Everyone Eats at the End of the Day

 

Matthew 20:1-16

     Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like some people who worked all day in a field and received the reward that they were promised for their work. No problem with that. Then the landowner hired others later in the day. Although they didn’t work as long or hard, their reward was the same as the first group hired.

     How can the kingdom of heaven look like every worker in a field getting paid the same amount of money at the end of the day, no matter how long they worked? That doesn’t fit the rules of American capitalism. You should get paid in direct proportion to the labor you put into a job – and preferably – for most landowners hiring laborers, that will be minimum wage.

     Let’s remember one thing. The kingdom of heaven isn’t about what’s fair by worldly/capitalistic justification. It’s about what’s good and right for all.

     This is adapted from chapter two of my ebook In Living Color: Heaven that puts “the kingdom of heaven” in different words.

The Aramaic word for kingdom, malkuthakh, refers to the quality of rulership or the governing principles that guide one’s life. Neil Douglas-Klotz says the ancient roots of the word point to the image of “a fruitful arm poised to create, or a coiled spring that is ready to unwind with all the verdant potential of the earth.” A kingdom is a state of perpetual readiness to bring forth its fullness.

“The heavens” are all those things, visible and invisible, that work together in unity or perfect harmony.

The phrase “kingdom of heaven” can be more broadly understood as the potential for governing principles to bring unity - or as the harmonious interaction of all things working as one. This can be applied at many levels: (1) to the internal level and the resolution of the many thoughts and feelings within an individual, (2) to the unifying of the voices within a household, (3) to a congregation, a township, a city, (4) to a state, a nation, (5) to the global community, (6) to the natural world.

 Where there is unity, all will be working for the good of each other. It’s the sense of spontaneous agreement when voices come together to work toward a common purpose.

When Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like this,” it might have sounded like this: “This is what the development of perfect order and harmony looks like.”[1]

+  +  +

children in Haiti     During my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School, a visiting seminary professor from a third world country gave a lecture on this story of the workers in the vineyard. He said the people in his country understand this story from a different perspective. Many of them do not have work that extends from one day to the next. Sometimes they work for a day and then the work is over. They don’t know if they will be hired tomorrow. The pay they receive is usually just enough to feed their family for that day. 

     In his country, workers go and stand in the marketplace early in the morning, hoping someone might hire them so they and their families can eat that night. To be hired early means peace of mind for that day. And then if someone else is hired later in the day, they are grateful because a friend or relative will be able to feed their family, too. They don’t know if tomorrow, they will be that one that waits all day long to be hired. To have to wait until late in the day to be hired means they lack peace or the security that they will be able to feed themselves and their family.

     It’s no party to stand in the market all day long, worrying if their children will go to bed hungry.  Hope fades as the day goes on. It’s only when the landowner finds and hires them that they are assured that they will be fed and taken care of. To the people in this professor’s country, the landowner is more than fair. He is generous and they are grateful. Instead of calling this the story ‘the workers in the vineyard’, they see it as the story of the generous landlord.

     In the kingdom of heaven (which Jesus proclaimed is “at hand” on earth) everyone is assured that they will eat at the end of the day, no matter who worked the hardest or longest. It’s about time we make that happen.

 

[1] Adapted from Paul W. Meier, In Living Color: Heaven, chapter two.

 

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Following Jesus, the Serpent on a Stick

John 3:13-17

13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (NKJV)

Jesus is speaking. Christians understand Jesus to be the Son of Man. In this reading, Jesus says the Son of Man is in heaven. But Jesus is on earth when he’s saying this. Then Jesus compares himself to a snake on a stick. We are supposed to believe in him, the serpent on a stick, and if we do, we’ll have eternal life.

I’m really confused.

medical symbolA former parishioner once told me I sounded like the “snake in the garden of Eden.” It was during the time when people were upset about my denomination approving gay ministers having partners. To have been compared to a snake helps me to understand this Bible verse from a different perspective.

Jesus was viewed as a serpent (as well as called Beelzebub, ruler of demons) by religious leaders who wanted the old religious laws to be in force. They believed he was promoting evil because he proclaimed a new understanding of God and scriptures. Jesus ate with outcasts and sinners which was a sign that he accepted them and wanted to be in relationship with them. He taught things in opposition to Moses.

Heaven forbid.

At least, that’s what the tradition, the religious community, the institutional “church” believed. Anyone who honors God follows Moses – every well-trained Jew, Muslim, and Christian is taught that.

Jesus’s words help me to understand that he was saying, “Believe the one the current religious tradition (Moses followers) thinks is a serpent – believe in me and my teachings – then you will have eternal life.”

I’m working on a new book. It’s about eternal life. Eternal life, like the kingdom of heaven, is now. In short, eternal life is the quality of life God wants you to experience today. That’s why Jesus came—to show us the way to the quality of life God wants for us—today.

How many of us are following Jesus? How many of us are repaying evil with good? How many are not judging others? How many are accepting outcasts and sinners into their homes to eat with and develop relationships? How many think we should drop bread on our enemies instead of bombs?

