Obstacles to Gratitude: Greed

 

Num. 11:31-34; Matt. 22:15-22

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Greed is putting one’s trust in accumulation, rather than provision. More specifically, it is trusting our ability to gather in for ourselves, rather than trusting God’s capability to provide us with what we need. In order to illustrate what I mean, I thought we might return to the story of the Israelites, who had just stuck their camp at the base of Mount Sinai in order to continue their journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom that awaited them in the Promised Land, and who seemed suddenly to conclude that having their daily needs miraculously met by a God who loved them was kind of a drag.

“Hey guys, remember back in Egypt, when we had barbecues and stuff?” they asked. “And we had cucumbers and melons, and leeks and garlic, and all kinds of succulent goodies? Man… it kinda makes me wish we’d never left Egypt in the first place.” Now, I don’t mean to diminish the Israelites’ situation. They were, essentially, stuck eating the same thing every single day, three meals a day. And perhaps God could have seen fit to release a line of… flavored mannas or something. Banana manna. One that tasted like rum punch and coconut, called cabana manna. Or what about “Tropicana manna?” Or one that tasted like charbroiled beef steak, called Montana manna? Or one that tasted like crawfish étouffée called Louisiana manna.

Because according to scripture, for a miracle food, manna really didn’t taste like much. The New International Version of the Bible says, “They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil.” So… manna-coti, then?

 

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Manna, apparently.

 

We’ve already talked about how the Israelites’ nostalgia for the good old days in Egypt, when they enjoyed a little variety in their diets—slaves who enjoyed a little variety in their diets, let’s remember—was an obstacle to their living with an attitude of gratitude. ‘Cause after all, this really was—no kidding—food which graciously rained down from heaven. There was never a shortage. Everyone was always completely satisfied. Their needs were met.

But eventually, they didn’t just want their needs met, they wanted what they wanted. The classic translation of the opening line of the twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is quite poetic, but it can lead us to a minor misunderstanding. The Hebrew word at the end of that phrase doesn’t mean “want” in quite the way we’re thinking about it presently. It really means “need.” What the Psalmist is extolling is that the Lord is his Shepherd, therefore he will never be “in need.” The same is already entirely true for the Israelites. They have their daily needs met.

We all know the next bit of the story as well: God gets angry at the Israelites for complaining and declares to Moses that the people are going to get so much meat from him they’re going to have to eat it until its coming out of their noses. “You want meat? I’ll give you meat!” he says. And he asks a great question that I hope will stick with you: “Is the Lord’s arm too short?” That’s a brilliant question because I love the imagery. If God can’t do something, presumably it’s because his arm is too short. It’s just too far for the Lord to reach, right? And so he’s going to feed the Israelites meat until they choke on it. He’s going to prove just how long the Lord’s arm is; that is to say, he’s going to prove just how capable God is of providing for their every need.

And then he sends clouds of quail toward the camp. Now, depending on how you translate the Hebrew one could either envision so many quail descending upon the camp that they literally pile up in drifts, or you could imagine them hovering (or at least flying around in circles) about three feet off the ground. Scholars argue over which is the best translation, but to argue over this is to miss the larger point. God didn’t just send the Israelites on a turkey shoot and say, “Good luck!” He made the quail so easy to gather a child could do it. Either they were piled up so that people were practically stepping on them, or they were flying around at waist height, in which case all you had to do was open a sack and wait for them to fly right in! Either way, you’ve got plenty of quail to eat and it has required nothing of you whatsoever. Just like with the Manna, with which God showered the people with bread from heaven, now the Israelites were divinely pelted with poultry.

Now, here’s where we finally get to my present point. What was the reaction of the Israelites? They went out and they gathered quail of course! They gathered quail all day and all night for a day and a half. And when they were done, the least anyone had gathered was SIXTY. BUSHELS. OF QUAIL.

SIXTY. BUSHELS. OF QUAIL!

Minimum!

Per person!

The Bible says they had to spread them out all over the camp—well, yeah, you think?! Sixty bushels or more per person… they’ve gotta go somewhere!

What does this tell us about the Israelites? It tells us that they trust their capability to gather more than the Lord’s capability to provide. They put their trust in accumulation, rather than in provision. The Israelites were greedy, instead of grateful.

