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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The Church in Contemporary Society

 

The church has a ministry of being, telling and doing. To be a witness, to tell the surrounding society of its conviction that peace, justice and compassion are the better way, and to demonstrate that in our lives.

 

Islam is experiencing a tremendous resurgence. The nascent Islamic State is pushing political leadership in many countries to identify themselves with conservative if not radical Islam. Some suggest that it may be the result of our bombs having fallen on fourteen predominantly Islamic nations in recent history. There is no similar resurgence of Christianity in traditionally Christian countries. Western Society has largely separated itself from the church.

In 18th and 19th century society the church in America was a powerful force. The sermon had implications for how the town was run. Political leaders knew that congregations had public policy concerns which required attention and thus society at large was impacted. In our century that is no longer the case.

The church, for many pragmatic reasons, abdicated its position of moral and ethical leadership and is mostly ignored. This is a change of which most Christians haven’t taken notice and about which most do not seem concerned. In the arena of single issue politics, some church people have been successful in making their views known, but you have to wonder how many minds have been changed and whether the church’s position in society has been enhanced, or diminished.

What is the role of the church in society today? Almost twenty years ago in a presentation to a Restorative Justice Conference Duane Ruth-Heffelbower, a Mennonite, laid out what he saw as a Christian Theology of Church and Society. He wrote that he believed the church has at least three roles to play in society. To witness to God’s love and power, to call society to peace, justice and compassion and to work toward the welfare of all members of society.

He started by referring to Jesus’ last orders to his disciples found in Acts 1: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”   They weren’t ordered to build buildings, sing hymns, or do any of those other things people expect of Christians. They were ordered to be witnesses, to tell people what they had seen and experienced in their time with Jesus. They weren’t ordered to pass on particular doctrine, but to simply witness to what they had experienced. God had come to be with humanity, and the proof was to be given by these witnesses.

Over 2,000 years the church has developed quite a bit of doctrine and lots of traditions. The focus of Christian activity has moved away from a simple witness to an elaboration of doctrine and tradition. It is not really expected in most church circles that members will have an experience of God to which to witness. What they actually have is an intellectual understanding of facts about God as refined and approved by their church. By changing the focus from witness to the teaching of doctrine and traditions, the church has become more like a political party and less like a spirit-led community of witnesses. One reason for the change is the extent to which the church has become entangled and identified with the society in which it lives.

For the first 250 years the church was seen as an illegal pagan cult. During this period the church was a small group within a much larger society which was hostile to it. It was appropriate for Christians to do whatever they thought important to maintain their identity over against society. Faithfulness to God was demonstrated by the way a Christian separated him or her self from the pagan ways surrounding them.

With the conversion of Constantine the role of the church changed. It became a powerful political force in society which accommodated itself to the pleasures of the emperor. If the role of the church is to witness to the society around it, it must maintain a certain critical distance from that society. Without this distance the church can become confused, making it very difficult to see where the practices of society diverge from the church’s understanding of God’s desires for the world. Only then does its witness have integrity. Only then can its witness be prophetic.

           Jesus said: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Isaiah said: “God looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness but heard cries of distress. Woe to you who add house to house and field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land . . . who acquit the guilty for a bribe but deny justice to the innocent . .

These are prophetic words, words which contrast what society is doing with eternal principles of peace, justice and compassion. Human versions of truth come and go. They tend to be based on what works, what is popular. The church, by its witness proclaims itself a player on the world stage. Its prophetic voice is a call to action, a challenge to the world. It sounds a bit arrogant but the world’s best thinking is what has gotten it into the present mess. The world has need of the values of peace, justice and compassion for which the church is supposed to stand.

I don’t need to tell you that this idea is controversial. Wherever there has been oppression and the church has spoken out, there have been those who said the church should mind its own business. It brings to mind the story of a church group which lived at the bottom of a treacherous mountain road. There were many accidents and injuries on that road, so the church decided to start an ambulance service. Praise was heaped on the church’s work as it brought the broken victims to the hospital. Then one day someone in the church asked, “Why don’t we do something about the road and prevent the accidents?” Whereupon the elected officials in charge of the road castigated the church for being too political. Dom Helder Camara said it this way: “when I give food to the poor I am called a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, I am called a communist.”

