Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Don't Ask It's a Mystery

Dear Friends, this will be my last post on this the Christ Church Bible Blog website. I will continue to publish readings and reflections based on the upcoming lectionary schedule on a new site entitled Word to word:

I look forward to your joining me in the future.

We celebrate those events in the life of Christ in the Gospel as stories that are meant to be lived as we are inspired to live them. I’ve come to realize that if I understand something and feel that I can explain it, it’s no mystery. Yet, there’s this undeniable urge to put our ego front and center and do our best to try to explain things that defy explanation. I was reminded when I heard Adam say, I was afraid, because I was naked. To which God answered, who told you that you were naked? (Genesis 3:8-19) Too often modern believers tend to place their trust in therapy more than they do in mystery, a fact that’s revealed when our worship resorts to the jargon of ego-satisfying, self-help and pop psychology: Let’s use this hour to get our heads straight or revisit our perspective. Really? Sure, let’s use this hour because we’re too busy later, after all, we’ve got the kids, or I don’t want anything to get in the way of my Super Bowl Sunday. Let’s use this hour, and get it over with and you can send me a bill… later I will zip off a check in the mail. There, that’s done. But the mystery of worship which is God’s presence and our response to it doesn’t work this way.

Somehow, the mistrust of all that has been handed down to us, has led to a failure of the imagination, evidenced by language that’s thoroughly comfortable and unchallenging. Our prayers become a self- indulgent praise of ourselves as we purport to “confess” our weaknesses. These prayers are anything but the lifting of our hearts and minds to God. There’s no attempt to at least meet him half way and listen and stop talking.

And so now in this fourth week of Advent we focus on the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), a mystery of epic proportions that defies rational explanation. It stuns us to hear some attempt to reduce the virgin birth to a mere story of an unwed pregnant teenager. Have we come to a time when anything that did not stand up to reason or that we couldn’t explain, should be characterized as primitive and infantile? Why do we think that an almighty spiritual being is confined to man’s intellect and his feeble language to communicate? Do we not see how metaphor and poetry reveal meaning, not explanation, on a deep personal level?

Last year we had an opportunity to travel through Eastern Europe, making our way from the Black Sea to Amsterdam. I was taken aback by the devastation in human lives caused by the failure of the “great social experiment,” that created societies whose wealth was shared but only among those at the top. So great buildings were erected for the personal aggrandizement of the elite while sacrificing the welfare of the people who were desperate for food and who desired a modicum of personal enrichment. On the other hand, I was impressed with the number of churches and cathedrals that were reopened after decades of being forced to close. These were flourishing, and while they served as much to support tourism as worship, they were a major presence.

Looking at the beautiful classical paintings and art in these churches made me wonder what it was that inspired the artists to create poetic images and visual metaphors depicting the “mysteries” of Christianity. It occurred to me that their art was spoken in a language all its own and derived its source from inspiration and not the intellect, and while the cynic might deride the image of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, the artist understood it completely. Art and music are languages of the soul and bypass our rational being to speak to us at a level we cannot explain or know but do we really need explanation for something we feel down deep?

When we allow God’s love to break through into our consciousness as we contemplate the Mysteries of the Annunciation and Virgin birth, do we run from it? Do we ask it to explain what it cannot? Or are we “virgin” enough to surrender to our deepest self and allow it to fill our being? We cannot ask it to explain what it cannot.[BR1] 


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Leaving Home...Going Home

Wishes teach us that we could have been something or someone other than who we are. We became who we are not because we exhausted our potential in one direction but because we are directed to take one path and not another. God does not make wishes come true; he makes reality work. To dream of what shall never come to pass is to dream in the manner of Jesus. To dream only of what shall come to pass is to become a wise planner, someone who projects accurately. To dream also of those things which may not likely occur but of which men are capable is to be a prophet a disciple of Jesus. John 1:6-8, 19-2
The human heart was made to be “at home” with itself. It is this aspiration which is at the heart of all yearning. The most redemptive of all experiences is that by which the human heart is reconciled with itself. Evil comes from fear and fear comes from an inability to live with oneself, to make a truce with one’s own life, to settle the conflict which goes on inside the person who cannot find a home and who never comes home. Jesus promised us a home... One day, our apparently unheard knocking shall yield to welcome as all the doors open to us in love and peace. (Dawn Without Darkness, Anthony Padovano)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who Was That?


In January of 2007, The Washington Post videotaped the reactions of commuters at a D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the music of a violinist. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of bills into the violin case of the street performer. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the Metro. Except it wasn't an ordinary day. The violinist wasn't just another street performer; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston's Symphony Hall with people paying $100/seat to hear him play similar pieces. The question the Post author and many others since have asked is simple: Have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?

