Friday, December 31, 2010

Venite Adoramus

2011! There’s a shocker. Not that we would make it to 2011, I’m not talking apocalypse here or anything. Just that it is time to make the switch. It catches us all by surprise, no matter how closely we watch the calendar. Bankers will tell you they get plenty of misdated checks in the first week of the new year. Kids will go back to school and write the wrong year at the top of their tests. We just have trouble making the shift.

We just need to pay attention more, I know that. But it is hard. There are so many things swirling around in our heads and before our eyes that we have trouble focusing. Add to that the frenzy we’ve gotten ourselves into at the end of the year, and its no wonder that we aren’t paying attention to the little detail of writing the correct year when we write the date.

In fact, our first Sunday of the new year is all about paying attention. Being aware of what is under your nose seems like a “duh” kind of message, and yet it is an appropriate one for the beginning of a new year. Now, for those who have been following along the past couple of weeks, you might wonder at the narrative flow. Last week’s passage began with the statement “after they left...” The they in question are the wisemen. But then this passage is about the wisemen arriving. Did they forget something and have to come back. No, we are jumping back in time.

The reason for this is simple. Uh. It’s Epiphany! Actually, it isn’t Epiphany this Sunday, Epiphany is the 6th of January. Which is 12 days after Christmas. Yeah, that’s right, those twelve days of Christmas. They were the countdown from Christmas to Epiphany. In the early church, it was Epiphany that was the big celebration. Yes, there was the Mass of Christ’s birth - or Christ’s Mass, but the big party took place twelve days later on Epiphany. That’s when the gifts were exchanged, that’s when the families gathered, that’s when the big meals were eaten.

Epiphany comes from two Greek words that translate as “the light shows forth” or “the light comes to.” In other words, Epiphany is when we figured it out, when we saw the light. In Matthew’s story, the Christ event is a pretty quiet affair. No multitude of heavenly hosts, no flocks of shepherds crowding into a barn out back of the inn. It’s just Mary and Joseph and a bunch of dreams.

At least until chapter two. In chapter two the doors get blown open. The wise men from the East show up. And turn everything upside down.

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

When word gets out, it gets way out. We don’t know where these guys come from, to be honest. The speculation looks at Persia (Iran) or Babylon (Iraq), or maybe further East, Asia or who knows. But Matthew’s point here is that those who are paying attention are the foreigners, the strangers. And those who are supposed to know - the ones who have heard the prophecy - didn’t know, almost missed it. It nearly just passed them by, if it hadn’t been for the kindness of strangers, they would never have known.
We have seen his star, they said. A star is not something hidden, but something evident. Have you ever tried to show someone a star, though? Right there, you say, and they look everywhere but where you are pointing. Right there, see that tree? The little one? No the big one over there. Over where? Right there, beside the house, next to the street light, its right above that tree? What tree? Never mind.

It is hard to get people to see what we see, and hear what we hear. And yet we keep trying. We want to share what we have seen. People often wonder why the wisemen showed up in Jerusalem anyway. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just keep following that star? Well, perhaps it was a political necessity, or diplomatic protocol. Or maybe they just wanted everyone to know. Go, tell it on a mountain. And there was no mountain higher that Jerusalem. Notice how the bible always says they went up to Jerusalem, no matter what direction they were going? That is partly a theological statement, but also geological - Jerusalem was a high spot in the nation of Israel. It is where you would go to make a proclamation you wanted everyone to know. Maybe they didn’t know Herod’s reputation. Or maybe they knew better than he did just what he needed.

This week, because of the kindness of Bill and Lynne Doctor, my whole family got to attend the Boars Head and Yule Log Festival at Plymouth Congregational Church. I’ve heard about it for years, but have never attended. We thoroughly enjoyed the program. There are two parts, one is a old English setting of the Christmas feast, the other is a Nativity pageant. And then at the end the blend together in one whole. It was simply beautiful.

At one point during the presentation of the Christ Child, and the various visitors made their way to the manger and the angels danced, I found myself with tears in my eyes. This time I was not in charge of the service and I was free to acknowledge that my heart longed to worship the child. We are created with this need to worship, or to pay homage as the wise men say in our passage. That is what brought the wise men so far, however far it was. That was why they went to Herod and anyone who might help them find their way. They longed to worship, as do we all.

That is one of the things we forget to pay attention to, our need to worship. And not just need, but a longing, a deep longing that nothing else will fill. We are incomplete without it, we are missing something of significance. Epiphany is an opportunity to fill that void, to make us whole.

Venite Adoramus – come and worship. That is the invitation of the wise men. That is the meaning of Epiphany. That is the gift of God. Come and worship. Come and meet your heart’s desire. Come and be made whole. Come.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

No Room

It is Christmas Eve Eve as I write this. The next few days are somewhat hectic, to say the least. What with Christmas Eve services tomorrow, and more family coming in, plus the celebrations of Christmas Day - which has the calendric bad form to appear on a Saturday this year. Which means that I will be doing final preparations for preaching on Sunday sometime on Christmas Day. Whew.

All of which means I was afraid that I wouldn’t get around to writing this bible study if I didn’t do it now. I was worried about everything else crowding it out. I was worried about it getting lost in the other excitement of the day. I was worried that I wouldn’t find room for it.

No room is, of course, a well known theme of Christmas. How many little bathrobed innkeepers over the years pronounced in a stern voice, there’s no room? How often have the holy couple gone door to door in the Las Posadas celebration only to hear “no room” again and again? We know that there was no room, we get it. It was a bad deal. A rough start for that little prince of peace.

But to be honest, I had moved on to other issues. Besides we are in Matthew this year. And that is Luke’s story. No trip to Bethlehem in Matthew, they are already there. No busy town with a lack of accommodations. No manger, no swaddling cloths (whatever that is), no “no room in the inn.” So, I hadn’t even thought of the no room motif.

Until I heard my new favorite song of the season. “No Room” by Todd Agnew. It isn’t a new song, came out on 2006, but I hadn’t heard it before. And it just gripped me this season. Here are some of the words:
There's no room in the inn, / If you were someone important we might try to fit you in, / but there's no room in here for you. / There's no room to lay your head, / If you were wealthy we might find you a bed, / but there's no room in here for you. / 'Cause I'm cold, and tired of working my whole life away, / Every hand, needing one thing more, comes knocking at my door, / I got a hundred people calling out my name today, and you come to my door, / And I can't care no more, unless you can save me.

The song is a duet, Joy Whitlock is the other singer - the innkeeper’s wife, I’m guessing. And they both just sound like two tired service industry workers who don’t have room in their busy lives for one more request, one more need to be filled. True to the legends though, they offer a stable and a manger, and that “should be fine for your little baby.” So, a little compassion works its way through their weariness.

A little compassion seems a rare thing these days. Oh, not among those we know and love. Compassion is all over for us. But on the world scene, on a global level, compassion seems lacking. It is all about security, all about advantage, all about debts and costs and power.

Matthew’s story is also about the lack of room for this Messiah. It is about a world that is hostile to a different way of being, a different set of priorities. From the beginning the world seeks to have its way with God’s plans for us.

Our Gospel for the Sunday after Christmas is a difficult one. I debated doing this bible study about the Christmas story, which will be the scripture for Friday night. But in the end decided to stick with the routine and prepare you for Sunday worship. But let me issue the parental advisory warning before inserting the text. Some scenes may be difficult for sensitive viewers. Read at your own risk.

Matthew 2:13-23 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

Unlike Luke, Matthew never says outright “there was no room for them.” But it seems to be written in every verse. There was no room for them in a world of violence and corruption. There was no room for them in a hometown ruled by a bloodthirsty tyrant. There was no room for them in a land that was a daily reminder of slavery and suffering. There was no room for them in a new hometown that was out on the edge of where the “good people” they grew up with lived.

But God was determined to make room. At so many points in this event it all could have come crashing down. There were those who could have said no, there were those who could have taken life of God’s instruments, it seemed such a fragile house of cards. And yet it was how God chose to work. And this was - and is - the world God chose to work in. Thanks be to God.

