Saturday, June 30, 2018

Star Differs From Star

Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / no hell below us / above us only sky / Imagine all the people living for today. / Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people living life in peace, you / You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope some day you'll join us / And the world will be as one / Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you / You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope some day you'll join us / And the world will be as one

No heaven.  Imagine.  Heaven is hard to imagine.  It is almost more than our minds can comprehend.  We aren’t equipped to hold eternity in our skulls.  It won’t fit.  It doesn’t compute.  Our imagination, as wondrous as that gift is, isn’t up to the task of imagining heaven.  Yet, there seems to be one thing harder.  Imagining that there is no heaven.

I understand John’s point, his plea really.  He’s asking all of us consider not taking this world for granted.  To live as though this was it, this world, this life and to do all we can do to focus on the things that matter.  I get it.  And I agree.  Furthermore, I think Jesus would agree.  With the sentiment that this life matters.  Not just for what it gets us in the next one.  But it’s own sake.  This life matters.  Because it is the place where we can live the heaven we hope for.  

It makes a world of difference whether we see this life as something to be survived, something to suffer through, or something to practice heavenly living.  It makes a world of difference whether this world is devoid of the divine hope, a desert to crawl through, parched for the waters of life, or if there are glimpses of heaven around every corner.  

We’re obsessed with heaven.  It’s been on our minds ever since we had minds.  It was on the minds of some in the Southport UMC congregation when I gave them the Meet the Bible survey.  We’re concluding that part of the summer series with some reflections on Bible themes.  Not a specific passage or book of the Bible, but threads that appear throughout in various ways.  Next week we’ll look at grace and forgiveness as Biblical themes.  But this week it is heaven.  

Heaven slips in and out of the scriptures so often that it should have been easy to get a text to wrestle with.  What was difficult was finding something that would let us wrestle with the reality of heaven, since there is so little that we can know for sure.  What we want is a map, a Google street view so we could gaze down the streets, read the names on the mailboxes and see if there is anyone we know.  What we want is a glimpse of the landscape of heaven. But those passages aren’t really very helpful.  Too symbolic, too jeweled or gold-plated to be useful.  

On the other hand we have Jesus who tosses out glimpses of heaven like they are riddles to be puzzled over, enigmas to befuddle.  It’s like He wants to give us hints, but vastly overrates our ability to comprehend.  Oh, we get glimpses, we get hints, but no large oil painting we can hang over the couch in the living room, no jpg we can use as wallpaper on our computers, or could cut and paste our own face over and send out on Instagram - Hi, it’s me, from heaven! Wish you were here.

Wish we were there.   It’s an ache within us this wishing to be there.  Most of the time we don’t think about it.  Most of the time we are busy with living, as we should be.  But now and then it overwhelms us.  This sense that we aren’t where we’re supposed to be.  That it’s long past time we should be going home.  The home we long for, the home we were created for.  The home for peace and justice, the home for love and wholeness, the home where we know we are welcomed, and loved and accepted.  
How will we get there?  That’s what we really want to know.  Yeah, we want to know what it looks like, but even more we want to know what we will look like.  What will our loved ones look like?  What will we be?

1 Corinthians 15:35-58 But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed,  52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Whew.  That’s a lot of words to say I don’t know.  But that’s the message.  That’s the truth.  He doesn’t know.  But then again, he knows, does Paul.  He knows that what happens in that transition from here to there, from this world to the next one, he knows it is in God’s hands. That’s what he knows.  It’s all in God’s hands.  God will take the nothing that is us and make it something.  A seed, an essence, that which is us, fundamentally us, and create something new.  A new body.  Imperishable.  Spiritual, but not just spirit.  A body made of Spirit.  That which doesn’t decay, doesn’t erode.  A body like Jesus’s, who after resurrection ate and talked and touched and was held.  But also entered through barriers, was everywhere at once, was recognizable and not at the same time.  He was ... No, He is.  That’s the promise.  He is.  And because He is, we will be too.

