Saturday, November 24, 2018

“Not from This World” - November 25, 2018 (Christ the King)

John 18:33-37

            If you ever use Wikipedia for research, you need to be prepared to go down the occasional rabbit hole.  Say, for instance, you are looking up the origin of the Feast of Christ the King.  You might discover this little tidbit:

Stir-up Sunday is an informal term in Anglican churches for the last Sunday before the season of Advent. It gets its name from the beginning of the collect for the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which begins with the words, ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people’. But it has become associated with the custom of making the Christmas puddings on that day. The Christmas pudding is one of the essential British Christmas traditions and is said to have been introduced to Britain by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria (the reality is that the meat-less version was introduced from Germany by George I in 1714). Most recipes for Christmas pudding require it to be cooked well in advance of Christmas and then reheated on Christmas Day, so the collect of the day served as a useful reminder.”[1]

Only the British would make that kind of connection on a nation-wide scale.  Anyone from anywhere in the world, however, would recognize that there are times that the sacred and the secular can intertwine in close ways.

            Stephen Prothero, who teaches in the Religion Department at Boston University, wrote a book called Religious Literacy to make the point that ignorance of religion is not only unfortunate but downright dangerous for anybody who wants to know how the world works.  Some of it is as simple as knowing to say, “God bless you!” when someone sneezes, or that a gentleman takes his hat off in a church but covers his head in a synagogue.  Some of it is far more complex.  He says,

“Religion has always been a major factor in US politics and international affairs.  Neither the American Revolution nor the Civil War is comprehensible in a religious vacuum.  The same goes for social reform movements such as abolitionism, temperance, women’s rights, civil rights, and environmentalism – and, of course, for contemporary debates about abortion, stem cell research, capital punishment, animal rights, global warming, intelligent design, state lotteries, birth control, euthanasia, gay marriage, welfare policy, military policy, and foreign policy.”[2]

When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he does not mean that he has nothing to do with this world, because he does.  What he means is that his kingdom is not rooted in anything here, but in God.    

            Clearly, unless he was just plain na├»ve (which he was not) the choices Jesus made that landed him in front of Pontius Pilate were choices that had to do with obeying God, not following any kind of earthly expedience.  If you or I were looking to appoint someone to catch the hearts and minds of humankind and to speak words that would stir up their hearts within them, we would look for a celebrity, a hero of some sort, or maybe a songwriter or poet, somebody who would get the world’s attention.  God sent Jesus instead, who was born long before mass communication of any form, born in a scandalous way in an obscure corner of a contested part of the Roman Empire where they spoke a strange Syrian dialect. 

There was something about Jesus that just never evens up with what we are used to or expect.  When his own followers later would look back on the scriptures they would read these words of Isaiah:

“He had no form or majesty that we should look and him,
            nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
            a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
            he was despised and we held him of no account.”
[Isaiah 53:2-3]

They would say, “That was him!  That describes him just right!”  It wasn’t just his appearance, about which we don’t know anything.  The whole way that Jesus lived brought him into conflict with the way things are done.  He taught,

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” [Luke 14:12-14]

That is, of course, a beautiful sentiment.  But Jesus actually did that sort of thing.  People complained to his disciples, asking them (in a sort of oblivious way, since they were also hanging out with Jesus),

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
[Matthew 9:11]

Did he not understand how the world works?

            Appearances matter, and so do words.  He wasn’t always careful about that, either.  A lot of what Jesus said makes good material for inspirational posters, but Jesus might also turn off the filter when he got going. 

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”
[Matthew 23:27]

You just don’t say stuff like that, even if you think it.  And it won’t help you get things done.  If anything, it’s the way to make the authorities dig their heels in, the way that pretty much anyone else would.  It’s the way to set yourself up for trouble.

            Earlier, someone had wanted to trap Jesus and asked him:

“‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
[Matthew 22:17-21]

But what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?  The answer that Jesus gives is not the answer that Pilate gives.  For our part, we have to go with one of them at some point and not the other.  Which will it be?