Society has never taken kindly to prophets who expose unpopular truths. So long as Jesus remained an itinerant preacher telling people in the boondocks how to live more faithful lives the political leaders didn’t care. But when he drove the money changers out of the temple, saying it was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, rather than a den of thieves, they began plotting to kill him. Prophets who suggest changing the status quo are not welcomed by those who benefit from keeping things the way they are.

One strength of a prophetic church is group discernment. It is one thing for an individual to have a big idea, but it is quite another when a church examines that idea, prays over it, and discerns that God is calling the church to this particular prophetic role. An individual is easily squelched. But a community of faithful persons is not.

Some changes may require more than a generation. Think of John Woolman’s struggle with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting over slavery. These things take time. An individual prophet may not live long enough to see it through, a community of faith can live on.

Principles for living in peace with justice and compassion have been revealed to the church. Unfortunately it is also true that we haven’t always lived up to those principles, but where it has accepted its prophetic role things have happened.

The New Testament lays out no rules for running a Christian nation. There are no specific rules for Christian legislation, but that does not mean there are no principles to apply to those activities. It means that careful discernment needs to be used by the church when it approaches the question of what makes legislation more or less desirable.

When a Christian witnesses to the love and power of God, the point being made is that God has expectations of how we treat one another. One aspect of that is a special concern for the poor and powerless. This is where we get in trouble with the world. The best interests of the rich and powerful are not a concern. In the second chapter of the book of James we read: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

The false dichotomy between faith and works has ever been a problem for us. Is right belief enough? Many Christian groups say that a confession of Christ as Lord is enough. Others believe, with James, that faith which does not result in works of compassion is dead. But if Christians need only concern themselves with having the correct intellectual belief, their participation in calling society to peace, justice and compassion will be small, and an afterthought in their religious lives. Acts of compassion could be motivated primarily by a desire to lead persons to correct belief or by enlightened self interest. If I support Family Promise’s work with homeless families it is less likely that I’ll find homeless people camped out on my front porch or malingering in front of the bus terminal. For that matter, if I help rehabilitate offenders, I’m less likely to be a victim.

Jesus summed up the whole law and the prophets this way: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. When asked “who is my neighbor?” he told the story of the good Samaritan, extending the concept of neighbor to all persons who need a neighbor.

Christians have special reasons to be interested in restorative justice. Not only is it pragmatic and humanistic, it is consistent with biblical teaching on how a person of faith responds to the world. The church has a role to play in society by working toward the welfare of all members of society. The importance of this role is that the church sees itself as called by God to demonstrate how things could and should be. It is one thing to point people to another way and quite another to demonstrate it.

We, of all people, understand God’s call to shalom, to wholeness. It is a timeless call. That which led to wholeness in relationships a thousand years ago is good today, and still will be good a thousand years from now. The value of peace, justice and compassion come from the Holy Spirit speaking within us and within others. We are called to witness to that truth. But, as the book of James suggests, a faith which calls others to these things without also practicing what it preaches is a dead thing.

In 2 Corinthians we read: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.

The church has a ministry of being, telling and doing. To be a witness, to tell the surrounding society of its conviction that peace, justice and compassion are the better way, and to demonstrate that in our lives.

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To Be and To Do

As we begin to consider who we are and to what we are called I’m reminded that however we proceed, the starting point is our understanding of the very nature of God. What made George Fox’s message stand out was that it was built upon the idea that in the person of the Holy Spirit Christ had come as he promised. … instead of conceiving creation, including human beings, as being materially corrupt and worthless, creation is seen as the handiwork of a loving and generous God of grace.