My head is spinning, how about you?  We can only grapple with these things for so long.  And then words run out, images fail to capture.  We’re left with a shrug of the shoulders and a strange, but contented smile that says I know.  I know what is unknowable.  I know with faith what my mind can’t comprehend.  And one day I’ll see with the eyes that I am given when raised from the seed that is me.  One day I’ll home to the place I know and will recognize though I have never been there before.  But I’ll be home.  With you.  In glory.  We’ll be like stars, shining with a light that comes from beyond.  The same in glory, but different, recognizable, you’ll be you, I’ll be me, as star differs from star.  But one, in a profound way we can only glimpse now. One with Christ, one with each other and one in adoration with the world.  Thanks be to God. 


Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Hard Saying

Vacation Bible School was this week at Southport UMC.  Or VBS in the alphabet soup that is ministry in the UMC.  Many of you have been there, participated, volunteered, helped create an experience of faith and Bible for kids wired on summer, so you know how close it always teeters to the brink of disaster.  How quickly it can all collapse like a house of cards.  And once it is over you wonder if anything happened, any teaching occurred, any seed got planted. Or is the best we can say that we provided a brief respite for harried mothers and fathers in a too long summer.  

My task this year was to be the one who told the “Cool Bible Adventures” when each crew of elementary kids showed up at my station.  “Cool” Bible Adventures because the theme was Polar Blast and the kids were divided into Polar Bears and Penguins and Moose.  They even took a moment on opening day to point out that they were aware that Penguins and Polar Bears lived on opposite ends of the planet, but that for this week, they were friends, ok?  And the moose (mooses, meese, mise?  Whatever) were just visiting, I guess.  And we were not just supposed to read a Bible story, no we were to “experience a cool Bible adventure.”  Right.  Easy enough, I’m somewhat familiar with Bible adventures, so no problem.  

The first day was Jesus saying “let the little children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Easy as pie.  The second day was the crucifixion.  And the third day was the resurrection.  Um, what?  In twenty five minutes I was to help a group of elementary age children experience the crucifixion and then the resurrection.  Experience the crucifixion.  Yes, well.  You know I’ve been trying to do that for adults for over thirty years and I’m still not sure I’ve got that right.  But elementary kids on summer break, fresh from hot and sweaty games in the yard and powdered sugar donut holes for snowball snacks?  How in the world do we shape these deep and profound concepts around those minds?  Around any of our minds, come to think of it? It’s just hard. 

In our summer Bible preaching series, we’ve come to the place I decided to call “troublesome Bible passages.”  There were so many questions about so many verses and passages and stories, that it was hard to pin it down to just one or two.  There is just some difficult stuff in there.  Stuff we stumble over on a regular basis.  And what seems simple and straightforward to some is impossible for others.  

And most of the time we think the problem is us.  We’re just dumb, we think, we just don’t know enough.  But it may be more than that.  Not just our lack, but something that is so radically different from our normal ways of thinking that it comes across as impossible, incomprehensible.  We might be able to hear it, but we can’t experience this Bible adventure, cool or not cool.  And we aren’t the first to have that problem.

John 6:60-69 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" 68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Older translations wrote that the people said “This is a hard saying.”  It was a hard saying.  In some ways an incomprehensible saying.  Jesus had been talking about being the Bread of Life, and suggesting that His followers should eat His body and drink His blood.  And that by doing so we would live forever.  It sounded like gibberish.  It sounded like nonsense.  They looked at His face, waiting to see the smile break out and the joke would be on them.  But He seemed serious.  Dead serious.  Or maybe eternally serious.  Yet what could it possibly mean?  Cannibalism?  Surely not.  The people of God had long ago turned their back on such prehistoric things as human sacrifice and feasting on the blood of the enemy.  So, what could He be referring to?  

