Jesus left that place…

[What follows are my thoughts for an upcoming visit with the Dinka congregation at Church of the Holy Apostles, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.]

Go Yecu jaal eeti  (Matthew 15:21, Dinka, from the Gospel for the Sunday closest to August 17th, Revised Common Lectionary) Then Jesus left that place…

Jesus and his disciples were healing and answering questions near the Sea of Galilee, where he grew up.  He was with his own people, near his own home, speaking his own language.

Go Yecu jaal eeti – then he left that  place and went to what is now Lebanon, the District of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus and his disciples were in a different culture.  Some of the people were called Canaanites, the pagans that the Jews’ ancestors fought agianst for the land.  Sidon was the home of Jezebel, the Queen to Israel’s King Ahab, who together led another generation of Israelites to pollute the land with idolatry, oppression and bloodshed.  His disciples did not think well of the people there.

But Jesus went there and, through a hard conversation with a local woman, gave his blessing and opened the way for his Good News to come to people there.

The Dinka people lived for a very long time in South Sudan.   Much violence came to their land and culture.  Some of the Dinka then left that place.  Like the disciples of Jesus, they must have been confused as they traveled to other parts of Africa, and then to many other places around the world.  They were called Lost Boys and Lost Girls.  But Yecu Kritho walked with them.

Some came to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  This was not easy.  It gets colder here than any Dinka ever experienced in South Sudan.  People here speak a different language that is not easy to learn and do things very different from Dinka traditions.

But I believe that the Dinka are here not just for their own safety, although that is good.  And not just to help other Dinka, although that is good.  And not just to keep Dinka culture alive, although that is good.

The Dinka are here because Yecu Kritho walked with you here to help Americans know him better.  The Dinka are here as Dutuuc – his apostles and witnesses – to help Americans hear God’s word like it is new – Lek Jot de Yecu Kritho.

This is what Jesus promised his church would do.  The Holy Spirit – Jandiit Lajik – would provide power to Lost Boys and Lost Girls to travel all over the strange world with Jesus and to share God’s glory wherever they went.

We bi rier loom te cii Jandiit Lajik ben enan week, ku we bi ya duleekcie ne Jeruthalem, ku Judaya, ku Thamaria eben agut piny thok eben.  

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  (Acts/Dutuuc 1:8)

Sioux Falls is the end of the end of the earth where Jesus brought a Dinka congregation.  He is with you here so you can help all of your strange new neighbors learn about him and have new life, here and cen de Nhialic, the kingdom of God.

Strike yer colors (please)

I’ve never seen so many Nazi flags, not even on the History Channel.

No, I don’t mean at the alt-right/old fascist whatev rally in Virginia.  I mean in the social media posts by people objecting to that rally.

It brings up a persistent question.  Do we do better by making active shows of resistance to shut down a crazy movement, or do we disempower it by depriving it of publicity?  I think there are examples and arguments to support both positions, and I’m not going to be so vain as to assert one or the other as universally useful.  It is an important question and one that deserves constant asking if great evils are to be headed off.

It is easy to condemn some “bad guys,” especially when our cultural virtue signalling declares open season on them.  You can concoct international neo-fascist villains in movies about terrorism and that won’t cause the uproar you get with an Islamic terrorist as the antagonist.  When it came to executing White male mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, the usually vocal anti-death penalty crowd went pretty much mum.  We have a natural inclination – which you can blame on sin, biology, social psychology or (d) all of the above – to identify and chase away a threatening “out group.”  That’s not a solution, because we’ve been doing it forever and the same problems persist.

Praying about it and seeking wisdom in the Scriptures of my faith, I was given memory of Jude 1:23,

Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives. (NLT)

It isn’t loving to let others, up to and including the hateful and oppressive, perish in their sin.  To resist their bad ideas and actions can be the most loving possible response.  It is to attempt to rescue them from ultimate destruction, just as much as it is to protect other people from the harm they might inflict.

But this must be done without being “contaminated” by their evil, that is, by getting sucked into participation in the very thing we claim to protest.

The resistance has to manifest something different.  As one observer points out, that wasn’t exactly what happened in Virginia,

Mutually antagonistic flag waving.  Not a call to something better, just a colorful assertion of my superiority to you.

I was at a protest some years ago.  Two groups were demonstrating on opposing sides of a foreign policy issue.  We were both marching in circles, brandishing our witty placards and bellowing our slogans.

At some point, someone in our circle challenged us to shut up and pray.  So we did – we went silent and dropped to our knees on the sidewalk.  The other group kept chanting for a few minutes, then fizzled into silence and dispersed.

Again, I’m not saying that this is some universal solution – it might just as well have happened that some nut jumped into his car and ran over us while we prayed.

What I’m saying is that the real resistance is that which manifests something better, even if risky, than the facts on the ground.  I really don’t see any substantial difference between alt-right and antifa “demonstrations.”  I don’t see substantial difference between alt-right and SJW social media histrionics.

