This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Lawrence O'Donnell.

            The other day, on his show The Last Word, commentator Lawrence O’Donnell brandished a Bible and made a fool of himself.  This is part of what he said:

“This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the [Bible at the Presidential Inauguration] will be held by a First Lady who is a descendent of slaves. But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting someone near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.”

            O’Donnell is breathtakingly wrong here.  He apparently has no clue about what the Bible “actually says.”  “Not one word of God condemning slavery”?  Seriously?  Does O’Donnell not know that the Bible gives us the faith of a band of escaped slaves and their descendants?  The whole book is a condemnation of slavery!  Almost every time we read the word “Egypt” we can assume it refers to the regime of slavery from which the Israelites were delivered by God.  Liberation from slavery is the event that gave birth to the faith and people of the Scriptures in the first place.  No, the Bible contains not one word condemning slavery, it contains hundreds of thousands of them.    
            The Bible does occasionally indicate a limited, grudging toleration of slavery.  Slavery was the backbone of the world economy for thousands of years.  America only got rid of it 150 years ago.  It took a ghastly war.  But it would not have happened were it not for the tireless, courageous and dedicated work over many decades of people guided by… the Bible.  Because, in spite of a few isolated passages taken out of context, the Bible is an anti-slavery tract.
            O’Donnell is also wrong that the Bible manages “to repeatedly condemn gay people.”  He’s talking about less than half-a-dozen brief passages in a text that is well over a thousand pages long.  But the Bible contains over 2,000 verses advocating economic and social justice for the poor, the sick, aliens, women, and other excluded people.  Judging the whole Bible by a few scattered verses, whether it is done by Mr. Giglio or Mr. O’Donnell, is foolish.  It indicates a reader who doesn’t care what the book actually says, but seeks only to find something in it they can extract and use for their own purposes.  You can do that with just about anything.
            O’Donnell occasionally does these sanctimonious little sermons near the end of his show.  Often I agree with him in principle, but he is blowing something way out of proportion simply for its shock value or offensiveness to conservatives.  In other words, trolling.
            I think I will find a new bridge to take me from Rachel Maddow to Jon Stewart.  I know he's done some good things; I love his effort to provide desks for schools in Africa.  But O’Donnell has lost his credibility with me, at least for a while.  He should stick to what he knows about and leave the Bible alone... or better, he should actually read it.  It is actually more revolutionary than anything he has ever done. +++++++


            Last week I was asked to write a reference for someone in my church.  For the first time in 31 years of ministry I actually hesitated in saying in the letter that they were “Christian.”  Of course, I am a pastor and these folks are faithful members of the church.  The fact that they are Christians is at least very strongly implied.  However, actually using the term “Christian” made me think for a moment.
            What will the person reading this, who will probably be a secularized American, think when I say these people are “Christians”? 
            Polls are showing that an increasing number of Americans, especially younger people, associate the word “Christian” with gay-hating, gun-toting, flag-waving, climate-change-denying, anti-choice, pro-war, pro-torture, pro-death penalty, judgmental, creationist, hypocrites.  By referring to my parishoners as “Christians” I wasn’t sure I was doing them any favors.
            I understand that in many secular universities what they learn about Christianity is basically reduced to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and witch-burning.  But it doesn’t help that many people calling themselves “Christian” today continue to embrace the same demented, demonic spirit that produced those very atrocities.  Thus people can look at the violence, small-mindedness, hatred, fear, and rage exhibited by many “Christians” today and have what they were taught about historical Christianity’s inhumanity confirmed.      
            In the historical-fantasy film King Arthur, Arthur and his knights start out as Roman soldiers in Britain.  They are given the assignment of protecting some “Christians” from the attacks of barbarians.  When they arrive at the “Christian” household they discover in the basement a torture chamber for heretics and infidels.  Because, of course, no “Christian” home would be complete without a torture chamber for heretics and infidels.
            We who follow Jesus today can complain that such depictions are ridiculous and even bigoted… except that, judging from their words and actions, so many “Christians” today seem to be nostalgically pining for the days when there were torture chambers for heretics and infidels.
            My view is that those whose debased version of “Christianity” is antithetical to Jesus Christ are denying him far more profoundly than those who simply decline to believe in him.  It is far worse to worship and advocate a false Christ whom you project in order to sanctify your own hatreds, fears, and rage.  It is that untrue and defamatory cartoon of Jesus Christ that many people understandably reject.  It even closes their hearts to receive the real Jesus, which is a great tragedy.
            How do we rescue “Christianity” from the rabid, paranoid, hate-filled fanatics who are giving it such a bad name? 
            Now that I think about it, this situation isn’t even that new.  Even back when “Christian” was an unequivocally good thing to put on your resumé, it was often for not so good reasons.  In those days, being called a “Christian” meant you were an unthreatening supporter of the status quo and all its institutions.  I have benefitted from this personally, like when the police-officer lets me off from issuing that speeding ticket because I am “clergy.”  And of course the police and the clergy are supposedly “on the same side” in supporting andn upholding a stable social-economic-political order. 
            If we’re going to be suspect because we bear the Name of Christ, I would hope that it is because we are faithful to his revolutionary vision and mission, not because we have managed to slap Jesus’ name on our own corrupted institutions, or our pathetic neuroses, or our imperialism and bigotry.  Many saints have run afoul of the civil authorities because they took seriously Jesus’ call to identify with and bring comfort to the needy, the sick, the prisoners, the underprivileged, the outcasts, and the aliens, or because they reflected Jesus’ non-violence to the point of opposing wars, guns, torture, slavery, and capital punishment.
            Someday, when I write on someone’s reference that they are a “Christian,” I hope I can be confident that I am communicating that they follow Jesus by demonstrating goodness, gentleness, generosity, honesty, simplicity, faithfulness, inclusion, and love.  I hope I am witnessing to their commitment to bring these values, along with justice and equality, into the world for everyone, no matter what the cost.     +++++++

