Sunday, December 14, 2014

Joy Fills

Isaiah 6:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

         After the first few days beginning the exploration of joy, we read scriptures that revealed the anticipation of the coming of the Lord truly cut both ways. Anticipation can possess both worry and relief. Those with worry recognized the coming as due date for a debt they could not pay. Those who anticipated with a sense of relief knew the coming of the Lord would free them from the injustice of the leadership. With his arrival, the covenant they had with God from Abraham and Moses would again rule and the land would again be just. In         Isaiah we get the promise of a new covenant that will be for eternity - because it relies on God, not human reliability.

         For that reason we turn away from our focus of mourning for and looking to the past. On this Sunday, in particular, we look to the future with great excitement because of the promise of the new covenant. We do not carry the anxiety of judgment, we look forward to the chance to spend eternity in a world that is guided by justice. After a lifetime of botched justice as we try to understand and live a God character, experiencing pure justice gets me excited.

         The lesson of turning away from a past that cannot be changed toward a future of promise is a lesson we should take away from the season and use all year long. Living as God would have us live and focusing on the future that comes with it gives us many reasons to celebrate. How different would our worship and daily lives be if we lived in perpetual joy instead of mournful reflection?

         The most exciting part of the joy described in Isaiah is its composition. It is not a head joy. It is not a heart joy. It is a joy that overtakes the entire body. The image of a garden in the spring sending forth its shoots helps us see the totality of its nature. We should be vehicles of joy. Little else does to us what joy can. Fear paralyzes. Grief consumes. Love confuses. But joy - joy fills!

Joyful, joyful we adore thee! Let's mean it when we sing it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent: December 11

Psalm 126
Habakkuk 2:1-5
Philippians 3:7-11

         The tone changes as we begin the week pondering the joy we expect at Christ’s return. Also common across the passages this week, though, is a sense of dread for some at the accompanying calamity that is sure to come for them.

         In Habakkuk, a watchman stands guard at his station, anxiously awaiting the coming one, actively anticipating the coming one. If there were any action he could take to make it happen sooner, he would do it.

         Why is the experience so different for the watchman and the others, the ones never satisfied? It is all about the relationship to the one coming. It is all about the relationship. The watchman waits for one dear to him. The others wait for someone with the hopes of what they may get from him.

         How are we waiting? With exuberant anticipation? With resigned disappointment? The way we wait may determine the Lord we encounter.

Advent: December 10

Psalm 27
Malachi 2:10-3:1
Luke 1:5-17

         Why then are we faithless to one another?

         Malachi goes there, finally, on the last day of the week examining peace. The bulk of Bible text serves two purposes: 1) telling us how to get along with one another and 2) telling us how to get along with God – which usually involves us getting along with one another.

         God made our differences just as he created us all in his image. The prophet’s plea rings as strong today as ever. Throngs take to the streets against injustice. Revolutions topple abusive, privileged dictators. Around the world violence rages as the people seek peace.

         We, the faithful, have our role in it all, but we also know that after the cleansing purge, peace follows.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Advent: December 9

Psalm 27
Isaiah 4:2-6
Acts 11:1-18

         Isaiah presents one of the various pictures in the Old Testament of the eternally restored Jerusalem, with the people resting in the shadow of God’s presence. There is no need, no distress, only one of the purest depictions of peace found in the Scriptures. But before that peace rules, it goes through a violent, fiery purge erasing all trace of wickedness ever in the land. No memorials remain, no landmarks to remind, only the ever-visible, sheltering presence of the Lord to keep His people at peace.

         Such a pretty picture – eventually.

         But why does God have to park Himself over even these, the best, the ones written in the book of life as the Great Chaperone in the Sky? How weak? How flawed are we that only His unfaltering presence keeps us from harming one another.

         Lord, help us know peace. A better peace. Help us become a better peace.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Advent - December 8

Psalm 27
Isaiah 26:7-15
Acts 2:37-42

         Dictionary definitions indicate that [i]peace is the normal state of affairs for nations and peoples. Headlines, social media, day-to-day live seem filled with disturbance. It may not be war, but it certainly is not peace. The call for justice from Isaiah rings especially true following events of the last few weeks. We too long for your justice to restore order to out land

[i] peace. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: December 08, 2014).

