Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sightings (Exodus 33:12-23)

One of the things Christians often ask God is to understand his will or his plan for us. We know the ultimate destination, which is union with God for all eternity. But we don't know the in-between steps, so to speak, about what will go on between now and then.

This conversation between God and Moses demonstrates we are not the first ones to face this issue.

Moses knows that God's ultimate plan is that his people Israel will live in the land he promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When he first called Moses to lead the people for him, he told Moses that they would come to this mountain -- the very same one where God was now talking to him in the burning bush -- and receive God's teaching and law. So now they're there, and Moses understandably would like to know what's next. Obviously they have to travel to the promised land, and Moses knows that since the Hebrew people left more than 400 years earlier, some new folks have moved in. Some kind of arrangement will have to be made with them. Preparations have to be made for these and probably at least a dozen other matters, so Moses asks God what will come next when he says, "Show me your ways."

God gives Moses the answer he has given to many of Moses' questions going back to that first meeting: He will be with them, they can depend on him. His exact words, of course, are "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." He does not outline his specific plans for the Israelites or the things that will have to happen to get them to the promised land or anything about the future steps they will take. But he does promise to be with the people and to take care of their needs.

We can see how much Moses has grown since the first meeting. Of course, he says! You have to go with us, or we won't get anywhere. We won't survive the first obstacle! Anything I achieve or anything the people achieve will be the direct result if you going with us! I kind of get the impression Moses asked already knowing the answer but wanted to hear God confirm it, drawing reassurance from the statement.

The conversation continues: Moses asks to see God's glory. Here we get into some deeper weeds because of the Hebrew words involved. "Glory" translates kabod, which comes from a Hebrew root word often used to describe weight. Not just physical weight, but impact, as in, "Her words carry a lot of weight for me." Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko used to talk about how someone who interceded for you with, say, police interested in your financial dealings with an alderman was "clouting" for you. They could do this because they had weight. Although kabod calls to mind images of light and shining glory, it would also make the ancient Hebrews think of weight and impact. Moses wants to see who God really is, not just have these encounters with him. God promises his presence, so Moses wants to see that presence.

God tells Moses that's impossible. No one can see his face and live. "Face" translates panim, and implies the real person represented by the physical face they wear. When you hear one friend tell another "I miss your face," it carries the same meaning. God's direct presence, his real self manifested in his full glory, power and impact would destroy Moses.

So he tells Moses he will tuck him in a cleft in the rocks and hold his hand over as he passes by, so Moses can get a hint of God's glory. Think of what a flashlight looks like when it shines through a covering hand. And then after God has passed by, Moses can see his back. This is a metaphor, of course. God does not mean he will manifest some gigantic physical body with an actual hand and back Moses could see. He means that he will reveal as much of his true self to Moses as Moses can stand to encounter, and then show him the impact of that presence.

It's an interesting parallel with Moses' first request. Show me the way we're going, Moses asks, but God doesn't. Show me your glory, Moses says to God, but God won't because Moses couldn't survive it. When you consider all of the things that actually happen to the Israelites and Moses before they get to the promised land, you could make a good case that Moses' leadership wouldn't survive the knowledge. He's just dealt with the griping people at Meribeh, what would he do if he learned that griping Israelites are going to be the norm rather than the exception? I'd quit, myself.

What would he do if he knew what the people were going to need in order to become people who could actually govern themselves and handle their own affairs to any degree? They've been slaves for twenty generations -- it will take at least another whole one to mature them into a free people. They outnumbered the Egyptian chariots by tens or hundreds to one and they panicked -- what will it take to make them into folks who can settle a new land?

I'm speculating, but I think that knowledge would have destroyed at least Moses' ability to lead if not wrecked him completely. When we look back at some of the hard choices and hard things we have had to handle after we decided we would follow Jesus, don't we wonder a little if we would have done it if we'd known about them beforehand? I do. I trusted God would be present when I was going through them and I look back now and see how he helped me, but would my faith in that presence have been strong enough if I had known before all of those things happened? I would like to think so, but I'm not sure.

So maybe it is better not to know all things before they happen. Maybe it is better to be in the dark a little about the next chapters or next pages. Perhaps not, but I think it is. And I think either way, it'll just be one big mess if we don't know the Author helping us write the words.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Outward Focus (Luke 18:9-14)

One of the problems that familiarity brings when it comes to Jesus' parables is the tendency to reduce them to their simplest terms. The story goes from A to B to C, or this person is a hero and that person is a villain, and so forth. But in this parable, maybe even more than most others, we need to avoid doing that.

