Freedom?

plow-580x250It’s ironic. We hear a lot of talk about freedom these days. We’re all in danger of losing it. If you believe the political right in this country. Those “freedoms” that are usually left unnamed. You know, “our” freedoms?

Of course “freedom” tends to come down to me doing what I want when I want to. And that so-called freedom ends up not being freedom but slavery. We become imprisoned in a world we create. We find ourselves wondering why we are not happy as we sit among our riches.

Jesus understood that. So did the writer of 1Kings, who wrote about the encounter between Elijah and Elisha. “Just let me kiss my mother and father goodbye!” Paul understood it when he wrote: “For freedom, Christ set us free!” We mistake freedom for all the stuff of life that prevents us from getting on about the business of actual freedom. We always have something to do first. And that leads to one more thing, and then another, and finally we are lamenting that we can’t wait for retirement so “we can spend more time doing charity work”.  I hate to tell you this, but at retirement you will find more reasons to put things off–for just a bit of course.

Elijah, Paul and Jesus are trying to save us from ourselves. Left to our own freedom, we will become mired in acquiring things, building “security” for the future, getting ourselves into the position we believe necessary from which we can then, “follow Jesus”. In a word, we will never get to it.

True freedom is not in getting our way with the world. It’s not in bank accounts or houses. Elisha demonstrates how well he gets the message, when he turns back not to kiss his parents goodbye, but rather to “burn his bridges”. He kills the oxen necessary to his very survival, cooks them, and hands out the meat to all who are hungry. He now has nothing.

Jesus told the rich man that he should go and sell everything he had and follow him in order to secure the kingdom.

When we hear those words, we blink, and we look with begging eyes to anyone to assure us that we aren’t supposed to take that literally are we?

And indeed it should not be taken literally. Civilization would come to a screeching halt (some might think it should), if we all simply walked away from home and kin and went off to preach to each other? We would soon come to the conclusion that those farms were useful since we all need to eat. Somebody needs to build and maintain transportation. Someone needs to build and maintain shelter.

Of course it can be literal. Elisha was “called”, as were Jesus’ disciples. As were and as are others. Sometimes God is insistent that a particular person has a particular job in this time and place to accomplish and the call is literal. Radically give up your life as you know it, and FOLLOW ME.

But I believe that that call is there for all of us in a real sense too. We are all being called to follow Christ into a new but very real freedom that severs the slavery aspect of our relationship to things and ways of being. It is the radical realignment of our relationship to this world that is being offered in these passages.

While we respond to deadlines and mortgage balances with renewed dedication to acquiring assets, we are enslaved by our possessions. They own us. We have no time, emotional or real, to address the real issues of the planet, the issues of the Kingdom that Jesus lovingly called us to.

These are not small requests, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Today our world spins more and more out of control. Our political leaders are invested in a game of their own, one that involves the pursuit of naked power and riches. Our business community, structured as it is, places almost an exclusive premium on the “bottom line”. Profit drives the industrial machines of the world.

Meanwhile people are hungry, without shelter. People are sick, without care. The planet groans under the massive assault of an indifferent populace which rapes its bounty and leaves sludge and barren useless land. People labor in real slavery, unable to make a decent wage, unable to care for themselves or their families.

We are too busy in our “freedom” to address anybody else’s problems. We are lost in our own slavery to “the good life” however defined. We are not free to follow Jesus, because we don’t have time. See me next week, year, decade, and maybe I can do something, but not now. The mortgage is due and I need to work another overtime shift to make it.

These things are real. I don’t minimize them. But the way out of this morass is not less attention to discipleship but more. Paul warned us:

But if you go on biting and devouring one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another.

No one is free until all are free. To follow is not to mouth platitudes. It is to do the work. Love your neighbor as yourself IS the law as Paul stated.

We are not losing our freedoms. We have yet to gain our freedom.

Today’s readings point the way and make that path straight. Follow it.

Amen.

Do You Know His Voice?

shepherd-in-wildernessIt’s undeniable that Jesus often made reference to us as “his sheep”.

Just last week, Jesus instructed Peter to take care of his sheep, and today in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that his sheep know him, know his voice, and they follow.

There is something of course quite troubling about this if you think about it.

