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.
Peace

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?
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen


 A few months back we received a hand delivered rather large 8 x 10 envelope by a private messenger service. Not recognizing the return address I was at first unwilling to accept the envelope, but noting the considerable expense of the courier service, I decided to accept it.
To our amazement, it was a strikingly beautiful embossed invitation to a private wedding ceremony along with an accompanying letter describing specific instructions as to travel and lodging. The invitation was to the wedding of the year between George Clooney, the “world’s most eligible bachelor” and forgive me, People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” and the strikingly beautiful Amal Alamuddin, a noted civil rights attorney educated at Oxford and NYU Law School and former clerk for Justice Sotomayor.
Why us? I met George with his father an old friend, many years back when he was an unknown aspiring young actor. (Frankly, I was a much bigger fan of his late aunt, Rosemary Clooney, the popular singer of the 50’s.) So why us?
The accompanying letter described our pre-arranged all expenses paid travel to and lodging in a private villa in Venice. We were to provide our passport information to an intermediary who had scheduled our travel via private jet leaving and returning to Teterboro airport at a specific date and time. Information as to the wedding was private and confidential and asked that we sign a security bond insuring our willingness to comply. No other communications were required or frankly permitted.
Needless to say, we were excited at first but then began to wonder how we would fit in. While we had the requisite formal clothes required for the wedding, we began to wonder how we would interact with this elite jet set of  luminaries, likely to be in attendance? While I am usually not at a loss for words and can talk to anyone, I am not a movie goer and don’t follow or really care or know about any of the new Hollywood stars. In fact, while Clooney seems to be a nice enough guy and somewhat of a philanthropist, I’ve only seen one of George’s movies on TV. And while we really love Venice, we realized we would have little time to ourselves and be somewhat confined to our designated luxurious villa with lots of strangers for 3 days. Having come up with enough reasons (or excuses), we decided that it wasn’t worth it, so we regrettably declined the invitation, although we signed the confidentiality agreement.
What would you have done if you were in our shoes? Most of our family and friends thought we were nuts for declining this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Our readings in (Matthew 22: 1-14) this week speaks of a different wedding. Jesus tells of a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son and invited everyone to attend. But they all declined. Hurt and insulted he sent his servants into the streets to collect anyone and everyone and see to it that they came to the wedding. One attendee came without being properly groomed or dressed and was thrown out.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus makes curious comments about the marriage of heaven and earth and our being prepared for the event.
 OK our invitation to George Clooney’s wedding was fictitious; it was made up and, not unlike Jesus’ parables, intended to bring the question home. What would I really do? What would you do?


 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The stone the builders rejected is the cornerstone


 

 

In this parable (Matthew 21:33-46) the Pharisees were indignant at the thought that they might not be as good as they thought they were.  As with the Pharisees, entitlement runs rampant in our culture.  Don’t we as citizens of this great country sometimes take our blessings for granted and live as though we are entitled and have somehow earned these blessings?  Don’t we do the same in our churches?  We act at times as though the church is something we own and possess for ourselves.  Like the tenants who leased the land, we have often been so busy tending to our own agendas and goals that we forget that the landowner is going to hold us accountable for what we have done with his land.  Rather than serving as stewards of God’s vineyard in the world we have sometimes behaved as though the church is our private club. 

The kingdom of God does not work like a marketplace.  What we do in His kingdom does not exist to serve our own agendas.  But rather it exists to serve something much greater than ourselves.  Tending to His vineyard has nothing to do with yield.  We have no idea what that yield is or will be. 

Jesus describes the violent way the tenant farmers treated the servants and the landowner’s own son.  He then asks them how they think the landowner will treat the tenant farmer.  Thoroughly entrenched in their world’s ideology of violence and retribution, the Pharisees say that the landowner will bring those retches to a miserable end.  Jesus knows that this is not quite the whole story and tells them, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.”  In other words, God is not about to give up.  No matter what violent acts are perpetuated against Jesus, the Father will see that the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone. 

