Astounded and Offended; Amazed and Perplexed

Where did he get this wisdom? From where does he get this power? Isn’t he one of us? He’s one of Mary’s boys – and they listed them by name. And their astonishment turns to offense.

Astounded and Offended; Amazed and Perplexed

Mark 6 He (Jesus) left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Jesus was back in the synagogue again. The healing of Jairus’ daughter opened the door and the hometown crowd were astounded when they heard Jesus’ words and wisdom. And when they saw the ‘deeds of power’ that stretched their ability to comprehend.  Where did he get this wisdom? From where does he get this power? Isn’t he one of us? He’s one of Mary’s boys – and they listed them by name. And their astonishment turns to offense. It seems hard to understand. How could such insight and wholeness be the basis for rejection? Jesus disrupted their understanding of who they are and who they could be. Evidently that’s not always appreciated. For the Synagogue people it wasn’t ‘good news’.

 

If there is any truth in that analysis what does it say about how we apprehend for ourselves the truth of Jesus’ message? Jesus is too generous. He offers what we all want but to own it requires too much of us – our not living into that grace has to be blamed on someone – someone else. In her blog Marcelle Martin listed ten elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey which she discovered in her extensive reading and spiritual quest. She first identifies “Longing”, “Seeking”, “Turning Within” but says these bring a person to the next three: “Openings”, “The Refiner’s Fire”, and “Being Gathered into Community”. Not devaluing the experience of receiving guidance as in ‘Openings’ and the warmth and acceptance of a “Gathered Community” – the greater hurdle is having to being open to the work of what early Friends called the “Refiner’s Fire”.

It was a biblical metaphor adopted by Friends to described the process through which Christ’s Spirit melts away what is within us that resists God and God’s way. It is the refiner’s fire that burns off cravings for comfort, pleasure and social status. Through the work of the Refiner’s Fire temptation, sin and disbelief are gradually melted away. The Refiner’s Fire – that’s what Jesus’ teachings presented to his friends and neighbors, a challenge to become more.

 

A bit further in Marcelle’s list she holds up what she calls “Living in the Cross”. She describes saying that following Christ’s leading in our lives requires time and energy on behalf of others with a diminishment of creaturely desires and personal preferences. And she points out that giving witness to kingdom values and taking up counter-cultural ways of living elicits resistance from others.

 

Phrases like ‘The Refiner’s Fire’ and ‘Living in the Cross’ sound like places we don’t want to go and sacrifices we don’t really want to make.  We prefer a kinder, gentler gospel that puts a song in our hearts and gives us assurance that maybe we aren’t just fine the way we are but we live in anticipation that when all’s said and done we will  have pie in the sky.

 

Mark tells us that as Jesus’ name became more widely known King Herod began to imagine that Jesus was John the Baptist brought back to life. Then the evangelist tells us the whole horrid story. This is what had happened:

 

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

So much for integrity as being the finest characteristic of ideal humankind. Mark 6 holds up for us to see two instances where the actions of persons ‘righteous and holy’ in the story of John the Baptist and in Jesus’ situation, of ‘wisdom and power’ elicit resistance and rejection, and in both resulted in their execution. This certainly doesn’t sound like the ‘success gospel’ so popular today. It says that following Christ is risky business. Yet sitting between these two stories in Mark’s Gospel we find this:

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

What? How audacious? Despite the promise of resistance, rejection and possible execution Jesus calls twelve and sends them, two by two, like animals from the Ark, to proclaim that all should turn their lives around. And lives were changed. And through the continuing work of Christ’s spirit the calling and sending, the hearing and responding continues and that’s good news.

It’s reminiscent of Hannah Green’s novel “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden.” which told the story of a young woman’s battle with schizophrenia and led her to embrace the challenges of earth. Of course most of use only recall it from the song sung by Lynn Anderson – almost fifty years ago –and it’s still in our popular language.

I could sing you a tune and promise you the moon But if that’s what it takes to hold you I’d just as soon let you go But there’s one thing I want you to know You’d better look before you leap still waters run deep And there won’t always be someone there to pull you out And you know what I’m talking about So smile for a while and let’s be jolly love shouldn’t be so melancholy Come along and share the good times while we can I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden Along with the sunshine there’s gotta be a little rain sometime…..

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First Sunday of 2016 – Jed McClauren

 Today is the 1st Sunday of 2016.

My favorite Sunday of the year – “Vision Sunday” (as I think of it)

For the past year I’ve been employed as a Realtor, something I’m really enjoying, serving people in that way. A nice change from pastoring, which has an incredibly high burnout rate.

For the 8 years before that I served as a local church pastor, and my first sermon of the year usually revolved around a variation on the following Query…

“What will this new year look like for you?” [individually]

(pause)

When leading a congregation, I’d ask that and a parallel question for the congregation, inviting them to listen together for how God might be desiring to move in their midst in the coming year.

And so we’d listen together (privately, and then sharing those individual leadings together over a period of months). Quakerly, bottom-up approach to vision-casting for a church, something the leadership team normally tackles, at a more hierarchically organized church body. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses.

But today I’m just here as Jed, not pastor Jed addressing a congregation he’s been called to lead long-term (in servant leader fashion).

So today I’m asking this query entirely personally:

“What will this new year look like for you?”

(pause)

You can almost envision it as something that descends from above:

“Here is your 2016.” … “Thanks!”

What does it contain? Many parts of that are beyond our control. What stresses, what challenges? What gifts, what blessings. Much of this is beyond our control, others are not!

I think that’s a really important question to ask at the start of every new year.

“What will this new year look like for you?”  

 

“What do you desire this new year to look like?”

You’ve probably heard about the difference between a question and query?

A query is Quakerese for spiritual question – a special kind of question.

It’s a question we invite God into (if that makes sense?).

A query is a question we ask ourselves that creates space for God to work within us. A query invites God to bring change to us, internally.

Answers tend to be very definitive, but in subtle ways they can close us.

Once we know an answer we tend to move on, give it no further thought (“check”).

Answers don’t seem to promote growth as much as a good question does.