In those simplest terms, the tax collector is the hero and the Pharisee is the villain. Pharisees usually are the villains anyway, or at least Jesus' most frequent opponents, and he calls them out on their hypocrisy more than once. So it's pretty natural to see this one that way too, especially when Jesus tells us that the tax collector is the one who went home justified in God's sight.

But let's look at the guy a little bit before dismissing him so quickly. He starts his prayer by thanking God -- which is a good thing and ought to be a part of our own prayers, shouldn't it? His prayer is not a list of things he wants God to do, like some prayers become too quickly. And although his phrasing isn't very genteel, the substance of his thanksgiving is actually not so bad either. He's thankful that he doesn't steal things or commit adultery -- do we always give God the credit when we do well or obey the commandments he gives us, or do we too often pat ourselves on the back? Don't answer -- I'm embarrassed enough when I think about how that one plays out for me.

And what about his actions? The guy tithes, a full tenth of his income. That means he contributes to the Temple's work with the poor who come seeking help! He fasts twice a week, not eating between sunup and sundown as a sign of his religious devotion! My denomination doesn't make you fill out an application to join but if we did and this guy offered this résumé I'd be signing him up before some other church got him.

Now, none of this makes Jesus wrong about him. The reality is the Pharisee's attitude in his prayers shows his flaws. Jesus tells us he "prays to himself," which may mean more than just speaking in too low a tone of voice for anyone else to hear. It may mean that despite his words he really does think he's achieved all of this on his own merits and God ought to be grateful to have such a guy as him. His tone when he mentions all of the bad people he's not supports that idea.

But noting the upside of this Pharisee does remind us that he's not a villain -- he's a regular guy, pretty seriously devoted to his faith even if he thinks a little too much of himself. It's important to see this because otherwise we wind up dismissing him and diminishing the lesson Jesus wants to teach us.

"Well of course the tax collector was justified," we say too easily. "He was the hero and the Pharisee was just a rotten no-good so-and-so." And it's way too few steps from that idea to thinking that we're not so bad ourselves, since we're obviously not villains like that Pharisee is...

You see it, of course. When we make the Pharisee a villain instead of recognizing he's much more of an ordinary or even in some ways exemplary person, we can very quickly do the exact thing he's doing. Which, if you read the whole parable, is what Jesus wants us not to do.

The tax collector was justified because he knew God alone could make him so. The Pharisee wasn't because he didn't acknowledge that. But if the tax collector had elevated his own righteousness and the Pharisee had acknowledged God's role in justifying him it all would have been flipped over the other way.

Which is a good thing for Pharisees and tax collectors both to remember.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Spoiled Rotten? (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

A repeat of a sermon from several years ago as the same verse comes up in the lectionary and I work with the same ideas. Apparently God still has something to say to me in this passage.

The trendy word schadenfreude refers to the pleasure someone takes in someone else’s misery. It’s German. In English, we call it "epicaricacy," or one of the Real Housewives shows.

It’s also what powers Jonah’s speech here as we get to the end of his story. We know a little bit about him, but let’s recap:

Jonah the prophet hears God’s call to warn wicked Nineveh of its impending destruction. He responds by boarding a boat for Tarshish. It would be like a modern-day prophet who lived in New York City being told to warn Las Vegas and taking a boat to Australia that leaves from Miami. In other words, Jonah plans to get as much out there between him and Nineveh as he can.

During the voyage, a severe storm comes up which the ship won’t survive. Nobody seems to know what to do – well, nobody but Jonah, who might have an explanation as to the storm’s cause but doesn’t share it with anyone. The sailors cast lots to find out what the problem is and eventually the lot lands with Jonah.

“Oh, yeah, funny story!” the prophet says and explains he’s running away from God’s call. If you thought a prophet might say, “OK, God, I give,” or maybe, “Lord, if you will spare these innocent folks I will head for Nineveh the moment we reach the shore,” then you’ve never met Jonah. He lets the sailors make another try for land, but they can’t overpower this divinely-powered storm. Now Jonah does have an idea. “Toss me over,” he says. The sailors do and the sea calms.

A giant fish swallows Jonah. He sits in the fish’s stomach for three days – and if you think about it, the only kind of air anyplace inside the alimentary canal is what we take Pepto-Bismol for, which means Jonah spends three days inside a giant fish burp. After three days of this, it occurs to him to pray. Like many of us, he prays quoting some of the prayers and songs he knows. My Old Testament professor in seminary pointed out the different psalms and songs Jonah quoted, weaving them together in a lament about how bad he had it.