Too many modern-day Christians believe in “an eye for an eye” retribution, the teaching of Moses. They don’t believe Jesus’s answer to receiving evil…return evil with good…and turn the other cheek and love your enemies. If you say something like this in public, even in a church, some people will look at you like you’re the snake.

Did you know that snakes are an important part of the ecosystem? They keep the rat and rodent populations under control. And there are lots of rats out there.

Most of the churches in my Bible Belt community would not see me as a “true” believer of the Bible. That’s okay. As a follower of Jesus, the serpent on a stick, I don’t believe in (trust) every written word in the Bible. I’ve found too many passages that promote hatred, harmful treatment, and exclusion. Instead, I trust in Jesus and his teachings.

There’s a big difference between being a Bible believer/lover and a Jesus follower. And I’ve chosen Jesus. That gives me the quality of life God wants for me today, filled with inner peace and harmony. I encourage you to do the same.

[Did I tell you that I started another blog that’s not as much about “religion?” Check it out here – http://pursueharmony.com.]

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Binding and Loosing in the Name of Jesus Christ

unityMatthew 18:15-20

     Jesus taught a direct approach to dealing with relationship issues that progressed from the one on one approach to going before the ekklesia.

     If someone is not complying with the goals of the group, go to the person, one on one, and talk about your concern. “I need your help. Maybe I’ve misunderstood what happened. My goal in this is to make sure we’re on the same page and mission in our efforts as a group.”

     More often, people do the opposite. They speak their fears and hurts to anyone and everyone in the group, seeking their own validation and setting up the group to be biased toward their argument or agenda. Then everyone gets angry. Peace flies out the window. Good luck trying to work things out from that point.

     If the one to one approach doesn’t work, bring others who have the objectives of the whole group at heart and discuss the issue further—peacefully. If no agreement can be reached and the goals of the group are not honored, then take it to the whole body, i.e., the ekklesia.

     The way translations of the Bible insert the term “church” for this Greek word makes us think this is all about religion. But Jesus wanted unity and harmony to take place among all people, even outsiders to the religious tradition. The word ekklesia means an assembly of the peopleconvened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberating. An assembly of people who have the same concerns or goals could be a bridge club, a neighborhood association, a basketball team, one department of a business

     Jesus said the same thing in Matt. 16:19 – “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (which I refer to in my book In Living Color: Heaven as unity or harmony among all creation) – whatever you bind on earth will be bound in the heavens, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in the heavens. I explained Matt. 16’s binding and loosing in a previous blog post.

      In this case to bind is to do something, to set a boundary designed to clarify the objectives of the group and holds them together. The word earth could be more like a metaphor for the group itself, as one of the definitions for the Greek word is “a country, land enclosed within fixed boundaries.” Most groups have fixed boundaries that define their goals and objectives.

     To loose is to unbind what is fast bound. You can redefine boundaries or you can let some of the established boundaries go if that appears to be appropriate. However, this phrase about binding and loosing comes after Jesus said, “Let him be to you as a man of the nations, i.e., an outsider to the group (the Greek term originally had nothing to do with religion, so to say “heathen man” is forcing religion into the passage), or let him be as a tax-collector (someone not well-liked because he appears to oppose the group’s desires).”

     How can harmony and unity exist in a group if one person doesn’t agree to follow the group’s goals and objectives? One bad apple has the potential for spreading disharmony among everyone. Except I don’t think Jesus meant “excommunicate” them. Remember that Jesus, in his own way, was disrupting the harmony in the status quo of “the group.”

   “Let them be to you like someone who isn’t in agreement with the group’s objectives.” The foreigners and tax collectors weren’t thrown out of Israel. They continued to live as part of the community. They were simply not included in the group’s activities because no one likes a party-pooper. It’s okay to disregard people who don’t have the same goals as the group in the same way a mature parent disregards the tantrums of a toddler.

     You can’t help someone come to completion (maturity) as a child of God through formal rejection or ultimatums. You can’t convert a terrorist into a law-abiding citizen of the community through ultimatums or fear tactics. Fear feeds fear. When will we ever learn? You can only help people come to completion when you gather together in the name of Christ to discern the best way to live in unity with all people. Chapter 2 in my book on the Lord’s Prayer speaks to how one’s name refers to the nature or character of that person. To gather in Jesus’s name is to gather in goodness and love to bring unity and harmony (the kingdom of heaven) to all.

     If a group’s goals are in line with Jesus’s goals of unity, harmony, and love for all people – we can be assured that his Spirit is in our  midst.

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The Unforgiven-ness in the Cross

Matthew 16:21-28

Take up your cross. Why did Jesus tell his disciples to take up their crosses? Did he mean it literally, as in, “Wear a gold cross around your neck or put it on a bumper sticker as a sign to the world that you confess me as Lord and this will be a sign for the world that the one wearing it is forgiven by God?”

cross of pain and rejectionThe cross is the iconic image of pain. It’s an image of death. The cross was never an image of forgiveness. It was quite the opposite.

As Jesus was speaking to his disciples, the cross was a sign of unforgiveness and rejection for the person who was impaled upon it. No person nailed to a cross is forgiven by the one who is holding the hammer.

