Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hachnassat Orchim (Hospitality): Hebrews 13:2

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

Although our churches talk about hospitality and modern Christians often make sincere efforts to practice it, our vision of that idea is different from the vision that Biblical writers most likely would have had.

When we talk about offering hospitality to folks, we usually focus on people who've come through our doors. We want to make sure they can find what they need and that they're greeted when they walk in. We want to be able to direct them to the coffee pot if it's been a chilly morning, make sure it's easy to find the nursery if they've got younguns -- and make sure they know where the bathrooms are, younguns or no -- and so on. But that's a focus on guests we already have. The culture of the ancient Near East looked at hospitality a little differently, and many places in that region still carry some of those hospitality traditions today.

The Hebrews passage refers to a time when Abraham saw three strangers passing by his tent and invited them in for a meal and to stay the night. The strangers were a manifestation of God -- or maybe messengers from God -- and they gave Abraham (then Abram) and his wife Sarai a prediction that they would have a son, even though they were very old. When they entertained the three travelers, they turned out to be entertaining angels, or maybe even God. Today, we look at this passage and maybe take from it that we should be kind and welcoming to the visitors in our midst. That's in no way a bad thing.

But it overlooks a difference between our culture and the culture that shaped Abram and the writer of Hebrews. We might think that Abram was pretty nice to offer a meal and a place to stay to people he just happened to see wander by. In his culture, though, someone who didn't offer at least that much to a passing stranger would have been thought of as strictly no-class, the kind of person decent people didn't associate with. If Abram had let the travelers go on by and someone would have heard about it, people would have avoided his company and some might even have refused to do business with him, neither buying anything he might want to sell or selling him anything he might want to buy. Decent people wouldn't even think such a thing!

Some of that may stem from the realities of life as tribal wanderers in a desert or near-desert region. If you were camped out for a longer stay at an oasis, you were at one of the few places where there was water. Individuals or small groups that couldn't carry as much water with them might have been counting on watering up at the oasis where you were and if you turned them away, they might not even make it to the next water source. If you were camped out for the night between water sources and you turned someone away, they might be set on by bandits or wild animals. Either way, you would be responsible for harm they suffered, all because you turned them away from your doorstep. Actually, your tentflap, but you get the idea. Thus, hospitality became not just an issue of good hosting, but of morality -- morally good people didn't turn strangers away.

My Old Testament professor talked about being invited to a house once when he was a student on an archaeological dig in Israel. One of the young boys who hung around the dig, running errands every now and again for the strange Americans who dug holes very very slowly, decided to invite my professor back to his family's home for dinner.

Now, you might imagine the average mom and dad being a little flustered to learn that Junior has invited some stranger back to the house to eat. And you might figure that, were you the person invited, you would have no problem telling mom and dad, "Look, it's no problem if you weren't expecting guests; I'll just be on my way." Not in the Middle East. Mt professor said he was invited in, given the best seat at the table, and told if he liked he could spend the night there and the mom would pack him a lunch the next day. In fact, if he liked he could stay with the family during his whole time on the dig.

When he returned to that village just about 20 years later, he made a point of stopping by the family's house -- not because he was looking for a meal or just wanted to say hi or see if they were still there. But because if he had not, it would have been rude. In fact, if the family learned he had been nearby but had not stopped to see them, so they could invite him to stay for a meal and again, to stay with them as long as he wanted, they would have been insulted, no less than if a family member had done so.

All because their small son had once invited an odd Canadian grad student home for dinner.

That's the kind of thinking behind the hospitality that Jesus offers you and me. We might figure that, since hospitality to a stranger places such immense obligations on the host that hosts would be very very careful about who they invited in. And yet we find that the high cost of hospitality doesn't ease the obligation to welcome the stranger at all! The host can't fall back on, "Well, he looked a little seedy, so I let him keep walking." We don't have to think too hard to see ourselves as wanderers in a deadly land, offered a place to stay and food to eat by Christ as our host. Especially when we realize that Christ doesn't pay any more attention to our "guestworthiness" than a host would have to a stranger's guestworthiness.

