Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘alive’

Consumed by Life

John 6:35-44; 48-51

Bienaventurado el que no cambia el sueño de su vida por el pan de cada día.

Blessed are those who do not exchange the dreams of their lives for their daily bread.

Facundo-Cabral―Facundo Cabral, Argentina

Daily bread is the thing we all need to survive.

We need to eat. Sadly, because we’re still not good at sharing, some people don’t always get their daily bread. But even for those of us who do, that daily bread doesn’t last long. The very next day, we’re asking for it again. So it’s important to differentiate between “daily bread” and “living bread.”

To be frank, I’m wondering just how many times we need to talk about bread before we can move on to another metaphor. I get it, though, why the author of John’s Gospel has to have Jesus reiterate it again and again. The crowds in Capernaum or wherever he goes take time to “get” what’s going on. And Jesus’ disciples usually don’t get it either. And we often don’t get it.

So here we go again with bread.

This time, though, John’s Gospel makes sure that we as readers are not confused. He has Jesus say:

Ego Eimi.

Yes, it’s Greek, and it means I AM.

You may be familiar with I AM from the story of the burning bush and Moses encountering G-d. I AM is a “G-d” declaration.

So in essence, Jesus is saying: I AM G-d, and G-d is the bread of life.

The twist is that the divine name of God is now linked to something earthly, i.e. bread.
It’s an inflammatory statement, to be sure. And John wants us to think as much. There’s high drama and conflict here, but not as some paint it, i.e. a battle between “Jews” and “Jesus followers.”

John’s Gospel was reaching out to a variety of people, including Jews, non-Jews, and Jews who were Hellenized or outside of typical Jewish circles. It’s an unfortunate translation to assume that “the Jews” rejected Jesus’ message. It’s better to say that the Temple Authorities of Judea weren’t too happy about it.

Keep in mind that John’s Gospel was most likely written by a Jewish person, about Jewish disciples, and of course, written to promote the message and life of a Jewish Jesus of Nazareth. John was written about the conflicts within Judaism itself and how people saw Jesus. So, yeah—put away the anti-Semitism, please.

Anyhoo….the Judeans, probably overly emotional, got the message wrong. They claimed that Jesus himself said that he was “the bread that came down out of heaven” but actually, Jesus said earlier: “the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven” (6:33), and then: “I am the bread of life” (6:35).

It happens to all of us. Sometimes we let our emotions take over, and we push aside common sense.

sassJesus’ statements were only inflammatory because the temple authorities were looking for something inflammatory. He probably could have said:

I’m Jesus, and I make things out of wood. That’s what carpenters do. How cool is that, Judeans?

And they still would have found fault with it.

Often people [including us] don’t like to wake up to a new reality. We prefer the status quo, even if it’s false. Jesus was trying to help people [including the Judeans] to see a new reality. Jesus uses the phrase “truly, truly” to grab their attention, and what follows is oft-misinterpreted/mistranslated:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever ­­­______ has eternal life.

Yes, believe is inserted in the blank as an English translation for a Greek word that really means faith in or trust.

This isn’t about believing in something [like a doctrine or dogma] in order to obtain eternal life.
This is about reorienting one’s thinking in order to live differently and more fully.

So I thought about that, and what that might mean today.

In this life, with all the distractions and all the things that people tell us we should do or think or believe, it’s easy to feel down about it all sometimes, isn’t it? Depression, fear, and loneliness can soon become our realities.

Now, they are real emotions and I’m not discounting that.

But rather than saying “I am depressed, fearful, or lonely” what if we limit them to what they are?
They are feelings.
And if so, perhaps we might be able to see depression or fear or loneliness as mere distractions from what is real.

You see, so much of what we think and do in this world today is not actually what we WANT to do; or even what we feel is right, healthy, wonderful, and life-giving.

We often feel depressed, fearful, or lonely because our behaviors and our lifestyle don’t bring us any joy or fulfillment. We go about daily routines without blinking, even if those routines are killing us little by little.

We are so distracted away from what is truly life.

If you feel depressed, perhaps it is because of something or someone you feel that you have lost. Consider this, however: can we really lose someone or something? Isn’t it true that everything you have was given to you? How can you lose that which was never yours?