 

The Pharisees, Matthew’s favorite foil for Jesus in his Gospel — probably because they were the biggest detractors of Jesus-followers living in Antioch at the time of the Gospel’s writing — laid a trap for Jesus with a little help from their enemies, the Herodians. The thing you have to understand is that the Herodians and the Pharisees were political polar opposites. The Pharisees thought it was unlawful for the Jews to participate in Roman customs in any way (in this instance, to carry Roman coinage because of the graven images on it) and really just wanted to push the Roman occupation out of their territory altogether. The Herodians, on the other hand, were determined to accommodate the Romans, because they wanted to curry favor with their oppressors in order to get ahead in society. These two factions were so diametrically opposed, it would be like the Tea Party teaming up with Hillary Clinton.

There’s a plant in the crowd: someone who asks Jesus the question, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not.” Jesus could smell the trap a mile away, if for no other reason than that the crowd was full of both Pharisees and Herodians! Each faction would have wanted a different answer. The Herodians wanted to hear “Yes,” because they wanted to curry favor with the Romans. The Pharisees wanted to hear “No,” because they believed that to pay taxes to Caesar was a violation of Mosaic Law. On which side would Jesus land?

Before we get to his answer, let’s all have a little confession time. As Americans (or at the very least as Westerners), there’s something deep inside us that wants to balk at the idea that what we have—what we’ve earned—doesn’t belong to us. We worked for it. We earned it. We know best how to spend it. That’s what we tell ourselves. Heck, we Americans even went to war over the offense of taxation without representation, didn’t we? So we also have a vested interest in Jesus’ answer. Couldn’t Jesus give us a valid excuse not to pay taxes? Couldn’t he make conscientious objectors out of his followers?

“Does anyone have a coin?” Jesus asks in response. (And let me stop right there to point out that Jesus apparently didn’t have a single coin on him! The King of kings. The Lord of lords. He hasn’t one thin dime on his person.) He must have gone through life feeling the way I do when I try to shop at Aldi only to realize I don’t have a quarter in the car!

 

ALDI-Quarter-Cart
Clever bastards.

 

 

What happens next is… well… awkward. For the Pharisees, it’s “that moment when” their political opponent asks for a coin you’re not supposed to have, and you pull one out and give it to him. Oops! After all that talk about Roman coinage being an affront to God, here they are in the courtyard of the Temple handing a Denarius to Jesus. Without having to say anything at all, Jesus has already trapped them in their hypocrisy.

But Jesus is the consummate showman, and he has an audience! So he looks at the Denarius as though he’s never seen one before. “Huh… Who is this on the coin? Why, there seems to be someone’s portrait engraved upon it! Whose image is this?” And the word “image” in Greek is icon. Whose icon is on this coin? But we all know—and the Pharisees would have known even better—that asking about the “image” had deep theological implications, am I right? Because we all know—and the Pharisees would have known even better—that we are all made in God’s image! “But who’s image is this?” Jesus asks.

And someone begrudgingly admits, “It’s Caesar’s.”

And Jesus responds, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

And now this is that moment when it dawns on us that Jesus isn’t talking about taxes anymore. Give to Caesar whatever he’s claimed by putting his own image on it. Give to God whatever God has claimed by creating it in God’s own image. This is bigger than taxes. This is bigger than money. This is a question of what belongs to God.

And if you ask me what belongs to God, I’ll respond by asking you, “What doesn’t?”

See, we’re all a lot like the Israelites. We don’t trust God to provide for us, and so we hoard what we get. We trust our capacity to accumulate more than God’s capacity to provide. We prove by our actions that we’re afraid God’s arm is too short. And then, once we’ve gathered all that we can unto ourselves — no less than 60 bushels full, more than we could possibly need — we brashly argue that no one, certainly not the government, has any right to it. “I earned this,” we say. Which, from God’s perspective, essentially means, “I stood outside with a sack about yay high and waited for God’s blessings to fly right into it.”

We didn’t make the quail in our lives. We didn’t hunt them, we didn’t trap them, we didn’t even lure them. They just showed up in our lives as a sign of God’s abundant provision. And the quail isn’t even something we need. God had that covered all along—the manna was always sufficient. No, God provided not only what the Israelites needed, but also what they wanted. And still, in their greed—in their lack of trust that God would continue to provide for them, they hoarded the gift, and it plagued them. It plagued them! And so that place was called, in English, “The graves of the craving.” Unsatisfied with needs, the Israelites complained for wants. And their greed led to their graves.