We live in a different culture and we probably can't fully adopt the ancient view of hospitality. But we probably could make ours more robust. Saying "Hello" to a visitors and learning their names is good. Saying, "Got someone to sit with during service" is better. Saying, "We're going out for lunch after church. Do you have plans? Our treat!" is even better.

Of course we should be properly careful; this is something only groups or families should do and not solo folks, for example. But I know many if not most of us might balk at doing something like this, although when I run down my list of reasons I'm none too proud of them. The new people might be boring or weird and make lunch awkward? Yeah, that's a reason I want to stand up to defend at the last judgement.

The bottom line with hospitality for me, as a Christian, is that it's a response to Jesus's hospitality to me. When I think of it that way, I can be inspired to make my hospitality try to measure up to his -- of course it never could and never will, but the trying itself can make for growth.

And if that's so, then those I welcomed have indeed become angels to me, ministering to my spirit and heart to stir me to be more like Christ. Which as I understand it is one of those things we Christians are supposed to shoot for.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Avelut: Mourning (John 11:1-45)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

 During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

There's a question prompted by this story that I'm prone to forget to ask.

Why did Jesus weep?

We know why we would weep if Lazarus had been our friend. We would mourn the loss of our friend and show our sadness, much like Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha, as well as the other mourners present at the grave. We would feel that loss and realize that we would now continue life without our friend, and that too might make us feel sad even though we would know in our minds that Lazarus was now with the Lord.

But although he was fully human, Jesus was also fully divine and he knew in ways we don't just how wonderful it was to be in God's very presence the way Lazarus now was. He would also know in ways we don't that he would be reunited with Lazarus in God's presence, which would make their joy that much greater.

Jesus weeps in verse 35. Before this, our Bibles describe Jesus as "deeply moved" and "troubled." Those words kind of miss the mark a little bit -- the original Greek in John can mean those things, but it also has a flavor of irritation or even anger. The root word of the word translated as "disturbed" actually means "to snort in anger."

What would make Jesus angry in this situation? Is it the lack of faith the mourners demonstrate when they question why he took so long to arrive, as though he has the power to heal but no more? Is it that he knows he will be taking Lazarus away from God's presence to return him to this world? Is it that he had hoped to use this sign to show something to his own people, and the presence of outsiders will make that more difficult?

Well, we don't really know, although if I was going to lay down bets I would say it was a combination of all of the above, as well as a little frustration that the people seemed so focused on this earthly side of things and they don't show any appreciation that there is more to this matter than just the loss. When Jesus asks Martha if she believes in the resurrection of life, she gives an answer that Lazarus himself probably believed -- that all would be resurrected on the last day.

But she and the others are focused on how Jesus' late arrival meant Lazarus' death. "If you had been here, he would not have died." That's not entirely accurate. The full truth is that if Jesus had healed Lazarus, he would not have died then. He still would have died someday, though. And even though Jesus raised him, he would die again. For whatever reason, the mourners couldn't put Lazarus' death into the context of a belief that God had the ultimate control over all things, including death. Though their sadness was real, so too should have been their understanding of God's ultimate power.

Many of the Jewish mourning practices Lauren Winner describes in Mudhouse Sabbath do have that dual character. A lot of them relate activity following a death to life in the religious community of the synagogue. The people who attended the funeral come to sit shiva with the bereaved. The thirty-day period after shiva is marked off by different behavior during the next four Sabbaths, as the mourners gradually rejoin the religious community.

But even then, the mourning isn't done, as most of us who've lost someone know. According to the ritual, the loss of family members, especially parents, is marked by the twice-daily saying of the kaddish prayer for a year. And kaddish can't be said just by yourself; you have to say it with at least 10 other adults present -- which much of the time means paying a visit to the synagogue.

Even more interesting is that kaddish doesn't have any reference to mourning or any place to insert the name of the dead person and doesn't ever mention death! It's a prayer of praise to God, as if the mourner is to remember not only the sadness of their loss but also the greatness of God. Even though they probably don't feel like praising God, they do so twice a day. Winner says that any and all other responses to God are tolerated -- laments, raging, questioning -- but the prayer of praise is the only obligation that the mourner has in the eleven months leading up to the anniversary of the death. Kaddish is then said on the anniversary of the death.

