Temptations

Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

According to Matthew the confrontation he reports between Jesus and Satan didn’t just happened. He is very clear, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” It was intentional. Was it a “Boot Camp” experience, designed to train Jesus or to test his metal against the wiles of Satan? How you answer that question says a lot about who you see Jesus to be.

Matthew tells us is that Jesus’ temptation came at breakfast, literally. This is a direct contradiction of how Luke tells his story. With Luke, the temptations lasted for forty days. We are going to throw in our lot with Matthew and say that Jesus wasn’t tempted for forty days and forty nights. The temptations came at the conclusion of his fast, when he was famished, at a point of extreme vulnerability.

There is a lot we don’t know about Jesus’ fast. There is the rare and inadequately supported report of a victim of torture actually surviving forty days without food. Putting Jesus in that category of robust humanity isn’t a struggle for many. For others, Jesus is super human anyway and it isn’t an issue. But for many of us the fact of Jesus’ humanity is in question. It’s known that Ghandi survived twenty one days of living without food but he consumed water. But a good place for us to begin is to consider what was going on with Jesus and his intentional fast. It’s not a stretch. Most religions in the world recommend fasting.

There are impassioned prose writers who say that the number forty signifies God’s judgment of one sort or another somehow implying that Jesus’ was being judged by his temptations. Others simply shrug their shoulders and say that nothing is clear about the biblical use of the number forty other than it is what it is, a period of time other than another way of saying a long time. Some neuro-scientists get excited about the Gamma frequency of 40 Hz and its relationship to the human brains’ operating frequency which is also the frequency of middle ‘c’ on the piano key board.

There is no numerical figure in scripture as pervasive as that of the number ‘forty’, especially ‘forty days and forty nights’. For quite a few years now I’ve wanted to host a retreat starting with the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluding with Easter sunrise, a forty hour retreat. Of course the rains in Noah’s day fell for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel ate Manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was with God in the mount, 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses was again with God 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28). Moses led Israel from Egypt at age 80 (2 times 40), and after 40 years in the wilderness, died at 120 (3 times 40; Deuteronomy 34:7). The spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25). God made Israel wander for 40 years (Numbers 14:33-34). 40 stripes was the maximum whipping penalty (Deuteronomy 25:3). Three different times reported in Judges God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11). Abdon (a judge in Israel) had 40 sons (Judges 12:14). Israel did evil; God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). Goliath presented himself to Israel for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16). Saul reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21). Saul’s son was 40 when he began reign (2 Samuel 2:10). David reigned over Israel for 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11). Solomon reigned same length as his father; 40 years (1 Kings 11:42). Jehoash (Joash) reigned 40 years in Jerusalem (2 Kings 12:1). The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long (1 Kings 6:17). The size of lavers in Temple were forty baths (1 Kings 7:38). God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4). The sockets of silver are in groups of 40 (Exodus 26:19 & 21). Elijah had one meal that gave him strength 40 days (1 Kings 19:8). Ezekiel bore the iniquity of the house of Judah for 40 days (Ezekiel 4:6). Egypt to be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12). Ezekiel’s (symbolic) temple is 40 cubits long (Ezekiel 41:2). The courts in Ezekiel’s temple were 40 cubits long (Ezra 46:22). Jesus fasted 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Jesus was tempted 40 days (Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13). Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3). And then there is the relationship between the times of Jewish festivals and the 40 week period of human pregnancy.  So, “forty days and nights…”

Traditionally we have understood that there were three temptations:

  1. If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
  2. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
  3. the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

The first challenge is about Jesus simply employing the power, prestige and privileges that are his as ‘the Son of God’ to meet his own needs. Recently we read the passage where John the Baptist lashed out at the privileged Pharisees and Sadducees saying that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” So why is this act of feeding oneself considered a temptation, a temptation from which Jesus turned away? I want to suggest that the issue is Jesus’ humanity and how he identifies himself. Is he able to survive without drawing upon divine resources? If God is able to raise up children for Abraham from stones, why not raising up loaves of bread from stones to meet the needs of a fleshly body?

Jesus’ reply was: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Our life is dependent on ‘every word’ that comes from the mouth of God including the creative word that brought stones into being. Even the stones have an intrinsic integrity. There is a huge environmental message in that. Far to easily can we fool ourselves into thinking that we can meet our most basic and simple needs and in the acquisition of which no one else is hurt, no one else is deprived, no one else is effected. In how we meet our needs, much less our wants, we are in a set of living relationships with all creation.  Were we to only eat fruit that falls of its own accord to the ground, our action interrupts the cycle of planting, germination, maturity and fruition.

So next, from the top of Herod’s Temple, Satan again challenges Jesus’ sense of identity. “Are you really who you think you are?” Satan asks. He quotes the Ninety First Psalm reminding Jesus again of his exceptionalness.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Do you believe that Jesus? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus replies with a word of scripture of his own: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” The response is from Deuteronomy 6. In Deuteronomy 5 Moses teaches the people what God had told him on the Mountain. It is a recitation of the Ten Commandments. Then, recorded at the first of Chapter 6 is Moses’ statement of the Shema “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

There is a brief recounting of Israel’s salvation history and then, in the sixteenth verse we find “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

As I was thinking about how Jesus handled this intense confrontation I wondered how equipped I am. Do I have an adequate command of the assurances offered in our scriptures to give me the necessary back bone to survive such an attack?

The third temptation puzzles us all. Making bread seemed relevant. The spectacular stunt we can understand. But after deflecting the first two challenges the last seems so glaringly obvious that Jesus would reject it.

Jesus is given a view of all the kingdoms of the world and Satan offers to give them to him on the one condition that Jesus worship him. Jesus doesn’t challenge Satan’s power to make the world such a gift. All the evidence in the gospels suggests that Jesus had no interest whatsoever in political power. In John 6, when it was offered to him he literally ran for the hills. So how can Satan’s offer be a temptation, be something attractive to Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t want political power, but this whole experience is preparing him for his ministry and he is considering various ways of approaching his task. He wants to influence people, he has a message that he wants people to hear. Perhaps here is where the devil’s suggestion becomes a little more plausible. He’s trying to get Jesus to keep his eyes fixed on all the kingdoms of the world. He’s trying to make him desire and go after as many followers as possible. He’s trying to get him to play the ratings game; to be guided, if you like, by opinion polls. He’s trying to make him desire success above all things. And it sounds so good and holy. What could be better than for Jesus to be THE influence, the guiding force over everyone on earth?

John Hemer, a British Catholic, asks, “But if Jesus does that how will he cope with his opposition? How will he cope when the Pharisees tell him he’s wrong, or when some of his own disciples tell him that his words are intolerable and leave him? (John 6: 66) Well, if he eyes are fixed on getting (and keeping) as many followers as possible might he tailor his message to suit his audience? He won’t do a complete about turn, he won’t deny anything he’s said or done so far, but would he make subtle changes in order to make his message more palatable? The Pharisees, after all, are hugely influential, there’s no point in alienating them when they can be such useful allies. So rather than heal on the Sabbath and court controversy, Jesus can heal on other days, he’s still healing after all. Rather than lose all those followers at Capernaum, he can call them back and explain his ministry in terms that are less offensive, more acceptable. No major changes, just tweaking the message here and there to make sure it hits its target audience.