The teachers in the room know what I’m talking about. When you lecture, students eyes tend to glaze. Engage them in discussion, and they might actually remember something (without the threat of being tested forcing them to memorize something).

Unlike good answers, which are somewhat lifeless, good questions tend to open us to God, tend to grow us.

So a personal query isn’t a question for us to answer privately. It’s an expansive question that we bring before God, and discern in dialogue and communion with Him.

In this way, Discernment is a kind of listening-prayer that is vitally important to our spiritual life. If you’re not listening to God, what are you doing?

[pause]

This may sound strange, but I’ve come to think of lifeverses as a kind of query.

We can allow a passage of Scripture (or a fragment of a poem, etc.) to act as a question, dialoguing with our life.

So each year I listen hard for a vision for the new year (a God-inspired direction to take).

And an important part of that is listening process is listening for a lifeverse for the year.

That lifeverse helps cement that free-floating vision into reality, helps manifest that vision in practice in my actual day-to-day life.

I’ve been praying on this for several months, and for 2016 it seems to be Jeremiah 2:13. That’s the one that keeps coming to me with this sense of… rightness, it fits, belonging.  

 

This passage could feel a little heavy, because of the mention of “evil” at the beginning. But I’m finding this one life-giving and spiritually vitalizing.

“…my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,

and dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (NRSV)

When reading this, it’s important to remember that the English word “evil” always means malevolent, diabolical; a serial killer vibe. In English, evil is a very strong word, whereas in Hebrew and Greek, the word connotes a whole spectrum from bad/harmful to malevolent/diabolical evil.

The Greek and Hebrew words usually translated as evil often mean that, but in many contexts the same word merely means bad, harmful, toxic.

For example, we get our English word cacophony from the Gk. kakos (the word for evil in the NT). A cacophony is discordant, chaotic, the notes don’t sound good together. But it’s not an evil noise, per se.

Cacophony story: my mom’s birthday gift for Brett’s 3rd birthday.

So in this case, you might replace the word “evil” with “spiritually toxic,” which is always at least a little synonymous with what Scripture refers to as evil. Evil is spiritual toxicity to a fatal degree.

“…my people have committed two evils: [They’ve spiritually poisoned themselves in 2 ways]

they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,

and [instead] dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (NRSV)

“My people” = godly religious people like you and me, doing our best to live right with God and others.

“Broken cistern” religiosity = barren, habitual, mechanical.

Not life-giving, spiritually nourishing, vibrant.  

 

Fountain (Lexham English Standard: Spring)

A fountain is a stream of water; it is specifically a source of water. As such it is very similar to two other English words, well and spring. Since the fountain more precisely indicates the source or origin of water, its figurative use often means source of life.

Psalm 36:9 refers to God as the “fountain of life” (NIV).

Cistern

Modern urbanites, particularly in the West, tend to overlook the importance of water conservation for the life and well-being of a community. In an era when water pours from faucets hot and cold, the significance of a cistern is easily lost. The limited rainfall of Israel made cisterns an absolute necessity, and it is likely that in dry settled areas most homes had a cistern fed by rainwater gathered on the roof during the rainy season. Most of the cisterns that have survived were cut into the limestone in a bottle shape, plastered to help retain the water and sealed with a stone to prevent contamination and evaporation. Freestanding containers of various materials were also employed in a manner much like the “water barrel” of the more recent past.

In Jeremiah 2:13 a cistern is contrasted with a well so as to create a negative image. Yahweh is the fountain of living water who has been abandoned for broken cisterns that hold no water at all. In this colorful passage there seems to be an implicit assumption that cistern water is inferior: cisterns are difficult to maintain, and the water was subject to becoming stale and harboring parasites.1

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A Woman’s Issue

Women’s Issues

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

 

As head of the Capernaum Synagogue it seems highly likely that Jairus knew Jesus and his family and though it was a large congregation it’s most likely that Jesus knew Jairus’ family as well. Jesus would have been a standout in any congregation.  He was strange.  On one hand he seemed intolerant of some of the practices surrounding Jerusalem Temple worship, often quoting the Prophets in discussions where he castigated the leaders there. On the other hand within their faith community in Capernaum I suspect that he was very active, especially with the children’s program. He represented the very best in Judaism, and though a bit lax in following the rules of ceremonial and ritual hygiene no one ever got sick and the kids loved his sense of humor. Most of the adults avoided conversations with him about politics, religion and ethics. He seemed to ignore the Roman occupiers, treating them as ordinary persons in everyday commerce to the extent that some thought him to be a collaborator.  But one thing was without question, Jesus was a Jew, an observant Jew, and one that Jairus was glad to have as part of his community.

 

Most in the community had been pretty quiet about how Jesus developed a reputation as a faith healer. He often would tell someone who felt that he was responsible for their healing to keep it under their hat. 

 

Jairus remembered the day, it was a Sabbath, that in the synagogue, Jesus had taken the withered hand of one of the men into his own and quietly offered a prayer and the man’s hand was restored – right in front of everyone. It seemed miraculous and it resulted in a group of Pharisees to begin their effort to destroy him and his ministry.  Of course, Jesus had brought that on himself.  As he and his group of followers had travelled in the area, on occasion after occasion Jesus would bait the Pharisees in their legality, at times rubbing their noses in their restrictive legalism, when contrasted with grace.

 

But with the healing in the synagogue and on the Sabbath Jesus had crossed a line. They brought authorities into Capernaum from Jerusalem, lawyers and scholars, and made the case that Jesus should be denied access to the synagogue and take his demonic ways elsewhere. Jairus, as a synagogue leader, didn’t think he had was in any position to challenge the authorities.

 

            So outside of the place that Jesus loved the most, a place where healing should be the norm, the community of the faithful, Jesus continued his ministry among the people. Jairus was more than aware of what Jesus was doing and where he was doing it, there was no way for him to avoid it, Jesus’ work being on everyone’s lips. Jairus knew that faith healing and faith healers were to be avoided because they might be the handiwork of another religion or even demonic elements, that’s of what the authorities accused Jesus.  But he was also aware of those stories in the Mishnah, stories of spiritual leaders of old of whom it was said would take the hand of an ill person and raise them from sick beds if not deathbeds. Faith healing, though irregular had its place, when it wasn’t connected to magic, superstition or some other religion.  Maybe, Jairus thought, Jesus’ wasn’t possessed by evil, but the cost of taking his side was too great. The synagogue is where healing should be taking place, it was the where the people of faith gathered.

