Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What About the Poor

I grew up with constant teaching from the church that one of the primary Christian responsibilities is to help the poor. Helping the poor, as I have said in other places and times, means that you help them. In other words, to truly help the poor you leave them better than you found them. The challenge is trying to figure out what truly helps and 'when is helping hurtful'? Christians, probably led more by political leaning than the Gospel, currently lean in two opposite directions. One declares that the government should be structured such that poverty is eradicated, economic disparity erased, and taxes are used to pry the resources from the well to do and distribute them to those in need. There is a range here, extending all the way from liberalism to socialism and culminating in communism. On the other hand, the more conservative approach is to create an environment where people can pursue their dreams and through hard work (and some luck!) achieve wealth building. The government is best which takes the least from the worker. Here too there are more and less radical approaches, leading all the way to the social/economic Darwinism of "survival of the fittest." Neither extreme is Christian, but certainly there is truth in both approaches which must be balanced and discerned.

Today we read Mark 14:1-11. Jesus is in the outskirts of Jerusalem, and Passover is near. The plot to kill Jesus has been hatched, and the Lord is still trying to make it clear to His disciples that the destination of this weekend is a horrible death. Suddenly a woman enters, busts an expensive jar of ointment, and pours it on His head. (The cost is what a laborer earned in 300 days!) The onlookers criticize it as waste, saying that the poor could have benefited! There is truth in this. I have often found myself saying the same thing as I look at this expenditure or that. "What about the poor?"

Jesus has love for the poor and did more for them than anyone else. He healed them and touched them. He talked to them and treated them as children of God, not "the needy." He spoke out against the abuses which caused their poverty to be unrelenting, in particular the power structures of his day. He declared them blessed and promised that they would some day see God. Already, in the here and now, He was the human face of God through His compassion and love. So, one would assume, Jesus would agree with the criticism, and say, "sell it and feed the poor." He doesn't. Instead He defends her. He defends her because the needs of the poor are unending, He makes clear. The opportunities to help the poor will be myriad. Poverty has many causes, and we cannot address them all. Sometimes people even make choices to become poor. Helping the poor is important, but it is not the only thing.

Anointing the dead is another Jewish duty. The instruction of God includes many duties and responsibilities. This is why it is not easy to be a Christian. There are many demands: praying and worshipping, serving and helping, studying and learning, loving and fellowshipping. The list is long and varied. How do I spend myself? How do I give my time, talent and treasure? There is no one answer which fits all circumstances.

This is why a clean mind and pure heart are vital. Sometimes the Spirit calls us to do things which might appear wasteful. Sometimes a good thing (care for the poor) is not the best thing. Circumstances must be recognized. Sometimes Jesus needs to be anointed.

Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your heart. Let Jesus tell you the best thing to do, today. Do not assume the good thing you love (whatever it is) is always the best thing to do....

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Of Rocks and Renewed Minds

Isaiah 51:1-6     Psalm 138    Romans 12:1-8    Matthew 16:13-20

 Isaiah 51 begins with a command: Listen (shama- to hear, to obey). Therefore, my friends, we must quiet our heart with prayer to be able to hear, we must love and trust God to be able to obey. The  spiritual disciplines are the process to receive this gift of listening from the Holy Spirit. Who is called by Isaiah to listen? The one pursuing tsadiq/righteousness and seeking the Lord." The Hebrew verbs are strong meaning an energetic pursuit and requesting. It is a focused desire for God and His righteousness. As Jesus said, (Mt 5:6) "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled up. God's promise is "some day I will redeem it all until then, trust and be faithful." Isaiah, again, twice: Look (nabat- to look at intently, to look with love and special interest). Look to the rock, look to the quarry. Look to Abraham and Sarah. We can be deaf and blind, can't we? The Lord says, "Look... See.... You are a rock from the rock of faith."

