Saturday, March 31, 2018

Easter Vigil: Jesus is tying it all together

Tonight we have heard many readings. The first three, from Genesis and Exodus share much in common. In the longer narratives of creation, flood and exodus we find that there is much shared vocabulary. The ark is associated with Noah and Moses. The division of water from land, the danger and power of water, the word face, spirit/wind/breath are but some of the many images tying them together. In truth, salvation is best understood as a new creation. The creation of the world, the death and recreation of the world, and the creation of God's people Israel are central expressions of God's life giving work among us. These same words and themes also occur in the account of Jesus' baptism--and as we saw Thursday night Jesus makes clear that His life and death are the fulfillment of the exodus story.

Today is Saturday, the Sabbath. It is the day of rest and also the day Jesus lays quietly in the tomb. He does nothing on this Sabbath. Yesterday, Friday, is the day God created the first man. Man, who is in the image and likeness of God is born that day, and Jesus, the Image of the image dies. Sunday is Day 1. Early on the morning of Easter Sunday begins the new creation. In the days ahead, Jesus will breath His spirit upon the apostles, even as the Father breathed life into Adam. Salvation is creation.

Zephaniah speaks of the presence of God our King in our midst. Ironically, as we reflected together last Sunday, the king in their midst was enthusiastically received but quickly rejected by the people. One might say that the Gospel of God's mercy is best understood as the saga of the long suffering Father who seeks His children's return. Holy Week displays our sin and wickedness to the core. Love and forgiveness are met with rejection and crucifixion. Yet, resurrection is God's final answer to the injustice and death. It is noteworthy that the resurrection accounts are devoid of retribution. Jesus does not return to wreak vengeance. Instead He commissions others to continue His work, calling all people to repent and trust in God.

The Gospel of Mark is hard edged. In Mark Jesus is met by "no faith." His enemies do not believe in Him, but neither do His family or followers. Matthew's version is softened to "you of little faith." One wonders why. Perhaps that is why the oldest versions of Mark's Gospel ends with the woman, scared and amazed fleeing the tomb. "And they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid." There is not faith to end. Only silence, wonder and fear.

Why would Mark end this way? Obviously they told someone, how else would Mark known? It is an odd end to the story, especially when such a glorious turn of events had taken place. How could they have been afraid? we ponder. How can they say nothing to anyone? We find ourselves saying, no doubt, if I had gone to a grave and it was empty and I was told that the dead one was raised and alive again, well, I think I would have been likely to tell everyone I met.

And perhaps that is Mark's point....
Because, Mark is saying, to each of us--- you do know.
You do know He is risen.
So why are you afraid to tell anyone?     

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday: Sympathy of God

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet with out sin."

The Greek word for sympathy is sympathos. This compound word means "to feel or suffer (+) with." It is a relational word, it speaks of a deep connection between persons. Because of His kenosis the Lord has literally felt and suffered. The Christmas Gospel is that in Jesus, God has embraced completely our human nature and the human condition. The Eternal Divine Son is with us in time and space. God is weak in Jesus. God is tested in Jesus. God is misunderstood and rejected in Jesus. God, the Almighty creator of all things, visible and invisible, is displayed before us in the form of a tortured human being. But Jesus is not powerless. He chooses and embraces weakness but continues to possess power: the power of trust, hope and love, the power of obedient faith and mercy kindness--all the divine attributes which even the weakest human can possess if we open ourselves to union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jesus never sinned. Never. Some say it is only human to sin, but sin makes us less than human. Sin ruins us as humans. Sin is not human, it dehumanizes us, reducing us to our most vicious impulses, passions and false desires. On the other hand, because he did not sin, we can say that Jesus is the only fully human person. He did  not sin, but He did suffer. Hebrews 5:8-9 declares "Although He was a Son, He learned obedience* through what He suffered; and having been made perfect*, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey*** Him..."  He was perfected in His humanity in His suffering. and for all that,  He does understand us and sympathizes with us. He sympathizes and makes us one with Him. In union with Him we are saved.

Group therapy is a powerful venue for healing. In a group, one sees and hears others who have suffered a loss, one communicates with others who struggle with addictions and troubles. When one feels alone in the pain, there is comfort hearing another person say, "me, too." You are not alone, I am there with you. 

In Jesus, beaten and crucified, God utters the two words which bridge the eternal gap between creator and creature. On the cross God says to each of us: "Me, too." I share your passion/pain, says the Lord. I share your hurt, says the Lord. I share in it and I redeem it. I take it into myself and I make it holy. I became one with you--the best and the worst, life and death; now you become one with me. Thus says the Lord: I sympathize with you, will you dare to sympathize with me?