Our language sometimes reflects the same kind of one-sidedness that we see in the mourners outside Lazarus' grave. We say someone "lost their battle" with cancer or some other disease or condition if they die from it, implying that in order to win the battle, they would have needed to recover. In reality, even if we win this battle, we will eventually lose one of them. Life is a fatal condition for us all; every last one of us will eventually pass away from something even if it's just good old age.

But we as Christian people hold similar ideas to our Jewish friends -- there will come a resurrection in which all life is restored and celebrated in God's presence. What we see as lost battles or endings will prove to be, at most, a pause in life as we move into a life we proclaim even if we can't fully imagine it. The language of lost battles and endings is not for us as we describe death.

Of course the bereaved have a hard time seeing this because the wound is still very fresh. But as the pain lessens, do we come to see this is the view we Christians say represents reality? Would we find ourselves comforted by understanding that death may be an end but is not the end? Many are, if not right away. Would that process be helped by praising God twice a day whether we felt like it or not? For many, it is.

We're in Lent now, closing in on a time of year that many Christians seem to overlook -- Good Friday. We leap from the entry of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter and we may not spend much time thinking about what happened to Jesus in between. And truthfully, Easter is the centerpiece of our faith -- the centerpiece of human existence, according to the gospel message. But the reality of Good Friday in the world sometimes escapes us, and we might forget that there are people all around us who live in that time of mourning or of loss.

We can't forget that, because if we do we're too likely to forget them. And if we forget those who mourn, who will tell them of the Good News -- that the Comforter has come, and the Redeemer lives, and the Savior reigns?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tzum: Fasting (Matthew 6:16-18)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

To us, this probably seems like an odd instruction for Jesus to give. We're not used to people highlighting their fasting times the way the ancient Jews and others might have done, by putting ashes on our faces or tearing our clothes. While those were appropriate things to do during mourning times, Jesus says his people should not do so every time they fast. In fact, most of the times it seems like they should act like nothing's different.

In fact, they should try to keep their fasting a secret! If it's possible, no one should know about it. I'm sure Jesus would not have meant that they should lie if someone asked them, but anything short of that would seem to be in order so they could hide the fact that they're fasting. And that seems a little weird to us, I imagine.

Now, if the teaching was to avoid bragging about fasting, we could see the sense in that, couldn't we? "Hey, everyone! I'm fasting, and I'm doing it because I'm so much holier than you are. In fact, my fasting is making me even more holy, so I'm going to stay away from you as you go on about your sinful and much less holier than me day. Jesus loves you!" Bragging about fasting and the holiness it's supposed to represent would be an awful way to talk about it. If Jesus says that, we would agree right away that we shouldn't do it. Good teaching, Jesus! Thanks!

But he says, nope, don't even talk about it or give any indication you're fasting. Go on about your business in as ordinary way as you can. When we think about it, though, we might be able to help someone who's fasting if they let us know that's what they're doing. We would know not to invite them out for lunch, or to serve snacks if they came to visit. We might know that they have a real craving for a Snickers at 2:15 in the afternoon so we would call them at 2:14, talk about something irrelevant and entirely un-food-related until about 2:30 or so, and help them get past the craving time. Jesus' words, though, seem to block that idea. Why?

In the book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner recounts a discussion with her rabbi after she had broken a fast she was supposed to be observing. Surely, she said, it was not that big a deal? God being God, surely He was not affected by the fact that a flawed human being goofed and ate a corned beef sandwich? Part of his response to her was that she was supposed to be learning that what she was really hungry for was God. Her physical hunger was a tool to remind her of this.

