More field, less fence

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)

Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees.  Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life.  They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.

In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath.  It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work  – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it.  (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).

The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show.  The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.

Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings.  He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it.  What does that mean?

First, it means repentance.  In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way.  Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.

(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).

Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes.  Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.

The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In an editorial in the Washington Post,  researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.

What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:

The suicidal.  Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides.  We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade.  I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors.  It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years.  But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.

Young men in drug and gang subcultures.  They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths.  This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides.  The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community.  How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power?  What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?

Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women.  Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore.  Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart.   How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?

It’s easier to build a fence.  It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.

But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom.  Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.  (Ezekiel 47:12)

 

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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.

Guess Who’s Coming to Church

I’ll make a long story short by linking to my own care giving blog, where I describe how my son with autism accompanied me on a preaching road trip.

To make the drive more pleasant, I pulled out our collection of hits by 60s/70s Canadian rock band The Guess Who.

About 90 minutes into the drive, while I was absorbed in worries about how my son would do at a strange (that is, new to him, no value judgement on the very kind congregation) church, the song Hang On To Your Life played.  I’d forgotten that the album cut ended with singer Burton Cummings’ lugubrious offering of Psalm 22:13-15 (King James Version),

They gaped upon me with their mouths
As a ravening and a roaring lion
I am poured out like water
And all my bones are out of joint
My heart is like wax
It is melted in the midst of my bowels
My strength is dried up like a potsherd
And my tongue cleaveth to my jaws
And thou has brought me into the dust of death

According to some sources I’ve consulted (OK, Googled), Cummings was having fun with his agony from a bad case of sunburn.  Just the same, hearing it as a Christian, my mind turned away from my anxious thoughts and toward the cross of Christ, which this Psalm foretells and from which Jesus quoted the first verse, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Such is God’s grace that playing The Guess Who as tranquilizing background music led to a behind-the-wheel contemplation of the cross of Christ, preparing me to preach him and to break the bread in proclamation of his death until he comes again.

Just for info’s sake, here’s a video of the song.  The Psalm is quoted at about 3:40.

Can’t we just be friends?

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Remember when romantic rejection – somebody didn’t “like” you – felt like a fatal injury? I guess I’m getting old enough to look back and… OK, not laugh, but not cringe with as much gravity. “Can’t we just be friends?” is funny now; it used to be injurious to my soul.

Rejection. I prayed Psalm 71 this morning and the word came to mind.

For you are my hope, O LORD God, my confidence since I was young. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born; from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you. I have become a portent to many; but you are my refuge and my strength. (Verses 5-7)

The Psalms, according to Jesus himself, point to him. With that understanding, these verses are so painful; the eternal Son who dwelt in eternal glory spent his 33-ish years from conception to crucifixion on the bad end of rejection.  His fidelity to his divine nature and mission were things the world wanted to keep at arm’s length, to say the least.

The Prophets saw it coming,

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces3d render of red broken heart om white background
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (Isaiah 53:3 NRSV)

The Evangelists recorded the fulfillment,

 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  (John 1:10-11)

Wow, at least those we court try to let us down easy.  They offer a cool (in temperature, not social standing) friendship.  Jesus gave his heart and got the cross.

Makes today’s shenanigans seem a bit less urgent, I hope.

 

 

Coming into focus

This is embarrassing to admit, but until I read it at Morning Prayer today I’d not noticed the revelation of the Trinity lurking in Isaiah 9:6,

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, that he may be with you forever… John 14:16

Mighty God For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God… Deuteronomy 10:17,

Everlasting Father Pray then like this:“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”  Matthew 6:9,

Prince of Peace But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace… Ephesians 2:13-14

trinity-cross
Trinitarian Cross, carved in fish bone.  Photo by the Rev. Kenneth Tanner

 

The reconciling of our human life to the eternal, creative love that is one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was foretold by the Prophets, born of the Virgin Mary, won on the Cross, first harvested at Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, given to us to proclaim at Pentecost, and awaiting each of us in our death and all of us in the return of the Prince of Peace.

 

Leaf me alone

A friend from my Army days hails from New Mexico.  He used to mock ethnic stereotypes by adopting a hyper-Spanglish accent that sounded like a white guy trying to sound barrio.

