Saturday, April 28, 2018

That We Might No Live No Longer For Ourselves

That We Might Live No Longer For Ourselves

Our next door neighbor in Connecticut, Emil Tramposch, was a nurseryman - a vinedresser. He propagated and raised ground covers. His hands worked steadily day in and day out creating and co-creating new life for the world. He sat at a bench to do his work. In the summers Emil would put the bench out of doors in a particular spot in a field where, on the hottest and stillest day of the summer, he could always feel a slight movement of air. A very still, but perceptible breeze – a breath of wind. Then, there are times when the wind is so fierce that trees bend over, rain blows in horizontal sheets, things once seemingly permanent are blown apart or away, like Dorothy being blown from Kansas to Oz! In Hebrew and in Greek, the words used for spirit in the Bible also mean breath or wind. Emil would abide, live, dwell in that breath or wind of Spirit.

It is easy to miss the fact that in Acts chapter 8, the compelling story of the apostle Philip and an Ethiopian Eunuch, the primary character in the story is The Spirit. It is the Spirit, the Ruach, the Pneuma of God, that urges Philip to go to the road to Gaza; the Spirit urges him to approach this Ethiopian Eunuch who is reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah; the Spirit that moves the Eunuch to seek baptism; and the Spirit that “snatches” Philip from the scene to more urgent business in Caesarea.

Caesarea in the fourth century was home to Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, whose treatise On The Holy Spirit urged the church to give the same honor, glory and worship to the Spirit as to the Father and the Son. Indeed, it is Basil who is credited with Eucharistic Prayer D in our Book of Common Prayer, the oldest Eucharistic prayer in our prayer book. Basil’s Eucharistic prayer says this about the Spirit: “And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.”

There is a video that depicts a woman named Linda who is alone in a church saying the Lord’s prayer when suddenly a voice, the voice of God, begins to answer her. When she says, “Our Father who art in heaven,” the voice responds, “Yes!” Later when she prays, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…,” the voice says, “Whoa, are you sure you want all of that? My kingdom coming and my will being done?”
“Well, yeah,” says Linda, “we could all use a little more heaven around here.”
“So what are you doing to make that happen?” asks God.
“I kind of thought you would do all that, you’re the king.”
“You can’t have a kingdom without subjects to do thy will.”
“Oh,” gulps Linda, along with all the rest of us.

“Little children,” writes the First Letter of John, “let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” That is, for those who are blown upon or breathed upon by the Spirit, what we do is more important than what we say or believe. We are “to live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us….to complete his work in the world, and bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” No longer for ourselves but for the world.

Sometimes we need to abide, to dwell, to put ourselves in just the right place to sense and receive this spirit Jesus sends us and says abides in us. Sometimes it will sweep us away with hurricane and cyclonic force sending us where it wills, not where we will. Other times it will be like a breath, a barely perceptible movement of our spirit. Basil of Caesarea says this is Jesus’ first gift to us. God’s first gift is God’s love for us – we know love because God first loves us. We are God’s Beloved. We are to love others.

People will know who we are and whose we are by what we do, not what we say and even less through what we believe. It was Mahatma Ghandi who said the Sermon on the Mount was an excellent guide to living a righteous life. The problem is, he said, he had never met anyone who was living out of that vision of the Spirit-led life. What we do must be a continuation of what Jesus was doing, bringing sanctity, holiness, to everyone and every thing in God’s creation. It will be through completing Jesus’vision of a world of Shalom, a world of justice and peace for all persons, respecting the dignity of every human being, that people will know we are followers of the man from Nazareth, and people driven by the power of the Spirit.

William Countryman, in his book The Good News of Jesus (Cowley:Boston, 1993) writes about the life of the Spirit. In Baptism, he writes, we receive the good news of God’s unfailing love, and in Eucharist we experience the eternal newness of God’s unfailing love. “The life of the community that celebrates these sacraments is a life of mutual giving and receiving. The early Christians were convinced that the Spirit has a particular care for the church, supplying the community with all it needs. She does so, however, in a peculiar way. The gifts you need she gives to someone else. The gifts you are given are meant for others. The Christian community can live only by the sharing of these gifts. The church at its best is a community that lives by this kind of sharing, exercising generosity not only within its own circle, but toward outsiders as well. Jesus, after all, came for the outsiders. None of us has any higher claim on God than the claim to God’s willing forgiveness. We are all of us outsiders, miraculously included within the community of the gospel of God’s call.” (p.105)

The Ethiopian Eunuch represents the ultimate in outsiders from every possible viewpoint: racially, religiously, sexually, nationally, considered odd and even ritually unclean by some. Philip does not naturally approach this outsider. The spirit must urge, push, coerce, and move Philip to go where he does not naturally want to go, and to be with someone he had been taught to avoid. What all of scripture is urging us to accept is that now is the only time we have to position ourselves to abide and dwell in this gift of the Spirit. Now is the time to prepare ourselves to be blown on by the wind, a wind more powerful than any we have ever experienced in this world, so we too can co-create new life for others.