The Lord promises His people comfort. Comfort (nacham) the Hebrew word literally means "a heavy sigh" and refers to the emotion of deep compassion for another [it also means to regret or repent in other places]. This promised comfort is a flood of intense blessing which renews Jerusalem and the land; the people are filled with joy, gladness and gratitude. Listen, again, God says, hear Me, I will teach the people and my justice and salvation will be manifest through all the world. Look, again, Look at the sky and the earth--these are temporary. Again, the New Testament takes its lead from Isaiah. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" Jesus Himself will similarly say. (Matthew 24:35) In John's Apocalypse, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." (Rev 21:1) Isaiah says it will vanish like smoke and wear out and the people die, but His salvation and righteousness are forever. Salvation, Yeshua, in Hebrew. The Name of Jesus. LOOK. LISTEN. SEE. HEAR. Jesus is forever and His salvation and righteousness are without end. This is the ROCK of promise. This is the ROCK of faith. This is our life and hope! Thanks be to God for Isaiah and the answer to our hearts deepest longing.

The Bible not only gives answers, but it is also brimming with questions. The Scriptures are filled with hundreds of instances where God peppers humans with questions. God the Son, Jesus, is every bit as inquisitive as the Heavenly Father.

Today, Jesus asks two questions. However, it is noteworthy that in the verses prior to this, Matthew 16:9, Jesus asks the disciples five questions centered around the theme of faithlessness and obtuseness: "Why do you have such little faith and why don't you understand?" Jesus now asks them about His identity. It is asked in a significant place. Caesarea Philippi is a Roman stronghold and more to the point it was home to an ancient pagan nature shrine with multiple idols. The question is literally asked in enemy territory both spiritually and politically. The gods and rulers of this world---demonic and human governments which control the world in every age--are put on notice. Jesus is God's Anointed King sent to conquer and redeem the world. "That Day" is near. "That Day" is here.

The righteousness of God is Yeshua -salvation abundance-incarnate in Jesus, the Man. In Him the new heavens and earth are already bursting forth. In Jesus, Paul says we must live in a new way. The old temple sacrifices are given a prophetic twist. The offering is not oxen or sheep, it is ourselves, our souls and body that are a holy sacrifice! We are made holy by not being conformed to the world. But how to do this?  In the book Orthodox Therapy we learn how to "heal the soul" from the Ancient Christian Church. It is based on Paul, who says that we must have a metamorphosis--a complete transformation--through the anakainosis--renewal, renovation, complete home improvement style make over--of our nous (mind, eye of the soul which perceives and understands). Don't think too much of yourself, he warns, because he knows since the 'First Sin' our mind is darkened and we misperceive the will of God. The transformation of the mind is a gift of Gog and a very long, difficult process. Conversion truly transforms our minds. We quiet our souls, we LISTEN to GOD, we LOOK and SEARCH for the Lord. We silence bad thoughts which lead to bad desires in our hearts. We offer the nous to God. The road to theosis- union with God begins with the nous/mind. Our perceiving and thinking, are the first thing in need of salvation.

Until we are healed it is hard to function as the body of Christ. Paul makes it clear, we are, all of us together, already that body. Church history, however, teaches us that being faithful and effective is not automatic. Church leaders in communion with one another in the universal church have the power and authority to bind and loose. The keys to the Kingdom of God here on earth are ecclesial. Christian faith is communal, it is personal but never individual. WE believe. WE exercise power and authority. WE are the body of Christ entrusted to be Gospel heralds, teachers, healers, exorcists, reconcilers, and so many other ministries. However, if we have the old darkened nous if our perception and thought is still broken, then we will drag the church down and her ministry will be diminished. WE must LOOK, we must LISTEN, we must have a renovation of mind and a reorientation to the will of GOd. It is a glorious gift--this salvation, this life in Jesus. It is also a serious task to do the ministry, in word and deed, of setting free and binding up. It is our task, here and now. It is God's gift. Let us do it well in accord with His Spirit.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

God's Promise to the Gentiles and Jesus' Mission

[Lectionary:    Isaiah  56:1, 6-8   Psalm 67   Romans 11:1-2, 29-32    Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28]

We do not see God, because we cannot see God. There is a veil separates us, we need an apocalypse (an unveiling) to Know God. This unveiling has already begun as God reveals Himself to save us. We cooperate with the Holy Spirit by guarding our thoughts and heart from sinful thoughts and passions, by prayer and Bible reading, and by acting in love toward others and faithful ministry.