It is now common in the political world to refer to those on either side of the political spectrum who are, shall we say, passionate in their feelings, “sheeple”. It is not a compliment. It refers to people who are acting like sheep, blindly following without independent thought. Think Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats jumping off the docks into the water and their deaths.

And indeed, as I am told by those who claim to know, it was common when a shepherd came into Jerusalem that he brought his flock of sheep to a common holding area. In those times, sheep were not marked in any way to define who belonged to who. Not only was the shepherd intimately familiar with his sheep, but the sheep “knew” the shepherd’s voice, and when he called, those that were his,  they, and only they, followed and separated themselves out again.

There is some comfort in this explanation, for we believe that Jesus indeed does KNOW us that intimately. As is said in the scriptures, God knows us down to the number of hairs upon our heads.

But are we blind followers, responding only to the superficial “voice”?

Skeptics and those who refer to themselves as atheists surely do account us as “sheeple”, blinding adhering to things that are fantastical and at times conflicting and brutal. They pepper us with isolated passages of biblical fare that present a God who is merciless, arbitrary, and cruel. How can you believe such things they say as they look on with disdain?

Worse they extract stories out of context and make jokes, taunting “do you read this to your child as a bedtime story? What kind of parent are you?”

They lay our faith down to being so fearful of the specter of death that we perpetuate a created sky God to save us.

It is both troubling and painful to be portrayed this way. In that sense, the sheep metaphor is particularly unwelcome  and uncomfortable.

Again I ask, are we dumb followers? Are we so terrified of death?

A bit of thought of course resets our compass. Of course we are not. Surely, if our goal was to comfort ourselves we could come up with a story that held together much better than this! We would not be confronted with the twists and conflicts, the contradictions and real errors that exist in the collection of writings that we lump together into a “book” and call scripture.

The charge of following dumbly can be laid at the foot of some believers it is true. Some do actually think of faith as the ability to believe in a set of precepts without any wavering or any deep thinking. The idea of doubt is to them akin to slapping God across the face!

But I think that true faith is full of doubt. That doubt drives us into deeper contemplation and study. It is that practice that deepens and broadens our faith into maturity, one that is ever ongoing.

Our lives are, so we think anyway, more complicated and busy than those of people before us. We are pulled and pushed by many forces. The cacophony of life threatens to drown us at times. As a retired person, I find my life so much busier than it used to be. I now have the choice of how to spend my time each day, and the calls to do “this” or “this” or “that” or “that” are nearly overwhelming.

Yet, in the chaos that is every life, we can, if we listen carefully, hear his voice.

We indeed do recognize HIS voice. And that voice causes us to pause, and recalculate who we are, where we are going, and what matters most. It is the beacon that draws us to the path once more, and guides us to listen to the voice as we interact with the world, basing our decisions and actions on principles that HE announced to us.

Like the sheep, we can cut our way through the herd of humanity that we find ourselves in, and maintain a steady course toward the way of living that we believe is both moral and efficacious for us as humans.

Rather than following out of fear, we follow out of hope, for ourselves and for humanity. We follow, believing that this way of life, with this shepherd lead to an expansion of our humanity individually and collectively. We are not sheeple. We have the keen awareness to discriminate between our shepherd and all the others calling to us.

Do you know his voice?

Who Are You?

fishermenOne of the enduring themes of the Gospels is the degree to which the disciples misunderstand Jesus. Mark makes this a major theme in his work, pointing out time and again that the apostles are unable to grasp the truth of who Jesus is, again and again. At times we, as readers, become exasperated by their blockheadedness , for it seems to obvious to us.

Yet, we fail I think to recognize what it must have been like for them. Even in a culture steeped in some serious measure of mysticism, the things Jesus said and did, were beyond they own experiences. Is it so hard to imagine why they found it so difficult to gather in and process the true magnitude of what they were experiencing?

In today’s Sunday readings we have but another case of Jesus having to explain the obvious. The disciples, are out fishing, and the catch has been nil. They hear a voice asking, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”

Now, who else would be calling them children? And surely they were not fishing for food to eat, for the lot of them were not necessary for that task. Yet, John claims that they did not recognize Jesus.