Sunday, January 13, 2013

One of Us.

Luke 3:15-38.

            John the Baptizer’s ministry apparently stirred up enough attention that people began to wonder whether he might be the Messiah… even though he wasn’t doing anything particularly Messianic.  No one expected a Messiah who lived out in the desert dunking people in the Jordan River.  But people were clearly hyper-alert about potential Messiahs. 
            John is adamant that he is not the Messiah, but just preparing the way.  He even compares his baptism in water, demonstrating repentance for the forgiveness of sins, unfavorably with the much more powerful baptism of the One who is coming.  That baptism will be with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            He uses the image of winnowing to explain this.  You may know already, but in ancient times part of the process of making flour was to separate the good wheat kernels from the non-edible parts of the wheat stalk.  First you had to beat the stalks violently so the seeds detached.  This still left you with a pile of mixed wheat pieces.  In order to separate the seeds you used a device like a pitchfork to lift the piles into the air and shake them.  The heavier seeds would drop straight to the ground while the other material, called chaff, would be carried away by the breeze.  You had to do this over and over. 
            So John is saying that just as the wind separated wheat from chaff, so the Holy Spirit, or Holy Wind, would separate good from bad people.  And just as the chaff had no use except as fuel for the fire, so also John is saying that those bad people not chosen by the Spirit would also be liable to destruction.
            But his real point is that the day of this great sorting, this separation, this winnowing is nearly at hand.  And that the Messiah’s role will be to perform this task.
            So John is saying that the time is now to get your life in order so that when the separation comes you will be found among the wheat, the saved, the valued produce that is gathered into the granary, the barn or silo.  You don’t want to be among the worthless chaff that has no use but to be thrown into the fire.  In other words, you want your life to produce good fruit, which John has already identified as a life of sharing with those who have less, and not stealing or extorting money from your neighbors.
            It is interesting to me that John has this particularly economic understanding of the matter.  Bearing good fruit is presented as advocating and practicing a redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer, and scrupulous fairness, even to the point of taking a financial hit yourself, in your economic dealings.  John does not deal with other matters of personal morality, like some of the sexual sins we have come to think are so important. 
            It is our practices regarding wealth, money, work, and property that John presents as the indication of whether a person is bearing good fruit and therefore worthy of being saved. 

            The idea of Jesus coming as the great winnower who separates the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the good from the bad, is a persistent theme in the gospels.  It is not one that we stress very much these days.  That’s probably because of a justified trepidation about which side of this equation we might find ourselves on. 
            Luke reminds us that this is supposed to be good news.  And it is good news, if you are someone who habitually shares with others in need, or if you are poor and able to be grateful to someone for their generosity.  But it’s not good news if you are wealthy and powerful, and disinclined to sharing.
            So we are immediately informed of what would happen to John.  He gets arrested.  The reason is that he was overly critical of the King, Herod Antipas.  This is the son of the murderous King Herod from back when Jesus was born.
            But the main thing John is critical of the King about is that he married his own niece, who was also the ex-wife of his brother, another King, Herod Philip.  This is explicitly against the law in Leviticus 18 and 20.  But I suspect that Herod Antipas’ main sin in John’s eyes was imagining himself to be exempt from God’s Law.  Luke mentions “all the evil things that Herod had done,” in addition to this incest.
            Thus we have set up for us the dynamic in which these two men, John and later Jesus, find themselves at odds with the ruling authorities.  We know from many hints in the first few chapters here that what God is doing has to do with the turning upside-down of the world order.  It was especially explicitly declared in Mary’s hymn.  Now we see this antagonism starting to happen.  John runs afoul of the King and gets thrown in prison.
            The rulers do not come off well in any of the gospels.  They are habitually resistant to what John and Jesus are about.  Like the whole Bible, the gospels are deeply suspicious of human leaders generally.  People are too easily bought off and corrupted.  They become addicted to wealth and power, and sacrifice others so they can acquire more of it.  They disregard or marginalize or deliberately and self-servingly misinterpret God’s Law.
            Locking John up in prison is Luke’s way of telling us that the word had been effectively neutralized by power.  That is the situation when Jesus is baptized.  Of these two figures we have been reading about, one is knocked out of the story before it really even begins.   