To say it is a messy world is an enormous understatement. But it is also to acknowledge that it is a world in need of saving. There is a lot in this story we don’t understand, and that Matthew doesn’t explain as he tells it. Why not send all the families of children running for their lives? Why not throw a bubble of protection over the innocents who are slaughtered in this story? We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to explain, trying to answer for God’s actions. We can’t do it with the gospel story any more than we can do it with modern day tragedies - natural disasters or human inhumanity.

So, if there aren’t answers here in this story in Matthew, what is there? Hope. Promise. A Savior. That is what Matthew offers here. Not answers, not explanations. Just hope.

Did you hear a thread in the song “No Room” I quoted earlier? A small opening, a grasping for hope. The innkeeper’s song powerfully depicts the burdens of living, but also a cry for help. Maybe it is offhand, maybe it is done with a sneer, or worldly cynicism. But it is there. “'Cause I'm cold, and tired of working my whole life away, / Every hand, needing one thing more, comes knocking at my door, / I got a hundred people screaming out my name, and I can't care no more, / You come, needing more when I got nothing, / What can you give me? Can you save me?”

To that plea Christmas comes and answers “Yes!”


Saturday, December 18, 2010

What's In a Name?

“A Rose by any other name...” “Lo, How a Rose ere blooming.” See, it fits! Actually, I’m pretty sure you didn’t need me to make that connection. Everyone knows where the title phrase comes from. One of the most famous, most quoted Shakespearean quotes. Actually, it is one of the most commonly misquoted Shakespearean quotes. At least the first part of the soliloquy.

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” It sounds sort of like a question of location. Where are you, Romeo? But in fact Juliet is not trying to find him, she is wondering why he is who he is. Why does he belong to the wrong family, the enemy. Why did you have to be named Romeo? Although it was more the family name that troubled her. It was the connections, the relationships that were upsetting her, not the fact that she didn’t know where he was. Why couldn’t he have been a Smith or a Jones or a Moskowitz?

It sounds like a throw away question, “what’s in a name,” like she wanted the response to be “nothing! No big deal, a name is a name, don’t worry about it!” In fact, it was that name that carried the tragedy of the story. Had Romeo not been named Romeo Montague there would have been no story, no conflict, no tragedy.

Now, you’re wondering what this fascinating literary excursion has to do with the scripture on the Sunday before Christmas. At least you should be. Because I am. I had a point in all of that, but it seems to be slipping away. Naming, hmm, what’s in a name? You shall name him. ... Ah, that was it. Take a look at our scripture for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, and I’ll gather up all my scattered wits and come back in a moment.

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The first thing to notice here is that the story begins at verse 18. OK, big deal, we jump from verse to verse and passage to passage all the time. Granted. But I point it because this one sounds like the beinning of the story. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way...” Sounds like a “once upon a time” kind of intro to the tale. And it is. But it is verse 18! Which means that there is a seventeen verse prologue, there is an overture to this symphony. And that overture is the intoning of name after name. Like bells that are tolled, like a drum beat of history, there is this list of unpronounceable names to launch the Gospel according to Matthew. OK, we skip over it, as though it weren’t even there. But it serves a purpose for Matthew. A theological purpose.

Matthew is defining Incarnation for us in this first Chapter of his Gospel. And Providence. And he presents both of these complex theological essays with a list of names. And what a list. I know it isn’t the passage we have assigned for this week, but I can’t help but look at it for a moment. Partly because it helps us understanding what is going on in the verses that we are assigned.

The Gospel begins with names, and the two names it begins with are David and Jesus. OK, Abraham appears there pretty quickly, too. But it is David and Jesus that Matthew wants us to focus on. He backs up to Abraham, primarily to establish David’s credentials. David is the first hinge point of the history of the people of God - that’s the 14 generation thing there in verse 17 (you are interested enough to dig out a bible, aren’t you?) Fourteen generations before David (from the establishment of God’s people in Abraham, that is) and fourteen generations after David (OK, scholars will tell you Matthew left out some folks for the sake of symmetry - but just hush, Matthew’s on a roll!) David, Matthew argues was the first big hinge and now Jesus is the ultimate hinge, the culmination of history.

That’s Providence - the ultimate plan of God, from the foundations of the people of God, Jesus was in the works. But Incarnation? Well, look at the names on the list. It is a very human list. Oh, heroes a plenty, indeed. But also some shady characters. And many who were a little bit of both. This is the mix out of which Jesus arises. Or the mess, we should say. Luke has a stable, Matthew talks about the mess of human existence. Incarnation is diving into the messiness of that human existence, our human existence. Are any of our family trees any purer? Yet, this was the method God chose to enter into our reality.

God could have stayed aloof and apart. Gone halfway, but still untouched by the mess. There is even that possibility in the story. Our passage depicts a mystery – “she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” Wait, what? Explanation, please! But no explanations are forthcoming. It just is. Mystery.

But notice how little attention Matthew pays to this mystery. We tie ourselves up in knots over this. For centuries the church has torn itself apart, battling over the virgin birth - did it happen, how did it happen, what does it mean, are we supposed to hold it as foundational to our faith, what do we do with it? All these questions and more have choked the church and the people of faith for centuries. But Matthew merely mentions it in passing. That’s God’s work, he announces. And your belief or disbelief doesn’t matter one iota to the activity of God in human history. Let it go, Matthew says, you’ll never be able to explain God to your own or anyone else’s satisfaction anyway. Let’s get on to what is really important.

And what might that be? “You shall name him Jesus.” God wanted adoption papers. God could have been aloof, in the world but not of the world, but instead chose to be immersed fully into the mess of human existence. But, and this is the incredible part, God chose to do so by the faithful response of the people of God. God depended, chose to depend on us to complete the job. Matthew says Jesus would not have been a Son of David if Joseph had said no, if he had walked away from an unacceptable situation, an illegal situation. In the eyes of the law, Mary was guilty as sin and should have been put away. In the eyes of righteousness – because Joseph was a righteous man, Matthew tells us that right away – she was an instrument of an incredible act of God.

Joseph got to decide, with a little angelic assistance, whether to participate in this plan or not. Whether to legitimize the little Son of David. When he claimed him, when he named him, Joseph sealed God’s plan. The genealogy was true, it was real. Adoption, you have to understand, makes the relationship as real as if there was shared DNA. It never ceases to amaze me when people ask, “what happened to their real parents” or are they “really brother and sister” when talking about my own children. Just live with them for a little while and you will know they are really brother and sister, and as the real parents we are doing just fine thanks for asking. Joseph made Jesus a real Son of David when he named him.

And I wonder, since he had no doubt heard the story many times, whether Jesus had this event in mind when he asked his disciples 15 chapters later, “Who do you say that I am?”

What’s in a name? A relationship, a family, the presence of God. Everything.


Saturday, December 11, 2010


What? Gaudete. It’s Latin. Pronounced “Gow-dah-tay.” Gaudete. It means “rejoice.” It is an imperative. “Rejoice!” It comes from a 16th Century Christmas carol, published in a Finnish/Swedish collection of sacred songs in 1582. “Gaudete, Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria virgine, Gaudete.” (And, mind you, my spell check is throwing a wobbly right now.) Which translates as “Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary - rejoice!” There are verses, but my Latin typing skills are rusty, to say the least, so we’ll leave it at that. Besides it is only in the chorus that the word “Gaudete” appears anyway.

The other fascinating thing about this old carol (and aren’t you just fascinated? I know I am) is that this song was released in the 70's by the British folk group Steeleye Span (No, not Steely Dan, that’s someone else - Boomers! Sheesh!) And to this day it remains only one of three Latin songs that made the top ten on the British pop charts. The other two being two versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu from his Requiem back in the late 80's.

Now, aren’t you just amazed? I love Wikipedia. Anyway, what’s all this about, you’re wondering, I’m sure. Well, this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday. The Third Sunday of Advent is always set apart. It is the one that has the pink or rose colored candle. In some traditions, it is called Mary’s Sunday, and is filled with the story from Mary’s point of view, or is designed to help us honor and celebrate Mary. But in others, it is simply Gaudete Sunday – a reminder, a call, a command to rejoice.

