job as being at war rather than the policing of community.  Their is a major difference in mindset in those communities that take these two different approaches and we have seen it acted out in the various approaches of different communities in recent months.

Can you see how Other-ization begins to creep in and occur.  How acts of terror can become instances of ratcheting up hatred and consequent calls for violent response on all sides?

In Luke 12 the Rich Fool looked at his wealth and talked to himself about what to do with it.  To Jesus' listeners this man was both a sad, isolated individual, and....clearly, a fool.  In Jesus' culture, no one made decisions like this alone, but with family and community.  And they remembered their responsibility to the rest of the community.  They remembered their responsibility to extended family in need, to the widow, to the orphan, to the stranger among them.  They remembered Torah.  This man did none of these.  His discussion with himself sounded like the seagulls in "Finding Nemo" screaming, "mine! mine! mine!"

I say in sadness that we continue to commit all of these sins.  We have forgotten who we are.  And, like Simba in "The Lion King" heard from his father, "when you forget who you are, you forget me."  In forgetting who we are, we have forgotten the God who called us to be different.  We have, in our fear, created Others that we can hate.  We have trusted in violence and weapons.  We have hugged our wealth closely to us.  If we are not careful, we will hear God say to us as a nation: "You fools! Tonight your soul is required of you.  And who, after you have drowned in your own fear and hatred, after you have torn yourself apart with attack dogs and riot gear, after you have self destructed......who will divide your wealth then?"

We have an opportunity to not go down this road.  It is to turn.  To engage in conversation about these issues.  To turn and be who God intends us to be.....In Christ's name, and for His sake, let us turn and follow the Christ who loves us all and to whom NONE OF US is Other.  AMEN

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Praying In The Plural

You had to go and start
Your prayer like this.
It's like being twins
and it's always "our birthday."
Doesn't matter
whether I like my twin that day
or they like me;
we're joined
by something neither can control.
least You could've done
was attach
some requirements
to that.

Make those "others" earn their "our"-ness
preferably by being like me.
But no....
It just hangs out there
til we realize
that the requirement is:
The is no intimate relationship,
there is no asking for daily bread,
no protection from temptation,
no forgiveness of sins,
til we can speak in the plural.
Til we can acknowledge that the only One
who can live singly
is You
and Your Kingdom was never meant to be,
will never come,
for just me.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Destracted Driving

I want to follow Jesus
If I can fit it in between
the kid's soccer practice and
my Friday dinner plans.
His plan to reconcile the world to Himself; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked
Moved me so much that I wrote a check,
I need to mail it one day soon.
I have put my hand to the plow
But I keep looking down at my smart phone
and running off the road.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Jairus On His Daughter's Illness

her mother says I spoil her
but she's the apple of my eye.
There's my son, of course
he'll carry on the family name,
but he's gone now
a wife and little one on the way.
We lost three between
one in childbirth
one in the cradle
and the third to some nasty
coughing illness.
All girls.
This one survived.
sparkling, lively.  Questions?
O the questions.
You'd think she was a Rabbi.
the fever came.
Of course I went to Jesus
threw myself at his feet
there is no such thing as dignity
when your child is dying
Look at her
the spitting image of her mother
she got my mind, I think
o the questions
you'd think she was a Rabbi

Saturday, September 3, 2016

This Jesus-He'll Go ANYWHERE

I have always loved the story of the Gerasene Demoniac.  I'm particularly fond of the version of this story found in Mark 5:1-20.  In it, Jesus has just crossed the lake, calming a violent storm in the process and astounding the disciples in the process.  Immediately as He gets out of the boat he is met by this man who has been living among the tombs cutting himself and screaming in the night.  Jesus heals him by sending the demons that torment him into a heard of pigs that then rushes off a cliff into the water and drowns.  A crowd gathers to find the man, clothed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus' feet.  The crowd asks Jesus to leave.  Jesus goes, but sends the former demoniac out to tell everyone about God's mercy to him.   That's the short version.

This story, to me, runs just behind the parable of the Prodigal Sons in expressing the nature of the Gospel.  In fact, one could say that this story is the story of what happens when the Father of the story journeys to the far country, strides into the pig sty where his son is feeding the swine, and brings him home.

First of all, Jesus deals with the specific pain and horror of this particular man.  This very real event reminds us that God in Christ cares for each of us in our particularity.

Next, this story tells us that God in Christ reaches into my own darkness, my own graveyard, my own "possession" to heal and restore me.  And it tells us that God will take the initiative with all of both the individual particularity and the whole of heal and restore God's beloved creation.

Third, this incident gives us a snapshot of God's redemptive work in Jesus.  Including the fact that there are those who, out of fear and a desire to protect their own power and economic position, will reject what Jesus offers.  They are like the old prodigal brother; refusing to come into the party.

Finally, I would offer that this story, without denying any of the above (in fact claiming them as a foundation), can be viewed as a metaphor for the life and work of Jesus the Messiah.  Let me play with that for you a bit:

Jesus gets in the boat with His disciples and says, "let's go to the other side."  The other side is clearly Gentile territory.  It is considered "unclean" from the start of this story.  The Chaos, the Darkness, the Demonic rises up in a powerful storm to try to stop Jesus from crossing into territory that they think belongs to them.  It doesn't work.  With a few words, Jesus ends this attempt to interfere with His crossing.

When Jesus lands, He lands in a place that is totally "unclean."  It is Gentile territory.  It's in a graveyard, or very close to it.  There are pigs grazing close by.  And He's met by a crazy man possessed by demons.  You don't get much more unclean than that.  A parallel might be getting out of a cab in the middle of a crack house neighborhood and walking into a drug den known to be frequented by folks recently released from the prison for the criminally insane due to financial cutbacks.  My point is that Jesus will go anywhere.  He doesn't swagger in.  He doesn't imitate the cowboy pushing his way into the bar for a gunfight.  This is His world.  He has laid claim to it.  He walks in with confidence, and in control.

When Jesus lands, He's met by the demoniac.  Did this man approach because a part of him desired healing, despite the screams of the demons?  You can make a case that the Image of God in this man was reaching out to the One who was that Image incarnate.  Or, did the demons think to scare away this intruder by sending this man, who must have looked like something out of Night Of The Living Dead, screaming down on Him?  In either case (or perhaps it was a combination of both) it didn't work.  Jesus casts out the demons and restores the man to his right mind.

One of the great failures of the Church has been the thought that it has to "protect Jesus" somehow.  Another is that going to the "wrong" places with "ruin our witness" (this was a warning I heard a lot in my high school and college days).  Our witness was, apparently, to be limited to those places where good people suffered from mild problems....or, were halfway to conversion already and just needed a little nudge to help them over the line.

Jesus doesn't work that way.  Jesus will go anywhere.  On His on initiative, on His own hook.  Jesus isn't afraid of any place, any situation, where people suffer. And here's the catch....Jesus calls us to follow Him there. 

I have to take a deep breath here.  Because this is scary stuff.  That Jesus calls us out from behind the safety of protected "clean" places to trust Him and enter the "unclean" places of our world is terrifying.

This is where I'll leave it today.  There is enough for us (and I count myself here) to chew on in this story for a very long time.  And the attempt to follow what it teaches us will change us forever.