I AM. Are You?

 

TheBurningBush

Exodus 3:1-15; Rom. 12:9-21; Matt. 16:21-28

Award-winning author Jack Miles, once a professor of English and religion at the University of California, Irvine, until his retirement, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 1995 entitled, God: A Biography. This fascinating book presupposes that the Hebrew Bible (which is what we call the Old Testament, but in a slightly different order) is a story written with God as the protagonist character. As with any great work of literature, character development is a key component to good story-telling, and it was his aim through the writing of God: A Biography to explore the development of God’s character through the story of the Hebrew Bible.

Now, this may strike some of us as odd, since we may tend to think of God as “unchanging, from everlasting to everlasting,” but as a literary critic, Miles does not make this theological assumption—instead, he must work under the assumption that if the story is indeed any good, the main character will develop throughout. He is by no means the first to notice that God’s character does, in fact, seem to “develop” as the Bible’s narrative unfolds, and other books on the subject, sometimes called “progressive revelation,” make for helpful and informative reading. As the book of Genesis moves from start to finish, Miles noticed that God (the character) seemingly learns about himself by observing his own actions and interactions concerning humans. He is infinitely powerful, creating human beings with merely the sound of his voice and making us in his image (which for Miles means that we share his ability to create—including creating more of ourselves). But God also becomes jealous of how successful we are at procreating, and so he first tries to kill humanity (a decision he later regrets), then makes human procreation a significant hardship (another decision that he later regrets), with the exception of Abraham’s descendants, with whom a covenant is formed.

So successful is Abraham’s family at procreating that they soon become an interior threat to Egypt, the country that has played host to them for several hundred years. In his angst, the Pharaoh decides to enslave Abraham’s descendants, and that is where we pick up this story of God this morning: a God who is both all-powerful, and jealous of human power. A God who is all-knowing, but, speaking literarily, doesn’t know anything about himself aside from what he he learns through self-observation.

And while no one knows much about God at this point in the story, one thing that can be said for God is that God keeps his promises. Having promised never again to destroy the world with a flood, he has not done so. Having promised to provide offspring to Abraham, he has provided them. Having promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit Palestine, God raised up Moses to lead the people there. This morning’s first scripture reading was Moses’ call.  Moses went through the ordinary prophetic call-narrative reluctance, asking God, “When I tell the people I speak for the God of their fathers, what if they ask me your name? I don’t know it.”

God answers by saying ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh. This is commonly translated “I am who I am.” It can also mean “I shall be what I shall be,” which to Moses would mean, “You’re gonna find out who I am, soon enough!” Jack Miles also suggests a third possibility. If you make just one tiny change to one little letter in this Hebrew sentence, the meaning changes dramatically. The difference between the letter that exists and the letter that he suggests is even smaller than crossing a lowercase “L” to turn it into a lowercase “T.” With one miniscule change to a single letter, God could be saying, “I am what I do.”

This hypothesis is important to Miles for two reasons. First, it helps Miles with his biography of God by suggesting that God is making a confession to Moses: God only knows himself by what he does—and that’s how the rest of the world will come to know him, too. His actions precede his intentions. Second, God really does give his name to Moses! By changing the word from ‘Ehyeh to ‘Ahweh, God essentially gives the name he is known by throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: Yahweh. In Jack Miles’ opinion, God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Act sent me.’” It’s worth remembering that Miles is neither a Bible scholar nor a theologian—his discipline is literary criticism. But sometimes it’s in engaging in such cross-disciplinary exercises that we hit upon something that gets us thinking.

I guess a literary critic such as Jack Miles would call the Hebrew Bible a “coming of age story,” where the main character figures out who he is. Saying, “I am what I do” or even “I am what I will be” is not the way to show anyone that you’ve already figured out who you are. As the story of the Bible continues to unfold, so does God’s character, if not to Godself (as suggested by Miles), then certainly to the humans who interact with God. And it doesn’t take reading the Bible as a literary critic to come to this conclusion; I have long experienced the Bible as the unfolding of God’s self-revelation to humanity. It seems rather clear to me that our understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to God and one another, has developed—and continues to develop—over time, and there is ample of evidence of this even within the Bible itself. Where Miles goes a step further—because he can, because he’s a literarian, not a theologian—is his suggestion that God’s character grows and changes over time. And as I already said, there are plenty of instances in the Bible that make this idea plausible, it’s just that I’d rather think it’s our understanding of God that grows, not God, Godself. But Miles’ literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible does not negate its message to us… it only enhances it by highlighting a fundamental truth about our God.

God keeps God’s promises. Whether you like Miles’ characterization of God—whether you like his notion of God’s character “developing”—or not, one attribute of God is, indeed, unchanging in God’s character (even as Miles tells it) and it is the simple yet utterly foundational fact that God keeps God’s promises. God may strike us as mysterious, or unfair, or even capricious in turns; but one thing God always is, is trustworthy.

So trustworthy, in fact, that he sent Jesus Christ—the Word of God incarnate—not only to tell us his will, but to show us how it’s done. Just as he told his disciples, he entered Jerusalem not to overthrow the governing authorities, but to willingly lay down his life. While Peter and the other disciples espoused a traditional belief that the Messiah would necessarily avoid suffering, rejection, and death as he threw off the shackles of Israel’s oppressors, Jesus knew that there were bigger fish to fry.

In my studies, I discovered something I’d not previously known, and that no one could know by reading the gospel in English. As discussed last week, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” And we read this as a stinging rebuke. I mean, Jesus is calling one of his closest friends “Satan.” Surely we ought not to take that lightly, and surely Peter didn’t. Calling someone Satan strikes us as one of the worst things Jesus could ever say to anyone! But in the very next paragraph—still a part of this same scene—Jesus goes on to say, “If any would come after me, they must deny themselves….” The word for “behind” in “get behind me” and the word for “after” in “if any would come after me” is, in Greek, the same word!

It makes sense when you think about it, right? I mean, if you’re following after someone, you’re obviously behind them. Jesus was neither merely rebuking Peter for having a devil of an idea, nor commanding that Satan get out of his sight (which was always the way I read it). Rather, calling Peter “Satan” is an apt metaphor, because Peter is, in fact, thinking like Satan was believed to think. The old legend about Satan was that he was once one of God’s most favored angels, but was cast out of heaven after pridefully refusing to submit to God’s authority. Now, in the Gospel of Matthew, we see Peter refusing to submit to Jesus’ declared intention: to journey to Jerusalem, there to submit to the authorities. Peter couldn’t countenance such a plan. But, as Jesus rightly pointed out, it wasn’t up to Peter. Jesus was the teacher; Peter was the student. “Like Satan, you’ve forgotten your place!” Jesus was saying. “Fall in line! I’m the one making the rules, here! If anyone wants to follow in the direction I’m leading, they’d better get used to the ideas of self-denial and sacrifice, because that’s where this is headed.”

This is the second time in this scene that our narrator, Matthew, has used word pairs to make a point. Last week, called Peter both a rock worth building upon and a stone to trip Jesus up. And now, Jesus has ordered Peter to “get behind” him, because that’s the only position from which one can “follow” another. The questions laid before Peter and the other disciples are the same questions laid before us: will we support Jesus, or will we be obstacles to his ministry? Will we be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

The Lord said to Moses, “I AM who I am. I WILL BE who I will be. You’ll come to know me by my actions.” God made good on his promises—proved his trustworthiness and the pure light of the content of his character—by taking his judgment upon himself, by being faithful to the unfaithful, by loving the unloveable.

By God’s acts of grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, we have come to know the true character of God; all that we thought we knew previously pales in comparison. And as we answer Christ’s call to join him at his own table, to feast together in thanksgiving as a reflection of the one common humanity for which God created us all, and to be fed with spiritual food in order to continue working with Christ to reconcile the world, we are invited to answer for ourselves the question posed by God—both at the burning bush and in Jesus Christ’s instruction to Peter:

I AM. Are you?