            But John relates to the age of the prophets and the law, and that age is now quickly drawing to a close.  The days when the wealthy and powerful could eliminate their problems by arresting the ring-leader and cutting off his head, are over.  The new age of the Messiah and the Spirit officially begins in the next few verses.  Now the problems for the leaders are going to be a lot bigger.
            This new time begins with Jesus’ baptism.  In his baptism Jesus identifies completely with us, sharing our life and our death.  He finds himself among the masses of people, Jews, who had come to John for a new start in their lives.  And it turns out to be a new start for Jesus as well.  Not because his life was mired in sin, although we know nothing of his life since that one incident when he was 12.  But because whatever his life had been, it is now something new and different.
            Luke words this in such a way as to make it clear that Jesus is among “all the people” who had been baptized.  In fact it is not even totally clear in Luke that John personally baptizes Jesus at all.  We almost get the impression that he is one of the crowd of people who have been baptized until, as he is praying, he is singled out by God.  “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” 
            This is his anointing by the Word and Spirit of God.  This is where he gets his title: “Christ,” which is Greek for “Messiah,” which is Hebrew for “anointed.”  The event itself is wildly understated; the other gospels give much more detailed and even spectacular accounts. 
            But Luke apparently doesn’t want this to look like Jesus was anointed by John, or that John is passing his torch to Jesus.  By the time Jesus is baptized, John’s work is done.  It is God who baptizes Jesus.  This is a new thing God is doing.  Jesus goes into the water like everyone else, but what happens in that is different from what happens to everyone else.  Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus’ baptism is God’s doing, not John’s. 
            Certainly there is continuity between the new age of the Spirit and Messiah, and the old age of the Law and the Prophets.  But there is also a break.  There is a new start.  John was doing prophet-stuff; Jesus will begin to do the things the Messiah was expected to do.  If John is about getting your house in order, Jesus is about getting a new house.  If John is about becoming good fruit so you’re ready for the winnowing, Jesus is the winnower, the one who separates those who have a place in God’s Kingdom from those who have already received their reward here on earth.

            So we are expecting Jesus’ ministry to commence now… but Luke has one more digression to make.  And one wonders why.  What is so important that he breaks up the momentum and trajectory of his story with, of all things, a genealogy.  Genealogies are one of the most famously boring and apparently pointless literary forms in Scripture.  When we come to them we kind of glaze over and skim until we get to something more substantive. 
            But it is here, in the middle of the story, between Jesus’ baptism and his battle with Satan in the wilderness, that Luke places Jesus’ genealogy.  There were plenty of other places to put this, if it even had to be included at all.  But Luke chooses here in order to fully identify the Messiah at the very outset of his work.
            First of all, Luke seems to undercut the whole thing by inserting the words “as was thought” at the beginning to remind us of what we learned in Chapter 1, that Jesus is not biologically the offspring of Joseph.  Rather, Jesus is, we might say today, adopted by Joseph. 
            Now, I am the father of an adopted son and I understand the rather different dynamics and language that accompanies adoption.  People can be conceived by accident, but you can’t be adopted by accident.  To be adopted is to be chosen in a very direct way by at least one parent.  And once you are chosen, you are legally as good as descended from that parent by blood.  That’s why Luke can move right into a genealogy of Joseph as the genealogy of Jesus.  The whole point, one of them, about the faith that Jesus will inspire is that it’s not about blood and genealogy anymore.  Whether you can trace your lineage back to Abraham is immaterial; now what matters is your birth in the Holy Spirit.
            But Luke persists with giving us a genealogy anyway, for several reasons.   Notice that Luke does not name any of the kings of Judah as an ancestor of Jesus, except David.  Many of the names we do get are unknown, which tells us that Jesus springs from the more marginal and anonymous descendants of David.  He does not have in his background even any of the better kings; the disobedience of the royal family who were mostly corrupted by their power is not part of Jesus’ identity, as far as Luke is concerned.  Until we get back to David, Jesus’ ancestors include nobody famous or powerful. 
            Another point Luke makes is to bring the genealogy all the way back to Adam, whom he identifies as “son of God.”  Had he stopped with Jacob or Abraham, this would be about the Jewish Messiah.  Because he goes back to Adam it means Jesus is related to all of us.  He is Messiah for the whole world, all people, the whole creation… which is a truth that we have already heard from Simeon.