 

            Returning home after spending the day at work Jairus’ wife met him at their door. “Our daughter is no better. Her pain is worse. She hasn’t eaten anything. No one seems to be able to help. I think she’s going to die unless something is done.”

            The girl was twelve years old and was maturing normally until recently and she started losing weight and what has been irregular menstrual periods became non existent. Jairus’ wife had called in everyone she could think of to help her daughter and Jairus himself was beyond worry. He had waited and waited, hoping for a solution. He had prayed for his daughter’s healing and things had only gone from bad to worse. Anorexic, she was wasting away. Despite all that had gone before he knew what he had to do. Jairus left the house and began his search for Jesus. His plan was to beg him to come home with him and heal his daughter the way he healed others. After the way Jesus had been treated, and given that he hadn’t stood up for him against the authorities from Jerusalem and some of the locals who held to a very stringent interpretation of the law, it would only be understandable that Jesus would turn a deaf ear to his request. But he had to try.

            And the text tells us that he found Jesus doing what Jesus was wont to do, surrounded by a crowd along the sea side. He fell at Jesus’ feet and began to beg. And Jesus went with him and as they walked the crowd didn’t just follow, the text says they were pushing and shoving.

            Among the crowd was a woman who, according to the text had suffered hemorrhages for twelve years. It’s one of the great stories of the New Testament. She initiated the contact. She simply reached out in faith and touched Jesus’ garments. No confession sin. No pronouncement of grace extended. And she was healed. Jesus felt ‘a power’ go out of him but in the press of people had to ask who was the recipient. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

 

            She had to find healing out among the populace rather than in the synagogue, the community of faithful. Her affliction, totally beyond her control, meant that she was continuously ritually unclean. She wasn’t allowed near the synagogue. She was ostracized from the faith community, the source of healing for the Jewish community. Imagine that, ritual rules trump human need. Hard, fast interpretation of scripture, enforced by the faith community serves to deny access to wholeness.

 

            But the text takes us further. While dealing with this woman who experienced the grace of a faith healer the servants of Jairus showed up to inform him that he had waited too long to seek Jesus. It was too late. The twelve year old was dead. Jesus tells Jairus to not believe them. “Do not fear. Only believe.” That’s what the woman did who touched his garment. With only a couple of Jesus’ closest followers they proceeded to Jairus’ home. When he silenced the mourners and declared that the girl was just sleeping he was ridiculed.

 

            Jesus did exactly what the masters of ancient Judaism had done before, he took the girls hand and said “little girl, get up” and to everyone’s astonishment that’s what she did. Two more things were said. The first leaves us scratching our heads: “Don’t tell anyone” and the other was so practical as to have been unnecessary: “give her something to eat.” How very practical, even after restoring the girl to life Jesus doesn’t forget her most basic human need.

 “Give her something to eat”. Matzos ball in chicken soup?  He healed but he was also concerned about the rudiments of life. And what does that say about us, the church – not just focusing on being a community of faithful but looking out for the most basic needs of people. 

 

            The twelve years the woman suffered her discharge that separated her from health and wholeness and from the care of the faith community at the insistence of the religious authorities was the same twelve years of the young girl’s life, lived under the care of the leader of the synagogue.

 

            What a wonderful story that challenges us in many different ways. Do we too wait too long to seek Jesus when our lives lack wholeness? Do we, in league with the religious police banish from the community of faith those who need the inclusion most? Do we fail to make our voices heard when injustice is perpetrated? Are we unable to see that the needs of those outside of the community of faith are very much of the same category as those we care most about? Dare we, in nothing but faith, reach out to touch the garment of the one who brings wholeness? And is our care for spirituality balance with a care for addressing the most practical of necessities?

 

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The Point of Parables

The Point of Parables

From Mark 4: Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3“Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 9And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,  and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

13And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?

Near the end of the chapter Mark tells us: 33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;

There are several parables in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Sowers, seeds, and lamps all make appearances. Some count as many as 46 parables in Jesus’ teachings, others count 33 and yet others stretch the number to sixty. As I just read, when trying to understand the parables we need to recall that Jesus actually comments that part of the reason behind parables is to confuse people, to block people from understanding. Yet when Jesus realizes that even his disciples don’t get the parables he explains them. The disciples get let inside because Jesus calls them. As God calls other people, we too are let inside. The parables require our active engagement. And more importantly, they require God. And that’s the point.

I’ve heard people argue that parables have only one point to make. However, on closer scrutiny we learn that those sources have been greatly influenced by Aristotelian Greek that limit such stories to “pure comparison” leaving only a single point. Parables pre-date Jesus. We find them in places like Proverbs, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and II Samuel. Hebrew literature, Jesus’ home turf, is full of similitude and allegorical tales.  According to C. H. Dodd, at its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness,  and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application  to tease it into active thought.” If I assume I know what Jesus is talking about, I’m probably missing the main point; if I’m too familiar with the story (having heard it and read it so often before), I might not think carefully enough about its real meaning. “Wait a minute!”  You might say. “That’s not how farmers do their work! That’s not what kings usually do! That’s not what normally happens in nature!” And the strange element in the parable should cause use to think! Parables do not define things precisely, but rather use comparisons to describe some aspect of how God acts or interacts with us so we’ve got to be careful as we try to interpret or apply a parable. It’s actually comforting if not reassuring that in Mark, even Jesus’ disciples have a hard time understanding, despite receiving private instructions!

Centuries of study have taught us that understanding Jesus’ parables takes active listening. What Jesus has to say isn’t just simple and easy. Parables need an interpreter. They need more than just any interpreter, they need Christ as the interpreter. We need to be listening to God to have the parables make sense. And often the parables have multiple roles or vantage points, so as we grow, change, and move, the parables speak differently to us and interpreted differently for us.

