On the day that Jesus rode
Zechariah’s vision into Jerusalem the daughters of Zion shouted “Hosanna!” and for
a moment the prisoners of Roman rule and Pharisaical piety were released and
returned to the stronghold of hope. A week later the triumphant and victorious king
was humbled by the cross and the only blood of the covenant to be seen was his.
But then kings riding on donkeys are consistently cut down by chariots drawn by
war horses and humility is not the chief characteristic of one who commands
nations to “study war no more”. What the dominions and the daughters could not
imagine was that war horses and battle bows and the bars of the waterless pit
could not contain this king who breaking free from the grip of death became for
us the stronghold of hope to which we return again and again. If you trust in
power you will be disappointed. If you trust in wealth you will be corrupted.
If you trust in self you will be deceived. To be a prisoner of hope is to held
captive to a vision of a king who is more humble than we are.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Jesus relentless questioning might seem harsh to our ears but Peter’s threefold “I love you” was meant to make up for his three time denial in the courtyard where “what’s love got to do with it?” (Tina Turner) was all about survival. Of course it is easier to say “I love you” after breakfast than in the courtyard of the high priest when a servant girl just won’t let you get away with “I don’t know the man!” So Peter’s confession of love for Jesus – post resurrection (that makes it easier don’t you think?) is not as significant as it may appear. But when he was older, his hands stretched out, taken where he did not want to go, his confession of love more than made up for his cowardice in the courtyard. There is no doubt he cried tears on that day – he would be less than human if his crucifixion did not cause him to cry out – but unlike his tears after the rooster crowed I don’t think they were bitter.
Ok. Truth to be told I love my parents and children as much as I love Jesus which would seem to make me more worthy of Jesus since he’s all about love. But then these passages were penned in a time when loving Jesus got you kicked out of the synagogue and being worthy of Jesus made you less than welcome in your own home. The cross that the first Christians carried was often a real life wooden one as claiming the name of Christ to gain eternal life meant losing your temporal one. We do not bear such crosses but we are called to lose self-centered lives in order to find lives of Christ centered service for the sake of those are thirsty for a cup of cold water or a warm meal or a shelter from the sun or storm. That means loving Jesus more has nothing to do with loving anyone less.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
James Brown - "the hardest working man in show business"1 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
I imagine we would all like to make this claim when the time of our departure is at hand. “I have fought the good fight…” In the end that simply means to finish the race with faith regardless of the difficulties faced, the struggles endured or the trials withstood. In his letter to Ephesians Paul will say it this way. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power… and having done everything, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:10, 13) It was in weakness that Paul found strength and in foolishness, wisdom. (1 Corinthians 1:26ff) so that his boasting was in the Lord (even if there was a time or three when his pride got the better of him). But that is what makes him a real person for us and not some mythological Herculean figure. A human being like you and me who did not understand his own actions, lamenting the good that he did not do and deploring the evil he repeated. (Romans 6:15ff) That being said the Paul who penned the 13th chapter of his first letter to the conflicted Corinthians understood the heart of the faith he kept was the unconditional love that had transformed the chief persecutor of the church into the James Brown of the apostles.(1 Corinthians 15:9-10)
The “therefore” of Romans 6:12 is made possible by the new relationship with God that begins with death. Not the kind of death that in the end everyone dies. Not a “wages of sin” death either, the kind of death that withers the soul when as slaves to self we receive no advantage from things of which we should rightly be ashamed. No, the death that makes “therefore” possible is a death for life, if you will. Jesus dies first, as Paul writes in Romans chapter five, while we were weak, while we were still sinners, while we were God-haters so that reconciled with God we might also dare to die. Dying with Christ we die to self and are born into a life of righteousness, which is not nearly as narrow as some make it out to be. It is not a life bound by law, limited by piety, constrained by rigid rules. It is a life bound by justice, limited by kindness, constrained by humility. (Micah 6:8) Therefore, live as those who have died and have already been set free to live today the new life that is eternal.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul details the hardships he endured for the sake of the Gospel – beatings, imprisonment, stoning, shipwrecks, dangers – and while Peter doesn’t compile his own litany of suffering we know he was beaten and imprisoned more than once. So Psalm 34 is a fitting Psalm for the feast of these two followers of Jesus who “cried out” and were “delivered from trouble” for their lives were redeemed and we are the living legacy of their faithful witness. That is not to say Peter and Paul always got along and I imagine that Peter might have thought Paul guilty of speaking deceit, especially when Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy! (Galatians 2:11-14) And Paul endured the attacks of James’s people (closely connected to Peter) who accused Paul of all manner of evil teachings and practices. So the righteous are not always right which should make us even more grateful that the Lord listens to those who are all too human – even if they happen to be Peter and Paul.