Salvation is a major theme of Isaiah 55-56. God asks, "For what does your heart hunger and thirst?" God then offers, “Come to me, real eat and drink! It’s free." The Lord also declares “My word will not return to me empty, but it will go forth and accomplish what I intend.” This same Word became flesh in the Lord Jesus, who accomplishes God’s salvation. He is the apocalypse of God the Father.

The section of Isaiah we read today begins "Keep watch over justice and do righteousness, for God is coming to reveal His righteousness." To keep or watch is to tend, it is the purpose of the human in creation. To "watch the Garden," and what is the true Garden? It is the covenant and Torah, God's instruction on the life of faith and salvation. We are exhorted to do the right thing and God promises that He is coming to the right thing as well. Our righteousness is trusting the Father and being loyal servants; God's righteousness is salvation. The sole purpose of life is perfect union with the God of Israel; and this salvation includes the outcast and foreigners. This is the Gospel message already found in Isaiah. The Lord of Israel invites all people to Himself. Each one, every one, where we are, as we are, in any condition. "Come," He says, "turn from sin and turn to me. Leave your old life behind and receive real, abundant life."

This transformation through union with God, theosis, is always a process. Sometimes a very long process! Isaiah tells the Gentile, 'do not think you are excluded, just keep covenant and the Lord includes you among His own.’ And so we Gentiles, you and I, are welcome by God into His covenant people, as we are, to become who He created us to be. There is no one moment which completes salvation, the covenant with God is a way of living and it is hard—each day we battle against the thoughts and desires which would ruin us forever--but it is the way of life. There are other, easier paths, which many choose, says Jesus (Matthew 7:13) but they lead to death. No one is excluded from the invitation, but understand, no one is exempt from narrow conversion path of discipleship.

The application of Isaiah's words, however, was a challenge for Israel in every age. The Gentile question can be discerned in differing streams of the Scripture. Gentiles are also the enemy who is excluded from God’s people (see Ezra and Nehemiah). High ideals run into the complexities of real life. The reality is, Jews were a small, vulnerable people. Gentiles disdained and persecuted them. For six hundred years foreigners dominated them. Gentiles were a threat to the Jews’ existence. God had to take care of His people whom He had set apart; that was His covenant promise to the Patriarchs and the people. Sending Jesus fulfills His promise.

Matthew writes that Jesus' mission is to "the lost sheep of Israel." These are the Jewish outcasts and sinners; God's plan was for the Jewish Messiah to bring back all Jews. In recent years, enlightened folks have determined that Jesus is a racist. In their narrative, Jesus, a racist male, must be taught the truth of multiculturalism and inclusion by a foreign female. I think this borders on blasphemy. Jesus is on a mission, He is fulfilling the promise of God to the covenant people. The mission to the wider world is not yet, although already Matthew indicates that several times salvation reached out to Gentiles. God's global vision is still in play, but there is an order, first the Jews, then the Gentiles. It is the humble faith of the Gentile woman which opens the door to her salvation. She proclaims Jesus Messiah, using the Jewish title Son of David. She accepts Him on His terms. She is not a protestor demanding her rights, she is a concerned mother begging for mercy. She receives it. 

We Gentiles must understand that the Jewish Messiah Jesus is our Lord. Trust and keeping our covenant with Him is the road of life, the way of theosis. Covenant faithfulness means worship, prayer, study, and proclaiming His rule, teaching, healing and exorcising. Each day, every day, leaving behind the old life and embracing the new. And it is the Holy Spirit Who accomplishes all that we do!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Racism is evil

"Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!"

I pray that prayer hundreds of times a day now. I know that until my heart is at one with Jesus Christ, anything I have to say will be tainted by my own sinfulness and error. In that pursuit (and for other personal reasons) I have not blogged for quite some time on social issues. I found it became harmful to my soul.