Fernando Cabral wrote:

Life does not subtract things, it liberates you from them. It makes you lighter so that you can fly higher and reach the fullness. From cradle to grave, it is a school, and that is why those predicaments that you call problems are lessons, indeed. You lost nobody; the one who died is just going ahead, because we all are going there. Besides this, the best of him/her, his/her love, is still in your heart. 

If you feel fearful, perhaps this is because the unknown is out of your control and so even the very thought of tomorrow becomes something to be afraid of. And yet, tomorrow does not exist. Only this moment does. You are absolutely able to be aware of the present moment, and entirely capable of embracing it as it is. And in doing so, tomorrow becomes less important, because honestly, none of us can know if we will even wake up tomorrow.

And if you feel lonely, first of all, consider that time by yourself is a treasure. Don’t let others tell you that being by yourself is bad. Many people never experience it, because we’re so conditioned to think that being alone is weird or unhealthy. But there is so much you can learn about yourself and the world by spending time alone! You are the only one who truly knows what you feel and what you think; embrace that. And keep in mind that there are billions of others on this planet—not to mention the billions of living creatures all around you. We are not alone.

For me, reorientation and waking up means recognizing feelings for what they are and then allowing myself to be consumed by life itself. It means doing what we love with reckless abandon. It means letting things come to you naturally, and moving with the flow of the world around you. It means being free of shame, guilt, obligation, and grudges—things which only cause harm and separate us. Reorientation means caring for yourself so that you are freer to be your whole self and freer to love others.

In my view, this is what the metaphor of bread of life is about.

Each one of us chooses whether to see this bread [which is life] as freedom, or as limitation.

I choose freedom, and I hope you will, too.

I choose life and fulfillment, and pursuing the things and the relationships that make me happy, challenge me to be a better person, and encourage me to be fully me.

What will you choose? Friends, every day can be a waking up and reorientation day for you. Each moment you can be consumed by life itself.

wakeupLive

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Bread of Love

John 6:24-35

breadLOVEPreviously, in this chapter of John’s story, something like 5000 people were fed when there seemed to be a scarcity of food. A handful of loaves and fishes proved to be enough to feed everyone. After the event, Jesus and his disciples took a boat over to Capernaum, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And this is where we pick up in the story. The crowds of people who were fed followed them to Capernaum. And then when they found Jesus, they asked him:

Teacher, when did you come here?

Notice that they say teacher and not prophet or lord. Seems like after they ate their fill, they forgot that earlier they called Jesus prophet.

This is not lost on Jesus. He knows that the right question to ask isn’t when he arrived in Capernaum. The right question to ask is why are these people still looking for him? The answer to that question was pretty simple: the people were looking for Jesus because they ran out of food.

They were hungry.

hungry

The “signs” they had seen during the great feeding has faded away into a distant memory. The crowds no longer saw signs, which I will define as “aha moments” or “time to stop and pay attention,” but instead they heard only their growling stomachs.

That is why the seemingly amazing event of the feeding of the 5000 was now a mere afterthought. So Jesus contrasts the food that perishes with the food that lasts. Of course, the food that perishes was and is the actual food they ate. The bread and the fish was great while it lasted, but once it ran out—everyone got hungry again. This is just true. If you’ve ever eaten a great meal–one that you thoroughly enjoyed—in spite of its greatness, that meal will eventually fade away. Your stomach will process the food. Chemicals and acids will break it down. And then, it will be released from your body. It’s temporary.

But not the food that lasts, according to Jesus. So what is this food? Is it some kind of magical energy bar that your body cannot break down, constantly providing nutrients, vitamins, and sustenance? Is it the miracle bar we’ve all been waiting for?

ML_MiracleReds_Berri_BARNo, it’s not. Jesus isn’t talking about food. He’s talking about presence.

At other times in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the vine and the people the branches.
Abide in me, just as I abide in the vinegrower.

Once again, this Gospel is reiterating that Jesus’ presence [called logos in chapter one] is a divine presence that doesn’t go away—one not limited to ritual, religion, or social construct. The divine presence is constantly fulfilling.

But the people in the crowds want more nutritional information. Like how many carbs? And what kinds of religious things must they do to perform works of God? Rather than embracing the divine presence as something that just is, they still want to figure it out and to limit it to certain rituals or moral standards.

Jesus, talking on another level, tells them:
This is the work of God, that you trust in the one whom God has sent.