A hard saying indeed.  And not the first from His lips.  Nor will it be the last.  But for some reason John grabs this one as definitive.  This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  And some of the disciples - notice it was disciples, followers, students, learners, not just the on-lookers - wandered off.  And quit following Him that day.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in all my years of ministry it is that people walk away.  And they walk away for all kinds of reasons.  But more often than not, if you look deep enough, there was a hard saying that got in the way.  Maybe the hard saying was something complicated like body and blood as a transmitter of life and the modern mind just decides it isn’t worth trying to figure it out.  Or maybe the hard saying is something like “love your neighbor as yourself” and it isn’t the understanding that’s hard, it’s the doing.  Easier to walk away.  Go back to what makes sense.  At least what the world thinks makes sense.  Looking out for yourself, keeping what’s yours, there isn’t enough so get yours first, that kind of thing.  Those sayings fit the world we have better.  At least that’s what some think.

Some disciples walked away because it got too hard.  Hard to understand, hard to follow, just hard.  And Jesus let them go.  It made Him sad, I believe.  As you read the rest of the moment that John captures in our passage this week, you can’t help but feel that Jesus is sad to see them go.  He turns to the twelve, the ones He called by name and asked them to follow.  And says “are you leaving too?”  They say “where would we go?”  It was Peter, he was the spokesperson again.  You notice he doesn’t say, no, it all makes sense to us.  We’re hanging around.  He says our options are limited.  You’ve got the words.  We don’t know what they mean any more than anyone does.  But we know there is something there.  Something about life.  Something about eternity.  We don’t know what it is, but we’re staying with you.

When we worship, we’ll look at some of these hard sayings, we’ll try to come up with a plan on how to deal with them.  We’ll take a look at the context, we’ll take a look at the genre of literature, we’ll ask if there are similar statements that maybe put a different light on it.  We’ll do whatever it takes to help us deal with these hard sayings.  But in the end we’ll also admit that there is some stuff we just won’t get.

Or at least we won’t get it when we’re standing still.  Maybe that’s the secret to the hard stuff of the faith.  When we sit and try and puzzle it out, we get stumped.  It’s too hard.  It’s beyond us.  But when we take that step of faith, and venture out, what didn’t make sense before now seems so evident we can hardly believe it.  Of course we are sustained by the body and blood of Jesus!  Of course we want to love our neighbor as ourselves.  How could we not?  It is in the doing that the understanding will come.

So, I asked my little elementary groups of VBS kids not to understand crucifixion and resurrection, but to experience what it is to be loved.  Loved so powerfully, loved completely, loved in such a way that you are filled to the brim with it.  Did they get it then?  I don’t know.

Do you? 


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Even Those Who Pierced Him

I decided to do this summer series in part because I had done it before.  That made it a little easier to think outside of this particular box.  Yet, though I had done it before, since it was based on the questions and suggestions and preferences of the congregation it was still going to be new this time around.  No pulling sermons out of the file and reusing them.  So, it is designed to meet people where they are, with their questions and concerns and hopes and understandings and to help them love the Bible even more.

That’s the other part of why I chose to do this series again, this “Meet the Bible” series.  Because I love the Bible and its narrative flow and vibrant diversity and spiritual depth.  I didn’t want the congregation to see the Bible as tool kit for salvation or for evangelism, merely dealing with the nuts and bolts of hammering out a faith practice (was that a mixed metaphor?)  It can be that.  But it is so much more than that.  It is a work of art designed to inspire.  It is a love letter designed to make us swoon.  It is designed to make us angry and ashamed, to make us hopeful and courageous, to help us find the light in our personal and corporate darkness, and to move us off the center when we buy into the message of the culture that says it is all about us.  It is so much more than a tool kit or a blueprint for right living.  It is about being alive, not just living.

Which means that what I hoped to do in this series is teach the congregation in my care how to use the Bible appropriately.  Some might think that is not all that important these days.  Unless you listen to the news and discover no less than the Attorney General of the United States misusing the Bible to justify a personal and arguably unjust executive policy.  Mr. Sessions attempted to use Romans 13 (be subject to the governing authorities) essentially to tell us not to question our government on anything; neglecting to quote Romans 12 which tells us to hate what is evil - wherever it comes from. Not to mention the countless references to how the people of God are called to treat the immigrant in their midst.  Or the summation of the law endorsed by Jesus that we are to love God and love neighbor with an equal passion and practice.  One thing the Bible is not good for is hiding behind.  