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You Blockhead!

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Matt. 16:13-23

Three men were standing in line to get into heaven one day. Apparently it had been a pretty busy day, though, so Peter had to tell the first one, “Look, heaven’s just about reached its quota for the day, and I’ve been asked only to admit people who have had particularly horrible deaths. So what’s your story?”

The first man replies: “Well, for a while I’ve suspected my wife has been cheating on me, so today I came home early to try to catch her red-handed. As I came into my 25th floor apartment, I could tell something was wrong, but all my searching around didn’t reveal where this other guy could have been hiding. Finally, I went out to the balcony, and sure enough, there was this man hanging off the railing, 25 floors above ground! Furious, I started beating on him and kicking him, but he wouldn’t fall off. So finally I went back into my apartment and got a hammer and starting hammering on his fingers. Of course, he couldn’t stand that for long, so he let go and fell—but even after 25 stories, he fell into the bushes, stunned but okay. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I ran into the kitchen, grabbed the fridge and pushed it over the edge where it landed on him, killing him instantly. All the stress and rage got to me, and I had a heart attack and died there on the balcony.”

“That sounds like a pretty bad day to me,” said Peter, and while he found the man’s behavior reprehensible, he was reminded of the grace of Christ that had forgiven him his denials and missteps, and let the man in.

The second man came up, and Peter explains to him about heaven being full, and again asked for his story.

“It’s been a very strange day. You see, I live on the 26th floor of my apartment building, and every morning I do my exercises out on my balcony. Well, this morning I tripped and fell over the railing. Luckily, I caught the railing of the balcony on the floor below me. I knew I couldn’t hang on for very long, but suddenly this man burst out onto the balcony. I thought for sure I was saved, when he started beating on me and kicking me. I held on the best I could until he ran into the apartment and grabbed a hammer and started pounding on my hands. Finally I just let go. But again I got lucky and fell into the bushes below, stunned but okay. Just when I was thinking I was going to get up, this refrigerator comes falling out of the sky and crushes me instantly, and now I’m here.”

Peter had to concede that that sounded like a pretty horrible death, so he let the second man enter.

The third man came to the front of the line, and again Peter explained that heaven was full and asked for his story.

“Picture this,” says the third man, “I’m hiding inside a refrigerator…”

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We could sit all day and tell jokes about Saint Peter guarding the Pearly Gates—there seems to be no limit to them. The image of Saint Peter being the one standing at the gate at all hours to determine who gets in and who doesn’t is one interpretation of this morning’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew. “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19)

This week’s lectionary reading is also the basis for the Roman Catholic tradition that Peter was the “first pope,” and that each succeeding pope inherited the spirit of Peter’s apostolic leadership from his predecessor. There’s a whole lot of church history and church imagery tied up in just these few verses, some of it amusing, some of it questionable, but all of it important in its way.

The conversation between Jesus and his disciples is a revealing one. When asked who people say the Son of Man is, they rattle off a list of possibilities: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Christians today aren’t so different. When asked who Jesus is, we might answer in all sorts of different ways: a wise teacher, the Great Physician, the Good Shepherd, a great prophet, the Judge judged in our place. We take our answers from what we have been taught by Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Charles Wesley, George Fox, etc. We have a whole litany of ways we think about Jesus, according to the way we were taught to think or according to our own experience of Jesus in our lives.

The same was apparently the case for the people speaking about Jesus. The idea that he was a resurrected prophet, even if it wasn’t quite right, is still a very high measure of who Jesus was thought to be! But then Jesus asked a more pointed question: “What about yinz? Who do yinz think I am?” (And yes, he said “yinz”— he wasn’t just talking to Peter, but to the twelve.) But it was Peter who spoke up first, saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

It seems this answer pleasantly surprised Jesus, who said, “You’ve been blessed, Simon bar Jonah! No one here could have taught you that; it must have been revealed to you by my Heavenly Father!” Now, as far as Matthew is concerned, Peter didn’t necessarily say anything profound in this scene. When Jesus had climbed into the boat after Peter walked on the water, all the disciples had worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!” (Matt. 14:33). Peter’s confession, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, is nothing new or groundbreaking.

This is also supposed to be the story of how Simon got his new name. While Matthew, our narrator, has been calling him Peter from the beginning of the story, often referring to him as “Simon, who is called Peter,” it is here that Jesus actually bestows this new name—or nickname, as the case may be. That’s because back in those days, no one used the name “Peter.” There was no such name. Nowadays, we probably all know someone named Peter, or Pedro, or Piotr, or Petri, or Pierre, or Patrick. But not back then. Back then, “Peter” was simply the Greek transliteration of the Latin word for “rock,” and it seems to me that it was meant to be a nickname. This is the first time that Peter is actually called Peter by Jesus or any other speaking character in the Gospel of Matthew. Although the narrator has called him Peter all along, it’s only because he knew the story before he told it.

“Simon, I’m going to start calling you ‘Rocky,’” Jesus said, “because it’s on this Rock that I will build my church.” Peter would play an important and influential role in the early church, eventually becoming the senior leader of the Church in Rome. In the book of Acts, when Peter had a vision declaring that old kosher laws were no longer binding, and then went on to interpret that vision to mean that Gentiles were as clean in God’s sight as Jews (Acts 10-11), the Christian community, led by James, the brother of Jesus, ultimately agreed with him. Simon the Rock was given the keys to the kingdom, and told that what he bound would be bound and what he loosed would be loosed, meaning that authority over the community would be vested in him by Jesus, and his interpretation of the gospel would be binding.

That’s an awesome responsibility to place on the shoulders of someone… well, someone like Peter. After blessing Simon with his new nickname, Jesus sternly ordered his disciples not to reveal to anyone that he was the Messiah. In the Gospel of Mark, that phrase makes sense. According to Mark, Jesus was keeping his identity a secret, because the authorities were always breathing down his neck. In Matthew, though, there is a different reason for Jesus’ request: the future apostles seemingly didn’t understand what Jesus’ being the Messiah meant. And until they did, it wasn’t safe to let them run their mouths.

Without question, my all-time favorite Broadway musical is Jesus Christ Superstar. This musical adaptation of Jesus’ final days, controversial in its time, shows exactly why Jesus might sternly order his disciples to keep their mouths shut. When it is suggested by Simon the Zealot that Jesus use his popularity with the crowds to stage an overthrow of their Roman oppressors, Jesus responds by saying, “Neither you, Simon, nor the 50,000, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all.”

That’s precisely the scene that played out in the second part of this morning’s reading. Jesus had, at this point, begun explaining to the disciples what being the Messiah meant: that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders. But Peter (of all people) took Jesus aside and rebuked him! “God forbid it, Lord!” he said. “This must never happen to you!”

But Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Grrr… Simon it’s no wonder I call you Rocky, ‘cause you’re dumber than a whole box of them! Are you Satan himself? Stop obstructing God’s mission! Peter, you’ve got your mind on human concepts of power, rather than on heavenly concepts of power.”

It occurs to me that if I were the director for a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, it might do to have those singing and dancing with Simon the Zealot dress like evangelical pastors and televangelists. “Keep them singing their devotion,” Simon advised, “but add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to a greater power; we will win ourselves a home! You’ll get the power and the glory!” From the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition (don’t click that one unless you want to spend your time reading something repugnant), the Jerry Falwell, Jrs., of the world have aspirations to political power and influence that Jesus specifically speaks against in this week’s lesson. Following our current reading, Jesus goes on to describe the kind of leadership he is looking for: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). The moral influence of Christians comes not by cozying up to the powerful in government; such grasping will only cause the Church to squander any moral authority remaining to it. Jesus has zero interest in worldly power and glory, calling one of his favorite disciples Satan for even suggesting that Jesus should aspire to such things!