We have only here and now to complete Jesus’ work in the world and to sanctify everyone and everything in this world. Not some, not many, not a lot, but all. Everyone and everything awaits to see what we will do, being not at all interested in what we have to say or what we believe. Are we ready to allow the Spirit to move us beyond ourselves to “complete his work in the world and bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all?” And, if not now, when?

Saturday, April 21, 2018

See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me
These words from the Who’s rock opera, Tommy, in some way sum up our story as it is parceled out the Sundays after Easter. After the women find the open tomb, Jesus appears to people, invites some to touch him, to feel the wounds, and others to see him. He offers them “Peace,” Shalom in his vernacular. God’s Shalom envisions a reconciling healing of all that plagues us, all that ails us, all that divides us, all that divides us from God and one another. The Bible knows all that divides us from others, from ourselves, and from God, as Sin – a word increasingly absent from our day-to-day vocabulary. We are awash with voices urging us to affirm ourselves and be more comfortable “in our own skin,” accepting of things “as they are.” Sin, originally an archery term for “missing the mark,” just seems old fashioned and unhelpful and counterproductive to the fast and positive pace of modern life.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter every year we pray, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” In a society increasingly devoid of any sense of Sin, it seems ever more bizarre for us to pray to “hear voices,” let alone the voice of Jesus calling us each by name. Yet, every Fourth Sunday of Easter this is what we pray. Our prayer assumes that we hear his voice: “when we hear his voice may we know him who call us each by name and follow him.”

There’s the rub. Following him. Take, for instance, Peter and John in Acts chapters 3-4. A lame man asks them for money. We see them all the time if we drive around the city holding out their hands for some spare cash. Peter says, “We have no money, but what we have we will give to you, the Name of Jesus. Rise up and walk with us!” And he walks! For this they are put in jail, hauled before a Kangaroo Court and threatened. All for having heard the voice of Jesus and follow in his way – the way of God’s Shalom, the way of seeing, hearing, touching and healing a broken world. Peter says, in effect, “Have you arrested us for doing a good deed for this man who is healed? Don’t you really have more important things to be doing yourselves?”

In John chapters 8-10, after Jesus shows mercy on a woman caught in adultery, saves her life really, as she is about to be stoned by a crowd of self-righteous religious zealots. Then  he restores the sight of a man born blind. For this, he is constantly badgered and threatened by one crowd after another. He’s possessed by demons, they cry. They are set to stone Jesus just as they were ready to stone the woman. Note, we hear stories of women around the world still being stoned by crowds and by governments. This is not ancient history. This is happens every day.

As Jesus explains it in chapter 10, there is a crisis of leadership from the top. He speaks of Good Shepherds and Bad Shepherds, or “Hired Hands.” Throughout the history of his people, God spoke of the political leadership as “shepherds.” One of the early Kings had been David, a shepherd boy, thus, we can assume the origin of this metaphor of Kings as Shepherds. Some kings care for the people to the point of laying down their lives for the sake of the people, while others simply look out for themselves. For instance, Solomon. 1Kings chapter 4 tells us that Solomon’s household provision for one day was “thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, fatted fowl, and a partridge in a pear tree.” That is, Solomon and his royal household ate really, really well while the people suffered in debt and were hungry. And it is Jesus who says, “Even Solomon in all his glory was not as well adorned as a lily in a field.” Not meant as a compliment!

Jesus talks about God’s shalom as love that lays down its life for others. Like him, when he calls us by name, we are to become good shepherds as well. The First Letter of John doubles down on this. Amidst those who claimed all you need is faith for salvation, the community of First John says, No! Faith must result in action – “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This is to be the life of those who hear his voice calling them by name. But there are so many other voices saying things like, “Trust the markets to provide,” or, “Tax relief for corporations will provide,” or, “Nuclear superiority will keep us safe,” or, “More guns will keep us safe,” or “Everyone ought to strive to  achieve self-sufficiency before taking care of others,” or “We can continue to burn fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow.” There are so many, many voices competing for our listening and believing. Most of whom, none of whom, even care to know us by name. Self-interest and Special Interest is the coin of the realm.