When Jonah finished, my professor said, the fish threw up. His sympathies were with the fish.

Jonah now finds himself near Nineveh, and when God calls again he decides he’ll answer. Nineveh the city stretches so far a person takes three days to walk across it, which makes the hotel chains like it very much. Jonah ambles in about a third of the way and says five words in Hebrew. He did raise his voice, and that may have been because nobody would get near him since, as far as the story we have says, he hasn’t taken a bath since leaving the fish.

The Ninevites speak a language close to Hebrew but not exactly, but in any event, this five-word warning – “In forty days Nineveh will be wiped out” – sparks an amazing revival among people who the day before this wouldn’t have given two figs for what the God of some no-account wide spot in the road nation down south said. Everybody repents of their sins. Everybody, from the king on down to the livestock, vows to change their ways in the hope God will not destroy them.

God decides exactly that and it ticks Jonah off mightily. Here we learn he didn’t run away because he was scared. He knew that if he warned the people and they listened God wouldn’t destroy them. Remember Ezekiel being unsure if the people would listen to his harsh message? Jonah fumes because he knew the people would listen to what God said through him and it would work.

After all of this mess, his one hope was that he would at least get to see the wicked get what’s coming to them. He could at least enjoy a good ol’ Sodom-and-Gomorrah, fire-from-the-sky style hiney-whuppin’.

But noooooo, God has to go and be all Mr. Lovingkindness Mercy Forgiveness and now Jonah can’t even enjoy that. To top it off, his shade tree got eaten by a worm.

“You’re mad?” God asks.

“You bet I am! Mad enough to die right now!” Tops the list of dumb things to say to God, I believe.

“You’re mad because this bush died, and you don’t think I should pay attention to this huge city and all its people and let them off the hook when they turn to me?” The conversation kind of grinds to a halt, which is probably good for Jonah.

Who’s Jonah today? Well, we probably all know some people in our churches who just don’t seem happy unless they or someone is talking about someone else going to hell.

Let ’em have it, Lord! Give ’em what they got comin’! Bring up the idea that God may forgive those people and be met with some shock or some dismay. I can’t say I’ve never done it; I’ve made the joke that if I get to the heavenly city and meet this or that famous criminal or ne’er-do-well of history, the first words out of my mouth will be, “Well, there goes the neighborhood.”

But what Jonah needed to understand and what we all probably need to understand is that God’s in the business of spoiling us, where “spoiling” means giving us way, way more than we ought to get. In fact, giving us the exact opposite of what we’ve earned, what we’ve all “earned,” to use the word, by our sin. We’re all separated from God, and the degree of separation is unimportant. That separation means death, but a loving God decided on life, and decided to give that to us instead.

We’re spoiled, all right. Spoiled un-rotten.

Good news.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Just One Commandment (Romans 13:8-14)

Our tendency in Christianity is to set the two parts of the Bible -- the Old and the New Testaments -- in tension if not outright pitting one against the other. Usually when we do this we cast it as something along these lines: The Old Testament is a book of law and the New Testament is a book of grace. In the OT our relationship is dominated by obedience to the law or lack thereof. In the NT we're relieved of the burden of the law through the grace of God, given in Jesus.

But when we read Romans, we find that this idea might have surprised Paul a little. We know that he wrote Romans to the Christians of that city, most of whom he had never met and who wouldn't have known a lot about him. Instead of corresponding back and forth with a church, like he did with the Corinthians, and answering their questions, Romans is Paul introducing himself and his theology to people who didn't know him. So he spends a little time on the relationship between the law and grace, and it doesn't seem to be as clear cut as the way I described it above.

For one, Paul's understanding of grace comes from Scripture, which for him would have been the Old Testament. He's writing what will become the New Testament, so it's not available to him beyond maybe some lists of things Jesus said and copies of stories he told. That means we find grace written into the OT books in addition to the law.

For another, Romans and several other of his letters stress the importance of obeying what God called us to do. Jesus himself says that following him means obeying his commandments. Mixed in with the dominant message of grace through Christ is a call for obedience that's just as serious as the other. Paul doesn't devalue obedience and in this passage ties it to a lifestyle that "puts on Jesus Christ."

He does reduce several commandments to one simple direction: Love your neighbor. Thanks to his training as a Pharisee, Paul knows the entire Torah by heart and elsewhere says he obeys all of its provisions. He knows, though, that the mostly Gentile Christians of Rome will probably know little of that law -- perhaps some of the Ten Commandments at most. He refers to a couple in describing how the law has just one or two main purposes, and he refers to one of the two great commandments Jesus explained, loving our neighbors. If we obey that commandment, Paul says, we fulfill the law.