Now I changed the wording for a reason. I’ve mentioned before that “believing” things about Jesus is not really what John’s Gospel focuses on. It’s a language issue. In Greek, this text should be translated: faith into the one sent. But faith is not a verb in English. So many translators unfortunately change faith to believe.

What the original language says is that the people are to orient themselves towards the divine presence, and to trust in it. So this is not a passage appropriate for any bully pulpit, to claim that people need to believe this or that about Jesus.

This is about trust and re-orientation.

But the crowds still aren’t convinced. In order for them to “trust” and “reorient” themselves, they will need some proof. So they ask for signs, which to them are miracles. They cite Moses, of course. Bread from heaven [manna] came down and the Israelites ate. So, Jesus, what ya got, huh? You better than Moses?

But Jesus is ready for their superficial request. He tells them that manna from heaven didn’t come from Moses, but from the Creator. Likewise, the true bread from heaven comes from the Creator. And this true bread gives life to the world.

The crowds finally seem to understand and so they respond much like the Samaritan woman at the well, who when told about living water, said to Jesus: Lord, give me this water always. In this case, the crowds say: Lord, give us this bread always. All of a sudden, Jesus is no longer just a teacher, but now a lord.

I think that the more we honestly examine John’s Gospel, the more we find out how just how much of our thinking about G-d [theology] and Jesus [Christology] is based on “going backwards.” What I mean by that is the fact that most of us are taught some interpretation or theological view as kids or youth in a church or at home, and we start there. Eventually, we may make it to the scripture itself, but by that time, we are already reading the scripture with a set perspective and interpretation. Rarely do we read a scripture story coldly without some agenda or bias leading. That’s why I argue that it is important and worthwhile to reread scripture stories that you think you know so well.

Because a typical interpretation of all this is that Jesus is the bread of life, and so it follow that those who “believe” in Jesus are fed and those who don’t go hungry. Also, this story is often a basis for the institution of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/Communion, which uses the symbol of bread to represent Jesus’ body.

But John’s Gospel isn’t establishing any institution of this sort. Instead of the so-called “last supper” that the other three Gospels include, John includes the foot washing story.

What if we read this story without thinking about Communion or some church sacrament? What if the story is about presence and trust and moving past the superficial? What if the story is about bringing people together—those who are hungry for something more than they see in the world and in society, people who crave much more than conventions or the status quo?

What if this story is about the Creator raining down this lasting bread of presence on all people out of love, with the desired result of it being an awakening and re-orienting of life?

It can be easy to react like the crowds and to view Jesus as some kind of delicious, glutinous bread that we crave, only to fill our stomachs for a short while. It’s easier to make a list of things we need to do in order to perform the works of G-d or to profess certain beliefs that we think punch our ticket to salvation.

It’s a challenge to seek more than just sandwich bread and black-and-white theology. Instead, it’s a wonder and sign, I think, when people at odds come together out of passion for a cause; when warring factions make peace because they love their future generations more than their anger; when someone chooses to make unpopular decisions because she feels it’s right; when people don’t just buy into the easy, conventional way of life, because they seek something deeper and more inclusive; when the symbol of bread becomes more than just a ritualistic item in worship or a temporary fix for hunger; when bread truly becomes life, and love, and humanity, and cooperation, and connection, and the divine presence.

Like the Samaritan woman at the well and the people in Capernaum, we are meant to wake up and re-orient ourselves. We are meant to go after more than just the quick fix or easy out. So may we listen more to our beautiful minds and hearts. May we feed them with love, compassion, and community.

May we not try to fill ourselves with the superficial and the easy, cookie-cutter answers.

May we be awakened by life, filled with it, and therefore full of life in this way.

Inner Peace and a Path

Isaiah 40:4-8, Psalm 85: 8, 10, 11, 13  

This time of year, a second candle is lit and people speak an elusive word:

 Peace.

 PeaceUnfortunately, I’m not sure we are all that honest about this word.

Do we really believe in peace?

I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like we believe in it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting wars and starting new ones. We wouldn’t have tons of weapons; we wouldn’t separate communities of people from each other–if we really believed in peace. We wouldn’t be shouting or posting racial slurs; we wouldn’t be apathetic about building bridges across lines of difference.

So I would like to go in a different direction, taking another path, this Advent season. What if the prophetic passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the NT Gospels didn’t really talk about peace the way we think they did?

What if real and honest peace is not about lighting candles and singing songs and observing a holiday season and religious traditions, just like we do every year? What if peace isn’t even about most of the things associated with Christmas?