Peace Follows

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15
Mark 1:1-8

         This week I have had very little [i]peace (D6) as I sought peace in the scripture passages for the week. Close examination was not getting me there, and neither was any word analysis. I finally figured it out. The passages this week have been leading to peace which is what happens after a restoration to a right relationship with God.

Peace follows.

         We prepare the roads and clear the paths for God’s arrival and then peace follows.

         We level some hills and fill some valleys and then peace follows.

         God does not demand that everything be right and perfect in our lives; no one is capable of meeting that standard. We need to provide the access point and then God follows.

[i] peace. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: December 07, 2014)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Advent: December 6

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Ezekiel 36:24-28
Mark 11:27-33

         The verses in the prophet made me wonder what I was saying when I made statements about being God’s agent in the world to see that God’s kingdom plans were achieved. Sometimes we get caught up in the notion that since we are living, sentient beings and God is, but is not, but… we are the ones who do things. As faithful believers we do have responsibilities; we do have a part in the work. Problems arise when we inflate our role and we find ourselves in the role Israel often found for itself in the prophet stories. Leaders and certain aspects of society were elevated over the rest of the people and to the detriment of the rest of the people.

         God handled the problem.
         God restored the nation.

         Action verbs and God: still together.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent: December 5

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Acts 11:19-26

         Jeremiah picks up where Hosea left off. Hosea reminded the people of the power of relationships and that God was calling them into a relationship with him. The opening of Jeremiah recounts his appointment as prophet by the Lord. The scene presents God in one of the most human-like encounters with the familiarity toward the prophet. The knowledge God shares from the earliest moments of Jeremiah’s existence, to the physical contact as He placed His words in His messenger’s mouth, to his assurance of protection; how can that not bring a sense of peace in the midst of turmoil.

         I frequently have to remind my students that their words have power. What they say and how they say it can wound another for years. Today’s passage reminds me that wounding is only part of what words can do. As God explains when he appoints Jeremiah. His words can be used in construction or for destruction. The verse points out both the good and the bad that can come through speech. In the case of the prophet, none of it is bad, it reflects different ways to get things done.

         Each time I read this passage from the prophets something different strikes me about it. Often I connect to God having a plan for Jeremiah from the beginning. This time though, the relationship between God and Jeremiah hit me as remarkably human. I am a bit jealous now, but I know that I have the same thing. If you want to know a definition of peace: that is it!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Advent: December 4

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Hosea 6:1-6
1 Thessalonians 1:2-10

         Today we begin to prepare for the second Sunday, Peace Sunday. By the nature of their job, often when we look in the prophets, we confront graphic violence and epic destruction. Yet, we still find peace because we come to realize that peace is more than the absence of conflict, it includes the presence of confidence.

         Hosea embraced the confidence that he found in the relationship he had with God. He was able to hold that confidence because he recognized the power of relationship with God. As he and other prophets earlier and later delivered their message from God, the ultimate lesson reminded the people to keep and nurture their relationship with God and He would be happier than any rite could make Him.

         An all too common complaint from people is that there is too much conflict and not enough peace in their lives. The world is just so busy it lends itself to conflict. How easy though would it be to embrace the Person who wants more than anything to be in relationship with us?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Advent: December 3

Psalm 79
Micah 5:1-5a
Luke 21:34-38

Surfers have their own vocabulary to describe the waves, and though it is unique to them, almost everyone understands it. What they say is not what they are saying. I think Micah would have been a great surfer or at least talked like one. What he said was not always what he was saying, yet it is both descriptive and beautiful.

In verse two, his statement, “from of old, from ancient days” uses Hebrew constructs to give the listener context: from of old = before any of us were around, and from ancient days = before even Abraham. He does not say “from the beginning,” but that is what he is saying.