Yeah, it’s that imperative that gets me. Maybe it should be gaudeo, the infinitive - to rejoice. Maybe it should be presented as an invitation, rather than as a command. Rejoicing isn’t really something one does on command. I went to rehearsal for the Cantata which is being presented this Sunday afternoon (no, no, stop worrying, I’m the narrator) and while I was waiting for it all to begin and sitting in the middle of the sanctuary, one of the choir members passed by me and said “If you’re going to be here, then you have to smile!” I said, I’d have to look at the contract, since I didn’t know that was a part of the deal.

You have to smile. Rejoice, exclamation point. It’s not an easy thing to do. Press it too hard with someone who doesn’t want to be happy and you’re likely to get a poke in the snoot! Or enduring someone trying to cheer you up when you don’t want to be cheered can one of those uncomfortable moments they make tv sitcoms about. Except it doesn’t feel very funny.

I know, I know, you can choose your attitude. The only thing you have control over in this life is how you respond to stuff that happens. I know all that, and I even believe all of that. But sometimes the dark clouds of despair are beyond our own capacity to break through. The weight of circumstances, the burden of events, the feelings of abandonment, the shattered heart, the leaden stomach ... shall I go on? Sometimes an internal attitude adjustment is not what we need, not what will work. Sometimes pasting on a smile is a means to get our “comforters” to leave us alone, and is only skin deep.

Gaudete Sunday seems a hollow exercise in those moments, on those days. Can we command joy? It seems unlikely, an exercise in futility. And yet, here it is. So, what do we do with it? Light the pink candle and pretend? Or is there something more?

Isaiah seems to think so. Three Sundays in a row is a heavy diet of this prophet, sorry about that. But listen again, maybe there is something here after all.

Isaiah 35:1-10 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah’s hearers weren’t just having a bad day, they were broken into little pieces. They were exiled, they were impoverished, they were homeless, families torn apart, abused ... it was not something to be solved with a command to rejoice. So, Isaiah drew them a picture.

I could take a side track into a little discussion of art therapy, but instead I’ll remind you of the power of vision. Sometimes dead ends occur because of a lack of imagination. There are no options, because you can’t think of any, you can’t see any. An experience of despair, of hopelessness is a dark experience. And the best counter to darkness is to bring a little light. Because in the light you can see what was hidden before. Isaiah wanted his people to see another possibility, different from the one they were living. As a desert people, the dream is always lush, fruitful. As a broken people, the dream is about wholeness and strength. As a hunted people, the dream is about safety and protection. As a oppressed people, the dream is about joy.

But, pay attention, it is not a “smile things could be worse” kind of message. There is full acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation. The rejoicing comes from the land itself first. It comes from creation at the beginning of the chapter. Sort of like Jesus telling the Pharisees who were banging on the ceiling of the Palm Sunday party, “If these were silent, the stones would cry out.” God knows, Isaiah knows that the people don’t have the breath for shouting for joy, so God will take care of it. Meanwhile, words of encouragement will be given. Words that lift up, that give strength, that give hope. Words about a presence. In the midst of abandonment, the dream is about community, about relationship. Behold, he will come and save you.

And what will that salvation feel like? Like having your feet put back on the road. Like finally you just might be getting somewhere. And that somewhere is home. Home, where hope resides, and where joy is available. They shall obtain joy, promises Isaiah. You might not have it now, it might be out of reach now, he agrees, but someday joy will be available. That’s the promise.

And how strong is that promise? Ah, my favorite verse in the whole chapter tells us how powerful this promise is. Go back to verse 8, about the highway, the holy way. Take a look at the last part. “No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” What great comfort to fools like me. Even when it looks like we’re lost, we’re not lost. When our feet have been set on the road, we stay on the road. All the way to joy.

Gaudete, everybody!


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I love listening to Christmas songs, new ones and old ones. And I will usually find a favorite one of each season to focus on and listen to so many times that the rest of my family will plead for a change. This year that song is “No Room” by Todd Agnew. But it actually fits in better later in Advent. So, I’m not going to talk about that one just yet. ... That’s called a “teaser,” in case you’re wondering. Instead I’m going to talk about an old classic, given away by the title of this Bible Study. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I’ll pause for a moment while you sing it to yourself for a moment. I’ll even get you started: “Said the night wind to the little lamb, Do you see what I see? Way up in the sky little lamb...”

OK, now that you are all humming away, I’ll continue. One of the things that fascinates me is that the song is called “Do you HEAR what I hear?” But the first verse says “Do you SEE what I see?” Isn’t that interesting? Yes, hear is the second verse, but it only appears once, because the next one is “Do you KNOW what I know?” Which is followed by “Listen to what I say!” Isn’t that odd? Give me one other song where the title line doesn’t appear until the second verse and then is only repeated once!

Never mind, there probably is one. Suffice it to say that seems odd to me. Of course we could argue as to whether there is any substantive difference between seeing and hearing and knowing, the three modes of experience in the song. And in fact, in the Greek, the word “to see” when it is in the perfect tense is translated as “to know.” Which is why, I believe, that when you finally come to understanding, when the penny drops, when you get it at last, the “aha” moment comes, you are just as likely to say “Now, I see!” as anything else.

Cognition is an interesting science. How do we come to understanding? How does knowing work? What goes on in that brain of yours? And what does all of this have to do with our bible study for this week? Good question, and thank you for getting us back on track. What does knowing have to do with our text for this week? Simply this, Isaiah introduces us to a whole new way of knowing. Well, that’s not exactly true, I suppose. It isn’t new. It can’t be new, since he was writing some 800 years before Jesus. And yet it seems new, in this day and age. Take a look.

Isaiah 11:1-10 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

First of all Isaiah is miffed. He was an advisor to King Ahaz and his advice wasn’t taken. Some prophets, as you know, were outsider kind of guys. They would wander around making pronouncements and were generally considered kooks and nutcases, when anyone noticed them at all. Others, however, were very much a part of the establishment, had the ear of those in power, and were pretty much royal advisors. Isaiah was one of the latter. Ahaz would consult with Isaiah before making policy decisions and would frequently take his advice.

Well, there was at least one major case where Ahaz did the exact opposite of what Isaiah advised. This was during the period of the divided kingdom, when Israel and Judah were two separate nations and often at odds with each other. Ahaz was king of the southern kingdom of Judah, and there were threats from the northern kingdom, Israel, who had made an alliance with Damascus and were making noises like they were going to try to occupy Judah. Isaiah told Ahaz not to fear the alliance, but to trust in the Lord for protection. Well, Ahaz decided he wanted more than the Lord’s help, so he got on the hotline to Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III and asked for help. Good old Tiglath willingly offered to help. And then he helped himself to Judah, to the temple, to the treasury, to the labor pool, to the homes and farms of the people of God. Judah became a vassal state and eventually was decimated by a bad political decision. Isaiah was miffed.

But rather than pouting, or complaining, or organizing a hot drink based political movement, Isaiah turned instead to hope. He turned to the source of all his understanding. He turned back to the one who sent him. In the midst of a horrible situation, in the midst of slavery and death, of exile and destruction, Isaiah saw a vision of a better tomorrow. When stronger nations wouldn’t devour weaker ones, Isaiah described the Peaceable Kingdom, where predators would lie down with prey and be satisfied with what was freely available without the rending of flesh, the shedding of blood.

More than that, however, and what could possibly be more than a vision of paradise? More than that, Isaiah knows, sees, hears how such a thing just might possibly come to pass. Wait, what? Yes, he not only describes the “wouldn’t it be great if” scenario of all scenarios, but he gives a road map that just might get us there one day.

“A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” The tree that was the Davidic line has been cut off by Ahaz and his foolish alliance with the poison adder of Assyria. But what looks gone, isn’t gone in God’s eyes. God sees more than we see. And this shoot, this branch from the very root, the foundation of what God intended all along, shall grow and shall show us what it means to really live as the people of God. And it is in that living as God’s people that the peaceable kingdom becomes possible.

