Friday, June 30, 2017

Psalm 102

Psalm 102 (Jewish Study Bible)
This is a psalm about the devastation caused by the destruction of Jerusalem. The Jewish faith was a "we" faith, corporate and personal. The holy city was at her core and the destruction of Jerusalem, loss of king and temple, dispersion of many, all of these weighed heavily on the psalm writer.

'O Lord, hear my prayer; let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me in my time of trouble; turn your ear to me; when I cry answer me speedily.'

God inspires the Bible, which includes so many 'dark' passages. God seems to be saying that the struggle is real and faith does not preserve us from trouble. Hope and trust are tried in the fire of loss and destruction, pain and abandonment. The author paints vividly the utter pain:
my bones are charred
my body stricken
too wasted to eat
vehement groaning
I lie awake
my enemies revile me
I have eaten ashes
My days are like a shadow
I wither

The psalmist paints a glum picture indeed, and all of us experience similar pain, either in our own lives or vicariously in the lives of others. Certainly, there are times when the horrors overwhelm us.
We may feel tempted to despair, to throw our hands up and view it all as a cruel joke. Yet, the question echoes within us if we dare to think it through, "Why are such prayers in the Bible? What is God saying to us and through us?" For me, it is a proof that God takes the life we live very, very seriously. God does not ignore the darkness and struggle. Everyone who belongs to Him is not always covered with laughter and blessings. It is not always smooth sailing.

Yet light shines in darkness. I can reject the doubt and fear, I can ignore my circumstances (however bleak) and embrace God on His terms. I can declare His faithfulness

You, Lord, are enthroned forever...You will surely arise and take pity on Zion.
He looks down...the Lord beholds the release.

Yes, Lord, I believe. Life defeats death. Joy in the midst of sorrow, hope to face loss. I believe, because you are, and we are never alone. You hear, you know, you save.

The closing words, introduced by"everything perishes, you are forever,' recalls the prayer of St. Teresa I blogged on a few weeks ago. A reminder that all things are temporary except God. And because God is God, the psalmist, even in the pain, utters this request to conclude the psalm:

May the children of Your servants dwell securely and their offspring endure in Your presence.

A good prayer: it's not about me, but focuses on my kids and your kids. A prayer that trusts in "some day" and God's (slow to us) faithfulness and salvation. A prayer that takes me out of me and reminds me of us. Personal, yet corporate.

We prayed this psalm today, aware of our own losses, aware of the losses of others, and we embrace the faith, hope and love which God generates by His faithful mercy kindness. amen

Thursday, June 29, 2017

God's Wrath

The daily readings were interrupted by the special feast today commemorating St. Peter and St. Paul. However, my practice is to pray over the weekly reading cycle regardless, so I read 1 Samuel 8. I'm glad I did as it matched well with our Bible study today.

Samuel the little boy with the vision of chapter 3 is old (3:19 "Samuel grew up," very little narrative about growing up). He names his sons as judges, but as is often the case, the son is incapable of living up to the father. His sons are interested in personal wealth and gain. Like his mentor, Samuel is a failed father. The elders of Israel come to him and describe the situation. "You are old and your sons are not suitable, so we want a king, so we can be like everyone else." Samuel is deeply hurt and upset, going to the Lord in prayer. God tells him, "They did not reject you, they reject me." So God tells Samuel to go along with their request and give them what they ask. However, He does tell Samuel to explain what being like every else will mean. Samuel enumerates the various demands a monarchy makes on people. The verb "to take" occurs over and over. Kings take much more than they give. God says that He will allow the people to choose, but He will not save them from the choice. In my mind, this is the wrath of God.

We live in a culture which is ruled by personal wants and desires. Companies are learning to market and produce to individuals. Custom made products designed and created based on personal preferences and choices. In fact, the power to decide has dramatically impacted many of our social institutions and has even changed how people determined their own identities. Self-identification ("I am what I decide that I am!") is very much the spirit of the age.

I would argue that the wrath of God is best understood as the Divine decision to say, "okay, have it your way." Israel wants to be like everyone else. They want access to a visible, human king. They reject the invisible God. God provides but Israel doubts. All sin springs forth from a seed of doubt ("Can God be trusted?") and a choice of willfulness ("I will decide"). We want what we want they declare, ignoring all advice to the contrary.

