More Questions

72If you are at all like me, you often have more questions than answers. I think that is a good thing. I’m always leery of anyone who seems to always have “the” answer.

Nothing in life is simple. I’m fairly sure at this point that it’s not meant to be. Puzzling seems to be a very human trait. We’re good at it.

So I confront the readings today and I find myself with more questions that answers.

Isaiah trumpets to the Hebrews who are returning from exile that Jerusalem awaits them. She awaits as a welcoming mother who will comfort in every way her children. She will care for their every want and need. We need only think of our own youth and the sweet comfort of a mother’s arms to soothe our bruised knees and our frightened minds at approaching thunder and lightning.

God, we understand, loves and cares for us in much the same way. God never is not Mother to us.

Paul tells us that he has died to all that is secular in the world. He lives in the Crucified Lord. Nothing else matters, not the Law certainly. Only this new person who has risen in the Risen Lord. No more will Paul concern himself with the mundane matters of earthly living.

Jesus speaks to his followers, selecting seventy-two to go in pairs to the towns he will later visit. They are in some sense to “prepare his way”. A whole series of instructions attach. They are confusing.

I struggle with what these readings are to mean to me.

In Paul I see a man, who by a revelation, has utterly turned about his life. He is poster child for the person who says A today and B tomorrow. The law enforcer now claims that the Law does not matter. He urges radical change, radical rethinking of what once was considered true. Are we to do the same? Are we to look at Church in some new ways? Are we to be thought blasphemer like Paul was?

Where is God in all this? How are we to know?

Paul seems to suggest that only by living utterly in the Cross can we be sure to make these radical changes rightly. Is that what he suggests?

And what of Jesus?

Why seventy-two?

Why in twos?

Why, why, why we ask.

What was it about these particular seventy-two? What of those not chosen? Why not the apostles? What made the seventy-two different? Better? Worse?

Jesus is at pains to make it clear that God is the actor, they merely the vehicle. Why should they greet no one along the way? Why burden only one household in the community for your entire stay? Why announce to the rejecting town that they are rejected? Is the point the teaching of the seventy-two or the work they will do on their travels? I wonder.

These questions puzzle me for nothing I read seems satisfying.

Surely there are answers to parts of the instructions. Jesus seems to want to make it clear that you are not the “main attraction” in these towns. No celebrations. No special foods. Go to them appearing as the poorest of the poor.

You are lambs. Not just sheep mind you, but lambs, the most vulnerable of the flock. You are laborers, God is the Master sending you. The message seems to be one of trust. Trust expressed in Isaiah and by Paul. Trust in God, all will be well.

Don’t trouble me or you with human things. Don’t worry about feeding yourselves, housing yourselves, petty squabbles about this or that. Trust.

That appears to be the only common thread I can see.

Or is it all about freedom from bondage? Are all these lessons in the freedom we find in Christ?

Yet the readings are rich in other things that call out for a deeper meaning.

I am unable to see it. And perhaps for me, that is my message today.

What am I blinded to by the logs that have created a log jam in my mind?

The readings seem to offer tantalizing ideas of greater and deeper truths.

It is a lot to ponder.

Do you have thoughts to offer?

I would be so pleased if you can give me an answer or two.

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What of This Thing Called Unity?

UnityI read a statistic some years ago. If anything, the number has probably grown larger.

At that time, there were some 35,000 different “Christian” churches throughout the world.

Think of that. In two thousand years, the Christian community has managed to splinter into so many diverse belief systems, that virtually anyone can pretty much choose their flavor of Christianity. Go into any American city, grab the Yellow Pages and see for yourself. Pages and pages of “denominations”.

What is at the basis of such a plethora of choices? Why nothing less than the honest belief on the part of each that they have “got it.” By got it, I mean, the true and correct understanding of the bible.