Jesus sets a tall order before us.  He calls us to represent a kingdom that is different from any order on earth, in fact, it’s pretty much upside down from what we call normal most of the time.

This kingdom waves a flag, but not a symbolic piece of fabric.  The Old Covenant presented it as a new kingdom of peace and justice: the New Testament proclaims it in the person of Jesus, the heir of ancient King David’s line and Son of God, a living signal/banner/flag of peace and justice to the whole world,

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
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
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; 
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. 
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 

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. 
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
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. 

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.

 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 

He will raise a signal for the nations,
   and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
   from the four corners of the earth.

(Isaiah 11:1-12, NRSV)

So let’s strike our earthly colors, and ask God to unfurl us as that living banner of a better kingdom, even if we must suffer losses in this life to live in it.

Light ’em up

Worship what you have burned, and burn what you have worshiped!  (What the missionary Remigius reportedly said before baptizing Clovis, the pagan king of the Franks in 496 AD)

Conversion to Christ can be costly.  The first followers of Jesus lost family and community ties, including the inheritance of businesses and estates.

The Acts of the Apostles tells of the financial sacrifice made by Ephesian magicians who converted to faith in Christ,

And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.  And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.  (19:19 ESV)

But faith isn’t for sale.  The Bible warns again and again about trying to “buy off God” with ritual offerings,

I have no complaint about your sacrifices or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.  But I do not need the bulls from your barns or the goats from your pens.  For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine.  If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it.  Do I eat the meat of bulls?  Do I drink the blood of goats?  Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High… Why bother reciting my decrees and pretending to obey my covenant?  For you refuse my discipline and treat my words like trash.  When you see thieves, you approve of them, and you spend your time with adulterers.  Your mouth is filled with wickedness, and your tongue is full of lies.  You sit around and slander your brother—your own mother’s son… Repent, all of you who forget me, or I will tear you apart, and no one will help you.  (from Psalm 50 NLT)

Conversion isn’t just for non-Christians.  Those of us who profess faith in Christ are in a constant process of conversion.  There are aspects of our lives we try to hold back from Him, and we try to justify this by pointing to other “sacrifices” we’ve offered.  Hey, I went to church last Sunday when I didn’t feel like it, so a little porn on Tuesday is no big.

We might not have a house full of pagan idols, fetish objects or Satanic scrolls.  But we all have stuff that needs to be thrown on the fire.  Our lives have plenty of objects of worship (worth-ship) that we over-value while under-valuing Jesus, the One who bought us with his own blood.

What needs to burn?  Unconverted aspects of our lives can take many forms, including but not limited to,

  • Attitudes
  • Thoughts
  • Behaviors
  • Relationships
  • Things

The reason that Jesus’ first disciples, King Clovis, the Ephesian magicians and so many others throughout history were able to “burn” what used to matter most to them was that they found greater value in Christ’s love for them.  They found a new fire in the one who died on the cross to take away their sin and rose from the grave to give them new life,

They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”  (Luke 24:32 NASB)

So light ’em up…

Don’t miss the miracle

 My footThis coming Sunday’s Gospel has more than one miracle.  Sure, it has the obvious suspension of natural law when flesh-and-blood walks on water toward the end.  But don’t miss the much greater miracle launching right off the top of the lesson,

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

The divine Son of God who can walk on water and calm storms and raise the dead and such has to find privacy to pray.

The great miracle is the Incarnation, best described in John 1:14,

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Son of God – the Word – was not subject to confusion, weakness, exhaustion, rejection, pain, death, or any of the other afflictions known by mortal creatures.

But in the miracle of the Incarnation, the perfection of God is suspended, and the Son of God is clothed with our finite flesh and all that comes with it.

Matthew discloses the miracle in what seems like simple narration of events,

Jesus dismissed the crowds – while in the flesh, the Word who created all things can find his creatures overwhelming and distracting.

he went up on the mountain – while in the flesh, the Son who was in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18) must resort to the primitive human practice of closing the distance to heaven by going to a high place.

by himself – while in the flesh, the One who in the Holy Spirit shares perfect unity with the Father experiences the human reality of separation and isolation.

to pray – while in the flesh, the instantaneous and perpetual love of Father, Son and Spirit is interfered with and the Son must reach out with words of prayer like any mortal.

But these limits under which Jesus operates are only one aspect of the miracle.  Even greater is the love for us that it reveals.

Imagine for a moment that you received the power to live without anything unpleasant ever intruding.  No pain.  No losses.  No disappointments.  No rejections.  Just a constant state of love and joy.

Would you waive that power, once it was yours?

That’s what God does in the miracle of the Incarnation.  The state of perfect love and joy is waived for a season in the flesh, up to and including death, so that those who are in the flesh can come to perfect love and joy with God.

Now wait a minute, you might say, we all sacrifice for those we love.  And you would be right to an extent.  We’re all made in the image of God, and so we can do some miniature imitation of Him.  Our love for others can be sacrificial as we occasionally set aside our pleasures and preferences in order to care for them.