The book of kings ends in exile. The king the people wanted has been dethroned by an enemy. Israel is just like her neighbors. The Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men and women are different. We are seduced by the world. We are seduced by the desire to call the shots. We are seduced by the power God gives us to reject Him and have it our way. You and I also can choose. Will it be God or do we want to be like everyone else? God's wrath is His willingness to let us choose.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Homily for a Memorial Service June 24, 2017

Memorial Service

Whom do we gather to remember this day? It is tempting to say the deceased, but I suggest that there is Another to whom we should turn the Holy Three God.

Our Creator is the Father-God of memory.  Genesis 9:15 says that God promises to remember His covenant with the earth. In Exodus 2 we read that God sees the pain of Israel, hears their cries, remembers His covenant and comes down to save. Psalm 105 and 111 both declare that the Lord remembers His covenant forever.

What is God’s covenant with us? The Father declares, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” As a member of God’s people, we die knowing that even in death God remembers us--this gives us peace in the midst of sadness and loss.

Human memory is a two edged sword, it can make us smile and laugh, but sometimes that sharpens the pain of loss. Memories remind us, but can never restore our lost ones. To "live on" in the memories of others is a shadowy, incomplete existence. But when God remembers we truly live. We die with Jesus and we will live again. So we gather in Memorial Services to remember this Good News.

In the first reading (Philippians 4:4-7) today, Paul writes from a Roman prison, the threat of death hangs over him. Yet the letter is full of joy. He rejoices because he trusts God and he exhorts us ‘to rejoice in the Lord always’ as well. Joy is the fruit of trust and hope. Joy does not depend on our circumstances. We are not happy that our loved ones die, but even in sadness there can be joy. To invite mourners to rejoice is a cruel thing, unless there is good reason. We do have good reason for God is faithful.

Psalm 23, an ancient prayer, expresses this faithfulness eloquently. Even in the dark valley of death we do not fear, for God the Shepherd is always with us. How many millions have drawn strength from this psalm, facing their own dark valleys? It is the same faith which Paul gives witness to in 2 Corinthians 4:13-17. We do not lose heart, he says, even if our physical body wastes away and dies, because we believe that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us also.

It is that same Jesus, the one who rose from the dead, who provides us the greatest cause for comfort, peace and even joy today (John 14:1-6). “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus, the night before His crucifixion, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust God. Trust Me.” I have never been crucified but I don’t need to be to know it is a horrible way to die. Yet, Jesus, facing such torture and death, turns instead to comfort us. “Do not fear, do not be troubled, just trust. Trust me because only I can bring you to God. Trust Me.”

This is what we gather to remember. We remember Jesus, who is God Incarnate, is the way and that each of us can choose to be on the way. We remember God is faithful, a Good Shepherd who is always there. We remember these sacred words, “do not be troubled, just trust, do not be troubled, rejoice, do not be troubled, I am the way to God.” Such remembering is good, especially on such a day as this….

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Which System?

There are many ways to read the Bible. One approach seeks to find the meaning in the original context and the (best as we can figure it) meaning the original human author intended. This is the hard work of exegesis! However, there is a longstanding practice, recognizing the hand of God (inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is also mysteriously at work, which recognizes that there is more within the text than the human author could know. Here we listen to the wisdom of the church and the voice of God in the orthodox teaching of the universal church (Tradition) throughout history.

The creation account in Genesis speaks of God making the man in His own image and likeness. If one reads the Jewish Bible regularly, then one notes that there is a regular pattern of word pairs. "Kind and merciful," "just and righteous," "unfaithful and sinful," the Jewish Scriptures are filled with doublets which obviously intend to say the same thing. "Image and likeness" is probably just that, and I would argue that the revelation here is that God has created the only image of Himself which is allowed on the earth. It is a rejection of the practice of idolatry--no images are to be made--and an affirmation of the importance of human beings--hence, the law is summarized as Love God, Love Humans.