So much around us is temporal. For a time we celebrated the impermanence of items around us. Something new and better was coming soon. Yet there was something attractive about antiques. Sturdy. Dependable. Beautiful. In a world of turmoil, Micah offers the assurance of the antique God who would be with his people from ancient days until the ends of the earth. Always and forever would have made the point, but I’ll take Micah with what he says and what he’s saying.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Advent: December 2

Psalm 79
Micah 4:6-13
Revelation 18:1-10

         Ninety-five percent of the time a prophet speaks, the audience starts stocking up on willow bark (a source of what we now call aspirin) because they knew celestial hurt was coming. God mobilized His voices when the people strayed from Him and, mostly, violated their duties to one another. Across the prophets we read accounts of the grievous harm done to God – through the abuse of His people.

         Micah was no different – except he never forgets the restoration that is to come. Connecting it to the familiar, and often deadly, pain of childbirth, he makes clear to the people that great difficulties will come, but in the end God will still be with His people and all human endeavor will be subsumed to God’s plan.

         The pain is real, but so is the hope.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent: December 1

Psalm 79
Micah 4:1-5
Revelation 15:1-8

         Where is the God of Micah when you need him?

         The world around us grows more militarized and talk a war returns  to nations who had become, if not allies, partners for global peace. Instead of being mediator between people, in the last decades, God has been a key source of strife.
         Everyone is right in their view of God!

         Instead of being satisfied with His teaching, each lesson provokes blood-letting against anyone who understands it differently. The common unifying message that supersedes each illustrative example no longer matters. We look for, long for, difference to justify our superior connection to God. All that is human foible. The verbs tell a different story – He teaches; He judges; He arbitrates; He speaks.

         We follow. We obey. We steward the bounty He gave to us. The conflict that has resulted sounds so bad – where’s the hope? Our hope remains in the certainty that God’s word is true – always – no matter what adjective leads us to take up arms.

         Our hope walks with God who is God forever and ever.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Hope Comes First

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

         Hope. Joy. Peace. Love. The four weeks of Advent. Each a reminder of the life desired of and expected for each of us. In the back of my mind I have wondered why the themes were in their particular order. This past year cancelled any argument I might make for any other order.

2014 has been the year of doubt. Hard doubt. The kind of doubt that either eliminates faith or refines it to its purest form. The questions began forming during Lent and reached a crescendo Easter Sunday. My rage from reading Scripture AND the news made it almost impossible to type my thoughts; something didn’t add up. Either the Church was seeing something in Scripture I could not find or the Bible was a fantasy that not even churches built on it could maintain.

My thoughts centered on two main questions: 1) Was Jesus real and was He the biological Son of God through the immaculate conception, and 2) even if Jesus was not real on either count, does it matter? The remainder of the year focused on coming to answers. My answers, at the moment, are 1) yes/probably not, and 2) no. I will explain more as I come closer to my final thoughts. 2014 is not over. I took a break from regular posting while I wrestled with the questions. Writing and meditation did not stop – only the posting of it.

As Advent approached I was drawn back because it has been my favorite season since I understood the liturgical calendar. My eagerness does not come from its ending at Christmas but in spite of it. The season calls us to examine our faith in light of the four traits. It calls us to live the fulfilled lives God wants for us.

So why do I agree that hope comes first? Hebrews 11:1, my mantra, says, “Faith is the substance (manifestation) of things HOPED for; the evidence of that which we have not seen. All year, despite the persistence of doubt, I hoped Jesus was real. I hoped Jesus was the Son of God. I hoped that fact mattered. It is hope that gets us to the place where we can examine the others. Even when God seems far away – hope maintains a link.

Happy Advent!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Fair Deal - Ordinary Time - September 21

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

         “That’s not fair!” The complaint plagues parents, educators, referees – anyone who makes decisions. Sometimes it comes from a perceived difference in treatment. Sometimes it comes from the perception of equal treatment. Everyone defines fair to their benefit; the decision-makers cannot win. Imagine God’s decision making process: “Jonah or Nineveh? Us or them? First century Christians or twenty-first century Christians? Who’s going to have a bad day?”