But, and this is crucial, it is not by our own efforts that this will happen. It is only as we become vessels of the Spirit of God that we will find our way to the Kingdom. The Spirit of the Lord that rests on any and all, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding - which is the ability to how to use the knowledge, the information that we are able to uncover; the Spirit that brings counsel and might - which is the ability to work together, to actually do what we long to do as a part of the community that we are called to be; the Spirit that brings the knowledge and fear of the Lord - which is the constant reminder that it isn’t us, it isn’t our power or our glory that helps us lean into the Kingdom, but that Spirit that keeps our egos in check. And when we let that Spirit work in and through us, then we too can hear what others don’t hear, we can see what few can see, and we can know what not enough in this world know. Our decisions are based more on God’s values than on ours - “with righteousness he shall judge.” He, we, you shall be belted by righteousness and faithfulness - those traits will keep you tucked in and secure in a world looking for a weak spot, a failing to exploit. And he, we, you shall be about the business of bringing the world to a new respect for the ways of the Lord. The new way of knowing, then, is not one based on senses but on Spirit.

The amazing part of this story, this vision, this song is that there was one who sang it, who saw it and shared it with us. That one, of course, is Jesus called the Christ. The one we long to see this Advent season, the one we hope to hear in the sighing of the wind and singing of our songs. Which may be why the title of the song is what it is. It is the word from the king in the last verse: “Listen to what I say!”

Do you hear what I hear?


Saturday, November 27, 2010


I’ve got mountains to climb today. No, not literally. This is Indiana, after all. Yet, it can feel as exhausting, as straining, as demanding as actually climbing up a mountain. And no, I’m not whining about pre-Christmas planning at the Weber house again this year. [Though I suspect that will come before too long! The planning at least. Probably the whining too. Just sayin’!]

But that’s not the mountain I’m talking about. It is the “post-Thanksgiving, Christmas on the horizon, trying to get us to stop long enough to think about Advent” mountain. That’s what’s in front of me today. And you too, come to think about it. We’re mountain climbing this weekend. And no, I’m not thinking about the burdens of decorating or list-making. I’m not talking about the invitations and the rehearsals. I’m not talking about the travel and the forced family fun and frolic. Not, I’m talking about climbing our Advent mountain.

Uh, right. Advent Mountain. Sure. You are probably thinking that this is another one of those recapturing of childhood things again. Remember when, I’m going to say, remember when December was the slowest month? Remember when every day seemed to last forever and that our most difficult task was making sure that the sun rose and the sun set as the days marched slowly toward Christmas? Remember what a struggle that was? Remember how it seemed like climbing a mountain?

Well, I could have done that, and do remember that. But that isn’t what I meant when I drew attention to the Advent mountain. I’m talking about another daily struggle. A more adult, more contemporary struggle. It is the struggle to listen to the deepest longings of your heart.

Statistics tell us that our Western culture, our American lifestyle has made us prone to heart trouble. (Hang with me here, this is a temporary metaphor shift - we’ll get back on track - or back to mountaineering in a moment.) As my kids are fond of saying, I’m not the kind of doctor who does anybody any good, so I’m straining a bit here. But it seems to me that our heart trouble is one of two kinds. On the one hand there is the hard heart, calcified by a bad diet of bitterness or self-protection; causing blockages of circulation of that which would give us life and breath and hope. On the other hand, there is the lazy heart, wrapped in layers of self indulgence in a world that tells us we shouldn’t deny ourselves any inclination or sensation. Heart trouble.

And because of a bad heart, we are likely to shy away from an exertion on the scale of mountaineering. The thought of such an ordeal fills us with such dread that we shy away, we occupy ourselves with the illusion that we are satisfied with things as they are. We succumb to the notion that we are helpless in the face of the Christmas machine that our culture has embraced so gleefully, forgetting that there is something deeper, something more profound here than the buying and selling of good cheer. We forget, or don’t allow ourselves the chance to consider that Advent is about the response to the hungering in our hearts.

Our hearts are filled up with so many things, we forget how hungry we are. We are pulled in so many directions, given so many substances or dreams to fill the emptiness, bombarded by so many solutions to problems and needs we didn’t even realize we had until we were told about them, measured by standards we didn’t claim to reach goals we didn’t set in a lifestyle that doesn’t really satisfy, impressing people we don’t even know let alone like well enough to shape our lives around. Yet we do. We succumb to the rat race, we buy into the American Dream as the merchandisers have defined it. And we don’t know why we aren’t satisfied by that, why are hearts aren’t at rest.

Then Advent comes around again and reminds us that it is time to climb a mountain. Think about it for a moment, please. Maybe the air will be clearer up there, maybe the view will be more encompassing. It might just be worth the climb. What have to got to lose? Except a calcified heart, or a sated but unsatisfied one.

But where do we find this mountain, you might be asking. You can’t punch it into the your GPS. You can’t do a Map Quest, it doesn’t even show up on Google Maps satellite view. For a journey such as this we need a guide. Someone who has been around, someone who has seen something of this world and yet can still claim a vision of the next without cynicism or despair. A grizzled old soul, like Isaiah. He loves Advent season, does old Isaiah. We trot him out every year and hope that maybe this time we will listen to him. Maybe this time we can catch sight of the star that he navigates by. Maybe this time we can locate ourselves on the map that he draws in the dust beneath his feet. If we can keep up, that is. So, what do you say, Isaiah? Want to try one more time to call us home?

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Quick, before the scepticism of our age grabs us again, claim the vision that Isaiah holds out for us. Take a moment and just dwell there, just hang - as our kids say - with the company on the mountain of the Lord’s house. The highest mountain, says Isaiah, will be established as the highest mountain. One day we will realize, he says, he hopes, that God’s way is the best way, God’s Word is our word, the word that speaks to us, the word that claims us, the word that soothes our hurting hearts. Let’s go and learn God’s way, the people say. There is so much to learn in the world. So many paths to follow, so many mountains to climb. When will we learn what God wants to teach us?

And what will we learn when we finally climb that highest of mountains? We will learn how to live in community. God’s way, God’s word will judge between nations, between people, God will arbitrate, not us, not our passions and our selfishness and our fears and our doubts. God will decide and will teach us how to live in community, how to live in relationship.

And once we’ve learned that, then we won’t need “peacemakers” that can destroy life, we won’t need weapons to destroy. So we will turn them into tools that bring life, instruments that feed. And we will forget that there was ever a time when we thought that the way to live was to kill.

It seems impossible in our terror filled age. Out of reach of empty hands and broken hearts. And to get there would take a monumental effort. Like climbing an mountain with bad heart. But maybe, just maybe, it is worth the risk. Ready to climb with me this Advent season?


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Things in Common

Families, eh? I know, the holiday season is upon us, but just barely. What right do I have to be moaning about families already? It’s not like we’ve had time to get on each other’s nerves. Though it is sometimes surprising just how quickly that can happen.

But that’s not my point with that opening comment. Seriously. It wasn’t a whiny, “families, eh?” It was a word of wonder. It was an exclamation of affirmation and acceptance. It was an acknowledgment of God’s plan for human community. “Really,” you are saying, “really? In those two words: “Families, eh?” All that was tucked away in there?” Yup. You’ll just have to trust me. It was a celebration of families.

But not my family, or yours for that matter. It was more our family. The family we are supposed to be. The family that Jesus called us to be a part of, the family that reflects the intimacy and the mutual support of the Trinity.

Sorry, had to get theological there, this weekend is Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of the Christian Year is an celebration of the head of the family, the authority and the power, the grace and the mercy that flows from the throne upon which sits the Lamb of God, the sacrificed one, the crucified one. But also the Risen one who serves as the great High Priest, the Judge of the living and the dead.

Whoa, sounds awesome - in the strictest sense of that word: inspiring awe, a portion of which is fear and trembling, but also an attraction that draws us nearer despite the recognition of that power. And here’s the amazing thing, the description of that connection, that community is family. “Wait,” you’re saying (and don’t you love how I supply all your lines in this “conversation”?), “you mean my family - the way we get along or don’t - is the model for how the kingdom community is supposed to be?” No, of course not. How silly! Actually, it is exactly the opposite. The model for how your family is supposed to function is the kingdom community.

Ooh, now that adds an interesting flavor to the next squabble in the family, doesn’t it? And is it possible to have a squabble anywhere but within a family? That’s one of those words only designed to describe familial relations, it seems to me. But what if instead of a squabble, instead of turf war, instead of a clash of wills, the family was the place where the kingdom values took precedence?