What they needed—what we need—is an attitude of gratitude. Greed is a great obstacle to gratitude. We have a hard time participating in God’s abundant generosity to the world, because we cling to God’s blessings. We hoard them. We gather sixty bushels of blessings all for ourselves, and as all those intended blessings begin to pile up and go bad on us, they begin to plague us, because we did not receive them with the right attitude. And that attitude is this: everything we receive in life is a gift from God. We may feel like we went out there, waist-deep in blessings, and had to do “all the gathering ourselves.” We may feel like it was a lot of work to just stand there with our bags open, like trick-or-treating children, and waiting for God to drop quails right in for us. But who do we think we’re kidding? All that we have, all that we are—created in God’s image—is God’s gift to us. Jesus says, “Let Caesar have his little coins.” What belongs to God is far, far greater.

Ask yourself, “What belongs to God?” And then find a way to put it all back into God’s hands.

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Obstacles to Gratitude: Entitlement

Matt. 22:1-14

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Among the gospels, Matthew’s ethical teachings are perhaps the most classically Jewish. If I were to distill each gospel down to something akin to a stereotype, I would note that Mark is all about action, Luke is all about grace, and John is all about divine self-revelation. Matthew, then, is all about ethics. That’s not to say that all of those subjects aren’t covered in all of the gospels—of course they are. But each of them also seems primarily concerned with one principle or another, largely due to the context for which the author wrote their gospels.

Antioch was the main center for Judaism after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Matthew wrote his gospel for the instruction of a congregation of Jewish Christians in Antioch—Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah, and who were dedicated to living their lives according to his moral and ethical instruction. In those days, “Christianity” wasn’t a religion (nor was it called “Christianity”); it was a distinctive way of being Jewish— a sect to rival the Pharisees or, perhaps, the Essenes.

Throughout the gospel of Matthew, the author goes to great pains to paint Jesus not only as the messiah foretold by the prophets, but as a “new Moses,” who, like the first Moses, fled the slaughter of innocent children in his infancy, came to the Promised Land by way of Egypt, and ascended a mountain to give the people moral and ethical instruction. Stating that he came not to abolish the law of Moses but to fulfill it, Jesus interpreted the law in a way that honored its spirit more than its letter—a sharp contrast to the methods of his detractors among the Pharisees and the legal experts.

By the time we get to these last few chapters of the Gospel, Matthew’s emphasis on ethics is well-established. Being a Jewish Christ-follower writing to other Jewish Christ-followers, Matthew focused on ethics because the Law continued to matter to his audience. You will not, under any circumstances, find Matthew arguing that we are “saved by grace alone,” as if the way we behave has nothing to do with it. Instead, we witness Jesus teaching his listeners, “A good tree can’t produce rotten fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:19-20), and then closes that thought by noting, “Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.” While Martin Luther would leave many future protestants with the impression that we are saved “by faith alone,” as though believing that Jesus existed and was who he said he was somehow punches your ticket to a blissful afterlife, the Gospel according to Matthew has more exacting standards of discipleship. For Matthew, faith means faithfulness, or one can expect to hear Jesus say on the last day, “I never knew you.”

Which leads us to the last of three parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. The first is a parable about a man who had two sons (no, not those two sons… the other two: one of whom said he would work in his father’s vineyard and never got around to it; the other of whom said he wouldn’t work in his father’s vineyard, but later changed his mind and did the work anyway). Which of those two sons did the will of his father? the one who did the work, regardless of what he might have said at first. The Pharisees got this answer correct when asked, but they did so with chagrin, for Jesus was preaching about how prostitutes and tax collectors were getting into the Kingdom ahead of the Pharisees since, for all their talk, the Pharisees hadn’t yet begun to do his father’s will, while the aforementioned sinners were repenting at Jesus’ invitation left and right.

The second parable followed immediately on the first. Another landowner owned a vineyard, and he entrusted it to the stewardship of tenants. When he sent his servants—on two separate occasions—to collect the produce, the tenants attacked them and even killed some. So the landowner sent his own son, thinking, “Surely they’ll respect him.” But they seized and killed the son as well. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asked the Pharisees, “what will he do to those tenants?”

They responded, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”

“Therefore,” Jesus concluded, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruit of the kingdom.”

As you might imagine, the Pharisees got rather hot under the collar at this point. In fact, they’d have arrested Jesus in order to shut him up, but they were afraid of the crowd because they regarded Jesus as a prophet (and isn’t it ironic that the second parable was a direct address of Israel’s long history of killing the Lord’s prophets rather than obeying his instruction through them?).