How did a guy like Peter—whose nickname might just as well have meant “Blockhead”—end up getting the keys to the kingdom? How do young parents ever willingly hand a set of car keys to a young, impulsive 16-year-old? When you look at Peter’s track record, you get the sense that he’s got nothing that we don’t have—he appears dimwitted, often rash and impulsive, speaks out of turn, and doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on around him half the time. To make matters worse, he also denied he knew Jesus at all, when being asked made him feel uncomfortable. This guy holds the keys? This guy gets to run the outfit after Jesus is gone?

The other side of the “Peter’s no better than we are” coin is that we’re no better than Peter, either. In fact, Peter seems to be a very good representative of how Jesus’ disciples tend to turn out. We barely understand the faith we profess. We have sufficient faith to do truly miraculous things, but mostly don’t, because, in the end, we lack the nerve. We’re just uncomfortable enough with being associated with Jesus (and, more particularly these days, associated with some of Jesus’ so-called followers) that we deny that association in order to save our reputations. We believe the Church of Jesus Christ should have positive moral influence in our society, but too many think that means we should have power and authority in governing, even though Jesus has taught us that leadership comes through love, service, and self-sacrifice.

What we want is to be comfortable; what Jesus asks is nothing less than self-sacrifice.

The Rock on which Jesus is building his church—still to this day—is not Peter, but rather Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. This truth has been revealed to us by God’s own self. And while the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, each and every one of us—everyone who confesses Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son—is a block, a rock, a stone or a brick that Jesus himself is using to build his Church. What is accomplished through the Church is not our work, because it is not our ministry. What is accomplished is the Mission of God in Jesus Christ. Flesh and blood has not revealed to us that Jesus is our Savior and the Son of God, but our Father in Heaven!

That is the Solid Rock on which Christ has built his Church. All other ground is sinking sand.

Unity in Mission

 

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Ephesians 2:12-22; 4:1-7, 11-16

When I planned, several months ago, to preach a sermon series about the Belhar Confession’s witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a way of introducing to my congregation this important addition to our denomination’s constitution, I had no way of knowing how timely such a sermon series would be. I simply thought, “Gosh, it’s been on the books for a year already, and most people don’t know anything about it. And here I am, unsure about what to do with six summer Sundays in the pulpit.” So I picked Belhar, in part, because I figured it would be a convenient source of sermon material for several weeks. I never imaged that, as the sermon series wore on, it would become more and more relevant to our daily lives and thoughts.

We have learned about the history of racism in South Africa and the imperfect but still important work of reconciliation there. We have remembered the value of confession—both as a practice of penitence and as a declarative statement in opposition to errant theology that threatens the integrity of the Gospel and leads to social sins. We have been reminded of Paul’s analogy of the Body of Christ, and that, each of us being part of the same body, we are not at liberty to cast one another off. We have dug deep into the heresies of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa’s sacramental theology which allowed apartheid to become both church and social policy. And we have examined the liturgies of the world and compared them to the liturgies of the Church, seeking the transformation wrought by the renewing of our minds and the rehearsal of the Gospel’s narrative.

One final time this summer, we considered yesterday how the Belhar Confession reflects what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ in a world of division and tribalism.

In preparing for that sermon, I read once again the “Accompanying Letter” that the Dutch Reformed Mission Church published as their rationale for writing the confession. While it is technically not part of the confession, it is included in our Book of Confessions because it so eloquently explains the church’s motivation for its confessional action. The first paragraph explains how the social climate compelled the Church to speak:

We are deeply conscious that moments of such seriousness can arise in the life of the Church that it may feel the need to confess its faith anew in the light of a specific situation. We are aware that such an act of confession is not lightly undertaken, but only if it is considered that the heart of the gospel is so threatened as to be at stake. In our judgment, the present church and political situation in our country… [and particularly within the Dutch Reformed church family] calls for such a decision. Accordingly, we make this confession not as a contribution to a theological debate nor as a new summary of our beliefs, but as a cry from the heart, as something we are obliged to do for the sake of the gospel in view of the times in which we stand. Along with many, we confess our guilt, in that we have not always witnessed clearly enough in our situation and so are jointly responsible for the way in which those things which were experienced as sin and confessed to be sin have grown in time to seem self-evidently right and to be ideologies foreign to the Scriptures. As a result, many have been given the impression that the gospel was not really at stake. We make this confession because we are convinced that all sorts of theological arguments have contributed to so disproportionate an emphasis on some aspects of the truth that it has in effect become a lie.

 

The author of Ephesians, traditionally presumed to be the Apostle Paul, speaks out of—and into—a context that, as I noted previously, was divided over questions about requirements for membership in the Body of Christ. They weren’t merely questions along theological lines; they were questions along racial and ethnic lines. “These people aren’t Jews,” some said. “Can non-Jews be members of the Jesus movement?” In their wisdom, the Apostles and elders discerned that if God was welcoming Gentiles into the community of believers, church leaders were in no position to argue or to make entry into the community more onerous for Gentiles than it was for Jews.

Now Paul, writing to a Gentile congregation in Ephesus, says, “Back in the day, you were without Christ. You were to us as aliens and strangers. You were hopeless and godless. But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near. Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.”

That language is actually almost jarring to read—if not on the face of it, then when one sits back to consider it. Here, Paul is confessing prior hatred for strangers; and while he may not mean hatred of the “I wish you and everyone like you were dead” variety that is being peddled by neo-Nazis and White Supremacists in our own time, at the very least it seems to connote a socio-religious revulsion that would have resulted in as much segregation as humanly possible. In another of his letters, the one to the Galatians, Paul said he was forced to call Peter out on the carpet for equivocating about such hatred, saying, “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles… before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy so that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy” (Gal. 2:11-13). What was painful was that Peter already knew the truth: that God was welcoming Gentiles into the community of faith and giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit—he had witnessed this himself! And yet, when other Jewish Christians were around, he distanced himself from his Gentile fellow believers, when he should have been defending their place in the community and his relationship with them in Christ. Peter was the Christian who heard his coworkers making racist or sexist jokes around the office, and either laughing nervously or, at the very least, saying nothing to correct them. Peter wanted to go along to get along. Paul had no patience for such hypocrisy.

Despite this personal history of championing the full inclusion of Gentiles in the life of the Christian community, however, Paul still included himself in his confession of the early church’s history of exclusion and segregation. “With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us,” he wrote. The Accompanying Letter to the Belhar Confession, likewise, states,

We plead for reconciliation, that true reconciliation which follows on conversion and change of attitudes and structures. And while we do so we are aware that an act of confession is a two-edged sword, that none of us can throw the first stone, and none is without a beam in his own eye. We know that the attitudes and conduct which work against the gospel are present in all of us and will continue to be so. Therefore, this confession must be seen as a call to a continuous process of soul-searching together, a joint wrestling with the issues, and a readiness to repent in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in a broken world.

 

Paul returns, once again, to his old analogy of the church as a body, with Christ as its head. The entire letter to the Ephesians serves as an explanation of what Paul elsewhere calls Christ’s “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:16-21). Belhar instructs the church concerning its participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation by pointing out that the Church does not exist for its own sake.

When I visited Malawi, I never went anywhere that I didn’t see mango trees.

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Mango trees are a source of much-needed shade. Some mangoes grow so large an entire village can gather together under the shade of its branches, and it is common to see gatherings of people socializing under these trees. I once saw a class of some 300 third-grade students sitting beneath the shade of a mango tree in their schoolyard to take their lessons, because there wasn’t a room in the school big enough for so many students.

In addition to providing shade, Mango trees provide, of course, mangoes! And I mean there were mangoes everywhere. Every marketplace, up and down the highway in front of people’s houses, and I often saw children snacking on them, even though they weren’t ripe yet.