This might be explainable if this was their first encounter with Christ after his death, but John points out at the end of the first section of this reading that it was their third such meeting with the Risen Lord.

Jesus instructs them to cast their nets on the far side of the boat. This they do, even though as of yet, they have no idea who has given the order. It falls to the “disciple whom Jesus loved” to identify him. Peter in his exuberance, plunges into the waters and swims ashore, only to find Jesus tending the fire and cooking fish!

The rest come ashore with their massive catch, and come to eat.

Now John relates the most amazing statement of all: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you’, because they recognized it was the Lord.”

What in the world is going on here? They have seen the Risen Lord twice before. The beloved disciple announces that it is Jesus. Peter, so excited, swims to shore ahead of the boat in order to see Jesus, and they are afraid to ask, “who are you?”

It is one of those mysterious statements that confound us. What is meant here?

I suggest that it relates not at all to the actual mechanics of facial recognition, but rather the continuing fog that seems to envelope this group of men and women when faced with what can only be a supernatural event.

They keep having this “vision” of the man they have lived with intimately for three years. They had ate and slept with him, traveled the roads with him, listened to him preach. They had seem him joyous, sad, pensive, angry, all the emotions that they were prone to. He had become all too human to them, albeit he was strange in his talking and behaving at times. He had bled on the cross and he had died. He did what any human would do.

Yet, in their sorrow and confusion about what to “do now”, they kept having these experiences of him. He was there, and then not there. He spoke, he was “touchable”. Yet suddenly he was gone again. They whispered among themselves, reassuring each other that they had in fact all felt his presence, yet all too soon, things returned to normal.

Imagine in those moments of his presence–how everything must have become surreal–the air must have shimmered, the smells sharp and piercing, the sounds muted, echoing, searing the mind. And then suddenly, as if in a second, a shudder passes over the landscape and all returns to normal. The room is stifling hot, the odors of animals and human sweat return, the cacophony of human transactions outside, the dust.

From a moment of euphoria, suddenly the stark reality of nothing has changed, returns. They try to reassure each other that what transpired was real, but as we learned last week, they could not convince even Thomas of the first encounter. And slowly their minds convince them that it was not really real at all, but figments of their desires and pain.

By this third encounter, this one where Jesus eats with them in such a normal human fashion, their perplexity once again rushes at them. This is the Lord they are convinced. But he is not as before.  Who and more importantly what is he? Who is this man/God who disrupts them again and again, refusing to leave them in their grief and desire to just get back to life as they knew it before Him.

Who is this Man?

Indeed.

Each of us is called upon to lose  our complacency of who Jesus is.

Each of us is called to ponder more and more deeply what this Jesus is.

Each of us is called to decide how this realization changes us, and changes everything about our lives.

Are we not all continually asking “who is he?”

Our answers, as we journey along will change, grow, and develop. That is what conversion is, a continually evolving thing.

That is what the disciples were learning in those days following the crucifixion.

Amen.

 

The Lesson of Thomas

doubting_bigThe story of “Doubting Thomas” is pretty clear, framed as it is with the stories of the marvelous healing abilities of the apostles following the death of Jesus. We can see it as a directive of the church–believe in the message. In other words, trust that what we have said is true.

This is a necessity of course since Jesus was no longer physically among them. On what basis would people believe in the fantastical story that they were beginning to tell. Why indeed should we believe?

Thomas’s conversion at the feet of the risen Lord assures us that the stories of the bible are true and can be believed. Don’t be like Thomas we are told, believe in the Word!

As I said, this was a necessity to the fledgling group of Jesus followers who found themselves in not only dangerous lands where death could be pronounced on those who preached this anti-power message, but telling a story that was difficult for anyone to swallow on its face. A man travels around preaching a new doctrine quite apart from normative Judaism, allegedly curing the sick and outcast of society, eating and drinking with these misbegottens, and then is hanged on a tree in the dump outside Jerusalem with other common criminals? Really?

Even to a people more inclined to believe in the supernatural than we, it’s a stretch isn’t it?