So, this makes us wonder: Can we detect God only in Church when we are immersed in liturgy, hymns and organ music? I'm afraid that we can't. Even more, perhaps the Church gets in the way and contributes to this state of affairs. Church, as we have come to know, is not the structure or the inner trappings, it’s the people, the community. How do we find God when there is confusion and “turmoil?” In his book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, M. Scott Peck says that community has three essential ingredients: Inclusivity, commitment and, consensus.  Based on his experience, he cites that community building usually begins with the need to address dysfunction or what he terms Pseudo-community: “This is a stage where the members pretend to have a bon home with one another, and cover up their differences by acting as if the differences do not exist. Pseudo-community can never directly lead to community, and it is the job of the people guiding the community building process to shorten this period as much as possible.” If our Sunday hour does not abide in our life Monday through Saturday, or if that hour runs counter to our ability to draw closer to God then…and in the other 167 hours of the week…how long can we expect to keep coming back?

John was sent to prepare us for Jesus. How many times have we read (Mark1:1-8 ) or heard John’s words: "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals?” Do we walk past him as the commuters did Joshua Bell?  Please, please help me, help us all to see God at work in and through all the "ordinary" elements of our lives so that we might come running back to church each Sunday ready to hear of God at work both in the biblical world and our own. Who knows, we might even come to church eager to share where we’ve seen God at work in and through our lives Mark 13:24-37)?   in the world. And then who knows what might happen!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Keep Awake...no one knows that day or the hour

Keep Awake for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. These words have been repeated for over 2,000 years, yet somehow we still fear the end of our life on earth. Sure, we are comforted by the many parallels in nature that reveal death to be a precursor to new life, but the fear of death lingers in the shadows.  We have - or likely have - lived longer than our parents and grandparents.  We are better fed; we lose few babies, and modern medicine protects us from contagion and disease that will lengthen our lives... and yet, we are still afraid.   Why?

Shortly after 9/11 the words Fear Not seemed a little out of place.  Surely we had every reason to be afraid.  I am reminded of Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest, who served as Chaplain to the New York Fire Dept., and was the first registered victim at Ground Zero, the sight of the former Twin Towers.  The details of his death are unclear:  some say he was fatally wounded as he administered last rites to a dying firefighter; others recall his being killed while in silent prayer.  Whatever happened, his lifeless body was discovered in the lobby and carried to a nearby church shortly before Tower I collapsed.

What does this have to do with our gospel (Mark 13:24-37)?  Who knew how that fateful Tuesday that began with skies so blue and air so clear, would end as it did?  In many ways, Father Mychal lived this gospel.  In many ways this was a man who had arrived at Ground Zero long before 9/11.  He had proved himself ready to lay down his life many times during his career.  For him 9/11 could have occurred on any day or at any time... he was prepared.

If the thought of finding God amidst such harrowing circumstances seems strange, perhaps it is because we are out of practice looking for Him.  However, we can be certain that Christ's death and resurrection hold the deepest answer to all our fears.  Christ was executed like a common criminal and was totally forsaken by his friends.  By His overcoming death and our sharing in his resurrection, He took away all our reasons to fear forever.  Of course it does no good to recognize this on a merely intellectual level.  Knowing that Christ loves us may not save us from fear, nor will it save us from death.  And so it comes down to this:  The only way to truly overcome our fear of death is to "be prepared" and to live our life in such a way that its meaning cannot be taken away by death.  As with Father Mike, it means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves instead of others.  It means being prepared to die again and again to ourselves, and to every one of our self-serving opinions and agendas. But about that day or hour no one knows.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is that Jesus in Disguise?

Do we like surprises? As I think about it, I would probably answer, “it depends.” I know I like to surprise others and must admit to having a penchant for playing practical jokes, and while I have become more sensitive to time, place and personalities targeted, I’m not completely “rehabilitated.” I’ve learned that not everyone shares my sense of humor. I, myself, don’t really like to be surprised; I’d rather be pleased or displeased with an event or outcome, knowing in advance what might be expected. Yet, there are those, who enjoy surprises and would rather not have any inkling in advance.
This brings me to this week’s Gospel, (Matthew 25: 31-46) which depicts elements of surprise for the good guys and the bad, the sheep and the goats. Both groups were surprised by what Jesus said when they asked “Lord, when did we and when didn’t we…” Why do we suppose this is? Nether group denies their behavior, and both groups registered surprise when they failed to recognize Jesus. Tell the truth, we know that when we do it for the least of our brethren, we do it for God but do we really expect to see Jesus in the face of the disenfranchised, the homeless, the imprisoned and the downtrodden? Don’t we really prefer to look for him as the royal figure depicted in the words of Mathew as he gathers all the angels with him, and sits on the throne of his glory with all the nations assembled before him?

