Wednesday, June 23, 2010
The Gospel for this week may be one of those that is most difficult for us to understand in our culture. It is about how one responds to people who treat us like dirt just because of some idea that the other person has of who we are. My first few years as a teacher I also worked as a counselor at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard during the summer months helping young people integrate into the workforce.
One of the other counselors I was blessed to know was African-American. Mitch taught school in Compton and was considered one of the most outstanding educators and baseball coaches in Southern California.
During one of our meals together I asked Mitch about how he ended up in Los Angeles and in teaching. He was a graduate of Grambling State University in Louisiana where he had been a star athlete. Mitch was older than me and when he told me about his attempts to find a teaching job in Compton, I was shocked. Apparently in the 1950s when Mitch came to Los Angeles with his young family, he could not get a job because of his race, the color of his skin. So, he went to work for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. As the 1950s moved into the 1960s, Mitch finally secured a job as a teacher at Compton High School.
As I got to know Mitch better, I asked him about the challenges of being an African-American. He told me a story about his family driving from Los Angeles to his family home in Louisiana non-stop because they were not allowed to lodge in hotels along their southern route. He said that one morning he tried to buy some coffee at a small diner in a small Texas town and was told they would not serve him unless he went to the back door where they would sell him coffee out of the kitchen.
Mitch and his family were just like most families heading across country to see their families and yet they were shown no hospitality because of the prejudicial culture of those days. As he told his personal story, I wondered if I would have been inhospitable to Mitch and his family if I had been in a position to offer coffee the way whites were offered coffee in that Texas town. I wondered if I would have had the courage to offer Mitch and his family a room in a hotel along his southern route. I wondered if I would have had the courage of my faith to resist the prejudice of the culture in which I lived.
I also wondered how I would have reacted to such inhospitable treatment. Would I have just shrugged it off and accepted that this was just the way things were? Or, would I have gotten angry and cursed the people who treated me and my family that way? Would I have wanted to throw a rock through the window of the diner? Or, would I have prayed to God to send down a fire to burn up those folks who had treated me like dirt? What would you have done in response to the prejudicial culture of that day? What do you hope you would have done?
So, we will hear the story from Luke this Sunday about Jesus and his Jewish disciples heading off to Jerusalem. Most Jews might have taken a more circuitous route to get to Jerusalem to avoid passing through the territory of the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans had a long history of hatred, suspicion, and downright inhospitable and hostile exchanges. Yet, Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem” by way of Samaria and he sends his disciples ahead of him to seek out a place to rest and eat.
Once the Samaritans see where Jesus and his disciples are headed (Jerusalem), they turn cold and unwelcoming. James and John, two of Jesus disciples, ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the heads of these horrid Samaritans. Jesus not only tells them “no,” he tells them “NO!” Jesus has been preparing his disciples to carry on his life of love, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the world. He is heading to Jerusalem where his death will trigger the most powerful and eternal change in our human understanding of God and of who we are and who we can become.
Jesus rebukes James and John the way he rebuked Peter when Peter tried to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem. Jesus labeled Peter, Satan, the accuser and his rebuke of James and John carries this same strong message for them and for those who would be Jesus’ disciples. The Kingdom of Heaven is not brought into the world by threats and violence carried out in the name of God, but by a willingness to suffer loss and to count it gain.
This does not mean that injustice is passively accepted. In fact, the death of Jesus on a Roman cross is God’s judgment. This is a strange judgment according to our human culture of death and violence because it allows us to judge God and sentence God to the worst curse humanity can exact. It is our behavior which is made visible. It is no longer “dissembled nor cloaked,” but made manifest, open for all to see. God judges us by allowing us to see how we judge, condemn, and try to get rid of God.
Have you ever treated someone very badly in a more private setting and then discovered that your behavior was actually observed in a “candid camera” moment? The cross is such a moment for the whole world and it is repeated over and over again when our lack of charity and our attempts to have it our way push others aside with contempt or without concern for who they are. Each and every one of those moments are “Come to Jesus” moments of judgment.
For Peter, James, and John dissembling and cloaking of this complex process of sin seems to look very different. Peter seeks to save Jesus from sure and certain death, while James and John seek to have God reign down sure and certain death upon their enemies. Both are part of the complex, confusing, cunning, baffling, and powerful workings of sin that divide us and keep us divided as if God intended such hostility among his children.
To be a disciple, a follower, a witness of Jesus, is the result of experiences of coming to Jesus, perhaps being rebuked, not by an angry and violent God, but by Christ, the deeply abiding Christ, full of our humanity and of our divine image, who calls us out of our denials, our dissembling and cloaking, and into a world of hospitality, grace, forgiveness, and self-offering life.
To be sure, leaving behind our prejudices is difficult. Those who refused to serve Mitch and his family as they drove across the Southern states would have risked their reputations, their livelihoods, and even their lives if they had showed any compassion in the face of the law of sin and prejudice (Whites Only). When we hear the call to follow Jesus, we also hear fear remind us of other, more important things we must do. Jesus encountered several folks who thought they might follow this interesting rabbi, but who still had other matters more important on their plate.