Modern Christianity has deftly flipped the image to dress it up. The cross is now a badge of honor, a visual sign to remind the wearer (and the observer) that God has graciously forgiven the one who wears it (and he or she is damn proud of being forgiven, an inheritor of heaven – the good life after death).

I readily agree that many have received great comfort in understanding the love of God through the image of the cross.

I’m afraid decorative crosses remind rich Christians that God forgives them even though they hoard their riches with the plan of living in comfort for forty years after they retire. Then when they die, having been forgiven for their greed and avarice, they will live the good life in heaven, too. How sweet it is being a Christian.

I’m afraid the poor wear crosses as reminders that even though their cross-wearing sisters and brothers in Christ don’t love them enough to help them today, God loves them enough to feed them like the sparrows and clothe them like the lilies – and they will have to wait for the good life after they are dead. But at least eternity will be good.

It’s not the cross that saves people who continue to cry out in hunger and pain in this life. Life is about today. You and I, living out the example of Jesus, are sent in baptism to be saviors of the poor, sick, and imprisoned as we follow the example of Christ.

At this point in history, the only rejection some people experience by wearing crosses is because it links them with the loud, hate-bearing Christians who condemn everyone and everything but themselves. They are not following Jesus as they hit everyone with their crosses. I don’t want to be associated with them for the false-Christianity they spew.

Did the disciples understand what Jesus meant by taking up a cross? I’m assuming they did. It must have been a common thing Jesus had explained to them before. And it must have been common to all the people who would be hearing Matthew’s version of the good news. If it wasn’t common knowledge, Matthew would have explained it right then.

The cross is a sign that the person placed upon it is unforgiven. No mercy will be extended. This person is not redeemable and must be eliminated so the status quo can continue.

Jesus was preparing his disciples for what to expect if they followed his example. Some people will hurt you, vehemently oppose you, even to the point of taking your life.

The religious leaders of the day had the power and ability to forgive, to let go, of the unorthodox teachings Jesus had been proclaiming. They placed their rules and rituals and traditions ahead of the work Jesus had been sent to accomplish – bringing unity and peace to the bodies, minds, and souls of the broken. They placed the riches of gold and silver that lined their temples and their pockets ahead of the health and education of the sick and imprisoned. Jesus was a threat to their lifestyles.

As history records it, the religious leaders and those in powerful positions would not forgive Jesus for stepping out of their box of neatly packed, but life-draining, self-serving, and harmful regulations. He was a threat to the social and religious order designed by the healthy, wealthy, and privileged. You can’t oppose those with power or money without being verbally and sometimes physically beaten, and then hung out to dry.

Take up your cross…and follow me. To follow Jesus didn’t mean to walk meekly behind him, wearing a cross around your neck, and pointing out the faults of everyone. To follow Jesus meant to follow his example. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Help the prisoners. Proclaim God’s desire for a world of peace, justice, and equity for all people (the kingdom of heaven) – not just for the privileged.

If you do this and follow the example of Jesus, just be ready to be unforgiven by those whose bulging barns are being torn down so they can build bigger barns.

I wonder if those who wear crosses today would still wear them if they understood that imitating Jesus risks being placed upon that cross, as one who will be unforgiven when they stand up for the poor, the sick, the broken-hearted, and the prisoners?

One day, I pray that the cross will assume it’s original meaning to convey this idea, “I stand up for the poor, the sick, the broken-hearted, and the prisoners…and I’m proud to wear it even at the risk of your anger and rejection. I’m willing to bear that pain as one who is following the example of Jesus Christ.”

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Who Do People Say I’ve Reincarnated From?

Matthew 16:13-20

     People in biblical days believed in the teaching (i.e., doctrine) of reincarnation. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian wrote about the Pharisees being believers in reincarnation. The Pharisees were the Jewish sect which Paul belonged to before his conversion experience. Josephus wrote about the Pharisees’ belief that the souls of evil men are punished after death. And the souls of good men are “removed into other bodies” and they will have “power to revive and live again.”

reincarnation1     Throughout Jewish history, many believed and promoted the concept that some of the dead prophets returned to life through reincarnation. But the Sadducees, a purist sect of Judaism, rejected the concepts of resurrection and all Greek influences involving reincarnation that were occurring in Jesus’ day. They accepted only the orthodox Hebrew belief in Sheol, the place of the dead, or the grave.

     When I took a class at Vanderbilt, a course on Judaism at the time of Jesus, the adjunct professor was a rabbi. He said they have identified at least twenty-three sects (I’ll call them denominations) of Judaism in Israel at the time of Jesus. It’s clear that every Jew did not believe the same things even though they were descendants of Abraham. Who can agree about things that are Unknowable?

     When Jesus began his ministry, many people wondered if he was the reincarnation of one of the prophets. Some people wondered the same thing concerning John the Baptist. And even Jesus affirmed to his disciples that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah.