This is a deliberate set up in Matthew as we are expected to be surprised and wonder when did we or didn’t we? And really, the least of my brethren. Don’t these words come much more easily than the reality of recognizing him, and perhaps ourselves, in those who are hurting? Hasn’t “the least of our brethren” become so wrapped up in religiosity and Bible-speak that we let the words flow trippingly off the tongue? Words, words, words. And so we pat ourselves on the back when we provide a few cans of food for those in need in this time of outreach, and we retreat to the comfort of our warm homes as we prepare for our Thanksgiving Holiday. But are we really doing it for the least of our brethren or is it really something we are doing because it’s that time and at least we can keep our discomfort at arm’s length, out of sight and still feel good? While we do thank God for churches and charitable enterprises, as they work to serve the needy, unfortunately, they often keep us safely within, “inside” and insulate us from the reality of God.

Richard Rohr tells us that for centuries all the world’s religions were pointing to heaven or the kingdom of God as something in the “next world.” God is with us, here and now, as revealed in the fellowship of broken people we call church and available to us in the seemingly small gestures of mercy we offer and are offered each and every day. It may not be where we expect God to show up, but it is just where we need him.   So, we celebrate Christ the King, not because of his regal bearing, but because of his humility; not because of his power, but because of his compassion and his presence in us and the least of these…  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Risky Business


How many of us grew up thinking of God as one whose “performance standards” were rigid and unbending? Weren’t many of us taught to believe that this God requires us to work out our own salvation, and it was up to us whether or not we enter into paradise? This was the One who told us that we had choices to make. Yet, on the other hand we are told that we are loved and there is nothing we can do to lose God’s love. We don’t earn salvation, but by birthright are entitled to the Kingdom. It’s not my place to say either belief is or was right or wrong.  And while it’s not my place to say that we have no “skin in the game,” and can’t do anything to earn it, I do believe we are “required” to live a God centered life as Jesus did…even if the Kingdom is our “entitlement.”

It gets confusing doesn’t it? On the one hand Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is at hand, and on the other hand he seems to be telling us that there are measurable performance standards prior to entry.  Note last week’s parables of the “foolish virgins” (Matthew 25:1-1-3) and this week’s the “talents” (Matthew 25:14--30 ). Perhaps, the story of the talents has more to say about attitudes than reward and punishment, and is consistent with leading a God-centered life the Jesus way. How we use what we have been given, and the willingness to step out of our comfort zone and live the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and practice the Two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40) are all about the personal responsibility we have to live life  fully as Christians. Life, love and faith, like money, require the taking of risks in order to grow. And risks require relationships and relationships - true relationships - require that we have the courage to be open, to be vulnerable, to let go of pretense and give our egos a rest. We must take risks and invest ourselves in one another.

When we put our talents to work in the service of God, we take risks. When we are willing to be imperfect and reveal our humanity we are capable of being open to one another and see ourselves in the other. This is risky business and taking risks is not easy; its consequences can cause anxiety. When we invest ourselves in one another, the outcome cannot be guaranteed. But, so what…we have a “safety net. Nancy Rockwell writes, “…there is power that comes from the joy of receiving life as a gift, and from the confidence of being loved by God.  The enthusiasm in this sure hope opens us readily to share with others the bounty we have, our bounty of ideas, of welcome, of the riches in the day itself, and all of this is a sure way to increase our bounty.  Matthew says those who were given much went to others for help in increasing it.  That upbeat, expectant interaction, that can-do spirit, grows everything it touches.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Anticipation is making me wait