*hypokuo. The Greek word is a compound of "under + listen." It means to comply, submit, obey. In the Bible listen has a double meaning: to hear and to obey.  How could Jesus "learn" to obey? Human life is a process and Jesus grew and developed through the stages of life in the womb and into adulthood. Facing the cross Jesus found out what His "amen" to God the Father meant. Obedience in times of challenge and duress teach us the deep meaning of what it means to obey. That is where Jesus learned to obey--in the Garde, before Pilate, carrying the cross, uttering forgiveness in the throes of agony and death. 

**teleioo. The Greek word means to consumate, to complete, to fulfill or reach the end. In a sense, then, to have nothing left to do. It does not refer so much to moral perfection, as it does completion. A perfect man does not have super powers. A perfect man is one who has reached the fullness of humanity. Hence, Jesus is the truest man, the best man, the fullest man, the complete man.

***hypokuo The same word used of Jesus in relation to His Father is used for us in relationship to Him. The Jewish Bible and the Christian Testament both present the close connection, even interchange of the words faith/trust and obey. Psalm 78 is especially helpful in this regard. Similarly 2 Timothy 2:11 "if we die with Him we will also live with Him" Hebrews 11:8 "By faith Abraham believed when he was called to go...and he went without understanding where he was going." The theosis union with God unites our wills to His. As we become one with God trust, love and obedience all become one and the same as they were in Jesus.

Maundy Thursday 2018

Rabbinic teaching is as much about conveying an example as it is sharing instruction. A rabbi is more like a trainer than a teacher, in the sense that a rabbi is showing you how to live the life and not just transfer information. The heart, in biblical understanding, includes thought, feeling and will. Rabbis address the heart in all of its functions.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus was correctly proclaimed as the Davidic Messiah, but the people did not truly understood what the Messiah would be and do. We need more instruction.

Tonight, on one of the holiest feasts of the Jewish calendar, Jesus takes the foundation story of Israel and reinterprets it. He says, "Exodus is Me." Pharaoh had persecuted and oppressed God's people and ignored God's request. The powerful, hardhearted king refuses to relent, even as Egypt is hammered by plague after plague. He promises to comply, only to back off and dismiss the Lord each time the plagues end. Finally, the divine judgment is manifest and every first born child and beast suddenly and mysteriously lies dead. The helpless slaves are told to leave, but when Pharaoh again changes his mind, the Hebrews run for their lives between two walls of water standing miraculously to either side, the thundering chariots baring down upon them. Then the walls of water come crashing down, encompassing the army and saving Israel.

YHWH is faithful to His promises to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. The exodus story is the central tale of that salvation. However, now, in Jesus, (2 Corinthians) the veil is lifted and at dinner Jesus explains the deeper meaning of that ancient tale of salvation.
This body
This blood

Once again, the first born son will be slain. This time, though, it is God, the only Son. Jesus the Messiah King will chooses a cross for His throne and thorns for His crown. He dies for us.

"My blood is a new covenant. My blood shed for the forgiveness of sins." My life the paschal lamb sacrificed and eaten. I am the true Passover.

Each time we gather at this table, we recognize it also as an altar. Both meal and sacrifice in the eternal presence of Jesus.

The deliverance from Egypt is also symbolic of our deliverance from the slavery to Satan, the world, and ourselves. Salvation from Egypt is symbolic of salvation from sin and death. This five-fold gift of life is ours in the Self Sacrifice of the Incarnate Son of God. But like the ancient Hebrews, we must continue the journey and become what the Father saves us to be. Eating the bread of heaven means internalizing Jesus. It means becoming a living sacrifice ourselves. It means becoming what we eat---the Body and Blood of Jesus in the world. This is theosis--complete union with the Holy Trinity--and it begins in church, with bread, wine and the word, and an open, obedient heart. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hardaway, Jesus and the Shelf Life of Saviors

Zechariah 9:9-12       Psalm 80: 1-7, 1-18          Philippians 2:5-11       Mark 11:1-11

Having been a Memphian for almost fifty years, I know the importance Memphis Tigers basketball.  On March 1 the Commercial Appeal headline read "Now that Tubby Smith is gone, can Penny Hardaway save the Tigers?" One commentator said that Coach Hardaway was going to bring the city together. This is not hyperbole. For decades, Memphis basketball was uniquely able to bring together Black and White, rich and poor, urban and suburban in common cause: "Go Tigers go!" I remember a game in the 1980's when Memphis played Louisville. I was driving my car listening on the radio and as I looked around at each stop light everyone was celebrating in their cars as Memphis took off to a huge early lead. We shared something in common in those days--not all of us, but many of us--and there was something special about it which transcended sport.