            In any case, what we can apply from today’s reading is that the Messiah is one of us… because he chose to be one of us.  He is a descendant of Adam, which is to say a human being.  He submits to baptism, just like all the Jews who gather at the river.  Outwardly he is nothing special… until he is anointed by the voice and Spirit of God in a very visible and public way.
             What this tells us is that Jesus’ ministry is not going to be beyond our ability to understand or participate in.  He is born of Mary just as we are each born of a woman.  He is adopted into Joseph’s family, and so shares in a long line of sinful, anonymous, and sometimes good and glorious people.  We are children of God indirectly through Adam, into whom God breathed life and from whom we are all descended.  Yet he is the Son of God directly, declared to be so by a voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove.
            When he emerges from the waters of baptism, he is declared Son of God, he is God to us, he represents in the most comprehensive way the saving, healing presence of the living God in human life.  He is God’s transcendent love, made flesh.  He is the promised Messiah for whom the world has long been waiting.
            And at the same time he is one of us in every important way.  He also represents our truest humanity.  He is in some sense what God intends us to be in our humanity.
            Therefore, we may journey with him, learn from him, and especially follow him as trusting disciples.  Certainly we can’t do everything he does, especially in a literal sense.  But we can live by his light and energy, we can obey his commandments, and we can show his love in all that we do and are.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fruit Matters.

Luke 3:1-14.

            Having following the conception and birth of John and Jesus in the first 2 chapters of his book, in today’s reading Luke jumps forward to the ministry of a now adult John the Baptizer.  He sets the stage by going into some detail about who was in charge at the time, beginning with the Roman Emperor, Tiberias.
              The people of the Mediterranean basin had no extensive calendars based on meticulous observation of the heavens like, say, the Mayans.  They identified what year it was by measuring from some commonly accepted date, usually a natural occurrence like an earthquake or a political event.  Years were often identified by the length of rulers’ reigns.  This is what Luke does. 
            So Luke’s first point is simply to tell people, using the most accepted standard of the time, when the events he is about to recount took place.  By our reckoning, his story begins in the year 29 AD, maybe 60 or 70 years prior to Luke’s writing. 
            Luke has two other points to make, however.  First, starting a story with “in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberias” is very different from starting with “once upon a time,” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  Luke wants to make sure we know what world this story is about.  It relates to our historical existence as temporal, physical, mortal beings dwelling on planet Earth.
            As such, it means this story has to do with the kind of outward, relational, historical, political life we all live.  This story is supposed to impact what we do with our bodies on the Earth in time.  It will be about real relationships and actual communities.      
            He also situates the story in an overtly political context, by mentioning several specific rulers.  The subtext here is a reminder that the Jewish nation was at this point broken, divided, and conquered.  There are 4 rulers of separate Jewish territories, including a Roman governor, all under the Emperor.  Plus two collaborationist, puppet high priests.  The political and religious life of the people was thoroughly corrupted.
            Luke makes a point of naming these political leaders, some of whom will be involved in the story later, as a way of saying that these are the people whom everybody thought were in charge, but a new and very different kind of King now emerges, one who will overthrow the power of these other kings over human hearts.
              These rulers show up in the text like Pharaoh at the beginning of Exodus.  Luke wants us to know who is going to be defeated.  He wants us to know from whose power the people will be liberated.  These are the rulers, says Luke, whose days are now numbered: Tiberias, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas.