Actually one way to help make all of scripture meaningful is to approach it as parable, stories that on the surface seem simple or mythological or mysterious and beyond our understanding, especially the stories that seem truly simple? Biblical understanding requires active listening. It also requires an interpreter, not just any old interpreter will do, the needed interpreter is Christ’s Spirit.

This notion is particularly important as a part of the foundation of Quakerism. Unlike some, for Quakers the word of God isn’t ink on the page, it is the word Christ speaks in our hearts as the words of the page get illuminated, expounded, interpreted. It’s as early in salvation history as the creative Word with which God spoke creation into existence.  It is the principle issue that separates Quakers from those who are able to sign the doctrinal statement of the National Association of Evangelicals. It’s our understanding of continuing and immediate revelation. It’s our understanding or what’s called realized eschatology, Christ has come to teach his people himself.

Henry Cadbury wrote that the scriptures were for George Fox a confirmation rather than the source of truth. After citing scores of examples from the Old Testament and the New Fox concludes, ” And if there were no Scriptures for our men’s and women’s meetings, Christ is sufficient, who restores man and woman up into the image of God, to be helps meet in righteousness and holiness…” For Fox Christ is the key to the Scripture. Of course this wasn’t new with early Friends. This approach to the Bible is far removed from a literal adoption or theologically analyzing of a passage of scripture. It is viewing it with Christ to hear the meaning. Origen reports on this approach to scripture in the third century. St. Benedict established the practice among monks of his following in the 6th century.

In the 12th century a monk named Guigo formalized the four stages of Lectio Divina.  He said we first read the scripture slowly, allowing it to sink in, but the passage shouldn’t be too long. Second, we reflect on the passage. Not in any hurry, we ruminate on the text, we think about it.  The third thing is to leave thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God about it. And finally, letting go of all our ideas, plans, words and thoughts resting in the Word of God, listening at the deepest level, allowing Christ’s still small voice to gradually transform us.  That’s pretty astonishing that this, as a spiritual practice, was described so long ago and yet it seems as fresh as today.

Wess Daniels writes in his recent thesis, “The future of the Friends Church relies on its ability to draw on the distinctives of its tradition while continuing to contextualize those distinctives within today’s participatory culture. Simply put, if Quakers wish to remain Quaker the way forward includes reaching back; tradition is the only grounds for innovation. Only a revitalization that includes the mission and practices of the Quaker tradition will give reason for hope.”  A major piece of that tradition is immersing ourselves in the Scriptures as did Fox and other early Friends. It means making the effort, setting time aside, making it a discipline to spend time letting the Bible read us. Some Quakers will say that “Holy books abound.” And, I for one agree with that. I sincerely believe that God can use other media to address us as well.

But, if Daniels is right studying the scripture is a major piece of our tradition that needs our full embrace. In  1816 Quaker leaders were involved in the formation of the American Bible Society. In 1825 Levi Coffin began Bible Study classes in what was then the Deep River meeting house. I’ve sat on the surviving foundation stones of that meeting house. First day schools spread widely across Quakerism. Of course Levi,  soon there after, immigrated from North Carolina due to Friends there unwilling to abandon slavery to become the ‘Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad’ in Fountain City, Indiana. His commitment to the Bible certainly didn’t denigrate his social conscience.

 

 

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Jesus came to explain God to us. A Message shared by Leann Williams

Jesus came to explain God to us. His actions and words reveal God’s heart. I have turned to the teachings of Jesus to guide me through these difficult issues.

Galatians 4:4-7 New King James Version (NKJV)

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law

the Message version continues

Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage. You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, “Papa! Abba!(Momma!)” Doesn’t that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child? And if you are a child, you’re also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance.

God SO LOVED the world that he gave, and continues to give.

John 1:16-18 New International Version (NIV)

Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made God known.

The Amplified version expands,

For out of His fullness [the superabundance of His grace and truth] we have all received grace upon grace [spiritual blessing upon spiritual blessing, favor upon favor, and gift heaped upon gift].

I have certainly experienced this verse in the past year. One of God’s gifts came in the form of a book that about ten women read together entitled The Emotionally Absent Mother. The discussions provided many women the opportunity to tell their truth of abuse, neglect, and wounding, and begin to find healing grace. One of the graces received from the material was to view our mother’s with God’s grace as we considered the circumstances of their lives that led them to be absent to us. In that material I found a description of a therapeutic technique called re-mothering that exactly described what I had been experiencing with massage clients. As I held their tissues with a loving therapeutic touch and allowed God’s heart to flow through mine, many of the good mother messages that had never been heard by these souls were spoken to them and brought deeper healing than massage alone could accomplish.

I was also blessed to finish training in a specific massage technique that has benefited my clients. Some of those clients have in turn challenged me by their needs or words to step more fully into a mix of therapeutic massage, prayer, essential oils, and a deeper dependence on God’s guidance as a conduit of healing love and grace in their lives. That work has opened up opportunities to work with Gar Mickelson, who now is employed as the community liaison for Heritage Health (a community clinic) in their homeless outreach. We are developing a group of alternative healthcare providers whose focus is faith based holistic care for homeless in our community with an emphasis on trauma recovery.

In that work I have come to some difficult questions about what it means to offer the grace I have received in meaningful ways to broken people.

  • How do we offer free services with sensitivity to the dignity and worth of the individual?
  • How do I know if I am being told the truth?
  • When does help morph into enabling?
  • In an effort to help move people toward transformation and healthier lives, do we require evidence of increasing responsibility and growth toward change?
  • How do I protect myself from being used?
  • Does any of this matter?

 

Jesus came to explain God to us. His actions and words reveal God’s heart. I have turned to the teachings of Jesus to guide me through these difficult issues. I started to develop bulleted points for this sermon but decided instead I am going to read the words of Jesus from different passages and versions in a way that has spoken to my heart. Here’s what I heard:

 

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

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All You Need Is Love Da Ta Da Ta Da…

“All You Need Is Love…da ta da ta da…”

 

Randall Smith wrote that in our world today we tend to think of love as only an emotion – something into which we “fall”,  something that “happens to us.” There is certainly love of this sort: love that we “feel” and sometimes feel very strongly. But it’s important to realize that this is not the only kind of love.  Thomas Aquinas said that love is both a passion and a virtue. The word virtue has fallen out of our vocabulary. It means conforming of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles. When love becomes not merely a feeling we have, but a settled disposition to be self-sacrificing, compassionate, and just, a disposition to do good for others, love is a virtue.