 

Last spring Pope Francis startled many by saying “who am I to judge” those in gay relationships”, and since then he has been trying to move the church to recognize the “gifts and qualities” that gay people bring to the church and to provide a more welcoming space for them of course with the clear caveat, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.” More recently, the report of the Bishop’s “synod,” called to discuss the church’s response to the many cultural shifts in family life, said the church should appreciate “the positive values” gay people contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings. The report also called for ongoing theological reflection about the status quo of denying communion to those who divorce and remarry. It also said the church should recognize that gay relationships, though morally problematic, often include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “constitute a precious support in the life of the partners.”

As you might expect, some influential bishops have expressed alarm at what they called a “near revolutionary” document. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American who heads the Vatican’s highest court, said the Vatican had released “manipulated” information about the bishops’ debates, emphasizing the proponents of inclusiveness without reflecting the “consistent number of bishops” who oppose the dramatic calls for a shift in pastoral tone. The head of the Polish bishops’ conference said the document was unacceptable and deviated from traditional church doctrine. The cardinal also said unsanctioned partnerships are committing “self-mutilation of their love”. As you probably heard, the document failed to be adopted.

Sounds like Roman Catholics are wrestling with some of the same issues as are non-Catholics.

This week a person with whom I’ve come to appreciate through my dealings with Caritas who is a member of Assumption Parish put on my desk a copy of Spokane’s Diocesan Pastoral Plan for the next four years entitled Joy Made Complete. It is based on a pastoral letter from Pope Francis entitled The Joy of the Gospel which articulates a vision for the Church in our time. The booklet sets out four priorities drawn from Acts 2:42-47 saying “Those who believed in Christ devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles; to the communal life; to the breaking of bread and to the prayers and to sharing with those in need and adding to their numbers those who were being saved by sharing the Good News.

Although, in good Catholic fashion, it came down from those above within their hierarchy, it is a thought provoking, impressive and inspiring piece.

            The four year Pastoral Plan calls for improving Faith Formation and Leadership Development. That includes a program named Called and Gifted and one entitled Theology On Tap. It suggests forming Bible study groups and re-establishing what we would call Sunday School in the local churches. It also calls for daily Bible reading and asking parishioners to consider taking a leadership position in the local church.

            The second priority is about community building with a major piece being about becoming a more welcoming community, especially to inactive parishioners. It calls for holding parish pot lucks, a family camp and reviewing the history of the parish, work days to make the place look more inviting and a series on a faith-based approach to family life. Pope Francis’ words are quoted where he wrote of the parish saying “It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.”

Priority Three focuses on worship, well, in their case liturgy, stewardship and discipleship. It calls for increase frequency at worship. It is suggested that different types of prayer and meditation should be experienced and the parish should establish a stewardship committee.

The fourth priority brings together Evangelization, as they say, Ecumenism and social outreach. It calls for scheduling an event dedicated to social justice, charity, Christian unity and intentional discipleship; a bible study series on social justice and an effort to identify the special needs of community members who suffer from poverty, loneliness and physical and emotional challenges and devise ways to reach out to them. It even suggests ecumenical services with pulpit exchanges.

I can tell you, this ain’t my grandmother’s Catholic Church.

One reason this may be important for us is that, as you will learn during the Elder’s report in Monthly Meeting, our Elders are calling us to revisit our calling as a meeting; asking, exploring what is our focus and mission and what does our Creator want us to be and do within our community.

           This last week, a pastor in the Yearly Meeting emailed the pastor’s list to say that during Yearly Meeting Noah Merrill, the guest speaker, used a Quaker quotation that said something about “My job is nothing less than to bring people to the feet of the Cross (or feet of Jesus) and leave them there,” He said that “even Google can’t figure out what I’m talking about.” He wanted to know if anyone could help him find the source of the quote.

Johan Maurer, Howard Macy and I responded with what we’d found but the concluding phrase “and leave them there” has evaded us all. I have since emailed Brent Bill who used the line in a blog he posted last January thinking he might help with the citation. The best he could do was find where the phrase had been referred to in a 1905 edition of The Friend magazine. Wade Swartz found the line quoted by Steve Angell in a book he published in 2004 without citation. But it asks the question “what is our role, our ministry?”