            At that time and in that place, a situation of abject subservience, Luke tells us, “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”  We’re supposed to be reminded of several things here.  First of all, John is like the classical prophets of Israel to whom the word of God also came.  Secondly, this is the son of Zechariah, the priest, whose birth was so portentous in chapter 1. 
            And finally, John is out in the wilderness.  The Israelites had spent a couple of generations in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt.  The wilderness is where people interacted most intimately with God.  John goes down to the Jordan River, which also has profound connotations for the life of the people as the symbolic boundary of the Promised Land.
            What John proclaims is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  It is a way of preparing people for the Lord’s coming by straightening out what is crooked and leveling what is uneven, according to a prophecy of Isaiah.  John is saying that we have to get our lives in order so we will be able to see and receive the new thing God is doing.
            Baptism is simply a ceremonial immersion in the water of the Jordan, symbolizing the washing away of impurities and a second birth to new life.  It is a way for people to express their wish to wipe the slate clean and begin anew.  John’s message is that of the “second chance” at life, that we can be free of our bad decisions and the weight of our guilt for past actions.  We can start over; we can have a “do-over.”  We can press the reset button of our life.  Things don’t have to stay the same.
            Repentance means turning in a new direction, having a new way of thinking and seeing things.  It means we turn away from our old habits, practices, prejudices, commitments, allegiances, and turn towards the life prescribed by God.  This is a life characterized by equality and justice, fairness and honesty, humility and love.
            Forgiveness is a letting go of sins, which are the products and evidence of our separation from God and God’s ways.  The whole point is that we are able to move in a new direction unencumbered by the defilements we have brought upon ourselves by decades of selfish, violent, fearful, hateful, and angry behavior.
            We don’t look for forgiveness, release until we have a sense of being intolerably burdened and crippled and crushed by the weight of our sins and their consequences.  People do not change unless the alternative is death, and even then some would rather die than change.  You don’t venture out into the desert to hear John and be baptized by him unless you have hit bottom in some way.  When your life has become unmanageable and intolerable and unsustainable, that’s when you realize a need to turn your life around and find some kind of release.  That’s when you’re willing to let the guy who wears camel skin and eats bugs dunk you in the river.  You’ll try anything.

            People would come to John conscious of how bad things had become with them and with Israel generally.  Knowing Scripture, they are aware that injustice and disobedience have dire consequences, that God does not let faithlessness and corruption pass, that disaster is imminent.  They want to know if there is for them any way out of this brewing catastrophe.
            John sees this and asks them where they got the idea that “the wrath to come,” God’s final judgment, is something they could escape from at all.  He calls them vipers, snakes, probably meaning treacherous and violent.  And he warns them not to depend on being a descendant of Abraham for their salvation.  John’s ministry is not to reassure them of their salvation if they just hold on to their traditions.  God is not going to regard their genealogy or their ancestry.  God will not even regard their change of heart in coming out to be dunked in the river, if that’s all it is, showing that they have a different opinion. 
            No.  If you do not produce good fruit, he says, you will be thrown into the fire like the wood of an unproductive olive tree.  God doesn’t want more people hanging on to Abraham.  What God is going to recognize is changed behavior.  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he says.  When people emerge from the water, they immediately ask John what they should do.  How do we live out this new life?  How should we behave differently now?
            Neither is God concerned about our creeds, our faith-statements, our church-attendance records, our theological degrees, or our reliable repetition of church traditions.  A heart ready for God is one that has demonstrated a trust in God by acting differently. 
            John is not shy about telling them what to do.  First, he tells the crowds, share.  Those who have more should share with those who have less.  The value here is economic equality. 
            The problem John identifies is a disparity in wealth.  When some have more than they need, and others have less than they need, God is displeased.  This is not the plan God gives them in the Scriptures.  The consequences for sustaining this kind of injustice are severe. 
            If you have more that is not because God is rewarding you for being such a great person.  If you have managed to accumulate more of God’s resources than others, that could happen for any number of reasons, from good luck to hard work.  No matter.  God values equality such that all have what they need.  God does not incentivize productivity or some such self-serving nonsense.  If you have more, you share with those who have less.  Period.  Next question.