Am I straying into politics?  Maybe.  But the Bible is eminently political.  To pay attention to the Bible is to pay attention to how we live, as individuals and as communities, but also as nations.  It is to pay attention to both the promises and the warnings.  The call to right living and the bestowing of grace for the times we miss the mark.  And it does all of this in such mind-boggling diversity that we sometimes read with mouths agape as we puzzle through the images and the narrative, scratching our heads in wonder and confusion.  It’s no wonder that sometimes the Bible is used for selfish purposes, since it seems you can use it to justify almost any position, no matter how outlandish.  You can use it to condemn any thinking, any action, any person that you don’t like for some reason.  That’s the danger of the misuse of the Bible.  And the only check on this rampant misunderstanding is the Bible itself, and the people of God who have devoted centuries to understanding it - gotten it wrong many times, but can usually come to a new and deeper truth with time.  Not without some angst and disruption, however.  But then angst and disruption seems to be the lot of the people of faith.  

Angst and disruption seems a good segue into what I’m really supposed to be about this weekend.  I’m still, as I mentioned earlier, dealing with the things that puzzle you, the things that trouble you, the things that down right confuse the heck out of you.  Number one on the top of that list is the single most troubling book in the whole Bible.  And that’s saying something.  There is trouble on every page.  Even the Jesus we know and love can throw us a curve ball now and then that leaves us whiffing at the plate without a clue.  But for most of us that “here be dragons” section of the Bible we stay away from has to be the Book of Revelation.  Because there are dragons in it!

Revelation 1:1-7 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. 4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

No dragons yet.  The book starts with a declaration of what it is.  Actually, it starts with a declaration about who it is. Who it is about.  Who it is from.  Revelation is fundamentally not a what but a who.  It is less a drama and more a character study.  It is less a history - ancient, modern or future - and more a curriculum vitae.  It is less about us and what will happen or not happen to us, and more about Him and what He promises will happen.  

There is so much about this book that is shrouded in mystery.  The author calls himself John.  Tradition says it is the Apostle John.  But as early as the second century there was some doubt about that.  The text of Revelation is so different from the other writings that bear the name of John that it seems to come from another hand completely.  Most historians believe that John died in Ephesus, and gathered a community of believers there who actually wrote the gospel and letters that bear his name.  John in Revelation says he in on the isle of Patmos, believed by some to be a penal colony, a place of exile for political prisoners of the Roman Empire.  The truth is we don’t know. 

Most believe that Revelation was written in the mid-nineties AD.  Some think it was much earlier.  It was written during a time of persecution against the followers of Christ.  It is a word from this Christ who says, in essence, I’ve got this.  But that word is couched in a language we only barely understand these days - apocalyptic.  Much has been made of the similarities between Revelation and Daniel, for example, or Ezekiel or other prophetic works.  Images and symbols, codes and numbers that only make sense in this language system.  The attempts at translating this apocalyptic drama into something that fits history have been many and various.   And continuous, at least for last hundred years or so.  Like so much of the Bible, Revelation has been twisted so outrageously that it has been used to condemn almost anything you’d like to consider, and to warn of the dangers of almost any group of people or even individuals.  There are those who argue that the drama depicted in the bulk of the book is an ancient one, the early church’s struggle with the empire of Rome.  Others argue that it is a depiction of current history with the characters pointing toward tyrants and politicians of various stripes.  Still others consider that the references are all about a yet to come historical event for which we need to wait and watch.  Which is it?  Well, in a way, it could be all of these.  

Not that I hold much credence to the momentary end of all that is and battle of Armageddon on our doorstep.  But that the drama depicts the constant battle of human sinfulness that seeks to take the place of God and vanquish the enemy of the day.  It is a story that is told again and again and again.  Claiming that there is one historical figure, who lived or lives or will live to oppose God is to underestimate the power of sin in human existence.  There are times when the beast is me, the anti-Christ is me, the harlot is me.  And maybe you?  Maybe not in such cosmic, world destroying ways, but in smaller yet no less destructive self-centered ways.  And even those of us who pierced Him will see Him, that the promise, that’s the hope.