One of my favorite such phrases was when he was annoyed:

Leaf me alone, esay.

It came to mind when I read John 6:15 this morning:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:15 ESV)

Jesus had just fed a large crowd, and they were down for some bread and circuses.

20160817_102837
Tell it to the hand.

So Jesus, sent into the world to save it, temporarily steps away from its tumult to pray, turning his back on the crowd in a prophetic enactment of leaf me alone, esay.

The ancient prophets, picked by God to speak in tumultuous times, sometimes reached a limit at which words, even divinely supplied words, seemed useless or even counterproductive.

The faithful have vanished from the earth, no mortal is just! They all lie in wait to shed blood, each one ensnares the other.  Their hands succeed at evil; the prince makes demands, The judge is bought for a price, the powerful speak as they please.  The best of them is like a brier, the most honest like a thorn hedge.  The day announced by your sentinels!  Your punishment has come; now is the time of your confusion.  Put no faith in a friend, do not trust a companion;  With her who lies in your embrace watch what you say.  (Micah 7:2-5 NAB)

Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;  for it is an evil time.  (Amos 5:13, NRSV)

My gut instinct is that we are in an evil time.  Of course I could be wrong.  But I sense the church (at least here in the U.S.) in a crazy making situation where people want it to stay out of their business on the one hand but fault it for not coming up with “statements” on this, that and the other thing on the other hand.  People want a theocracy but only for their particular issues.  They will “come by force to make us regents” but only with their hands up our backs as their puppets.

Hence we hear about the Benedict Option, which might be one expression of leaf me alone, esay.  To save our words for God and for those already drawn to him, ignoring all the social media about 10 Things the Church MUST do to attract absolutely everybody all the time.

In Elijah’s day, the crowd was hunting down and killing the prophets.  Godly people hid them in caves to weather the persecution and survive as God’s witnesses for a better day.

You’re no better.

The name of this blog comes from the Bible passage recording the one written document attributed to the Prophet Elijah.

The passage might be summarized as You’re no better.  The King and people of Judah believed themselves to be entitled to God’s favor, even as they behaved in ways no better than neighboring nations.  Elijah warns them of God’s disfavor, and the prophecy comes to pass as the kingdom is devastated by those it considered lesser people.

You’re no better runs through my head as the American political reality show plays on in the two major party conventions, and in the news and social media surrounding them.  There is a whiff of perception in people saying I don’t think I can vote for either one.  But that avoids any recognition of how we might might enable both.

This morning I saw this well done video about the rise of Hitler.  Comments on it, as you might guess, tend to be Yeah that’s exactly what the other side is like.  Which cries out for the warning, You’re no better.  Both “sides” play to our resentments and real and imagined problems; we behave in ways that allow them to grab and maintain power.

You’re no better.  We’re no better.  We need that kind of humility  and realism to stop ceding more and more power to Caesar to slay our bogeymen, who are all to often just flesh and blood neighbors.

But even from the religious or spiritual community, which should carry the prophetic voice, we hear Wait, yes, we are better.  There’s an opinion piece trending, in which the writer condemns a key penitential prayer and demands that Pope Francis abolish it.  Yes, some kind of cosmic peace and love is to be attained by appealing to an authority figure to ban what bugs you, never mind what it means to others.

Which is to say to the author, You’re no better.  

Confession of sin is a great equalizer and can be a source of peace.  It asks us to stop and question what we’re feeling, thinking and doing.  It is to hold up the constant possibility and probability that we’re no better and to restrain action based on the false narrative that we are.  It is to admit that we all stand in need of mercy and, as we receive it, are all obligated to offer it.

I’m no better for sure.  I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to saying There oughtta be a law.  But most laws beyond a few big ones that value and protect all people equally – You shall not commit murder, for example – are just one group of people considering themselves entitled to impose themselves upon others.

Watching the Hitler video can be a good spiritual exercise.  If you can watch and say, Yeah, that’s those other guys.  Glad I wouldn’t have been part of that, it is worthwhile to ponder what Jesus says in Matthew 23:29-30,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

Because the odds are we’re no better.