I think one of the reasons Jesus told his followers to hide their fasting was to keep its focus on this lesson of complete dependence on God. If our friends and our community help us get through our fast, our focus may fade away from God a little and be drawn to them. We need to remember we depend on others, but we need even more to remember that we depend on God. Jesus' own words -- quoting Deuteronomy -- when tempted by Satan to miraculously provide himself bread  are "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

Food is one of the most basic needs we have as living creatures. We can't live without it, and there's no substitute for it. A thick hide and warm fur may do for animals that don't have shelter, but nothing can take the place of food for the body. Doing without food by choice is against our natures, but it reminds us we as living creatures depend on God even more deeply than our bodies depend on food. Without food, we die. Without God, it doesn't matter if we live.

In a way, a fast is like taking the Sabbath and drilling down even deeper at a message it teaches. Remember that one of the points of resting on the Sabbath for the ancient Israelites was to underscore their reliance on God for all they had when they wandered in the wilderness. Their lives did not depend only on their own work and efforts, but even more so on the work and the grace of God. The fast sharpens this message to its most elemental point: We rely on God not just the way we rely on our work or our energy, but even more, we need God the way we need food.

Because it's easy for us to overlook or forget that too easily, we should fast so we can remember. Maybe a complete fast for a period of time, or maybe a long-term fast from one particular item. But whichever it is, we will need it to draw us away from ourselves and our needs as simply living creatures, and draw us towards a loving God and our needs as God's creatures. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly Holy (Exodus 20:8)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

A good number of people today can remember when businesses didn't open on Sunday, and even more might remember when youth sports leagues and other organizations didn't schedule games on Sundays or at least not on Sunday mornings. Even though fewer and fewer people actually attended church or confessed their Christian faith to someone other than a telephone opinion surveyor, the cultural idea of a "day off" lingered for quite some time.

Today, we will recognize what the ancient Hebrews called Shabbat or the Sabbath in some ways, but not in many others. A lot of us will go to church. A lot of us will have time off from work. But few of us will rest in any meaningful way -- we'll use this time to get things done we couldn't do during the week. Or we'll be busier than we ever could at work in order to prepare for having fun of some kind.

It's a little ironic when we consider that the practice of the Sabbath began in a culture where a day off work might mean a day off eating as well. Nomads like the ancient Hebrews often lived pretty close to the edge compared to us. Observing the Sabbath may have been harder on them, but it seems to be harder for us.

Of course, the resurrection of Christ puts a slightly different spin on things for those of us who follow him. For one, we've moved the day from the last day of the week to the first. And for another, our Lord pointed out that the Sabbath and its observance was something made for us, rather than us being made to fit into some involved list of rules. But when we read some of the stories Lauren Winner includes in her chapter on the Sabbath, we can see that making an effort to observe a real Sabbath can provide a lot of food for reflection, as well as the time to do it in.

The rules about not doing work mean we minimize our impact on God's creation -- as the Lord rested from creating on the Sabbath day we too will rest from creating or altering creation, as much as we can. By doing that, we're reminded that we have been charged with stewardship of God's creation. Nobody gave us the deed to the place; just the keys, and we're expected to keep things up in case the owner drops by. And we're reminded that we bear the image of God. We too can create, in a way no other living creature can. A spider spins a web not for beauty's sake or to contemplate its lines and connections, but to live in and snare flies. We, on the other hand, can use sound and sight and touch and taste to do more than fuel our bodies and shelter our heads. We're pale imitators of our Lord, to be sure, but we create in his image.

And when we rest and stop giving thought to everything we think we have to do in order to live our lives, we can also be reminded we do nothing except what God has given us the gifts to do. At its root, my life depends not on my own efforts but on God's gracious decision to give it to me. To be a Christian means saying you can go back as far as you like, back to the moment of creation itself, whether you believe it happened six thousand years ago with a single sentence or seventeen billion years ago from the cosmic singularity, and you will not find one tick of the clock from that day to this that does not rest in the hands of the Creator.

Taking the time to focus on realities like these and to reflect on them is as valuable for Christians as for Jews. We claim salvation through Christ, and if we spend time increasing our awareness of our utter dependence on God we are either awakened to or reminded that this very salvation is as wholly apart from us as was creation itself. We did and do absolutely nothing to bring it about and can only acknowledge it or refuse it.