The kingdom is not ours.  The kingdom belongs to God.  We who live in the kingdom must enter on God’s terms and not ours.  We are just stewards.  This good news is worth sharing!

 

 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

By what authority do I do these things?


In Matthew’s deceptively simple parable (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus invites his adversaries to look at the future, as one not dominated by the arguments and opposition of the past, but one that is open to the movement of God’s spirit to heal, revive, restore, and make all things new.

The chief priests and elders do not accept this invitation. They have too much invested in the past…their identity has been defined by their own man-made rules that they have assumed the “authority” to enforce. They have become dependent on their established identity and they refuse to trade that past for an unknown future. But look at those who are “down and out,” the dregs of society, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who discover that any identity created by their past does not have to define or follow them into the future; they eagerly grab hold of Jesus’ promise with both hands.

Throughout our readings of Matthew these past weeks, Jesus makes this same promise to us. We are forgiven solely because there is a forgiver. We are loved unconditionally; we cannot earn or lose God’s love. No matter what we have done, no matter what may have been done to us, the future is still open. Whatever hurt we may have experienced or done in the past is, ultimately…in the past. We do not have to allow the past to define our future or our identity. We do not have to drag our past around with us and take it out whenever we feel the need to linger in its memory. We are more than the sum total of all that has happened to us. The future is open. It may be difficult and seem almost impossible to let go of the past and walk into the future. After all, the past is a known entity; it’s familiar to us, whereas the future is so open…it can be scary. But when we meditate on and invoke the prayer of Thomas Merton, we know that we are not alone: l will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me alone. No, you will never leave me alone. (Partner in Preaching, David Lose, 9/22/14)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

“…The last will be first, and the first will be last."





 
The story from our Gospel this week (Matthew 20:1-16) is one that asks us to put on the mind of the poet and think in metaphor. On the surface it defies logic and the world of “fairness” in which we live. But man’s sense of fairness and God’s “justice” are not the same. Can we blame some of the gardeners for feeling that they were duped: “what’s going on here; we worked from dusk to dawn, and these guys arrive just before closing time and they get the same pay?  That’s not fair!” Who could argue with their logic? Think of it—if you tried to run a business on the basis of paying everyone the same rate, regardless of how well and long they worked, your business wouldn’t last very long and you’d have some very disgruntled employees.

Just as God’s forgiveness requires that we turn logic on its head and suspend our belief system of “quid pro quo,” likewise God’s realm of justice and peace defies our sense of fairness. God’s love has nothing to do with logic or fairness. These are all part of a human convention and a world based on rules, laws and logic.  There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or his kingdom. In this kingdom, everyone receives the generosity of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love and God’s unfailing mercy.

David Steindel-Rast writes that “salvation” is homecoming. When love not power reigns supreme, alienation from ourselves, from all others, and from God is healed. The moment we realize we can never fall out of God’s love, we come to “ourselves” like the wayward son in the parable—to our true self at home in the God Household as a uniquely loved member of the family. And now we become catalysts for salvation of the whole world, its transformation from power and domination to service and love. Salvation—and this needs to be stressed—is not a private matter. (Deeper Than Words, Living the Apostle’s Creed, p56.)

In a very real sense, we are all “eleventh hour workers.”

 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Forgiveness

 
 
 
When you're awake, the things you think
Come from the dreams you dream
Thought has wings, and lots of things
Are seldom what they seem
Sometimes you think you've lived before
All that you live today
Things you do come back to you
As though they knew the way  
 
 
Robert Capon Farrar tells us that God does not forgive our transgressions because we have made ourselves forgivable. There is nothing we can do to earn forgiveness. We are forgiven solely because there is a Divine forgiver who loves us unconditionally. There is nothing we can do to earn it or lose his love.(Matthew 18:21-35)

Love is at the core of Jesus’ teachings and forgiveness is why he died and was resurrected. Why is it then that we have such a hard time forgiving? Is it because it’s so closely tied to memory and the human inability to forget? These two human behaviors are really mutually exclusive, yet we blithely say as if it’s even possible, “let’s forgive and forget.” No wonder we have a difficult time looking at personal hurt as Jesus did. He did not tell us to forget about it; he told us to see God in those who have hurt us and just let it go.  