Add to that the incredible number of people, who (given the above) with some ( and I mean only some) justification, feel that they can cut to the chase so to speak and go to no “organized” church at all. If there are that many ways of interpreting scripture, then who is to say that I can’t do as well all by myself. Thus is born the non-denominational phenomenon, churches aligned to no recognized Protestant “church”, those that arise around the charismatic leadership of a single pastor and his/her personal interpretation, or the greatest non-denominational of all, the “unchurched,” but “spiritual” category.

The waters continue to muddy as the non-denominationals become mega churches themselves. In the end, a miasma of variety is offered to the average person that belies any “true” Christian faith at all. We truly are a Baskin and Robbins affair, replete with our own 31 + thousand flavors.

To be fair, any serious look at the early church shows pretty much the same picture. The Roman Catholic Church became the “winner” of the heresy wars, able in the end to define heresy as anything that we agree is wrong doctrine. All the others who had been arguing that they preached the “true” faith, faded into the history of doctrine that failed to win the day.

Truly, from the start, we have never agreed about what Christian doctrine is. This fact is recorded first in Acts when we learn that Paul and his followers had a much different idea of what Christianity consisted of than did Peter and those in Jerusalem. We are assured that  all was worked out amicably, but of course the bible we read today avoids the Gnostic “problem” and others. All those “other” Gospels float around from those earliest of days to suggest that there was always plenty of dissension among the believers that never got ironed out amicably or otherwise.

Yet Jesus talks to us of unity.

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me,
because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”

Jesus knew, as we all intuitively do, that in unity is power. Not the power of dominion and rule, but the power of persuasion. In their unity, they would illustrate forcefully that indeed the Father had sent Jesus to “save” us from ourselves. Save us, not in the unhealthy way of dying for our sins in some atonement sense, but save us from our own petty selfish selves by teaching us to live rightly.

We all know that the most powerful convincing tool in any arsenal is living the life one is preaching. Jesus really tried to teach us how to live. That convinces other more than anything we say. How do we live? How do we project the love that we know through this Jesus who lived and died so long ago? If our lives reflect a way of being that is attractive to others, then we truly preach the Gospel.

That is the unity. That is the template we should be seeking.

Instead we argue about doctrine all day and every day. We do this of course under the guise of proving that we are rightly interpreting this Jesus. It has never been and will never be about this thing we call a bible. That is a collection of human writings. It is and will always be about trying to live out the way of life as the Master announced to us. And quite frankly, much of that is pretty well understood by even the most limited of us.

Love God. Love each other. Take care of each other.

It’s all so very simply. All the rest, is as someone said,  is mere commentary.

What a powerful force we “Christians” could be, if only we simply lived as Jesus asked us to–in love.

What of This Spirit?

holyspiritIn John’s Gospel, we have the beautiful final discourses. John places Jesus’ last words before his arrest, where they can be seen as prophesies and promises and become all the more powerful to us.

Jesus, among other things, promises that the Holy Spirit of God will come after he has left them:

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.

Surely this is not a new idea, for the Spirit of God appears as in the opening sentences of Genesis:

“In the beginning there was a formless void and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters … “

As Fr. Ron Rolheiser suggests, the Spirit is the very life force of the universe, breathing it into existence, and being the “glue” if you will, that animates and orchestrates it.

Jesus thus suggests that this Spirit of God, present since before the beginning, will be a personal presence in the lives of all who welcome it into their lives. The Spirit represents that personalized God who dwells intimately with His people.

The Father, so Jesus explains, sends His Spirit in Jesus’ name, as a sign to us that what we have learned from Jesus is in fact the Father’s will. We begin to see the interplay in this trinity of love, God, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit. All are one, one are all, each a part, yet not separate, each with its own duties, yet doing the will of all. This is mystery in its finest manifestation.

We can trust this Spirit as being of God, because Jesus has told us it can be trusted. It will teach us everything. It will remind us of what Jesus taught. Strange and opaque words are they not?