     The doctrines of pre-existence and reincarnation existed as secret teachings of Jesus until they were declared a heresy by the Roman Church in 553 A.D at the Second Council of Constantinople. At this time the Roman Church aggressively destroyed competing teachings and so-called heresies within the Church. Along with the destruction of unorthodox teachings came the destruction of Jews, Gnostics, and ultimately anyone who stood in the way of the Inquisition and Crusades.[1]

     So let’s take a peek at some scriptures where Jesus supports the concept of reincarnation. “For all the prophets and the law have prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who was to come.” (Matthew 11:13-14)

     Jesus clearly identifies John the Baptist as the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet. Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus reiterates it. “And the disciples asked him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’

      “But he answered them and said, ‘Elijah indeed is to come and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also shall the Son of Man suffer at their hand.’

     “Then the disciples understood that he had spoken of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:10-13)

    There are other New Testament references that some think confirm the teaching of reincarnation. That’s not my intent here. A lot of people have done the research. I simply think we ought to open the conversation so we can discuss it in adult-like fashion. After all, it really is biblical.

     Unfortunately, we been conditioned to think we are sinning by even talking about unorthodox things.

     Heck, we can’t even talk about the truth of what Jesus said – “do not repay evil with evil.” This is a teaching of Jesus that has been rejected. It opposes the American way of being the policemen of the world. Christians are to be healers in the world. Repaying evil with evil is not Jesus’s way…never was…never will be.

     Why is it so hard to open the doors in the Christian church to talking about the teaching of reincarnation that is biblically supported by Jesus himself? Are we afraid of offending a group of men from the sixth century who didn’t think it supported their own theories? Must we remain 6th century Roman Catholics in order to be considered orthodox? Are we orthodox to Jesus’s teachings or to the Second Council of Constantinople?

     If you give it some meditation and thought, you might start to realize that the concept of reincarnation has the potential for being very, very good news indeed—and it makes a lot of other mysteries from the Bible make more sense. It’s time we started to discuss reincarnation and the possibilities for the good it can bring into the world.

 

[1] Information gleaned from Kevin William’s article found at http://www.near-death.com/experiences/origen03.html

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Authority to Bind and Loose

     Jewish scribes were the authorized teachers of the Scriptures. They wore a belt and on that belt hung some keys. These keys were symbolic of the knowledge, experience, and training of that scribe. Having these recognizable symbols gave you honor and authority because you had achieved a certain level of proficiency in the religious tradition.

clerical collar     The clerical collar is worn by men and women trained by their Christian denomination who then gives them the authority to serve as spiritual leaders. It’s a visible sign that the person wearing it has a position of authority in the church. It’s is about the closest thing I can think of that equates to the “keys of the kingdom” that Jesus gave to his disciples in our Gospel lesson.

     The collar is like a key for me when I go into a hospital. It gets me through doors that most people cannot enter. The collar not only opens physical doors, but to some people, there is a door of trust that it helps to open because of the confidentiality that it engenders. Hopefully, when any of these doors are opened, the kingdom of heaven is revealed and people who are hurting receive peace, comfort, compassion, love, or whatever they need because of the interaction that takes place.

     During my ordination ceremony, my Bishop conferred on me the position of pastor in the ELCA. He said, “I give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

     Binding and loosing – what does that mean?

     In two chapters of my latest book I focus on the parables Jesus told about sorting through the net cast into the sea and the sorting out the weeds from the wheat at the harvest. They refer to the adding and removing good and bad religious doctrines, laws, and regulations as time and conditions change over time. The kingdom parables are not about who is going to burn in hell for not following religious laws. In the text for this coming Sunday, Jesus gives Peter the authority (keys) to annul bad laws and institute good laws that serve love. Martin Luther had a lot to say about the authority of Christians to get rid of hurtful laws. Check out some of Luther’s quotes here.

     I think binding and loosing means something like this:

     When I was four years old, I got my first tricycle. I was allowed to ride it on the sidewalk in front of my house, but I was forbidden to go any further. When I was six years old, I got a small bicycle and I could ride it to the end of the block, but I wasn’t allowed to ride on the street. When I was eight years old, the rules were loosened and I could ride around the block and on the low traffic roads that connected with it. When I was ten, I could ride to the park a couple miles away on busier streets. My parents set rules and then loosened them as I grew in my stature, my knowledge and understanding, and in my maturity.

     Then when I turned sixteen, my father said, “I’m giving you the keys to the car” and a whole new set of rules was put in place. Many things were bound on earth until I had gained the maturity and experience and trust, as my parents discerned my ability to handle more complex situations. Then they loosed some of those restrictions. That’s what binding and loosing means.

     Disciples trained under the supervision of a well-respected and established rabbi. When they demonstrated that they knew his teaching well, they were given the authority to interpret Scripture according to the teaching of their mentor.

     Every once in a while, a rabbi would come along who was teaching a new way of interpreting the Scriptures. To do this took great courage because that rabbi was claiming that he understood Scriptures nearer to what God intended than the rabbis who came before him.