Finally, Jesus preaches his third parable—the one linked at the top of this post—full of rather bizarre details. Knowing, as you now do, that this parable is the last of three preached to a crowd of unreceptive Pharisees, you can begin to understand what Matthew was trying to teach to the congregation in Antioch by recalling Jesus’ parable this way. The wedding banquet is a common metaphor for the coming Kingdom of God, and for Matthew’s readers (not to mention us), perhaps no social event is more significant or grander. We can well imagine what a wedding banquet might look like when thrown by a king in honor of his son! But as with all of Jesus’ parables, this one has a twist: the invited guests fail to show. And not only that, they beat and killed the very messengers hired to deliver their reminders! What should be a cause for celebration has become a nightmare of death and destruction as the king returns violence for violence.

This version of the story is quite different from the one that Luke recalls (14:16-24), which is the same story except with none of the violence on either side. In both versions, however, the metaphor is very recognizable: those invited at first have rejected the invitation, and the king has responded by welcoming instead the un-welcomable. This is good news for those hungry and downtrodden who would gladly drop everything to enter the feast being offered to them! None of them can say they deserve to be there—certainly none of them were on the original guest list. And those undesirables are us. See, Matthew’s point is that the people of Israel were invited into covenant relationship with God, but they rejected that invitation over and over again, killing God’s prophets and even God’s own son.

Now, others (both good and evil) were being invited to the party in their place. It’s a fascinating detail of the story that the ballroom is crowded with the good and the bad. Again, it was Matthew who transmitted to us the parable of the wheat and the tares, wherein a landowner instructs his servants not to “weed out” the weeds, since doing so might damage the wheat. “Wait until the harvest,” he said, “and I’ll sort it out then.” And that was Martin Luther’s point during the Reformation: getting invited has nothing to do with our deservedness. But actual discipleshipremaining at the party in the house of the King—requires that we respond to the invitation appropriately. There was one poor sap who showed up without being properly dressed for the occasion; and he was thrown out on his ear. This hardly strikes us as gracious on the part of the king (who is obviously a stand-in for God), but before we get to that, let’s note a couple of other important points worth considering.

First, notice that it wasn’t the servants’ job to decide who should or who shouldn’t receive an invitation to the party. They were instructed to invite everyone, both the good and the bad. Our job as disciples of Jesus is to be ceaselessly and indiscriminately invitational to our neighbors, thus participating in our Lord’s generosity toward them. The host’s job, then, is to sort through who is properly dressed and who is not.

Second, we have no idea—none whatsoever—whether the person who was thrown out was “good” or “bad” when he received his invitation. He wasn’t thrown out because he had a bad reputation, or because he did something disruptive at the party. He was thrown out because he showed up dressed inappropriately. He did not respond appropriately to the invitation (though one could wonder where, in Matthew’s imagination, the poor man found in the street was supposed to find a suit and tie on such short notice, but I digress). This moral/ethical ambiguity is not a flaw in Matthew’s conception of the Kingdom of Heaven—it’s a feature! Here, a man is invited to the feast, only to be cast out for not being properly dressed.

I take this to mean that he took for granted that his invitation required nothing in particular on his part—kinda like those who believe that saying the so-called “sinner’s prayer” gets you a free ticket to heaven with no moral or ethical obligation. Matthew says this simply isn’t the case.

Jesus would make a very similar point in a few more chapters, when he offers my favorite parable about the Kingdom of God: the judgment of the nations imagined to be like a shepherd separating his sheep from his goats. Pointedly, the sheep didn’t know they were sheep; and the goats didn’t know they were goats! The sheep said, “We don’t remember serving you!” to which the Shepherd replied, “When you served the least of my brothers and sisters, you served me.” The goats said, “We don’t remember ever refusing to serve you!” to which the Shepherd replied, “When you failed to serve the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to serve me!” Matthew’s point appears to be clear: calling yourself a Christian isn’t the point; following Jesus is the point.

As we continue to consider “obstacles to gratitude,” this is perhaps one of the most surprising, and therefore one of the most insidious: entitlement. The Israelites believed they were the people of God (for God had said as much, many centuries earlier), but they rarely behaved as if that covenant was suitably important to them. In fact, the air still resounded with the ringing sounds of God’s carving the Ten Commandments when the Israelites were already worshiping a golden calf. They didn’t just forget as time went by—they were always terrible covenant partners. God was patient and long-suffering with his obstinate people, sending them prophets to remind them of the covenant. But the people ignored or even killed God’s prophets. When God’s own Word made flesh made God’s will as abundantly clear as would ever be done, still it was rejected, and Jesus was crucified rather than accepted as God’s true Word to humankind.