We are today of course, encouraged not to be doubting Thomas’s ourselves, and for some believers, it becomes almost a mainstay of their faith lives. It becomes the banner of those who refuse to consider any deviation from “absolute and total” faith as some dark weakness that may lead to eternal damnation. Stop your ears! Cover you eyes! Do not doubt for one second lest you lose the kingdom!

But of course a reading of the story in John suggests nothing of the sort. Jesus calls Thomas to him, shows him the evidence. Thomas, now convinced, falls at the feet of the Master and proclaims him Lord and God.

While Jesus does bless those who have not doubted, (or the Church inserts such language to bolster its argument), Jesus does not condemn Thomas in any way, or lay any penalty upon him for his reluctance to believe based on the words of his friends, the other apostles.

Perhaps then we can draw a bit of a different lesson from all this.

Is it not interesting that Thomas was unprepared to simply acquiesce from the claims of his friends? After all, Thomas had been with these men and women for some three years. Did he not find them trustworthy? Apparently he did not. Perhaps it was the lack of faith they themselves had expressed and evidenced with the arrest and trial and murder of their leader. Perhaps his own willingness to hide himself from the authorities caused him to be skeptical of the new-found “faith” of the others. Were they not all too human, susceptible to fear and confusion to be trusted with such a revelation?

Was not Thomas’s doubt a good thing?

Should we invest our time and our fragile psyches to unquestioning faith just because “somebody” assures us that we should?

If you spend time talking with atheists, most especially the “new atheists” (some call them evangelical atheists since they exhibit some of the same unflinching dogmatic surety of the fundamentalist), you will assuredly find that a good many of them, if not most, are former believers. And they were not ordinary believers for the most part, but fundamentalist believers, the most rabid, the most “sure” believers among us.

Ask a fundamentalist if she has any doubt about the truth of  Christianity, and you will get a swift assurance that her belief is total. She will regale you with stony firmness that there is NO doubt in her mind that the bible is indeed the literal word of God.

As we know, when such persons finally, if ever, discover that indeed this is not, cannot, be true, their faith is usually shattered beyond repair. Their faith is based upon the Good Book, not the working out of a philosophical foundation which makes faith reasonable and thus believable. If the book is shown to be faulty in ANY manner, then the foundation cracks and crumbles into dust.

Thomas reminds us that faith, to be enduring, and I would add, mature,  must be based on something more than the claims that some words in a book are absolutely true and beyond question. Questions are good. Some Jewish scholars would argue that the bible is to be read on four levels, and among them, the first–literalism–amounts to the understanding of a child.

Questions force us to confront the internal conflicts and contradictions of immature faith. If faith is to be mature and thus lead to a real conversion of spirit and growth into a “better” way of being human, it must confront and work through these issues. The bible thus becomes the place to uncover these very conflicts and becomes the basis of our truest conversion.

If our passion for truth and desire to believe and know this God is real, then we are compelled to reconcile the contradictions that exist within the Bible (for they are surely there if one honestly looks). By the reconciliation we uncover a God far greater, far more impressive, and far more loving, than the deity portrayed in the superficial reading at the literal level.

Jesus was the teacher we should emulate–for he told us to set aside all the Pharisaic rules of faith and seek the simple loving presence of God. He cut through the red tape. Unknowingly perhaps the early church gave us the means to do that, in the guise of Thomas.

 

Insanity or Faith?

miraculous-catch2It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again, expecting a different outcome.

If that is true, then there must be a fine line between insanity and faith. For faith calls us to believe that the outcome will be different even though our prayer has remained unanswered over and over again.

Saint Monica is a perfect example. Mother of the great Church Father Augustine, Monica was a woman of Christian faith who bore a son by a pagan who himself remained pagan for many years. Monica prayed unceasingly that her son would see the light and join the true faith.

After many years we know of course, that her prayers were finally answered. Augustine saw the truth in one moment of clarity, and went on to be the Bishop of Hippo and one of our greatest theologians.

But we need not go to ancient times to find examples. We too do it in our every day lives. “Practice makes perfect” is a euphemism for the fact, that we humans are tenacious in our determination to succeed. We are told to “get up, dust ourselves off, and try again.” We DO expect different outcomes. We search for the error of our past attempt and seek to rectify it. We are by nature people of great faith.