The quotation in this mornings’ bulletin is from George Fox’s Journal. In this one paragraph he says “I was sent to turn people from darkness to light..”, “I was to direct people to the Spirit…” I was to turn them to grace…”   It is a short synopsis of his sense of call. In each case he understood that his work was to create an environment, a relationship, a situation in and through which Christ, or the Spirit, and even grace could do its work. In London Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice thirty years ago we find this line: “The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays on us.” Another Friend characterized our calling this way “As Christians we need to see ourselves as God’s plumbers, working on reservoirs and channels for the living water that can quicken the daily life of men, women and children…Jesus taught us about patterns of living that make for wholeness as we and our neighbors care for one another and build one another up.”

As we begin to consider who we are and to what we are called I’m reminded that however we proceed, the starting point is our understanding of the very nature of God. What made George Fox’s message stand out was that it was built upon the idea that in the person of the Holy Spirit Christ had come as he promised. Humanity need no longer wait for some end of time shoe to fall for the kingdom to come in power. And then, of course his message included the idea that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’ which points out that the inward teacher is already at work were we to only stop and listen. And thirdly, instead of conceiving creation, including human beings as being materially corrupt and worthless creation is seen as the handiwork of a loving and generous God of grace.

Yes, as we come into our relationship with God through the work of the Spirit of the living Christ, such light the cracks in our exterior, we see our brokenness but instead of running in fear of judgment we can know the loving embrace of grace itself and be made whole. Our challenge is to create such an environment for ourselves and one another.  

 

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Hope Isn’t Wishful Thinking…

 

Hope isn’t wishful thinking – it is grounded in our experience of the divine and the reality that swirls around us. It acknowledges that God is an active player who requires that humbly his people do justly and act mercifully.

 

There are few things in world history more astonishing than the preservation of hope for Israel by Israel and the roller coaster ride of the continuous fulfillment and disastrous destruction of their hope. Had Israel’s hopes been merely wishful thinking Israel would have disappeared from history like all the nations that surrounded them. But the people of Israel had experiences in their past, divine guidance and intervention which saved them through overwhelming dangers, bound them together as a nation through the gift of the law by the God of justice, whose justice is demonstrated when God judges God’s own nation and threatens to reject it, if it does not keep justice within itself.

Paul Tillich proclaimed that we have a right to such ultimate hope, for like Israel we too experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now. We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity. We experience it in the conflicts of our conscience and in the hours of peace with ourselves, we experience it in the unconditional seriousness of the moral command and in the ecstasy of love. We experience it when we discover a lasting truth and feel the need for a great sacrifice. We experience it in the beauty that life reveals as well as in its demonic darkness. We experience it in moments in which we feel: This is a holy place, a holy thing, a holy person, a holy time; these experiences transcend the ordinary ones; they gives more, demand more, points to the ultimate mystery of my existence, of all existence; it shows me that my finitude, my transitoriness, my being, surrendered to the flux of things, is only one side of my being and that humanity is both in and above finitude.

Where this is experienced, there is awareness of the eternal, there is already, however fragmentary, participation in the eternal. This is the basis of the hope for eternal life; it is the justification of our ultimate hope. And if as Christians we point to Good Friday and Easter, we point to the most powerful example of the same experience.

As much as our rugged individualized theology suggests, participation in the eternal is not given to the voluntarily isolated individual, a people who intentionally separate themselves from others because they see themselves as special or the nation that supposes itself to be chosen and exceptional beyond all the rest. Participation in the eternal is given to us as we discover ourselves in unity with all others, with humankind, with everything living, with everything that has being and is rooted in God’s creation. It was when Israel’s elite lost that perspective and, focusing on their own chosen-ness and assumed security, they became a predator society. They ignored the needs of the vulnerable among them upon whose labor they lived lives of exorbitant luxury. It was in times like that when their privileged life style caused their roller coaster to take a steep dive into exile and near extinction.