It is said by some that Vatican II showed the in-pouring of the Spirit in a most obvious way. A council that started in one direction, is captured by the Spirit, and sent on a new trajectory. Some are saying the same thing about the Pontificate of Francis.

The question becomes, will we open our minds and hearts to the working of the Spirit, confident that it can be trusted? As our dear friend Tim reminds us, much of the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a discourse on learning to trust this God that we have come to know. This becomes the ultimate in trust–“the spirit will teach you everything!”

But the ending statement is, I think most telling–“it will remind you of all that I have told you.”

This is the key to understanding I believe.

We are all of us, attempting to discern truth. We read the bible. We read learned and not so learned “experts”. We pray. We think. We ponder.

We all wish to believe that the Spirit guides our conclusions. We all wish to believe that we understand rightly. Some of us are very sure of that. Some of us are not at all sure. How can we be? The bible, (except for some few of us) remains a maddeningly enigmatic series of documents, difficult to define, difficult to unravel, seemingly contradictory in places and inexplicable in others. The more we study the more we realize that it is a collection of very different writings pointing in many different directions. As I said, it is only the most arrogant of persons who claims that it is obvious and clear.

Let us be honest. We are but mortals attempting to define that which is ineffable. We walk upon holy ground. We breath holy air. We are gifted with this life of short duration, a mere moment in the grand design. We are like an ant trying to discern the pattern in an area rug which we walk upon. We cannot see the expanse to make out the pattern.

Yet, we have this Spirit guiding us. And if we remember the words of Jesus, recorded in some fashion within the Gospels as they have come down to us–if we remember the ideas and the themes he brought to us, THEN these become the guide to how we might approach understanding “God’s Will”.

When our understanding is in alignment with what Jesus said, then we approach truth. When it does not, when we stretch and twist the Gospel stories to stand for things that can bear no relationship to Jesus’ world, or to the body of his teachings, then we are moving from truth and toward a self-centered non-truth that may  serve us but not the Gospel. If we must warp the Gospel to reach the place we want to go, we are most assuredly heading in the wrong direction.

We can learn “everything” from the Spirit when we use as our template the basic tenets of love, kindness, forgiveness, inclusiveness, justice, fairness, equality, patience, humility, and honesty. These are what the Master taught. We will act within the Spirit of God when we bring to every experience these qualities.

What Would Jesus Do?

The Spirit will tell you everything.

Amen.

And What of Love?

anewI’ve been thinking a lot about Abraham lately.

Specifically the story of Abraham and Isaac. More specifically, about Abraham’s call by God to sacrifice Isaac. The so-called “test.”

I’m as bothered by this as I am about God inflicting Job with all his woes as the object of a wager with Satan.

This is not my God, this God who uses and abuses his very own.

It is one of the reasons why any rational person should rebel at the demand that scripture be taken literally. For the God portrayed in these examples is not a God to love or worship. It is only a God to be ignored at one’s peril.

But of course, most of us aren’t literalists. We see that scripture is the reflection of those who came before us on how they came to recognize and live with this transcendent God. How they came to see their relationship to this all-powerful deity. How they came to enter into the grace of faith and understanding.

As is so often the case with scripture, because surely it is divinely inspired, scripture often informs scripture. We find answers to the deeply agonizing questions offered up by one text in another.

Such is the case today, at least for me. Today John tells us that in those final hours in the life of the Master, he said some amazing things. Among them, he issued his own commandment, a “new” one as he said.

love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

Go back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Think about it from the point of view of today. Your neighbor comes to you, a pious woman, one who you know goes to church regularly. You see a worn bible next to her favorite chair in her living room when you visit. She often makes reference to biblical passages in your conversations. She is known for her commitment to acts of charity.  She says to you:

“God spoke to me last night. It was the clearest thing you can imagine. He told me that he wants me to take my dearest child, my youngest, and offer her as a sacrifice to him. Please say goodbye to my darling girl, for you will see her no more.”