After Jesus lays out the need for Good Shepherds, the story ends, “There was again a great division among them because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad; why listen to him?’ Why listen to him, indeed! Perhaps our prayer ought to be, Lord, please spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me! Lord, if you are listening for just one minute, just for one second of one minute, can you please shut out all the competing voices, interests, merchants, politicians and commentators for just a few minutes of silence? Lord, can you please still the waters; can you please make me lie down in green pastures; can your rod and your staff please, Lord, comfort me, touch me, protect me and heal me? Lord, please give me the time, the place and the space to listen to you!

Why? Because we all want to be known. We spend a lifetime looking for relationships, reflecting on experiences, searching for someone who knows us, or even more fundamentally, to know ourselves. There is no doubt about it, the most fundamental human condition is a desire to know and to be known. All these other voices competing for our attention do not really want to know us. Can’t possibly know us. But there is one who does. Listen to him. Listen for him.

Those who listen are the sheep of his pasture. We become his people, his body and blood for the world. "His broken body is my broken body upon which others feed. His blood spilled is my blood shed to rejoice the hearts of all." (Aidan Kavanagh, Christ, Dying and Living Still) The one hope is that as folk come to know us that they, in fact, find another– The Good Shepherd. It will be so if we abide in Him and He in us. It will be so if we let him set our hearts on fire with the breath of his Holy Spirit. It will be so as he opens our hearts to the Word of God. We the lame will walk, we the blind will see, if when he calls us by name we will only listen.

There are many competing voices. Why listen to Jesus? Because only one voice calls us each by name. Only one voice knows us, really truly knows us because he became one of us. That Voice is Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. He wants to touch us and heal us!  Amen.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

What's Next?

As all the Easter celebrations and gatherings begin to fade further and further in the recent past, replaced by daily and even hourly revelations of what life is like in our divided nation, thoughtful people ponder questions like: What was the risen Jesus like? What is the
meaning of resurrection? How is this Jesus present now? And, more broadly: What next? What is the way forward post-Easter, post-Modern and post-Election 2016?

Reflecting on four Bible passages, with help from Texts For Preaching [CD ROM version: Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, Newsome Jr, Presbyterian Publishing Corp.] reveals that those living in Israel before, in and after the first century were pondering much the same questions as we are. That is, we can simply read the Bible, not necessarily as a religious text, but rather to gather some kernel of insight as to how we might move forward in our own time. Psalm 4, Luke 24, Acts 3 and 1 John 3 all address people struggling with similar crises and issues that face us today. Taken in chronological order of appearance:
Psalm 4, the oldest of the four texts, dating back at least to the 5th or 6th century BCE, comes with the instruction “to be played on stringed instruments.” It is a prayer, a plea, meant to be sung. Perhaps we might see it as an early pre-cursor to The Blues. Addressed to a community in crisis, the message in the psalm is that the victories of sinners are only temporary and meaningless, that only repentance can bring true happiness, and that only in the peace of the Lord can “I dwell in safety.” Many are saying, "Oh, that we might see better times!" Sounds contemporary enough no matter what side of the many societal, national and international divides where we live. Psalm 4 concludes, “7 You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. 8 I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Offers Brueggemann et al., “The singer may be severely troubled, but all the trouble is confidently contained in the scope of a functioning, working, trustworthy relation to God. Even severe trouble is held within the deep awareness that comes with a life utterly devoted to the purpose of God.”

Next up, Luke chapter 24, sometime late in the 1st century CE addressed to a community in crisis. Not only has one side of a divided community lost its leader, Jesus, but by the time of Luke’s writing the Jerusalem Temple, the center of Israelite universe, lies in ashes, burned to the ground by Rome to quell an uprising that began in 66CE. It is the day of Easter, the disciples are in a closed room in Jerusalem for fear of the government authorities. They have heard an account from some women that the tomb of Jesus is empty and he is risen. They dismiss this as “girl talk.” Meanwhile, the risen Jesus accompanies some followers on their way home, inquires as to why they seem so sad, teaches them some Hebrew scripture, and agrees to share a meal with them. When he takes, blesses and breaks the bread at the table they suddenly see it is Jesus who is with them. He immediately vanishes. Or, does he? Does he ever? Their hearts are burning.