Psalm 89 is a love song to the Lord written by Ethan the Ezrahite, a cymbal player in Solomon’s temple band. His hymn of rejoicing was penned during Israel’s golden age even though it anticipates Solomon’s kingdom split between the lines his sons established, neither of which would last forever. The Northern Kingdom fell first never to rise again and while the Southern Kingdom survived captivity it would never again know the glorious days of Solomon’s reign. The portions of the psalm that we don’t read promise punishment when the children of Israel forsake the law and violate the covenant. Even so God promises never to remove steadfast love from Israel or be false to God’s faithfulness to Judah. When “I could sing of your love forever” is based on human kingdoms and thrones established by the strength of sword and shield, even if the glory is given to God, the song is less than praiseworthy. To trust in God’s faithfulness forever is to sing, “I love you, Lord” when the enemy is at the gate and the city is overthrown and the temple is burned to the ground. That is true for us as well who love the Lord in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer. If we claim God’s love for us is unconditional then it follows that our love for God must be as well.
Monday, June 23, 2014
James the son of thunder has been silenced by Herod and even though Peter escapes this time his days are numbered and martyrdom will be his reward for following the One he confessed as the Christ. Peter’s escape from the clutches of Herod is the last we hear of him in the Acts of the Apostles and while tradition has him crucified upside down in Rome the scriptures are silent as to his end. The first Christians didn't choose to become the objects of ridicule, scorn and abuse but they were willing to endure all manner of hardships in order to follow the Way and cling to Christ. There are Christians who continue to suffer for the sake of Christ and the church’s fervent prayers on their behalf are much needed. But in the end even the apostles were not spared from the sword or the arena or the cross. It is a testament to their faith that they lived the teaching of Jesus to their death – love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – even if Paul added the caveat that by doing so you heap burning coals upon their heads. (Romans 12:20)
Jeremiah’s “Amen!” should be read as an “Oh really?” because the weeping prophet knows none of the exiles are coming home and the things that were taken are gone for good. Hananiah may have had his reasons to hope or he may have just been blowing smoke but it doesn’t matter because in a year he’ll be dead and peace will be a pipe dream for the people weighed down by the iron yoke of Babylon. Even so it’s not necessarily a doom and gloom vision like so much commentary on the state of the economy or the health of the planet or prospects for peace in the Middle East. Jeremiah prophesies political events but he is really speaking to the hearts and minds of individuals, calling them to turn back to the Lord, to forsake false hopes and not to trust in temporal power to save. Jeremiah is a truth teller and sometimes the most difficult thing to be told is the truth. But with the truth comes the opportunity to be reformed and renewed and restored. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 God promises to be found by the exiles who seek the Lord, even while living under the iron yoke of Babylon. And so it is with us when we live beyond our limited vision and into the plans God has for us.
Friday, June 20, 2014
The less than gentle words of Jesus – whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me… are tempered by the hairs on our head numbered promise that we are of more value than any number of sparrows. That is not to say we should take Jesus’ challenge lightly. It is a fair criticism that in reading the Gospels through the lens of Paul we make Jesus more Gentile than Jew and lose the understanding of law as life and as gift. But in the same way that Paul’s admonition to holy living is grounded in dependency on unconditional grace Jesus demand for radical obedience depends fully upon the disciple being like the teacher. In the end the life we find in Jesus is better than whatever life we may lose. So we trust that we find our life when with hairs on our head numbered valued more than a two sparrow per penny we take up the cross and follow.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
A common misunderstanding of the Lutheran theological dependency on God’s grace is what appears to be a leniency towards sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. Luther understood all sin to be derived from human pride as self-righteousness is the last refuge of the sinner. In the beginning the first humans traded paradise for a lie because they wanted to be like God. So dependency on God’s grace is the starting point for living the baptized life where one is untied with Christ. The mistake is when one uses grace as an excuse for excess rather than the only foundation for holy living. God intended grace to lead us to a life of gratitude from which the life of freedom springs. It is as simple as this. God believes the unconditional love revealed in the death of Christ will put to death our desire to be God and joined with Christ we will willingly return to the place of peace where we are satisfied to be creatures who trust the Creator. Untied with Christ in a death like his we will live a life like his. "It’s all about relationship." (Pr. Rusty - Faith Lutheran Church, Flower Mound, TX)
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