     The new rabbi would say things like, “You have heard it was said ‘the scriptures should be understood this way,’ but I tell you, ‘this is what God really wants.’” That’s what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you ‘do not resist an evil person”

     … and he also said, “You have heard it was said,’ You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” (Matt. 5:38-39; 43-44)

     So this process of reinterpreting the Scriptures was called “binding and loosing.” To “bind” something was to forbid it. To “loose” something was to allow it. Once a rabbi taught his disciples his interpretations, he then gave them authority to forbid things as circumstances changed and to let go of rules when those restrictions were no longer needed. The guide to making these changes would be to bring things more in line with the teachings of the one who trained them.[1]

     And the rest is history. Peter accepted that authority in Acts 10 when he came to the understanding that no animal God has made is unclean. We get to eat shrimp and lobster, pork and bacon which were forbidden in the Old Testament. We were set free to enjoy these gifts of God.

     Then Peter took it beyond the literal interpretation when he said that no human being is unclean or profane just because they are born to a certain tribe or nation. He encouraged Christians to accept Gentiles, not to look down on them. They, too, are beloved children of God.

     We are disciples of Jesus who study his teachings. He gives us the keys of the kingdom of heaven. We have the authority to bind and loose the Scriptures as they apply or do not apply to his teachings. We have the authority to bind and loose laws and regulations that hurt people, no matter if those laws are written in church constitutions or in the Bible (see Luther’s quotes).

     If you want further justification that the kingdom of heaven/God involves “binding and loosing” of those things that bring division and disharmony, as well as evidence that Jesus’s parables were not about the afterlife, read my book about the kingdom of heaven. I guarantee you’ll discover some new ways of hearing Jesus’s parables that make a lot more sense. And if you don’t, I’ll personally give you your money back.

     Jesus bound these commands on earth: Love the Lord your God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies. Love each other. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

     You don’t have to have a clerical collar to receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven if you are a student of Jesus. You are the priesthood of believers. Jesus gives you and me the keys of the kingdom, and the authority to bind and loose laws in the Bible if, like Peter, you recognize and confess him as the one who reveals God to us, the visible Son of God, and, if you apply the things you bind and loose according to his teachings.

     If you can do that, then like Jesus, you will be bringing peace, love, joy, healing, comfort, and many fruits of the Spirit into the lives of people who are hurting. You will be using your authority (keys) to open the kingdom of heaven to them.

 

[1] I give credit to Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, (p.48-50) for explanations about “binding and loosing.”

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Help the Person Who Comes to You and Asks

Matthew 15:21-28

There aren’t many stories in the Bible that paint Jesus in a less than perfect light. Why would he speak in a demeaning way to the Canaanite woman? It seems so out of the norm for him. But I can relate.

A much needed two-week vacation was coming up. A member of the church asked me if I would visit her neighbor who was in the intensive care unit. He’d contracted pneumonia and was on a ventilator. Things were pretty dire. The patient’s wife asked if her neighbor’s pastor could stop by to see them.

I was pretty busy trying to prepare two worship services for use while I was gone. A few unexpected things also developed that required my attention. So I was feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities within my own congregation. After all, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of St. Matthew by the Lake.

Why should I take the time and energy to step outside the boundaries of helping someone who wasn’t going to a church of their own? If they were churchgoers, they’d have asked their own pastor to visit.

Have you ever thought like that? One of those that’s not my responsibility thoughts?

Well, I wasn’t as rude as Jesus was to the Canaanite woman. I didn’t ignore the first request as if she didn’t exist. I certainly didn’t refer to these people as if they were dogs. I smiled and said, “Yes, I’ll see him.” But it was the thoughts running through my head as I walked away, that were similar to the reaction Jesus had for the woman. I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. And that’s about all I care to handle.

The woman was a Canaanite. She wasn’t a daughter of Abraham. She wasn’t born in the right bloodline. She didn’t believe the “right” things. She probably worshipped idols. These things made her the scum of the earth in the eyes of the chosen people, the Jews.

Years ago, I saw a movie, The Help. It’s the story of the relationship of southern white folks in Mississippi to black folks in the 1960s. Blacks weren’t allowed to use the same drinking fountains, or the same restrooms, or to go to the same schools, or read the same textbooks. Whites didn’t want to touch anything a black person had touched for fear of getting infected with some unknown disease. The relationship the Jews had with Canaanites was similar.

Jesus was a Jew. He grew up in an environment where prejudice was rampant in the way they talked and thought. That is, until he met an idol-worshipping Gentile who showed greater faith in the goodness of God than he had seen within the nation of Israel.

Young woman holds the elderly woman handsIt’s refreshing for me to see that Jesus was capable of growing—of pushing beyond the lines that had been drawn for him by his tradition about who he could and could not help. He was in the process of understanding who he was and what he had been called to do. He was not only a Messiah sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but he was God’s chosen healer of the whole world. He stepped over the line and answered the Canaanite woman’s prayer. He healed her daughter.

One morning, I received a phone call in the church office. A woman I didn’t know, representing an agency that I’d never heard of, asked if she could send a representative, a retired pastor, to give us a presentation about how we could feed poor people in Central America and the Caribbean. My instinctive reaction was one of limitations and drawing lines. We were a small congregation going through our own financial struggles. We had other missions that we’ve made commitments to helping. We can’t save the whole world. We have to draw some lines somewhere.

Maybe that’s partly how Jesus felt at this time, too. “I’m only one person with more work than I can handle in a sixteen-hour day with my own people. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” It’s a hard question: Shouldn’t we draw the line somewhere? In another place in the Bible, Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks of you.”

