Saturday, March 11, 2017

Easter begins with emptiness



Easter begins with emptiness, proceeds to mystery, and only then to power.
   Easter begins at an empty tomb, with bewildered disciples, and an absent Jesus. It is like a church on Good Friday afternoon, stripped of its symbolic art, its congregation elsewhere.
     Easter begins at the boundary of our own emptiness, a void into which all our greatest loves have either disappeared or soon will.
     Easter begins with mysterious visitors, cryptic hints, strange coincidences, and unexpected promises.
“He is going ahead of you into Galilee,” the women are told. “Oh great!” They complain to each other. “More of this discipleship business.”  They were right: much more of it.
          At the door of the empty place we hear the words: “more of this!” More love. More hope. More broken bread and shared wine. More brokenness of every kind. 
        And then the power, the Spirit, the ecstatic joy. The empty place becomes strangely full, and smells like Easter lilies and candle wax. The absence becomes a different sort of presence. The broken body becomes a different sort of bread.

The original group of disciples had a problem...




The original group of disciples had a problem. They had been witness to many miracles, yet the significance of these events was apparent only to them. The disciples interpreted them as signs of God’s kingdom breaking in, but what good was that to them if Jesus declined to use his miraculous powers to impress the powers who crucified him? If they had expected Jesus to pull out all the miraculous stops once he got to Jerusalem, it’s no wonder they all deserted him.
 This could be easily explained if we were to say, “miracles are hogwash,” but the disciples were unable to come to that conclusion. Something occurred that led them to emerge from the crucifixion more committed to their discipleship than ever, despite the apparent absence of their Lord. That “something” is what we call “The Resurrection,” which is churchly shorthand for the experience of Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and our own experiences of graceful transformation.   
As I see it, miracles are great, but they don’t have any more to do with salvation than any other act of kindness or mercy. What matters is that, in Jesus, God has shared our life as an ordinary human being. Well, maybe not THAT ordinary, but certainly not as a glowing, transfigured being who would dazzle everyone in the neighborhood with supernatural light-shows every night.
As I see it, it is essential that the “power” of God remain incognito, that “faith” always be a matter of  embracing what’s right here, not pointing to some giant Jesus in the sky and saying, “see, I told you so.” If God’s power were more obvious, so that even unbelievers could see and no longer deny, it would be something less than God that was being seen, because God is not an object to be observed.
What this signifies to me is that we are where we are supposed to be, with Christ and each other on a generous but problematic planet. Our calling is to follow Christ regardless of miracles. The real miracle is that we find ourselves doing exactly that, despite our disabilities. And that, for me, is quite dazzling enough. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Stingy Bridesmaids reposted