But the only people who think that makes things easier are people who don't have neighbors. Because loving our neighbors is about as big a job as memorizing the entire Torah and, depending on the neighbor in question, might be even harder. Not to mention how hard of a job our neighbors might have in loving us sometimes.

The single commandment, in Jesus' view, has the same function as the more extensive OT law. He tells us that our loving one another lets people know we're his disciples, just as the OT law was meant to help distinguish the Israelites as God's people, distinct from those around them. And here, if Paul's right, the teaching's not just advisory but as essential to following Jesus as obedience to the OT law was to following the path God laid out for his people.

And yet we must obey this commandment in order to have any hope of fulfilling the law, something Jesus himself said he came to do. This whole idea that the NT represents some sort of easing up from the mean ol' OT falls apart once we understand that obedience is just as important as it ever was, and that it's no easier now than when there were hundreds of rules.

So how the heck can we do it? How do we "make no provision for the flesh" but instead "put on Jesus Christ?" Even if we ditch all of the obvious provisions for the flesh like gluttony or adultery we're still left with a long list of things that elevate us and what we want more than they do Christ. Things like gossiping, running people down, insisting that our mean behavior or snappy retort was justified because of what someone else has done... Well, make your own list because you know better than I do where you cross the lines.

Just when we might think we're in the same boat as we've always been in, though, as unable to meet the demands that following God places on us as the ancient Israelites were, Paul explains the role that grace plays in the situation. We're to obey the law, which even in its simplest form asks more than we're capable of -- but thanks to the grace a loving God offers us, we have the one thing we need to do what we're called to do: Help.

The key, Paul tells the Romans, is that our relationship with God is as broken as the commandments we can't keep. Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection, restores the possibility of a whole relationship, and the Holy Spirit works within us to restore the ability to make it happen. Jesus' grace restored us to God and the Holy Spirit makes that real in our lives.  We can love our neighbors as God requires of us.

Be hard to find a bigger miracle than that.

Monday, August 28, 2017

(Repeat) Hey! It's That Guy! (Matthew 16:12-20)

A previous sermon on this scripture passage, which was the lectionary reading for today:

 The late character actor J.T. Walsh inspired a website and a book dedicated to the phrase most often used to describe him: “Hey! It’s that guy!”

Walsh played in more than 50 movies and was nominated for an Emmy. The year he died of a heart attack, 1998, he was in three movies. He rarely had a lead role and was often kind of a meanie, but he popped up in so many places people couldn’t help but remember his face, even if they had no idea what his name was. Thus, he became “that guy.”

A little of that goes on when Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah when the group is gathered at Ceasarea Philippi. Jesus ask them, “Who do folks say I am,” and they answer that he’s supposed to be Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the old prophets.” So Jesus asks who they think he is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter answers. The answer makes Jesus happy and he predicts great things for Peter as the church begins its ministry after he is gone.

Is Jesus happy just because of Peter’s answer? Maybe, but look at what he says about it: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” I believe Jesus is even more excited because Peter’s answer suggests he’s opened himself up to God’s guidance in a whole new way. Even though he doesn’t stay open to it for very long, he’s made a start and Jesus knows this will be the way the church spreads through the world.

For any right-thinking properly educated Jew of Jesus’ day, Jesus himself was a round peg to fit into a square Messiah hole. We’ve probably heard at least once about how many religious leaders rejected Jesus as Messiah because they looked for a political leader to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel.

It’s more than that, though. The promised Messiah was more than just a king. Many of the psalms describe the ideal king for the nation, and the Messiah was expected to fulfill all these ideals. He would be a great general able to defeat armies on the battlefield as well as a great warrior able to do some of his own smiting if the need arose.

He would be a well-dressed but not flashy guy who presented himself well. The ladies would all love him. The old Israelite kings often had many wives, so the ideal king would be surrounded by well-dressed knockouts and devoted to each of them equally. By Jesus’ day, the custom of polygamy had faded among the Jews, but the idea was the same, only without the physical relationship. He would also be a man’s man, able to hunt, fish, camp out and hang out with the guys, who would all enjoy hanging around him. His wisdom would outshine Solomon himself.

He would support the folks who had it hard, and be on the side of those who didn’t have anybody on their side. They would know he was their protector. And he would uphold the teaching of God so that the whole nation, and through them the whole world, could be blessed and know God’s direct presence – his law “written on their hearts” as Jeremiah would say.