The kind of waiting Matthew is encouraging through this parable (Matthew 25:1-13) is difficult. Waiting for something way over due, waiting for something you’re not sure will even come is challenging. How about waiting for someone who is the center of your life and not sure when he or she will arrive? It’s irritating and thoughtless when we have no idea, but maybe they themselves don’t know. All I know is that it makes me apprehensive. This special arrival involves preparation but I’m so distracted I can barely concentrate on what I am supposed to do. And what about the times we waited for a call from a doctor or lab test result? There is nothing we can do to prepare, what’s done is done. We just wait. This kind of waiting is really hard.
Whether what we are waiting for is good or bad hardly matters, the anxiety and stress of living in the “in-between time” of waiting can be difficult. This parable reminds us that we are not alone in our waiting. Upon closer look Jesus is speaking of his own “in-between time,” his own time of waiting. The scene is set between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his trial and crucifixion. And one thing on which Matthew and all the Gospel writers agree is that Jesus knew what was coming. Yet here he is, still teaching the crowds; debating his opponents, and instructing his disciples…even as he waits for the coming cross. When he gets to the garden we know how difficult waiting was for Jesus, and how all his followers were so “hard to find,” even after he asked them to wait with him.
Waiting for Jesus’ imminent return is difficult for most of us to conceptualize; yet, Jesus’ presence is with us always . Each time we work for justice, we testify to the presence of Jesus. Each time we help each other, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we stand up for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ.
Yet, these efforts are not always easy to sustain and we can grow frustrated by the lack of “measurable outcomes.” Let’s admit it, on any given day, at any given time each of us may discover we are a foolish bridesmaid. Given this reality, let’s reclaim our church as a place where we can find help and support in our waiting – all kinds of waiting! – and support as we try to live our Christian life. I find it striking that Paul closes this part of his letter to those first-century Thessalonians that found their own waiting nearly intolerable with these words, “Therefore, encourage one another….” (David Lose, In the Meantime, 11/3/14)
We are the Church. We are those who wait for each other. We are those who support each other in times of pain, loss or bereavement. We are those who help each other wait, and prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers, then and now. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of Jesus.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Do not do as I do

We don’t have to look far to see the hypocrisy of “Do as I say not as I do,” play out in today’s geopolitics and our American culture. We are in the mind-numbing throes of the silly season in which the never-ending barrage of political ads are quick to point out the lies and hypocrisies of the “other party,” and political advisors “scrounge” for any and all opportunities to shade the truth a bit to capture the minds of those who want to validate their pre-conceived opinions.

Thank God we don’t see this hypocrisy in our churches and synagogues! Really…just look around. Protestants and Catholics criticize each other and, in their own way, attempt to keep their clubs “private” by maintaining “status quo.” Ironically, they behave more like the church from which they believed themselves to be so different. Both seem willing to listen to Pope Francis, up to a point that is, and acknowledge the least of our brethren who are left out and disenfranchised. But… let’s not get crazy now… and dare admit them as part of their communities. We have rules, you know. Yet perhaps the most pernicious of all rules are not those committed to paper and by laws but those that reside in our minds and hearts. These consume us from the inside out both on personal and institutional levels.

When you look at the way Jesus criticized some of the Jewish leaders of his day (Matthew 23:1-12), it seems to me that the common thread was one of ego. Matthew pointed out their hypocrisy, as they used their religion to massage their own egos to make themselves feel important. The truth of the matter is that religion has always been incredibly susceptible to being corrupted into just another way for us to feed the unhealthy pride that lurks in the corners of our insecurities. You know, that righteous pride that tempts us to try to make ourselves look more moral or better than others. Let’s face it you were all brainwashed. Just who is the “you?”

When we indulge the temptation to “exalt ourselves” at the expense of others, aren’t we really only reinforcing our own insecurities? If my sense of worth depends on my being better than you, then I will be searching for or manufacturing areas in which I am superior. Inevitably we will have to shade the truth and lie to ourselves and now the malignancy that takes up residence in our hearts and minds, metastasizes and becomes a vicious circle of security, pride, ego.

The solution to that kind of religious egotism that is manifest in the unhealthy need to “exalt ourselves” over others is surprisingly simple. We must just let go of our hurt and not just pay lip service to letting go and stop feeding those insecurities. And the way to let go of the hurt is to embrace the central truth of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed: God loves and accepts us—unconditionally. There is nothing we can do to earn it. Then who are we to determine who is more lovable or acceptable? When we look at others that way, instead of trying to “exalt ourselves” above others, we can care about them enough to serve them.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Power of Love Vs. The Love of Power

It was only natural for Jesus to be prepared for the question, after all the Pharisees and Jewish elite were lying in wait and trying to trap him. Hadn’t he already been rightfully accused of breaking Jewish laws? He preached and healed on the Sabbath; he defied the purity and dietary codes; consorted with women, some of questionable reputation, in public and was pretty free with his use of God’s good name. The Pharisees accused him of blasphemy when he forgave sins. So the deck was already stacked against him when he was put to the test as to which is the greatest commandment. I have to think that Jesus was well prepared for the answer.

In (Matthew 22:34-46) he summed up the first five commandments in one great commandment, “love God with all your heart, soul and mind.” And covered the next 5 in the second, “love your neighbor as yourself.” In a way, Jesus is saying the Ten Commandments, (the Decalogue), is one commandment and he is saying that no rule, no piety, no custom, no tradition, is more important than loving God completely. God is love and is omnipresent and cannot be contained by and in any man made law, culture or tradition.