         As far as Jonah is concerned, I wonder if God could have given him a good day. Upon being released from the great fish, he probably pined for the coziness of the close quarters inside. God gave him a mission, but because of his view of himself and his view of the recipients of that mission, he acted contrary to his charge. Unlike the spies who hear the “should you choose to accept this assignment” qualification to their direction, prophets only hear, “your assignment….” Jonah still hoped God would have a change of mind. God did. God pardoned Nineveh – which Jonah knew would happen. He returned to pouting and hoped God would decide to smite them anyway.

         A first reading of the Gospel lets one ask, “what does God owe me?” The answer is pretty good: I get the same thing every Christian gets! A deeper reading though flips the question, “what do I owe God?” The answer is pretty rough: I owe God the same thing every Christian does. Suddenly, I do not see Jonah as the whiner; he has some good points. “They” are wicked: “I” am holy. “They” did not keep your commandments: “I” live according to your will…except for that one thing…and yes, that other….

         I am them. They are me.

         Since Easter Sunday I have been on a self-imposed hiatus. Honestly, it has been a self-imposed avoidance of anything religious. Through Lent and Holy Week I found myself responding to the texts with degrees of physical anger. How could the “Church” keep getting it so wrong? The Gospel I read left no doubt about Jesus’s message of inclusion yet dictate after dictate issued by various denominations established conditions of exclusion. I found myself fantasizing Nineveh2 consequences on them.

         I was Jonah.

         Instead of reflecting on Scripture and other writings, I took up the gavel and pronounced judgment.

         Exactly the thing that in others led to such physical distress in me.

         I was them and it was killing me.

         It’s not fair! I had to embrace those who make me uncomfortable and “they” do not. Like Jonah, I fled.

         Last week, I heard the sermon one of my Tweeps (people I follow on Twitter) delivered. The message was simple but powerful: Don’t Judge. Exchanging the gavel for my collection of colored pens I use to notate the Scriptures I am studying removed the stress and anger that plagued me in the weeks leading up to Easter.

         What do I owe God? To do his will for me and not do his job (judge).

         What does God owe me? Only that which has been promised – the strength to do his will.

         That’s fair – whether I like it or not.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday - It Is Not Finished

Acts 10:34-43 or
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts (above)
John 20:1-18 or
Matthew 28:1-10

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

By the time Easter morning comes around, if I am being honest, I am ready for Holy Week to be over. No matter how many times I have read the familiar verses, as I meditate on them I learn something new. I know what events we recall each day of the week and I know the outcome, but the exercise of reflection and meditation on those events, takes me through an emotional whirlwind. We know the whole story, and there is more to come, that even the closest followers did not know. They knew the body was gone. Some who visited the tomb came back claiming to have seen Jesus and angels. They still had as many questions and those skeptical about the disposition of the body likely had more fear. This Easter Sunday we proclaim joy and confidence in the guarantee of our salvation, but on that first Sunday the faithful were left with even more questions, a different kind of sorrow (at losing the body), while some experienced the thrill of having encountered Jesus.

The lectionary gives us the choice of resurrection narratives from John or Matthew. The passages vary in detail and focus, but the point of each is the same: the tomb was empty. John 20:9 points out that the disciples still did not understand the prophecies and Jesus’s teaching about the purpose for and events around his death. We get the annotated version of the story with footnotes and analysis (and the perspective of time), but the disciples endured it all in real time, with details emerging throughout.

Jesus’s ministry played out in much the same way I tell a story when I get really excited: “This happened and then that happened. Oh don’t forget about….” Different people were present for different events. No two sermons or lessons were presented to the same crowd. Everyone had part of the story so finding the disciples struggling with confusion only reflects that they were humans. All week the scripture texts have presented the influence of human nature on the individuals involved. Human nature does not make anyone wicked. Human nature does not make anyone holy. Human nature does not limit the choices available to us, but the choices we make reflect the core values of our human nature.
We use the occasion of Easter worship to proclaim victory for life and defeat for death as Scripture (mostly the Epistles) has taught us. We stand on that conclusion with the perspective of centuries, yet, we still have as many questions as the disciples in that day. Life may have won. Death may have been defeated. We all still have a lifetime to navigate before we experience that outcome for ourselves. As I live, I still ask, “where’s the body?” Seeking Christ does not end at the resurrection, it begins.