THE PARABLE OF THE STINGY BRIDESMAIDS…Another Wedding Banquet
Matthew 25:1-13 tells the story of ten bridesmaids, or, as older translations have it, the “foolish virgins”. The wise bridesmaids carried an extra supply of oil for their lamps, but the foolish ones did not. When the groom was late, they all fell asleep, and when he finally showed up they all “got up and trimmed their lamps.” Guess what: the foolish bridesmaids’ lamps had burned out, and when they asked their wise counterparts to share with them, they would not. When the foolish bridesmaids returned from having replenished their supply at the lamp oil store, the wedding banquet was already underway, and the groom would not let them join the Feast, though they entreated him piteously. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you,” he said.
Before I can make any sense out of this parable I must first disabuse myself of any notion that it represents a New Testament version of “The Three Little Pigs.” It is not, cannot be, a cautionary tale about the virtues of thrift and holding on to scarce assets. If there is to be any Good News in this parable, it will have to fit somewhere on the spectrum with the crowd of Prodigal Sons and Good Samaritans and widows who put their life savings into the collection plate. “Do not be anxious,” says Jesus in Matthew 6:25, “about what you will eat, or what you will wear.” Or, one might add, “how much oil is in your lamp.” To hear Good News in this parable it is nec essary to imagine the world as a wedding where the arrival of a major participant has been inexplicably delayed.
The Gospel of Matthew was composed at a time when many Christians were discouraged that the Second Coming of Jesus had not occurred. If they were disappointed that Jesus had not called down armies of angels to overthrow Pontius Pilate at the time of the crucifixion, they were even more disappointed when the glorified and exalted Jesus did not come down from the sky to save them from persecution and extinction at the hands of the Romans.
It is to addre3ss these fears that the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, in 24:13, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
I have my own experience with weddings and the absent grooms, and brides as well. Our daughter Caitlin married a wonderful Scotsman, Michael Lester, in July of 2007. For the wedding, we joined family members who traveled from as far as Trinidad and Australia in anticipation of a great gala wedding in the village of Duns, located in the Scottish Borders southwest of Edinburgh. On Wednesday before the wedding, however, I received a call from our daughter saying that the immigration authorities would not permit Michael to return if he left the United States without a certain document, for which he had applied many months before but which still had not been issued. “We can’t come to our own wedding, Dad”, Caitlin told me, “you will have to have it without us.”
She was devastated, of course, and so was I. I was also mad, mad at the INS, and mad at God. This was not a big issue of theodicy, as when a child dies or there is a horrible natural disaster of some kind. I could not construe the missing of a wedding party as a tragedy, but I could see it as petty harassment, as a trivializing example of divine spitefulness. We can struggle against the image of God as an oppressive tyrant, but “God as a party-pooper” doesn’t seem worthy of any effort at all.
So I was mad, but I made my peace with God, and set about composing a sermon to give at the “wedding for an absent bride and groom.” In the sermon I said that it was OK to mad at God, that God expects us to get mad and forgives us for it. After all, Jesus had commanded us to have this universal kingdom of heaven party and then left us to figure out all the details on our own while he parties with the Father and the Holy Spirit “up” in heaven, or whatever direction it is.
So God expects us to get mad. God also expects us to grow up and stop whining. If you are married, you know that marriage is not just about parties and receptions, it about loving and cherishing each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” And people are treated harshly by immigration authorities all the time- why should we expect to be an exception?
Anyone who wants to come to God’s wedding party will, sooner or later, find themselves walking in the shoes of every immigrant, legal or otherwise, because Jesus himself was an illegal immigrant, smuggled into the world under King Herod’s radar. Anyone who wants to come to God’s wedding party will find themselves having to learn how to love their neighbor no matter what, whether the economy is up or down, whether your government is the Roman Empire or the USA, whether the Groom is up at the altar or up on the cross.
That’s not exactly what I put into my “Wedding Sermon in the Absence of a Bride and Groom”, but it’s close, and I never had occasion to preach it after all. At the last possible minute the INS relented and issued the necessary permit, so Caitlin and Michael flew over to Scotland and we had the wedding and the greatest party ever held in the history of the world. The sermon I did give at the Scottish Episcopal Church in Duns said, basically, “this wedding is the closest to the kingdom of heaven as we ever get in this world.”
Actually, I say something pretty close to that at every Eucharist, because every Eucharist is a kind of rehearsal for God’s Wedding Banquet where the Guest of Honor is absent, having ascended into heaven 2000 years ago. We still get mad about the inconvenience of it, or at least I do, but Jesus loves us anyway. Loves and forgives us, but also calls us to grow up and get on with our discipleship. There is a place for everyone at this Wedding Banquet- no one is excluded for lack of enough good deeds on their resume, or enough oil in their lamps, or enough anything. If you are with Jesus, it is always enough.
If anyone succeeds in excluding themselves it will be because they cannot stand God’s way of doing parties. It will be because they can’t stand a party where everyone gets the same thing at communion regardless of how much they give to the church. It will be because they can’t stand weddings where the Groom keeps the guests waiting for 2000+ years. There are ways to exclude ourselves, but not because God is stingy. It is a tough love that God bestows upon us, but also a love that is lavish, abundant, prodigal, and persistent.
If you can’t stand a love like that, stay home. Otherwise, come to the party: it’s the greatest party in the history of the world.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Beatitudes Re Posted