We now approach another anniversary of September 11, 2001, an infamous day in our history, which for those of us living here in the Northeast, carries with it even stronger hurts and remembrances of those loved ones who lost their lives. We will remember them but can we “forgive and forget?” I don’t think so. Perhaps if we dwell on the memory of those loved ones we lost on that fateful Tuesday, we can begin or at least continue the process of forgiving. However, it’s easier said than done. To that end, I find the words of Anthony Padovano particularly comforting as we reflect on the importance of remembering: 

When we remember, we leave the present for the past. To say it better, we bring the past into the present and give it life alongside the tangible realities we are compelled to consider. In our memory of a loved one we choose to relate to him/her even though, since he is not present, we need not relate to him. Not physical presence but love leads us to live with this remembered person even in her absence. When the love is strong, the memory of this absent person may be dearer and more real than the reality of those who are present. Memory is sometimes the difference between life and death, between hope and despair, between strength for another day and the collapse of all meaning. Our memory of another confers the present upon him, gives him further life in our life, and keeps a moment of the past from drifting away or fading into death. We are fed and nourished by communion of life in which two lives intersect in memory and merge into common experience. No lover forgets. No beloved is forgotten. The memory of love is life; the memory of another becomes our selves. So when the communion of believers remembers Jesus, when the bride is alive with the thought of her Spouse, Christ is present. Jesus is brought into the present with his grace by the force of memory in the power of the Spirit…The gift of the Sprit is fidelity to the memory of life’s mystery and confidence in the mystery of its future.  (Anthony Padovano, Dawn without Darkness)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Forgiveness





 

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his Life Together that the harmony we often envision and seek in the Christian community is not all that likely or perhaps even possible.  In fact, he says, you and I have no right or reason to be disillusioned when such harmony doesn't meet our expectations.  For it is somehow in this very experience of our community not meeting our own hopes and dreams that we actually finally discover our 'life together' … not because we necessarily like one another or agree with one another…but because of the ways in which our struggles enable us to see more clearly and to be all the more grateful for what Christ has done for us.  Christ died for forgiveness.  With all our hurts and sometimes our hurting one another, this is where God put us and this is who God put us with to learn from and to grow with.  And it is in our differences and in our struggles that Jesus speaks of forgiveness and helps to make our Gospel reading more relevant at this time, for me at least. Matthew 18:21-35

True forgiveness is best experienced when we can examine our own faults and recognize our need for God... which is what our struggles also do.  Bonhoeffer's points out: “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” (pp. 26-27)

 Bonhoeffer is saying that it is in our differences, our struggles and our hurts that we encounter and receive God's grace and gift most completely.  It is then that we are able to see Christ in our neighbors.  It is then that we are able to be loved in spite of ourselves. It is then when we know most deeply our own need for God. 

Now it is possible that in Bonhoeffer's time and place, church conflict was more virulent than it is today.  Although there were times when all I wanted to do was to slide into a pew near the back and be soothed by the familiar strains of the liturgy, all the while hoping that no one would notice me or ask more from me. Still, most of the time it has been important to me to look for and experience that sense of connection to others. And yet when I have done so, when I have allowed myself to go more deeply in relationship with those God has put me with, I found these words of Bonhoeffer particularly relevant: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes the destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. (p. 27) 

What an important reminder it is to me to know that just because I am hurt or disappointed does not mean that this group of God's people is not of God's design.  And when I have had the patience to live through the struggle, I have learned over and over again that over time and hard earned shared experience the connections do go deeper than anything I would have put together on my own, with my all too human tendency to surround myself with people who think and do as I think and do.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's, Life Together, The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Welcome Home