There are many stages of complicity in what has been characterized as a predatory society. I’m afraid none of us can claim an exemption.  

Today we prefer to point to our super elite. Few of us can imagine what living in the economic stratosphere is like. These people live at a level beyond the rich man in the ‘rich man and Lazarus’ story. Next to them we have the well to do, those for whom the phrase ‘if you’ve got to ask you can’t afford it’ is descriptive. Like those economically above them they exist on incomes provided by inherited and invested wealth. These persons become addicted to living in a bubble of unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege and superiority.

Next in line are those whose lives consist of dreams of upward mobility mixed with the fears of the consequences of economic decline. Fulfilling their dreams or realizing their worst fears are beyond their control and result from the decisions of those they serve. The Bible aptly describes them in the story of the unjust steward.

Of course there are those whose livelihood comes from their productive labor, whether they work for themselves or are employees of others. Because they have marketable skills, abilities and opportunities they set themselves above those who for reasons of birth, disability, disease, ignorance or simple sloth live on the margin.   Amos chided his contemporaries who engaged in illusionary self-indulgence but were not “grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”   So caught up in their pursuit of the good life they didn’t notice that their world was crumbling beneath them.

Walter Brueggeman, out of his Old Testament perspective, said that the orphans, widows and immigrants are the canaries of any social system. He points out that abuse of the vulnerable is an affront to God and a violation of God’s rules for righteous living. Leviticus 25:35-37 reads “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. Such abuse is an unsustainable policy for any society. In the act of ignoring the challenges faced by the powerless destructive and costly consequences arise for the body politic. The real tragedy is that disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.        

When Babylon showed up at Jerusalem’s main gate, the big issue for Israel was her blindness to the fact that the good life she thought was secure was disintegrating beneath her feet. The leadership was in full denial. Jeremiah 6:13-15 reads: 13For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. 14They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. 15They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. 16Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.”

So then the prophet speaks for God: 18Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. 19Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.

With no shame for their greedy exploitation of the vulnerable they continued to mouth the words “Shalom, Shalom”. Two chapters later Jeremiah repeats himself.     His contemporary, Ezekiel, in 13:9, castigates the professional prophets, speaking for God he says: “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations.”

Some how the urban elite of Jerusalem and leaders of Israel truly believed that they were above correction by God, too special to fail.  They were warned that pestilence, the sword, famine and captivity would be the result of their economic treachery but they persisted, actually saying (in Zephaniah 1:12  “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They took God out of the equation all together.  That sounds a bit contemporary.  

There’s a humorous colloquy that occurs between the professional prophet Hananiah and Jeremiah.  Hananiah is something of a strict constructionist who in the aftermath of the Babylonian siege dismantling of the Temple reiterates centuries old promises of God’s protections, in full denial of the changed situation. …the prophet Hananiah…spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, 2“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” You’d expect that Hananiah would be presented as a charlatan or a quack, an idolater or an immoral and deceptive individual However Hananiah, whose name means “Yahweh is gracious,” is presented as a model of prophetic propriety. He uses all the right language, including the typical “Thus says the Lord.” He also performs symbolic acts like Jeremiah. He is given genealogical and geographical identity and placed in an historical context, no different than Jeremiah.

The only clue to the “falseness” of Hananiah’s preaching is the word he speaks. And many would have concluded that he is even more believable than Jeremiah. He preaches the gospel so clearly! God is about to act in saving ways on behalf of Israel. Those are words a despairing people wanted to hear. Jeremiah even has to hesitate for some time before he sees through what Hananiah has to say.

Hope isn’t pipe dreams and wishful thinking. Hope is only hope when it is grounded in reality.