He is risen!

Now what?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Saturday

Job 14:1-14
Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24
Psalm 31
1 Peter 4:1-8
Matthew 27:57-66 or
John 19:38-42

What do you do on a day with no news? If you are the Internet, kittens!!! If you are CNN, hang tenaciously onto the last good story (CNN actually had a “Breaking News”: Titanic sank 100 years ago today). If you are a journalist, work on your book. If you are an Apostle, lay low and wait for someone to tell you what to do. We do not really know what happened with the eleven remaining apostles or in the community of the faithful. We can only imagine what they did because the Bible does not tell about the day. Only Luke 23:56b says they rested on the sabbath. We know what happens up until dusk the day before and we know what happens at dawn the next day. Various faiths have developed traditions covering Holy Saturday. Today’s Scriptures finish the Good Friday story in the Gospel reading(s), offer insight to what the believers may have been thinking based on beliefs from the Old Testament, an offer scriptural cover to some of the spiritual traditions regarding what Jesus was doing that day.

Matthew and John relate versions of the claiming and burial of Christ’s body. I admit that I had never read them side-by-side and notice the differences between them. Mark and Luke most closely agree with the Matthew passage. The Luke passage has the faithful women preparing the spices and oils for burial. The differences between the passages, ultimately are trivial - it does not matter who did what, or how much was done to prepare the body, or who owned the tomb as it was only briefly borrowed and returned good as new.

Job, as one of the oldest books in the Bible, looked at death as final. Early Jewish teaching did not widely consider any kind of spiritual afterlife, much less eternity in a place of reward or judgment. The rewards and punishments came in life and in the story of Job, we watch him experience both. God was seen as active in the day-to-day events of humanity so for the faithful, it meant watching all that one did to earn favor with him. That daily involvement is partly what gave Job the willingness to challenge God. The worst God could do was kill him, and with the troubles he was enduring, death was better than years of lament.

Lamentations continues to hold God responsible for our blessings and our troubles. The author declares that God is angry with him and has caused something like leprosy, fractured bones, mental illness, and isolation. Although God inflicted tremendous physical and mental strain on the author, the author knows God can forgive and fix. He has hope and clings to that.

The passage from 1 Peter offers clues to a passage in the Apostles Creed, and justification for several practices that result from overly-literal readings of the verses. The Apostles’ Creed affirms the belief that on Saturday, Jesus descended into Hell to bring the gospel to those who had died before so that they might have an equal chance into heaven. Verse six says the gospel was proclaimed to the dead, and because Jesus was “dead” in sin (the entire world’s past, present, and future sin), he had to be in Hell. Verse one also brings its own challenge to right behavior. The verse has been used by some to justify self abuse (flagellation) to prove their faithfulness and rejection of worldly ways. Practitioners of these beliefs will beat themselves until they are bleeding to connect with Christ’s physical pain. Contrary to that interpretation, those who suffer still continue to sin. The physical suffering of the cross forgave all sin, but did not stop it from happening. Finally verse seven’s exhortation to “be serious and discipline yourselves” has been interpreted by some to avoid anything fun, that brings pleasure, or that might twist one’s mouth into a smile, for that will be the exact moment Christ returns and instantly damns you to Hell.

The passages today bring a wide variety of ideas found in different portions of Christianity. Their wide reach accurately represents the anxious uncertainty of the day in our faith. Patience today brings us jubilation in the morning.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13 - 53-12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25, or
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1 - 19:42

For many years I considered it a near-mortal sin to start reading a book and not finish it. As a reader, writer, English teacher, I held that stories engage our being so thoroughly that we owed the teller a chance to finish because it is the twist at the end that gives meaning to even the banal events leading to it. I read many bad books over the years that I knew I should have put down at the end of chapter one because the character, plot, and descriptions did nothing to engage me; you cannot judge a book by its cover, but you can by chapter one. There are a handful of books that I re-read because they so capture my mind I enter that world with my entire consciousness for hours at a time. The passages in Isaiah and John have the qualities that bring me into the deep contemplation appropriate for today and the coming days.