 

Do you remember the last time you felt decidedly uncomfortable somewhere? For me the time that is still forged in my memory is when I went away for initial orientation and training for my first job. I was twenty two years old and had just been discharged from Army active duty and was invited to attend my initial orientation for my company in Kalamazoo Michigan. This was a totally new experience for which I was so unprepared in so many ways. Sure, I had the required academic credentials and knew that I was fortunate to have been selected for this sought-after position. But I felt decidedly out of place, being the only one from my area and finding myself seated with a group from a far-away state, who spoke as differently to me as I did to them. Except for the military in which everyone was very young and frightened and “forced” to feel uniform, (the reason for the name of our apparel), I was made to feel different and out-of-place. I can remember the not so subtle aside remarks that were privately shared among the other group. I remember asking myself: what am I doing here? This experience was completely foreign to me. Usually, we feel uncomfortable either when we don't know many of the people around us or when we're not sure of our role, place, or responsibilities. We've all been there -- feeling left out, alone, out of place and unwelcome. It's a lousy feeling. So lousy, in fact, that we'll go to pretty great lengths to avoid it. The Canaanite woman in our Gospel [Matthew 15:(10-20,21-28] today, who I’m sure was made to feel out of place when she heard Jesus say "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," reminded me of my experience so long ago. 

Now, imagine for a moment feeling that way in church. This may be harder for most of us to believe since church is one of the places we feel most at home. But let’s face it, each and every week there are a certain number of people sitting in the pews, listening attentively or only partially to sermons, singing or just mouthing the words of the hymns, going through the motions of the prayers and worship, who do not feel at home at church. They feel like outsiders.

No one sets out to make them feel unwelcome. It just happens. Blame isn't the issue. The issue is what can we do about it? The text appointed for Sunday in Matthew is the quintessential insider/outsider story. Matthew reshapes the belief from some are chosen and some are not to make the case that everyone should feel welcome. Why? Because God says they are welcome!

 Matthew's Gospel is the most "Jewish," in the sense that Matthew is intent on demonstrating that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, the fulfillment of long-awaited prophecy. In that context, listen to Jim Boyce's excellent summary of Matthew as he pits the insider disciples against the outsider Canaanite woman:

 Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel, Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff.  On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew's careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. "Get rid of her," the "lost-sheep chorus" barks back in reply.

And into it all strides Jesus, the shepherd, who not only welcomes this newest and most unlikely of disciples, but praises her great faith! Yes, all are welcome. All. Everyone. All.

Who knows why people don't always feel welcome. Maybe they are present on Sunday as reluctant spouses or for their children…that is, they may be people who would prefer to spend their Sunday mornings in another way, if it didn't matter so much to someone they cared about. Or maybe they've never really understood all the things we say and do at church and it's all just a little confusing. Or maybe they had some bad church experiences as a child and it's hard to ever feel comfortable. Or maybe they just can't figure out this whole biblical-story thing and just wish the pastor would reference a story they understood. Or maybe they're intimidated because all the "regulars" seem to know what they're doing. Or maybe they have a hard time believing that the pastor wants them there if you really knew the problems they have. Or maybe....

But that's the point. We don't know. And we won't......Unless we ask and listen, really listen.

So that's the challenge. We need to talk about these texts in the contexts of what it's like to feel welcome or unwelcome at church. And then ask in our own words: Why do you feel welcome at this church? What is it that makes you feel welcome? What has made you feel unwelcome? What do you love most about being here? What's gets in your way?

 Maybe we can talk about how Jesus has promised to build his church on us, just people and just as unlikely and “qualified” as Peter was qualified. Just people. God willing, he will call upon the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds and help us renew the process of building and going forward. At the very least, we may get some insight into our own people, whom we have been called to love and welcome in the name of Christ. And that alone, will be enough. Reference: Dear Working Preacher, David Lose July 31, 2011