You never know…

This morning one of the readings made me wail and lament my mixed motives and weak efforts as a disciple of Jesus,

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (I Corinthians 2:11-15)

But God’s mercy is great where my works are puny. My book, through a friend of a friend of a friend, found its way to a pastor in Texas. Even though his is not a family with autism, God used one of the reflections in the book to help him find the Scripture on which to build his most recent sermon. And it helped him in a week that presented challenges to him, personally, and to the people he serves.

Here’s the sermon. I thank God who, in the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, uses our efforts above and beyond our limitations as he makes us ready for an eternal reward.

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More than a symbol

September 14th is Holy Cross Day.  Like many church calendar days it has uncomfortable entanglements with legends and claims that go beyond the Gospel message, and the content of prayers and commemorations vary across Christian traditions.

That said, the cross of Christ should always draw our attention, and not as a mere symbol of a religion,

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  (The Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 1:17)

The cross is full of power, he says.  Verses like that can get us into the shadowy border of faith and magic, of course.  Yet our contemporary way of thinking does empty the cross of its own, distinct power, turning it into a mere symbol to support this or that cause or claim.  It becomes one more noise maker in our din of conflicting opinions proclaimed as life and death truths.

Sometimes other cultures can help us reconnect with what the Spirit reveals through the Bible.  The late missionary Marc Nikkel shared this report from Africa,

In April (1997) Kakuma (a refugee camp in Kenya, extended “home” to many displaced persons from Sudan and South Sudan) was hit by an epidemic of cholera, the result of poor hygiene due in part to contaminated water containers.  While official reports state that some twenty people died, several NGO (non-government organizations) staff and educated refugees vow that over a hundred expired during a five-week period.  Diagnosis of the disease and measures to stem its spread were slow in coming, with at least four deaths daily over several weeks.  As camp officials struggled to put health measures in place, refugees became increasingly frightened, and Kakuma’s ECS (Episcopal Church of the Sudan) women assumed spiritual authority.

The women report how, one day in May, they banded together in a force of some 520 to lay siege against the powers of death.  Carrying their hand-held crosses, they marched around Kakuma’s main hospital compound where some 108 people were understood to lie ill with cholera.  Praying and singing they converged at the heart of the complex.  There, with the permission of hospital staff, they planted a long, wooden cross in the earth and called on God to restore life to the dying.  This, the cross of Christ, they likened to the bronze serpent erected by Moses in the desert, which brought healing to all the afflicted who looked on it (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15).  Indeed, as they narrate events, divine grace was imparted, the plague of cholera ceased from that day, and all 108 returned to health.

This was the first in a series of marches initiated by the ECS women in which they seek to supplement apparently impotent hospital care with initiatives of the spirit and transcend their sense of helplessness through united action.  Because these events are conducted in the Jieng language, non-Sudanese NGO staff have sometimes felt threatened by them, interpreting them as aggressive, politically styled demonstrations.  Undeniably, resolute masses of marching women, singing buoyantly, crosses thrusting in rhythm, have a military flavor.  For them, however, their processions are literal battles of the spirit in which they are supplanting the powers of death and oppression, as a composition they sang reveals,

“We are carrying burdens that oppress us; Great Lord of peace help us!

“We bear loads that lead us astray (from your way): Great Lord of peace help us!

“We accuse the enemy in your presence.

“Great Lord who has power, come near and help us, Christ help us upon the earth.

“O Protector against evil, our Helper O Father.  Christ help us!

“The suffering you suffered shows us how to live upon the earth.

“Come near and help us, Christ our Helper, our Father upon the earth!”

Dinka+church+cross+(1+of+1)
Dinka women carrying the cross.  From here.

To recent marches here in the U.S., in which flags symbolizing enslavement and genocide were waved as tokens of freedom; masks were worn as if able to conceal the free floating juvenile anger animating violent actions, or costumes resembling body parts were donned to celebrate the self, the demonstration in Kakuna, neither vilifying nor exalting any group on earth but seeking the well being of those who suffered, contrasts the power of the cross of Christ.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.  (Collect for Holy Cross Day, Book of Common Prayer U.S. 1979)

Naughty Parts

Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  (Romans 13:14, from the assigned readings for Sept. 10, 2017, Revised Common Lectionary.)