“OK, smart guy, what does that mean: kingdom values? What should this family look like, or act like?” Good question! Thanks for asking. Because now we can get to the passage for this week. I know you thought that we were still in the stewardship series, you thought that we were still talking about generosity. Where did all this family stuff come from? Well, from that other community reflecting the values of the kingdom - the church.

Acts 2:42-47 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I added a couple of verses to those we will read in church. But I wanted a little bigger picture for us to consider. What is the church supposed to be, who are we supposed to be? You say family, but what does that look like?

Here in these six verses in the second chapter of Acts we have a depiction of the church as it was designed to be. You have to look quick because it doesn’t last long. Succeeding chapters reflect the troubles that arose as they sought to live out what it meant to be a family in a difficult world. The values of that world crept in and things like racism and classism brought dissent and ill-feeling into the church. But for a brief moment, recorded here in this chapter we have a picture of what we are all longing for: the true family.

First of all this was a community that wanted to learn. It doesn’t say that they took time out to listen to the instructions or the wisdom, but that they “devoted themselves” to it. It wasn’t just another thing that they had to do it was a focus of energy and desire. It was a longing to know more, to grow deeper, to be honed as instruments of God. They were a learning community.

But they also loved each other. There was a devotion - just as strong as toward learning - to fellowship, to spending time together, to eating together. But more than that they took care of each other. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (vs.45) They didn’t consider their own needs were met until the meets of all the members of the community were met. They didn’t consider their possessions to be more important than the welfare of their family. It wasn’t that they were taking a vow of poverty, that they couldn’t own anything. Verse 46 says they broke bread at home (and some translations say from house to house) showing that home ownership hadn’t disappeared. But they elevating caring for people above accumulating riches. They were a caring community

And they were a people dedicated to worship. Worship at home and worship in community, corporate worship in the temple. They knew that the source of their goodness, the ability to act in loving ways comes not from their own inner resources, but by depending upon the resources of the Holy Spirit. They needed worship like they needed food and fellowship and learning. It was worship that shaped their hearts - their glad and generous hearts. It was worship that directed their service to those in need, opened their eyes to opportunities to give. It was worship that made them into the people that they were. They were a worshiping community.

And it was noticed. Their character stood out. Their sharing, their generosity was notable. Luke says they had the goodwill of all the people. But he is careful to note that the object of their notoriety was not that good will. They were directing their praise, their worship toward God. It was to be noticed, and yet noticed they were. Yet not in a “aren’t they cool”, kind of way. It was a tell me more, show me more, I want some of that kind of way. The Lord added to their number day be day. It wasn’t a church growth program, it wasn’t an evangelistic ministry, it was the church, the family being generous, being caring, being worshipful, being taught. That’s what drew them to the fellowship.

Families, eh? God chose them, whether the small one that shares your house or your name, or the large ones we call the church, God chose them to show the world what it means to live in the kingdom, to live in eternity. At our best, it is wonderful. And the Lord adds to our number day by day.

We are in this together, you know? That’s what holding all things in common means. It’s up to all of us. So, how are we doing?

Families, eh?


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Last Taboo

Professor Tom Long, who teaches preaching in Atlanta, told a story of a letter written to Dear Abby not too long ago. It was from a young woman who wrote: “Dear Abby, I think my boyfriend should share the cost of my birth control pills, but I don’t know him well enough to talk about money.”

In a society that will talk about anything at the drop of a hat, or some other article of clothing, we remain strangely silent about money. Next time you are standing with a group of friends sometime, in a lull in the conversation ask “So, how much money do you make?” And watch the eyebrows rise. And the silence descend. It’s too revealing, too personal. We can talk about any of a number of issues that used to be private and personal, but we don’t know you “well enough to talk about money.”

Which means that when the church begins to bring up the issue of money, people begin to squirm. Sometimes when people come from other churches they will want me to know why they left. "Because they were always asking for money," they would say in a disapproving manner, as though the pastor had been telling dirty jokes from the pulpit. The church has a reputation, mostly undeserved I feel, for always asking for money. Or worse - "they are only interested in my money!" That is why many clergy avoid the subject completely. They want everyone to know that it isn't all about money. That money is the least of their concerns. At least that is what they want everyone to believe.

Because they don't want to be lumped with those guys who are always asking for money. You know who I mean, those guys, those TV guys who keep the donation line phone numbers superimposed on the bottom of the screen all the time they are on. Which means that even when they aren't talking about money, they are talking about money. They make us all feel a little unclean. And little creeped out by the intimacy, talking about stuff that we wouldn’t talk about with our closest friends.

Their approach is a little bit different, however. They aren't just asking for your money. They are offering something in exchange. Give a little, they tell us, to get a lot. God has money just sitting around and it could be coming to you, if you pray right, if you donate right, if you send in a love gift, a faith gift, a seed gift.... on and on and on. It is amazing to me the many and various ways they have of convincing you that money given to them is not really lost, it will come back increased. God wants you to be rich. God want you to have more. That is different, more ok, because it isn’t really about money, per se. It is a transaction. It is buying and selling, giving and getting. And that fits.

On the one hand it works because it plays on our greed for more. We live in a consumer culture, so there needs to be bang for our buck, something for our investment. We can't just give away. We've got to see something in return. That's the unfortunate part - our sinful nature. Or is it? Aren’t we always about the transaction? Isn’t that what Paul is talking about getting good return for our investment?

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

"The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully." What does that sound like? "You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity." Sound familiar? It isn't hard to see where the ideas come from. But as always our question must be, what did Paul mean when he wrote these words? We can't really tell what kind of enrichment Paul references here. It could be material, or it could be spiritual. Unless you look at verse 9, which is a quote from the Psalms and is a reference not to material goods, but to righteousness. Which means that the emphasis is on the abundance of the life of faith, or the abundance of the sacrifice of love. Righteousness is about relationship, about being faithful to a wider community. About generosity, sacrifice, surrender.

When we add in the words that Jesus speaks about the dangers of riches, it would be hard to take a materialistic interpretation from this passage. Jesus does say something similar to those words from Paul: "give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." Luke 6:38 Yet we are reluctant, given what else he does say about riches, to interpret this as meaning the receipt of more material goods.

When Jesus commends the widow for her donation of two copper coins he says "she gave more." (He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Mark 12:41-44) The only interpretation here is that Jesus has a different mathematical scale than we do. How could she have given more? Hers was minute compared to the others who gave. Jesus doesn't say she gave better, she gave more sacrificially, or she gave in a better spirit, or even she gave to a better effect. He said she gave more.

It doesn't add up. Unless we change the frame of reference. The transaction language makes sense in a world of commerce and consumerism. Giving to get more makes sense in the everyday world. But what if we switch to the Kingdom of God? There, according to Jesus more doesn't mean more as we understand it. More means something different. More means meaningful, perhaps. Or more means significance. More means closer to the values of the Kingdom, more means closer to living like Christ. More means less stuff and deeper relationships. More means less measuring and more living. She gave the more that we get when we give, which cannot be measured in the world's terms. And we lose something when we try to make it fit that mind set.

The taboo about money stems from the fact that in the world's terms our value is calculated in dollars and cents. But, the value that we are offered, the blessing, the good measure, the bounty that comes from faith in Christ, from generosity, has less to do with things and everything to do with life. One of the secrets to living a Christ-like life is to be able to give away so that you can hold onto what really matters.

So, we need to ask again. What will you give? To your church, to your Lord? What will you give away so that you can have all that God intends for you to have? It is time to dedicate ourselves to giving, to commit to giving. With cheerfulness, it is time to give.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Say That Again

This week begins our annual Stewardship Campaign here at Aldersgate. I can hear the cheers from here. There are those who argue that a church shouldn’t need a Stewardship Campaign. Because Stewardship is one of those things that we ought to talk about all the time. Giving should be foremost on our minds and hearts all year round. Which means that we wouldn’t need to stop every fall and remind folks that it takes money to run the church.