What would you do? Well, quite obviously, you would either alert the woman’s husband or call the authorities. In any case, you would do all you could to prevent her from this act. If you learned of the act after it had been done, you would expect the woman to be taken into custody and either held for treatment or otherwise confined. Many would of course dispute her “vision” and claim her either mad or a murderer.

That would be the sane response.

Yet we read the story of Abraham and Isaac as if it all makes perfect sense. In the story, Abraham, known to love Isaac as his long-awaited son by Sarah, makes not a single objection. He offers no mental reservation, no agony of decision whatsoever. Is this even normal?

Of course it is not. And the story is just that, a story. God does not and would not ask such a thing of his creatures. The story illustrates in some crude fashion, how important it is to put God first in one’s life. It suggests that God means more than anything else. God’s desires come first. And it is crude, let’s be clear.

As is often the case with a teaching moment, we go way over the top to make a point. This the writer did. If you think you know what loving God means, well let me tell you what it REALLY means, the writer suggests. It’s hyperbole in its extreme form.

God would never ask such a thing. No rational person would do such a thing. It it meant to instruct us on what it means to love God, and of course to show us how very very short of the mark we really are. We cannot comprehend even how to love God like this.

Yet, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus shows us exactly and perfectly how to love God. He simplifies it for us. Love your neighbor as I have loved you.

AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

Jesus, in his time with his disciples has shown them again and again the meaning of love. This willingness to think of others first, this willingness to get up when tired, and offer help, this willingness to bear the condemnation of others for the “company you keep”. Jesus showed his disciples that to lead, indeed to love, meant being last, being the servant, making sure that each and every person one encountered was brought into wholeness. Jesus was about to show them ultimately that life itself was worth sacrificing for a principle–not someone else’s life, but his own.

The principle of course was that being true to God in one’s heart, and living that out no matter what the personal sacrifice might entail was the way to bring heaven and earth into an embrace. Jesus answers the dilemma we face in the gruesome story of Abraham and his efforts to commit infanticide.  He shows us what the love that the ancient writer was attempting to define actually is in real and practical terms.

Scripture informs scripture, and forever teaches us that the stories are just that, stories which help us jump into the cloudy waters of our minds, to yet peel away another layer of darkness on the journey to the light.

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?

Go and Sin No More

28In the readings for today, Paul makes an amazing admission in his letter to the Philippians. For if you read closely, Paul tells us that though he has given up all for the gospel, he remains unsure of whether he will reach the “resurrection from the dead.”

If Paul, who gave up all–his wealthy, his privileged life, his status, all for Jesus, and the ignominious job of itinerant preacher–a job that incurred stoning, and being driven from cities, and ultimate arrest and martyrdom–then who can count on being “saved?”

And yet, there are those in Christendom who loudly proclaim “I have accepted Jesus!” and then demand, “are you saved?” Somehow accepting Jesus equals being saved.

Yet, Paul felt no such assurance about his own future.

I often talk to these folks who “have accepted Jesus.” There are nice enough people and  all, but I find they oft-times hold some pretty strange views. For instance, many of them when asked what church they attend, assure me that they read the bible “all the time” and don’t need to hear anyone “tell them about Jesus.” Jesus speaks to the truly righteous through his WORD, and no explanations of “men” are necessary.

When it’s pointed out that the Trinity at least in part, represents the community of believers, and that we are as God’s creatures, certainly best in community, they shrug as if they fail to see any significance in that. That the Gospels and much of Paul relates to “church” and incidents that arise in and around churchy things, seems to make no impression either.

But what is most troubling to me is that they maintain adherence to such things as the death penalty, and the denial of social programs run by the government to assist the poor among us. I get all kinds of answers as to why this is so, and it’s not really pertinent to the point here, but I would hazard a guess that most Christians don’t find positions like this to be within the parameters of “following” Jesus.

Yet, these same folks claim that they are saved, just by the mere confession of faith. And of course they do claim the faith. In fact they claim it as an absolute. There is no doubt of any kind about anything regarding Jesus or their faith. There are SURE. When it’s pointed out that perhaps the essence of faith is believing in the face of doubt, they look aghast. This usually commences another round of “are you saved”?