Now before you start throwing things at me, allow me to explain.

The typical “Advent” scripture passages [and also the typical Christmas Eve passages] talk about peace, but not as an absence of conflict, a nice, warm feeling, or comfort.

Take Isaiah 40, for example. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a path of preparation. Something new is about to happen, something that will change everything, and the way for God needs to be prepared. The highways and byways are metaphors of the spiritual pathways in people that need to be ready to receive such a change.

path

Isaiah the prophet tries to convince people that beyond all the destruction and loss in the world there is comfort and recovery. The earth itself will proclaim God’s reign of healing and transformation.

And then there are Psalms like Psalm 85 that echoes the Isaiah proclamation of healing and change. People [and whole nations] are forgiven and justice becomes healing. People are transformed and become free and joyful, and they commune with God.

And finally, in the Gospels, what does John the Baptizer do? He quotes Isaiah [and so does Jesus], and tells people to “turn around” to change, and he tells them to prepare the way for God.

But…none of this change, justice, and peace happens without real, honest human change on an individual basis.

People are exhorted to look deeply and honestly at themselves.

They are challenged to deal with the fears, the anxieties, the prejudices, and the apathy within themselves.
And they are encouraged that if they commit to that path, they will find something within themselves.

A highway.
A vessel.
A space where the divine can live and act.

And the encountering of peace…inside ourselves.
Inner peace.

Of course, it’s impossible to define what inner peace is, because it is and will be different for every person.
But, the path to inner peace is less relative.

Not just in Christian or other religious traditions and scriptures is this true, but in real life it’s true.

Inner peace is about accepting yourself.

But how do people discover acceptance?

Usually the first, and the hardest step, is in recognizing that the past is just…the past. Letting go of the past is critical, because the past is something that we cannot change.

And then it is in recognizing that the future is not here yet. We cannot turn the hands on a clock to make a day skip forward. We cannot turn the pages of a calendar to move ahead to future months.

Peace/Wholeness within yourself comes when you realize that the past and the future are not yours to hold in your hands.

Instead, the one thing you do hold in your hands is the here and now.

If you live firmly in the moment and then move fluidly from moment to moment, life seems to have a rhythm.
You will spend more time actually living, and you will see and experience the here and now in an honest and healthy way. You’ll spend less time regretting or dwelling on the past and less time worrying about the future.

And in the embracing of the here and now you actually embrace yourself.
You realize that you are alive. You are present.
Right now.

One particular theologian and philosopher who doesn’t exactly get mainstream love, and who certainly wouldn’t be on most people’s Christmas list, is one Paul Tillich.

tillichTillich looked at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Gospels with an alternative lens. He saw in the scripture stories a particular dynamic in what many Biblical scholars call Kairos time—in other words, when the divine breaks into the moment-by-moment existences of human beings.

In Tillich’s work, The Courage to be, he states:

…the reality of God’s moment by moment coming – the Kairos of this very moment – calls us to be self-aware and mindful and to be people who already live “on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

But in order to live on this earth as we expect things are in heaven, we will need to have the courage to look at ourselves. We will need to honestly accept who we are—in spite of all that happens around us that might seek to distract us from such a pursuit.

It’s common for us to look out at the world and to become apathetic, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the suffering, injustices, violence, and pain.

It would be easy to just do things as we’ve always done them and to neglect looking intently inside ourselves.
But this is the path of Advent, the path of waiting, the path of real change.

For when we look deeply at ourselves and learn to accept ourselves as we are, we start to see others differently.

We even participate in that Kairos time—that intersection of the divine and us.

But don’t think that finding inner peace is just some isolated act for each individual. It’s more than that. Because when you commit to the path of accepting yourself, you participate in the divine act of God affirming all the good creation, all the beauty of the animals, and the plants, and the humans.

And you become aware of justice and the need to participate in it.
And peace is more than a dove or a word or an idea.
Peace is real because it lives in you.

[1] The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952).

Contentment

Philippians 4

All life is suffering.

This is the first and truest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, an essential belief for Buddhists—that sorrow, loss, and death await all of us and the ones we love.
Sounds depressing, maybe, but it is true.

And you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe it.

Everyone “suffers” at some point.
We feel sad because of the evil or injustice in the world.
Someone close to us dies.
Others have something to eat one day and nothing at all the next.
Some have no home and are not safe.