            Some tax collectors went out to see John as well.  This was an inherently corrupt profession in those days because tax collection had been “privatized,” as we would say today.  Independent contractors were assigned a certain amount of revenue to collect for the government.  Their profit was whatever they were able to collect above that.  Some of these people got very rich.  All of them were wildly unpopular, as you can imagine.
            To them John says, “Don’t make a profit.  Just collect what you are assigned to collect.”  To do this would mean some kind of reliance upon the trust and goodwill of the people.  Instead of pitting people against each other, which is part of the way the Roman government maintains control over them, this method actually brings people together in such a way that all suffer together and no one gets rich by impoverishing their neighbors. 
            John reflects Scripture in desiring that the inequalities in society be diminished.  There is to be no hierarchy, no classes, no bunch of people that has a license to loot or oppress others.  Your neighbor is not your enemy or your competitor.  That’s what the Romans want: conquered peoples divided by suspicion and resentment, competing for regulated resources.  It is not what God wants.
            Soldiers came to John as well.  These were probably more like local police, not Roman soldiers, who were foreigners with no understanding of John’s ministry.  And he has the same directive for them.  “Do not Lord it over others, do not abuse your power or privilege, do not take bribes or kickbacks, live on your pay.  You’re supposed to serve and protect the people, not fleece them.  And you’re certainly not supposed to be in the pay of those with the most resources.”
            This new community of repentance and forgiveness is going to be about equality and unity.  We are to live like sisters and brothers, not enemies or competitors.  We are to support and be generous with each other, not trying to soak each other for whatever we can get.  We are supposed to embody the leveling, straightening action of God in human life, reducing the domination and superiority of some over others. 
            In this way we counteract the forces that want us mired in hostility, suspicion, and competition, individuals scheming for a bigger slice of an intentionally limited pie, at the expense of our less fortunate neighbors.        
            The words Luke quotes from Isaiah are about preparing the way of the Lord by anticipating in advance the salvation and justice that God is bringing into the world.  The point being that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  In Isaiah’s context, it was a globally visible demonstration of God’s power by the liberation of the people from exile and their return home to the Promised Land.  The whole world will see God’s deliverance. 
            In the same way, the ultimate and final miracle of Jesus’ coming into the world to save is something we have to prepare for.  If we don’t prepare for it, it is very unlikely that we will see it.  We could remain stuck in our bondage, if we do not start now in reshaping ourselves, our communities, our world according to God’s Word.
            Once again, we see a gathering of people who are prepared to welcome the Messiah into the world.  This preparation has to do with breaking down the barriers and hierarchies, bridging the gaps and bringing people together in sharing, generosity, trust, service, and humility.
            When Isaiah proclaims that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” he means that this salvation is not a private, internal matter.  It’s not something that just happens to one group of people.  But because it does happen for one group of people it is something the whole world can see and participate in.  Now, when people look at us, just as when they looked at the returning Jews from Babylon, they see God’s salvation at work in the world.  They see God’s transforming presence.  They see God’s transcendent love shining in the lives of a gathered people.
            May the people we meet and know see us as well, and in us see the love and goodness of God.  This is a message for everyone.  The crooked places are made straight, and the rough ways smooth, and the low places lifted up and the high places brought low.  May this happen first among and with us, and then through us to our whole world, radiating out from this place an attractive beacon of hope, based on the knowledge of the One who is always coming into our lives to save.    


Friday, January 4, 2013

Listening, Waiting, Questioning.

Luke 2:21-52.
            The most important thing that Luke wants to get across in these stories is that Jesus-the-Messiah sprouts out of the rich soil of Torah-observant Judaism.  It is stated explicitly 5 times in the first 39 verses, and implied throughout. 
            From the beginning of the gospel with a priest named Zechariah, the context is thoroughly Jewish.  Everything his parents do in this section, beginning with the circumcision and ending with the family’s annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover, is in response to the Torah.  He is witnessed to by two elderly Jews, representing the tradition: Simeon and Anna.  The boy Jesus is shown, even at the age of 12, sitting and listening to the priests and scholars in the Temple, asking them questions.  In fact, a lot of these two chapters happens in the Temple building itself.  Jesus emerges from a Torah-observant community.  He is thoroughly embedded in the Jewish faith.
            There is no tension, no contradiction, no irony here in Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ family.  We find no ambiguity.  We don’t have a hint of the friction that would later develop between Jesus and the religious establishment charged with interpreting and enforcing the law during his ministry. 

            From this we know that the community that receives and welcomes Jesus, from whom come his original disciples and all the witnesses to his resurrection and all the writers of the New Testament, is one that keeps the commandments of God.  It is a faithful community; a community rooted firmly in the Scriptures, a community shaped by a common hope in God’s promises.

            Not only is Luke saying that we cannot understand Jesus at all if we do not have some rudimentary grasp of the Judaism into which he came, but I think he is saying as well that we cannot recognize the coming of the Lord unless our lives are already shaped by his word. 

            Obviously he is not expecting his readers to be observant Jews; Luke is writing to a mainly Gentile Christian audience.   But he is saying that the community in which the Messiah emerges lives together in embodiment of the deepest values of the Torah – equality, liberation, righteousness, justice, peace, and submission to God alone.  We wouldn’t even know what a Messiah is… we wouldn’t know that the name Jesus means “The-Lord-Saves,” if we didn’t know the Torah.

            In other words, their ability to receive Jesus emerges out of years and generations of obedient practice.  In Luke 1 we see people who practice their way into believing.  They obey God, and then they come to discover God among them.  God comes into a community that has already been shaped to receive God.