            Jesus seems to imply that deep in the human heart, we know the difference, if we are ready to listen, and know what is right.  He said,

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18:37]

Remember the old RCA Victor logo?  A dog cocks his head next to the speaker and the motto is “His master’s voice”.  Jesus testifies by his very life to the ways of God.  In him we see what it is to be truly and fully the human beings that we are made to be.  By him we are freed from all that would hold us back, and thanks to him we have access to the Spirit of truth, who helps us both to know what is good and to seek it.

            Jesus stirs up the wills of God’s faithful people.  He invites us to be part of a kingdom that is broader than our understanding, to be part of a purpose that is greater than we can imagine for ourselves, to live in ways that confuse or amaze those who see them until they realize that it is God himself who is at work and that, as the Bible says,

“the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” [I John 4:4]

What are you hearing in your own heart?

[2] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 4-5.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

“Seeking the Kingdom of God” - November 18, 2018

Matthew 6:25-33

            In a 1924 speech at Haverford College, Rufus Jones described the spiritual struggles of George Fox, one of the early Quakers.  He said,

“A man is what he is.  Asking him to say something, to think something, to perform some act will furnish him with no balm for his soul.    He must find a new source of life, a new dynamic, a new spring of power, a new inward resource.  He must undergo a new creation and become a new person.  He must come into new relation with God and into new fellowship with men.  This process, this power, this creation, this relationship, this life, is Christianity.”[1]

Those are stirring words, and true.  Jesus said,

“You must be born again,” [John 3:7]

or, as it’s also possible to translate that,

“You must be born from above,”

and in the book of Revelation [21:5], the prophet John hears him say,

“See, I am making all things new.”

The thing about birth, though, is that it involves letting go of something as well.  There is loss attached to renewal of any sort, and the fear or regret that may be part of that moment can overwhelm the promise.

            Jesus saw that time and time again in his interactions with all sorts of people.

“A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’” [Matthew 8:19-22]

The call to become a disciple holds both the promise and the cost there for anyone.  It differs from person to person and place to place, but Jesus never hid that there was one life to be left and another to be gained, and that it all goes together.

            Since we’re coming up on Thanksgiving this week, I’ll use the pilgrims as an example.  We often think of them as people who bravely left England for the New World seeking freedom of worship somewhere that they would not have the coercion of conscience that was a constant part of their lives.  Before they sailed west, though, they tried living in the Netherlands and there were some of their number who saw the adjustments that involved as already being too much.  In his History of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford recalled those days.

“Being thus constrained to leave their native soyle and countrie, their lands & livings, and all their freinds & famillier acquaintance, it was much, and thought marvelous by many. But to goe into a countrie they knew not (but by hearsay), wher they must [16]learne a new language, and get their livings they knew not how, it being a dear place, & subjecte to ye misseries of warr, it was by many thought an adventure almost desperate, a case intolerable, & a misserie worse then death. Espetially seeing they were not aquainted with trads nor traffique, (by which yt countrie doth subsiste,) but had only been used to a plaine countrie life, & ye inocente trade of husbandrey. But these things did not dismay them (though they did some times trouble them) for their desires were sett on ye ways of God, & to injoye his ordinances; but they rested on his providence, & knew whom they had beleeved.”[2]

It only became harder and harder, but they kept on going.  By that I mean physically going, from Holland back to England and from there to North America, and persevering through the times of freezing and disease and famine. 

Bradford makes a point, writing in the 1640’s, that some of those people were still very much around.

“I cannot but here take occasion, not only to mention, but greatly to admire ye marvelous providence of God, that notwithstanding ye many changes and hardships that these people wente throwgh, and ye many enemies they had and difficulties they mette with all, that so many of them should live to very olde age! It was not only this reved mans condition, (for one swallow maks no summer, as they say,) but many more of them did ye like, some dying aboute and before this time, and many still living, who attained to 60. years of age, and to 65. diverse to 70. and above, and some nere 80.”[3]

Imagine that!  We forget so easily what others faced not long ago.  Living to sixty was an achievement, and many did not make it. 

What helped them, and made them different from many of the early colonies, was a series of supply ships from England and the help of the people living on Cape Cod when they landed.  That did not take away from their sense that God was behind the timing of the help.  When they needed it, it arrived.  That didn’t happen in, say, Roanoke Island.  For these people, what Jesus said about simply trusting God for food and clothing was not a way of speaking, but a way of life. 