Suffering.

So what kind of lunatic is this Paul of Tarsus who apparently wrote a letter to the Philippian church?

He wrote:
Have no anxiety about anything.
Be content no matter what.

Really, Paul?

What would you know about suffering anyway?

Oh, right. You were arrested and put in prison.
Oh, yeah. Apparently they wanted to execute you.

Okay, maybe I’m listening…..

Yes, let’s talk about this thing called contentment.

It’s directly related to anxiety, I might add.

First off: contentment is not accepting abusive or violent circumstances and considering this to be your lot in life. Contentment is not accepting great suffering at the hands of others or things because well, that’s the way it is.

Instead, contentment is finding within yourself a hidden flower.

Allow me to explain.

All of us [and I mean all of us] at one point or another have looked at another person and thought:
“Gee, I wish I had what she has.”

Or:
“If only I had his job, or his life—things would be so much better.”

It starts at an early age and it doesn’t stop. We look at other people’s lives and we think that they are so much better than ours. And we live in discontent.

It happens with things, too. We can convince ourselves quite easily that if we just obtain that certain item we will feel better. So we buy, buy, and buy some more. Sometimes it’s small things, but other times it can be big-ticket items like cars, houses, expensive jewelry, electronics, etc. The more we obtain that which we thought would make us happier, the more our insatiable appetite grows to obtain more. And the emptier we feel; not content.

Not being content with ourselves can lead to even deeper suffering.

Some of us face addictions. They are real and they are terrible. They trick us into believing that we need whatever it is we are addicted to in order to survive in this world. In the day to day struggle of addiction, people can start to feel deep depression. This feeling is not some passing thought that someone should just “get over.” There are chemicals at work in our minds and in our bodies. Some of us have more physical tendencies to feel depressed. Regardless, addictions and depression do not enable us to be content at all.

We can start to wither away. Not being content internally with ourselves, who we are—leads to us think that we are incapable of doing anything good. Discontent leads us to try to copy other people; to chase after material things; to fill the void in us.

Paul of Tarsus saw this discontent in himself before his spiritual awakening; he saw it in the early church. People were jealous, they horded power, gossiped, and caused suffering.
But he, on his journey, had discovered another, blessed path:
The path of Contentment.

Now you may not agree with all that Paul wrote about the church [I don’t either], but consider his story—his journey from discontent and violence to awakening and transformation. Paul was a persecutor before. He pushed others down and away. After his awakening, he became a bridge-builder. He joined both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, in a common community.

And most importantly, he found contentment within himself. He focused less on the external which he could not control. He was at peace. His mind was freed by contentment, and the external circumstances of life [even prison and death] could not change that.

I said earlier that contentment is like finding within yourself a hidden flower.
There is one particular flower that holds great meaning in spiritual traditions.

white_lotus_flowerThe lotus flower is often a symbol of contentment and also is the flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus’ symbolism relates to its actual behavior in nature. Consider that the lotus’ roots are buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Then, the lotus rises above the water towards the sky, opening its petals of white and pastel colors. The symbolism is simple—movement from mud and darkness to freedom and light.

Flowers/plants in general, are under the ground; their roots stay as they are.

The external world can bring cold, rain, snow, heat. But the roots are in the ground, waiting for a moment to bloom, to emerge from the earth and to rise above it. Regardless of what happens outside, the plant’s roots do not change. They absorb whatever moisture and good soil and sunlight that they can get.

They are always expecting to eventually bloom.

I think this is why plants and flowers are often symbols in many faith traditions—including Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth mentioned flowers and plants in many of his sayings. Most likely, as humans, we need to be reminded time and time again that we are not much different than the plants and flowers. We forget this, because we are so caught up in everything material. We rarely take even a moment to consider that even in our most difficult and low times that we are just a flower waiting to bloom. We often forget that in moments of despair and uncertainty—when we are buried in the mud—that we are meant to eventually rise up above the water towards the sky. To find light.

It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment.

That is why focusing on that which is noble, right, lovely, admirable—positive stuff—this is where our minds ought to wander.
Because here’s the thing about contentment—it’s something you have to practice.

If you spend most of your hours and days worrying, fearing, stressing, coveting, or regretting—well, you’ll become an expert at it. That’s why it is important to be mindful of our thoughts.