If we give to everyone, we’ll be poor! Jesus also said, “Blessed are the poor.”

Are we really following Jesus? Our self-imposed lines originate from a mentality of lack rather than abundance. If we step across that line, we might find what Jesus found…persistent faith greater than any he’d seen inside the “chosen” people. And maybe our own faith will grow by what we witness in others.

Jesus stepped over the line of exclusivism and a mentality of lack in religion. He answered the prayer of an idolater and healed her daughter. Did he do that because she agreed to believe certain religious doctrines and because a card-carrying, baptized member of Judaism? No. He did it because she trusted that he was capable and compassionate. She lowered herself at his feet and kept asking. That’s the persistence of faith Jesus responds to.

What about you? What lines have you drawn? Who will you help because they are the right religion, the right color, the right nationality, the right political party? What lines have you drawn around people you won’t help because they aren’t like you? Who will you give your money to and who won’t you give your money to? And why? What lines have you drawn that say God’s grace is only reserved for someone like you and the group you’re in?

God calls us to step over the lines others drew for us and the lines we’ve drawn for ourselves. God calls us to love and embrace people we don’t understand, people who are not like us, who don’t think exactly what we think, and to give up the notion that we don’t have enough to make a difference in the world.

Who knows? The person who comes to you and asks may be an angel sent to help you grow – to take a necessary step to become the person God intends you to be. It could be more for your good than to fill the need of the one who asks.

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Walking on Water

Matthew 14:22-33

The story of Jesus and Peter walking on water is a fascinating and mystical story that is pregnant with meaning. Can we perform miracles? Can we walk on water?

Neil Douglas-Klotz says a tradition of both native Middle Eastern and Hebraic mysticism says that each statement of sacred teaching must be examined from at least three points of view: the intellectual, the metaphorical, and the universal (or mystical).

walk on water     The first viewpoint is the “face value” or literal interpretation. What the western world doesn’t realize is that Aramaic words, the language of Jesus, often can be translated in several ways. As I described in my book on the beatitudes, “the meek” could easily be translated as “the gentle,” or “the humble, those submitted to God’s will,” or “those who have softened what is rigid inside,” or “those who have dissolved heavy morality within.”

The second viewpoint is to consider how a story is a metaphor for our lives or the life of a community. Again, you have to consider the multiple “literal” meanings. As in “meek,” where are the rigid places in our lives or in the life of our society? How do they prevent us from inheriting the earth?

From the universal or mystical point of view, one would contemplate what universal truth arises from the teaching that guides me to act responsibly from a new understanding? Unfortunately for those who like to see things in black and white, and who think one truth applies to every person, this viewpoint (interpretation) is highly individual and specific to the life of the contemplator. [1]

One viewpoint does not exclude the others. They live in tension within the one who is seeking understanding and guidance. The bottom line is that stories in the Bible are capable of giving different meanings depending upon the readers and their situation.

From the literal viewpoint, maybe the story of Peter attempting to walk on water is the common request that comes when we face trouble – “Jesus, if you are who you say you are, command me to do a miraculous thing – and that will prove to me that you are who you say you are.”

“Let the few words I pray supernaturally heal my friend or loved one.” How much confidence do you have when you do this?

From the metaphorical viewpoint, what could the image of Jesus and Peter walking on water portray? Here’s a far-out metaphor for you to ponder. Water is a metaphor for the Law. Both are necessary for life in community and for the life of an individual. You can’t live without them.

And yet, Jesus walked on water as if he was above the Law. He disagreed with the Law in places – don’t repay evil with evil like the Law permits you to do. Don’t kill your enemy or people who commit evil acts (adultery, blasphemy, sorcery, murder, break Sabbath laws) like the Law permits you to do. Help your neighbor on the Sabbath if (s)he’s in need even though the Law says you can’t work.

Some water is bad to drink. It’s tainted by culture and tradition. Some of the Law is not helpful in bringing harmony and order to a community. Some law does harm rather than good. So we have to look to the image and example of Jesus to make sure we apply the Law in love. Like Martin Luther said, “Love is to be the interpreter of law.”

A mystical viewpoint of the story? For me, it’s about trust and following Jesus. Fear is the opposite of trust. Do not fear following your heart (“Do you not know that Christ is within you?” 2 Cor. 13:5) when you want to imitate Jesus, especially when it involves choosing love over law. That’s the deep truth for me at this time in my life journey.

Let me remind you that the Aramaic word for truth that I explained in chapter 17 of In Living Color: Heaven is “right or harmonious direction, that which liberates and opens possibilities.”

You’ll have to do your own self-analysis to figure out what walking on water might mean for you in your life. I’m confident that if you trust that Jesus has shown us the example of love to follow, you too can walk on water as you face the trials and storms of life.

 

[1] Neil Douglas-Klotz, Prayers of the Cosmos.

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Feed the Hungry

Matthew 14:13-21

     Tony Campolo is a pastor, a professor of sociology, and speaker. He was invited to give a major address at a women’s conference. The women at the conference were being challenged to raise several thousand dollars for a mission project. At the point where they were ready to take up an offering for the mission project, Campolo was asked to come up and say a prayer for God’s blessing as they considered their individual responses to the goal. Campolo came to the microphone – and to everyone’s amazement – graciously said, “No.” 