I prefer to talk, at least in worship, about our need to give. Followers of Christ know the joy of giving, are expressing their faith when they give just as much as when they read the bible or pray or serve or any other act we perform because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our sense of generosity is as much a part of our Christian witness as our compassion and our faithfulness. Which is why the theme for this campaign and our worship series is “All Good Gifts: Living a Life of Generosity.” And we will explore the roots of generosity and the joys of living generously these three weeks.

But I wanted to do something completely different in this space. All right, all you Monty Python fans, repeat with me: “And now for something completely different!” Thank you, that was fun, wasn’t it?

Seriously though, what I want to do is to talk about translation. I hear moaning. Be patient with me for a moment. I think it is important. We need reminders from time to time that the bible that we have is both the inspired Word of God and the product of many human minds and hands. That means that the work of understanding is an every changing one, a task we can never claim is completed.

Let me be clear, however, I’m not suggesting that the Word changes. God’s Word is eternal, true yesterday, today and tomorrow. But everything else does change! The world changes, language changes, we change.

In our own lives we bear witness to this shifting understanding. You studied the bible when you were young. Well, some did more than others. But I would suspect that how you heard those stories as a child are different than how you would hear them today. The Word is the same, but you are different and therefore hear and need to hear different things.

So, we are always engaged in the process of understanding, wrestling with a text to figure out just what the Word needs me to hear right now. It is an active process. We engage with the word. It isn’t a fixed understanding that we have to puzzle out. It is a fluid process. The Letter to the Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 Surely your thoughts and intentions have changed from when you were a child. So the dynamic of hearing and understanding, or being understood by the Word is on-going.

Let’s take a look at the scripture that I chose to help us grasp the biblical concept of generosity. It is from Psalm 112.

Psalm 112:1-10 Praise the LORD! Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments. 2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. 3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. 4 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. 5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. 6 For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. 7 They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the LORD. 8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. 9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor. 10 The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

It is well with those who deal generously ... A good “proverbial” statement from this “wisdom psalm.” Indeed it reads like many of the Proverbs. Such as “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” Proverbs 22:9 or “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. 25 A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.” Proverbs 11:24-25. These are wisdom sayings, which may be counter-intuitive to us (Give to get richer, hoard to become poorer), but are nonetheless a part of the wisdom of the Word.

All of which is worthy of our attention. I could stop there, or preach that and be satisfied. Present it as a good idea. Something to think about. But there is something more here, something deeper. And it only becomes visible when you take another look at this passage. This time I want us to use the lens that Eugene Peterson gave us when he presented his translation/paraphrase called The Message.

Hallelujah! Blessed man, blessed woman, who fear God, / Who cherish and relish his commandments,
/ Their children robust on the earth, / And the homes of the upright—how blessed! / Their houses brim with wealth / And a generosity that never runs dry. / Sunrise breaks through the darkness for good people— / God's grace and mercy and justice! / The good person is generous and lends lavishly; / No shuffling or stumbling around for this one, / But a sterling and solid and lasting reputation. / Unfazed by rumor and gossip, / Heart ready, trusting in God, / Spirit firm, unperturbed, / Ever blessed, relaxed among enemies, / They lavish gifts on the poor— / A generosity that goes on, and on, and on. / An honored life! A beautiful life! / Someone wicked takes one look and rages, / Blusters away but ends up speechless. / There's nothing to the dreams of the wicked. Nothing.

The New Revised Version uses the word “generosity” once. Peterson finds it three times. How can that be? Which one is right? Well, they both are. The NRSV says, in verse 3: Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. The Message says: Their houses brim with wealth / And a generosity that never runs dry.

Same word. Same thought. Righteousness, which is an attribute of God, is being faithful to relationships. It is pouring out, it is mutuality in love and life. In other words, it is generosity. We are called to live a life of righteousness. In our heads that means living by the rules, it means inflexibility, it means rigor and effort and denial and slavish obedience. But, what if instead we understood righteousness to mean the God-like tendency to give grace and mercy? What if we took Jesus at his word and were willing to forgive endlessly, and to give joyfully? Might we come closer to our goal of being like Christ?

In other words, it is not our generosity, but God’s that motivates us. It is not our grace, but God’s that fills us and comes out from us. It is not our righteousness, But God’s that directs us. That’s worth saying again. And again. And again.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ask Me About My Grandkids

No, no. I don’t have any grandkids. So, all those who were about to be up in arms about teen age parents, just relax. It’s just a bumper sticker I spotted again this week. I say again because you used to see this sort of thing a lot. But now not so much. Yet, there was one in front of me as I was driving around Fort Wayne this past week. “Ask me about my Grandkids!”

Of course, I doubt if anyone ever does. It would be just asking for trouble. And there are those grandparents who don’t need to be asked. They manage to work it into whatever the conversation was about. They just can’t help themselves.

And why not? Aren’t there some things worth boasting about? Grandkids being but one of those things. Your church being another. Seriously. Any time I have been a part of a growing church, it wasn’t because it had a specific plan for evangelism. It wasn’t because it had a certain kind of music or building. It wasn’t a program of any kind. It was simply because the members couldn’t stop talking about their church. They boasted about what they loved about it. They told anyone and everyone what it meant to them to belong there. And there were invitations aplenty. “Come and see.” “Join us,” they would say. “You don’t want to miss this!”

That is the secret to church growth, a membership that boasts about their church. And no less a biblical figure than St. Paul himself was the model for this. On this All Saints Sunday celebration, we turn to Paul for boasting directions. Take a look.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. ... 11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul was always warning about boasting, and then would do it every chance he got. You can’t blame him really. He was proud of these churches that he helped to launch. He traveled all over the known world at the time and started little communities of faith. And then he kept in touch with them as he moved on. It wasn’t so much “out of sight, out of mind” for Paul. If it were, there would be big gaps in our New Testaments. We read story after story, letter after letter, of Paul and others trying to keep in touch with these communities. Trying to help them sort out difficulties. Trying to help them combat confusion and obfuscation. Trying to keep them on track with where Christ would have them be.

We don’t know what was going on in the church at Thessalonika. All the letter tells us is that there were difficult times in front of them. We know that the persecutions of the early church were terrible and wide-spread. We know that each time one of these communities gathered for worship they would end with a benediction - a good word - that would send them out into the darkness knowing that when they gathered again, some of their number would be missing. We know that there were times and there were nations who were so threatened by these upstart Christians that any mistreatment of those identified as belonging to that group was tolerated - from ridicule and ostracism to enslavement, imprisonment and torture. We don’t know what the church of the Thessalonians was enduring at the time of Paul’s writing. All we know was that Paul was proud of them. Proud of their faith and proud of their love and community spirit. This is a church, he was declaring, this is the true community, a reflection of the Kingdom of God living among us. Why wouldn’t you boast about that? Why wouldn’t you want everyone to know what was going on there? That lives were being redeemed, that meaning was discovered, that hope was declared.

Paul knew that his letters would be shared. He knew that others would hear and learn from the instruction he gave to the churches he served even from a distance. And Paul was admitting his relationship, his authority or paternity over these bodies. He was claiming them. So, in effect Paul was saying “Ask me about my Grandkids!”

Which is what makes it an appropriate passage for All Saints Sunday. Sorry. Did I lose you there? This Sunday, this All Hallows Eve, we are jumping ahead to All Hallows Day. Hallows – Hallowed – Holy – Saints. Follow the drift there? Halloween was originally a pointer toward a glorious celebration of the people of faith. All Hallows Even was the night before All Saints Day. OK, somewhere along the line it got mixed up with all sorts of other observances, “Samhain” the end of summer or a borderline day when the dividers between this world and the next became a little more thin, for one. And since All Saints was in part a reminder of those of our number who were no longer among us, the ghosts and goblins of the pagan celebrations leaked into the early observance.

I’m not going to take the time to argue the rightness or wrongness of the popular observance of Halloween in this space. Maybe next year, if anyone is really interested. Instead I want to move us toward All Saints. Which is, I’m arguing, a time of boasting!

Or should be anyway. It is a time for us to remember and to tell the stories of those who have gone before. And to tell them with pride. To tell the stories of faith in our communities, of the obstacles overcome, of the setbacks that didn’t thwart us. It is a time to celebrate the living examples of faith among us as well, to look around and see who we can boast about in our midst. And it is also a time to welcome new saints into our midst, those whose stories are still being written. The new chapters of our witness of faith.

