Friday, September 28, 2007

The Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Ezekiel tells a wild story, although if we compare this with his fiery wheels in the sky and those beings with all the eyes and wings, this seems tame.

You got your valley of dry bones, you got your prophet told to preach, you got your reanimation of the bones – all pretty clear. Take away the God part and you’ve actually got yourself an old Sinbad-style army of the dead rising up to attack the adventurers. Or maybe a zombie movie.

Preachers dream and talk about this passage with each other. Some say they feel like Ezekiel every Sunday morning, preaching to pews full of deadened parishioners. They conveniently ignore how dead things dry out fastest in a hot wind.

Others may fantasize about the sermon, the one that stirred the passion of the people and moved them so much the revival resembled a valley of the dead come to life. Maybe one day.

Back to Ezekiel. When God shows Ezekiel the valley of dry bones, he asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel has had several visions by this point and knows the right answer. “Oh Lord, you know.”

At God’s command, Ezekiel begins preaching to the bones. The spirit of the Lord will come upon you, he says, and you will be re-formed. As he speaks, exactly that happens. Dry bones become bodies of flesh and blood.

But they are lifeless. They lack breath, and in this case the Hebrew word we translate “breath” is the same word we translate as “spirit” in the Genesis creation story.

Interesting. God said the bones would become living beings again as they re-formed and the breath of life entered them. They’ve re-formed, but without breath of life or life itself.

God then tells Ezekiel that he needs to prophesy to that breath, so that it will come into the lifeless bodies. Ezekiel does, and this breath moves and completes the resurrection. It echoes the creation story twice: The spirit of God moves over the waters as creation begins, and the lifeless body of the first man lives when God breathes into him.

Just as those times, nothing lives until God acts. Ezekiel’s prophecy may bring the bodies of the dead back to wholeness, but only God’s spirit can bring them life.

God wants Ezekiel – and through him, the people of Israel – to understand that full completion of God’s work takes, of all things, God. No new message here, of course.

We might face the unknown, like the chaos that God moved through to bring the universe into existence. Maybe we face the end of all hope and possibility – a metaphorical death if not a literal one. We might have done everything we know how to do and we might have done it very well.

In any event, things will stay as they are until the Spirit of the Lord works.

We can and we should do our best at doing what we believe God wants us to do. God uses those efforts to prepare the way for his work to come about. I may never understand why, but God decided to work with us, and give us a role in helping his purpose be completed.

Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, after all, and it was while he preached that their bodies re-formed. Although God could have restored life to all those bones in whatever way he wished, he chose to let Ezekiel have the last word on whether or not it would happen, before he began his part of the work.

And then, the Spirit of the Lord, the same Spirit that was present at creation and gave form to the world, the same Spirit that came upon the believers at Pentecost and gave a new form to the body of Christ as the church, that Spirit moved in as Ezekiel petitioned it to do, and life returned to what had been dead, dry bones.

Just as it may today, for us. Which sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Shrewd Dude (Luke 16:1-13)

(Irregular updating schedule is my fault. Hope to be back on track Friday.)

If you ever want to watch someone pick a verse or two from a passage and focus on it while ignoring a bunch of the rest, this parable is a good one to use.

“And Jesus said, ‘No one can serve two masters. You can’t serve both God and wealth.’”

“Hey, that’s interesting. I had a question though, about this part where Jesus tells us to make friends for ourselves with dishonest wealth. Is he telling us to be dishonest?”

Pause. “Yes, Jesus definitely said, ‘No one can serve two masters…”

We have a problem, of course, because it seems like Jesus has done exactly what the questioner asks about. It looks very much like Jesus has told us to use dishonest means to win friends for this world, and that doesn’t match at all with what we know about Jesus from elsewhere. He calls himself the Truth, which would mean dishonesty has little place with him. And he tells us that we should seek first the Kingdom of God, not the things of this world.

Well, while I don’t believe Jesus advocates cheating, I do think he wants his listeners and us to look at the shrewd and dishonest steward and see something he did that we also should do. Let’s look at the story and I’ll see if I can dig it out.

We have here a steward or money manager who’s been caught with sticky fingers. His master tells him to bring the books up to date because he’s going to get fired. Now the steward doesn’t like the idea of working for a living – or maybe it’s like he says and he really can’t do manual labor, although taking him at his word seems a bit foolish. He doesn’t want to beg.

He needs to make certain he’s taken care of when he loses this job, so he thinks up a shrewd plan. He calls in all his master’s debtors and reduces what they owe. In those days, people frequently pledged commodities for payment as well as money, so he marks down bills for olive oil, grain and the like.