One of my traveling companions told the story of a group of pastors she was walking with while we were in Malawi. On the side of a nearby hill, far distant from any village, two men were busily cutting down a mango tree. The pastors with Nancy frowned and shook their heads in disgust. She asked them why they were so upset. Were they stealing a mango tree that belonged to someone? They answered by saying, “That mango tree belongs to everyone. We understand that these men are probably looking for firewood. But if the rains fail again this year, that mango tree would have given fruit to whole families of poor people who might have no other reliable source of food. By cutting it down, they are taking food out of the mouths of the poor.”

That was when my eyes were opened to how fruit trees speak to the Church about its mission. Jesus used the analogy of his disciples being branches united into a single plant by being attached to Christ as the central vine (John 15:1-8). Anyone who has ever read the Gospel of John probably understands this to mean that we are only able to bear good fruit by being connected to Christ. What Jesus also meant was that the various branches are not, in and of themselves, plants in their own right. They are parts of a body—just as Paul would suggested years later.

But even more striking was the realization that I had while in Malawi, which came in the form of this phrase, whispered to my spirit: the mango tree does not eat the mango. Fruit trees do not consume their own fruit. Biologically speaking, of course, they produce fruit for the propagation of their species. But agriculturally speaking, fruit trees produce fruit and shade not for themselves, but for others. With this sudden realization—the quiet whisper in my ear that “the mango tree does not eat the mango,” the Holy Spirit showed me the truth about the Church’s purpose in the world.

We don’t gather in order to indulge ourselves in improving the world according to our own whims or criteria. We, as the body of Christ, exist only because Christ has called us into community (Christ is the trunk, we are the branches). Unity is our mission. The tree stands in the middle of the human village—one integral organism with outstretched branches—providing shade and good fruit for all, and especially for those who are not a part of the tree!

The “notes of the church,” those descriptors of the true church listed in the ancient Nicene Creed, state that the church of Jesus Christ is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Or, amplified, it is united in Christ, set apart through Christ, open to all by Christ, and sent into the world as Christ.

If we do not find and live out our unity in Christ, then we are not the Church.

If we do not offer a Godly alternative narrative from the liturgies of the world, then we are not the Church. I

f we are not universally welcoming of all whom Christ calls into community with us, then we are not the Church.

If we do not go where we are sent, participating in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world, then we are not the Church. And no part of being the Church is possible if Christ is not our trunk, if we are not united in him.

In Christ, God has, as Paul put it, torn down the dividing walls of hostility with which we divide ourselves. If Christians can’t live that way—if we can’t be seen living that way—then why should the world listen? How are we any different? What moral authority can we possibly have? In the public, community life of the people of God, we interpret, by our actions, what it means that Christ has bound us together across our differences.

Or we don’t.

The Church cannot call the whole human family toward a more just and loving moral vision for the world unless the Church both exemplifies a more just and loving moral vision and repents of its own complicity in histories of violence, social division, and injustice.

I submit to you the Belhar Confession and its Accompanying Letter. Read them. Use them as devotional materials. Compare what they teach—and the model they offer—to the rhetoric you hear in the news.

And be chastened. Search your own hearts as you talk to someone who does not look like you, who has not had your experience. As the authors of Belhar state, “We know that such an act of confession and process of reconciliation will necessarily involve much pain and sadness. It demands the pain of repentance, remorse, and confession; the pain of individual and collective renewal and a changed way of life.” But as Paul reminds us, “by speaking the truth with love” we can “grow in every way into Christ, who is the head” (Eph. 4:15-16a). Let us be “no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, [let us be] fellow citizens with God’s people, [belonging] to God’s household” (Eph. 2:19).

Trampling the Sabbath

 

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Isa. 58

Several months ago, I posted about the insights gleaned from a book called You Are What You Love, by James K. A. Smith, particularly about the effect of liturgy in the lives of people. While we usually think of liturgy as part of a Sunday morning worship service, Smith points out that “liturgies” might be any habitual acts that shape our minds and assign meaning to our actions—good, bad, or indifferent. He used the example of shopping in a mall to illustrate how the things we do teach us how to be—in that case—a good and faithful consumer in a consumerist economy. To say, as Paul does in his letter to the Romans, that we are not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2), we are not suggesting merely that we need to know more, but that our minds need to be shaped by a different liturgy—we need to enter into a different narrative. Participating in the liturgy of Sunday morning worship helps to shape our minds along a different narrative thread than those we learn in the liturgies of the world.

Worship provides opportunities to encounter the divine, and no one knew this better than the prophet Isaiah. According to his account of his calling as a prophet, he was sitting in the Temple (perhaps trying not to sleep through another sermon), when he saw a vision of the hem of God’s garment filling the entire space of the temple like a cloud of smoke. He also saw two seraphim hovering overhead and singing God’s praises. Sensing that he was in the presence of the divine, he began to lament, believing that he was unworthy of this encounter. Apparently, Isaiah was something of a potty mouth—or, as he put it, “a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).

But one of the seraphs helped the poor guy out, perhaps knowing that God had a plan for the vulgar Isaiah. Touching his mouth with a burning coal, the Seraph said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” I always imagine that Isaiah screamed his gratitude through lips with second and third-degree burns.

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” asked the voice of the Lord.

“I’m here,” Isaiah replied. “Send me.”

Trucker-mouth Isaiah, the sultan of sermonic slumber, just volunteered for the one job no one ever wanted—to be a prophet of God. That’s what happens when one encounters the divine. Our minds are renewed so that we can discern God’s purpose for us, break old patterns and habits, and transform our narratives.

 

My congregation’s service each Sunday morning follows a certain prescribed pattern; and while one might complain that worship is “always the same,” it’s not because I, as the pastor, am in a rut, but because it is precisely in rehearsing the renewing narrative of humanity’s encounter with the divine that our minds are transformed from secular self-interest into self-denying disciples of Jesus Christ. We are remade, our lives reordered, so that we can leave here prepared to do what we were made for: love God and love our neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40); do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8).

Each Sunday liturgy begins with gathering. It sounds like the least important part—we’re all just getting here, and we don’t know what we’re about just yet. But if we didn’t get this part right, then the whole service would lose its moorings. There are two questions that we must ask and answer in order properly to understanding gathering around the Word. Question one: who is doing the gathering? We might be tempted to think that we’ve gathered ourselves here this morning; that we dragged our tired behinds out of bed, managed somehow to bathe and dress our children, we turned on the lights, we practiced the organ this week, we warmed up our voices, we did everything necessary to get ourselves here. But all those things are nothing more than our responses to God’s having first moved toward us. God created us, God redeemed us, God sustains our lives, and God calls us into community. God gathers us. Once we start thinking we’re the ones doing the gathering, we’ll begin to believe that we get to decide who is invited and who isn’t.

Which leads us to the second question: Who is gathered? According to the Belhar Confession, Article 2, the ones called into Christian community are “the communion of saints from the entire human family.” It’s no accident that the term “family” is used. Think about family for a moment. We don’t get to pick our family, do we? We can pick our friends, we can pick our noses… but we can’t pick our family, can we? Sometimes we might like to wish we could, but that’s not how life works. What this means for us, as a congregation, is that we are not merely a free association of like-minded individuals. We’re not here because we all agree about everything. We’re here because God wants us here.

One of the parts of the “Gathering” section of our Sunday liturgy is the Prayer of Confession, which I note in the bulletin is “in response to God’s grace.” Our prayer is a response because we’re not asking God to forgive us so that we will receive God’s grace; we confess our sin because we’ve already received God’s grace, and are pleased to examine ourselves and get anything that might sully that relationship off our chests! But our prayers of confession are not private. We don’t sit in silence and think about what naughty boys and girls we’ve been. We pray corporately. In part, this is because many of our sins are societal: we collectively sin, and so we should collectively confess. This past weekend, we were given a terrible reminder of our society’s corporate sinfulness. White supremacy and acts of domestic terrorism are on the rise. It’s easy for us white folk to sit in our church pews and condemn the sin of racism.