While amusing, I think it raises a very important question. Can we sit back self-satisfied by our mere confession of faith? It’s the old argument I suppose of work versus faith alone. My contention has always been works identify you as one who is living in faith. How can you not serve in some capacity those less fortunate if you really have embodied the principles Jesus taught? So works to me are essential.

Moreover, faith is a constant struggle, and not something one announces loudly to everyone as some proof. Proclaiming adherence to Jesus is no more that stating an intention to mold one’s life in the direction of discipleship.

Which leads me to my second insight of the day, from the Gospel of John. Jesus sends off the Pharisees who wish to put Jesus in a corner with their request that he tell them what to do with this “adulterous” woman. Jesus of course sends them scurrying with his statement, “let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

This points out a truth that is so clear to us–we are all in sin. We are all in the process of asking for forgiveness, and starting over again to live up to the model that Jesus sets for us. After the Pharisees have departed, Jesus assures the woman that he does not condemn her either. In fact, later, in talking again with the Pharisees, he tells them, “I judge no one.” While a whole series of reflections could revolve around just that statement alone, it’s what he says before that to the woman that drew me.

“Go forth and sin no more.”

Of course many use this to mean that Jesus judged the actions that brought her to him as sinful. But since there was no proof presented, that seems unlikely to be true here. Surely Jesus was unlikely to be teaching that a charge alone was sufficient. So what did he mean by his statement? The only conclusion I can come up with, is that Jesus was not referring to her alleged adultery at all, but was simply referring the sin that we all carry by virtue of being human.

Jesus is urging her, and us to step forth from our lives as we presently live them, and to step up the ladder to him. That ladder may be high and fraught with mis-steps, we may stumble, nearly fall, and scramble to aright ourselves and reach for the next rung. We are constantly in a state of trying to “sin no more. ”

That is the beauty of God. Jesus reminds the Pharisees after this incident, that they (and us) judge by human standards. He does not. By our standards he does not judge at all. The woman’s “adultery” are of no real concern. It is the state of her heart, and her desire to climb the ladder toward God that concerns him. That he wishes to encourage in her!

Being forgiven is all that we need to take a deep breath, aright ourselves, and reach again for the next rung of the ladder. We are forever in sin, yet free from sin, and in that brief moment in time, we reach to God.

Amen.

 

The Easy Way

Baptism_of_the_LordToday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus makes his way to John the Baptist and in a turn about, has John baptize him, the one who has come to save the world. John’s mind must have been reeling at the thought.

As someone who was baptized well into adulthood, I can tell you that even in the most normal circumstances, the process of baptism is life-altering. One enters into the life and death of our Lord in a way that feels in the end like a great weight is removed from one’s heart.

I think the best explanation of what that feels like is akin to the first reading in today’s mass, Is 40: 1-5, indeed what is said in Mt 3:3 is from this passage in Isaiah.

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be

filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

For in our baptism, indeed we feel the sudden peacefulness and the sudden comfort of a great weight lifted from us. The Spirit of God has come upon us, and now our way is easy. We have the help of God. Our mountains and hills of life are made low, the turns of twists of everyday life are made plain, the world is no longer a desert of dry day-to-day purposelessness, but is a fertile world of joy and bounty.

Hope is ours, peace is ours, joy is ours. Of course that doesn’t end our ups and downs in life, but it does give a structure to them that makes sense. We can place the inevitable woes of life into perspective. We know who we are and what we are and where we are going. That is our rock and upon it we place all the vicissitudes of  life, knowing that all shall work out for good in the end.

It is unfortunate that most people experience baptism as an infant, I think. They are of course unaware of what has happened to them, and they miss this wonderful experience of awe and wonder which comes from a mindful understanding of what is occurring.