The press conference was jammed and various talk show hosts gushed with superlatives about the event. There is so much excitement, so much positive energy. The only word to convey it is ''hope." Like many others, I found myself glued to the radio last Tuesday as I drove to and from the clergy meeting. I was wondering: Could the Tigers be successful again? Could Tiger Blue help heal the division of black and white? Can it be possible to dream of a National Championship? Yes!

But things don't always go as planned....  So what if he can't deliver? How long will it take those same fans who love him now to start complaining and demanding that he be fired? Enthusiasm and grace have a limited shelf life in the face of disappointment. Friendly crowds can turn hostile quickly.

Jesus, the famed healer and preacher, rides on a donkey into Jerusalem. The people literally saw the prophecy of Zechariah being played out before them in real time. "Rejoice greatly Jerusalem. Your king comes. He is just and brings 'yasha' (Hebrew for salvation, victory, deliverance)." The people were in a frenzy! Here is the Messiah. They just knew that Jesus was going to deliver them from the  the pagan Romans and that half breed ruler Herod. Those suffering, oppressed Jews expected a salvation that was as concrete and real as the final score of a basketball games. They expected glory days.

Jesus disappointed those hopes and dreams. Within four days they turned on Him. "Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Hosanna means salvation is near, deliverance is close. When confronted with Roman power He did nothing. They saw weakness, not deliverance. So they rejected Him. "Crucify Him. Crucify Him. Crucify Him...."

Do not be duped, we are no better. We have been disappointed by Jesus at times. Life has not always been fair or pleasant. We have wondered why He hasn't reformed our society, our church, our jobs, our family. Why doesn't Jesus do something as we watch loved ones struggle, suffer or even die. Why doesn't Jesus do something when cry at night, nursing our broken hearts in the silence of darkness... So people lose hope and wander away.

Paul tells us that Jesus, who is the morphe visible form of God, emptied Himself to become one of us. Instead of saving His people from death, Jesus died Himself. He empties Himself and becomes human---a lowly servile human. The Christian life is about love, not victory. Christianity is about serving others, not power. Christianity is about humble trust, not arrogant certitude. Christianity is about death, even death on a cross--His death and our own. Christianity is not an easy fit with our life styles, values or expectations.

I am white, male, and middle class. I have filtered Jesus and His Gospel through my American, competitive, consumer mind. Like my neighbors, I want to be a winner. Paul says we must have "the same way of thinking" as those who are in Christ. In other words, we need to think differently than we do. That is the new nous, the new mind and new heart. Only the Holy Spirit can heal and transform us and it is a battle to be open to the Holy Spirit's work. Theosis is such also a long journey. Rejection, crucifixion and death are not what we are looking for in a savior. Yet in Jesus, God is tearing away the veil and revealing Himself as He really is. Our task is to be purified of false theology and embrace the Lord. The next week is central for understanding God's true nature.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

New Covenant

New Covenant

Have you noticed the focus on covenant this Lent?

On the first Sunday of Lent we read of the universal covenant God made with “Noah, his descendants and with every living creature” (Gen 9:8-17).

The next week, we saw that God appeared to Abraham and promised that he and Sarah will have progeny and become great nations. (17:1-7, 15-1) An extension of the same promise (Genesis 12) that through Abraham and his descendants God would bless every tribe upon the earth.

Remember on the third Sunday that we heard the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). In the first commandment where YHWH declared He was Israel’s savior who calls them into a covenant of faithful love and obedient trust. The commandments laid down their new way of life.

Last week, you heard Numbers 21:-9. Poisonous serpents bit and killed unfaithful Israel as a punishment, until Moses was instructed to place a bronze serpent on a stick so they could be saved. In the Gospel (John 3:1-21) that day Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” This is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood.

Today is the last Sunday before Holy Week. Today, in Jeremiah, we hear God’s promise of a new covenant. I wish we could read and reflect on all of Jeremiah 31. Today’s short quote is addressed to the people God was calling back and saving. The new covenant is promised to those in exile, whom God, in grace and mercy, will gather back into the land of Israel. This covenant will be written “within them” on their hearts—God among His people and known by all. God will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. God will dwell within us, in our deepest and secret place.

In the Ancient Near East, a covenant is based on grace, but it is a two way street. YHWH offers Himself as a King or Husband. He offers healing salvation and faithful love but it requires our response. If we do not love, trust and obey Him, then the saving grace loses its power to save. We must repent, by turning around and heading back to Him.