Then he appears to those behind closed doors. They think this to be a ghost, an apparition. He says, Peace, the peace of the Lord, the peace of God, the same peace that allows the singer in Psalm 4 to fall asleep confident that she is safe with God. He urges them to touch his hands and feet, the sites of the wounds from the cross. This peace of his was bought at a dear price. Then of all things, Jesus asks, “Have you anything here to eat?” Really, that is what the text says is his first request! They give him a piece of fish – like the three fish that fed 5,000, like the fish he is cooking on the beach in John 21 when he invites the disciples to, “Come, and have breakfast!” Ghosts don’t eat fish. Then he imparts three things they must know: 1) He “opened their minds to the scriptures,” including the Torah, the Psalms and the Prophets; 2) His resurrection appearance is no miracle, but part of a larger framework of Biblical narrative that brings to fruition God’s plans and purposes; 3) He indicates that what is next is their continued mission, their part in this ongoing story: the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, the move from Jerusalem to all the nations, the disciples as witnesses, the promise of divine power.

That is, there is a future, and a better one at that! Acts 3 offers an example. As Peter and John are on their way to the Temple to pray, they meet a lame man on the way. He asks them for alms. Peter says, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” For this they are put on trial. The text addresses the latest crisis. Their defense: we didn’t do this. God in Christ Jesus did this. Then Peter says, “19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, 21 who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”

Peter’s message of hope turns from the past (“Repent therefore, and turn to God in order that your sins may be wiped out”) to the future (“and that [God] may send the Messiah appointed
for you”).  For you who do not believe, or don’t want to believe, there is a Messiah that will be appointed for you. For you. Despite your evil ways! We have seen it all before. Time and again the Bible tells of times when ‘persons unintentionally accomplish the will of God by plotting evil and, in so doing, participate in one of the grand mysteries of the life of faith. As Joseph observed so long before, when musing over the failed efforts of his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Even our evil can be made good in the hands of God.”’ (Brueggemann, et al.)

Finally, from the second century comes a Letter called 1 John, addressed to a Christian community divided within itself, with some having left the community over a dispute over the relationship between faith and action. They have left because of their belief that faith alone brings salvation. Now in chapter 3, verse 2 the author(s) of this letter delicately balance the present time of crisis with a hopeful future not of our own making: “Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” That is, the future will bring changes. What those changes are is uncertain. This cannot be predicted or analyzed. Verse 7 ends affirming that it is right and ethical action that is required of those who remain in the community of God’s Beloved, what Dr. King called The Beloved Community: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he [God] is righteous.” Faith and Action go hand in hand – which leads us back to Jesus affirming that faithful study of the texts of the tradition equips us to a life of action, mission, forgiveness, and divine, not human, but divine power.

Brueggemann et al. conclude: “These texts assert the news that life can begin anew, that the community can be reorganized and individual members regenerated. In our jaded, habitual faith, we most often do not expect change—for ourselves. … These texts cringe neither from the notion of personal newness, nor from the larger truth that Easter can disrupt all that is old and failed. The entry of the One who is touchable and who nourishes may indeed reorder life for all of us who are untouched, unfazed, and endlessly wanting better nourishment.” What next?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Thomas Remembers

Thomas Remembers
Thomas. Most often recalled as “Doubting Thomas.” [John 20:19-31] Thomas bears much disrespect throughout the history of the church, a church that we must finally admit often fails in its most foundational charge: to remember. What is to be remembered is the violence done to a young man from Galilee. What is forgotten is that his death was not unique. The torture Jesus endures was visited upon many. It had been visited upon many before Jesus and continues to this day. Think Black Lives Matter, think Me Too, think of all the unfettered gun violence. Thomas does not doubt. Thomas remembers. He asks to see the wounds. He calls all who would join him in saying of Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” to remember.

Yet, often such violence is masked by words such as “virtuous suffering,” and “self-sacrificing love.” Or, notions that to be faithful followers of Christ we must “join him in his suffering.” This kind of thinking is what the author of the First Epistle of John calls it “atonement” - at-one-ment - quite possibly the most damaging ideas of all Christian theology: “...and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world..” [1 John 2:2].