However, in the East, Christians have long interpreted this creation text in a different way. The image of God is understood to be continuous, but the likeness of God is impacted by our choices. Since the sin of Adam, while we retain the image, the likeness is understood to be tarnished, sick or diminished. The purpose of the Christian life is to repent (turn back to God) and live a holy and virtuous life which is open to the transforming power of God's Holy Spirit. We depend on God to save us, but God depends on us to be open to the gift of salvation.

This is technically a "misread" of Genesis at one level, yet, arguably, the Holy Spirit at work in the church has actually given a revelation (an unveiling) of a deeper meaning. Literature is like that, the original author provides a text, but the reader is able sometimes to make unexpected true connections to a world hidden from the author.

In the West, the idea of sick souls needing healing, while not foreign to us, is secondary or even tertiary in our approach to God. We tend to embrace law and sin as the primary metaphors for our relationship with God, so grace and salvation are understood legally. The "divine criminal justice system" is a the predominant popular theology in West Tennessee. However, perhaps we need to revisit the "sick souls" metaphor to ponder if the "divine medical health care system" doesn't offer us additional insights into our relationship with God. God is a Judge, but He is also a Physician. God does call us into account, but He also nurses us back to health. Jesus did die on the cross to pay for our sins (a metaphor combining bookkeeping and criminal justice), Jesus was executed in our place. However, is such a view comprehensive enough? In other words, is justice served when guilty criminals are declared innocent and set free? Is there something more needed?

The health care metaphor addresses this latter concern. If a gracious verdict may free us from our jail sentence, it does not transform us. Many of us do not care if the judgement reflects reality, we prefer to get away without paying the price of our crime. However, few of us want the doctor to misdiagnose us. If I am coughing and feverish, I want to be cured, not declared "fit as a fiddle" in spite of my continuing symptoms. We want to be in the hospital as long as it takes to cure us (though not one minute more) and, unlike jail, most of us return of our own volition if we relapse.

Healing of the soul is, in the end, our greatest need. I am a sinner, but sin is more than breaking laws. Sin is missing the mark, falling short, heading in the wrong direction--sin is not being what I should be. The goal is union with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Jesus shows us that the way of the cross is the way of life, the cross is as much medicine as it is punishment. Perhaps, medicine is the superior model for understanding the life of a disciple. 

Jesus, the Healer, embraces the human condition. We are saved, in part, by the incarnation, where God enters our situation to open us to enter into His. The cross is medicine in that Jesus deifies the suffering and death we all endure. We are no longer alone in these horrible struggles, because God in and through Jesus has made them His own. The cross is the ultimate medicine because through it God (who is Life) enters into death. Death cannot contain life, so our destiny is life through death. Sin as law breaking is too narrow, failing to take into account not only my moral shortcomings but also all my other brokenness and limitations. I am also sick, wounded and suffering. I am a perpetrator, but also a victim. I need forgiveness, but I also need help.

No one metaphor can contain all the mystery of God, but given a choice between the criminal justice system or the health care system, I think the latter makes more sense of my life journey in faith. "Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!" forgive me and heal me, make me whole and holy.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

The existence of the universe raises the question, is there a Creator. If one says, "Yes," then the next question is who is this Creator?

The Christian doctrine of the Creator begins with the Jewish Bible and its two accounts of creation. In Genesis 1, God speaks into the formless void; each time He says, "let there be..." we read that "it was." Before His Sabbath rest, God concludes by making man and woman in His image and likeness. Genesis 2 reverses the order somewhat, beginning with the creation of man. God starts with clay/adamah and, in a clever pun, forms the adam/man. God breathes His ruah/breath/Spirit into the man's body and he becomes a nefesh/living soul. The Hebrew word (nephesh) also means: appetite, emotion, desire and passion. If humans are in the image of God, then living and desiring are possible insights into God.

The Gospel of John reframes Genesis 1, focusing on the noun Word, rather than the verb said. This is consistent with the Jewish prophets who describe their encounter as "The Word of the Lord came to me and said" (e.g. Zechariah 1:1), John sees that the Word of God is "with God" and the Word "is God" through Whom and for Whom all things were made. The Word becomes human flesh, so that we can become one with God in love through grace. In Jesus, God bridges the gap between Creator and creature. The Holy Spirit is frequently mentioned as God's own Spirit, the creative power of love at work within sinful humanity. There is one God, but Christians and Jews (cf., Jewish New Testament, p 544 "Divine Beings") recognize the mysterious plurality and multiplicity of God in our encounters and in the Scriptures. Christians use the term Trinity (Three in One, One in Three) to express the unfathomable mystery. If the word Trinity is not in the Bible, the Trinity is, over and over.