In the baptismal liturgy we invoke the images of Psalm 69:14-15 over the water in the font; “By the baptism of his death and resurrection, your Son Jesus has carried us to safety and freedom. The floods shall not overwhelm us and the deep shall not swallow us up for Christ has brought us over to the land of promise.” It is a confident hope in what will be that allows the psalmist to endure what is. God’s steadfast love, faithful help and abundant mercy will overcome reproach, shame, insults and the indignity of being the subject of gossip and drunken songs. A life of zealous service is often misunderstood although in our cultural context one’s piety is largely ignored which I suppose is a more subtle form of insult. It could be that we are less than zealous for the sort of things that might generate criticism. Like selling all our possessions and giving to the poor (Mark 10:17-31) or taking literally the 70 x 7 forgiveness rule (Matthew 18:21-22) or the admonition for those who sin to leave the stones on the ground (John 8:7) or overturning the tables of our own institutional idolatry. (Mark 11:15-19) Maybe if we were more zealous for the things that got Jesus crucified we would be the subject of drunken songs. Not saying that’s a good thing just that maybe getting noticed for doing what Jesus did is better than not doing anything worthy of ridicule.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
The prophet Jeremiah might be complaining in these passages but he isn’t weeping because the Lord has prevailed over Jeremiah’s will for self-preservation and put his back up against the wall. With no way out Jeremiah declares with confidence that God will turn the tables on Jeremiah’s tormentors. Of course it was his God enticed truth telling that got him into trouble in the first place because he gave voice to what no one wanted to hear. The past and present unfaithfulness of the children of Israel had finally overpowered God’s patience and the coming captivity in Babylon was a done deal. Bad news with no exit strategy is the reason no one wants to be a Jeremiah and truth to be told the end of his story is not a happy one as he disappears into obscurity after having held forth for God and suffered all manner of abuses. Truth telling is a tricky thing and just because people object to what you say does not make you prophetic. That is not to say we are to avoid saying true things. The scriptures are full of truths that cry out for a voice. The trouble comes in choosing which truth to tell which generally reveals more about the teller than the truth. So maybe the lesson of Jeremiah is to let the Lord test your heart and mind by listening more closely to scriptures that entice and ultimately overpower you. Tell that and if it troubles you it might just be the truth for someone else.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
I wonder how many disciples who “worshipped him” were included in the “some doubted” list. Since “some” is more than a couple and generally considered equal to if not slightly more than a few (which is five) almost half of the eleven, if not slightly more, are doubting worshipers. It’s a not a very promising start for baptizing and teaching all nations to obey everything Jesus has commanded, which I’m guessing might include actually believing in Jesus. Since I’m in such good company I’ll confess that I am no stranger to doubt and if I have to believe everything in the Bible as gospel truth I’m willing to claim outright disbelief. But if the “some who doubted” disciples were willing to bet their lives on something they hadn’t quite figured out it must have been because they trusted the “I am with you always” without working out the details or understanding the how or the why which in the end is what worshipping faith is all about anyway. Of that I have no doubt.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
These are the last recorded words of Paul to the contentious Corinthians. The beginning of this short chapter anticipates a third visit to Corinth and warns of harsh words for those who refuse to reform their willful ways. Paul doesn’t pull any punches and promises not to spare “those who sinned earlier or any of the others.” He asserts this authority from God for the building up of this gifted congregation not for its tearing down and makes one last appeal for them to put aside differences and live at peace with one another. Paul’s last words to the Corinthians are the first words we speak in the liturgy to remind us that we gather in the name of the God of love and peace. There are some things that are not optional for those who claim the name of Christ. The holy kiss may have fallen out of use but if we are going to be the church the sharing of peace never can.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
The God of majesty and might, who flung the stars and moon into the sky and with infinite imagination created all creatures great and small is mindful of mortals. It’s a good thing because the crown of creation has chaffed at being a “little lower than God” and desiring more glory and honor has generally made a mess of things. But being mindful of us does not mean keeping an eye on humanity as if the majestic name needed to watch us to keep us in line. It means that we occupy a place of affection and as such are always on God’s mind and in God’s heart. On the other hand the “works of God’s hands” could use a little relief from human domination and I imagine a good bit of creation “under our feet” wishes we would walk a little more softly. Maybe we should be more mindful of things created a little lower than us in the same way God thinks of things created a little lower than God.