If Jesus makes these little changes here and there, he will end up preaching not God’s truth but what his audience want God’s truth to be. What will be guiding him will not be the voice of God but the voice of sinful human beings, the values of sinful human institutions. Without even realizing it he will no longer be worshiping God, but the devil. And by worship we mean more than just an isolated religious act. The thing we worship is the thing which guides our lives, the thing that motivates us. If Jesus allows himself to be motivated by the desire for success, it will always be fallen human concerns which guide him. The Truth will then be whatever his listeners want to hear and that is tantamount to worshipping the devil.

All through Jesus’ public life we see the consequences of his coming unscathed through Satan’s challenges as he refuses to be swayed by public opinion or by threats or violence. Worshipping Satan isn’t necessarily a huge act of rebellion, but a series of small acts of accommodation. It is a constant temptation for us as Christians and the only sure antidote is the one Jesus gives: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

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Another Way…

Matthew 2:13-23

Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler who was wily enough to switch allegiances at the drop of a hat and, when politics demanded, pragmatic enough to execute his own children. He was a descendant of Esau, an Idumean, rather than an ethnic Jew, but according to the Roman Senate he was the uneqivocable “King of the Jews.”
Once he had eliminated all challenges to his claim on the throne Herod settled down to the business of governing. He built cities and fortresses, improved Jerusalem’s water supply, and, most famously, rebuilt and expanded Zerubable’s Temple, the Temple of Jesus’ youth. He was known for his “progressive agenda”. Yet today, because of Matthew’s story, we remember him mostly as the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents, a plot which, Matthew says, the infant Jesus barely escaped by the flight to Egypt.

W. H. Auden, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, describes Herod as worried that a nacent King of the Jews, believed by some to be God Incarnate, threatened to destroy the reason, idealism and justice his progressive agenda had labored to advance. He has Herod say, “Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate? Oh dear, why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.”

What Herod couldn’t grasp was to him no god worthy of the name would be so disrespectful of his progressive agenda, nor so foolish as to become human, and therefore vulnerable. Auden again speaking for Herod: “…for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy God’s self. I refuse to be taken in. God could not play such a practical joke. Why should God dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I’ve read all the official documents without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare God allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

I suspect all of us, in our own way, have trouble with an incarnate, vulnerable God who invites us to turn our life projects upside down and follow God to an uncertain end. We’ve all worked so hard, meant so well, sacrificed so much to trade away what we have coming for something so flimsy as faith. We all know Herod’s motivation, if not his power, from the inside.

So here’s a first question for us: Now that Christmas is past and the New Year is upon us, how will you live in light of the vulnerable Incarnation? How much of your agenda will you part with to follow “Jesus the Savior…come for to die?”

In her book Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris tells us that everything Herod does, he does out of fear. Fear can be a useful defense mechanism, but when a person is always on the defensive, like Herod, it becomes debilitating and self-defeating. Herod symbolizes the terrible destruction that fearful people leave in their wake, where they have exercised their power in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation. A young mother carries a handgun for self protection and her two year old squeezes the trigger. A Sheriff takes his wife’s life “I didn’t kown the gun was loaded…” A freightened police officer iin a struggle with a mentally ill person shoots them in the back. Stories flood our news from Florida, Arizona, Idaho and even here at home.

The tradition of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”, offers an account of the tragic consequences of such defensive, self preserving fear. This brand of insecurity never leads to anything good. Herod is a case study that documents to truth of the first half of Proverbs 29:25: “The fear of others lays a snare, but the one who trusts in God rests secure.” It’s reflected in the flood of guns over sales counters.

In the process of fearing others, sadly, the one who fears seeks to douse the light of other lives and often succeeds. We could make a long list of the sufferings inflicted on others by those who in the past and today, on personal and international scales, are both powerful and paranoid. We hold to the faith that such fear cannot douse the light of the world we celebrate at Christmas. This passage forces us to stay real—paranoid insecurity is a persistent force.

Norris tells of preaching on Herod on Epiphany Sunday in a small country church in a poor area of an island in Hawaii from which tourists are warned to avoid, an area where those who served the tourist industry as maids and tour bus drivers could afford to live. That church had much to fear: alcoholism, drug addiction, rising property costs, and crime. The residents came to church for hope.

Norris pointed out that the sages who traveled so far to find Jesus were drawn to him as a sign of hope. This church, she told the congregation, is a sign of hope for the community. Its programs, its thrift store have become important community centers, signs of hope. The church represented “a lessening of fear’s shadowy power, an increase in the available light.” She continued to say that that’s what Christ’s coming celebrates: Christ’s light shed abroad into our lives. She ended her sermon by encouraging the congregation, like the ancient wise men, not return to Herod but to find another way. “leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by flatterers, all alone with his fear.” This is our second question, can we find another way?

James E. Lamkin wrote of what he called “The New Normal.” Over that last few weeks we’ve rehearshed one more time the ancient Christmas story with its’ awkward pregnancy and government mandated relocation. Then this couple become a nuclear family with the birth of a child followed by a series of holiday parties including farm animals, shepherds, angels and a mysterious delegation of astrologists. I’m guessing that it wasn’t too long before the Holy Family had had enough of Christmas. They must have been ready for things to get back to normal–whatever that is. But, as we all learn, they would never see normal again. This infant inaugurated a new normal.

Some say that it was after the Oklahoma City bombing, when we discovered what domestic terrorism could mean, that the phrase “new normal” first entered our language. It’s how we express our anxiety over global and local economic concerns, political and international disputes and technological uncertainties each accompanied by it’s own bitter residue of latent fear. And it is so personally threatening: a neighbor who was going to retire only to discover that the company took what was there’s into bankruptcy; the friend who was let go when the company downsized; the premature shot from an anxious police officer’s side arm; shrinking church attendance, budgets and staff.

We may prefer a different topic today… a different text on this second Sunday of Christmas and first on a new calendar . But the terrain of life changes quickly. Glory to God in the highest can nose dive to a new low in less than a human heartbeat. Even the Holy Family was not given the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace for very long. No. An evil tyrant was on the loose going door-to-door looking for babies to kill. So flee!

If joy has felt illusive for you this holiday season, you are in good company. And yet we contend God’s power to save is greater than evil’s power to destroy. With any “new normal”—from prolonged family crises to financial fears to a haunting sense of uncertainty–grief and loss is a real reality even during Christmas.

But there’s this truth that wherever we find ourselves God has been there before us. Even in the land of the loss, even in far away Egypt, even in the “new normal,” it is not new to God. God has been there before us. Fascinating, isn’t it…that right off the bat, God’s own Son becomes a transient, homeless, migrant, alien. Within a few pages the baby will be all grown-up and we’ll hear him say, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Wherever we go God is nearby to fill full our often empty lives. So we ask of the evangelist: Matthew, tell the story when Jesus calmed the waters…we need it because it feels like we are about to drown. Matthew, tell us the story of Jesus bringing food to the wilderness…we need it because it feels like we are marooned and are lacking sustaining nourishment. Matthew, tell us the story of the fatigued fishermen who do their all-night-long-best and still catch nothing…we need it because we too have grown weary in well-doing and we have little to show for it.”