There is perhaps no more misused phrase from the writings of Augustine than the saying: “Love and do what you will.” Many people have imagined this means: “Love and do what you want.” Or: “If you do something with love, then whatever it is, it’s okay.”  The truth, however, is that the sentence “Love and do what you will” comes from Augustine’s seventh sermon on the First Epistle of John, a study that covers all of 1 John 4 including the verse “We love because God has loved us first.”

According to Augustine, because God is love, when we love truly and selflessly, we love with God’s own love. He gives us what Thomas Aquinas calls “the New Law,” the “law of grace,” by which “charity is spread abroad in our hearts.” (Rom 5:5) With the “New Law” comes the fulfillment of God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

Love enables us to do God’s will, not merely follow our own passions and addictions. Love as a passion might tempt me to commit adultery. And yet, when love is a virtue – when my love is formed by God’s grace, and not my own willfulness; when I am moved by a love that is selfless as was Christ’s love for us – then I do not mistake my passion to possess another person as justification for doing something I ought not to do.

When love is a virtue, it requires discipline. It requires us to cooperate with God’s grace. And so, shortly after Augustine made that famous comment, “Love and do as you will,” he warned his congregation that they should “not imagine love to be an abject or sluggish thing,” or that it can be preserved by a sort of “tameness and listlessness.”

The dove that descended upon Jesus at his baptism was a sign of love, Augustine says, “because although the dove has no bitterness, yet with beak and wings she fights for her young. Hers is a fierceness without bitterness.”  Anyone who has seen a mother protect her child from strangers will understand that phrase. We do not see the “fierceness of love” in today’s understanding of “love and do what you will.” Or more likely “love and go with the flow.” That is love as self-justification for what I want. And that sort of “love” is the result of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, so what I’m doing can’t possibly be wrong. That is a “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right” kind of love.

Passions are good things. But they can also trick us, causing us to mistake what is “satisfying” or “pleasurable” for what is truly good. When your “love” tells you it’s okay to cross moral lines, although you’re undoubtedly having a very powerful feeling, don’t mistake a powerful feeling for God’s will or for what it really means to love others as God has loved us.  “All you need is love,” the Beatles informed us, and a quick glance at our culture reveals how much we’ve bought into that. Our songs, advertising, our personal aspirations—all pay homage to love—or at least our silly substitutes for it. We love our wireless plans; we love our Bulldogs or SeaHawks; we love our coffee in the morning. 

But if everyone agrees that all we need is love, we’d do well to understand what love is. In our culture – in movies, music and TV shows – to love is to feel strongly. This then shapes our marriages, and even our faith. To love our spouse or “love Jesus” is to have strong feelings for them.  But what if the feelings go away? What sustains love then? The love of the Advent candle is not mere feelings. And we know what love is, the Scripture tells us, because God loves us.

God’s people, of course, are not just called to point people to such love, but to share love with them. But how do Christians put Christ’s love into practice in an increasingly hostile culture?

Paul’s love chapter is helpful: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” We all know this, of course. The problem is doing it, especially today, when we face the temptation to lash out and demonize those not like us.

So the Beatles weren’t wrong, just incomplete. “Love is all you need”, but it’s a love from its divine source, the love that reflects the goodness of God. That love will cost us, but to reach a world looking for love in all the wrong places, it’s a cost worth paying.

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Advent-ure in Joy

One of the first words that caught my attention when I began to figure out what was appropriate to share about Joy in Advent was the word “When”.  The statement went something like “We will know the Joy of the Christian life when Jesus comes again”. The implication is that Joy is something that must be put off to some indeterminate point in the future. For some that is the whole message of the season of Advent – not a celebration of the eminent birth of the Christ child but a second shoe falling, the anticipation of a longed for second coming that has been the exit off the freeway of ethical and responsible life for many Christians, that is,  all I have to do is keep the faith, baby, until Christ comes again and takes me away from all this.  If you take that as gospel, there has been no joy in Christianity for over two thousand years. That’s pretty sad.

There’s another way to look at it. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” says the master in Jesus’ parable. “Now enter into the joy of your master”. Those are the words we all long to hear. They are words that speak of a relationship of trust between two. No one can have the experience of joy alone. Remember, “One is the loneliest”…  Joy can only well up from the depths of a trusting relationship. It revels in the beloved, not as an object, but as an inexhaustible fount of what is good. Which is to say that joy is essentially interpersonal and mysterious. What does that mean for our lives?  And where can we find such joy?

I admit it, posed that way the question is a paradox: because, it is not joy if in some sense it does not rather find us than we fine it!  God in God’s ebullience has strewn intimations of joy all around us, spangling the skies and the meadows, mountains  and seas with beauty. No saint need descend from heaven to show them to us. For the living God reveals God’s presence in the garden, and yet God hides. Every creature, from the lowliest to the loftiest, is worthy of our admiration, and can spring out at us with the revelation of the One who made them. In the glory that they give to God, and that we give to God on their account, all things are raised to the personal, all are crying out for the other, for one who will “meet” God in them, as God infinitely exceeds all expectation.

But what is it about us that permits us to treat others as if they were just another piece of hardware, or electron bit switches there to serve our needs. What allows us to see nature as inert matter, malleable to our wishes. The secularism in which we swim reduces others, other human beings and other species to biological cogs in an economic calculation, as if the blade of grass was no more than a sunlight-converter that ultimately becomes our lunch. In such a world turned wrong-side out we close off the possibility of joy, and our awareness of God recedes into numbness.

Whenever God shows God’s self, God necessarily also veils God’ self. We cannot wish it otherwise. What God most reveals to us by concealment, is that God wants for us the freedom and the love that joy demands. God wants to shower upon us not simply a human life. We are invited to a spiritual adventure, the life for which we were created, which reaches its perfection in abandonment to the God whose life is freedom and love and joy.