They felt entitled to God’s esteem. They took their covenant relationship for granted, like wedding invitees taking for granted their relationship to the king, and even like the one poor sap who took for granted that the king, in his largesse, would overlook the lack of care he gave to his appearance. If we are to learn anything from this parable, let it be that those who find themselves unexpectedly and undeservedly included ought not to presume upon God’s grace. While we are invited without merit to enjoy the feast which our Lord has prepared, we should never feel so entitled that all we do is show up!

In concluding his parable, Matthew’s Jesus states, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” This seems like a rather odd thing for Jesus to say. What’s the difference between being called and being chosen? If you’re called, are you not, ipso facto, chosen? Matthew uses the word “call” differently here than does, say, Paul. By “call,” Matthew means the initial invitation to become a disciple. When Jesus invited people to join him, many, like the first apostles, did. Others, like the so-called rich young ruler, went away sad. To be “called” for Matthew is not the same as to be “chosen,” which means to be found acceptable at the last judgment.

This is a tricky line we’re toeing, here. Matthew is really rather clear that we will be judged according to our faithful discipleship—that is, to how well we obey our Lord’s moral and ethical teachings. That’s not the cost of admission; but our eternal reward will apparently be dependent upon it.

Paul is able to help us, here. He clarifies that we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness, not ours, that no one may boast (Eph. 2:9). He also points out that our moral and ethical shortcomings will be covered over by Christ’s perfect righteousness—and that is, perhaps, the very best good news any of us could ever hope to hear!

But that still doesn’t mean that we get to coast on Jesus’ faithfulness. Let us be grateful to have received the gift of God’s unmerited love and grace, the gift of Jesus Christ. And let us, even more importantly, wear our gratitude on our sleeves, participating in God’s generosity to the world as Christ’s disciples. We’ve been invited to the greatest party in all the cosmos; the least we can do is wear a tie!

Obstacles to Gratitude: Worry

 

Phil. 4:4-9; Matt. 6:25-34

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“Do not worry about anything,” Paul says.

And to this I’d like to respond: What are you, nuts? I’ve got three kids and a wife. I’ve got a car payment and a mortgage. I’ve got a vocation that always has me looking to the next meeting. I’ve got a congregation full of people who insist on getting sick and ending up in the hospital.

Okay, sometimes.

A few.

Not very often, actually. And none at the moment.

But I’ve got a kid who likes to ride his bike to school. It’s only a matter of time before he falls off, or does something stupid! He’s already had stitches twice in this calendar year! I’ve got a wife who just started a new job. I’ve got friends whose daughter just had open-heart surgery. I leave tomorrow for a church conference at which I will be the music leader.

And Paul says, “Do not worry about anything?”

But then Jesus says, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life… Stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” It’s a lot harder to ignore Jesus. It’s also a lot harder to argue.

If you’re still unconvinced, though, sing the first couple of lines of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” to yourself, and every little thing just might be alright.

I guess that rather than “Don’t worry,” I prefer the famous maxim of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t panic.” Worry is going to happen, or so we tell ourselves. It’s inevitable. What we need to learn to do is not panic our way through life, but learn to remain relatively calm in the midst of worrisome circumstances. Right?

But that’s not what Jesus said.

“Do not worry about your life,” he said. And just in case we didn’t quite the get the point, he gave examples: don’t worry about what you’ll eat, drink, or wear. You know… the fundamental requirements for a life of dignity. Just… don’t worry about them!

There. Do you feel better?

The truth is, most Americans frankly dont worry about those things. We never really need to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or whether we’ll have access to clean drinking water, or whether we’ll be able to leave our houses with clothes on. Then again, many people in Puerto Rico were, until recently, able to say the same thing. We live in a world where some folks worry about whether their 401ks will be enough for a comfortable retirement, while others worry about whether they’ll eat today. Such worries may not be ours, but ours is to discern who God calls us to respond. For surely for our brothers and sisters in places like Puerto Rico to obey Jesus’ directive not to worry, it will be because we, Christ’s disciples, will provide for them.

If anyone had reason to worry, it was Paul. Even as he wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was wearing prison chains, scheduled to be executed for proclaiming the good news. Prior to this, he’d been imprisoned before, nearly stoned to death, thrown out of one town after another, and even shipwrecked on an island! And he responds to all of this by saying, “Rejoice!”

I am not a natural cynic. I’m just not. I don’t just see good in people, I look for it. I give folks the benefit of the doubt, and eat the costs I incur for it. It’s just who I am. So I want to give the benefit of the doubt to guys like Paul, who sings “Rejoice!” while sitting in prison. I want to give the benefit of the doubt to James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2). I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

And I want to punch them in the face — just a little bit.