Wherever we go, whatever we feel, faithful people have found that God faithfully has been there, done that, and meets us there. The old prophet Isaiah (63:9) knew it to be true. He sang of God: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Even the testy times of life can be handled faithfully because of Christ. The writer of Hebrews (20:18) says, “Because he [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Kathlene Norris says that like the suffocating fear of Herod and there is another kind of fear, a life giving fear of the Lord, exemplified by Mary and Joseph which, as we are promised, is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Pr. 1:7). When we open the doors of our life, even just a crack, to allow the fear of the Lord to enter in, we have taken the first step in a lifelong process of exchanging the fear of Herod for the faith of Mary and Joseph.

The fear of the Lord is the Bible’s code word for a very different kind of fear. It is a full-bodied faith that includes trembling before the mystery of a transcendent God and trusting in the tenderness and faithfulness of an imminent God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of our being able to say, with Mary, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). It is the source of Joseph’s wordless obedience (Mt 1:24) and Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). The fear of the Lord opens us to the comfort and stamina God offers even in times of undeserved and profound suffering. The fear of the Lord is the impulse that shuts our self-righteous lips when we look upon the suffering or mistakes of others. It impels us, rather than to retreat in cold judgment, to reach out with comforting, capable hearts and hands.

When we put aside our paranoid, self-centered fears and embrace the fear of the Lord, we face the reality of an unknown future with the goods news that we are accompanied by a God who never abandons us. The shadows of fear are illuminated by the light—Immanuel, God with us!

So, here we sit with a New Year waiting to be explored and in our hearts we hold a Christmas story. A bizarre Christmas story – with foreign tyrants and heavy taxes and bloody swords and innocent suffering and homeless refugees. And, remarkably, prayerfully, God somehow uses this collage of odd images to fulfill a commitment to us. It can be stated so simply, it almost is embarrassing to say; but here it is: With our anxiety, loss and grief in one hand, and our gratitude in the other, we bask in God’s big promise to never leave us or forsake us.

Whatever this new year’s “new normal” brings our way–the good news is it is not new to God. And that is part of Christmas that should not stored away ’til next year but kept out in a prominent place in our lives. All-loving God, for your grace that hath brought us safe thus far, and for your grace that will lead us on, we say, “Thank You.” In Christ’s Name, Amen.

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Small Things

Matthew 2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod.

 

The rumor mill in International Relations always runs on high, making montains out of very small mole hills. I doubt it was much different in Palestine two thousand years ago in the era of Roman control. I recall during Richard Nixon’s presidency when Richard Post, an inveterate Cuba watcher, came storming into the office on Capitol Hill absolutely elated to report an apparent positive development in relations between Washington and Havana. After over a dozen years of recalitrance the Cuban Government’s newspaper Granma printed Nixon’s name with an X rather than a swastika. People who follow international relations live by Zechariah 4:10 “For who hath despised the day of small things?

That something big was happening that could make for enormous changes in the control of the trade routes around the eastern end of the Mediterranean hadn’t been lost on those who kept track of these things. Our English fails to give us insight into many great concepts especially when we’ve learned our geography from an North American perspective. Take how we’ve come to think of the Mediterranian, that small pond that holds Europe and Africa apart. It’s hard for us to remember that Med means the middle, terra is the whole earth. In the day our scriptures were written this body of water was the very middle of the earth and it was of great importance whatever power controlled the trade routes that carried goods from Egypt to Syria on the eastern end of the ocean.

For those who followed such things, it somehow became known that a Prince of the Davidic monarchy had taken as wife a princess of the same lineage and that an heir was in the offing. It was one of those small things that peaked great interest. A new star was rising. From Egypt to Damascus – all the people of the levant understood the potential for being shed of the boot of Rome and sent a delegation to win favor.

Representatives of the Roman Empire were Romans and they believed the Roman theology. Rome was the eternal city and was expected to rule forever. They had the power in their military might that was very carefully spread to the ends of its reach. Being posted to Jerusalem was a social death sentence, it was to be banished from the courts of prestige and power. And no one in Rome paid any attention to what happened in the outlands.

Not so with those who were dependent on eastern mediterranean trade.

Typically emissaries would come to Palestine from the west, through Rome, and Roman officials would be alerted to their coming well in advance. So it came as a surprise to Herod to learn that a delegation from countries to the east, beyond the Empire’s control had boots on the ground in his territory. Since 1857 we’ve sung John Henry Hopkins lyrics of the three kings from the orient. It may have given us some wrong ideas. Every place to the east was called the orient. The Orient Express got it’s name from its destination, Istanbul which we understand as the beginning of the east or the orient. That’s not really the case. The text reads: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

It wasn’t surprise that rose in Herod’s heart. It was fright! “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. Scholarship suggests that Herod Antipas ruled Palestine later than the time of Jesus birth, it was his brother Archelaus. He was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea and Idumea at the time of the Census of Quirinius. The whole story is rife with intra jewish prejudice and rivalry, ethnic and dynastic cleansing and palace intrigue. It’s helpful to understand that this particular Herod was on the throne when the whole of the Hasmonean dynasty was slaughtered by the Romans and in another incident over three thousand Jews were massacred. And this is the guy who the text says was frightened by the announcement of the three eastern dignitaries.

The passage of Matthew’s birth narrative tell us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. With litle warning Joseph is told to make a 600 mile trip to get the infant Jesus out of the reaches of Herod Archelaus. Most of us came to the conclusion that that is what became of the tribute provided by the visitors from the east. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Regardless it certainly helps us understand the weight that Herod gave to the dynastic threat the birth of Jesus posed to his position and the hold Rome had over the territory.

Is there a lesson for us, about how we react to preceived threats to the loss of our privilege and position? How far do we go to maintain our sense of control over our world?

 

 

With the overthrow by Fidel Castro of the U.S. supported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar in 1959, with the exception of Kennedy’s ill planned Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA bombing of the plane returning the Cuban fencing team home from Venezuela and the Cuban’s shooting down a plane intent on rescuing a family seeking to flee the brutality of the Castro regime, relations between our two countries has been more of a comedic than substantial nature. It was two years after Castro threw the gambling and prostitution out of Havana and after the ill fated Bay of Pigs attempt to restore democracy and economic stablity to the island that Las Vegas became home to America’s appetite for decadence. Baseball has been one area in which the fifty year long embargo has not been enforced.

 

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Fear Not Joseph

Fear Not All You Josephs

It’s interesting that the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Matthew focuses more on Joseph than on Mary. The person who wrote this particular Gospel which was directed to Christians of Jewish descent wanted to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the prophets and comes through the line of David.

I’m guessing that as would any Jew Joseph was rather proud of the fact that he was a direct descendent of David. There are those who make the argument that Joseph wasn’t the simple carpenter presented to us by our bible stories. Ancestry records which have more recently come to light suggest that Joseph’s family of origin was wrapped up in great intrigue. Joseph the Carpenter was the son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem who was the fifth wife of Herod. She was the posthumously born daughter of Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra who the records indicate was ‘given to a foreign Prince’. According to these records Joseph was about twenty two years of age when we was told by the temple authorities that a young Davidian princess, Mary, was eligible for betrothal and marriage. But the upshot of all this ancestral posturing is that as a prince of the royal line of David, living in the time of Herod the Great was inherently dangerous. From this perspective Joseph knew fear from being part of a family many members of which were killed off because they were precieved as being challenges to the throne.