We have several theories about the amounts he cuts from the bills. One suggests he removes the interest from the debt, which follows Moses’ law. Under that law, no one can charge interest when they lend money. Imagine the empty storefronts where the quickie-loan places are if we lived by that law today. He also might have cut out his commission on the deal – no sense in the master getting a little richer with money that was supposed to go to him, right? In fact, some suggest his job was in jeopardy in the first place because he charged excessive commissions. And we also have the notion that he just whacked whatever amount he felt like from the total.

Either way, he’s set himself up with some new friends he can count on for some favors if he gets let go. And he’s got the paper records to prove the master is owned only the new, lower amounts, which means the master himself can’t do much against him anymore.

The master notices this when they meet and is impressed. We don’t know if he decides to fire the manager or keep him. Although my money is on keeping him, because he’d probably rather have the guy stealing for him than working for someone else and stealing from him. Either way, he’s impressed.

Jesus tells his listeners his parable shows the shrewd dudes of this world are better at dealing with each other than his people will be. And then he makes his weird suggestion about making friends with dishonest money.

I believe Jesus wants us to see that the shrewd steward did something we should do – not cheat people or cut corners. But he saw danger ahead and he planned for it. He arranged matters so he was taken care of.

How many of us do the same? I don’t mean in terms of our worldly wealth, because we know what Jesus thinks of that. But how many of us who claim to follow the Lord have really prepared for what is to come in our lives? How many of us have prayed for strength so we can face trouble when it comes? How many have prayed for and worked for compassion in our lives so we can comfort those in need?

We know those things and others will come, just as sure as the manager knew he would lose his job. And yet it seems we – and believe me, this “we” includes “me” – just sort of move on through life without too much thought of God until we actually face a crisis or a need.

Jesus’ first message followed John the Baptist: Repent, for the kingdom is at hand! We as Christians have the tasks of making ourselves and our world ready for that Kingdom of God breaking in among us. We should probably give at least as much thought to what that means as the shrewd steward did to his future.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Salty Battery (Acts 1:6-12)

Dusting off another oldie this week, as we had a guest speaker. And I'm really, really, really sorry about the title. Maybe.

Anytime Jesus tells me what to do I pay attention.

So when I read in Luke 14 that I’m to be the “salt of the earth,” I think I ought to figure out how to do that. I check into the way salt was used in the ancient Near East and how people thought about it. Our view of salt as that stuff we’re supposed to watch out for so it doesn’t clog our arteries doesn’t guide me much.

People used salt to preserve food. The poorer people used it as pretty much their only seasoning. The purest and most expensive salt came from mines, but anyone could walk down to the Dead Sea and pick up the salt chunks on the shore. Those often had other minerals in them, too, and if they weren’t handled right, the salt would dissolve out and be a sludge of tasteless junk.

Are we, then, somehow supposed to hold back the decay of the world around us, and season the places we’re at and the relationships we have with God’s love?

I imagine Jesus’ disciples in those days had the same questions. They may even have asked him, but once he ascended, that got a little harder.

They, too, wonder how they will follow him if he’s not there, if there’s no king or leader to tell them how. Jesus encourages them: The one who follows him will not only guide them, but will empower them as well.

Perhaps we think we don’t need all that much help to witness to Jesus in our world. Match what he teaches against what the world teaches and the choice seems obvious.

But that doesn’t quite work when we get down to living our lives in the real world.

Think of a person who gets along just fine without a faith in God, or at least who seems to. Following Jesus is great for you, they say, but it doesn’t interest me. Can we convince those people with logical arguments and reasoning? Or will we need to befriend them, walk with them and demonstrate what a difference Jesus really makes.

I don’t know about you, but I need constant direction and guidance from God in how to do that. I need the Holy Spirit to direct as well as empower me there. I don’t always know what to do. When I do know, I can’t always do it.

Plus, people discourage me. And a lot of the time, they can make me angry. How dare we, I ask. How dare one child of God kill another in the name of religion – any religion? How dare any of us look on another person as nothing more than a way to satisfy our desires?

God asked the ancient Israelites the same questions. How dare you who were slaves in Egypt take slaves? How dare you who wandered and depended on the kindness of strangers turn the needy away from your doors? Live life that way and you’re doomed to an empty life at best and disaster at worst when your false foundations crumble underneath you.