            This is Luke’s way of suggesting that Jesus emerges from the Torah itself, that he is the fulfillment, completion, destiny, meaning, and glory of the Torah, the law of God.  Perhaps that is the whole purpose of Torah from the beginning: to prepare us to receive the Messiah.  Maybe the Israelites are given the word (small-w), so they and through them the whole world, would be ready to welcome the Word (large-W). 

            In any case, in this passage, Luke starts by recounting how at his circumcision, Jesus is given the name the angel Gabriel told Mary he would have.  Mary and Joseph do what the law requires both in terms of Mary’s purification and Jesus’ dedication.  They are interrupted by a man named Simeon and an old woman named Anna.  This is where something new and outside the box begins to happen.  Luke tells us that “the Holy Spirit rested on him.” 

            Now the Holy Spirit is present with the people of God throughout their history… but almost never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The emergence of the Holy Spirit into human consciousness happens at the same time that the Messiah comes into human life.  They are inseparable, especially in Luke’s view. 

            Throughout chapter 1, the Holy Spirit shows up at the most important places: the unborn John, the conception of Jesus, Elizabeth when she blesses Mary, and Zechariah when he blesses John.  From this we get the impression that if Torah observance is an essential element of welcoming the Messiah, a second factor, the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is also required.  Simeon teaches us that obedience to the written word alone is insufficient; there is also this seemingly new power at work called the Holy Spirit.

            On the one hand, the Holy Spirit is direct and personal, speaking to specific people in specific circumstances with specific instructions.  But on the other hand, the Holy Spirit is universal, not limited to one nation, culture, language, or even religion.  We see this in what Simeon prays when he holds the infant Jesus.  Simeon talks about how the salvation present in this child is something God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

            Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Simeon recognizes that this is indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah… but that at least as importantly he will also save everyone, the whole world, “all peoples” and nations.


            A book has to be written in a particular language within the context of a particular people, historical situation, and individual writers.  So, as important and essential as it is, a holy book is not by itself enough to get the fullness of God’s message across.  The Bible had been completed for centuries by the time of Jesus; if that were sufficient, there would have been no need for Jesus to come.

            Even when God comes to us as a human being in Jesus, he is still an individual, tied as we all are to a particular situation, and bound to die a mortal death.  Even that, the Incarnation, in itself, was not enough to communicate what God wanted to communicate.  Lots of people knew Jesus and didn’t trust in him, even his own disciples, at times.

            God also makes people aware of a Presence now that is not bound to a certain time and place, not limited to one nation or language.  That Presence is the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that finally ensures that this faith will not be boxed into a parochial, sectarian, private, limited framework.  The Holy Spirit is what makes God’s good news of hope and love in Jesus real everywhere and for everyone, indeed, for the whole creation.

            The Holy Spirit blows away the limitations of the way people receive, interpret, and obey the Torah.  The Holy Spirit shows up to fulfill the original promise that God made to Abraham way back in Genesis 12: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  In him all people are the “chosen people,” in the end.

            The Torah, Judaism, the God of Abraham, is never meant to be for just one nation.  But through that one nation, the saving blessing of the living God is intended for the whole world. Simeon is saying that, in this child, the promised Messiah of the Jews, the barriers and limitations that people have managed to put onto God’s love are shattered.
            That is most likely what most “amazes” Joseph and Mary.  Not just that strangers show up to say remarkable things about their son – that has already happened before with the shepherds.  But that Simeon proclaims their son to be, not just the Jewish Messiah, but the Savior of the whole world.

            So, the community that receives and follows the Messiah must also be in, and filled with, the Holy Spirit.  By the time we get to Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, we see that it is the Presence of the Holy Spirit, not just Torah observance or being a blood descendant of Abraham, that marks a person as a believer in Jesus.  In Acts, the Holy Spirit even neutralizes parts of the Torah, like the kosher laws, for the sake of inviting, welcoming, and including everyone in God’s family.       


            Simeon doesn’t stop there, however.  After his prayer he continues to talk to Mary.  He is aware that none of this is going to be easy.  Israel will be tragically divided over this baby, and in the course of things deep grief will come to his mother.  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

            Discipleship has a cost.  The cost is very high, too high for many.  The gathering of disciples is not a wall-to-wall party.  It is characterized by joy, yes, and at the same time we are reminded about how it entails “taking up a cross” after the example of Jesus.

            The good news of inclusion, welcome, equality, justice, peace, and love, is not embraced by everyone.  Human society structures itself around exclusion, inequality, violence, fear, anger, and selfishness.  To oppose that and live in an alternative way is to go against the grain, to swim against the flow, to sail against the wind.