Thus the angel, acknowledging Joseph’s true lineage says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife into your home.”

Do not be afraid. These words occur over and over in scripture seemingly whenever a human has an encounter with the Divine. The angel Gabriel first appeared in Daniel 10 and told Daniel not to be afraid. Gabriel is found in the Gospel of Luke telling the priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, not to be afraid. Those were also the Angel’s words to Mary. The shepherds were told by angels not to be afraid. Jesus told Simon Peter and his fishing mates not to be afraid after they almost broke their fishing nets when they listened to Jesus’ instructions. The three disciples were told not to be afraid when they heard the voice of God during the Transfiguration. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were told not to be afraid when they came upon the empty tomb. So, in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is told “Do not be afraid.”

Joseph was told in a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. What was he afraid of? We don’t know for sure, but it certainly had to do with Mary’s pregnancy. Those legends about Joseph’s ancestry where sibling rivals to positions of power and authority were ended with brutal murder might give him pause about taking a bride and who was expecting a child.

Then maybe Joseph was fearful of what other’s would say when a full term baby was born four or five months after the couple began their marriage. Perhaps Joseph was worried over what kind of woman this Mary was really like. After all, she was a young girl and, as far as Joseph initially knew, she was pregnant by someone else. Did he really want to risk the heartbreak she would inevitably bring upon him?

Or perhaps, Joseph’s fear was provoked by the religious authorities. What if he got caught protecting Mary and was accused of joining her in violating the Law of Moses? Wouldn’t he also be punished for protecting an abomination to God’s law and thus co-operating with the sin?

And maybe there was another reason why Joseph was afraid. Maybe he was afraid that he could not love this child as every child has a right to be loved. How could he love the child as a father. We hear this reading about Joseph’s concerns over and over, but we forget that on the human level, Joseph must have thought, “What a mess this is. And what a greater mess it will be if I complete this marriage and take Mary as my wife.”

But the angel said to Joseph in the dream, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph heard, “Trust God, for the child is special. And so is his mother. Do not be afraid. Trust God.” And Joseph put his complete trust in God. God would figure out how to deal with the gossip, how to deal with the Law of Moses, how to deal with Joseph’s concerns for the child. God would give him the ability to love the child as a father.

It was a matter of tradition that the father is responsible for giving the child a name. The meaning behind that practice was caught up in how Jews of the day thought about eternal life. And Joseph named the child Jesus. With the name, Joseph gives his own spirit and all he is to the child. At once, the child, Jesus, is son of God and son of Mary, but also, through the naming of the child by Joseph, he is the son of Joseph and, to top it all off, he is the son of David.

Fear is not the characteristic of a follower of Christ. At the heart of Christianity is trust. Confidence that God is at work. Like Mary and Joseph we live in a world that is a fearful place. Our whole lives must consist in efforts to love more and more as Jesus loved. To do this we need a gift from God. That gift is trust. We need to trust God to work things out. We have to trust the Lord to remove the fear that prevents us from taking risks and living in obedience. We have to trust that the will bring healing when in the act of obedience we take a step outside of ourselves and a step into love. So many of us are afraid, afraid to trust, afraid to love, afraid to risk. We need to trust God so we can make His Presence real for others.

Behold is the theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. God is working in our lives. When we are aware of this, when we behold His Presence, we can then bring his presence to others.

Christmas is not a time for fear. It is a time for love. We have to trust God to protect and develop our love. Can we love others as they deserve to be loved? Will we be hurt in return? These are the questions that Joseph asked himself as he stirred in his sleep. He heard an angel say, “Do not be afraid.” When Joseph took the step from fear to trust, the world beheld its Savior.

Perhaps, this Thursday, Christmas, or throughout this season, some of us will have to associate with someone we have had words with during the last year. This could be a neighbor, a relative or even a member of the inner circle of our family. We might worry, “If I am kind to that person, will I once more be spat upon? Will I be hurt again?” Sometimes we may have real reasons to fear. We only have to trust God and to love. For the one who calls us to love has given us the Gift of Love on Christmas Day.

We have been called to love. God will show us how to do it. Now, like Joseph, we need to name the child. We need to make Jesus an intimate part of our lives so that all that He is and all that we are may be one.

And behold! Behold the wonders that God’s love can work in our lives.

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Lessons for Esther

            Only once in about 157 Sundays are we encouraged to take a look at the Old Testament Book of Esther. Interpreting the book has been a constant theological and cultural battle ground. It is the only book in the whole Bible in which God is not mentioned. Which, by the way carries an important lesson in itself. Just because we fail to acknowledge God’s presence and activity doesn’t mean that God is not a work.

            The Book comes from a pivotal moment in the future shape of Judaism.   The three books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther come out of the same period of Israel’s history, just as those who had been carried off into Babylonian captivity are freed to return to their homeland. Ezra and Nehemiah are written for those who return to Jerusalem to rebuild their homes, their businesses and finally, under much urging and despite conditions under which they lived, they began to rebuild the temple and re-establish Temple service. Esther, on the other hand, was written for those who chose to stay in Persia. In the book of Esther there is no mention of Jerusalem.

            Because to the Judaism of ‘the Holy Land’ is integral our Christian heritage it’s easy for us to overlook the reality that many more Jews stayed in the places to which they had been dispersed than those who returned to Palestine. For Judaism this makes for an enormous foundational shift. The Judaism of the Diaspora adopted the Oral Torah and the rabbinic interpretation of the commandments, as their law. Thus when exilic Jews had a legal decision, they didn’t go to Exodus or Leviticus for guidance, they turned to the vast body of rabbinic scholarship. That’s important to us. The religious tradition that was normative to Jesus was solidly grounded in the Pentateuch despite the ongoing battle between the  temple Priests, the legalistic Pharisees and the wealthy and scholarly Sadducees.  The Apostle Paul was schooled in Rabbinic Judaism. His form of Judaism argued that the Law was only a school master.

            Contemporary Jews celebrate the festival of Purim based on the book Esther. It is the only Jewish holiday not authorized in the Pentateuch, a clear example of this shift in religious authority. Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.

            As they tell it, Esther, an extraordinarily beautiful young Jewish woman, adopted by her cousin Mordecai, was living in the capital city of the Persian Empire. As part of a year long pageant to select the next Queen, Esther, along with handpicked maidens from around the Empire, was taken to the house of the King. Not knowing she was a Jew, the King chose her over the other maidens and made her his queen.

            An arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king, Haman, hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to him. He hatched a plot to exterminate all the Jews in all the provinces of the Persian Empire. In a speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Hamen told the king, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people’s, and they do not observe the king’s laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.” Convinced, the weak minded king put the fate of the Jewish people in Haman’s hands.

            Learning of the genocidal plan Mordecai persuades Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king’s presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. All the Jews fasted for three days before she went into the king. He welcomed her. She told the King of Haman’s plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman and his ten sons were hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai.

            For simplicity’s sake there is a great deal they choose to leave out. It is a much richer story and delightfully written. The first of the book tells of the Queen Vashti, queen before Esther, who was deposed for refusing to obey the King’s command. All the men knew that such disobedience had to be stopped in it’s tracks because if the King’s Queen could get away with not following orders, women would stop obeying their husbands. She was barred from the king’s presence. It was after four years without a Queen that the beauty contest was won hands down by the young and beautiful Jewess, Esther.