     He went on, “You already have all the resources necessary to complete this mission project right here within this room.  It would be inappropriate to ask for God’s blessing, when in fact, God has already blessed you with the abundance and the means to achieve this goal. The necessary gifts are in your hands. As soon as we take the offering and underwrite this mission project – we will THANK God for freeing us to be the generous, responsible, and accountable stewards that we are called to be as Christians and disciples.” The goal for their mission project was met.[1]

     Jesus said, “You feed them.”

AIR-CRASH     Forty thousand children die of hunger every year. The average person blinks every thirteen seconds. That means every time you blink a child dies from hunger in our world. That would be comparable to an airplane carrying one hundred children crashing to earth every twenty minutes – every day – of every week – of every month. If seventy-two airplanes holding one hundred children were crashing every day, how hard would we be working to fix the problem? 

     Our lesson said, ‘Jesus had compassion on the people’ …but the disciples said, “Send them somewhere so they can find their own food.” Jesus responded, “No, you give them something to eat.  You take care of their needs.”

     And the disciples individually replied, “It’s been a long hard week, Jesus, I’ve been trying to meet my own obligations. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. You just don’t know how hard life can be sometimes. Every time I go to the mailbox, it’s filled with bills…car payment, house payment, my smartphone bill, 200+ channel satellite television bill, and medical bills. My doctor says I need to lose weight. My dentist tells me I need a lot of work done on my teeth. I’d like to help out, Jesus, but there’s not much in the basket – a couple of fives, a twenty – a few loaves and a couple of cold fish. That’s it, Lord.  I’d like to help you, but what I have won’t make a difference.”

     Jesus said, “Bring what you have to me.”

     Jesus’ feeding the five thousand is not about everyone giving the same amount. He didn’t say, “Everyone ante up a couple of loaves and one fish so we can get this done.” It was someone from the crowd who gave what they had. Most, including the disciples, gave nothing. Jesus took what was given and used it to fill a big need. And we all celebrate together because God brings the abundance.

     Because Jesus can do miracles with small amounts does not let us off the hook. We are only asked to give a small amount, and as disciples, we are asked to be part of the distribution.

     There are hungry eyes looking to us for food. There are despairing eyes with disease and illness looking to us for affordable healthcare. There are homeless people looking to us for shelter from the rain and snow. We are not to say, “Send them away to fend for themselves.” Jesus says to us, “You give them something to eat.”

     St. Paul said, “Don’t you know that Christ is within you?” It is the Christ within us who feeds the hungry.

 

[1] Sermons.com, illustrations.

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New Beginnings

Luke 9:47-52       (This is my final sermon to St. Matthew by the Lake, Benton, KY,  given July 27, 2014)

          Guy Kawasaki is an entrepreneur. He’s one of the people who worked hand-in-hand with Steven Jobs in the early days to build the computer technology company, Apple. I happened to run across a Utube video presentation he did on entrepreneurship[1] this past week, and I thought, “That’s a picture of how the church should reinvent itself if it wants to be successful.”

     This is what he said: “The essence of entrepreneurship is about making meaning. Many people start companies to make money. But those companies that are fundamentally founded to change the world, to make the world a better place, to make meaning, are the companies that will make a difference. And they are more likely to succeed.”

     Churches, if they want to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world, need to focus on making this world a better place by proclaiming and working for unity and harmony for all people.

     Kawasaki said, “My naïve and romantic belief is that if you make meaning, you’ll probably make money.” To make the rest of what he said appropriate to our setting, the church, I’m going to substitute how he spoke of money with what many churches strive for, and that is to fill the pews. It would sound like this: “If you make meaning, you’ll probably get more people in the pews; but if you make your purpose to fill pews, you’ll probably not make meaning and you won’t fill the pews either. The core of why you start a company or build a church is to make a difference in someone’s life.”

     And it’s my theory that this is why the church of today is declining. Too many churches are worrying about how they’ll fill the pews for self-survival instead of how they can make the world a better place for people. That’s what the kingdom of God is all about. The kingdom of God is that state in the present day in which all people are at peace, living in harmony, and with respect for each other as children of God. That’s been my mantra for the last year. The kingdom of heaven is the movement toward unity and harmony for all.

     That’s why I believe churches must be in the business of making a difference for people today. Kawasaki says there are three ways to make meaning. These principles apply to more than starting a business or building a church. These principles also apply to you as an individual, to communities, even to governments. How do you make meaning?