But the fact remains that even at our best, we are not free from the pains of the flesh.  We get sick and tired and we die.  Jesus did not have to endure any of it – he chose it.  He chose us in a great miracle of love, and with us he chose his own suffering and limitation.

So don’t miss the miracle when you hear this Sunday’s Gospel.  Jesus walks on water, but that’s just to highlight the supernatural suspension of glory when he later muddles along alone, lugging the instrument of his execution, screaming of abandonment and dying in the flesh like all of us.

It is his loving choice to do so, and that love is the power through which He, as if pulling sinking Peter out of the lake, will reach into our death and raise us to new and everlasting love and joy.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Jesus took three of his apostles with him, went up a mountain, and, for a moment, was transfigured from their familiar rabbi into the glorious Son of God.

And, like us, they were transformed by his presence… Nah.  Like us, they were sleeping through the whole thing,

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.   (Luke 9:32-33)

Ironically, the same thing happens when Jesus displays his vulnerable humanity in the Garden of Gethsemane,

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  (Matthew 26:39-40)

Like us, they were transformed by his Passion… Nah.  You get the picture.

People say things like, “If God would just tell me what he wants… If God would just be less mysterious… If God would just appear to me…”

He did all that.  Still does, through the Word as written in the Scriptures.  But it doesn’t matter if he shows up in glorious miracles or in the depths of human suffering.  We are “weighed down” with the weakness of our sin-dissipated human nature.  Our thoughts turn into day dreams and pipe dreams.  We sleep through his presence.

Nothing to be done for it, really.  Sure, we can “try harder to stay awake,”  but you can ask my wife how well I do with that after a long day at work.

Jesus Christ’s love for us is so great that he transforms our weakness to share his glory.  He has done and continues, through the Holy Spirit, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Through his perfect offering and eternal intercession for us, we are delivered from the sleep of death to share the unending day in the joy of our heavenly Father.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (Collect of the Transfiguration, Book of Common Prayer 1979)

Dog Days (or yet more Jesus at the market)

So in this disorienting middle (actually closer to the end) passage of my life, I’m managing a small department at a supermarket.

God’s use of the last couple of years is coming into focus, or focuses because there are multiple insights, changes and blessings He’s illuminating.

One thing of which I’ve had to repent was some arrogance over achievements in almost 30 years of pastoral ministry.  On paper, there was some good stuff.  Every church I served grew, bucking denominational and other trends in most cases.  I provided leadership on a couple of major capital campaigns, resulting in construction of… oh, enough.  See what I’m doing here?

It was easy to rest on my laurels, which were a considerable pile.  It was tempting to look away from the simple preaching and teaching of the Word of God and exalt “techniques” of Boomer generation church growth.

So now I’m in a role where I’m not the “expert” or sitting in the Captain Kirk chair.  It is a better position to be at Jesus’ feet, learning something.  Here’s what I mean…

shopping cart
No children, no products, no sale.

July started out with rampaging success as my little department posted big numbers.  But the last weeks of the month leveled off, then went into a statistical roller coaster with some really low weekday sales alternating with strong weekends.

As inventory time approached, one of the other department managers wondered if I was ordering too much stuff to sell.  Haven’t you heard about the Dog Days of August? People are on vacation and sales go way down.

Well, no, I didn’t know that.  Life in retail is all on-the-job training.  Nobody tells you much of anything in advance; you just go along and learn by doing, and lots of doing it the wrong way before you get it right.

Yes, I’m ordering lots of stuff.  The store managers keep telling me that my department has to Keep the shelves full.  Nobody buys empty shelf space.  Stay on your people to keep the shelves full.

So we’re keeping the shelves full – people are commenting on how well we’re doing that. But now we’ve hit these dog days I didn’t know about and the stuff just sits on the shelf and in the back room.

Lesson(s): There are things beyond my control.  I can work hard and apply all the techniques but there comes a point where the final result is out of my hands.  I don’t control the public’s vacation and shopping schedules.  I can do the best work I can (as I should) but that’s only one factor in outcomes.

Jesus was blunt, No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6:44 ESV),  not, If your effort and techniques improve, they’ll all come.

My churches grew and flourished because Christ built his church and let me be a part of what His Father was doing.  Yes, hard work was necessary to good results, as even a great exponent of grace like St. Paul notes, but our work is not the story when all is said and done,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.  (I Corinthians 15:10 ESV)

Sometimes our hard work is in sync with some great result that Christ is accomplishing sooner rather than later.  But sometimes our efforts – our brilliantly planned and executed efforts – have meager outcomes.  Happened to Paul in Athens, when he preached a technically masterful, culturally engaged and sensitive sermon to reach the people, only to be laughed off by some, given a “get back to us later” by most, and attracting so few new followers that Luke could remember them by name when writing The Acts of the Apostles,

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.  (17:32-34 NRSV)

My discipleship is getting back to worshiping God as God, not as a projection of my desired outcomes, and to practicing life habits that are guided by His Word rather than my goals and lurking status needs.

I’ll give the last word to Paul, who learned to do dog days, too,

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.  (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT)

Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.