            The end of the book tells of how the Jews retaliated against those who were planning on exterminating them. It is a gruesome bit of vengeance. I went looking how Rabbis read the Book of Esther, given they’ve had it about six hundred years longer than have we. One said that there two lessons to be learned from the little book: “Obey your rabbinic authority and kill the enemy.”

            Jewish women have redeemed the story somewhat, arguing that Esther went into hiding to avoid being forcibly enlisted in the King’s beauty contest, once taken against her will to the King’s house she refuses the cosmetic preparations for the King’s harem. To be wife to a Jew hating non-Jew beyond her imagining and yet, this is what happened. She keeps Kosher yet conceals her identity.

            There are many important lessons in the book for us. One is that God often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck. The name of the Festival, Purim is actually from the word Pur which is a word for casting lots.

            The question of Esther’s ethnicity posed the question of an alternative loyalty to the King. We already know the result of Vashti’s decision to value her personal dignity over compliance. It was Esther’s cousin who counseled silence about her racial identity. He hoped that conflict between the two loyalties could be avoided. The author of this wonderful story tells us that loyalty need not conflict with good citizenship. An example from the story is Mordecai, on learning that two henchmen and Vashti were planning on murdering the King, he tells Esther who tells the King who deals with the threat. This puts Mordecai in good standing with the King. Being a Jew in the Empire does not imply subversive intentions. This was of particular importance for Jews learning to live as Jews in foreign countries. It is a call to being good citizens. The lesson is important to Christians as well. People who live with convictions can do so until an irresolvable conflict arises. The biblical basis is the instruction the Jeremiah gave to people living in exile “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” (Jer.29:7).

            Of course, step two in that dance of citizenship requires of us, as it did of Mordecai, to stand up for our convictions when they are challenged. We need to go back to the fateful four point sentence of the evil man Hamen: First he says: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm.   That was true. Then he says “Their laws are different from those of every other people’s” and, of course, that was true as far as it went actually the Jews kept to a much more ethical set of laws than those of the Empire but his accusation does serve to raise suspicions. Next he says: “and they do not observe the king’s laws; which was an outright lie. The story teller told us of how Mordecai acted in the interest of the welfare of the nation and of the king. The king doesn’t put the pieces together and the lie gains plausibility. Hamen’s summation was that “therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.”   Every minority community every where can fall victim to this kind of persecution by lies and innuendo. We hear it every day. We, too, need to take the lesson from the Book of Esther and be seen and counted for what and who we are, and when necessary be prepared to take the consequences.

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How Timely, Habakkuk….

            In 1940, a church newspaper in Basel Switzerland published a column under the title: “Word on the (Current) Situation” that included an excerpt from the book Habakkuk. The military censors banned the newspaper because they viewed this text as a critique of the Nazi regime of the time.

            Habakkuk also served as an important source of resistance’s history. Allan Boesak in the tumultuous 1980s in South Africa preached a sermon against apartheid in which he drew upon on Habakkuk 2, imploring God: “Lord, how long must we wait before you help?”

            John Calvin wrote the following commentary on Habakkuk 2:6: “Tyrants and their cruelty cannot endure without great weariness and sorrow … Hence almost the whole world sounds forth these words, How long, How long? When anyone disturbs the whole world by his ambition and avarice, or everywhere commits plunders, or oppresses miserable nations, when he distresses the innocent, all cry out, How long? And this cry, proceeding as it does from the feeling of nature and the dictate of justice, is at length heard by the Lord … This confusion of order and justice is not to be endured.”

            The little Old Testament book of Habakkuk has been deemed in the past to be a dangerous book. Funny, isn’t it. That such an insignificant writing can get it so very right. Maybe that’s the case because it begins and ends as a prayer but not a thanksgiving prayer. Baffled by the contradictions between his beliefs about God and his experience he pray the prayer of an inquisitor, a prosecutor daring to ask God why things were as they were. Perplexed by God’s silence the prophet questions whether God answers prayer. Then he questions whether God can actually control human evil.

            The book Habakkuk comes out of an exceedingly traumatic time in Israel’s history. Not long before the prophet enters the stage the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after the other, brutally killing people. And we know that not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar would three times besiege and attack Jerusalem, taking its leaders and skilled citizens who survived the atrocities into exile, and in 587 BCE, destroyed the city and decimated the temple. For those living in the time of Habakkuk, indeed, violence was all around.

            There was no question about it. God’s chosen people were evil. They had broken covenant, ignore the statutes and injustice was the standard. And, as a result, they were being severely punished by a people even more evil then themselves. How could God employ an evil nation to punish a less evil nation? Where’s the justice in that? The answer Habakkuk got wasn’t all that satisfying – the eviler nation would be punished after it had fulfilled its purpose. And where’s the justice in that? But isn’t that just like the ethical questions we raise today? Neither the prophet nor God offers any simple answers to these apparent contradictions. What he does offers is some advice on how to hang on through tough trials.

            God doesn’t work through magic whether for good or ill – God works through people. Flawed people maybe but people. God still claims sovereignty over people and nations. Maintaining a steadfast faith in the God who acts will carry us through the darkness of not understanding to clarity. And, what makes this possible is our belief that God is a moral God and things move toward human deliverance the consequences of which is the worship of God.  

            In Habakkuk1:1-4 we see how the prophet looked around and is overwhelmed by all the violence. In v 3, he asks God why God is tolerating all these evil deeds, and why he has to see all the injustice, the oppression, the strife and terror around him. And in v 4, the prophet laments that the wicked are overpowering the righteous, and that justice is perverted or literally raped.

            Within in this context of violence, we hear Habakkuk’s lament: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” In the midst of this nightmare, the only thing the prophet can do is to help his people voice their pain, to cry over the anguish they are experiencing. Echoing the Psalms of lament as well as the book of Lamentations, we hear how the prophet cries out to God: “Lord, how long? Lord, help me … ”

            Habakkuk’s lament join laments from all around the world in which people have found the words to name the situations of violence and injustice in their lives as the only way to resist whatever is threatening their well-being and happiness.

            It is important to note that the violence and terror would continue for a long time. The good news in the prophetic voice is that violence and injustice do not have the last word.

            The prophet’s words are as contemporary as this week’s news. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

            Does that sound like the news out of Missouri?

            In Habakkuk 2:1-4, we are told that the prophet is standing on the watch tower, waiting for the Lord to answer. 2I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

            And then comes God’s answer. However, God’s answer is not what we would ever want to hear. It says, “Wait. Be patient. Deliverance is coming but you will have to wait.” This divine response challenges all the easy answers or quick fixes that we can concoct. In Israel’s history, the prophet’s message would be followed by many more years of violence and injustice. Things would get much worse before they were to become better. However, amidst the most dire of circumstances, we see how the prophet clings to God’s faithfulness and love.