Nobody is perfect, but certainly we can make a commitment to more grateful, peaceful, balanced, and loving thoughts. If we practice this daily, we will combat the other thoughts that can pull us down or keep us from walking forward.

It won’t be easy, but any real and positive change in life is never easy.

Hopefully, you won’t have to go to prison to realize this; or hit rock bottom; or find yourself in a desperate situation.
But maybe that’s what will happen; perhaps that’s how contentment will come to you.
I don’t know that, because it’s different for everyone.

Regardless, accept that the circumstances around you are often out of your control.

And that’s okay.

Ask yourself: what would it mean for you to be content whatever the circumstances?

Whether hungry, or fed, or living with plenty, or living with nothing—what would it mean for you to be content in every situation?

No need to deny or minimize the things you go through in life.
No need to try to explain them away by saying that your suffering is God’s will or something like that.
Recognize any pain or anxiety or fear that you feel.

But then realize that you can be persistent in your prayer and meditation, in your silence, in your finding of contentment.
The peace that passes all understanding is available to you.

Whoever or wherever you are today, know this:
You are a flower waiting to bloom, waiting to be reborn.
You may be in the mud today, but the skies call you.
You may have all your petals closed right now, but eventually they need to open.

May you find contentment.

Unbinding to Be Alive

John 11:1-45

cutezombieNow look, I don’t know if you watch The Walking Dead on television or if you’re into zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead, REC, Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, or 28 Days Later. I am not sure if the idea of a once-dead human being rising from death to be “alive” again intrigues you or if it just plain freaks you out.

Regardless, it’s appropriate to talk about zombies, because the story of Lazarus is a zombie story.

I like the Brick Testament’s Lego version of Jesus and Lazarus…

lazaruscomeout

lazarus

So it is only a few weeks away from when we talk about the death and resurrection story of Jesus, which also is a zombie story. That’s why most people think of the Lazarus story as just a prequel to Jesus’ resurrection story. I’ve said before, however, that when anyone projects things and ideas onto the scripture stories, one can go to crazy extremes. So how about we just read the Lazarus zombie story as it is and then go from there? I think we’ll find more meaning and hopefully more inspiration to live as more loving and compassionate human beings…who are alive.

 It is also my hope that we’ll be creative people who use our brains; after all, so far no one is actually eating anyone’s brains.

 So who was Lazarus?

He was from Bethany, and his name means a Galilean. Why should you care? Well, Jesus was a Galilean and the Galilean Jews represented a particular ideology and world view. The short version is that the Galileans weren’t in love with the Roman Empire or the religious temple system. You see, when we talk about “the Jews” in a NT context, we don’t just mean the people who lived in “the Holy Land-Jerusalem” and that they all believed the same things. “The Jews” were [and are] a diverse group of people—geographically, culturally, and religiously. Galilee was a northern province. Judea was a southern province [where Jerusalem was]. Galilee, the north, was more diverse ethnically and culturally due to the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century B.C.E. The influence of other religions and cultures [Hellenistic] was widespread.

Galilee was separated from Judea by…Samaria.

Politically, Galilee was set apart from the rest of Judea, resisting Roman rule. Galilee was also a major place for resources—good fishing and agriculture. Galileans also spoke a unique form of the Aramaic language. Imagine Jesus with a thick accent in which he drops consonants from the end of words. And religiously, Galileans were not thought of highly by their Judean neighbors to the south. They were far from the religious epicenter of Jerusalem, they did not maintain as strict or strong Jewish traditions, and they were definitely influenced by the Greeks.[1]

This is all very, very important in the story.

Jesus, from the north, was not considered by many Judeans to be as religious or culturally relevant. He was not accepted overall in the south as a great prophet or teacher.

It is in this context that we meet Lazarus, who happens to be sick.

Actually, the word in Greek for sick is better rendered as lethargic or weak.

Lazarus was pretty much like a zombie.

Then John’s Gospel reminds us that those of us reading this in 2014 in the United States have some work to do. Verse 2 of this story mentions Mary, the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Turns out the zombie Lazarus is her brother.

Oh, right, except there’s just one problem:
The story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume hasn’t happened yet.

How come John’s authors assume we already know that story before it’s told?

Friends, this is yet another example as to why I argue that we need to read Bible stories as they are in their literary, social, and historical context. John’s Gospel isn’t for you and me. It was written for a specific group of people who already knew the stories and were now getting a different interpretation of them. So as we read this, let’s walk in their shoes and enjoy it even more.