Joy is not an emotion that can be fabricated. The ubiquitous smiley face does not symbolize joy.  It is innocuous.  At times Joy eludes us and this is to be expected. The Psalmist wrote “there on the poplars we hung our harps for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said “Sing us one of the songs of Zion! And the refrain:   How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”‘ (137:2-4)

Joy comes when we live in God’s presence. Through the victories you gave, his glory is great; you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty. Surely you have granted him unending blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the Lord; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken. Ps 21:5-7

Joy isn’t dependent on our conditions or situation. Again the Psalmist writes: For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord. (Psalm 27:5-7)  Even in a difficult situation we can experience joy.  

She would probably think me a bit unhinged but I saw that this week. Terry Moore’s mother had been at death’s door in the intensive care unit of Holy Family for a couple of days. Her whole family converged in the ICU waiting room. They were told that there was nothing more medically that could be done for her and she would be moved to a regular room and then, most likely to hospice care. I stood there as she was rolled passed on her hospital bed and the smile on her face as she was greeted by all her loved one’s told me they better not count her out. In medical distress I saw hope on her face. James was right: “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

Perhaps the idea of conflating the notion of integrity doesn’t seem to fit with the principles of joy, but the Psalmist wrote: Hate evil, you lovers of the Eternal. He protects the souls of those who follow Him; He rescues them from the devices of the wicked. Light is sown in the just; as it grows, it brings joy to the pure of heart. Celebrate the Eternal God, all you who are faithful; offer thanks to His holy name. (Ps 97:10-12 )   Loss of integrity leads to guilt, and discouragement, while honesty breeds satisfaction, and peace.

Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. Jesus’ joy in us. The joy of the living Christ, residing in us, makes our joy complete.  Over the centuries we’ve turned Jesus into a buckled down Puritan yet if we read the record, he and his faithful followers were a joyful lot. The image that comes to my mind is that of the group of friends introduced to us in the movie Three Weddings and a Funeral…the Bible intimates that Jesus’ mother had Jesus replace the wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee because he and his pals had consumed what had been provided 

Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” John 15:10-12

 

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ADVENT-ure of Peace

God will speak peace to his people – to give us peace, to give us rest in our restlessness with our own shortcomings and sins. God speaks peace to his people so that we can become peacemakers. So that we can bring the word of peace, even to make the peace others are longing for. God will speak peace to his people. Can you hear God’s word?

That’s quite a promise in the 85th Psalm.  God will speak peace to his people. I find the notion of peace being spoken as a different way to think of peace. The tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches had a theme entitled: “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” That’s a bit easier for me to understand. Peace is condition following the  resolution of conflict, a future end to a conflict. We pray for peace in the middle east.  We pray for peace to come to that part of the world where open hostilities make it dangerous to go to the store. But I’m reminded that by one report there has been 355 mass shootings in the United States, incidents were four or more individuals were shot, in 2015 alone.  Of course there were many more violent attacks where guns weren’t involved and then you can parse that number into drug, alcohol, sex and of course, accidents.  We are talking hardware here, we are talking about the value of life and that’s a spiritual matter regardless of your politics.

Did you see the article in the newspaper of the local girl firing two shots toward her boyfriend when he returned to their home unexpectedly.  It should have come as an important warning to those who believe that a convenient weapon keeps them and their loved ones safe. It also accurately describes just how hard it is to hit a target with a short barreled weapon like a hand gun.  What they thought spoke peace to them became home grown terror.  That story, too often with a tragic ending, is repeated over and over in our nation.

The world has all kinds of ways of saying peace speak but the reality is that what masquerades as peace is simply more violence.  Arm sales, ostensibly made to bring peace to war torn places, simply add fuel to the fires. I know and you know that there is nothing we would like more than for someone to tell us that the struggle is over, to hear at last that somebody can speak peace to them: Peace in its fullness; Peace with freedom; Peace without fear; Peace without hunger. Peace without violence. Peace with friendship, peace with justice, peace with faithfulness. Peace in our family. Peace in the city. Peace in the church and among religions. Peace in our world.  Peace.

We want peace in our hearts.  And when God speaks peace to his people it will be spoken as heart language.  Many in dire circumstances have been blessed with a sense of God’s presence and peace.  Jesus told us that he will never leave us or forsake us. That may be all we need to endure terrific challenges and overcome obstacles.  And that is surely good news but is not all the news. We live with a bit of heresy.        Peace is radical, something that has to be spoken. But then it must be acted out.

The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches shared a story told him by his mother. As a young woman she was told that the occupation of Norway and World War II had come. The rumors had been going around for some hours, but people didn’t dare to believe it. There was nobody to speak peace to them with authority. What finally made her believe was what she could see. She saw fires in the streets of Oslo, not bombs. People were burning the blinds, the curtains they were obliged to use during the evenings to be isolated from one another, to avoid light in the streets, to avoid bombers’ identifying the streets in the city. What made her hear and feel the peace she was longing for was that people dared to believe in it and they, themselves, took action accordingly.

There is a deep connection between the promise that God will speak peace to his people and that the people dare to act accordingly, to live in steadfast love, in faithfulness, in righteousness, in justice.  The beginning of the 85th Psalm is a restless, honest reflection about iniquity, about shortcomings, about sin. It is blended with the hope that God is forgiving, restoring and reviving again – even though this forgiveness is undeserved. But isn’t that the case that it is through acts of undeserved love from others; signs that help us to believe that God is forgiving us, creating new opportunities through a real embrace. This is also the image of God’s love in the psalm: Righteousness and peace shall kiss each other. Prior to that, we experience the gift of life being renewed, restored – even though this outcome is undeserved. The Spirit is working in us and among us, the Spirit of God, who makes alive, and is Lord.

Yes, we need to hear the word spoken: to believe, to grasp it, to take it to our hearts – sometimes despite what we experience. We need the living Word of God. God will speak peace to his people. This experience and the word of peace from our God of life to those who are called “God’s people” cannot be seen as something exclusively for some. If it is undeserved how could it be only for us? How could it be only for us if it is about peace that brings life in its fullness, in righteousness and love? How could it be only for those who think or act or believe like us, if it is the word of peace is from the God of all life?