To ourselves. Under our breath.

But this is not the sin of a few bad actors in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is the corporate, societal sin of allowing such ideas any quarter at all. And it is a sin that we self-proclaimed “non-racist” white folk must confess, because even we have been party to it. We ought to live in a society where no white supremacist would dare open his mouth to speak such filth. I had thought that we were getting there. I see, now, how naïve of me that was. So we pray a prayer of confession, because all is not right with the world, and some of it is our fault.

But we also pray together because it reminds us we all share a common burden. My congregation is not a roomful of holy people with a light sprinkling of people who ought to hang their heads in shame. Let’s face it, if Christians are like-minded about anything, it’s about our propensity to act contrary to God’s will!

And yet, God calls us anyway. God forgives us anyway. God loves us anyway. God reconciles us to himself in Jesus Christ anyway. And having been reconciled to God, we are able (and happy) also to be reconciled to each other and we pass the peace of Christ with our neighbors.

 

It’s at that point in a worship service that we’re ready to hear the Word. Our Book of Order states that “Where the Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the living Word is present by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit” (BoO W-2.2001). The Word of God is central to worship because it shapes our lives—it renews our minds and transforms our narratives—this is what it’s all been leading up to! The Confession of Belhar, in its third article, affirms the Word’s power to shape, renew, and transform lives when it states:

We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells;

We believe that God’s live-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world.

There it is: the Word as a transformative force. And yet saying so is not enough, is it? It’s not enough simply to state our belief in the Word’s power to transform us. We have to allow ourselves to be claimed by that claim. We have to respond to the Word that is proclaimed. We do so as a congregation, quite obviously, through our offering—joyfully supporting the work of ministry not only by financially supporting it, but by dedicating ourselves to doing it. But liturgically speaking, we also do that in baptism and in answering Christ’s invitation to his table. Consider what these two sacraments mean for us. One acknowledges that God has adopted us into his family—without merit and without question—even if our speech, like that of the prophet Isaiah, could give sailors a run for their money. Such things are no deterrent to a God who is determined to be reconciled to his creation.

The other sacrament, as we’ve previously discussed, is a joyful celebration of the community into which Christ has drawn us. It’s a celebration of togetherness, even when it means togetherness with people who get on our nerves, or breath our air, or sit on our side of the line in the back seat of the car. We don’t get to pick this family either! But from where Jesus is sitting, that is something not to roll our eyes at, but to celebrate. All are invited to meet Christ at his table—even poor wretches like us.

 

And finally, the Sunday morning liturgy sends us. Some of you might think that the word “Amen” is Greek for “the end,” but this is not the case. First of all, it’s Hebrew. Secondly, it means, yea verily; indeed!; uh-huh; hear, hear!; or, for you Trekkies:

 

 

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It’s a word of assent. It’s an affirmation that we have heard what’s been said, and we’re prepared to get out there and make it so. Having encountered the divine in worship, what has been done in us must now be made known through us. As the Book of Common Worship explains, “The charge renews God’s call to us to engage in obedient and grateful ministry as God’s agents to heal life’s brokenness. By the power of the Spirit, we are to be in life and ministry what Christ has redeemed us to be.”[1]

In its fourth article, the Belhar Confession evokes Jesus’ Great Sending from the Gospel According to John, where he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). This article declares the hope for the world that comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ—a gospel of reconciliation that comes through the pursuit of peace and justice.

The author of our current reading from Isaiah saw the way the people worshiped God with their lips in the temple, but acted like jerks every other day of the week. Worship was supposed to have shaped their narratives; it was supposed to have renewed their minds for transformed lives. It was supposed to have led them to understanding and doing the will of God. Instead, God says through the prophet (if I may paraphrase):

“[The people] seek me day after day, they want to think of themselves as ‘God’s most-favored nation!’ They want me to bless them and want to call themselves a holy nation. And yet, you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You act with unbridled violence and vitriol, and then show up to church like there’s no conflict! You think I want people bowing and scraping on Sunday mornings? Is that is what you think I consider proper worship?

“You want to know what proper worship looks like? You want to know what I’ve been trying to train you for? Try releasing wicked restraints, setting free the mistreated. Try feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked rather than burying your head in the sand.

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will experience healing. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer. Stop the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; open your heart to the hungry and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted. Then your light will shine in the darkness.

“If you stop trampling the Sabbath, stop doing whatever you want on my holy day, and consider the Sabbath a delight, sacred to the Lord, and honor it instead of doing things your way, seeking what you want and doing business as usual, then you will take delight in the Lord.”

 

Christians, we cannot act like the rest of the world and call ourselves disciples of Jesus. We cannot pay lip service to God on Sunday and then do whatever the hell we want the rest of the week. Sunday morning is not when we worship. It’s when we rehearse our story. It’s when we practice our relationships with God and each other, in the hopes that by doing so, we will renew our minds, remember our narratives, and be transformed for the good of God’s creation.

 

[1] The Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 44.

Our Trinitarian Faith

 

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Rom. 8:12-17

A few years back, while at a family picnic, my mom said, “Matt, I have a question for you.” I took a deep breath. My mom’s questions are rarely simple. She said, “Explain the Trinity to me.”

I laughed! “Ha! And in 100 words or less, right?”

What she was really referring to was a question that had come up during one of her recent Bible studies about why Jesus prayed. If Jesus is God, the age-old question goes, who was he praying to, himself?

The word “Trinity” does not appear anywhere in scripture, and yet our triune God appears everywhere in the Bible. From the opening verses of Genesis, through the utterances of prophets, and to the theological treatises of Paul’s epistles, the Trinitarian nature of God is distinctly Christian, and this has been the case from our religion’s earliest days. Many early church controversies surrounded the ongoing pursuit of an orthodox set of beliefs upon which all Christians could (or must) agree. These controversies raged most hotly around such difficult, metaphysical questions as What is the nature of God? How is Jesus related to God? And What was Jesus’ true nature?

My response to my mother was, “Jesus prayed to God because he was fully human. In that context, it didn’t matter that he was divine, it mattered that he was human, and that he was modeling for us the kind of relationship that his disciples should have with God, which must include prayer.” But, I also said, my favorite professor routinely passes on metaphysical questions like these when asked by students, either because the church has already given an answer, and it’s more reasonable to study that answer than to presume that one could come up with a better response on one’s own, or because there is no answer, thus making the question boring to him. Ask him how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and he’ll respond, “I don’t care!”

And in a way, I see his point. There are some questions that cannot be answered. It’s not that no one has answered it yet, or that the question has just been waiting for you to come along and think about it for ten minutes. The question has no answer. It is a mystery, not a puzzle. Puzzles may be solved; mysteries are mysterious precisely because we do not have all the information, and so cannot derive a solution. The most difficult physics equations in the world might be solved by the most ingenious minds, or the most powerful super-computers. But no genius in the world can answer your wife when she asks you, “Why do you love me?” You can tell her what you love about her, but why do you love her? It is a mystery, and trying to solve it like a puzzle would actually ruin it.

The Trinity is a mystery like this. Many attempts have been made to analogize it meaningfully. Saint Patrick famously used a shamrock to explain how each leaf, while representing a different person of the Trinity, is nonetheless part of the same plant. The problem with that analogy is that each leaf is still a separate leaf, whether it is a part of a single plant or not. A shamrock (or any plant, for that matter) would make a better image for Christian’s relationship to Christ and one another. If only someone had been wise enough to come up with an analogy for that, like “I am the vine, you are the branches…”

Another analogy that I like better—but which is still inadequate—is to describe the Trinity as being like water: whether it is a life-giving liquid that takes no shape, but fills the space it’s in, like the Father; or it is frozen into something solid that can take a definite shape and be held and touched, like the Son; or it is an invisible vapor that cannot be contained but whose effects can still be seen, like the Spirit, all three of these various forms are still water. They are all of the same substance. But this analogy breaks down, too, when we recall that water can’t take all three forms at the same time, while, as my mother pointed out last weekend, God apparently can.