The idea is simple, and born of repeated attempts to make sense of his torture and death on a Roman cross: Jesus died to save us from our sins. Seems simple enough. It is not. The idea that the torture and death of Jesus on the cross saves us in effect sanctions violence at the very heart of Christianity. Even the most cursory reading of Paul’s letters and the four Gospels contradicts any such conclusion. That is, Jesus is consistently portrayed as one who sets out to bring others, all others, especially those whose lives, like his, bear the marks of similar violation and violence,  closer to the presence of God through acts of healing, exorcism, and building up communities of healing, forgiveness and love. He most often calls us to “follow him” in doing all of this. Thomas remembers. 

We forget. We forget that earlier in John’s gospel it is Thomas, and Thomas alone among all the disciples, who, when Jesus decides to head toward Jerusalem and to visit the home of his friend Lazarus, and all the others warn that it is too dangerous, there are those who wish to “kill you,” it is Thomas alone who says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas does not doubt, he remembers.

 We forget. We forget, or have never been told, that when the fourth evangelist John says, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,” that the word is Judeans. And those disciples hiding from the violence that had just been meted out upon their Lord were themselves Judeans. Most scholars today acknowledge that Judaism as we know it had not been developed in the time of Jesus. Yet, in the church’s forgetfulness, and lack of any careful reading of the texts, much damage has been done in both preaching and sanctioning anti-Semitism right up to The Final Solution. And the church forgets the context of the Risen Jesus as he commissions his disciples saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

For in the world of Jesus, Thomas, the disciples and the Jewish people, forgiveness is not as simple as the church continues to misrepresent it. Nor is Jesus inventing some new practice. In the world of Jesus and his disciples Israelites forgive others all the time. Especially on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day to repair the damage we do to one another, a day to confess sin and forgive sin. If I have sinned against you, damaged our relationship, I can apologize and ask for forgiveness, which you may grant. But if the confession seems insincere, or the damage is still so great and so painful, you are not obligated to forgive. Tradition then says that I may come back a second and even third time to ask for forgiveness. And again, you may forgive, or you may “retain” the sin - and after three times, then I can approach God to ask for forgiveness. That is, it is a process. Some sins cannot be forgiven. There is no cheap grace.

Sadly, the church has not always remembered this. And so women who have been victims of domestic violence have been counseled to forgive and thus “share in the sufferings of Christ.” Victims of sexual harassment have been told to “get over it and move on.” Even in this past few weeks, some American Evangelical pastors have publicly defended serial sexual abusers by saying, “The sinner understands that he or she is forgiven in the eyes of God. We understand Sin and Forgiveness.” Communities that have been ravaged by gun violence, including those charged with keeping the peace repeatedly shooting unarmed Black men, are told, “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” All of which overlooks the context in which Jesus was tortured and violently killed. All of which conveniently overlooks the context of forgiving or retaining sins in which Jesus and his followers lived and died. Thomas remembers this.

Elie Wiesel, when asked about forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust replied that he did not have the authority to forgive on behalf of the millions who were tortured and killed. “Who am I to forgive on behalf of so many people?” As the author of Ecclesiastes might sum it up, there is a time for forgiving sins, and there is a time for retaining sins. Which is what Jesus appears to confirm.

Then he breathes on them as God had puffed the first breath into a handful of dust in Genesis 2 to create the first person. Jesus breathes new life into them in their moment of fearfulness and forgetting. “Peace - Shalom- be with you. My shalom be with you.” His shalom means justice and peace for all people. Shalom means healing all that is broken in this world. He puffs on them as one might puff on dying embers to fan them into flames - flames of justice, love, healing, and most of all, the presence of God. Atonement, at-one-ment, does not, at the end of the day, require us to share in his sufferings and violent death, but rather that he, Jesus, he, the Word, he God, is present with us in our suffering and violent deaths. That we are with him in his mission of healing a broken world. The difference in this understanding of at-one-ment is the difference between life and death. Often the church has forgotten this. Thomas asks to see the wounds. He remembers all of this.

Daily we are reminded of just how damaged the world still is. The steady stream of reminders is often overwhelming. Jesus breathes on us. He fans our dying embers into flames once again. “Let us say, that life shows the face of God, only in fleeting glimpses, by the light of night fires, in dancing shadows, in departing ghosts, and in recollections of steady love. Let us say that this is enough, enough for us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, enough for us to stand against violence, enough for us to hold each other in benediction and love.” [Rita Brock&Rebecca Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Beacon Press, Boston -  p252]

Thomas does not doubt. Thomas knows and remembers all of this. The question is, do we?