In Luke 5: 1-11 we have the story of the miraculous catch. Jesus calls Peter and the others to put back out to sea, and after addressing the crowds, he tells Peter to let out the nets. Having spend the night fishing with no results, Peter protests, “Master we have worked hard all night and caught nothing!”

One can imagine Jesus smiling gently, as if to say, “Peter we have done this all before many times. When will you trust me?” Of course he doesn’t, perhaps the look is enough. You can almost hear the sigh from Peter as he reaches for the net, “at your command, I will lower the nets.” Of course we all know what happened.

Children intuitively I think never give up. They have yet to have a firm grip on “reality” and so they do expect a different outcome. Each peek-a-boo is anticipated with the same first-time-ever expectation–What will happen next? As we grow up, and lose this sense of wonder, we lose our abilities sometimes to “try again.” This is especially true about the big issues. We may try again and again to bake that cake that seems always to turn out dismally, but we are sometimes loathe to try again a relationship when we have been hurt badly.

We may give up on politics as a worthless pursuit because the engines of government turn so slowly and the rancor is so intense that “nothing will ever get done.” Yet there are, thankfully, tens of thousands, who keep the nose to the grindstone and incrementally, maybe over decades, make small but ultimately important changes. A life time might be spent on preserving one small wet-land. Who is to say that this is not great faith along with dogged work?

Jesus’ lesson is that faith does in fact move mountains. Peter and the others are changed in ways that we can but fathom from a distance. In this instance all the fine words of Jesus fall away, wonderful as they are and were. Peter has realized in one moment in time that everything he has invested in this man of Galilee has been worth it, and though he cannot yet know, it will be worth all that he endures and suffers in the future.

Through Peter’s faith, we realize our own. We stand a bit straighter, for the burden lightens. We are not alone in our failures and missings of the mark. Jesus is here with us, and he urges us to try once more. Our faith is worth our investment in it. We are reassured that we are not beating our heads against a wall. The cake one day will turn out perfectly.

Life can appear at time to be drudgery and hardship. In the midst of trauma, we forget the moments of sweetness and pure bliss. If we remember this miraculous catch, we will remember too that the sun will be back soon, our dreams will become reality and our hearts will sing the joys of life.

Have faith.

Love much.

Try again.

Amen.

 

Loving in Action

Last Wednesday I was driving to the pool for my swim. I travel a good portion of the way on US70. No sooner had I entered onto the freeway that I was ushered off by police barricades.

As I traveled along the frontage road with a growing number of vehicles, I realized that I would sooner or later come upon the scene of an accident, obviously a very bad one.

When I saw the wreckage, there was no doubt in my mind that lives had been lost. The next day, reading the newspaper account, I learned that a car had veered across into the oncoming traffic, gone airborne and plowed through another vehicle. A mother and son, died when this vehicle tore off the roof of their car and destroyed the entire front end.

I was confronted, as we all are periodically, with the fragility of life and just how little control we have over it. This woman and child were doing nothing wrong. They were obeying the traffic rules. Yet in moments their lives were hideously ended.

They had no time to reflect on a life well or ill lived. No time probably to even say a short prayer. They were no more.

Nothing in this life is guaranteed. Our wealth can be snatched from us in mere moments due to an economic catastrophe. Our health can decline with suddenness or with relentless deterioration. Our loved ones can depart willingly or otherwise. So too our friends. We may lose jobs, homes, beauty, pets. We can lose our country to war or invasion. We can lose our world to pollution.

The great Shema of the Jewish faith teaches us that what is most important in our lives can only be God.

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.

We are similarly reminded in the Psalm 18:

R. (2) I love you, Lord, my strength.
I love you, O LORD, my strength,
O LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.
R. I love you, Lord, my strength.
My God, my rock of refuge,
my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold!
Praised be the LORD, I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies.
R. I love you, Lord, my strength.
The LORD lives! And blessed be my rock!

What is it that we are reminded? While all is temporary, subject to loss or change, only God is forever. Only God can never be taken from us. Only God is faithful, ever-loving, ever-present. You can be denied your bodily freedom either through incarceration or disease, but no one can take God from you. No one can eradicate your belief or your love.