Haitian child eating through Trinity HOPE Inc     You do it by (1) Increasing the quality of someone’s life. In the church, you find ways to bring people comfort, hope, relief from their pain, anxiety, grief, and loneliness. You offer love and acceptance.  St. Matthew by the Lake has been increasing the quality of life for many people, and I’m so proud of you for the difference you’ve made! Since 2004, you’ve helped improve the quality of life for children in Haiti, insuring that many will get at least one healthy meal a day when they attend school. You’ve improved the quality of life for children on the other side of the planet, in Africa, by helping to reduce their vulnerability to getting malaria and providing medicine when they do get it. You’ve made meaning by improving the quality of life for people in our own community – feeding the hungry through Marshall County Caring Needline and Marcella’s Kitchen; by giving food and clothing to the physically challenged adults at Bright Life Farms; providing funds to the Marshall County Rescue Squad to buy equipment. You’ve given baby goods and money to help improve the quality of life for young mothers, infants, and the unborn through HOPE Clinic. You’ve made meaning by increasing the quality of life for many people.

     Another way you make meaning is to be engaged in (2) Righting a wrong. Treating people like they are inferior because of the color of their skin, their nationality, their sexual orientation, their age, their gender, their economic class, or because of their poor health – these are wrongs that continue to be perpetuated in our world and need to be righted. Jesus stood up for the poor, the marginalized, and the outcasts who were despised by the privileged of society. You did this, too, as you voted four years ago to continue your affiliation in the ELCA  when it stood up to improve the quality of life for gay clergy and approved their partnering. You will make meaning when you fight for the equal treatment of the poor and marginalized of society. And you will be following Jesus. It may get you in just as much trouble as it got him.

     One more way you make meaning is to be engaged in (3) Preventing the end of something good. The easiest thing to point out here is the preservation of our planet and its natural resources. Remember the story in Genesis saying when God created the world in six days, every day he looked at it and declared it to be good. Man was given dominion over the earth to care for it, not to ravage it. When you spend time and energy  on protecting those things of the earth that cannot protect themselves, air, water, land, forests, you are protecting it from those who would destroy it because of their greed.

     I don’t think Jesus would measure success in the church by the numbers of people sitting in the pews on a given Sunday. I believe he would measure it by the numbers of people for whom you’ve increased the quality of their  lives, by the numbers of wrongs you have righted, and by the numbers of good things you help to preserve.

      Entrepreneurship is also about beginning something new. Barb and I are facing a new beginning. St. Matthew by the Lake is facing a new beginning. We all have, in our baptisms, been called to make meaning in the world with the time and talents and possessions we’ve been given. As we all start something new, it will take focus and energy. Focus and energy. The worst thing we can do is to look back at the past and imagine we’re supposed to repeat what was comfortable in the past.

     Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is useful for the kingdom of God.” Why? Because there are more people who need a better quality of life, more people who need to be defended who are being treated unjustly, and more good things that need to be preserved. The past is dead. It’s over. The moment we look back, we will be pulled off the task Jesus has set for us – to bring unity and harmony to all people.

     Change happens and sometimes transition is what God uses to advance the kingdom. Because of this transition, as long as we keep our eyes forward on the need for greater unity and harmony in the world, we will continue to advance the kingdom and more people will receive peace, hope, and encouragement for their lives.

     There are some questions we all need to be asking ourselves: How will I be a part of continuing to make meaning so the world can be a better place? Am I ready follow Jesus? Do I understand what that means?

     I probably don’t need to remind you — it’s not easy to follow Jesus. When the man in our gospel reading told Jesus he would follow him wherever he went, Jesus said, “Make sure you understand that following me isn’t going to be a cakewalk. Foxes and birds have a consistent place to return to at night, but if you’re following me by trying to make a difference, you may never sleep in the same place two nights in a row.”

     To another he said, “If you want to follow me, you’re going to have to set some new priorities in your life.” Building unity is the most important. And to another, “If you’re going to advance unity and harmony, and fair treatment for all people in the world, keep your eyes forward. Don’t look back. Don’t live in the past. Things are changing and you need to be ready to adjust to them.”

     Today feels a lot like New Year’s Eve for me. Can you remember the feeling that you get on New Year’s Eve? Sometimes it’s, “I’m glad that year is over.” More often, it’s been, “There are so many new possibilities in the coming year. I can’t wait to see how God’s going to bless us this year!” God’s  already showing how he’s going to take care of you! Good Lord, it’s harder to find an accomplished organist for a liturgical setting in west Kentucky than it is to find a pastor – and you’ve already found one. You’re not going to miss a Sunday or a beat!” God is good!

     The important work of bringing the kingdom to others continues. What would Jesus say if you said, “Master we want to follow you, but first we need to make sure we find a pastor we like.” “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is useful for bringing unity and harmony to others.” To look back and try to repeat what’s always been done, or to think that anything else should come first will not be entering into a New Year. It will only be repeating an old year – and that will not be useful in helping bring the kingdom to all people.

     Edward Powell wrote this about New Year’s Eve: “The Old Year has gone. Let the dead past bury its own dead. The New Year has taken possession of the clock of time. All hail the duties and possibilities of the coming twelve months!”

+  +  +

     This has been a place of great unity and harmony! You are making a difference in so many lives. I love you  and I thank God for the privilege it’s been to serve Christ with you in this place. I invite you to love your interim pastor and your next called pastor in the way you have loved Barb and I. May God bless you and guide you, as he will Barb and I, as time and the universe march on — and as we all continue to make meaning in the world. Amen.

 

[1] Guy Kawasaki, “The Art of the Start.”

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