And so the best I can do is to say that the Trinity is a mystery to be pondered and appreciated with awe and reverence, but not a puzzle to be solved. God is one; God has three different ways of being God, and yet they are all the same God; the three persons of the Trinity work in concert with one another, and yet there is only one God. Do you see how confusing it becomes? And yet confusion does not make it untrue—surely it is the arrogance of humanity to suggest that if our minds can’t crack it, it can’t be true!

Perhaps the most lovely way that I have heard the Trinity explained is not an explanation of how the Trinity works as what the Trinity means. That, after all, is what we’re after here this morning: some understanding of why knowing that God is triune matters. Fredrick Boechner, an American writer and theologians, has said that, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery. Thus, the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God.”

God the Father is the mystery beyond us; God the Son is the mystery among us; God the Holy Spirit is the mystery within us; and the mystery, in all three cases, is God. And the reason why I think Boechner suggests that “the Trinity is saying something about us” is because, remember, we are created in the image of God. And if we’re created in the image of God, then human nature, too, is Trinitarian.

Each of us is created in a Trinitarian way: mind, body, and soul. Our minds are like the Father—the creative inspiration and impetus for all that we say and do, but which cannot be seen or touched. Our bodies are like the Son—the hands and feet that take action at the behest of our minds, in order to love one another as God has loved us. Our souls are like the Holy Spirit—the invisible essence of who we are, and the impulse and power to act out of love for God and others. This analogy is probably imperfect, too, but it shows how each of us is created in the image of God, while at the same time remaining completely different in nature, and is also the basis for the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength (or body).” (Deut. 6:5)

So if what Boechner says is true, that acknowledging that God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery, then this also reinforces the notion that we participate in the relationship of the Trinity. Remember, Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of John that he and the Father abide in one another, and that we abide in them (and they in us) as well. Therefore, having been drawn into this relationship by God in, through, and as Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we enjoy the same sort of interpenetrating, indwelling relationship with God that the persons of the Trinity enjoy with one another! That is why the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to represent the mystery beyond us, among us, and within us.

It goes without saying that God is a mystery that is beyond us. But I don’t just mean that God is a mystery that is outside of our capacity to comprehend (though God is), but also that God exists outside of us, outside of all creation, in fact, because his nature is so completely different from ours that we cannot grasp it. God is not a part of creation, because God was not created. There is nothing like God, because God is the only non-creature. If a dung beetle stopped rolling dung long enough to develop a system of belief about humans and called it “humanology,” it would still come closer to understanding humans than we can come with our systems of belief about God, which we call “theology.” God the Father is the mystery beyond us.

However, God the Son also signifies the mystery among us. In Jesus Christ, God did indeed become flesh and dwell among us. Knowing Jesus, learning from Jesus, following Jesus, people know, learn from, and follow God. We also look upon one another and see Christ, as he reminds us not only that we are the body of Christ, but also that as we care for the least of his brothers and sisters, we care for him. Every act of love and kindness that we show to a fellow human being is an act of love shown toward Jesus Christ. God the Son is the mystery among us.

Finally, God the Holy Spirit signifies the mystery within us. We all know the stirring that we sometimes feel within our own souls—the draw to prayer, the pricking of our conscience, the compulsion to act with love toward a perfect stranger. It is not in our nature to do these things, although we were created for relationship with God and one another, and we long for those relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. Why we long for God, why we feel compelled to care for others, when our human nature tells us only to look out for number one, is attributable only to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. God the Holy Spirit is the mystery within us.

In Romans, Paul never uses the word “Trinity,” but he describes exactly how the Trinitarian nature of God affects us, and what it means for us. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” he says. “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our soul that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Without ever saying that God’s nature is Triune, Paul nonetheless describes him that way, and all three persons of the one, true God appear in this passage. Paul tells us that it is the Holy Spirit who inspires us to cry out to God the Father, who we are able to call Father because we have been adopted by him, thanks to the suffering and glorification of God the Son.

Paul’s explanation of the Trinity, even though that’s not what he was trying to explain, outlines for us how God’s triunity bears itself out in our relationship with him and with one another. By the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God the Father adopts us as members of the family, including us in the eternal love relationship between the persons of the Trinity, and calling us to also extend this love relationship with one another, even suffering as Christ suffered out of love for the world.

So let us love the our Triune God with all of our Triune selves: with our mind, our soul, and the strength of our bodies; and let us love one another in the same way, living lives that bear witness to the image of God in which we were all created. Why do we love? Because God is love, the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another and for us, and we were created in his image. Would that answer satisfy my wife if she asked, “Why do you love me?” Maybe not. But like trying to explain the Trinity itself, perhaps that’s the best I can do.

Can I Get a Witness?

 

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John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-14

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the Church got off to a rather inauspicious start. Jesus, who is about to be glorified by returning to his rightful place at his Father’s side, just as he had asked in his prayer in John 17, tells his followers to spread his message to the ends of the earth, and the disappears into the clouds. And what do his followers do? They stand around like slack-jawed yokels, staring up at the sky and wondering what the heck they’re supposed to do now. But the worst part isn’t their confusion—because if we’re honest, I think we can forgive them for being a little mystified by what they’ve just seen. No, the worst part is the conversation that happens right before Jesus is beamed up.

What it amounts to is, “Are we there yet?” Every parent reading this just felt their blood pressure go up just a little bit, am I right? Sorry about that. “Are we there yet? Are you gonna bring in the kingdom now, Jesus?”

Oh, for…

Do you mean they still don’t get it? Here’s what I’m beginning to think: I’m beginning to think that Jesus wasn’t nearly as great a teacher as the world thinks he was. Here we have eleven of Jesus’ very best friends—his very best students—who have been spending every waking hour with Jesus for the last three years. And now Jesus has died, Jesus has risen, and Jesus is about to disapparate from the scene, and they’re still asking stupid questions!

Perhaps we should go easy on these guys. Isn’t it reasonable to believe that now that Jesus has been raised from the dead, he really will, in fact, overthrow Judea’s Roman oppressors, restore the nation of Israel to former glory, and claim dominion over all the earth? I mean, aren’t we ourselves still waiting around for that very thing to happen?

No. Jesus taught them better than that. Jesus has taught us better than that. Somehow, though, we keep forgetting how this goes. There Jesus had been, teaching and feeding and healing and raising and dying and rising, and what do his disciples take away from all this? That maybe now is the time when Jesus will conquer Israel’s enemies. Admittedly, they missed the “my kingdom is not of this world” bit, since that was for Pilate’s ears only. But still.

But we’re savvy, twenty-first century Christians! We’ve had two thousand years to bone up on this Kingdom of God business. We’ve been well on our way to conquering the world for Jesus since the Edict of Milan brought Christianity out of the shadows! I mean, once we were the ones calling the shots, it’s been all peace and enlightenment and the brotherhood of man ever since, you know?

No?

Well, maybe that’s because there’s been a whole lot of still-not-getting-it going on in the Christian Church for nearly all of the last two thousand years. How were those ancient Christians supposed to know that wedding religion to political power would result disastrously in collusion and compromise and, ultimately, corruption? Oh! Right. “My kingdom is not of this world.” I already said that, didn’t I? Well, let us thank God that history isn’t repeating itself today.

Oh.

Actually, we’ve got prognosticators writing books about the late, great planet Earth and those who will be left behind on it, all the while assuring us that we can, in fact, know the times or the periods, regardless of what Jesus said. And there is no shortage of Christians who have willingly surrendered the love-of-neighbor ethic taught to them by Jesus for the love-of-power gospel promised to them by the halls of government.