John takes us through a stunningly rapid succession of events that climax with Christ’s death on the cross just hours after being arrested in the garden. We are challenged in every verse to consider our own response. We have the gift of nearly two centuries of hindsight to question and judge the actions of every individual involved that day. Put yourself as a dissident in the midst of a mob of illiterate faithful who only know and understand what their religious leaders tell them. The unfamiliar streets in this city where you are a visitor resemble what we call alleys. Their leaders, the teachers they have trusted for years, declare that you and your leader are the latest in a long history of heretics determined to eliminate God’s law rather than fulfill it (the truth does not matter to them as both eliminate their authority and social standing). Peter’s courage at even being in the crowd offers some mitigation to the often taught cowardice of his denial. Where were the rest of the Apostles? We cannot have a greater security barrier than the two millenia separating us from the event, but before we judge them, consider how you would have functioned as one on whom there was a bounty, jostled in a crowd of potential captors, with only rumors for news. It might be time to share some of the grace we have been extended from the events of this day.

As powerful as the John passage is, the imagery of the man in Isaiah fills my mind with a picture of a man so damaged we would struggle to know him as a man, yet so overwhelmingly powerful even the strongest are brought to utter submission in his presence. The vibrant, often violent narrative interwoven with so much peace and beauty challenges my mind to see the connection - to see both as one. Violence and calm. Disdain and adoration. Crudeness and refinement. The juxtaposition of such concepts challenges us at the core of human thought. We struggle when those things we have defined as opposites coexist. Every time I read this passage I am disturbed by injustice and buoyed by hope. To me, this is faith- asking, “What?” and declaring, “Thank you!” at the same time. We must do that with this passage or we get overwhelmed by one or the other sides of the picture he presents.

The great stories bring us back and we find something new each time. Today’s Scriptures do that. In every reading we gain a new insight. Every insight shapes our faith. Our faith sustains us.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35

The most condescending and hurtful insult I think I have ever heard was someone being told to “know your place.” The implied superiority of the one making the statement imposed such inferiority on the one to whom it is directed there is no response that can be given. It stops everything. Growing up in the south, that statement was infused with even deeper meaning as it was often directed toward African Americans and poor whites who did or said something that made the impression that they imagined they were higher in status that the speaker knew them to be. The comment made to anyone not in either of those categories suggested that they belong in one of those categories. During the Passover evening with his Apostles, Jesus essentially directed two apostles to know their place; however, the lesson he delivered defines our place in his kingdom and it is far from insulting.

The Exodus passage provides the requirements for Passover along with God’s command for observing it. One aspect to Passover that stands out against other festivals and rituals is that it focuses on practical actions for those who are prepared to flee at a moment’s notice. The directions for observing the holiday involved communal preparation, cooperation, and taking care of one another. Celebrating the event is supposed to remind the Jews of their salvation from Egypt.

Christians have our own event that mirrors the Passover. Thursday evening, Jesus retreated to a secluded upper room for an evening together with his Apostles. Jesus instituted communion as he broke the bread and shared the wine. With such staples as bread and wine, Jesus gave his followers a way to remember him and a way to share his ministry to others through the symbolism attached to the elements. Jesus also took the time  to wash the feet of each disciple. The disciples were not ready to grasp the significance of the actions, but within hours everything he said suddenly overflowed with meaning as those who had been taught by him understood the meanings of his lessons. By observing the rite as Jesus commanded, we are reminded of the sacrifice for our salvation.