Trinity means that God is community, or, as the Elder John said, "God is love." Not just that God loves, but that God's ontological core, His very essence is Love. Loving relationship Father-Son-Spirit) is who God is, love pouring out of God is what creation and redemption are. Love is the primary cause of all things, love is the ultimate destiny of all things. Love.

We celebrate the Trinity, because God reveals Himself as One in Three. In Jesus, God shares His Triune heart with us and shows us what love truly is. Love creates. Love forgives. Love empties Himself into human flesh, for us. Love dies on a cross to save us. Trinity is not about me, though it includes me, Trinity is about us. This sacrificial love calls us together to trust, to obey, to change the world with our message about God's self gift in Jesus. Humanity is communal, so salvation is communal and salvation's goal, theosis (one with God), is communal...

One such example is human marriage. However, any human relationship would be similar. While obviously, marriage is a process where two individuals merge into one couple, a very different sort of thing than God's essence, one could say that the human need for such coupling is reflective of our being made in the image and likeness of God. Human love unites the male/female and the bond is productive as the couple live together in creative unity. The creativity, including reproduction, is the work of making the world a better place. Christian marriage is meant as self denial and self gift, it is a place where theosis is lived out. The purpose of marriage is to make us holy. The world asks, "what is in it for me?" but the truth of love is found in dying to self. As God does in creation and salvation, so must we all in our creative and salvific efforts to be His image and Likeness.

I cannot explain the Trinity, but I can say that it makes sense as the core truth of all reality. The mystery of Three Persons yet only one God helps me understand why I can only really be me when I love and care for others. We are created in the image of the Triune God. May we live accordingly.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Pentecost 2017

Acts 2:1-21      Ps 104     1 Corinthians 12:3-13       John 20:19-23

It is Pentecost so the Spirit, or Holy Spirit, is the central focus today. If the Trinity is a mystery, then the Holy Spirit is the most mysterious element of the mystery. Who, or what is the Holy Spirit?

The Hebrew word for spirit, ruah, occurs 375 times, but sometimes it means breath, life or wind. We only find the words "Holy Spirit" three times in the Hebrew Bible--Psalm 51:11 and twice in Isaiah 63:10-11. While most Christian theologians are quick to differentiate the Jewish and Christian use of the terms, in the end one is left to wonder what other Spirit of God is there besides the Holy Spirit?

Most explanations of the Holy Spirit focus on 'power,' the life animating the inner core of God. Another ancient and popular understanding is the Spirit is Love. Next week, on Trinity Sunday, we will delve deeper, but remember that God the Father eternally generates the Son, much as one speaks a Word. Think of the Son as the Father's Self Expression--so His Word is the fullness of divinity. In and through the Word God created everything. The Holy Spirit is also the loving relationship of Father and Son. The inner life of the Triune God --the Holy Spirit--is what falls upon the apostles on Pentecost morning.

Sharing in the life of God is like catching on fire or being filled with breath. The ancient church calls this union with God theosis or divinization. The same Spirit that is in Jesus is in us! This is amazing! The Holy Spirit in Jesus also fills our spirit. Luke makes clear that we are to be like Jesus, we must cooperate with the Hoy Spirit at work within us. We must understand spiritual warfare means that we battle against the evil spirits which seek to dehumanize us. Too often, we see salvation as a commodity, something which we personally enjoy. However, salvation is only the beginning---God rescues us from sin and death and creates a loving community of service. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the benefit of others. Community is a key component of salvation.