And I wouldn’t ordinarily feel that way (maybe), but we recently witnessed (again) the worst mass shooting incident in our nation’s modern history. I say “again” because we just said that last year, following the dance club shooting in Orlando. In fact, if you make a list of the top 32 mass shootings since 1949, thirty of them happened in my lifetime, and seventeen—more than half—have taken place in my 12-year-old daughter’s lifetime.

In response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, famed author Anne Lamott wrote,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it although this time, or at least right now, it has come very close. My pastor talks often about our dual citizenship, as children of God, and Goodness, gorgeous and divine, and we are also people with human biographies and wounds and families, living in a world of unimaginable suffering, brutality, madness.

“We are lighthouses of sacred love, and we are a violent species; Cain is still killing Abel…”

Henri Nouwen, in his book called Bread for the Journey, writes,

“Joy and sorrow are never separated. When our hearts rejoice at a spectacular view, we may miss our friends who cannot see it; and when we are overwhelmed with grief, we may discover what true friendship is all about. Joy is hidden in sorrow and sorrow in joy. If we try to avoid sorrow at all costs, we may never taste joy, and if we are suspicious of ecstasy, agony can never reach us either. Joy and sorrow are the parents of our spiritual growth.”

And isn’t that James’ point, when he wrote, “you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance”?

But what about Jesus, who once told his listeners—people who lived a subsistence-level life in a backwater land on the fringes of empire—not to worry about where their next meal was coming from? What about Paul, who implored the Philippians to rejoice, in spite of his own (and perhaps their own) circumstances? How do we not worry, when at times it takes all our energy simply not to panic?

Earlier in his letter, Paul had said, “I will continue to rejoice because I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will result in my deliverance… For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” All around him (and his readers) the church is being assaulted, the apostles are being persecuted and martyred, and fear reigns in the hearts of believers. Paul’s advice—even as he faces his own death—is dont worry about it.

This post series is about gratitude, and several obstacles that stand in the way of living our lives in and with an attitude of gratitude. In the last post, I talked about how nostalgia is an obstacle to gratitude because it causes us constantly to cast our gaze backward. Nostalgiacs are always pining for the good old days that never really existed, and therefore missing altogether the ways in which the Lord is moving an acting in their midst here and now. Worry causes a similar temporal problem: it causes us constantly to cast our eyes forward. What if I lose my job? What if my kid falls off his bike and breaks his face? What if the roof caves in and we don’t have the money to replace it? What if we don’t recruit new members for the choir? What if we work really hard to make awesome plans and no one shows up?

Sure. But what if none of those things happen, and alllll your worry about the future does nothing more than distract you from the joy that God has prepared for you here and now?

The reason we want to punch guys like Paul in the face is not because they’re eternally chipper and we’re not morning people. It’s because their wisdom is counterintuitive, and we dismiss it before we’ve properly considered it. Just watching the news is enough to make us question Paul’s sanity. “Rejoice while the world burns?” we think. “What is he, nuts? We’ve got plenty to worry about. We should be congratulated for not panicking.” The culture induces us to worry—to panic, even. In fact, the 24-hour news cycle depends on it. If we’re not frightened, worried, swallowing down the bile of panic… we might stop watching the news and… I don’t know… rejoice in God’s presence.

But Paul doesn’t simply say, “Rejoice, because everything’s fine!” In fact, for Paul, nothing is going well. But pointedly, he also doesn’t say, “rejoice in your job, rejoice in your family, or rejoice in your good health.” What he says is, “Rejoice in the Lord.

And you cant. Do that. If. Youre. Worried. About. The future!

We bend over backwards to make ourselves feel better about our circumstances, and to feel secure in our future so that we have less to worry about. That’s why insurance industries exist, right? That’s why 401ks exist. That’s why a lot of people say they own guns. But we put our trust and hope in a lot of places where they dont belong, because they are temporal and therefore temporary. They can all be lost or otherwise taken away. When we put our faith in our instruments of security, we build our houses on sand. We turn to Hagar rather than Sarah. We trust the reports of giants in the Promised Land over the promises of God. We build bigger barns, rather than bigger banquet tables.

What Paul says is, “Rejoice in the Lord.” Paul isn’t telling us to “think happy thoughts.” He tells us that God’s peace surpasses all understanding; and this is precisely because it is too counterintuitive to comprehend with any ease. Paul has witnessed personally the pain and darkness of this world, yet he rejoices nonetheless. He doesn’t worry. And yet he didn’t think his way there; he didn’t logic his way to this conclusion. He trusted. He rejoices not in his worldly stuff, or his own provision for the future. He rejoices in the Lord. Paul declares that the Creator and Ruler of the universe will stand watch over our hearts and protect it from the concerns of this world.