Beatitudes



Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
BACKGROUND
Brian Stoffregen writes on his Blog Crossmarks: “Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) notes that there are more than thirty-six discrete views about the sermon's message..” .  [Among the more prominent of these views are…]

·         The predominant medieval view, reserving a higher ethic for clergy, especially in monastic orders;

·         Luther's view that the sermon represents an impossible demand like the law;

·         the Anabaptist view, which applies the teachings literally for the civil sphere;

·         Schweitzer's view that the sermon embodies an interim ethic rooted in the mistaken expectation of imminent eschatology;

·         the traditional dispensational application to a future millennial kingdom…”

None of these views seem to express what the beatitudes are assumed to be by many, i.e. “practical guidelines for Christian behavior,” or “a list of rewards for those who adopt Jesus’ value-system.”


The Beatitudes form the opening part of what is called “The Sermon on the Mount”, but which probably represents not so much a "sermon" as a summary of what Jesus was teaching to his disciples and others. The passage suggests that Jesus went to the mountain in order to escape the crowds rather than to address them. 

“Blessed”- Makarios (greek)= In Greek culture and tradition it referred to god-like happiness. When Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek it meant divinely-sent prosperity and status consequent upon living wisely in accordance with Jewish Law.

Both Greek and Hebrew literature contain formal examples of “beatitudes”, i.e. lists of behaviors that are associated with this status. The Gospel makes use of the usual format, but departs from both Greek and Jewish precedents when it comes to content.  

The Gospel proposes a model of “blessedness” that prevails even, and especially, in circumstances defined by poverty, tragedy, and oppression… which, in earlier settings, would have been antithetical to what beatitude was thought to mean.


The first 4 Beatitudes all begin with the Greek letter “pi” and have a certain rhetorical/poetic balance. The last Beatitude switches to a form of direct address, where Jesus speaks directly to the disciples about their response to persecution and suffering.  

God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel, by Mark Allan Powell (Fortress, 1995)

Powell states: "All four of the beatitudes in the first stanza may reasonably be interpreted as promising eschatological reversals to those who are unfortunate, and some of the beatitudes in this stanza can be reasonably interpreted only in this way" [p. 122]. With this approach, these are not virtues that one should aspire to -- but they are circumstances in which people find themselves." (from Brian Stoffregen, Crossmarks)



“Poor in Spirit”- An expression peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel. In Hebrew the word anawim, “The Poor” in English, refers to those without worldly power or influence, who must rely upon God for any relief they might receive. The psalms contain many references to the suffering poor who are the ones upon whose behalf God acts, and God’s people are expected to befriend and protect.

Question: Why does Matthew have “in spirit?”


SUMMARY

“Poor in Spirit”- Why does Matthew add “in spirit?” Perhaps this expression provides a way for disciples to understand their own extreme poverty in regard to God…not even the most extreme asceticism/self-denial can justify us to God (although voluntary renunciation of material possessions can remove obstacles to our understanding)… every human being comes to God in a position of total dependence, emptiness, and helplessness…i.e. “poor in spirit?”  

“Those who mourn”- not a matter of being gloomy and negative… Jesus and his disciples were criticized for enjoying themselves too much at parties… this Beatitude does not refer to mourning as a virtue to be cultivated so much as a human condition that is the consequence of having loved. The only people who never grieve are the ones who don’t care.

“The meek”- this Beatitude does not necessarily commend an attitude of deliberate victimhood.  In the Bible, “the meek” are those who find themselves in a powerless position, at least in terms of worldly power. Psalm 37:11 says, “But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight in abundant prosperity.”

“Pure in heart”-Here and elsewhere in the bible kardia seems simply to represent "the true self," what one really is, apart from pretense. Thus, to "understand with the heart" (13:15) means to understand truly; to "forgive from the heart" (18:35) means to forgive truly; and so on. [Powell, p. 132].


 



Jesus proposes to build a kingdom where those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” will no longer be oppressed and beaten down, but will be God’s agents in a kingdom based upon mercy, purity of heart, and peacefulness.