While Jesus offers up the two Greatest Commandments as his answer, he is not contravening Moses or the prophets. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews 1: 1-2, that in the past God spoke through our forefathers through the prophets at many times in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. How is it different?  Jesus preached the power of love as opposed to the love of power. Rules at a specific time and place may serve a purpose, rules for rules sake are a means to exert control and satisfy the agendas of the so-called ruling class.
Progression is not the same as contradiction. An artist begins by making   a sketch and applies his tools to the canvas bit by bit until the whole picture (apparent to his mind from the start, though not to the beholder’s) finally emerges. And parents teach children rule upon rule until they are capable of making decisions for themselves. In time, as children mature into adults, they are capable of understanding why these rules were important in their developmental years, when in fact, their brain was not fully developed. Wisdom emerges through experience, and the mature mind is capable of making those rules a part of its being and “moral compass.” They are internalized and become who we are.
“And yet the arguments over whose Law is greatest become mired in the deep darkness of struggles for power.  At the Vatican, the Pope himself has been denied, by his own Cardinals, the tender words of mercy he sought to extend, on behalf of his church, to those who have been made scapegoats in the righteousness games that too many clergy – and laity – piously play.  If you are simply dispensing information, (and Jesus said to the lawyer questioning him, and the Pope is saying to the College of Cardinals) your days are numbered.  (Laws, history, learning as a product) can be codified, recorded, and dispensed.  A seedbed is a different matter.  It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine.  Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future.  For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.”  (Frederick Schmidt, Patheos on October 17, 2014.).
“The Bible begins with the creation of the universe and ends with the re-creation of the universe. It goes on at its beginning to describe the fall of man in a garden and paradise lost; it concludes in a garden with paradise regained…For at last God’s kingdom has been consummated. All creation is subject to him. And the blessings of our final inheritance will be due to his perfect rule.” (John Stott, Understanding the Bible, p 152)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

So, what is your answer, Yes or No?


In his parables Jesus invites the listener to be part of the story by relating explicit scenarios that were relevant to the listener’s world. These parables also serve as implicit invitations for them to see something else beneath in the narrative. From time to time Jesus would insert a clever device or provocative form of speech, i.e., an aphorism, in which a specific piece or element would prompt the imagination and become an indelible memory. And so it is in this week’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-22). Jesus uses the coin to illustrate and memorialize in the mind’s eye of the listener his answer which typical of Jesus, was in the form of a question and asks, “what do you think?”

Over the centuries, many Christians have based their attitudes toward government on this passage. Some have thought that Jesus' statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar's and God's. This interpretation strikes many Americans as obviously correct, given our separation of church and state. In this historical context, Jesus’ words had little to do with taxation or political authority in general. Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the Temple, customs taxes, and taxes on land. Yet, the people were not questioning taxes but rather their question  specifically was concerned with whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar who as the emperor of Rome and the son of Augustus, represented the head of an imperial domination system, and was purported to be the “son of God.” In essence, even possessing the coin was tantamount to idolatry and a violation of the commandments.

The President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, David Lose writes that three of the most powerful words in the world besides "I love you," are "I don't know." To many of us in our culture, these words seem like an admission of failure. It’s as if our admitting any kind of ignorance somehow undermines the validity of our education and degrees. How could that be? But just maybe we don’t know and just maybe telling another person that we don't know provides them an invitation to share what they know or, sometimes even better, to join you in figuring something out. This becomes especially true when you pair those three words with four others: "What do you think?" Isn’t that what we do in our Jesus Way Bible Study?
So back to the question put to Jesus in our Gospel. It was a trap. Either way a yes or no answer would have gotten Jesus in trouble. "Yes" would have discredited him with those who found the imperial domination system unacceptable. "No" would have made him subject to arrest for sedition. So is Jesus saying that we owe nothing to a false God like Caesar and should reserve all things for the true God? Or is he inviting us to recognize that while we may owe the emperors of this world some things like taxes, we owe God other things, like our whole selves? Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to put aside our attachments and allegiance to the material and temporal things of this world that our coins can buy and invite our ultimate devotion to God?  I don't know. What do you think? Or is Jesus advocating a retreat from the economic and political dimensions of our lives and helping us recognize that all of these things are part of God's “divine economy?” As such, is Jesus inviting us to set the stage for our transformation…by putting on the mind of God in all of our decisions in what we do, buy, and how we spend our time? The whole world is God's including us. What do you think?