Perhaps the owner of the diner that refused Mitch a cup or two of coffee so that he and his wife could stay awake and drive through the night to their home had excuses why he could not or would not treat Mitch with God’s love that rebukes such inhospitable and sinful behavior. Perhaps we can look at our own way of living and see times when we have gone along with what was expected of us, the safe path that allows others to pay the price for such comfort and regretted or wondered at our lack of courage.
Jesus calls us, not to a new religion, but to life itself. There are many other excuses we can make for not following right now, right here, but if those excuses are just ways of denying a life which is always challenging, transformative, hope-filled, courageous, hospitable, loving, forgiving, creative, and filled to over flowing with mercy, we can expect to hear that inner voice, that still, quiet voice, that roars like a rebuke.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
If you look below you will find two versions of the collect for this Fourth Sunday after Pentecost and for the reading from Galatians. The first version is the one that will be prayed and read on this coming Sunday. The second versions are the product of prayer and listening to the Holy Spirit try to speak to me through these ancient texts. So, here are the versions of the collect:
Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (traditional)
O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving¬kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 16, 2010 Version)
O Lord, so fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may have a never-ending love and awe-filled response whenever we hear, speak, or think of your name forit is by your name that we know you as our origin, our redemption, and our only true and final destination and you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your faithful loving-kindness and mercy made known through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As you can see, there are some similarities and if you were to spend some time reflecting on both you would see how the second version came to be written.
To back track a bit, let me share with you the way I approach each week’s prayer and readings.
I begin my preparation with a prayer to God to open my heart, mind, and Spirit to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that person within the Holy Trinity whose work it is to help us understand Scripture in such a way as to see what we might not otherwise see and to understand more deeply how God’s love is at work in the world around us. The Holy Spirit is a gift to individuals and to the Church and works in both as a way of providing correction and insight for the church and the individual.
Next I read the Collect assigned for the coming Sunday and begin to try put the words of the prayer in terms that I can better understand. I do not try to change the meaning of the text, but simply ask the Holy Spirit to make the prayer come alive for me. I do the same thing with the readings for the day including the Epistle, the Psalm, and the Gospel. Here then is the traditional version of Galatians and my contemporary version. If you have any comments, please feel free to share them with me.
First Reading (Traditional Version) Galatians 3:23-29
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.
First Reading (June 16, 2010 Version) Galatians 3:23-29
Now before we experienced the faithfulness of God as a result of seeing Jesus trust his life to that faithfulness, we lived in fear of our own violence and the violence of others and so we were willing to surrender our freedom to the law so that it might protect us from ourselves and be the disciplinarian of us all. The law was both our prison cell, but it also gave us a brief reprieve from the terrors we might otherwise do to one another. When we discovered that in Jesus, God’s loving faithfulness had become flesh and blood, we called Jesus, the Christ, meaning the Anointed One of God and we were set free from the fear that made the law our way of keeping ourselves in check.
The law did not enable us to treat one another as children of a loving God and as brothers and sisters, but simply limited the ways we acted out of our fear. The law threatened us with punishment to keep us from acting violently towards each other, but the lived out even to death faithfulness of Jesus promised us that we could all live together in true peace without threat, violence, or exclusion. The faithfulness of Jesus allowed us to lay down our fear and live as he lived.
Everything that we use to use to define ourselves as separate, different, and better than others no longer really mattered. We were no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. That is the name we celebrate as the Promise made to Abraham comes true in the lives of all who live by trusting their lives to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
The Promise that we all might be one is being fulfilled as we live our lives in and through Christ Jesus. He is the sure foundation of loving-kindness and mercy that sets us free from the law whose power is based upon fear and threats.
Do I hear an AMEN?
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
I have heard the story of the woman who comes into the home of Simon the Pharisee and precedes to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry his feet with her hair many, many times.
The woman is nameless, but her reputation carried with it many different attributions. For the most part she was simply known as a sinner. It is Simon who is known by name and by his upstanding reputation. As a Pharisee, he had managed to master the rules of the political, religious, social, and economic world in which he lived. He had achieved the status and the authority to judge others.
This story is not about how generous God is to sinners like the woman who lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive oils, but how much more Simon needed to meet and fall in love with the loving and gracious God who dined with him that evening.
Consider Simon’s great problem of feeling entitled to judge between good and evil; profane and sacred; acceptable and unacceptable. Simon is a hard target for the love and grace of God and may actually be Jesus’ real missionary demographic.
The story of Adam and Eve reminds us of the devastating consequences that follow when we human beings arm ourselves with the authority to judge and condemn others and claim the right to dominate others based upon a sense of self-righteousness that has been built upon the first and originating sin of taking God’s place. This divine usurpation could never have happened if God were anything like us in terms of jealousy, rivalry, or violence.