It is a busy, a full and rich time. No wonder John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called All Saints his favorite Christian observance. “How superstitious are they who scruple giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints,” he wrote. It is a time of thankfulness and, yes of boasting.

Except, now that I think about it, maybe our bumper sticker should read a little differently. Since we are celebrating those who have gone before, our predecessors in the faith, maybe our All Saints Day bumper stickers should read “Ask Me About My Grandparents!”


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hearing Voices

I’ve been hearing voices this week. Uh, oh, you’re thinking. He’s finally snapped. Gone off the deep end, wandered into the twilight zone, traveled to his happy place, been elected mayor of crazy town. But no, I will argue, it is none of that. Admittedly, since I have been alone for a few days while La Donna and the kids are in Washington DC on the youth trip, there have been moments when the remaining cat and I have had some serious conversations. But that isn’t what I’m referring to right now. Though, Hairy is a cat with opinions, let me tell you. I can’t say I know what they are all the time. Or any of the time, come to think of it. But he is good in the expressing department.

No, it isn’t the howling cat voices that I’m talking about. Or even the inner dialogue that sometimes happens to fill the silence. Surely I’m not the only one there. Am I? No, I don’t think so. They say talking to yourself isn’t a problem. The problem is when you start answering yourself. Is that right? Yes, it is.

OK, I really need the family to come home.

Back to my point. It was in the office that I was hearing the voices this week. And don’t say “well, duh.” It was in the quiet moments, when no one was there that I heard the voices. It was while I was reading or writing. No one around that I could see, and there would be these voices. I couldn’t always tell what was being said, and that was just the problem. I would find myself straining to hear. Interrupting whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing to tune in these voices. It sounded important, urgent even at times. And then at other times there were words followed by muffled laughter. It was curious, distracting, interesting, all at the same time.

OK, full disclosure, they’ve been replacing the roof at the church this past week. The voices were accompanied by footsteps clumping over my head, and hammering and generators and the occasional flying piece of roofing material dropping past the window. Curiosity explained.

Except the voices continued. I don’t mean the guys on the roof. Though they were still there all week long. I’m shifting philosophical gears here, stay with me. The voices continued. We live in a talkative world. And all these voices seem to be trying to tell us that they know better than we do how to live our lives.

These voices might simply be distracting, or they might be truly destructive, it is often hard to tell the difference. What we really need is the ability to listen. Jesus seems to imply in our passage this week that listening is an easy thing to do. But is it really?

Listen to this:

John 10:1-10 "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

I know, you’ve heard this before fairly recently. These verse sound familiar, don’t they? We began our One Month to Live challenge with these verses and now we end with the same words.

I’ll tell you again that the real crux of this passage is the last half of verse 10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But while that is the crux, there is always the larger issue of what does it mean? Or in this case how do we get it? What do we need to do in order to experience this abundant life?

We need to learn to listen. OK, it is never as simple as that. That is only a part of our task. We need to not only to listen but to follow. We need to not only to listen but to trust. We need to not only to listen but to hope. We need to not only to listen ... well, you get the idea.

But the piece I want us to hear today is that we need to listen. Following, says Jesus in this passage, is a product of listening. He will lead, he tells us in verse four. But only after we’ve come out at the sound of his voice. He will lead, he tells us, if we choose to follow. And the only way we can follow is if we know that voice. If we can recognize the sound of it. It calls for a certain amount of discernment. There are voices we need to run from. Voices that don’t have our welfare and our safety in mind, voices that don’t want us to prosper and to grow, to know the joys of abundant life.

So, how do we know? How do we figure out which voice is His and which voice is the one who wishes us harm? Unfortunately, John doesn’t help us out a whole lot in these verses. In part it takes a lifetime of study and devotion. John Wesley called this lifetime process sanctification, the process of moving closer to Christ, becoming more like Him. There is more involved than I can pull out of John chapter ten.

But there are a couple of hints that I want us to be aware of in these verses. First of all, the Shepherd knows our name. The call that comes from Christ matches us in the deepest essence of our being. He calls us to be who we are, and not who we might think we want to be, or who the world tells us we need to be. Following Christ has a “rightness” about it. It is a response to the longings of our soul. And the more we follow, the more we are truly ourselves.

In verse nine, we are told that Christ is the way, “whoever enters by me will be saved.” But then it says we will come in and go out and find pasture. Come in and go out. There is a lot of movement in the Christian life. We don’t just sit, we don’t just find a safe corner and then remain there. We don’t lounge in place waiting to be fed. We find our sustenance in coming and going, in study and in service, in spending time with the word and going out to share it. We are called to be coming and going throughout our lives.

If we feel as though we are pulled in too many directions, then we need to come back. Worship with the community of faith, study together the Word or books on Christian living or knowing, find places of fellowship for laughter and joy together. On the other hand, if we feel as though our faith isn’t doing much, is all head knowledge, then you need to go. Go and serve, go and help, volunteer in our community, do something with your hands, teach or share, help or heal, there are lots of opportunities for us to be going out in service to the world.

The odd thing is that it is both in the coming and in the going we learn to listen. We listen through the study and contemplation of the Word. But we also listen through the voices of need and hope in the people around us. And the more we listen, the more we come to recognize the voice of the shepherd. A life of no regrets is a life lived in hearing distance of Jesus Christ.

Did you hear that voice?


Saturday, October 16, 2010


I think it was my daughter Maddie who said it best, said it for all of us as yesterday afternoon she declared “This has been a terrible October.” Less that two weeks ago we had to put down our beloved Cocker Spaniel Cissy who had been a part of our lives for around 15 years. And then just yesterday it was our cat Wesley, who came into our family almost the same time.

His full name was Wesley Wilberforce Weber. We tried for a brief time referring to him as But that seemed just too cute to stick. And even the more formal name was unwieldy, so he was just Wesley. The explanation was that he always had something say, a sermon to preach. He was a cat, just a cat for some, I understand that. For others he was a cat with personality, who shouldered his way into our family and took his place with confidence and grace. He was a cat with opinions, and wasn’t hesitant about sharing them. Whether we ever got what he was trying to tell us was obviously our problem and not his.

What he wasn’t was one of those aloof creatures who hid from human contact, only appearing to eat and to be let out. No, Wesley was a people person, I mean cat. He wanted to meet and greet, to sit on laps and watch football or even engage in conversation. And he loved the dog. Not in a mushy, huggy, touchy feely kind of way. But in a cat way, in the knowing that there are just certain ways that things should be, and checking on her on a regular basis, and just looking out for her since everyone knows cats are much more intelligent than dogs - at least in the opinion of most cats.

It was after Cissy was gone that we noticed Wesley’s problems. He quit eating, moved more slowly, just seemed to struggle with most things. At the end, the vet said that it wasn’t grief that killed him, but I have to believe it was a part of it all. Their lives were intertwined from the day we brought them into the house, so it only makes sense that they would leave this world together too.

You just never know, I guess, which lives will get wrapped up together. You never know the impact you might have on someone else. Whether it is the someone else you would expect, spouse or children or parents, or someone you might be surprised to know finds a connection. This fourth and last principle of our study is “Leave Boldly.” Meaning in part that while we live we should ask what we are doing that will last beyond us. We should pay attention to the lives that we might impact for good, or for God. How can we live in such a way that those around us are better, are different, are impacted because we were there.

That is the question that Paul was asking in these verses from the first letter to the Corinthians He was asking it of us, but he was also asking it of himself, I think. Take a look:

1 Corinthians 3:12-14 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-- 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.

These verses follow the more familiar “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” verse that described his ministry as a partnership. Or at least a recognition that he only has a part in the building of the kingdom. The third chapter opens with that agricultural image of ministry. Paul is staking his claim for taking part in the planting of the faith, but also acknowledging that others (like Apollos, whoever that is) have played a part as well. That in fact it is this partnership that Christ has in mind when it comes to building the church.