The theme of the book of Revelation is God’s got this.  No matter how it might look at any given point in history.  But a clear sub-theme it oriented toward us: Hold on.  The biblical word is endure.  Hold on to faith.  Hold on to hope. Hold on to the Way of Christ.  Hold on to hospitality.  Hold on to invitation and inclusion.  Hold on to justice for oppressed.  Hold on.  The point being, I believe, is that this is enough for us to be going on with instead of wasting our time trying to identify the characters in the drama of Revelation.  Hold on to truth.  Hold on.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

He Sent Me

Annual Conference is over for another year.  And I survived.  Yeah, I confess, it’s not my most favorite time of the year.  Not the event I look forward to the most.  But it comes with the territory.  Because I am an ordained clergy person of the United Methodist Church I am required (yes, required) to attend annual conference annually - hence the name.  It’s a business meeting.  A family reunion.  It’s a meet and greet.  A time for worship and the annual question of your call to ministry and service. It’s a pep rally and motivational seminar.  It’s all that and much more.  And much less.  For good or for ill it is the functioning of the institution of the church to gather together and fulfill obligations and shore up the edges.  

The theme this year was “See All the People.”  You know, from that old rhyme thing we did as kids, with our fingers.  “Here is the church, here is the steeple.  Open the doors and see all the people.”  And then we’d wiggle our fingers around like the people in the pews were worms in a bucket, fish bait for the task of catching fish for Jesus.  See all the people.  It was a call to a renewal of an evangelistic fervor, but to do it in a way that includes, that doesn’t ignore, doesn’t overlook anyone.  See All the people.  

We’re a church wrestling with All these days, which people we can see, which people we can include, which people we can allow to lead us.  We’re not the only ones wrestling with this.  Not the only church, not the only institution.  But we’re the ones called to pay attention to the wriggling bait bucket of humanity and see all the people.  So it is especially poignant this year.  

The added irony for me this year was the context of the Conference.  We met, again, in the Indianapolis Convention Center, a wonderful facility in the heart of the downtown.  A massive structure able to accommodate a variety of events all at the same time and not feel like we’re bumping up against one another.   Yet, because we were told all week to See All the People, I purposely strolled out of the boundaries of our corridor to see what else was going on in the building.  On the opposite end of the Convention center - sixteen miles away if you walk it (well, it seemed that much to me anyway) was Pop Con.  Other cities call this a Comic Con, but in Indy it is Pop Con, popular culture.  Comic book worlds, yes, but also Manga and Anime, that uniquely Japanese approach to graphic arts, and movies of various genres, the video gaming world and other cultural icons.  I walked through superheroes, some of whom have gone to seed  a little bit, through Sailor Moon and her cohorts, stormtroopers and game characters.  They were young, and they were loud and they were friendly and excited and enjoying themselves tremendously. 

Plus, because I’m cheap, I borrowed my wife’s parking tag for the IUPUI Faculty and Staff parking lot and walked the few blocks south to the convention center.  And in so doing I passed by the park that had been converted to be the ending festival point for the Pride Parade that was scheduled to come through downtown Indianapolis at the same time as we were ordaining the next group of clergy to serve in our churches.  And if I was underdressed for Pop Con because I wasn’t wearing an elaborate costume of many layers and accessories (some of the biggest swords you’ve ever seen, for example), then I was way over dressed for the Pride Festival and certainly no where near colorful enough to be a part of those who gathered there.  Again, they were young and loud and friendly and excited and enjoying themselves tremendously.  

As I sat in worship with my crowd, older, quieter, not quite as friendly or excited, (except for those who were supporting the ones to be ordained) and I wondered if they were enjoying themselves.  Tremendously, or even just a little.  The camera would scan the podium during the sermon and the ritual and the singing, and the august dignitaries assembled there didn’t really seem to be expressing joy to me.  At least in comparison to those a few corridors away.  And I wondered if we were somehow to mix this crowd with either of those other crowds what would happen?  Would we see all the people?  Or would we overlook them, turn up our noses at them, shake our heads at them?  