Let me be clear: I think the Nazi teachings are evil and bad. Period. I have always thought that the Nazi teachings are evil and bad. In addition, I reject the white supremacist racism of the KKK. I have always rejected the teaching of the KKK. I think the KKK is evil. In addition, although I am not black, I am not a Jew, my personal faith and beliefs mean that they hate me, too.

If my failure to make this public sooner has caused anyone to question my stand, I hope this clarifies it. Let me be clear, I reject and condemn the evil that people who identify as Nazi and KKK proclaim. My silence was based on a decision I made some time ago to not blog about current events any more. I only post sermons and occasional instructions on faith. However, it seems that for many, my silence means I condone what happened. I hope it is clear that is not the case. I apologize to anyone hurt or dismayed by my silence. Especially, I apologize to the black students whom I taught and love, the black youth I counseled and black co-workers at Youth Villages, and the black people I try to serve in the church.

I reject the Nazi and KKK beliefs and those who hold those beliefs. Their beliefs are anti-Christian at their core. I am sick that people have erroneously characterized them as Christians, because they are not. Here are concrete reasons why I disdain them:

1. I am pro-Israel and embrace the Jewish roots of my Christian faith. People who are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel are offensive to me.
2. I am pro-life, the abortion industry thrives on the creed that not every human life matters. It teaches some people are inconvenient or not worthy of life. Any group advocating abortion is advocating evil, but especially as a way of racial cleansing.
3. I am against their over-focus on "racial identity." It corrupts hearts and souls. As a young boy, I was told that Martin Luther King was a prophet. His words "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation, where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," were foundational to my beliefs on race. The KKK and Nazis are obsessed with race. I reject "racial identity politics" as threats to well ordered human society, and making blanket racial statements is wrong.
4. I am against unreflective, reactional politics. I am against trying to explain all the ills of the world with a one-dimensional explanation: "Jews are the problem. Blacks are the problem." If you espouse a one dimension explanation you are wrong. Life is actually complex and there is a web of causes and outcomes. Simpleminded, 'my-group advocacy' does not solve problems, it creates them. It is wrong and self-defeating to blame another race for everything and take no personal responsibility for making your own lives better.
5. I am against authoritarian zealots who would impose their beliefs on others. I am against the abuse of power to put down or oppress others for what they are, not what they have done.
6. I am against violence and the desire to harm others. Jesus said to turn the other cheek. The Nazi and KKK doctrines are anti-Christian. However, once again, Dr. King is a reminder of the cost of being morally superior. I take no solace in being better than the KKK/Nazi. I am trying to learn how to be good, to promote law and just order, to defeat hate with love. Sadly, I currently do not love like Jesus, that is the goal.

Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

The KKK and Nazi beliefs are evil. Those who think this way are evil. They are sinners. Period. Unfortunately, every one of us is broken and sinful at our core. We are in the image of God, but the likeness of God is tarnished, sometimes beyond recognition. Are the KKK and Nazi guys worse than me? I think it is fair to say 'yes' without breaking Jesus' command "do not judge." But here is the problem, even if they are more evil than me, let's say, much more evil than me, I cannot be satisfied. Hatred, prejudice, anger, fear, and error are so obvious in them, but they also work in me, it is a struggle not to give into them. It is not enough to simply stand against evil. I must also stand for good. I must also turn to God, who alone can save us from ourselves, no other movement or organization can...

If the Nazis and KKK would repent and turn to the Lord, if they could sincerely pray, "Jesus Lord, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," things would be better. But most of them won't. Unfortunately, I can not convince them, or anyone to do it. So, I struggle to do it myself! The truth is we are all a mix of good and evil. This is not moral equivalency between Nazi/KKK or anyone else. I just know that if the evil in me is smaller then the evil in them, it is still evil and it can still grow into greater evil. In every age, in social conflict, otherwise good and decent people have done horrible things as they were swept along on behalf of their group. The evil in the KKK/Nazi is so clear to me and so repulsive that I have always rejected them. It is the evil at work in me (and you) that goes unnoticed and unrepented that scares me.  Even if the Nazi and KKK are the most evil and vile, the communist/socialist history is hardly much better. Sorry, but I do have serious concerns about the motivations and goals of all the actors in this conflict.