Yet our experience of remembrance of the Lord’s baptism is our time to recall the gift given us by a loving and gracious God. In placing ourselves in that place and time, we can but imagine the awe that overcame those in attendance. Imagine if you can some mighty movement of the heavens, sufficiently impressive to get your attention and cause you to gaze upward in expectation and wonder.

Imagine the breaking of the clouds and of it a dove descending. Imagine if you can the voice deeply moving in your heart which spoke, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”

Or is it that we hear but faintly within “you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased.” Is that the echo we truly hear when  we contemplate this wondrous event that is the centerpiece of our  faith–Jesus  Christ.

Let us make it a regular practice to recall this time, this lifting of the burden of going it alone that so plagues us and so limits us. It is that which makes us stubborn and selfish, angry and short-tempered. We are not meant to be solitary creatures. We are made for community. The first community we enter is that of the Trinity.

Come, let us rejoice,  for like Jerusalem as Isaiah told us,

Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,

Amen.

Let There Be Light!

lightI once did a paper on the treatment of light in the bible. Phos as it is known in the Greek.  But the word light has played a significant role in our existential thinking for times well before the generation of the bible, and is not limited to those who espouse a Christian doctrine.

I had to laugh this morning as Father remarked upon Plato and his statement that most of mankind conceives of reality about as clearly as our ancient forefathers watched shadows play against the wall of the cave.

Father said in all sincerity, “for a pagan, Plato had a real insight!” Indeed he did, and perhaps he wasn’t quite the pagan you think he was. God speaks to all peoples in all times in ways that are conjunction with their time and place in the world.

As we struggled to free ourselves the “dark ages” which were admittedly only dark for some, we came into the “Enlightenment” that time when we began to see that things that we thought were mysteries of God, were explainable through human reason and study.

In our first reading today, Isaiah speaks of the light that is coming to Israel, a light that will be recognized, a light to be followed, and in following, the world will become rich. Of course Isaiah 60: 1-6 is thought to predict the coming of the Magi, who located the Christ child in Bethlehem and recognized him as the light that would lead his people as King.

And indeed, we often refer to Christ as light. Reading the first chapter of the Gospel of John assures us that Jesus is the light that brings life, the light that dispels the darkness.

Light in the Gospel and certainly among the Gnostics was akin to knowledge. In his person, Jesus brings true faith, he proclaims the true and direct path to God. He brings us the knowledge of things heavenly, things that cannot be grasped by reason alone, but through faith.

That is the message for us today as we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. Jesus comes into the world, into our personal world and offers us the light of knowledge. If we abide in him and in his teachings we live in the light. That allows the Spirit within us to guide us along the path of truth–the sure path to God’s loving embrace.

Now of course, many claim to follow Jesus. And many claim that others who make such claims do not in fact. How can we know?

There is no easy answer to this question. To be sure that one is doing the will of God, following the dictates of the Christ, is to almost always to fall into error. Those who profess that they have the “true” knowledge almost assuredly do not, and perhaps that is the hallmark of a false prophet.

Humility is the first hallmark I believe of living in truth. One must be ever ready to conclude that one has been wrong. One must be ever ready to read further, more deeply, and to struggle in prayer for a clearer understanding. We must implore God at every juncture show us our errors and lead us back to the straight road. We are all to enthralled with crookedness and we must keep that before us.

In reading the various things that Jesus said, or more correctly what was reported he said, we must look to the overarching theme of his dialogues. And of course, I explain nothing new when I suggest that the overriding theme of Jesus as love. Love of God, love of neighbor. One can never isolate a sentence or word from scripture as proof of anything else. It must be placed in the context of all that he said, for in the end we must confess that those who set quill to parchment lo those millenia ago were human and in being human they brought their own reason and history to their understanding of what Jesus meant.