And then I wondered, forgive me but I wondered, which crowd Jesus would come and join.  Which party He would attend.  Of course, He would come to all, did come to all today.  But if He was in the flesh again for today and limited by the physicality of space and time, then where would He be?

Forgive me.  All of that seems a long way from what I’m supposed to be dealing with in this space.  We are just barely into our summer series called Meet the Bible.  And I’m trying to respond to your questions and comments about the Bible in these weeks.  Last week we dealt with the problem of interpretation.  In future weeks we’ll look at specific puzzling bits, like the whole book of Revelation, or the troublesome passages we still wonder about today, and some general themes from the Bible that keep coming back again and again.  

But this week I’m supposed to be dealing with questions concerning the Old Testament vs the New Testament.  Specifically the image of God in the Old as a God of war and Judgement and the image of God in the New as a God of Love and Grace.  But also the question was raised about how the Old Testament leads to the New, prophesies in the Old that prefigure the New.  Which I heard as a question about the purpose of the Old Testament in light of the New.  

Truth be told, I can’t really resolve all that stuff in one blog post or one sermon.  I can only point out some things, can only make some hints, some stabs in the dark.  But I thought the best place to approach a response to both of those lines of questions would be from Jesus.  Jesus talked about scripture a lot.  In some places He was affirming what was said, in other places He seemed to be changing, or deepening or raising higher what was said.  But He loved the scriptures and wants us to love them too.  They define Him, He seems to be saying.  And can define us too.  If we can see it, see all the Word.

Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Fulfilled, He said.  Today this scripture has been fulfilled.  What does that mean?  Well, we could debate that word for a long time, and many have over the years.  But certainly there is a connection, a continuation and an application.  This is not just a word on the page, in the scroll to be read and pondered.  But this is a living Word, a Word enacted, a Word incarnated in His flesh and then because we agreed to be followers of Him, in ours as well.  

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled, doesn’t mean that the work is done, but that the Word is set loose in the world.  That Good news is alive and at work, that freedom and healing can be found, is made available to the ones who need it the most, the ones the world thinks least deserving and least likely to receive it.  

Certainly there are those who believe that the God depicted in the Old Testament would be roaming the streets downtown today pronouncing judgement and condemnation.  Would be closing doors and assigning shame and blame.  But the God of the Old Testament that Jesus knew would be proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  How can that be?  How can there be judgement and mercy both?  How can there be a call to righteousness and an offer of grace both?

Jesus spoke of judgement too.  We forget that.  But His judgement seemed to be reserved for those who refused to see all the people.  The ones who wanted to cast judgement themselves, who wanted His job.  In the end, Jesus didn’t see a disconnect from the God He knew and the Messiah He was.  He was sent to fulfill the Word that was given, a Word of righteousness and grace.  He was sent to see all the people.  You too.  And me.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Wings of the Morning

The sun shone brightly this morning, sooner than I had hoped, I must confess, but gloriously all the same.  A beautiful day awaited.  A day to be seized, to be filled with tasks and challenges and opportunities.  What’s that prayer someone wrote about mornings?  Dear God, so far today I haven’t hurt anyone, I haven’t gotten angry or hateful, so far today I haven’t missed any opportunities or caused anyone to lose faith because of my words and my actions.  So far, O Lord, I’ve been obedient to Your will and Your way.  But I’m about to get out of bed, so I really need Your help!  Amen.  

Ah mornings, they are so full of potential.  Paths radiate out in so many directions.  Which one will you take?  Where will you end up when the sun sets in the evening?  Will you be closer to where you hoped to be than when you started?  As La Donna was saying good bye today, heading off to yet another meeting, another conference responsibility, I said we need to make sure that we don’t let our vacation time this summer fritter away, that w really take time for ourselves.  She said, that’s why we need to make a list.  A list.  Her answer to anything and everything.  Make a list. Others would say make a plan.  Chart a course.  Live intentionally.  Live alive.  But how do we do that?  What tools do we have to make our way in the world in a way that helps us stay on track, stay aware and alive?