It would have to be agreed that God has considerably more “fire power” than any human or human institution. Strangely, God seems not be act with such violence towards us. God is out to meet the Simons, the Caesars, the Emperors, the Presidents, the legislators, the heads of multinational corporations, the movers and the shakers, the people who live in powerful nations who have the singular voice of the vote, and the religiously self-assured.
The mission of God to Simon and the rest of the world’s powerful people is to love us and forgive us in such a way as to break our hearts and to introduce us to a world of gratitude and deep thanksgiving. In short, God is out to convert us from being judges of one another and rulers who care not for the ultimate good of others to being grateful servants who are deeply moved by the graciousness of God (not at all what we had expected) and God’s total lack of a desire to coerce or threaten us into changing (not at all what have experienced in our lives).
Did Simon meet God? Read the whole Gospel story and see what you think. If you had been Simon, what might you have answered Jesus when he told the story of the debtors whose debts were forgiven? Is it true, that one who is forgiven much, loves much?
36-39One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee's house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him."
40Jesus said to him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."
"Oh? Tell me."
41-42"Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?"
43-47Simon answered, "I suppose the one who was forgiven the most."
"That's right," said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, "Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn't quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn't it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal."
48Then he spoke to her: "I forgive your sins."
49That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: "Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!"
50He ignored them and said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."
Thursday, June 03, 2010
Are you ready for a future that is filled with compassion? That is the question that God has been asking humanity since the beginning of human consciousness. The answer to this question does not depend upon the development of advanced technology or the generation of wealth to pay for it. Rather, imagining a future filled with compassion is dependent upon faith that the whole of what exists, both visible and invisible, is the creation of a god whose very nature is expressed in terms of compassion.
I believe that much of our fear about a future that is dark and heartless comes from our sense that the universe is not an expression of a compassionate god. The people of Israel wrestled with competing understandings of the core reality of all that is. They sorted through and flirted with the various gods of the people who seemed to be powerful and wondered if their god was as powerful as these other gods.
Some of these gods were cruel, arbitrary, and demanding. They seemed jealous and petty and exacted a high toll from those who did not follow their ways as their ways were interpreted by the religious and political leadership. Each of the gods promised success in agriculture, victory in warfare, or wealth in trade if only their ways were followed. These gods made it clear that they were too big to fail and so the people would pay whatever price these gods demanded to try to satisfy them.
Human sacrifice was one of the ways that the gods were calmed down. Human blood seemed to temporarily appease them. Sacrificial rites were conducted before planting, going to war, or setting out on in search of trade. The future was held over the heads of those who worshipped such gods (secular or sacred) and dark and heartless outcomes were threatened if such sacrifices were not done.
To be sure, the worship of such gods does seem to provide temporary relief from our anxiety about the future, but Israel learned through their history that none of these gods seemed to be ultimately real. Israel had gone to war and won victories under the banner of Yahweh, but they had also suffered loss, defeat, and captivity under this same banner. Despite their reversals of fortune the Jews remained loyal to Yahweh, questioned their own understandings of Yahweh, and overtime rejected the other gods of war, agriculture, and success as not being real. They stuck with Yahweh and wrestled with Yahweh rejecting one understanding of who Yahweh was after another.
The gods that Israel rejected were without compassion. These gods divided the world into “us” versus “them,” and would never have considered the words of Jesus to love your enemies as “realistic” or acceptable. Israel came to the conclusion that such deities were human inventions and called them idols. Israel’s laws and their prophets prohibited idol worship and sought to call Israel back from such idolatry.
This Sunday’s Gospel is about Jesus raising from the dead a man whose mother was taking his body outside the city to bury. The woman does not seek out Jesus for a special favor of bringing her son back from the dead. Rather, Jesus comes to her. In the ancient Roman and Greek world, “real” men did not show their emotions. To do so was considered a sign of weakness, but in this passage from Luke it is said that Jesus was moved with compassion. The word for compassion that is used here is translated to mean a deep, powerful emotion that comes from the gut. It is this compassion which is the power to raise from the dead and he does.
By touching the bier of the dead man, Jesus himself becomes ritually contaminated by the dead man. He joins this man in his death and brings God’s compassion to him by commanding him to rise up, get up, sit up, stand up, come to life. And then Jesus gave the man to his mother. Rather than a death scene this description seems much more like a birth scene…and it is.
The question I posed at the beginning of this reflection is about what compassion can move us to do. It is about the sort of God in which we stake our life and hope for our future. The gods of this world are mostly secular today. We call them science, the Market, enlightened self-interest, freedom, independence, and host of other titles, but the test of whether they are true and worthy of worship is answered by the unqualified and universal compassion that can bring life out of death.
My hope is in a future filled with compassion. I hope for a world in which we live compassionate, life giving lives that give flesh and blood reality to the beatitudes and not to the dark and heartless future of gods and institutions that threaten us every time the idea of loving our enemies is seriously undertaken as an act of compassion inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. Let the Lord be with us and let us lift up our hearts to the compassionate One in thanksgiving for a future that is filled to overflowing with compassion.