Still, we live in a time when life is threatened, when injustices in the world are a reality. Globally the distance between rich and poor grows. Unemployment among young people grows. The consequences of ignoring or denying climate change are disturbing and dangerous. God will speak peace to his people – to give us peace, to give us rest in our restlessness with our own shortcomings and sins. God speaks peace to his people so that we can become peacemakers. So that we can bring the word of peace, even to make the peace others are longing for. God will speak peace to his people. Can you hear God’s word?

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A Quakerly Advent – Hope

The First Candle of Advent calls our attention to Hope.

It’s not right to call “Hope” illusory.  But, as a matter of fact, Hope is a hard thing to nail down.  It’s a motivating expectation.  Farmers with their crops recently planted in the field hope that it will rain.  Farmers wanting to harvest hope that it won’t. But, that kind of definition simply reduces hope to wishful thinking.  Something as important as hope certainly is more than wishful thinking.

Without hope things get pretty dire.  Dante, following Virgil, comes to the gate of Hell; over which are the dreadful words “All hope abandon, ye who enter here” and that wasn’t all of it.  “Through me you pass into the city of woe: Through me you pass into eternal pain.”  Dante wants us to understand that this place is reserved for those who had passed their time in a state of apathy and indifference. “All hope abandon, ye who enter here”

Having hope is the opposite of living with apathy and indifference.  That well could be the best way to measure hope but I hope not. That would include sixty percent of the registered voters in Spokane County who didn’t vote in the recent general election.  A greater number were without power after the windstorm than voted.

Monday I received an email that started “I hope you are feeling better.  I heard you were sick with a virus”.  Next she adds “I hope you and Susan have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!!”  And then comes a phenomenal statement of hope: (I’ve changed the names because it would be wrong not too. ) She writes: “Harold and I are spending Thanksgiving with his ex-wife Hannah and his ex-father in law who is suffering from dementia.  Hannah struggles with depression and physical issues and didn’t have anyone else, and since she and Harold get along very well, why not?” There is no indifference or apathy to good and evil in her heart.  Let’s go spend Thanksgiving with your depressed and impaired ex wife and her demented father. And, against all reason, she hopes that everything will be a perfectly Happy Thanksgiving.   Bless her heart.

In a time when people are living with indifference and apathy and finding reasons to hope is difficult we read in 1st Peter that those who choose to follow Christ are urged to ‘give to anyone who asks an account of the hope that is in them.”  Maybe it’s context or syntax because the word ‘hope’ sounds like it resides in the future.  But that’s not what we read in 1st Peter. The hope we find in our faith is rooted in the present.  I like what Brother Roger of the Taize’ community had said about hope.  He said the source of our hope is God, a God who simply loves us and can do nothing else, a God who never stops seeking us.

n the Hebrew Bible, that mysterious Source of life we call God makes God’s self known by calling us into relationship.  Together we enter into a covenant.  Our Scriptures define the characteristics of this covenant by translating the Hebrew words: hesed and emeth as “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” They tell us, first of all, that God is overflowing goodness and kindness who wants to take care of his people and, second, that God will never abandon those he has called to enter into fellowship with him. That is the source of biblical hope. If God is good and his attitude never changes toward us nor forsakes us, then whatever difficulties may arise, if the world we know is far from justice, peace and compassion—for us this is not the definitive situation. From our faith in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness we live with the expectation of a world according to God’s will or, to put it a better way, according to God’s love.

In the Bible, this hope is often expressed by the notion of promise. We   see this in the story of Abraham: “I will bless you,” God says to Abraham, “and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).  A promise is a dynamic reality that opens new possibilities for human life. It looks toward the future, but it is rooted in a current relationship with the God who speaks to me here and now, who guides me in making specific choices in my life. The seeds of the future are found in a present relationship with God. This rootedness in the present is made even stronger with the coming of Christ’s Spirit. In him, says the Apostle Paul, all God’s promises are already a reality (2 Corinthians 1:20). Quakers have testified that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.”  “I am with you always, until the end of the age” Jesus said in (Matthew 28:20).  In Romans 5 Paul also wrote that “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”. Far from being a simple wish for the future with no guarantee that it will come about, our hope, what could be called Christian hope, is the presence of divine love in person, the Holy Spirit, a current of life that carries us to the ocean of the fullness of communion.

How can we root our lives in Christian hope?  Biblical and Christian hope does not mean living in the clouds, dreaming of a better life. It is not merely a projection of what we would like to be or do someday. It leads us to discover seeds of a new world already present today, because of the identity of our God, because of the living presence of Christ. This hope is, in addition, a source of energy to live differently, not according to the values of a society based on the thirst for power, possession and competition.

In the Bible, the divine promise does not ask us to sit down and wait passively for it to come about, as if by magic. Before speaking to Abraham about the fullness of life offered to him, God says, “Leave your country and your home for the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). To enter into God’s promise, Abraham is called to make of his life a pilgrimage, to undergo a new beginning. Similarly, the good news of Pentecost is not a way of taking our minds off the tasks of life here and now, but a call to set out on the road. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? … Go into the entire world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation… You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:11; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8).  Writing to the Christians of Rome, Paul speaks of the longing of creation and compares this suffering to the pangs of childbirth. Then he continues, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly” (Romans 8:18-23). Inspired by Christ’s Spirit we are called to live in deep unity with all humanity. Our faith is not a privilege that takes us out of the world; we “groan” with the world, sharing its pain, but we live this situation in hope, knowing that, in Christ, “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Hoping, then, means first of all discovering in the depths of the present a Life that leads forward and that nothing is able to stop. We are led to create signs of a different future here and now, in the midst of the darkness of the world, seeds of renewal that will bear fruit when the time comes. For the first Christians, the clearest sign of this new world to come was the existence of communities made up of people of different backgrounds and languages. Going beyond the divisions that kept people apart from one another.  These men and women lived as brothers and sisters, as God’s family, praying together and sharing their possessions according to the needs of each person (cf. Acts 2:42-47). They strived to have “one and the same love, [being] united in spirit and focused on the same thing” (Philippians 2:2). In that way they shone out like points of light in the world (cf. Philippians 2:15). From the very beginning, Christian hope kindled a fire on the earth.  Its call is to continue to stoke that fire.