And then we realize, that just as we echo God with our own small powers of creation, we can echo the gospel message of salvation by proclaiming it. We save no one, not even ourselves, but we can state to the world that salvation is reality and damnation the illusion cast by the enemy and our own shadowed senses. We are not the Light, but we can, with God's grace, be light that shows the path to it.

When we keep a Sabbath -- a strict Shabbat or our own more relaxed understanding -- we say something to the world beyond, "Take a load off." We remind the world that the day set apart to God is not just separated from the rest of the days but in fact represents a day and a life that is closer to the reality of God than whatever might go on the other six. Just as we pray that the gospel message spreads throughout the world so that all may see and know that the Lord is God, we can pray that our Sabbaths, whenever and however we take them, spread through our whole week and we wind up with not just one day dedicated to the Lord, but seven.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-19)

At first glance, the Transfiguration of the Lord, in which Peter, James and John get a sort of "preview" of the glorified form of Jesus, is a pretty...different event. But if you think that, let me give you another idea that might make it seem even more different. A pastor friend of mine asked a question about this on his Facebook feed and it make me start to think as well.

Consider eternity. We tend to think of eternity as time that goes on and on and on without end. Other than the fact that it doesn't ever stop, we usually look at "eternity" in a way that's not really different from the way things are now. But while that may be right, there's another way to understand eternity that's probably closer to the truth. Eternity is an absence of time. In eternity, there is no time.

See how weird an idea that is? We know what time is -- time is what keeps everything from happening at once. Our brains and minds have lived in time all our lives, which means it's just about impossible for us to think about what existence would be like without time at all. But C. S. Lewis, among others, points out that there's no need for time in eternity and it may not exist. So from our point of view, in eternity, everything really does happen at once!

What does that have to do with the Transfiguration? Well, Moses and Elijah are figures from Israel's history that would have been very old even for the disciples. Moses lived perhaps 1,500 years earlier and Elijah some 700 after that. But what they share is that no one saw their deaths. Moses died after leaving the Israelites at the Jordan River, and Deuteronomy 34 tells us that the Lord was actually the one who buried him. Elijah the prophet was caught up to heaven in a fiery chariot and, as far as scripture tells us, never died.

We're accustomed to thinking that both men had been in heaven or in the life to come since their passing and returned to speak with Jesus at the time of the Transfiguration. But what if they hadn't? What if both events really occurred in eternity, outside of time, and what the disciples saw was the first steps both Moses and Elijah took into eternity in Jesus' presence? After all, Paul tells us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, so both men would be with Jesus as soon as they left this world if that's right.

In our world, those events happened 700 years apart and they happened hundreds of years before the Transfiguration. But if there is no time in eternity, then there is nothing to separate them, either from each other or from the night the disciples witness them.

Now, on one hand it really makes little difference just exactly which mind-bending reality is represented by the Transfiguration -- heavenly residents visiting the physical world or eternity impinging on our world of time. Explain either one to the disciples and the only difference between the "Huh?" they said before you started and the one afterwards is that they only thought they were confused when you started.

But on the other hand this new idea for which I thank my friend -- or blame him, depending on how much my head hurts -- can tell us a couple of things we might not have thought of otherwise.

One of them is the incredible "otherness" of God and what God does. Reminders of that prompt us to also remember that our labels, words, expressions and descriptions of what God does have their limits, and we hit those limits well before we come anywhere close to complete understanding or complete description. We can't control what God does and we surely can't control God. I need to be reminded of that more often than I like, but fortunately those reminders come fast and frequently.

Another is that in Jesus, eternity really does rub up against time. This can help us recall God has created us so that our actions have a dimension, if you like, that exists in eternity, and so do we. Even though time separates us from our ancestors in the faith, in eternity we are united as one body in Christ. Take communion, for example. Our churches may practice it weekly or monthly, or once a quarter or every time there's a fifth Sunday in a month. But if what we pray for and what Jesus told us about communion is true, it exists in eternity as well as in time, and we share at table with every Christian who ever lived or ever will live. We share at table with the disciples that night in the upper room.

We share with the Lord himself. And we will one day share with him in his presence just as Moses and Elijah did on the mountain.