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  For it is the Gentiles who strive for these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” [Matthew 6:31-33]

When I look at other examples of discipleship that God has blessed, that pattern keeps coming up.  People set out on the path of faith and service, and when they meet obstacles along the way (which always happens) they also discover that what they need to overcome is provided at the same time, or shortly thereafter, and that begins with the very basics of food and shelter beyond which all the rest is gravy.  And turkey. And cranberry sauce.  And pie.

But if you want peace, you have to let go of aggression.

If you want forgiveness, you have to let go of resentment.

If you want friendship, you cannot be all about yourself.

If you want joy, you have to look up from your grief.

If you want hope, you cannot act from your fear.

If you want to live by faith, you have to trust the Lord.

[1] Rufus Jones, The Life and Message of George Fox, 1624-1924 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1924), 19.
[2] William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation I.2. (year 1608) at

[3] Ibid., 494.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

“Buying into the Kingdom” - November 11, 2018

Mark 12:38-44

            One of the most cynical, and funniest, books on my shelf was written in the 1960’s and is called How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious.  It’s a satirical handbook that offers advice for young clergy about matters that aren’t taught in seminary.  It says things like,

“Experience will teach you that it is seldom necessary to make public mention of church business and finance.  On those rare occasions when it is necessary, remember to avoid the use of the word ‘money.’  Speak of ‘bringing the tithes into the storehouse’ or ‘the Lord’s business.’”

And then in a footnote it adds:

“See the author’s article ‘The Effective Employment of the Sacred Euphemism in Raising the Church’s Annual Budget,’ which was included in The Compendium of Practical Theology, now unfortunately out of print.”[1]

Unfortunately, Jesus talked about money all the time, which puts everybody who pays attention to him in an awkward spot a lot of the time.

            There are some people, and always have been, who recognize that what is a good and right impulse – the impulse to give and to offer support, the virtue of generosity that I hope we do encourage and foster – can be used to leverage larger contributions if it’s connected to less desirable impulses like pride and a competitive spirit.  One of my favorite stories of a brilliant but borderline-shady fundraiser is about Abbot Suger, who built the monastery of St. Denis in Paris, the very first Gothic-style building.  He invited the King of France and as much of the nobility as he could to the laying of the cornerstone.  For the occasion, he chose a reading from Revelation [21:18-20]:

“The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.”
Every time one of those jewels was mentioned, the royals tossed a precious stone into the mortar for the walls and the nobles were expected to show that they could keep up, too.  There were people there who hadn’t been warned ahead of time and who, rather than look bad, pulled the rings off their fingers to toss into the waiting buckets.  After the ceremony, the monks went through the cement and took out the jewels so that they could be used to fund the rest of the building.

            It was totally effective and totally unethical.  It played off of, and even counted on, human insecurities that were well known to the people whom Jesus criticized for the way that they mixed the search for status with religion.

“As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’” [Mark 12:38-40]

Large donations are wonderful.  They’re welcome.  But they don’t buy anybody a place in God’s heart.  They aren’t needed for that.  God loves even the greediest miser on the planet.  What God does not love, though, is the greed and what it does to others.  No amount can compensate or take the place of genuine human concern for one another.  Watch out if you catch yourself devouring widows’ houses.  A real gift to God is the priceless gift of honesty and integrity.

            That is how this happened:

“He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” [Mark 12:41-44]

There’s something wrong there, too.  Religious institutions should encourage the sort of generosity the widow showed, but guard against its abuse.  However, the entire religious institution that Jesus confronted was set up in such a way that it could lead someone living in poverty to feel that she had to use her last coins to be part of the community of faith, that she had literally to buy into the kingdom of God.

            Let me drop back a little bit here to point out what would have been obvious to those who heard Jesus comment on what he saw.  Maintaining the Temple and the sacrifices offered there was considered so important that about forty years later, when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem and the people inside were starving, the priests continued to offer all of the traditional sacrifices and the meat offering and grain offering were still burnt on the altar.  The water supply was in danger, but they continued to pour out the wine offerings on the ground.  And when the Romans captured the fortress that overlooked the Temple courtyard they fired arrows down on the priests and Levites but they continued on with worship as the scripture directed even as the building went up in flames.  The sort of devotion that could do that was of a piece with the widow’s giving.  She gave everything she had to live on, just as the others would later give their lives. 