We don’t ignore what’s wrong with the world. As I said above, our call as disciples is to discern how Jesus is calling us to respond to the darkness of the world by allowing his light to shine through us. So we don’t ignore what’s wrong with the world; but neither do we despair. Our confidence is in the Lord. Just like we can never go back to an idealized, romanticized past that never really existed in the first place, neither can we prepare ourselves for every possible contingency of the future. And worrying about it will only distract us—again—from God’s present presence and from the ministry of reconciliation to which God calls us in Jesus Christ.

Ridding our lives of worry isn’t about “reducing stress.” It’s about increasing trust. It’s about having an attitude of gratitude and an eschatological view of the world—that is, it’s about remember in whose hands the world rests, and the promises God has made concerning the reconciliation of the world to him. Rest in those promises and be grateful.

Obstacles to Gratitude: Nostalgia

 

Numbers 11:1-15, 18-20

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The lectionary readings through the month of October lend themselves to reflection upon what preachers fond of rhyme schemes have long called “an attitude of gratitude.” I sometimes try to avoid rhyme schemes, not because they aren’t clever, but because they are, sometimes, contrived—reaching for cleverness and only making it to triteness. But an “attitude of gratitude” is an exception to this tendency; and, indeed, in the Reformed theological tradition, such an attitude is the very attitudinal foundation of the Christian life. Since it is by God’s unmerited grace that we are saved, this realization can only lead to profound gratitude on our parts. And this gratitude ought to lead to our joyous and diligent participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world. While such participation does not earn us citizenship in the kingdom, we should work as if it does, because that is the work for which we were created.

A person with an attitude of gratitude forgives others, even when it is hard to do—even when the forgiven are undeserving—because God has forgiven us, underserving though we are. A person with an attitude of gratitude acknowledges tragedy, but is not overcome by it—either learning from hardship rather than blaming God for it, or being able to conclude that God is good despite it. A person with an attitude of gratitude, her eyes open to the work of the Spirit, is able to focus on the little things that make life better or easier or brighter, rather than on the negative, and attribute them to God. In short, a person with an attitude of gratitude lives the Christian life not out of obligation, but in thanksgiving.

And yet many of us—perhaps even most of us—find it difficult to have this attitude all the time, whether in a moment of unbridled “humanity,” or during a particularly difficult stretch in our lives. And because most of us are somewhat predisposed to attitudes other than gratitude, it often doesn’t take much for our mood to swing from thanksgiving to grumbling about something. Over the next several weeks, we will explore five things that serve as obstacles to gratitude, including worry, entitlement, greed, disappointment, and this morning’s obstacle: nostalgia.

The circumstances of this particular scripture reading come out of nowhere. In the book of Numbers, the author has gone to great lengths for ten straight chapters to record the census of the Israelite people in the wilderness, to describe the consecration of the Levite priests, the commemorate the first celebration of Passover at the foot of Mount Sinai, to remind the reader of the cloud and the fire by which God made his presence known the people, and to note the mighty mass of Israelites who struck camp to march forth under the guidance of God. Now, the author reports, “when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled.

What misfortunes? This is an entire nation’s-worth of people who had just a year ago been miraculously liberated from a life of slavery and misery (about which they complained so loudly that it compelled God to get involved in the first place); they had been miraculously spared a slaughter on the shores of the Sea of Reeds when Moses split the waters and enabled their escape; they had been given the gift of a moral and ethical code, and made an everlasting covenant with their God; they had been spared God wrath when their adherence to said covenant lasted less than a month; and they had built a lavish tabernacle according to the Lord’s own instructions, where Moses could meet with God to receive further guidance. In all that, what could the people have to complain about?

Yet, complain they did. The rabble-rousers among them began to pine for “good old days” of slavery and misery—you know: the days that caused them to cry out so bitterly their cries reached heaven itself. “We could really use some meat in our diets. Hey guys… ‘member when we used to be able to eat all the free fish we wanted in Egypt? ‘Member all the cucumbers and melons we ate? Oh, man! ‘Member those onions and leeks? ‘Member garlic? Oh, yeah… the food was so awesome in Egypt—so many delicious ways to spice it, you guys! Now all we have is this totally lame, miraculous bread from heaven.