Jesus found himself still addressing the right attitude of his followers even while teaching the final lessons of his ministry. The fiery and impulsive Peter struggled with the balance between humility and authority in Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus sternly corrected him twice as he demonstrated the power of servant-leadership. So much of what Jesus taught contradicted popular belief of strength and weakness then and now, yet when closely examined we have found what Jesus directed was remarkable in transforming the interaction. Jesus, knowing the events that would unfold sent Judas out to do what he was to do.

In his final lesson to the Apostles, Jesus commanded them to know their place. Rather than humiliate them into submissive obedience, Peter became a powerful church starter and Judas was able to go out and complete the betrayal. For both of them the power they exercised came by submitting to the people they served. Jesus reiterated his great commandment to love one another, which would become even more important when he was gone. The practices of communion and foot washing assist us to remember his lessons and to accept our place. Our place at the table. Our place as servants. Our place in authority, able to do anything  God desires us to do.

Know your place!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Wednesday

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 70
Hebrews 12:1-3
John 13:21-32

The first days of Holy Week have given us examples of people responding according to their human nature.

Nothing to see here, folks. It’s just the way we are.

Or maybe there is something to see. Each Scripture today reflects a person responding to (often brutal) cruelty in exactly the opposite way our human nature would encourage. When threatened or attacked, our central brain judges the situation and gives us the option of fight or flight while prepping our muscles for an energetic burst. Christ called us to be different and each of today’s passages demonstrates the possibilities.

The writer in Isaiah proudly affirms that he gave his back for beating and held his face up so his tormentors could pluck his beard. The speaker gives no reason why he is being attacked, but confesses that because God is with him, all will be right in the end; there is no insult or injury that can overcome the blessing of God. His confidence in his right place overcame the base instincts to escape his situation.

In Hebrews the author steels his courage with the thought of all who have gone before. As surely as they were a force for encouragement, he quickly turns to Jesus, the first to  take the path. He recognizes Jesus’s willingness to adopt all of human frailty to overcome the barrier between God and humankind: sin. In those moments of ultimate humanity, Christ did not change the outcome to avoid embarrassment. If anything, that moment served to magnify the victory.

The passage in John recounts one of the latter scenes from the upper room where Jesus was completing the passover dinner with his apostles. When he announced that one of them would betray him, the passage makes it sound like the room was in stunned silence as they eye each other up and down suspiciously. Finally the fiery one, Simon Peter, asks the obvious question: who? Although Jesus answers him, it does not appear that he nor anyone in the room fully understood Jesus when he told how he would identify the traitor. Instead when he tells Judas to go, the others assume it is to get some necessity or do some task with the poor. Even if they had realized Judas was the one, they were not prepared for the degree of betrayal that was coming despite Jesus repeatedly telling them. Jesus, though, did know, but took no action to stop it.

The passages prior to today focused on those who were apart from Jesus reacting to the situation around them and doing a good job of reflecting our human nature. Today, the passages considered individuals in the right place to God. Rather than react to the situation, they handled they managed each incident with the calm assurance that comes from getting faith right.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Tuesday

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 71
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
John 12:20-36

Recently I heard a news story that sought to explain the re-emergence of illnesses that, while not eradicated, had not had widespread outbreaks in decades due to childhood vaccinations. A community of parents has embraced the idea that the vaccinations cause a variety of lifetime ailments. They would  rather risk a normally short-term illness (though they have their own lifetime risks) than chance damage from the inoculation. Despite the research many of these parents cited being fully discredited, they remained convinced of the potential harms. Health care and psychological researchers began to examine why “the facts” actually reinforced the beliefs instead of changing them. They found that the more convinced someone was of an idea directly contradicting/disproving the belief, the more attacked the person felt and the more they clung to the idea with which they were comfortable. Today’s Scriptures have passages that challenge what we know is true and violate the norms we have accepted in society.

The prophet Isaiah puts a twist on the coming Holy One by revealing that he would not only be for Israel, but for the entire world. Despite the challenges Israel regularly posed to God, the prophecy declared that saving them alone is too easy. He also describes this coming one as despised and a slave, yet in the end one to whom the powers (kings and princes) recognize in the correct way and react humbly and with respect to his presence. A despised slave from Israel who commanded honor from those recognized as powerful in the time contradicted every norm of that time. The idea so crossed norms and expectations, that the Jews, years later in Jesus’s time, didn’t accept that his message was for the world.