But God’s response to the people who dared to do such things went beyond anger and discouragement. He loved them. He sent them prophets to warn them and point out the danger, but he also sent them – and us – a savior to allow us back to his side.

I don’t have such an easy time loving those people when I’m left to my own power. Again, I need the Holy Spirit to empower and guide me – especially when I realize that I’m just as screwed up as the rest of the world and I’ve wandered just as far from God.

On my own, I falter like a failing battery. I need what an old=fashioned country preacher might call a Holy Spirit charge-up, in order to love the unlovable and guide me when I’m lost.

I have to love them, though, don’t I? Yes, because I’m a witness to the one who loved them so much he died to be able to be with them. How can my words speak Christ if my actions don’t? And when I’ve failed in both word and action, as I’ve done and will do some more, how can I have hope and assurance he loves me just as much as he loves them?

Again, the Holy Spirit. Wash it away from me and I’m a useless sludge of minerals – which would make a great name for a band, by the way. Wash the Holy Spirit from me and I have no taste, I season nothing and I make no difference with words or actions.

But with the Holy Spirit? I am a witness. I tell you what I have seen and know to be true. I bring you the good news.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Dear Rabbi" (Luke 14:1, 4-17)

Well, what an interesting little pair of parables. Jesus all of a sudden takes time out from teaching about the kingdom of God and about the good news to become an advice columnist.

“Dear Rabbi: When I go to a dinner party, I never know where to sit. Can you help me? Signed, Dopey Dinnerguest.”

“Dear Dopey: Well, don’t take the best seat. Take the worst one until the host comes and tells you to come sit closer to him.”

Now, our culture has different ideas about public shaming and honor than Jesus’ culture did. They considered public humiliation at a dinner – especially the kind where you had to give up your seat to someone else — a much bigger deal than we would. We would think this a minor embarrassment and maybe a good story to tell on ourselves. They would not.

The host would sit the person he most wanted to honor to his immediate right, and then the next to his immediate left, and so on. We might have a head table at an important banquet, but we tend to not care much about it after that.

In fact, we often prefer the seats away from the head table and near the door. They’re closer to the bathroom, closer to the exit if the speaker is boring and closer to the bar – which is a big deal for some folks. Especially if the speaker is boring.

But if I went to such a dinner in Jesus’ time, I would have to judge how important the host thought I was and seat myself by that. So I would have to know everything about all the other guests and a bunch of other stuff that would pretty much keep me from enjoying myself because of all the worrying I’d be doing.

Jesus offers this bit of wisdom for several reasons. One, it’s what rabbis did. Teachers said wise things that people who followed them were supposed to listen to and follow to improve their own lives and act more wisely. The book of Proverbs is a collection of these kinds of sayings.

This may be one of the few saying of Jesus most Christians obey, as it happens. Look at the pews on any Sunday morning and see which ones are empty and which ones are full of people waiting for Jesus to say, “Friend, go up higher.”

We’ll get to his other reasons in a minute. First, let’s look at our second letter.

“Dear Rabbi: I want to give a dinner and invite a bunch of people, and my planner wants to know where to send the invitations. Who should be on my guest list? Signed, Confused at the Caterers.”

“Dear Confused: You should invite a lot of people who can’t invite you back. That way you won’t get paid back for your hospitality.”

Here Jesus wants to get his listeners to understand real giving requires offering something for nothing.

We don’t have to scratch our heads too much to see the connection between this idea and the grace through which God offers our salvation, do we? Jesus certainly offered himself for us though he knew how imperfect a job we would do of offering anything back.

And that’s one way I see these two parables operating for us today. Jesus wants us to see in them a certain way to live. We live that way when we make grace the operating guide and principle of our lives.

Our world teaches us one way to live: We give what we get. We give to those who can give back and ignore the rest. We reward those who treat us well and punish those who don’t. If we’re strong enough, we take what we want, and if we’re not, we try some other way.

But Jesus commands us to live differently. We don’t operate our lives according to a balance sheet, where we make sure what comes in is at least as much as goes out or more. We are to operate according to the idea of grace.

And in that way of living, we don’t seek honor for ourselves, as would a dinnerguest who took the prime seat. We acknowledge that any honor we receive is the free gift of God and accept it gratefully.

We don’t think of how our gift to someone will end up benefiting us, but rather of giving to someone who truly needs it.

I sometimes see it as Jesus asking us to live like this so we can get used to grace – it’s unfamiliar to us, after all. But it is his way, it is the way. The Kingdom of God he proclaims operates this way.

And one day, God willing, so will we.