In the end, God is all you have. It is why I so feel sorrow for those who deny God or deny the possibility. I do not feel sorrow because they will be eternally apart from God, because I don’t lay such a human punishment upon them. I refuse to believe that God works in that manner. In any case, it is God who will decide such things, not me.

What I sorrow for is the loss of comfort God affords us. We are never alone. And as thinking beings, surely each of us has at some moment realized that no other human being can take away the utter aloneness that being an individual entails. We are shaken to our core when we realize that no spouse, child, parent, or friend can ever penetrate our inmost being. We remain self-contained vessels. The agony of such a realization is only ameliorated when we realize that God can and does penetrate. God does live with us. God does hold us in love through the trials of life.

Jesus said that this Shema was the greatest commandment. The next was to love our neighbor as ourselves. On these two rest all the others.

As we approach Tuesday and exercise our responsibilities as citizens to elect leadership for our country, we should remember this. We love God and we express that love by loving our brothers and sisters in this country and around the world. To love our neighbor means to empathize, to sympathize, and finally to be compassionate toward our neighbor. We must take on his and her burdens and make them our own. We must not think just of ourselves and our own well-being but what is best for the greater good.

No better explanation of this can be found than at my dear friend Tim’s blog, Straight-Friendly. He explains the differences between empathy, sympathy and compassion far better than I, and reminds us that we owe it to ourselves and most especially to God to make our choices on Tuesday wisely and with a spiritual vision guiding us.

May God bless you in your choosing.

Amen.

What Do You Want Me to Do?

 

Is your first reaction to this story, why isn’t the lesson: what can I do for you Lord? I mean, isn’t it presumptuous of Bartimaeus, who clearly recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, to boldly put forth his request? When Jesus so magnanimously says, “what do you want me to do?” shouldn’t our blind man, shrink in embarrassment and fall to his knees, begging forgiveness of his sins and asking how may I serve you?

Bartimaeus doesn’t do that clearly. I’m told by more learned scholars that the request for “mercy” in the Mediterranean value system is a request that one who OWES pay his debt. This casts Jesus in the role of the one who owes. It is suggested that this is explained in Bartimaeus’ recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and that he is  from the great line of Solomon and David, and thus as such a great one, Jesus should bestow favor upon one who has bestowed such an accolade upon Him.

In any case, when the healing is completed instantaneously, Bartimaeus becomes Jesus’ client, and follows him immediately and throughout the remainder of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.

Our first inclination is to approach the Lord with fear, a fear that we find utterly justified given his greatness and our sinfulness. And indeed there are many a preacher and pastor who has and does focus on fear. Fear is potent and an excellent controller of behavior. Every one of us recalls fearing the parental admonition that if we fail to do as ordered, some dire consequence will befall us. Want your dessert after dinner? Well you had better have picked up your room as you were told to!

But is Jesus or God to be feared? Does one actually fear a person who is good? No, we fear one who is inconsistent, unfair, and mean. We fear the parent who is unreliable, who reacts inappropriately either with too much punishment, or none, or punishment that is not tied to anything at all but a whim. God is not like this. God is good, and those who are good can be trusted to be fair. They can be trusted to do justice.

Bartimaeus sees Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, goodness personified. He TRUSTS Jesus to do what is right, to be fair, consistent, and reliable. Bartimaeus has nothing but his faith. But that is all any of us have. Our wealth, our intellect, our homes and cars and things are nothing to Jesus. Our faith is what saves us and what gains Bartimaeus his sight.

It is that and nothing more. If we have true faith, then we may boldly ask as he did.

Now that doesn’t mean that all we ask for is or will be granted. That is truly not the point here. We are given that which we need. God always gives us exactly what we need to continue. What is not given us is either not needed or is within our own abilities.

Jesus’ very simple quiet, “what do you want me to do” is an acknowledgment of just how proper and right Bartimaeus’ request was. Jesus calls us to lay our needs upon him, not as some wonderful genie who magically grants our requests, but as people of faith who know whom to turn to in our difficult and chaotic lives.

Jesus is the cool drink to a parched soul. He refreshes us to continue the journey.