            “Moreover” God says, “wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own. 6Shall not everyone taunt such people and, with mocking riddles, say about them, “Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!” How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge? 7Will not your own creditors suddenly rise, and those who make you tremble wake up? Then you will be booty for them. 8Because you have plundered many nations, all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you— because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them. 9“Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm!” 10You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork. 12“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” 13Is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor only to feed the flames, and nations weary themselves for nothing? 14But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

            Is that not a broad side aimed at corporate America? But listen – it gets even more contemporary and sounds like the Cosby scandal to me. 15“Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!” 16You will be sated with contempt instead of glory. Drink, you yourself, and stagger! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory!

In Habakkuk 3:1, we read the prayer of the prophet that is to be sung on the melody of a lament:

3A prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth. 2O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy.

            17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.

            Habakkuk reminds us centuries later how important it is to continue trusting in a God that will bring deliverance. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to bring an end to violence is precisely the reason why the book Habakkuk was banned in Nazi Germany — the idea that God will end unjust power considered too dangerous to be tolerated.

            God hears the cries of those who are suffering under the yoke of unjust systems and will bring an end to their violence. Good news for those who are being oppressed. Not so much for those who are abusing their power.

            However, the examples from Apartheid South Africa or the Nazi regime show us that situations of violence can last many years and even decades. Also in our personal lives, we may find ourselves in a situation of pain and suffering without end. Even the beautiful confession of faith with which Habakkuk ends acknowledges that the situation of violence and suffering is long not over. The fig tree does not blossom. There are no fruit on the vines. There are no livestock in the stalls. And yet the wonderful thing about Habakkuk’s confession is that we, along with the prophet we can still say, I believe in a God that gives me strength. Amidst the violence. Amidst the depravity. And this conviction is what causes us to not only go on, but to tread upon the heights like a deer.

 

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Much Obliged

Matthew McConaughey was being interviewed, most likely about his new movie, but what I recall was more about his foundation. It’s called ‘j.k.livin’ which stands for “just keep living” and its goal is to encourage students to make positive life choices to improve their physical and mental health through exercise, teamwork, gratitude, nutrition and community service. High School students who participate in the program lose weight and gain confidence while also improving their grades, attendance and behavior. McConaughey spoke about an interesting ingredient in the program. Each session begins in a circle with kids being asked to tell what it is for which they are thankful. He went on to say that for High School kids it isn’t cool to say ‘Thank you.”

 

The phrase “a sense of entitlement” has recently become more common  in our conversations.  Ten years ago scholars from seven major universities through a series of nine studies developed a Psychological Entitlement Scale. Using that instrument, another study reported that a person’s sense of entitlement is associated with a wide array of maladaptive and socially-problematic traits, including greed, aggression, and lack of forgiveness and the perception by others that one is hostile and deceitful.  

 To better understand why many college students beleaguer their professors for better grades than they deserve another study was done using that test. The results strongly suggested that what lay behind this was the way the student was parented. On one hand it might suggest that the student felt their parent expected better grades or on the other hand that parents had allowed their student to grow up with out learning about consequences. Some linked this to the self esteem movement of the 1980s which failed to link self esteem to skill development and competency.

Picking up on the Academic Entitlement piece have been those who point to what they called helicopter parenting and overindulgence as the real culprit. They defined overindulgence as ‘giving to children that which looks good too soon and for too long to meet the needs of the parents’. This by their definition is child neglect if not abuse for it derails children from important developmental tasks and from learning life’s lessons.

According to one source, over indulgence companioned by helicopter parenting in an age of psychological entitlement has led to a deficit in spiritual involvement and beliefs. Are rewards usually reserved for those who deserve them? Or not? If you feel like you are entitled to something why would you ever need to say ‘thank you?’ I’m reminded of a word from my father’s vocabulary that I don’t hear anymore. It’s the phrase ‘much obliged’.

Of course the hottest debates about entitlements occur in the political arena. There entitlements are blasted as “an attack on America’s merit based economy and when distributed to the passive, lazy and slothful among us it systematically destroys our work ethic and steals America’s soul.” But when you put a pencil to the Federal entitlement programs under discussion the reality is much different than the perception. For instance 58% are distributed to the 60% of us who make up the middle class. 90% go to elderly, disabled or working households. Around 2% of all entitlement funds go for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. As to efficiency, for instance, where private insurance companies routinely take 17% for administration, 97% of medicare spending actually goes to patient care. The question for me is why we reserve the appelation “entitlements”  for those  alone.

The answer is not what you might think. Of course all of us read the Federal Register. Well, of course we don’t.  But you need to imagine this enormous file cabinet with each Federal program having its own folder. It is where regulations promulgated by Federal Agencies related to their work are publicly reported. The Code of Federal Regulations is divided up into fifty titles and thus the Federal outlays that stir such vigorous debates are reflected in one of the fifty ‘Titles’ and thus are called entitlements. Wolves, school children and banks have their own title. The Panama Canal used to have its own title. When we speak of the tax code, it is in fact Title 26. You can think of that as an entitlement if you want. Actually Social Security and Medicare are only entitlements because along with every other Federal Program they are so codified.

If you are supposed to receive benefits from any Federal program, under this system of codification where promulgated regulations have been reported, someone can’t, without changing the law under which the Federal Agency functions, deny you that benefit.

Our politicians have led us astray. A ‘sense of entitlement’ is much different than a handout or a hand up. It’s really about the sense of privilege. When we think we deserve a grade better than what we’ve earned or deserve special treatment because someone has led us to believe that we are exceptional and better than others.

The fact is that before God we are equal. That doesn’t mean we have equal endowments, abilities or looks. It doesn’t mean we have equal opportunities. Our equality is in our humanity. I’m reminded of the old spiritual that goes “It’s me, It’s me, it’s me oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” I don’t want to rub it in, you are fully aware of the fact to which the Apostle Paul pointed in Romans 3:23. “All have sinned”, Paul says. “All have fallen short of the glory of God”. That’s a universal ‘all’. I particularly like the verse that follows. “ …and all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through the act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus.

How hard it is to say ‘Thank you’. We want to see ourselves as being self sufficient. We are attracted to the call to be independent. And that’s just a lie. We aren’t self-sufficient. No matter how much of this world’s wealth we acquire we will never be independent.  

The good news is that God’s grace is free. And it’s for all. And it’s alone. It doesn’t come with codified regulations and caveats. It’s not a result of our being extraordinary or self sufficient or privileged. It’s not an entitlement. And the appropriate response is to be grateful. As un-cool as it is, we need to say ‘thank you.’ Be careful, you’re liable to slip into my father’s world and say ‘much obliged.’

 

 

 

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Hope Found in Isaiah 55

The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when his hearers were living a life of despair. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over against the policies of the nations whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace.

 

Hope Found In Isaiah 55:

John Holbert suggests that to understand Isaiah 55 we need to know the what’s going on with Isaiah’s audience.  It takes place at the very end of the long Israelite exile in Babylon. Having been born in captivity, most of his audience have only heard about the old land of promise and its capital, Jerusalem.  In the depth of despair, before  Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon and decides to send the Jews back to from where they had come,  Isaiah shows up.   The theological message was that God’s anger has cooled against the Jews and that God still has a mighty task for them to fulfill, namely to be “a light to the nations in order that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” . Some who heard Isaiah may have been thrilled to the hope and challenge that God had for them. For many the announcement was a cruel absurdity, words filled with foolish and empty promises.  