            Like them, Jesus’ followers do share the belief that faith does call us to lay everything on the line sometimes.  There are even rare cases where people are called to lay down their lives.  There have been riots in Pakistan this past week over the acquittal on appeal of a Christian woman who had been convicted of blaspheming against Muhammed.  The Pakistani Supreme Court didn’t say she hadn’t done it, just that there had been insufficient evidence.  Even her lawyer has had to leave the country. 

            Christian discipleship for anyone involves wholeheartedness in every part of life.  We are to love God with our heart and mind and soul and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.  I cannot find a loophole in that, although I admit that in the case of certain neighbors I have tried to find some sort of exception. 

We are to be wholehearted about the use of our wealth, too.  That means, though, that we have to do it wisely, like any other aspect of ministry, and never unscrupulously.  It is wrong to take the means of livelihood from anybody in need.  Jesus was definite about those who

“devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Beware when someone announces that if you give $5 to their ministry, that God will send you $10.  (Hint: if that’s how things work, why aren’t they sending you $5, trusting God to send them $10?) 

Back to the Bible, here.  Those others making contributions to the Temple’s treasury could have afforded to make a contribution on the widow’s behalf.  We talk about “tithes and offerings”, which means using the figure of a tenth of one’s income as a good indication of serious participation, but the offerings, which are any amount beyond that, ought to consider the help that someone else would provide if only they could.  Even better, they could have tried to figure out what kept her in poverty, even if they discovered they themselves were part of the problem. 

Maybe, too, it behooved them (and behooves us) to find ways to invite participation in the life of faith that do an end run around financial considerations.  When someone doesn’t have a lot of pocket change to spare, but still wants to contribute meaningfully, that desire to share should still be honored.  We do those who are under financial constraints a disservice when we identify money as the one and only way to participate meaningfully in life.  It’s the world that says you have to have good clothes to go to church, or have a formal education before you have any insight into life, or look like a supermodel before being loved.  It’s the world that says that, not Jesus.

For that matter, we fool ourselves if we think everything we need can even be bought.  Consider the gifts of the young people who don’t yet have jobs and cannot contribute financially, or students who need to put away what they make for next semester’s tuition.  We make a big mistake when we don’t see all that they could do with their skills in the arts and construction and communication or with the high levels of imagination and compassion that are just looking for a good way to become focused. 

            It seems to me that we as a people anymore are far shorter on time than on money.  People are so incredibly busy that when it gets to be the end of the day, they are exhausted.  I have heard people say that there are times when they get so tired that the second they try to pray, they nod off.  What if someone checked in with them occasionally, someone who is a step or two outside the rat race, and offered to take some of their concerns to the Lord on their behalf?  I’m not saying that you can have someone do it all for you, but maybe another believer can help.  Or what if somebody has the gift of being a good listener?  In a world where everyone always has something to say, a few moments with someone who does not talk all the time, or who could even just sit quietly with people for a few minutes from time to time – that’s a real gift.

            Jesus said that

“people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.  Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” [Luke 13:29-30]
I sort of like Curtis Mayfield’s take on that:

“People, get ready                               There ain't no room
There's a train a-coming                      For the hopeless sinner
You don't need no baggage                Who would hurt all mankind
You just get on board                         Just to save his own

All you need is faith                           Have pity on those
To hear the diesels humming              Whose chances grow thinner
Don't need no ticket                           'Cause there's no hiding place
You just thank the Lord                     From the kingdom's throne

People, get ready                                So people, get ready
For the train to Jordan                        For the train a-comin'
Picking up passengers                         You don't need no baggage
From coast to coast                             You just get on board

Faith is the key                                    All you need is faith
Open the doors and board them         To hear the diesels humming
There's room for all                             Don't need no ticket
Amongst the loved the most               You just thank the Lord.”[2]

[1] Charles Merrill Smith, How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1965), 50-51.
[2] Curtis Mayfield, “People, Get Ready”, 1965.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

“Remove the Stone” - November 4, 2018

John 11:32-44

            The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”  I expect he wept often, and that he laughed often, too.  This time what happened was that his friend Lazarus had died and, if that wasn’t bad enough, his sister Mary suggested that it was Jesus’ fault for not getting there fast enough when they sent word that Lazarus was sick.  Was Jesus crying for Lazarus, for Mary, or for himself?  The answer is “yes”.