In the end, I try to love and serve others, to pray constantly for the Father to save,  heal and sanctify the world. However, I cannot be at peace because I am better than the KKK/Nazis. That is too low a bar. I seek to be holy, until I am, whatever my good intentions, I understand that I will remain part of the problem. So will you. So will we all. If you need proof, read more history...

Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Couple Questions from the Lord 8/13

(1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33)

Today we read about the prophet Elijah who is hiding from Queen Jezebel. Elijah had miraculously called down fire from God, something which the priests of Ba'al had failed to do. The people of Israel, temporarily repentant, proceeded to massacre the pagans, which infuriated the queen. Threatened by her with death, he flees. After eating a miracle meal of bread and drink, he traveled forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb. This is the same mountain God made His covenant with Israel and Moses. There are many parallels to the Book of Exodus, culminating with the "theophanic" strong wind, earthquake and fire; however, unlike Exodus, the Lord is not in these mighty events of nature. Instead, it is the quiet, still voice, which reveals the Lord.

Elijah, discouraged and afraid, complains that he is alone in serving God. Frustrated and hopeless, he asks to die. God responds with a question, “What are you doing here?” Elijah the zealot is wrong, he is not alone. God is with him, but more to the point there are 7,000 who have not bent the knee to Ba’al. Seven thousand is probably a symbolic number; there are lots of faithful people. Lie Elijah, some we feel sorry for ourselves and condemn others. Often times we run and hide from the Lord. “What are you doing here?” God asks us, each day, wherever we might be. Here, in this place, am I running away or keeping the faith?

Faith is a big word in the Hebrew language. It means to believe, to trust and to entrust ourselves to God. Faith means we are loyal and trustworthy in response to God. Faith means never having to say, “I give up,” because God is faithful so we need to be as well. So faith is a gift, but it is also a task.

In Matthew’s Gospel, earlier in the day the disciples saw Jesus miraculously feed thousands. Now, rowing in the dark night on a stormy sea they are getting nowhere. We, like them, are in a boat—the universal church—which often expends much energy with nothing to show for our efforts. Suddenly, Jesus appears, but paradoxically he terrifies them. “Take heart,” He calls to them, “it is I, stop being afraid.”

These words are at the core of the Jesus story. He is here for us, no need to worry or fear. It is the message which Elijah must never forget, it is a word the disciples must never forget, and it is the truth which we must always remember and treasure in our hearts.

Peter shows his faith, he believes and trusts Jesus, not theoretically but in action. Jumping out of the boat and walking on water—this is faith, but even as the impossible happens Peter is buffeted with wind, waves and doubt. We all know what it feels to begin in faith only to sink in fear and disbelief. Faith is not a one-time event, it is a lifetime commitment! “Why don’t you believe?” Jesus asks Peter, and us. “Don’t you have any faith?”

Faith is entrusting and trusting. Today’s psalm is a perfect example of faith because of the oddities of the Hebrew language. Robert Alter (The Book of Psalms, p300) says of Psalm 85, that "there is scarcely a more striking example in the Bible of the temporal ambiguity or fluidity of Hebrew words." It can be read as past tense or future. This means that, in a sense, in Hebrew we are both asking God to give us and declaring that He already has at the same time! This is how we must pray, confident that our Lord has done, is doing and will do all we need.

But prayer that God will be gracious to the land and to His people is connected to relationship. The Lord saves those who belong to Him. The Lord turns back from His anger and pours out mercy and salvation to the people who turn back to Him. It is given and received heart to heart, His to ours. Our loving trust and faithful obedience are the open venue for redemption, healing and blessing!

Two divine questions:
What are you doing here?
Why don’t you trust?