They had to be asking themselves how poverty stricken and scruffy exiles could play any sort of role as “light” for the nations? They could barely light their own homes, let alone offer light to other nations.  God seemed very distant, indeed, for these people in far off Babylon!

Yet, Isaiah claims that God is still very near and still anxious for the people to play out the role prepared for them from the very founding of the nation. In lovely metaphor, Isaiah calls to “everyone that thirsts,” urging them to “come to the waters” to have that thirst quenched. And even if you have no money, which was their situation, they are told you may still “buy and eat.” In fact, you may buy both wine and milk without money.  What a wonderful reminder: God’s gifts are without price.  They come free. Stop spending your time and treasure on things that don’t and won’t satisfy “delight yourselves in rich food,” that is the food that only God can offer . Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Isaiah then calls the people to listen and come, because God is about to reestablish the covenant made so long ago with David.  3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. The nearly 500-year-old promise made to David that the covenant with God would never end is now re-instituted for the exiles, for those who have nearly forgotten what God had promised, who need a reminder of past promises out of which they must live.

To capture anew the promises of the covenant they first had to recall it and reclaim it.  Only then will they be equipped to engage in God’s challenge to them to “… call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you will run to you, because of your God, the Holy One of Israel, because God has glorified you”. Isaiah promises the exiles that their task is to be a “light to the nations,” a light so bright that nations they do not even know, along with nations that have never heard of them, will come running to join a community that they never knew they needed and desired. Isaiah promises that with the renewal of God’s covenant the whole world will become new! New communities of nations and peoples will form around the reformed nation of Israel.

All this high-flown talk to impoverished exiles in Babylon had to have sounded ridiculous. Who are you kidding, Isaiah? If by some magic act we are able to return to our homeland, just how do you imagine that we will be able to create some sort of new community with peoples we do not even know and who do not know us? And here is Isaiah’s answer to that question and his answer to our questions when we imagine that God really cannot do anything new for us: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the skies are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Our human thoughts have a very difficult time conceiving how the world can become new. But God can and calls us to we could ever do by ourselves. And that is the gospel of second Isaiah. And that is the gospel, the good news of God. With this God, all things are finally possible.

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The people who heard Isaiah’s metaphor of rain and snow would have understood the vital importance of moisture to sustain the vegetation necessary for survival. Rain and snow ensured food for the next year as well as the seed that would secure subsequent crops. Precipitation meant the difference between life and death, thus serving as an apt description of the ability of God’s word to have a transformative effect on the lives of the exiles.

Isaiah uses imaginative words that envision an animated world where the mountains and the hills break out in song and the trees of the fields clap their hands in accompaniment. Like the sound of wind through an aspen grove. The prophet’s words imagine a world where the thorn trees and briers that throughout Israel’s history were symbols of judgment are transformed into luscious green myrtles and cypresses. This radical transformation serves as a powerful symbol for the new life that lies ahead for the exiles after the devastation brought about by the Babylonian exile.

Within this exuberant display of joy with all of creation joining in song, the return of the exiles is imaged in terms of a festive procession. The term “to go out” in v. 12 is reminiscent of children of Israel called “to go out” from Egypt. This original exodus account became a way of talking about freedom from bondage and despair–freedom from settling for less than what God intended creation to be.

And it is not just the exiles who are affected. The brutal scorched-earth policy that destroyed everything in the path of the Babylonians also had an devastation impact on nature. But now the promise of God’s restoration, healing, and peace also impacts the trees of the field; the mountains and the hills that now joyously can sing about the powers of chaos that have been defeated. Isaiah once again reminds his audience of God’s loyalty and steadfast love. It is with this promise of the eternal God that the prophet concludes his words to the people in exile. It is a promise of a God that is with God’s people always–even in exile; even though they may sometimes feel very much alone in the foreign land in which they were forced to dwell.

The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when everything around him seemed hopeless. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over against the policies of the nations whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine a world where everything is possible, where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace. Even more challenging than speaking a word of hope in an improbable situation is to hear and to embrace this word, living into its’ promise. Similar to the image of eating that was used in the beginning of this chapter (vv. 1-2), the people had to make the life-giving word from God their own. The ultimate intention of the prophetic word is that the exiles must take the first steps home by breaking with the powers of the world and partnering with the alternative world imagined by the prophet. Centuries later, this point is still valid. It is true that if one cannot imagine it, one cannot live it.

Can you imagine a restored creation as God intended? Can you imagine your role in helping to restore such a world. We can feel pretty down sometimes. We can think that all that was good in the past and in looking back stumble over what the future is holding out to us. The what gives hope to the future is the good new that it is God’s vision of a restored creation into which we are called.

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

 

 

 

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All these things I have done…

… the question is what was the radical value Jesus was trying to communicate? Wasn’t it the need to remove the obstacles that prevented the young man from following Jesus? What are the things in our lives from which we need be become divested?

Mark 10:17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 

Matthew 19:16Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”20The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 

Luke 18:16Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”20The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 

When a member of the ruling class asked Jesus “Good Master, what must I do to have eternal life?” do you recall Jesus’ answer? Do you think it has changed over the last two thousand years?

 

The setting of this story that made it into all three of the synoptic Gospels with very little change reminded me of George Fox’s experience where he recalled “As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition…” I think something like that had been this man’s experience. Jesus wasn’t the first person to whom he had put his question.   He stops Jesus on the road and addresses him as “Good Master” or “Good Teacher.”   This isn’t a statement about Jesus’ morality. He was looking for a ‘good teacher’ a reputable person, a reliable resource whose answer to his burning question would have meaning for him. According to Mark Jesus asks the man why he would call Jesus good. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus’ reply turned the question a bit – asking his interrogator why he would ask him about what is good. All three have Jesus warning us all that secondary sources for knowing what is good are inadequate “there is only one good” and that is God.

 

Again Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus tells him that “if he wants to enter life”, which is an interesting twist on the question request from a man who is asking about eternal life – as if he is now outside of life — but whatever the way to achieve that is to keep the commandments. Mark has Jesus assuming the man knows the commandments, Matthew and Luke have the man asking ‘which ones?” Jesus lists the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth and fifth commandments. And each of the Evangelists in their own way site Leviticus 19. That’s where Mark gets the “do not defraud” and Matthew and Luke get “you shall love your neighbor as your self…”  

 

Again I’m reminded of George Fox, whose father was known as ‘Righteous Christer’ and who grew up following all the rules of being ‘good Christian’. He had spent his young life striving to be a good person to the extent that some called him a ‘prig’. That not being a word we hear often, a prig is someone whose behavior demonstrates an exaggerated conformity or propriety, in an especially irritatingly arrogant or smug manner. This young man, to some extent was like that. He was a rather self assured individual. To Jesus’ statement in Matthew that ‘if you would enter life, keep the commandments” and Mark and Luke’s “You know the commandments” his answer is found the same in all three synoptic gospels “All these I have observed…” To be able to say that says a great deal about this man’s way of life. He was a good man by the standards of his community.   Jesus doesn’t contest the man’s self appraisal.

 

A powerful image emerges from the conversation. We are told that Jesus beholds the man. What would it be like to have the soul penetrating eyes of Jesus focused directly on you? It says “And Jesus looking upon him loved him…” In the synoptic Gospels it is only here, in Mark’s version of this story, where love is attributed to Jesus.