That may fly in the face of some who claim that the bible the result of God directing perfectly the hand of the writer. The evidence doesn’t suggest that that was so, nor does logic if you think about it. If God dictated it, then well, I confess, God is and was not much of a writer. And besides, being a literalist simply is an easy way out. As is the claim by some that God meant for the average person, with no special education, to understand everything in it with ease. This leads to private interpretation and quite obviously is why we have tens of thousands of so-called Christian sects this day.

No those who claim that the bible is easily interpretable by anyone are surely just making life easy on themselves. Tens of thousands have spent a lifetime studying sacred documents, and they certainly make no such claims. The bible is complicated, perhaps as complicated as any “book” can be. So we tread carefully.

But with care, and attention, as I said, it is possible to see the broad foundations of Jesus’ teachings. We know that love, companionship, compassion, respect for our differences, embracing the poor and disadvantaged, respect for those we disagree with, service to others–these are the attributes of those who follow the Lord. With humility, curiosity, wonderment, awe, and joyous happiness, we go forth seeking the road and seeking to stay upon it.

I do not claim we will never stray if we do these things, but I am confident that we will be called back to the path if  we veer off. As long as we ask Christ each day, “Lord, teach me your ways!”

Amen.

 

Christ the King

This title always seems a bit unsettling doesn’t it? Here in this country which prides itself on democratic government we view such things as monarchy as, well, old world, and based on created inequality. Not the sort of thing we wish to contemplate when thinking of Jesus the lamb of love and justice.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King with the passage we all know so well–Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate. “Are you the King of the Jews?” demands Pilate. He, no doubt did not understand the answer.

The context here is important. Pilate is portrayed as something of an intellectual disinterested third party who has been put upon by the Sanhedrin to deal with a problem they pushed upon him. He is seen in John as someone who might actually want to let Jesus go and therefore Jesus has in his own hands the keys to his release. Answer correctly and Pilate might turn him loose.

But of course Jesus does no such thing.

But in reality, it is perhaps even unlikely that such an event took place. Pilate was no intellectual, and certainly was not dealing with Jesus because the Jewish leadership forced him to. He was a cruel powerful man who regularly insulted the Jewish religion, and surely couldn’t care less about their petty internal squabbles. Jesus must have been to him, no more than another barely troublesome irritant.

John writes thusly for a reason. It is the late 90’s or early 100’s of the common era. Jesus has been gone for close to 70 years now. The efforts of the Jesus followers to reform Judaism throughout the realm have largely failed. Most of Judaism rejects Jesus as the Messiah. The Jesus people are facing having to contend with Rome on their own, without even the shallow protection of the Jewish “state”.

John, can turn his anger upon that leadership and at the same time, try to appear  nonthreatening to Rome. Thus Pilate is portrayed as a mild man, and it is the Jews who have forced Jesus to the cross.

Moreover, it allows John to elicit the differences that exist between Jesus’ coming Kingdom and that of Rome, the template of what earthly Kingdom is all about.

Jesus announces that no earthly kingdom, not even Rome will withstand his Kingdom. But it is no kingdom of armies and rich potentates. Instead it is a kingdom that is based on truth, the truth of God. Those who recognize Truth will recognize Jesus and his Kingship.

The truth of which Jesus speaks is the truth as announced throughout the Gospels, based on the stories of healing, of wisdom, of love and companionship, of service to others, of compassion, of inclusion, of fairness, equality, justice. This is the truth. Those whose hearts are attuned to this message, “hear” it, and follow. They enter into the Kingdom and become the Kingdom.

When Jesus asks Pilate, “do you say this on your own, or have others told you about me?” he really is asking Pilate whether he recognizes the truth in Jesus, or is he merely responding to the charges of the Sanhedrin. Pilate of course is clueless, responding in disgust, that “he is no Jew”.

Jesus in saying that his kingdom is “not here” is not referring to a place, but to a state of being. For we know that the Kingdom is within, and those who cannot see the truth of his message cannot and will not find the gate through which to enter.

We each need to ask these questions of ourselves. Do we see Jesus as King in this new way of being? Do we?

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

 

 

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