This is a verse that can get us away from the Good News of Jesus in a hurry.  It can be read as a Christian version of the ancient gnostic heresy, the denial of material reality in an effort to be “spiritual.”

It can of course be wielded as legalism, damning just about any pleasures we experience as “of the devil.”

But the New Testament does not discount our physical reality or disconnect it from our spiritual life.  While Jesus told us not to spend our lives worrying about material needs, he was clear that they are human needs and that God cares about meeting them,

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

When the Apostle Paul wrote negatively about “the flesh” in Romans and other letters, he did not mean our physical body in and of itself.  In the verse heard this Sunday he uses the Greek word sarkos, which does refer to our physical body but also carries the sense of our body driven solely by its own self-serving desires for pleasure and security.  The Greek philosopher Plato wrote of “the appetites,” a natural part of who we are but destructive when not guided by spiritual virtue and logical judgement.  We describe brutal or vulgar people as “acting like animals,” and “the flesh” might be called our “animal nature,” acting on impulse without direction from higher qualities such as a moral code or devotion to God.

Paul gives a more detailed description of this in Galatians 5:19-23,

Now the works of the flesh [sarkos] are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NRSV)

Notice how these works reveal our self working to crowd God and neighbor out of the picture; they are all about being pleasured, trying to control everything (idolatry – creating our own gods) and everybody (sorcery), fight-or-flight responses based on the perception of others as threats or rivals (envy is on that spectrum – “Hey, your antlers are bigger than mine.  Let’s fight.” – and various efforts to distort reality, even temporarily, to dwell in deluded comfort (drunkenness, carousing, and things like these).

These works of sarkos can feel good in the short term but destroy their practitioners over time.  Paul warns (and makes clear that it is a warning worth repeating) that those who live by the works of the flesh will not be part of the new heavens and new earth promised by God.

Forgive me a bit of word play here, but sarkos is from the same Greet root as our present medical term sarcoma,

Soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer that begins in the soft tissues of your body.

Soft tissues connect, support and surround other body structures. The soft tissues include muscle, fat, blood vessels, nerves, tendons and the lining of your joints.

Soft tissues are necessary parts of our body.  They connect, support and surround other body structures for the good of the whole body.  A sarcoma is these otherwise good cells turning malignant, warping and then vaunting themselves, destroying the body of which they are part and with it themselves.

The New Testament presents the church as a living body,

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV);

…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (I Corinthians 12:25-27 ESV)

Works of the flesh, like cancer, exalt an individual part and destroy the body, and ultimately the individual as well,

God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you [the Greek is plural, referring to all members of the church together] are that temple.  (I Corinthians 3:17 NLT)

There are good reasons for churches to have and exercise discipline over members. It is for the good of the church overall, but it is also a form of compassion, protecting members from fatal temptations.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells the church,

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  (Matthew 18:18)

It’s another Bible verse that people twist into all kinds of strange meanings, but it’s pretty clear from the surrounding verses that it is simply Jesus giving his church the authority to exercise internal discipline, always with a view to keeping the church together in love, regaining those who’ve given in to the flesh, and making its gatherings a true appearance of the presence of Christ.

I have friends involved in Benedictine communities.  One of their disciplines is to have a community reading from the rule of Saint Benedict, and then confess to one another, in the gathering, how each has broken or fallen short of the rule.

It is a way for all to share in the exercise of discipline, which is what Jesus authorized and what his first followers encouraged in the church,

Paul wrote, My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.  (Galatians 6:1, NRSV)

And James taught,  …remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.  (James 5:20 NIV)

Bubble Buster

The Epistle (ancient snail mail for readers who ain’t church geeks) for this Sunday is Romans 12:9-21.  I’ll include the whole text a few paragraphs down, with some commentary, after a short personal confession:

My immediate takeaway is how short I fall of this lesson’s call to humane, common sense, non “religious” (that is, not loaded with ceremonial or otherwise churchy jargon) behavior.

So it burst my personal bubble.  My easing into the morning over coffee stumbled into full blown confession of sin.  How little of the verse I apply, and how poorly I apply those parts at which I do endeavor.

bubbles
Pic snagged here.

Then I got to thinking about the “bubble” accusation that we all fling around gratuitously these days: White people in suburbs live in a bubble, college students live in a bubble, the mainstream media is a big bubble of the like minded, etc. etc.  My group has intellectual insight, common sense or some other form of enlightenment, you and your kind live in a bubble to reinforce your shared ignorance and malice.

