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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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)

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)

Dirty Memories

My readings this morning described the important power of memory for our faith.

For example, Psalm 77 starts in despair,

Will the Lord cast me off for ever? will he no more show his favor? Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? has his promise failed for evermore?  Has God forgotten to be gracious? has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion? And I said, “My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power,”

but memory comes to the rescue,

I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind your wonders of old time. I will meditate on all your acts and ponder your mighty deeds.

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 11, Peter reports on how an unexpected invitation to preach to an “unclean” Roman officer and his household was confusing and frightening, until memory transformed it for the spread of the Gospel,

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (11:15-16 ESV)

These insights into the Scripture got me thinking about this Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus uses a story about throwing around seeds to illustrate what it will be like to preach, teach and share the Good News in his name,

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!  (Jesus, recorded in Matthew 13, this Sunday’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary)

The “dirt” on which the word lands represents, in part, the capacity of a person to remember what is heard or read. Hearing or reading Scripture “plants” it in the believer’s mind, so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to remembrance at the right times, like seasons of despair as in Psalm 77, or in the face of a confusing choice like Peter’s in Acts 11.

And planting is an important image, because the word needs time to crowd out old weedy thoughts and emotions that clog our lives. Memory is not just storage, but fertile soil in which the word grows. The Letter of James puts it well,

So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. (1:21 NLT)

IMG_20170713_145244_906Our son with autism planted carrot seeds in a plastic cup at his day program. They came home with him, with green tops sprouting and needing more room to grow. So I got a proper flower pot and some good garden soil.

That good dirt is like a spiritually receptive memory.

If I toss the little root ball of carrots on the sidewalk, they will be scarfed up by our local bunnies and birds just as a the devil snatches the word of the Lord from a hard headed person whose memory is paved over with no entryway for new life.

If I leave the young carrots in the plastic cup, there’s not enough soil for them to grow, just like the word planted in a shallow memory will not take root and will wither in the face of life’s challenges.

If I transplant the carrots to a poorly kept patch in my yard, they’ll be choked by the weeds just as the word will be choked out of a memory clogged with worldly concerns like grudges and fantasies.

But I transplanted the carrots into good and abundant soil, so they can grow.  Jesus is telling us that those who receive, hold and let his words take root have “dirty memories” – not “filthy” but abundant, healthy space for his word to grow – and will experience spiritual growth and good works in his name.

This doesn’t mean you have to sit and memorize every last word of the Bible to follow Jesus.  He says that each believer’s  “crops” will come in different abundance, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”  He can work with different capacities and chooses all sorts of people – some who can remember every detail of childhood, others who can’t remember what they had for lunch.

Some of us will memorize large swaths of Scripture, others will catch onto a verse here and there.  In either case, the Holy Spirit will bring the right words to remembrance at the right time.

The important thing is that we let the word be planted by whatever means God uses – hearing it read and preached in church, reading it ourselves or listening to podcasts, having a friend share it with us over coffee – so that it gets into the dirt of our memories, be they great big fields or fancy little pots.  It is God who brings forth an amazing crop through those who make a little room for the seed to grow.