            Living this way and teaching others to do the same got Jesus crucified; he had to give up his life as a witness to God’s love, so that his resurrection life might be revealed and flow into the world.  And it does flow into the world, through us, his people – his body, when we also take up our crosses of transformation and sacrifice.

            The rest of Luke’s book will be about Jesus, and how the Holy Spirit fulfills and reveals the true nature of God’s saving presence in the world in his ministry.  This will be in continuity with and dependence on the Jewish tradition, and it will grow out of that tradition to reach beyond to its deepest and highest destiny as a faith for the whole creation.

            In truth, the whole life of the church, the gathering of Jesus’ disciples, is about this as well.  As his body we continue his ministry in the world under the same terms: we follow Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, grounded in the witness of Scripture.

            The appearance of Anna reaffirms this groundedness, as does the story of Jesus’ lingering with the teachers in the Temple.

            What we see in this whole passage tells us that our life as a gathering of Jesus’ disciples is characterized by listening, waiting, and questioning.  Simeon listens for God’s voice in his life, Anna waits for Jesus to be revealed to her, and finally Jesus himself asks questions. 


            It turns out that listening, waiting, and questioning are the primary attitudes we need in any relationship with the Holy Spirit. 

            Listening is what prayer is for.  I know, most of us have learned that prayer is our addressing God, and it is.  But I want you to consider, and begin to practice, a discipline of listening for God’s voice in prayer.  This means, frankly, being silent.  Prayer is often about words, but most often the words we address to God are about us.  They are intended to convince us, instruct us, inform us, reassure us.  There is nothing we could ever say to God that God doesn’t already know.  God wants to hear us pray, not because we have some information God doesn’t have, but because God wants us to reaffirm in our words the truth because it is good for us.

            But what God is really looking for is people who will listen, who will have open ears, minds, and hearts, who will be able to interpret and discern God’s Word, as it comes in many different and sometimes very subtle forms.  We hear the voice of God in the speech of other people, or in the call of birds, or in our reflection on our experience, or in a steady conviction that emerges from the silence of prayer.  Can we get quiet enough to listen?

            When we do listen, like Simeon, we will hear that God almost always has the same thing to say.  God leads us to the same place, the same person.  That person is Jesus Christ, where Simeon is led.  Find Christ in your world, in your heart, in your thinking, and in your relationships.  Simeon finds him as an infant carried by 2 displaced and poor people, in the Temple.  We will find him in unlikely places as well, yet always within the temple of God’s creation.

            Secondly, God asks us to wait, something most of us probably hate.  Anna waits for decades, praying in the Temple daily and fasting.  I’m not sure she even knows she is waiting or what she is waiting for.  Sometimes when the unexpected answer finally comes you realize that this is what you were waiting for all along.

            The early church prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus,” maranatha.  Christ had already come, of course.  But we still pray for his coming because it is so hard for us to keep him in our attention and consciousness.  He falls out of focus so easily that we have to concentrate on keeping him before us.      

            Finally, if even Jesus asked questions, so must we.  God is not afraid of our questions, no matter how irreverent, childish, or uninformed.  If we can’t ask questions here, among the people of God, where can we ask them?  When did some questions become forbidden?  When did faith degenerate into unquestioning obedience?  When the angel comes to Mary, she asks a question: “How is this going to happen again?”

            In our time, of all times, the gathering of disciples has to be a place where questions are welcomed, even if we don’t have easy, always doctrinally correct answers.  Asking questions, and accepting the questions of others, earns us respect and mitigates the charge that we are credulous hypocrites bent on shutting down people’s minds.  If people have questions: Bring it!


            When his parents finally locate him in the Temple, pre-teen Jesus says: “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Our job is not to search for a Jesus who belongs to us, as if he were our responsibility.  We do not own or protect him.  If we want to find him, we will find him in his Father’s house. 

            The word Luke uses might better be translated as “domain.”  If we are going to locate the presence of Jesus Christ among us, he can best be found in God’s house, domain, Kingdom, realm, or reign.  He can best be found where people are focused on God and turning their lives together in obedience to God’s will.

            The Temple is designed to represent the whole creation.  God’s special presence there reflects God’s presence, by the Holy Spirit, within everything that God has made.  That’s where Jesus may be found: among those whose lives are shaped by the confession that “the Earth and everything in it belong to God, the world and all its inhabitants.”

            May we be people who listen, wait, and question.  May we be people who obey God’s Word, and shape our lives according to those values and practices.  And may the quality of our discipleship open our hearts to find Jesus, the living Lord, here, among us and within us.