It seems we’ve learned nothing in two thousand years. We’re still standing around like slack-jawed yokels, staring up at the sky and asking, “Are we there yet?”

The author of John’s Gospel is clever in writing a chiasm into the beginning of Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17. A chiasm is a literary device whereby a central point is surrounded on either side by layers of meaning and material. In verses 1 and 5, Jesus asks to be glorified. In verses 2 and 4, Jesus explains that he should be glorified, because he has completed what the Father had sent him to do. And in verse three, the verse at the center of the chiasm, we get to the very kernel of Jesus’ mission: “This is eternal life,” it says, “to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3). Jesus asked to be glorified because his job was done, and his disciples were his proof. “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” Jesus’ earthly ministry was accomplished; it was time to go home.

As you may have noticed, however—and as the disciples themselves certainly noticed—Jesus may have felt as though his job was done, but the Kingdom of God appeared to be nowhere near completed. He promised God’s reign only to die; then rose from the grave… only to leave? What sense were the disciples supposed to make of that?

But before his departure, Jesus made it clear, in both the gospels and again in Luke’s summation of his instructions, given at the beginning of Acts, that it was the disciples’ turn. He was sending them out into the world to be his witnesses. The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Today, we might call them missionaries. But when we use the word “missionaries” we also risk missing a very important point which is this: Jesus sends us, too.

The Nicene Creed, the last truly universal creed of Christians across the world before the church began to schism some 1500 years ago, declares that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. To be apostolic is to be sent. Jesus sent the apostles, who, in turn, sent those to whom they were sent, and so on and so on to the present day. We continue to be sent—we, too, are “apostolic” in having received the good news for the purposes of sharing it with others.

The kingdom to which we are called to bear witness is not a worldly kingdom in any way, shape, or form. Jesus does not need his disciples to “contend for the gospel” or fight for the Church’s hegemony in the world. Jesus is Lord; we—his witnesses—are not. It is not the Church’s job, it is not the Church’s divine call, to wield political power. The earliest Christians were instructed to play nice with the powers that be, to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus, and to win hearts and minds through exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven to the world by offering an alternative ethic to that of the world. While Jesus said “Make disciples of all nations,” nothing that he had said before that suggests that he meant for it to be done at the point of a sword, by extorting the oppressed, by exploiting corrupting power, or by arguments and recriminations on Facebook. That’s the way kingdom-building gets done in the world, but Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.

In chapter 17 of John’s gospel, Jesus prays for us and for our participation in the ongoing work of kingdom building. His work as a witness to his Father’s word now completed, Jesus prayed for those who would take his place as witnesses in the world. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me… And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Far from establishing an earthly kingdom wielding the world’s power, Jesus founded a community of love and concern for the common good, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, empowered it to bear witness. And so what do the disciples do after hearing Jesus calling them his witness to the world? According to Acts, they “returned to Jerusalem” remained together in community, and “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” That is the beginning of the Church. While Pentecost is often celebrated as the “birthday of the Church,” the community of believers were already gathered, already given their mission and mandate, and were already practicing their religion through prayer and fellowship.

Prayer prepares us for the task of being Christ’s witness. It enables us to lay aside our pride, our ego, our thirst for the trappings and powers of this world, and seek instead the kingdom of God.

Or, to put it another way, I close with an allegory*:

            Once upon a time, in the heart of the Western Kingdom, lay a beautiful garden. And there, in the cool of the day, the Master of the garden was wont to walk. Of all the denizens of the garden, the most beautiful and most beloved was gracious and noble bamboo. Year after year, bamboo grew yet more noble and gracious, conscious of his Master’s love and watchful delight, but modest and gentle. And often when the wind came to revel in the garden, Bamboo would cast aside his grave stateliness, to dance and play merrily, tossing and swaying and leaping and bowing in joyous abandon, leading the Great Dance of the garden, which most delighted the Master’s heart.
Now, one day, the Master himself drew near to contemplate his Bamboo with eyes of curious expectancy. And Bamboo, in a passion of adoration, bowed his great head to the ground in loving greeting.
The Master spoke: “Bamboo, Bamboo, I would use you.”
Bamboo flung his head to the sky in utter delight. The day of days had come, the day for which he had been made, the day to which he had been growing hour by hour, the day in which he would find his completion and his destiny.
His voice came low: “Master, I’m ready. Use me as Thou wilt.”
“Bamboo,” the Master’s voice was grave, “I would have to take you and cut you down!”
A trembling of great horror shook Bamboo…”Cut …me… down ? Me.. who thou, Master, has made the most beautiful in all thy Garden…cut me down! Ah, not that. Not that. Use me for the joy, use me for the glory, O master, but cut me not down!”
“Beloved Bamboo,” The Master’s voice grew graver still, “If I cut you not down, I cannot use you.”
The garden grew still. Wind held his breath. Bamboo slowly bent his proud and glorious head. There was a whisper: “Master, if thou cannot use me other than to cut me down.. then do thy will and cut”.
“Bamboo, beloved Bamboo, I would cut your leaves and branches from you also.”
“Master, spare me. Cut me down and lay my beauty in the dust; but would thou also have to take from me my leaves and branches too?”
“Bamboo, if I cut them not away, I cannot use you.”
The Sun hid his face. A listening butterfly glided fearfully away. And Bamboo shivered in terrible expectancy, whispering low: “Master, cut away”
“Bamboo, Bamboo, I would yet… split you in two and cut out your heart, for if I cut not so, I cannot use you.”
Then Bamboo bowed to the ground: “Master, Master… then cut and split.”
So did the Master of the garden took Bamboo and cut him down and hacked off his branches and stripped off his leaves and split him in two and cut out his heart. And lifting him gently, carried him to where there was a spring of fresh sparkling water in the midst of his dry fields. Then putting one end of the broken Bamboo in the spring and the other end into the water channel in His field, the Master laid down gently his beloved Bamboo. And the spring sang welcome, and the clear sparkling waters raced joyously down the channel of bamboo’s torn body into the waiting fields. Then the rice was planted, and the days went by, and the shoots grew and the harvest came.
In that day Bamboo, once so glorious in his stately beauty, was yet more glorious in his brokenness and humility. For in his beauty he was life abundant, but in his brokenness he became a channel of abundant life to his Master’s world.

As we answer Christ’s call to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, let us do so not with hubris but humility; not with power but peace; not with ranting but with reaching out. It is by showing the world what life in Christ-centered community—life within the divine dance of the Trinity—that we will win hearts and minds, and build a kingdom worthy of Jesus.

 

 

*It is deeply lamentable that my source for the allegory in this post, found here, was unable to attribute this work to a specific author.

Promise in the Midst of Pain

 

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Gen. 21:8-21; Rom. 6:1b-11

In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood penned the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Recently adapted into a TV series on Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in near-future New England, following the overthrow of the United States Government and the formation of a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. The novel focuses particularly on the social status of the women in the newly-formed society, known as the Republic of Gilead, a society based upon Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism. In the Republic of Gilead, human rights are severely limited and women’s rights are so curtailed they are forbidden even to read.

The main character is a woman whose name, prior to the revolution, was June, but who is now called “Offred”—literally, “Of Fred,” because Fred is the name of the man who now owns her. Offred is a Handmaid, a special caste of women who are subjugated by the ruling class for reproductive purposes in an era of declining births due to sterility caused by pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. Offred had been separated from her child, taken from her husband, indoctrinated through torture into accepting her new role in the new society, and given to the family of a Commander in the new theocracy. Her job—her role in society—is to bear children on behalf of the ruling men and their barren wives. Every month, during what was called “the ceremony,” Handmaids are raped by the husband while the wife watches and holds her down. Handmaids are taught that this is a high and noble calling, and it is considered a great blessing from God if she then becomes pregnant, though the child will belong to the husband and wife, not to the Handmaid, and after serving for a few months as the child’s wet nurse, she will be separated from her child and moved along to another family to begin the horrifying process all over again.