 

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The Perfect Vineyard and the Sucker

As disciples of Jesus we start to include the disenfranchised, to raise up those who have been beaten down and seek justice for all who have been treated inhumanly or unfairly. At the same time, we strive for equity where the poor and needy have enough and the rich and powerful do not have too much. Disciples of Jesus who live in this manner are seen as . . .  authentic individuals.

The Perfect Vineyard and the Sucker

Isaiah 5 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The narrator of the text is presented as a troubadour who sings a love song about a vineyard for his beloved. It’s supposed to be a love song. And it is but a love song without a happy ending.

Like the proverbial suitor who intends to request the hand of his beloved in marriage, the beloved wants everything to be exactly right. A great wine coming from a carefully planned and cultivated vineyard is the vision. The right land is purchased and prepared for planting including removing stones, which I imagine being piled around the edges of the field; then the nursery stock is selected, purchased and planted. A watch tower and a wine vat are constructed vineyard. By reading further in the story we learn that a protective hedge is planted and a wall is built around it.

Planning and a tremendous investment is made to bring the vision to reality and fruition. There is a vision, a long term vision at work in this story. I find the image at work a way to talk about the salvation history of the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. The vineyard is the Promised Land, a land of high hopes and expectations. The obstacles for the children of Israel to be planted there are removed, a religious culture is constructed that provides protection and a way to process the produce. Everything has been envision, planted to perfection and provided – everything.

And somehow, despite all this investment the vines themselves, go wild. They can’t resist the attraction of what’s is available on the other side of the hedge. That appears to be a euphemism for cross fertilization with vines not under the protection of the hedge and watchtower. Isaiah gives us his version of Israel’s taste for promiscuous relationships like what we read between the faithful husband Hosea and his promiscuous wife, Gomer.

The idea of loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength is foreign to them. Others continue to worship the Lord at the temple and go through religious rituals, but they don’t allow their religion to affect their daily lives. These people are wrapped up in themselves. They live unjust and uncaring lives as they ignore the poor and needy.

And it breaks God’s heart. The hope for the future, the beloved’s hope for producing a great wine are dashed. And despite all the investment of time, resources and care he destroys what he created. He lets it go wild, – un-tilled, overgrown with briers and thorns and with out rain becomes a desert. Isaiah ends this picture with this description “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Kenny Rogers recorded the post Vietnam song Ruby – “Ruby” he sang “don’t take your love to town”. That’s the song for this unrequited love.

Isaiah’s Chapter 11 is a complete contrast to Chapter 5

Instead of an immaculately planned and executed vineyard we are given quite a different image. Salvation comes quite unexpectedly from a shoot growing from the stump of a long thought dead tree, a sucker that if allowed to grow offers salvation. An adventitious shoot is a form of horticultural propagation and it produces a clone of the original tree. God circumvents the years of the United Kingdom and the Divided Kingdom during which justice, equality and righteousness disappeared from the land. The years of whoring after other Gods – it’s retro – as if God repented of allowing politics to run the nation. Listen:

11A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious

The root of Jesse? Compared to the perfect vineyard it’s helpful to be reminded that Jesse’s great-grandmother was Rahab, a Canaanite harlot. He was the son of Obed, the son of Boaz and the Moabitess Ruth. Jesse was the father of eight sons, one of which was David. And it’s from that genealogy that a sucker grows from the root. We already know what became of David’s kingdom on his death – it was forever broken in two.

Abandoning the vision of the perfect wine from the perfect vineyard God announces hope arising from in a much simpler place. The stump might appear dead but from the long buried roots of God’s promise to his chosen, his beloved, salvation comes. What enables the sprout to become messianic is this

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

There is a wonderful word of hope in this. It doesn’t grow from perfect planning and perfect execution – it occurs in the work of the Spirit. This worthless sprout from a long dead tree, with the Spirit of the Lord resting on it becomes the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might. Justice and equality will be the marks of a world transformed. It fulfillment is the vision of the peaceable kingdom.

This is a powerful description of the work of Christ’s Spirit in our lives.

Certainly we have gone our own ways and declared our independence. We are constantly tempted to follow the false gods and idols of this world. Even though we hear Jesus’ words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me,” we get wrapped up in ourselves and ignore the needs of others. The Lord doesn’t allow us to stay in this condition. As the Christian cliché goes, “God accepts us where we are at, but God doesn’t allow us to stay there.”

 

The transformation process from wild grapes to Spirit directed life is long and sometimes painful.
The first thing the Spirit does is illuminate the accumulated filth in our personal lives, and according to Isaiah our corporate and national life as well. The Spirit shows us what needs to be changed and that promises to move us from our comfort zone—to walk new paths and learn new things. The creative Spirit of Christ will change our attitudes toward individuals and groups, the “others” our our experience, undocumented aliens, immigrants, refugees, those who identify with the LBGT community, even those of other religious traditions such as Muslims. The Spirit might convict us of the harmful effects that our words and attitudes have upon others and might convince us that change is needed. The changes that occur in the king and in the followers of the king, allow transformation to take place in the world. No longer are words and actions based on outward appearances. Our first impressions of others, especially those who are different from ourselves, usually stress the differences. Seeing beyond outward appearances allows us to recognize similarities. Similarities facilitate the building of relationships.

The transformation process begins. As disciples of Jesus we start to include the disenfranchised, to raise up those who have been beaten down and seek justice for all who have been treated inhumanly or unfairly. At the same time, we strive for equity where the poor and needy have enough and the rich and powerful do not have too much. Disciples of Jesus who live in this manner are seen as righteous (not self-righteous) people of integrity and authentic individuals. There is also a faithfulness in these disciples. They are consistent in their service and strong in their convictions.

We live in a broken world. The Spirit of God is upon us so that we might be changed and in turn share God’s love and grace and change the world. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

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