Let us never be afraid to ask, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

Amen

 

 

Choice, It’s Always About Choice

 

 

One of the lesser known facts of the history of the Hebrew Scriptures is that it took a very long time to divorce the Israelites from other gods to the one God, Yahweh. As they moved and lived among others of different faiths, they too usually found themselves “hedging” their bets with monuments and oblations to the local deities.

So in Joshua, poised at the entrance to the Promised Land, we find the people being asked to choose, something they will be asked again and again in the coming generations. Joshua makes a bold statement, one that all of us know well:

As for me and my household, we shall serve the LORD.

This question comes back again at the end of the bread discourse when Jesus, aware that many of his followers are most uncomfortable with his admonition to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. He sees many of then shaking their heads in disbelief and returning to home and life as they had known it before they met him. What he announced was just too much for them to accept.

I am told that it was even more harsh than we may realize. We translate the word esthio as “eat”. But I am told a more literal translation of the Greek is “gnaw”. Jesus actually suggests that if we are true disciples, we must work hard at ingesting his teachings and understanding them and him.

Clearly a good many of his followers cannot do this, and they slip away to their old way of life.

In an odd way, one surely not meant by those in the Church who determined the scriptural arrangement, Paul in Ephesians can be seen as an example of this difficulty.

Often used as a means of assuring men that they are in fact the “heads” of their homes and that women have no place in the Church, Ephesians 5:21-32 claims that “women should be subordinate to their husbands.” Men in return are to “love their wives as their own flesh.” Notice how the one requires actual physical response. To be subordinate is not a thing you do in you mind, but a thing you do by ACTING. How much easier for the man who must only “in his heart” love his wife.

The point is, Paul (or the one writing as Paul) means for there to be a certain equality but he himself misses that the lot of the woman is by far the harder and the man may proclaim his job complete by mouthing the words. It is sort of like the beloved claim of right wing religious that they “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Most of the “sinners” would argue that little if any love is shown them at all.

But Jesus recognizes that simple formulaic responses are not true discipleship. Dainty eating is not requested. Gnawing is.

And the choice is real. Choose life or choose nothing.

The nothing can be dressed up in finery. It can be mansions or expense accounts, fancy offices and titles. But in the end, these choices provide no sustenance that gives life. They only cover up the dying that is going on inside. Only Christ provides the true food that not only sustains us but brings us everlasting life.

That is why, at the end in Jn 6:68, Peter rather plaintively replies: “Master, to whom shall we go?”

Indeed Peter speaks for us all. We recognize the difficulty of this discipleship. We know it is not easy. We know there are much easier roads to transverse and ones that are undoubtedly filled with more pleasures, but only one gives us the sustenance we need for eternity. Only one.

Which one will you choose?

Amen.

 

 

What Is It?

 

 

I find it amusing that the writers of Hebrew Scriptures so often painted prophets as unwilling and protesting men. Again and again we are confronted with those called to serve God who are quick to demur for any number of reasons. “Choose someone else, God,” they seem to proclaim.

In today’s first reading, Elijah is no different. In earlier readings, Elijah has proven that Baal is no God but that his God is in fact the only true God. He has set about killing off  the Baal priests and Jezebel is after his head. He runs far away and collapses under a  broom tree, a tree that offers little shade. He is exhausted and falls asleep. He longs for death.

Instead, an angel appears and brings nourishment. Fed with the cake and water, he is able to resume his journey to Horeb.

We are of course expected to draw the parallel with the Hebrews, led by Moses, who were fed in the desert. If you recall, God sent manna to the Israelites which they could gather by day which gave them sufficient nourishment to sustain them until the morrow. Since they had no idea what the “food” was, they called it manna, or “what is it?”

Similarly of course, Elijah is also fed, though apparently the fare if familiar to him.

Not until Jesus discourse on bread in Jn 6: 41-51, do we learn what these food references are. They are, as Jesus tells us, God himself. “I am the bread of life!” he proclaims. What is it, is God.

We learn that God sustains us on our journeys, and without his sustaining power, mere food would never be enough. In other words, we are never enough. Our strengths and perseverance is admirable, but insufficient. It is God, through his great love for us, that allows us to carry on when we are too tired physically and emotionally to bear the burden any longer.