This lesson from Romans (the bold sections below) can burst bubbles.  I’m not talking about nasty efforts to go popping other peoples’ bubbles, but the bursting of our own so that others might be set free to prick holes in theirs:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection – some translations say “brotherly love.”  The Greek term means affection between equals, such as siblings or friends.  It is to put ourselves on the same level as others instead of in a bubble floating apart from and above them;

outdo one another in showing honour – we’re accomplished at mocking one another.  We’re all about dank memes and mic drops and other claims to have finally and forever exposed others’ flaws.  What if we went out of our ways to honor one another, almost competing to see who could show others in the best possible light?  Can you hear the bubbles popping?

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers – opening our wallets and doors to people, especially people unlike ourselves, has great power.  Jesus said that our money trail reveals the path of our hearts.  To reach out to others and/or to allow them into our lives means punching a deflating hole in our comfy bubble, which, as we know from balloons, makes a gross noise.  Giving and receiving can disturb us, but discomfort precedes all great gain in life.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them – What, no name calling?  No virtue signalling tweets, chants and placards?  The horror!  Yet this lesson applies to the worst possible bubble condition, when one bubble group is busy tormenting another.  It is our natural reaction to retaliate (and to justify our counterattack).  Here we are offered a supernatural alternative, to join with Jesus on the cross and bless those who are doing us wrong.  And if our hearts and minds are consumed with our just grievances?  Humanly speaking, our inner attitude will follow our chosen actions. Blessing those outside of our bubble can deflate our rage, and possibly theirs.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep – We can find common ground with people very unlike ourselves when we practice empathy for common human situations.  It is hard to stay enbubbled (<– spellcheck hateth that one) when we are laughing or crying with (not at or about) others.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are – We are good at proclaiming “diversity” while maintaining bubbly uniformity.  People have profound differences.  We burst bubbles by finding ways to come together across those differences, not by seeking to define them away or pound them out of existence.  It is painful to accept our own limitations or wear excellent aspects of our lives with humility.  It is a challenge to accept others’ limitations without condescension and their excellence without envy.  Bubbles burst when we know and accept ourselves and know and accept others as God’s works-in-progress.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all – The irony is that violent effort to pop bubbles tends to give them stronger membranes.  It is the gentler search for common values that makes for the peace in which bubbles evaporate.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  No, you’re not crazy.  There are evil people out there and, no matter your good efforts, they will ride around in a bubble bouncing violently here and there.  In this passage the New Testament quotes the Old.  There will be justice, dispensed by God.  The good you offer will not be forgotten, and the unrepented evil of those who afflict the earth will receive a sentence declared by the Lord.  To keep at the good requires this eternal point of view.  Without it, we risk being absorbed into the bubble of those we claim to resist.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Let us pray.

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (For our Enemies, Book of Common Prayer 1979)

O God our Father, whose Son forgave his enemies while he
was suffering shame and death: Strengthen those who suffer
for the sake of conscience; when they are accused, save them
from speaking in hate; when they are rejected, save them
from bitterness; when they are imprisoned, save them from
despair; and to us your servants, give grace to respect their
witness and to discern the truth, that our society may be
cleansed and strengthened. This we ask for the sake of Jesus
Christ, our merciful and righteous Judge. Amen.  (For those who suffer for the sake of Conscience, BCP 1979)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the
people of this land], that barriers which divide us may
crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our
divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (For Social Justice, BCP 1979)

If you circulate the lies, you’re the liar

Today I’m seeing demonstrably faked pics vilifying both “sides” in America’s current infotainment grievance fest.  There’s a fake pic of Antifa activists attacking a cop and a fake pic of Trump relatives in KKK regalia just to name two.

THAT kind of deception (not differences of opinion) is “fake news.”

God has spoken about this:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. Exodus 23:1-2

There is no justification for our “narratives” (the sanitized name for propaganda, lies and social manipulations). Neither the culture of the majority (the many) or claims of social justice for the marginalized (partial to a poor man) have any value if they are based upon falsehoods.

It isn’t just the one who starts the lie, it’s any and all of us who join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.

We need to repent of our false narratives before our call to stand before the only Judge who is is not partial and cannot be deceived.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)

Golden calf
Moses encountering the Israelites’ new narrative.  From here.

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.