One divine declaration:
Take heart, it is I. Repent and return to Me, do not fear. My salvation is for all those who love me and are united with me.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Who is this Jesus? 8/6

[Exodus 34:29-35    Psalm 99     2 Peter 1:13-21     Luke 9:28-36]

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Our Gospel text today is the climax of Luke 9.

The chapter begins with Jesus empowering the twelve to proclaim and Gospel, heal, and exorcise. This is the primary work of the church in every age! It is at the core of what we are supposed to do, and for obvious reasons. It creates a stir. Word of this miraculous ministry spreads and the authorities catch wind of the works of Jesus and His band. Herod, the ruler, is confused by what he hears. Herod hears the speculation and asks, "Who is this I am hearing about?" He wants to see Jesus. Giving authority over demons and the power to heal? Who is this Jesus?

The triumphant twelve return, and Jesus takes them away to an isolated place, but desperate, needy people find them and quickly the crowds gather. Rather than turn them away, Jesus responds with hospitality. He teaches and heals all day. As evening approaches, the worried disciples implore Him to send the huge crowd away. Jesus says you feed them. They did not have enough to fill their own bellies, really, yet they handed it all over to Him. That is a total sacrifice. Let's do the math: Five loaves + two fish + Jesus equals 5,000 meals and a basket of leftovers for each disciple. Who is this Jesus?

Jesus raises the question of His identity with His disciples, "Who do people say I am?" They respond with the same rumors Herod has heard. He then asks, "Who do you say I am?" Peter says the Messiah. The answer, Jesus is the Messiah, takes the disciples, and us, into unexpected territory. This conquering king redefines our understanding of everything.

"I will be rejected, suffer and die," He says, "And those who would follow me will die everyday. You must lose everything for Me!" An invitation to suffering and death in companionship with Him? This is not what is supposed to happen.... Who is this Jesus? 

The contemporary church is often as perplexed as Herod by the different theories of Jesus. We consciously and unconsciously reconfigure Him in the social, political or theological image which we prefer. We have made Jesus into the image and likeness of ourselves. We create our own versions, so however much we love and embrace Him, we are also part of the crowd which rejects and crucifies Him.  Part of the answer to the question, Who is this Jesus is found here, in our unwillingness to let go of our own agendas and submit to His. Each of us, all of us are guilty. 

The Gospel story of the Transfiguration is a reminder that what we see in Jesus is only part of the story. For one thing, we must know the Jewish Bible much better. The Gosel we read today is steeped in the past, echoing Moses' story in Exodus. That same light points to the future as well. The early church, particularly in the East, taught that the divine nature of Jesus, literally shining through His humanity, is our destiny. We are to become what He is. The Father's gift is sharing the Divine life and light and transforming us into the Sons and Daughters of God.

We, you and I, are decent folk, most of us. But really.... is Jesus our first love? Do we heal and exorcise? Do we gladly welcome the needy after a long day? Have we ever shared the last of our resources with strangers? Are we suffering persecution and death for Jesus' sake? Any of us? No, we do not, we are not. Is it because we really do not understand who Jesus is?

Who, then, is this Jesus?
God the Father tells us, "This is my Son, my chosen, listen to Him."
We come here today, not as victorious disciples, worn out from our ministry, but as humble Christian failures. We are needy and weak, sometimes working harder to deny the truth about ourselves from ourselves, then to reveal the truth about Jesus to others. Mercifully, in this we are still like the first group of disciples. Like them, we deny Jesus because we still do not know or understood Him enough.

Fear not! This is no fatal flaw. Salvation and redemption are God's plan. God offers us theosis, the divine light will fill and transform us, even now it begins.... Our efforts are required, but it is His work. We must listen to Jesus, more and more. We must obey Jesus, more and more. We must become like Jesus, more and more. But fear not, it is not all on us; the work of transformation is God's work, and it has already begun in each of us. So, trust God, seek to be what He calls you to be and cooperate with the light of God. All will be well, because He is faithful and that is why Jesus has come to the world---to save sinners!