 

I’m guessing that most self assured and priggish people don’t feel much love. Yet he wanted to know what he lacked to be made complete, whole, perfect. Jesus’ answer became the basis for the early Christian monastic movement’s focus on what are called the Evangelical Counsels. These became abbreviated as the traditional vows for Catholic priests of “poverty, chastity, and obedience.” The three Gospel principles are: Go, sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor and come, follow me.” I think a more appropriate way to abbreviate the challenge that Jesus put forward would be “poverty, charity and obedience.” Or maybe “liquidate, donate and imitate.”

 

All three of the synoptic Gospels conclude the story the same way: “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”   The Gospel According to the Hebrews, a divergent yet not heretical form of our Gospel of Matthew tells this same story. In that version a second of two rich men asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing can I do and live? He said to him “Sir, fulfill the law and the prophets.” He answered, “I have.” Jesus said, “Go, sell all that you have and distribute to the poor and come, follow me.” But the rich man began to scratch his head, for it did not please him. And the Lord said to him, “How can you say, I have fulfilled the law and the prophets, when it is written in the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; and lo, many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are clothed in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?”

 

I think we all scratch our heads at this challenge. But for us the question is what was the radical value Jesus was trying to communicate? Wasn’t it the need to remove the obstacles that prevented the young man from following Jesus? What are the things in our lives from which we need be become divested? One author suggested that the first piece of work facing us is to learn to listen attentively to our internal intention. He explained that the common Greek verb in the New Testament for ‘obey’ is hupakouw which has the technical meaning of the task of the doorkeeper in the ancient world. He listens for a knock and admits those who were entitled to enter. So ‘obey’ carries this meaning of the manner in which a slave listens to his master. The image then is of a patient, attentive and respectful waiting of the disciple for the teaching of the master.

 

What are the obstacles to our hearing? Too much noise, the rattle made by too many possessions. But for many of us noise is the merciful, meaningless babble that shuts out the accusing voices seeking liberation that come from within us. Pope Paul VI characterized religious obedience as a holocaust of one’s own will which is offered to God. James Nayler wrote to Margaret Fell “…and so his will is our peace.” The image that came to me was that of the thousands of wagons on the trails west packed full of things people couldn’t conceive of leaving behind but which as they made their way across the great plains grew more and more cumbersome until they got tossed out on the prairie.   Jesus didn’t just give advice to the young man who had great possessions. He offered him an invitation. He said go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

 

 

 

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“What the soul is to the body, hat are Christians in the world” Diogentus

In a world that has rejected notions of transcendence and has reduced relations to one dimensional tweets I believe the church has a great deal to offer. It is an offer to love. 

When, the other evening, I caught a few minutes of Mountain Men, a made for T.V. series that portrayed the earliest European hunters and trappers in the northern Rocky Mountains, I was struck by how changing styles on the east coast directly impacted their lives It reinforced in my mind how people who want to see themselves as self determined individuals are dependent on community.

Plato said that to be is to be in relation. For us to be human we will be in community. And within that community our identity does not stop with our skin but extends into the whole corporate reality.

 

Our most elemental spirituality begins with the fact that human beings are by nature a creature requiring relationship. To be a person we have to be open to the other. There is within us an innate longing for union with the other. The rendezvous around which the mountain me lives centered were more than markets, it met this essential need to be in community, to know there were others with whom you could work and more importantly trust. Spirituality is the fundamental need we have for one another and ultimately for God.

 

Actually it gets messier than that. It’s not enough just to touch, we need to interpenetrate – enter into the reality of the other. The other half of that is that we must share our inner self. This is the essence of intimacy: to come to know one another as we truly are—or as close as we can. There’s a pejorative phrase that carries the message: to get under your skin. Do you know people like that? Well, try and think of it in a positive way. And yet we never really achieve that, even within our most intimate relationships. We never fully know the answer to the question ‘Who are you?” And for that matter, we never fully know ourselves.

 

We have been seduced into thinking that all truth is susceptible to scientific analysis so we think that all human experience can be reduced to a string of numbers. But objectivity, prediction and control can’t come close to describing the mystery of human relationships. As much as we try, as much as our culture tries to, we can’t avoid the whole matter of transcendence.

 

Spirituality’s experience of transcendence is one of being addressed from beyond the material world by that which is greater than anything we on our own can conceive. The more we know, the more there is to know. Every answer generates another question. There is an infinite presence of the not-yet-known that engages the extent of our knowing and which recedes in the face of our inquiry. Transcendence is the hope for meaning we cannot otherwise have, and spirituality is our capacity for a relationship to that meaning: the mind of God.

 

It is in that context that we are called to shape our ministry within our Meeting.

 

In the anonymously written two thousand year old Epistle to Diognetus there is a magnificent description of the early church community. It ends this way: “To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”

About seventy years later Tertullian penned a priceless picture of the practices of early the early Christian community.

“We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.

We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This strong exertion God delights in.

We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.

We assemble to read our sacred writings . . . and with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits.

In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered. For with a great gravity is the work of judging carried on among us, as befits those who feel assured that they are in the sight of God; and you have the most notable example of judgment to come when anyone has sinned so grievously as to require his severance from us in prayer, in the congregation and in all sacred intercourse.

The (proven persons) of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God.

Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill.

 

History tells us that when a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

 

The highest commendation in both the anonymously written Letter to Diognetus and Tertullian’s description come from persons outside the faith community, the everyone to whom Jesus referred. “…everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” There is our highest calling. It is not what we say we believe, the world couldn’t care less, it’s not who we feed or cloth, that just keeps taxes down, it is how we love one another.

 

For persons to be able to observe love between us, such love much become demonstrable and self revealing.  When in his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius writes of his three part vision of love he draws on 1st John 3: 16-19: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.  So Ignatius writes: “The first is that “love ought to show itself in deeds over and above words.”

The second is that love consists in sharing: “In love, one always wants to give to the other what one has.” The Spanish word that Ignatius uses here is  ‘comunica’ to share or to communicate.” Lovers love each other by sharing what they have, and this sharing is a form of communication. God is not just a giver of gifts, but a lover who speaks to us through his giving. God holds nothing back. The ultimate expression of this self-giving is Jesus.   He shares his very life with us.

Thirdly God shares with us the work God is doing in the world. Thus, the work we do is a way of loving God. It is not just work. By inviting us to share in these works, God demonstrates love for us. In our response of trying to work with God, we show our love.

 

In a world that has rejected notions of transcendence and has reduced relations to one dimensional tweets I believe the church has a great deal to offer. It is an offer to love.

 

John Woolman’s Journal relates that on :“12th day, 6th month, and first of week. (1763) It being a rainy day we continued in our tent, and here I was led to think of the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth among them.”  Love is the first motion. If I am guided by love, how will my actions be different. How will I respond: to my child, the tired friend, the lonely person on the street? The person who takes more than they are allowed from the bread wall? How is this different than when my first motion is frustration, annoyance or fear. What does it take to pause, take a step back and first love. How does it open things up, break up dams?

 

St. Vincent De Paul wrote: “You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the basket of bread. But you must keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup, this the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting as you will see, but the uglier and dirtier they are, the more unjust and bitter, the more you must give them of your love. It is because of your love, only your love, that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.”      

 

 

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