            When we lose someone through illness or through a painful death, we feel for what they may have had to go through, and we feel for the sadness of the other people who loved them, and we feel sad for ourselves, too.

            In one of his stories about ministering to a church in Evansville, Indiana, Walter Wangerin wrote about the way that one woman experienced the death of her husband.

     “’He always came back, you know,’ she says.  ‘When he worked for the L&N Railroad in the dining car – it took him all the way to St. Louis, but he came back.  When he worked at the Vulcan Plow Works during the Depression, he came back.  I used to pack a picnic basket and carry the children on over to Sunset Park, and even if we started to eat without him, well, he would come from work.  We would enjoy the scenery and then walk home and get there by bedtime.  He always came back, Douglas did, always untroubled.’
     ‘But he hasn’t come back this time.’
     ‘And he’s left an ache like stone in my stomach.’ …
     Miz Lillian says, ‘I’ve gotten used to the ache by now.  It’s all right.  It’s all right.  I call it a friend to me.  This aching reminds me all the time of Douglas. Mm.  There is a gravestone in Oak Hill Cemetery, on his grave, you know.  But it’s sort of a stone in me too.  The children and everyone else can mourn by that stone at Oak Hill.  This one is mine.  The widow’s stone.’”[1]

What is anybody supposed to do with that?  (Because everybody at some point loses someone and carries around some kind of grief.)  Sure, you live with the reality of loss, but what form does it take?
            When Jesus met that kind of loss, it touched him deeply.  Standard translations say,

“he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” [John 11:33] 

Peterson’s translation says,

“a deep anger welled up within him.”

That might, given time, have come to form a similar stone in his guts, a lasting and aching sorrow.  Before it came to that, however, he made them take him to the grave where Lazarus was buried and there he stood before a stone that had been rolled across its opening to seal it off.  How could Jesus not, on some level, have seen in that stone, the one that would seal his own tomb very shortly afterward?  How could all his emotions – love for Lazarus and his sisters, anger at the accusations being lobbed in his direction, fear about the pain he would himself be forced to bear, all that we ever feel around anyone’s death (including our own) – how could all of that not have formed one big stone inside his own chest, one big lump in his throat, one big weight heavy enough to crush him to the ground?

            And yet… Jesus said,

"Remove the stone." [John 11:39]

Martha, the practical sister, told him he was just losing it.  That kind of stone is there to wall us off from the decay that goes on, like the emotional stone walls off the strongest emotions so that even when there is grief, it doesn’t consume the rest of life.  There are reasons we do the things we do to get by.

"Master, by this time there's a stench. He's been dead four days!" [John 11:39]

You tell him, Martha!

“Jesus looked her in the eye. ‘Didn't I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 
Then, to the others, ‘Go ahead, take away the stone.’" [John 11:40-41]

Which they did.

“Then he shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 
And he came out.” [John 11:43-44]

They had to unwrap him and uncover his face, and I wish we knew what went through the heads of the people who did that.  We don’t get any description of what the rest of the reunion was like.  I imagine it was a weird mix of happy and creepy, disturbing and joyful. 

In some ways it was like a rehearsal for Easter, which was even stranger, because there it was God who directly intervened and raised Jesus up, pointing to Jesus’ promise that it wouldn’t just be Lazarus who was restored, but that it would be all of God’s people who would have access to eternal life through Jesus.  He had told Martha when she had first met him coming into town,

“I am, right now, Resurrection and Life.  The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live.  And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.” [John 11:25-26]

To live believing in Jesus is what we call “faith”.  And it is faith, not our good deeds or our religiosity or anything else, that lets Jesus set us right with God.

            William Butler Yeats said,

“Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.”[2]

So if Jesus tells us that it is okay, that those who have died are alive with God, it is easier to roll away those stones that build up inside us, and when we name those people, the way he named Lazarus, we feel their life rather than our loss.  At times like that, what we celebrate once again are the good moments, the moments when through such people’s lives a little bit of God’s own grace comes through to us.

[1] Walter Wangerin, Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 188-189.
[2] from “Easter, 1916”.