Monday, June 9, 2014
“In the beginning God created…” seems to divide the Trinity by function, the Father calling forth Creation while the Son and Spirit wait in the wings for the Cross and Pentecost. The two creeds we confess liturgically, the Apostle’s and Nicene, don’t help in that “I believe in God the Father” appears to give sole credit for creation to the first person of the Trinity. There was a time when we trotted out the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday but it’s fallen out of favor due most likely to its length and perhaps the damning to hell all things Arian. Arius argued that a son by definition must come from a father and so there is a time when a son (even the Son of God) is not. Athanasius disagreed in no uncertain terms. God is and always was Father, Son, Spirit all at the same time in every way from before the beginning. We don’t have a lot of scripture to lean on as the doctrine of the Trinity was not as important in the beginning of the church as it came to be a century or so later. But you might have noticed that in the creation account God creates humankind in the image of “us” and while that is not proof for the doctrine of the Trinity you could read it that way, in which case Athanasius would applaud and Arius might understandably roll over in his grave.
Friday, June 6, 2014
What might it mean that the Leviathan, formed to folic, is terrified despite its size when “you hide your face?” The psalmist imagines that all creatures great and small recognize the ground of all being and being forever connected to the source of life depend on the Almighty just as much as we do. Of course they praise God as they are able and in the case of the Humpback Leviathan give praise by breaking free of the sea for a moment. The psalm doesn’t say so but I imagine God laughs out loud at the sight of it. And so it is with much smaller mammals created in the image of God who breaking free of all that binds them renew the face of the earth by mimicking the God who formed them out of the dust of the earth. And breaking free of all that binds means the praise that is pleasing to the Lord is to open our hands and satisfy the hungry with good things and to sing the song of salvation with our whole life, laughing out loud at the wonder of God’s many works.
Thursday, June 5, 2014
John’s Pentecost arrives with less fanfare than Luke’s but perhaps with greater weight. No rushing wind, no tongues of fire, no speaking in languages not learned, just Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on disciples. If Luke imagines the reversal of the tower of Babel (where language was confused) John wants us to go back to the very beginning where the breath of God animated the dust formed in God’s image. The disciples, formed in the image of Jesus, animated by the Spirit, are to forgive (or not) and their granting of forgiveness (or withholding) has the final say. That raises a few questions and we wish Jesus would have said a little more. On what basis is forgiveness offered or denied? What if I forgive someone who you don’t or vice versa? Does forgiveness extend beyond the boundaries of the church or is this only pew to pew coverage? If you’re looking for me to answer my own questions you’re out of luck. All I will say is that when Peter asked Jesus a question to quantify the extent of forgiveness Jesus answered with mathematics. Forgiveness errs on the side of mercy at least 70 x 7 of time.
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
1 Corinthians 12:3-13
Spiritual gifts are given for the common good even if the Corinthians, puffed up with pride, can’t see the common good for the gifts. Focused on the cult of self they elevate tongues of angels above the language of love and miss the point completely. The whole body is weakened when one part claims to be more important than the rest. Variety is the spice of life and the strength of the church, when we recognize it, is the Spirit who allots to each the gifts that serve the common good. In the same way that grace is freely given so God gives not based on merit but on need which means the proper response to being gifted is to say “thank you” not “look at me!” That being said, and at risk of contradicting the apostle Paul, the spiritual gift that best serves the Lutheran common good is whoever makes the coffee on Sunday morning.
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Peter denies being drunk based on the time of day but when it comes to the Holy Spirit it’s always noon somewhere. Lutherans, as a rule, prefer to drink in private and tend to be suspicious of outward signs of spiritual intoxication. That’s the way the crowd responded when the rush of a violent wind blew down the doors on the language barrier and men of Galilee were speaking like a Rosetta Stone® commercial. Amazed and perplexed the crowd none-the-less listened and by the end of Peter’s sermon a whole bunch were baptized into the new faith that was really a movement of the Sprit to bring God’s vision into focus so that the dream of God might come true. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for all are one in Christ Jesus. The present anticipates the future where one vast multitude sings the same language of praise. Even if you remain suspicious of some of the story, (tongues of fire and not a hair out of place) the point Peter made to the crowd is what we are to take away as well. The Spirit has been let loose and from now on sons and daughters and old men and women will be getting drunk on the Holy Spirit morning, noon and night.