We are starting our summer preaching series this weekend.  It’s a series that you asked for.  Well, you who are worshipers at Southport UMC, who responded to a survey I put out a few months ago.  It’s in two parts.  Part one is called “Meet the Bible” and Part two is called “Ask the Pastor.”  The guiding questions were designed to elicit the kinds of questions or confusions or just general wonderings about the Bible and about Church.  Church includes faith questions as well as practices, what do we believe and how do we act, those sorts of things.  But that’s part two and will come up sometime in mid-July.  

We’re starting with the Bible.  Or, as I’ve been alluding to so far, the list, the chart, the guide to the path we could take to live intentionally.  “Thy Word is a light unto my path and a lamp unto my feet.”  I asked about parts that confused folks, I asked about favorite parts.  I asked about parts that maybe we don’t need any more.  I asked about anything else that folks wanted to know about the Bible.  And I got all kinds of answers, responses, questions and concerns.  It was great.  There were specifics, some of which we’ll deal with in this space.  But there were also some general questions or perhaps uncertainties.  One of which was that problem of looking at the Old Testament and then the New Testament and wondering if they were talking about a different God.  That’s on the list.  We’ll look at that next week. 

The other general question was basically this: how in the world do you understand this thing?  No one actually used those words, let me hasten to insert here.  That is what I was hearing from a variety of directions.  One direction in particular that more than one person pointed to was how does someone look at a biblical passage and come up with one meaning and someone else look at that same passage and find something completely different?  

Ah yes, the problem of interpretation.  William Shakespeare wrote “the devil can quote scripture for his purpose.” Even he knew that a variety of interpretations can bring us to something far from what God intended in the Word.  Some times what we read and what we are told aren’t really on the mark, on the path.  So, how do we know?  How do we stay faithful to the text, to read what is there and not what we would like to be there?  Tricky questions indeed, and ones I probably won’t answer to everyone’s satisfaction either here or in the sermon that results from this work.  Sorry.  

In fact, in my usual tendency to avoid the real questions, I want to present a completely different approach to the issue of interpretation.  And it grows out of the text that I chose to preach from this week.  Take a look:

Psalm 139:1-24 O LORD, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. 7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them-- they are more than the sand; I come to the end-- I am still with you. 19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me-- 20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

What I normally do in this space now is wrestle with the meaning of this text.  I attempt, with the help of the tradition of the Church, to interpret the text.  But let me ask a different question this time.  What does this psalm tell us about interpretation?  I know, kinda obscure.  But look at it again.  This time ask yourself “what is being interpreted here?”  

My thesis in this wrestling with the process of interpretation is that the Bible is more interested in interpreting us than it is in being interpreted itself.  The Letter to the Hebrews (or the book, or the sermon, or the essay called Hebrews depending on your interpretation) says “Indeed, 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. (Heb. 4:12)” Living and active, it says there.  What we read is not a dead text, not just words on a page full of dusty ideas and ancient references.  No, this word is alive. Indeed it is the means by which creation was made.  God spoke everything that we see into existence.  And it is what was made flesh and walked among us, full of grace and truth.  The Word interprets us as we seek to interpret the Word.  Which means is a good way to test whether we are on the right track in finding the meaning in the text is what is revealed about us?  What is the challenge presented to us?  What is threatening our comfortable place in the world?  If what we interpret in the text is only confirming what we already know, then chances are we aren’t digging deeply enough.  Chances are we aren’t listening hard enough.  

Psalm 139 asks God to search us, to dig deep in us and find who we are and who we need to be as followers of the Word.  It admits weaknesses, times of wanting to flee, times of being so angry we think it is a good thing, all that hate.  It admits to living in darkness.  But also knows that there is no darkness that can hide us from the Word, hide us from the God who speaks us into being.  We are exposed by the Word.  We are transformed by the Word.  We made alive in the Word.

This morning, every morning is another chance to fly.  Take the wings of the morning, only don’t fly away from God’s Word, fly into it.  Fly with it.  Fly because of it.  The Word we strive to understand is the Word that already understands us.  Understands us better than we do ourselves.  Knows what we will say before we say it.  Knows us.  This Word knows us. What better way to greet a day than knowing that we are known?