In the Gospel of John, the gift of the Holy Spirit is directly bestowed by Jesus. His breath conveys the Holy Spirit and imparts the power to forgive sins. God's ministry of redemption in Jesus is breathed into human beings, in a baffling act of divine trust. Why would God give such power to feeble humans? Most Christians, even Bible Believers, do not believe this. They differentiate between Jesus and the Church, God and Man. The say there is no need for a human intermediary, go straight to God.They prefer a purer "spiritual" world and negate material reality. However, Jesus does not say, "Receive the Holy Spirit, go tell people their sins are forgiven by God and there is no need for humans..." In God's real creation theosis happens--the body and soul of people are sanctified and consecrated by the Holy Spirit of God. Human Beings become the sacrament of salvation. In and through the divine Man Jesus, in and through divinized men and woman, the Heavenly Father heals, teaches, redeems and saves. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we, right now, can allow God's fire of love to burn within us, His healing light to shine from us. The Holy Spirit is in us, we just have to cooperate. This is a church-work to which we are all invited!

In Corinthians, Paul lists gifts of the Spirit. We all have gifts, we need to exercise and perfect them. We all have different gifts, we need to work together! The church is a team empowered and sent by Christ. Teams need different kinds of athletes in order to be successful. Look at the diversity of a football team, but it makes sense when you see that different positions require different kinds of people. The same is true for church ministry. This is often missed, especially when we choose to experience God away from others. We must remember that in the Bible, God never comes to give people a good feeling. He comes to empower them, to bless them, to send them to benefit others. It is a challenge to be a Christian, but God provides all that we need.

So if you want a prayer that is always answered, then sincerely pray: "Fill me, Holy Spirit, and use me!" That prayer always gets a yes!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Funeral Homily for Carolyn

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-5,9     Psalm 139:1-11     Revelation 2:2-7     John 5:24-27

John 5 is a miracle story ending in a conflict. Jesus had told an invalid to get up and walk. Amazingly, the man had not manifested any faith, nor had he asked for help. However, it was a Sabbath, so some were offended by Jesus' action. They debated the question, "Should one heal on the Sabbath?" Jesus responded, "My Father is still at work so I must also be at work." Jesus' claim of unity with the Father offended them more. Eventually, it was one reason He was crucified.

This day, that miracle may be offensive to some of us for a different reason. If Jesus can heal, why does he allow terrible suffering and death? Some are angry at God that He didn't. Others avoid the problem by claiming that God is the cause of these illnesses, that He has a mysterious plan---afflicting us because it is good for us. We have heard it, probably said it ourselves, "Everything happens for a reason." (Meaning God has a good reason)

I want to offer the suggestion that the reason for everything may not always be God. The Bible says our Lord is a Savior; a Savior who rescues people and redeems them, a Savior who wins a victory over the powers of the Enemy. Everything happens for a reason, but one big reason for suffering and death is Sin and the power of sin to pervert God's creation. We live in a world that is not as the Creator intended. Evil permeates reality. Our spirit, soul and body are all afflicted by the demonic powers of the enemies of God.

Jesus' promise is resurrection. Life is God's purpose in creation. When sin produced death, the Father responded with mercy and resurrection. We all die--spiritually in sin and physically in death--but in Jesus, the Father has saved us from both. Life defeats Death. Love defeats the sin. We have a reason for hope and joy, even as the casket sits before us in all its horror.

The Hebrew word, yeshuah, occurs 78 times. It means salvation, but it can also be translated as healing, prosperity, victory, help, rescue, and deliverance. So I ask, if God rescues us from suffering and death, from whom does He rescue? Does God rescue us from Himself, inflicting us with dread diseases then healing, torturing us and killing us only to raise us to life? And if God is the author of all this, why does Jesus call Satan the lord of this world and treat sickness and death as enemies which must be defeated?

I can harbor no anger at God for the painful journey our friend experienced these many years. I may be disappointed that our prayers did not rescue her from the disease, but I understand eventually our prayers will be answered. It is a fallen world, the Father's promise in Jesus is not perfectly manifest, yet, but it will be! All of us will die, and some of us will suffer and die ugly. The world is fallen. That is why Jesus came, to intervene, to rescue us.

Some day, God promise, it all ends. No more crying. No more dying. On that day when heaven comes to earth, the Father lives among us: The new creation of new and better things! That promise means we gather today in hope. We remember our sister Carolyn and her trusting faithfulness to Jesus. We also remember the Lord's promises: the promise that mercy, love and life have defeated sin and death. The promise that one day all will be well. All will be redeemed. We will really are already saved and healed, and some day it will be fully manifest in and with the Holy Three God. That is Good News!