Today, we could say this ideal king would be a man who led the army to victory in battle, thwarted an assassination attempt single-handed, came home to accept congratula-tory yet perfectly appropriate hugs from all the gals, chest-bumped, ooh-rahed and high-fived all the guys, told their mothers that that was the best potato salad anybody had ever sent to a war zone (and of course they’d said grace over every spoonful) and told their dads that even though he and the rest had won, he was pretty sure they didn’t have a patch on those guys back in their day.

Then he’d finish it off by rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree.

This, you see, was what the Jewish people of Jesus’ day expected. Yes, Jesus was wise and compassionate, and he certainly did have a charisma that drew people to him. But he matched few of the rest of their expectations, so no ordinary person who sized him up and puzzled him out would have said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Only a person who allowed himself or herself to be led by the Holy Spirit could say such a thing with true understanding, and somehow Jesus knew that Peter had that understanding when he spoke.

Without the leading of the Spirit, the most anyone could say would be something like what people said when they saw J.T. Walsh’s familiar but un-named face on the screen: Hey! It’s that guy!

I believe that we could see Jesus in so many places today if we would let the Spirit guide us and open our eyes to him. We could see him in the people in need. Didn’t Jesus tell us that as we had done unto the least of these, we’d done unto him?

That’s just the start. He is at work all around us and the evidence is right there, if we will let ourselves be guided to see it, so that instead of saying, “Hey, it’s that guy!” we can say, “Hey! It’s Jesus!”

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Watch Your Step? (Matthew 14:22-33)

I wonder what Peter was thinking.

Seriously, what kind of a thing was that to say to a being that you see walking towards you on the surface of the water, in the middle of a stiff wind? The other disciples are already freaked out, having come to the logical conclusion that the only thing that could do something like that is a ghost.

Sure, this being says it's Jesus, but that's what you'd expect a tricky ghost to say, wouldn't it? If it's a ghost, you can't trust it. So Peter says, "If it's you, Lord, tell me to come to you!" What did he expect to hear? If he believed it was Jesus, did he expect him to say, "C'mon, Pete! Just because I do it doesn't mean you can! Just wait a minute and I'll be right there." Because if it's a spooky ghost, it might just very well say, "Come," and then stand there laughing while he sank like the rock he was named for.

Anyway, he says what he says, and Jesus says, "Come," and Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking. But as soon as he starts to notice his surroundings he gets scared and starts sinking. So he calls out -- notice all traces of uncertainty are gone -- "Lord, save me!"

There seem to be two different reasons given for Peter's sudden lack of buoyancy. Matthew says he "became frightened," and Jesus' words suggest he doubted and lost faith. I think they're two sides of the same coin, cooperating to produce this disappointing result. And they stem from the same root: Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins to pay more attention to what's around him than he does to what he's headed towards.

On a simple level, that seems obvious: Take your eyes off of Jesus and you've got trouble. But that's the kind of idea that can unfold into something larger. Although Jesus would later give Peter the much larger charge of leading the entire church, here he gives the simplest of directions: "Come." Whatever larger call God may also have on our lives, it wraps around the simplest one, which is to follow him.

Organizations and even people have over the last several years become fans of buzzword-heavy planning sessions to develop "mission statements," "strategic plans" and "tactical objectives." The ideas are simple and important: Figure out why you're here, what you want to do and how you're going to do it. I sometimes think the people who use all the other phrases didn't get to play Army enough when they were kids.

However that may be, churches and Christians ourselves have mission statements as well, because we also need to know and say why we're here, what we want to do and how we're going to do it. My own denomination in 2004 said its mission was "to make disciples of Jesus Christ." In 2008 we tweaked it, adding "for the transformation of the world," apparently to distinguish us from those who were making disciples that didn't transform the world.

Ideally, a mission statement not only keeps you from doing things that don't help it, it also shapes the things you are doing, perhaps giving them a new purpose and energy along with a new direction. When we turn aside from the mission, we can find ourselves in a rising tide of busy-ness and distraction, not nearly as capable of focusing on that primary goal.

Life will throw things at us, not because it's got any active interest in our failure but because that's just what life does. And some of those things will distract us from Jesus' simplest call to follow him, because we're flawed human beings who mess up. Fortunately, when that happens and we find ourselves sinking into the mess we've wound up in, we need only call on the one we should have been paying attention to all along, and we find him swift to save.

Because he never forgets his mission, and his mission is saving the creation of his Father -- you and me.