Sometimes Jesus speaks clearly leaving no doubt about the meaning for this listeners. Sometimes Jesus spoke in riddles. Sometimes he challenged their sense of order as he does in the John passage. He challenged the values of life and death, light and darkness. His example of the wheat grain offered a contrast between limits and potential. As long as the grain goes ungerminated, it does nothing. Upon germination, though, it produces a full plant thousands of times its size that culminates in the production of a grain-head with many copies of itself. He presents it in human terms as the value one has for his own life: being centered on preserving one’s life limits what one can/will do while valuing something other than one’s life opens one up to anything God can do with you. The idea that a group of uneducated working-class men could be the voice of God blinded the educated leadership-class to the message before them. Despite the history of prophets being called from all walks of life, the Jewish leadership in the time of Jesus held to the idea that only they or someone like them could speak with authority. Society’s structures guaranteed it.

God does not respect the beliefs we convince ourselves are most important. As soon as we establish rules that control God, who he can love, or who can join his kingdom, God makes a shepherd a king, a farmer a prophet, a carpenter the Messiah. When we open our mind to potential and release the limitations society has determined for anyone, God’s work begins through us.

Holy Monday

Isaiah 42:1-9
Hebrews 9:11-15
John 12:1-11

We all have that thing that motivates us, that thing we cannot resist. For some it is money and the ways to make it, legal and illegal. For others it is the thrill that comes from escaping a dangerous situation like skydiving. For others, it is chocolate! Each of us responds in a certain way given a certain stimulus and varies in intensity with each of us. Just as on Palm Sunday we saw a variety of events that sparked the leadership to respond, but they only capped growing fear and resentment in those who were threatened by Jesus’s ministry. The passage in John takes place prior to the triumphal entry, but sets the stage for much to come.

Isaiah and Hebrews reference covenants of God with humankind. In the Isaiah passage, the author celebrates benefits of being the people in covenant with God. The Hebrews author presents the supremacy of the covenant that came through Christ. The differences between the covenants so drastically changed religious practice that the entire economy around worship was demolished while the reward for those following the new covenant exceeded that for those following the old.

The passage in John takes us to Jesus visiting close friends in Bethany just before making his journey into Jerusalem. At dinner with Mary, Martha,  Lazarus, and at least some of the twelve apostles, Mary with passion and humility does the most meaningful thing she can think of doing. She take the very best of perfumes and spreads it over Jesus’s feet with her hair. As the author of John presents it, Judas feigns disappointment in suggesting a donation to the poor would have been a better use of the perfume while internally coveting the money for his own use. Various passages present the weakness of various apostles and here is Judas’s fault.

The message Jesus gave of his coming death, in the home of the one he raised from the dead, went unrecognized by those present. Judas’s greed and the apparent obliviousness of the others present reflect typical human nature. For Jesus to say he was going to die, while sitting at the table with one he had called from the grave, was beyond what those present were able to imagine. It is not that they were not paying attention, they could not believe Jesus could die.

The crowd who gathered to see Jesus also came to see Lazarus. People Jesus cured could be found all along the routes of his ministry, but Lazarus represented the ultimate miracle. And the ultimate threat to the religious establishment. John reveals the determination of the religious leadership to not only kill Jesus, but to kill Lazarus who was proving the convincing evidence for Jews who had up to now resisted the teaching of Jesus. For those chief priests and religious leadership barely holding on to power in the midst of an occupation by a culture hostile to the Jewish faith, a competing religion threatened their hold on power more than the military. Their position and livelihood could disappear as quickly as their followers.

Even today we see people in all walks of life responding to greed and power as did those in the passages today. Even we respond to these basic urges. Our responses to those urges define us regardless of who we claim to be. Those responses label us old covenant, new covenant, or no covenant. When faced with the challenges of life, I need to stop and consider which covenant my response reflects.