Which is the image that he shifts to in verse 10. Well, verse nine is a transition verse: “For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.” So, out of the field into the building - or off the farm into the construction business. We are building, says Paul. But are we building to last, that’s the question before us in the middle verses.

The foundation, he says is Jesus Christ. That was verse eleven. That’s a given. Even the foundation he says he laid in verse ten, is really the foundation that is Jesus Christ. He didn’t invent it, he didn’t define it, it just was. So, now we all have an opportunity, he argues, just like he did, to build on that foundation. We can’t change it, we can’t determine the boundaries, can’t redefine the dimensions. But we can enhance it. We can make space for others. We can add color or comfort. We can, well, who knows what we can do. It is simply amazing that Christ chooses to let us participate in this building process. But he does. He wants us as partners, as co-creators in building the Kingdom, in shaping the church.

But Paul asks are we building something for ourselves, or something that will last beyond us? Are we building for our own preferences and tastes, or are we reaching beyond us to build something bigger, something more inclusive?

He reminds us that there is a variety of building materials available. He describes them as gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw. Because we are used to Paul’s lists, we might be inclined to think that some of us have gold and some of us have straw. Which is the way the world talks to us. Some of us can do great and lasting things, others don’t have the capability. But in this case any of these options are available to all of us. It is a matter of choice and not personal ability or giftedness. Do we choose the things that will last or are we only concerned with quick and easy. Are we into shortcuts - working with metals and stones is much more difficult than with wood or straw. So, it is an invitation to choose that more difficult route. More difficult but more lasting.

More difficult. We all know that opening yourself up to others has risks. We can get hurt. Our hearts can break when we risk loving. Sometimes it seems more prudent, or certainly safer to just worry about yourself. To look our for number one, as the world tells us. Yet Paul tells us there is a reward in doing this well.

Verse fourteen is an interesting one. “If what is built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.” Our first thought, of course is eternity. If we do this right, then we get eternity in heaven, a place in the kingdom. But then that can’t be right. Because that sounds like salvation is by our own efforts, by our own works. And Paul would never say that. If we were to read on verse fifteen tells us that the reward isn’t salvation: 1 Corinthians 3:15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. Salvation isn’t contingent on us building rightly. So, what could the reward possibly be? Some talk about levels of heaven, or the size of the mansion we inhabit. But that has never sounded right to me. Heaven must be a place of equality, of unity, not of hierarchy.

It may be too subtle for some, but I believe that the reward Paul speaks of is the satisfaction of working for something bigger than yourself. It is the joy of loving despite the risks. It is the mutuality we experience when our lives intertwine with others, even those we may never meet, who may come after us. It is the second wind we receive in running this race because of the cloud of witnesses of those who have gone before and glimpsing the vision for those who will come after.

We may think we are a small pebble tossed into a big sea. But those ripples may circle out and touch lives in surprising ways. Just a pebble. Or just a cat. And yet we are different because he was here. May it be said of you as well.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

“It’s got to be the going, not the gettin’ there that’s good.” Where’s that from? That’s one of those song lyrics rattling around in the hard drive of my brain, left over from who knows when. I’ll look it up later, just to satisfy my curiosity. But I don’t need to right now, because in this case I disagree.

Oh, I’m all for enjoying the journey. I tell my kids to look out the windows when we drive somewhere. “Seen it, dad,” they reply, “nothing there, dad.” “Trees and road, houses and cows, dad.” Yeah, but, I’ll argue, oddly shaped trees, perhaps. Funny houses you’d love to live in, maybe. Mutant cows from Mars. Or maybe not.

Getting there IS what its all about, isn’t it? Otherwise, why have destinations in mind? Why have goals, outcomes, plans at all? We’re on the way, we say, but to where? We’ll get there, we say, but will we? How can we, if we don’t have any concept of where we are going? It’s got to be more than just the going that’s good.

Now all of this random musing has come about because of a phrase that Jesus uses in our gospel passage for this week. It is a phrase of such hope and promise that it catches your breath. And yet is could almost pass you by, if you aren’t paying attention. Take a look:

Mark 12:28-34 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32 Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; 33 and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,'-- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.

A familiar passage, in a familiar setting. And so clearly significant, it is like a bright red flashing light that draws our attention to the center message. It is a message that we have to grasp, a message we have to wrestle with and claim as our own. It is a message that we have to figure out how to live in our day to day existence. “The greatest commandment,” right from Jesus’ own lips. How can we debate the meaning and value of such words? There it is in black and white - or red and white, if you have one of those bibles!

And isn’t it interesting that it comes in the midst of an argument. Or rather, a tag team wrestling match. It was a collusion of bitter rivals who band together against a new common enemy. The Pharisees and the Herodians wouldn’t give each other the time of day, wouldn’t hand out a band-aid to cover a bullet wound. And yet, there they are in the beginning of Chapter 12, palling around together in an attempt to trip up Jesus with their rapier like logic. Only it doesn’t work. Jesus out logics the logicians. And when they are left hanging on the ropes, panting for breath, who should show up but the Sadducees. Now, both the Pharisees and the Herodians would rather belly surf in a pig sty than ask for help from the Sadducees, but in their desperation they reach out to tag them in. Only to watch them driven to their knees in humiliation by the surprisingly unmarked Jesus.

All of that happens in the first part of Chapter 12. That’s the scene that elicits the passage we are looking at today: a UFC cage match gone horribly wrong. During a commercial break, when the main contestants are catching their breath and stitching up the gaping wounds, this guy sidles up to Jesus and asks his question. Now, this guy is a scribe, Mark says. Which under normal circumstances is presented as a bad guy; a letter of the law guy, a stickler for the whereases and heretofores of the fine print buried in the back pages of the incomprehensible legal document. Mark tells us this with a sly grin and a “who’d a thunk it” shrug of the shoulders.

“Which commandment is first of all?” And being a scribe, he knew in intimate detail just how all all could be! There has been a debate over the centuries as to whether this was just round 4 in this melee and the scribe was trying to trip him up just as assuredly as the previous combatants. But Mark doesn’t think so, and neither do I. There is something different about this approach. Mark describes it by saying the scribe was impressed by Jesus. “He argues like a scribe” he must have thought to himself. Which many would see as an insult, but for a scribe it was the highest of compliments.

No, it appears to be an honest question, a sincere search for answers. And that is how Jesus responds. “Hear O Israel,” Jesus reverts to the shema, a traditional liturgy that every Jewish child learned almost as soon as he or she could talk. “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” These are the words that are written on a scrap of paper and placed in the mezzuza, that little box attached to the doorframe of every Jewish home. As they would go in and come out, they would touch that box and recite the words, remembering who they were and whose they were. Of course he would use those words. What else? Then follow them up with the proscription to love God and love neighbor. Presenting them both as though they were inseparable, two sides of the same coin.

There are some variations of wording between Mark’s account and the Old Testament. Mark has four dimensions of this love - heart and soul, mind and strength; the Deuteronomy has only three - heart and soul and might. But we can understand the shift by remembering that Mark wants to make sure that Gentiles understand the totality of this commitment. To the Jew the heart was the seat of both emotion or feeling and intellect. Greeks tended to divide the human emotion from the rational mind, so Mark makes sure we hear both heart and mind.

But for the most part it is the same. Jesus reaches back and grabs a foundational statement and offers it up as answer to the plea. And the scribe grins and claps his hands. Not in appreciation of the scholar who passed the test, but in the joy of knowing that what was in his heart is truth. When Jesus sees this joy in agreement, he tosses out the phrase that transforms this whole event from a back alley brawl to glimpse into eternity. “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Wow. No wonder no one could ask any more questions, they were stunned by the fleeting image of glory.

What we wouldn’t give for a statement like that from Jesus. “You are not far off” Jesus tells us that is why he came, to seek those who are far off and bring them near. We want to be near, we want to know that we are close to the Kingdom, close to the hope, close to the model for living that we are called to live - more than that, close to model for living that we long to live.

Mark tells us here that to get close, we have to live full out. We don’t hold back, we don’t keep a little in reserve. With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. That’s the only thing Jesus wants from us - everything. In our Aldersgate book study, this section is called Live Passionately. Which I guess means that the going and the getting there are pretty much the same thing. Let’s get going!