It is a horrifying scenario, and while I have not yet read the book, I can tell you that the TV series is difficult to watch. While it may be difficult to imagine the United States falling into fundamentalist Christian theocracy, it’s no stretch at all to understand how an author might be inspired by the religious rhetoric of men intent on curtailing the personal agency of women where reproduction is concerned.

Hagar is a slave woman, and the handmaid of Sarah. An Egyptian by birth, Hagar is a triply marginalized person in Abraham’s society—a culture in which men are commanders, the enslavement of foreigners is commonplace, and women are used by other women in order to overcome infertility problems and fulfill their dreams of progeny. The authors of Genesis pass no judgment upon Abraham and Sarah for their decision to use their enslaved handmaid Hagar to solve their infertility problem. In fact, everywhere in scripture, even as late as the New Testament book of Hebrews, Abraham is praised for his surpassing righteousness. This is one of the earliest scriptural examples of why reading the Bible as if it were “God’s little instruction book” for life is deeply problematic. Ancient tribal social conventions are no basis for a modern society. To believe otherwise is to argue that humanity has learned nothing—that civilization has not meaningfully advanced—in some 5,000 years.

There is potential here for a crisis of faith, and that should be addressed. In 2014, Peter Enns, the Abram S. Clemends Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids Pennsylvania (and who has also taught courses at both Harvard University, and the Princeton and Fuller Theological Seminaries), published a book titled The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In the first chapter, Enns states the problem:

“Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual—follow the directions and our pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.

“If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved.

“That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag—fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

“What I discovered… is that this view of the Bible does not come from the Bible but from an anxiety over protecting the Bible and so regulating the faith of those who read it.

“Why do I say this? The Bible tells me so.”[1]

As a preacher, it is challenging to read and proclaim God’s Word when the lectionary gives us the Biblical equivalent of The Handmaid’s Tale. The concept of Biblical inerrancy—a brand-new idea in the life of the Church, historically speaking—causes the Bible itself to become a stumbling block to faith, not a source of it. It is necessary, then, for us to read Hagar’s story not as an instruction manual for how to treat foreigners, how to own and use slaves, or how to treat women, but as a word about God’s care for those marginalized by Abraham’s undiagnosed moral failings.

Hagar’s child—Ishmael—grows up as Abraham’s pride and joy, elevating Hagar’s status in their camp, and driving Sarah to deep bitterness. This, too, is a theme explored in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s Commander, is, in turns, resentfully abusive of Offred and protective of her because of the hope that she represents for Serena Joy’s family. In time, Sarah’s bitterness becomes too much for her to bear, and she orders Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the camp.

We might give Abraham partial credit for being distressed by this, but his distress is not enough to overrule his angry wife. In consolation to Abraham (around whom this whole saga really turns, the women being only minor characters), God promises that Ishmael, too, will become a great nation.

The point of view then turns to Hagar herself who, having been driven from her home, wanders into the inhospitable Middle Eastern wilderness where she is forced to leave her son to die of dehydration and exposure. Sitting down some distance way, she cries out in grief. God, hearing her son crying, says to her, “Don’t be afraid. God has heard your son’s cries. Go and get him; I will make of him a great nation.” (I’m troubled, I must confess, by the fact that God does not respond to her despondency, but rather to the cries of her son. Again, the author’s choice of words reveals much about a culture in which it is apparently presumed that even God doesn’t care about the feelings of a slave woman.) God opened her eyes and she saw a well where she could refill her water flask and give Ishmael a drink. God’s presence remained with the boy, who grew up in the desert and became an expert archer, eventually marrying an Egyptian woman.

Given the cultural difficulties of this story, what word from God might be found here? God does nothing to intervene in Ishmael’s and Hagar’s being cast out into the wilderness. God doesn’t even seem to regard her emotional suffering as worthy of his consideration. But what consolation does exist here may be found in the character of God’s own actions: God keeps God’s covenant with Abraham by acknowledging that while the covenant whereby all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) would be fulfilled through the offspring of Isaac, not Ishmael, Ishmael would nevertheless thrive and be the father of a great nation. God didn’t just toss a second-rate blessing at the kid and move on; Genesis tells us that “God remained with the boy.” God had a special regard for Ishmael. Perhaps Sarah and Abraham were willing to abandon the child—perhaps their tribal society allowed for this to happen—but God did not abandon him. Ishmael is the ancient Biblical patriarch of the Islamic faith—they, too, are children of Abraham.

God keeps God’s promises. He keeps his promise to Abraham through the birth of Isaac in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age. He keeps this promise not because of, but in spite of the fearful conniving by which Ishmael was born. He keeps his promise despite the way they treat Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. He cares for Hagar and Ishmael despite their marginalized status—and perhaps because of their marginalization. Although they are cast out, God meets them in the wilderness and in their despondency and provides them with both immediate care and hope for the future.

It is entirely possible (and understandable, and arguably even commendable) to read the Bible and find some of its contents distasteful, tragic, or even faith-challenging. Why would God allow such a society to exist, where slavery is an acceptable institution, and women may be handed ‘round like property? Ought not God to have taught us better? Ought not God to refuse to countenance man’s inhumanity toward man?

The thing is, whenever I ask such questions of God, what I hear in response is, “I was going to ask you the same thing. Why would humanity allow such a society to exist? That’s not the fellowship for which I created you. Didn’t I teach you better? Oughtn’t you to refuse to countenance man’s inhumanity toward man?”

The Bible is the story of humanity’s slow and unsteady awakening to the character of the God in whose image we are created. If we were to continue reading beyond this morning’s lectionary passage from Genesis, we would find that our understanding of God’s will for us gets much worse before it gets any better. But scripture does have an historical trajectory. If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is right, and “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then it is perhaps because the arc of our relationship with God is long, but it bends toward reconciliation.

We wonder why God would allow suffering in the world, and particularly why God would allow human beings to hurt and abuse their fellow human beings. But we ask this question in ignorance of God’s revealed character. For when God saw our hurt and our abusiveness—when God heard the cries of our children left for dead in the wilderness—God took on flesh, and received in his own body all the pain and abuse and torture that humanity could muster. Hagar named God “El Roi” (Gen. 16:13), the God who sees. God continues to see how we allow the marginalized to be victimized; how we allow the downtrodden to be further exploited. When people are hurting God not only sees, God shows up. But he shows up not in displays coercive power, but in the healing, helping presence of our hands and feet.

An internet meme quotes Pope Francis as saying, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” The Pope, to the best of my knowledge, did not say exactly that; it is, rather, a summary of what the Pope has said, which is this:

In our Christian life too, dear brothers and sisters, may prayer and action always be deeply united. A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, a brother in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer. But, in the same way, when ecclesial service is attentive only to doing… we forget the centrality of Christ. When time is not set aside for dialogue with him in prayer, we risk serving ourselves and not God present in our needy brother and sister. St Benedict sums up the kind of life that indicated for his monks in two words: ora et labora, pray and work. It is from contemplation, from a strong friendship with the Lord that the capacity is born in us to live and to bring the love of God, his mercy, his tenderness, to others. And also our work with brothers in need, our charitable works of mercy, lead us to the Lord, because it is in the needy brother and sister that we see the Lord himself.

The fellowship for which God created us in God’s own image is God’s promise in the midst of pain. We are God’s promise in the midst of pain, insofar as we are called to care, always and relentlessly, for the needs of others, even as our own needs are met in the same way. That is the society toward which the moral arc of the universe bends, and the fellowship toward which our relationship with God bends. Call it justice; call it reconciliation. Whatever you call it, it is God’s promise to us, even in the midst of our pain. All that is missing is our participation in that promise’s fulfillment.

 

[1] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 3-4.