Moses heard this whining coming from every household he passed, and finally had enough. Praying to God, Moses said, “Seriously, man, what you gotta do me like this for? What’d I ever do to you, that you had to go and stick me with these people? Am I their daddy? Am I responsible for every last one of these snot-nosed whiners? Where am I supposed to get meat to feed an entire nation? If this is how it’s gonna be, and if you love me at all, kill me now! This is ridiculous” (Num. 11:10-15).

And although we didn’t read about it this morning, God responded to this prayer in two ways. First, we get a slightly different version of the story of how Israel came to have seventy elders to help Moses oversee the people (thus helping to relieve Moses of the crushing burden of being the only authority figure in the room). Second, God responded to the complaints of the people with one of the snarkiest things you’ll ever hear a major deity say: “You want meat? I’ll give you meat! You’ll be eating meat day after day after day until it’s coming out of your nose!” (Num. 11:19-20). (And I just want to point out that while I’ve obviously been paraphrasing this conversation a little, God does literally say that they Israelites will eat meat until it comes out of their nostrils. No joke.) “Maybe that will teach you not to pine for the ‘good old days’ back in Egypt and reject everything I’ve done for you.”

The complaining only gets worse—in fact, in chapter 12 there is very nearly a civil war of sorts, when Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, question Moses’ authority, saying, “God has spoken through us, too. What are we, chopped liver?”

Which God heard and responded, “Oh no you di-in’t!” and struck Miriam with leprosy. Like you do. (Everyone thinks Numbers is one of those totally lame books of the Old Testament with page after page of who begat whom, but some of the best soap opera stuff happens in this book!)

My point is this: what on earth did the Israelites or Aaron or Miriam think they had to complain about? They’d been liberated from slavery; they’d seen mind-blowing demonstrations of God’s power and might; they’d received fresh drinking water out of a rock; they’d been given a constant supply of bread from heaven in the middle of a desert. But all they could think to say now was “What I wouldn’t give for some meat and some garlic right now!” And just like that, their years of oppression became “the good old days” for no other reason than that their food was bland. The people failed to be grateful for God’s gracious gifts, and questioned Moses’ fitness to lead.

When times change, when life’s circumstances take a turn, it’s easy—even natural—for us to want things to return to what we remember as “normal.” And often, normal is good. Normal is fine. Normal is… well, normal. But often when we pine for what was, we’re not doing so with clear eyes. What we pine for us not our true previous circumstances but a romantic idealization of the past. In fear of the wilderness, and an obvious need for food, the people look back to Egypt and lie to themselves about how good they had it, deciding that it would be better to be well-fed slaves than poorly-fed and free. Their nostalgia blinded them to the presence of God in their present circumstances.

Are we so different? We look at the world around us and are easily dismayed. I hear all the time about how the world—and more particularly our own American society—used to be great. Back when people loved Jesus and had a modicum of respect for one another. Back when there weren’t sports leagues for kids on Sunday mornings. Back when there was prayer in schools. Back when there wasn’t all this social media causing false rumors to spread. Back before there were cell phones distracting everyone from having real conversations. Back when people knew how to speak and write in complete sentences. Without splitting infinitives, or ending with a preposition.

In cursive.

Well, here’s the thing. We’re never going back to the way things were. And in fact, we couldn’t go back there anyway, because that romanticized, idealized past never existed in the first place. As Billy Joel once said, “The good old days weren’t always good; tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” That feeling of nostalgia for the way things were blinds us to God’s presence in the present. Asking, “Why can’t we go back to the way things used to be?” the question we should be asking is, “Where is God moving and acting here. Now.” Where might I see God in my present circumstances? What am I learning? How can I respond to the world around me in a way that glorifies God and makes me a better, more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? Will complaining accomplish that? Is pining for the past what Jesus would have me do?

God loves us and cares deeply for us. God keeps God’s promises, and the destiny of all the world has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. We can be reminded of these truths and gratefully look toward—and work toward—the promised reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth unto God (Eph. 1:9-10). If that’s what we have to look forward to, why on earth would we pine longingly for a past so deeply inferior?

We are invited this morning to the Lord’s table—a table that stands at the nexus of time. We break the bread and lift the cup in remembrance of Christ, but not as a way of remembering that Jesus lived and died 2,000 years ago. It is not, after all, a memorial service. Rather, it is an offering of thanksgiving, remembering that Jesus’ resurrection stands as proof that his reconciling work is accomplished; remembering that Jesus stands not in our past, but in our future. Let us approach this great feast—even the liturgical name for which—Eucharist—means “thanksgiving,” with an attitude of gratitude. And then let us minister generously to the world in gratitude as well.

I AM. Are You?

 

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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?

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.