Here is how Jesus says it in an ancient Semitic way:

“Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” What this means is that we each have a choice. This life is a passing mist, clinging to it at all costs is foolish.  We must love God the Father more than we love our life on earth. To die to self is to make God our truest center. He loves you more than you love Him, so trust Him. That is your covenant offer. Each day is your choice and response. Choose well.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

On Covenant and Commandments

Exodus 20:1-17  Psalm 19    1 Corinthians 1:18-25     John 2:13-22

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery; you shall not have another god.

God gave the ten commandments to Israel after He freed them from Egypt, so they were not a criteria for salvation. God saved them by grace, He was acting on His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saved them because He loved them first, they had not laws, those Hebrew slaves, they just had the stories from their Fathers. Exodus 2 & 3 tell us that YHWH heard their cry and saw their trouble, He knew their pain and He came to save them--He responded to their pain and need, not their obedience. But they had to obey in faith. If they had sat around the table in Egypt saying "I believe God's promise of salvation," they would never have experienced. Biblical faith has legs. It responds, it trusts and it is loyal.

The commandments are part of the new covenant where YHWH lays out His vision for the people of Israel, they really are not rules to get into heaven. The purpose of the commandments is to bring heaven to earth. God shares His vision for the world and invites us to embrace the way of life which will allow us to experience right relationship with God and one another. No one can earn this relationship or climb into God's presence, but it is silly to think that faith is a only a cognitive process which is disconnected from our real lives and the choices we make.

The covenant on Sinai is in the aftermath of God's deliverance, they are saved, but salvation is a process, they are still being saved and someday will be saved. The Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt, but time and time again we see they are still slaves to their doubt, their fear and their sinfulness. So God gives them food and drink, gently nursing them along to draw them deeper into relationship.

The covenant God offers is typical of the Ancient Near East. Trust and loyalty are twin components of the any covenant. YHWH is offering to be their King! I am God, your personal God. I have kept faith and delivered you, now I expect you to be loyal to me because you trust me.

I am God, He says, "So beware of the counterfeits. Do not be seduced by their lies. Do not be enamored by them and worship them. YHWH knows that the false gods merely veil the powers at work in the fallen world, human and demonic. YHWH knows that false gods are a projection of our darkened minds and wounded hearts: idols can be self worship.

The commandments, and the rest of the Torah, provides instruction on interacting with God and interacting with one another. Over a thousand years later Jesus will summarize the ten commandments and the rest of the law in two statements. Love God more than anyone or anything. Love other people as if they were yourself.

God offers to be among His people as a source of life, but He has given up complete control. Much of it is in our hands. The Torah, these ten and assorted others based on them, is in flux. They provide us a guide even if not every word is followed literally. We still long for a taste of heaven among us, even if we must continue to wait for the final consummation. This life matters.  

If the commandments do not, cannot allow us to climb into heaven, rejecting God's law can help pull us into hell. Embracing other gods, lying, stealing and murdering--such a life is not the path to union with God. So we need rules to serve as markers for our journey. Our minds are wounded and darkened, we do not see, know or understand completely. Our hearts are not whole or holy, they produce which harm us and hurt others. The Torah--God's holy instruction--provide us with light and insight.

But it is Jesus-- the Word Incarnate--who saves us, He is the Torah become a human being. He is the New Temple where we encounter the living God. He is the one to whom everything points. Jesus who says destroy this temple and I will raise it in three day, is the fullness of the light and healing.

The laws are never meant to take the place of a living relationship of love. The laws are never to serve as a substitute for encountering God as a real Person and submitting to Him in love and trust. the story of Mount Sinai helps us understand how one is saved by faith, initially, and how works are necessary as part of the covenant relationship. God shows grace in rescuing us from slavery, sin and death. God shows grace in making a covenant with us revealing the commandments as a way of living in covenant. Most of all, God shows grace in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who will be crucified and rise again. Jesus the source of unity, theosis and life.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Seek and You Shall Find

a Lenten meditation:

If you are looking for a reason to be offended, you will find many.
If you are looking for a reason to be angry, it will appear.
If you are looking for evidence to embrace doubt and fear, your desk will be piled high with proof.

If you are looking for a reason to be thankful, you will be grateful for the smallest thing.
If you are looking for a reason to love the other, whether stranger or friend, your heart will overflow.
If you are looking for a reason to believe, then God will show you His presence.

Jesus said, "Seek and you shall find..." and it is true. The world is full of people, places and things awaiting our interpretation. Our heart is revealed by our thoughts and judgements. Our experience is a function of our mind and spirit.

Shall I love my enemy with mercy kindness, or seek to destroy him, or her?
Jesus chose the cross. He invited us to carry our own.
If you are looking for a reason to be offended, to be angry, to be filled with hate, you will find it. So why look for such things and destroy your soul?