Jeremiah had himself fitted out with a wooden yoke, trying to make his point that God’s punishment for Israel’s injustice for the poor was that she would live under the yoke of Babylonian oppression .  Hananiah breaks Jeremiah’s wooden yoke arguing that in two years everything will be as it used to be.  In response Jeremiah shoulders an iron yoke which can’t be broken.  He says “Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them (v.13).  The lesson has to do with Hananiahs’ willingness to endorse denial, his refusal to see the world that is actually in front of him, his inability to see that the God of rigorous requirements is active.

All powers of creation are in us, and we are in them. We do not hope for us alone or for those alone who share our hope; we hope also for those who had and have no hope, for those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, for those who are disappointed and indifferent, for those who despair of life, and even for those who have hurt or destroyed life. Certainly, if we could only hope each for himself it would be a poor and foolish hope. Hope isn’t wishful thinking – it is grounded in our experience of the divine and the reality that swirls around us. It acknowledges that God is an active player who requires that humbly his people do justly and act mercifully.

 

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A Biblical View of Hope

A Biblical Hope

Hope is foundational for us because it gives meaning and shape to our life as a community and our personal lives. Hopes shape our vision of how we are to be the church. A good is example is that of a student entering college with the hope of being an architect, a petroleum engineer or a medical doctor. The student’s hope for the future shapes the choices of things like what courses to take and how to spend their time and energy.

In Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling….” In Romans 15:13 we read “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The author of I Peter wrote: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”,

In 1st Corinthians 13 the Apostle Paul held three things up for our attention: “Faith, hope and love.” Faith is trusting God. Love is the virtue that marks our lives and our community as a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s pretty clear why those two values are held in such high esteem but, why “Hope”?

Hope is foundational for the Christian community because it gives meaning and shape to our life as a community and our personal lives. Hopes shape our vision of how we are to be the church. A good is example is that of a student entering college with the hope of being an architect, a petroleum engineer or a medical doctor. The student’s hope for the future shapes the choices of things like what courses to take and how to spend their time and energy.

If you think that the end of history is annihilation, that there is no life after this one then the old Budweiser slogan ‘ you only go around once in life so grab for all the gusto you can get’ would be a way to live consistent with your highest hopes. It makes American consumerism, narcissism, and hedonism seem reasonable. “She who dies with the most toys wins.” Doesn’t seem to be very hopeful. Maybe that’s what’s wrong…. Hope has become a scarce commodity.

The most popular view today among Christians today seems is that the goal of redemptive history is that individual believers will live in heaven for ever. The Anglican Cleric and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has written that “Very often people have come to the New Testament with the presumption that ‘going to heaven when you die’ is the implicit point of it all….” Then he adds “They acquire that viewpoint somewhere but not from the New Testament.” Calvinist minister Anthony Hoekema, suggests that we’ve picked up this notion from the lyrics of some of our most loved hymns. How about these lyrics: “In mansions of glory and endless delight / I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright.” It may comfort us to think that we will spend eternity somewhere off in space, far away from earth, in some ethereal heaven, wearing white robes, plucking Irish harps, singing hymns while flitting from cloud to cloud.

If that’s your hope for the future it is highly unlikely that you would give much thought to caring for the environment or addressing the pressing needs of vulnerable people. The only activity with any lasting significance would be evangelism, preparing others for a spiritual heaven. You see, our hope for the future shapes the choices we make in our lives today.

What the Bible spells out is that God’s intention for God’s redemptive work is not an etherealized heaven, ‘up there’, apart from creation and outside history and certainly not individualistic as if salvation is the flight of the individual soul to God. It is a restored creation. If your hope for the future centers on God restoring this earth creation care becomes quite important.

So let’s start where the Bible does. According to Genesis 1:31 God created the world ‘very good’ and declared it so. Then, according to our salvation history, God placed humanity in this beautiful and fruitful garden with the expectation that humanity would delight in its’ rich diversity and enjoy fellowship with God. We were charged with caring for creation as a corporate task. This, the Bible says, was God’s intention.

Our salvation history also tells us that human beings rebelled against God in arrogance and disobedience which had the direct result of creation becoming polluted. We know from our own lives that there are consequences to our actions, good or bad. So the story that begins in Genesis is that God sets out to remove the ruinous effects of our behavior so that creation can again be as it once was.