Some are wont to say that God burdens us with more than we can handle. But I think this is incorrect. God does not burden his children. We burden ourselves by our poor decisions, or we are burdened by the simple vagaries of life, the happenstance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. God does not take over and choose for us, but when we find ourselves burdened, he graciously stands by ready and willing to offer us that which we cannot offer ourselves–the beyond human strength to continue.

We, or most of us, have had that experience at least one in our lives. We look back astonished that we were able to “get through it”. We recognize that God’s grace sustained us when nothing else could have.

Elijah, like us, doesn’t feel up to the task. We complain and whine. We bargain and resist. But when we offer ourselves to God’s hands, we find, that we can bear the circumstances we find ourselves in, and we can do the job we are being asked to do.

Those of us who believe that God, in some mysterious way, becomes the bread the wine for us, find strength in the Eucharist, not only in times of great stress, but in our daily normal lives. It is like a muscle that is exercised and grows in strength and endurance. With regular reflection upon the importance of this gift, we become more able handle the small issues of life, and thus are prepared when faced with serious problems.

Such is God’s love for us. As Paul says, let us be imitators of God–let us love this greatly all those we meet.

Amen.

 

Vanity of Vanities

 

 

Paul spoke:

Brothers and sisters:
I declare and testify in the Lord
that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds;
that is not how you learned Christ,
assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him,
as truth is in Jesus,
that you should put away the old self of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires,
and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and put on the new self,
created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Eph 4: 17, 20-24)

He tells us that we must not continue to live in the “futility” of our minds. When we think of our minds, we think of our intellect. Futility means, in the Greek, Mataiotes or vanity, which alludes to emptiness or uselessness.

What does he mean by this?

Gentiles, the unbelievers, live by their minds. They have no purpose beyond what ever they define as success in the world about them. They may seek power, money, professional success, public fame, or any number of things that seem to the intellectual thought process worthy ends.

But are they? Can you take any of them to the grave? Will they do you any good if you do?

Of course not. Such goals are fleeting, passing with our mortal bodies. They are empty goals.

Paul attempts to explain to these new believers that they have become different by their baptism. They are no longer seekers of transient things such as money or fame. They now seek permanent goals–loving God and the promises of heaven. They have purpose finally. Real purpose.

This is not to say that intellectual pursuits are bad, as some would claim. In fact many on the far right would dismiss the intellectual , considering it dangerous and unbiblical,  based on a simplistic reading of this passage. But Paul is not saying that at all.

What he is saying is that God and Godly pursuits are beyond the logical results of our thinking. We cannot welcome the spirit of God simply by logical analysis. It requires a leap of faith–something beyond 1 + 1 = 2. Basing our entire life on the logic of intellectual reasoning will take us far, but never far enough–for that we need to put on a new self, and be renewed in the spirit of our mind.

The Spirit offers us a new way of examining the world, a new way of judging if you will. We no longer rely on  slide rules and Socratic methods as our sole means of determining our reality. The Spirit offers us a new plane of existence, a new way of examination, to over-lay upon our three-dimensional world.

Now we do not conclude that something is either good or bad, right or wrong, beneficial or harmful based on a “me” approach. That is what the pagans do. No, we see the totality of the world as all of creation, and that changes the equation dramatically.

Now some may say that I am only talking about a sense of morality, and those who consider themselves “atheists” also can and do have great moral standards that include considering the entire world in their calculations of good and evil. I would agree, such people often do exhibit such considerations, and there are many an atheist who is a good deal more moral that a good many self-defined believers in God.

But of course, just because one is unaware on the intellectual plane of the God who graciously offers guidance, doesn’t mean that they don’t open themselves to that gracious assistance, simply by calling it something else. Now I admit that is an argument that is circular in nature and surely won’t satisfy the average thinking atheist. All I’m saying is that atheists can be perfectly moral while at the same time having no way of knowing why they are. I choose to think that God works in those who profess no faith, yet who open themselves to divine instruction, unknowing as it may be.

Paul concludes by telling us that this new self is created in God’s way, in righteousness and in holy truth. We, these new creations are bound to seek and speak truth, for all truth is holy. All truth is righteous, all truth is God’s way.

Pray for truth in the renewal of the spirit of your mind.

Amen

 

 

 

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