God chooses Israel to be the demonstration project of how life on earth was supposed to work and to embody the promise of God’s purpose of redemption. Have you noticed how the life of Israel has always been connected to the land? That is where she is to live out her life in obedience to God. In various ways God gave direction to govern Israel in every part of her life; social, political, economic, environmental, familial and personal.

We read of Israel’s repeated failures and of the Prophets looking forward to the day when Israel will return to the land when her life will be restored to live into God’s intention. Any Israelite would describe hope to you as God restoring the nation to their land, that the land would be fruitful, and under the ruler-ship of God earth would be just and peaceful and that even the animals would live in harmony. In the Old Testament the destiny of humanity is inextricably linked with life on the earth. It’s so beautifully pictured as “The Peaceable Kingdom”.

Jesus didn’t change the Jewish hope in a restored earth. He not only affirmed the Old Testament view he fulfilled it. The very dogmatic statement is that Jesus is Christ. It is clearly beyond us to grasp that the Creator intentionally enters that which is created for the purpose of restoring it. We treasure the stories of Jesus’ birth, we struggle to practice Jesus’ wisdom and we are in awe when we read of his rejection and execution and we glory in the story of his resurrection and then his return to abide with us as Spirit. In Jesus, creation and redemption are inextricably tied. Salvation is the healing of a broken world.

Jesus and the Jewish leadership had a huge difference of opinions over how it was to come to be. “To the Gentiles, foolishness to the Jews a stumbling block…” John the Evangelist declares Out of his full store we have all received grace upon grave through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; but God’s only Son, he who is nearest to the Father’s heart, he has made him known.’…”This is God’s chosen one” That conflict resulted in Jesus’ death. Death is the limit of humanity. In Jesus’ death God made such limitation God’s own. It is the meaning of reconciliation. There are abundant notions grounded in economics and juris prudence about how all that works. None are sufficient. We can say that in Jesus’ light humanity sees its own darkness. Our salvation history says that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a preview of life in the age to come. A better understanding of Jesus’ promise of preparing a place in the Father’s house is not of some remote heaven but of our living in the presence of God’s spirit. The fulfillment of our prayer “…Thy kingdom come on earth…”

When we read in Acts 26 of the Apostle Paul defending himself before King Agrippa he made two astounding statements about the hope he held and his ministry up until that time. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made to our fathers by God, to which promise our twelve tribes hope to attain, serving God fervently night and day. For the sake of this hope, king Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews.

A few verses later Paul testifies that, I did not disobey the heavenly vision. But… I made known the command to repent and to turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance. Because of these things, having caught me in the temple, The Jews tried to kill me.” He said: ” I stand until this day, … saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said was going to happen; that the Christ must suffer, and that he, the first to rise from the dead, would announce the dawn to Israel and to the Gentiles..

Paul’s testimony included “no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said were going to happen”, the same hope the twelve tribes of Israel held.

Paul draws on Isaiah when he refers to the promises made to the fathers. “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:9  

All too often our view of the future is quite limited and revolves around us. Me. But the kingdom of God is comprehensive. Creation is restored and all humanity with it.

What does that say about our role in this work of God? Redemption is about the restoration of the whole of our life and calling and it follows that our mission is to embody the good news in that every part of our lives including the public life of our culture. It means that we are to be the good news in our care for the environment, our efforts in the interest of economic and criminal justice, in our business ethics, accuracy in the media, in education and study, within our family, international relations.

N.T. Wright said: “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

“Salvation, then, is not “going to heaven” but “being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth….

Revelation tells us that the dwelling place of God is with us. That’s no new thing to Quakers. We have for centuries held to the understanding that Christ has come to teach his people himself. We are to be God’s people and we have experienced of God’s presence with us. The conclusion of Revelation is that the old order of things has passed away. Humanity and Creator are reconciled, our breach has been healed. Love reigns. There is our hope.

 

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