Lazarus was as sick as a zombie.

But even when Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus secretly that he should do a pastoral visit, Jesus didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He stayed two more days in the place where he is. No urgency. Finally, he eventually said to his friends: “Let’s go to Judea.”

Uh…Judea? The south? They just escaped from there and barely! Are you crazy?

But Lazarus was Jesus’ dear friend, and according to him, there was still the light of day with which to walk. So why not?

Lazarus was just asleep, so why not wake him? The disciples understood…or did they?

They assumed Jesus would just say to Lazarus: Wakey, wakey, Lazzie…

But Jesus was referring to death and then the life that would come after.

It seemed like the only disciple who got it was Thomas, who assumed that if they did go to Judea, things would not end well.

Sure, Jesus, let’s all go to see Lazarus, so we will all die.

Man, that’s a bit depressing.

But the story throws us for another loop, because apparently, Thomas and the others didn’t go. Jesus alone eventually makes it to Bethany to see Lazarus.

Maybe he followed the smell.

You see, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. The professional Judean mourners were already there. Mary stayed with them and Martha went to meet Jesus. An interesting dialogue occurred.

Martha was convinced that if Jesus would have come earlier [i.e. NOT hanging out and partying for two days with the disciples in Galilee-Vegas], for sure Lazarus would not have died.

Then, she affirms her generic religious response: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

But that’s not what Jesus was saying at all.

He was saying: Your brother Lazarus will rise…TODAY.

Martha’s religious dogma and doctrine was set. Resurrection in the last day? Check. Messiah, Son of God, coming? Check. But it was all in the future and tied to tradition.

So let’s find Mary, shall we? Martha whispered to her [pssst..the teacher is here] because the Judean mourners were still there [remember what I said about the Judeans and Galileans not getting along?]

So Mary went to see Jesus and repeated [like a zombie] just what Martha said:
If you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died.

Uh-oh. Mary wasn’t sneaky enough, though. The Judeans followed her to where Jesus was.
Would there be a fight?

No, actually. Jesus saw everyone’s great sadness. He empathized. He cried, too. But he was more than just sad. He was angry, too. The suffering was real. Jesus did not ignore it.
But, in spite of Jesus’ empathy and compassion, some still wondered why he didn’t come earlier.

Time to go find Lazarus.

The tomb was a cave and a stone lay against it. Caves were metaphors for transformation or metamorphosis—kind of like the caterpillar’s cocoon.

Take away the stone, says Jesus.

Martha is hesitant to do this now, because, um, it smelled bad and apparently they ran out of incense.
But Jesus didn’t care. As the people moved the stone, Jesus prayed.

Then he shouted: Lazarus, come out!

At this point in the story, Lazarus is actually no longer a zombie [tired and weak], but more like a mummy.

mummyHe was still wrapped in burial cloth, after all.

And that’s fitting, because Jesus’ one-liner, climatic line is:

 Unbind him; let him go.

Indeed. Unbind him; let him go.

Throughout the whole story, Martha, Mary, the disciples, and the Judeans were limited by their understanding of life and death; they were limited by their religious views and socio-political conditioning.

In short, if someone was dead, he/she was dead. End of story.
If someone was poor, it must be meant to be.
If someone was limited by gender, language, culture, or geography—so be it.
Everyone thought that Lazarus was a zombie, but they were the zombies.

They were conditioned [even brainwashed at times] by their experiences to think that their own humanity fit into someone’s category and that G-d’s great mercy and love were meant for only a select few.

But Lazarus emerged from his cave-cocoon with life.
What they thought smelled awfully like death would now smell like sweet perfume.

But Jesus’ last words in this story stick in my head:
Unbind him; let him go.

It was up to the people in the story to unbind Lazarus. They had to let him be free.

Man, do we need to hear this.

How many people do we bind in this world—limiting them? How many people do we write off as dead and useless?
Unbind them. Free them.
Or help them unbind and free themselves.

And how much do we notice our own zombie tendencies in day to day life?
Are we just asleep?
Are we fatigued, weak, lethargic?
Or are we dead?

We can say the same thing to G-d:
If only you had been there…maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Where are you, G-d?

Or we can try to comfort people who suffer by saying:
Pray about it.
Just hang in there.

But their suffering [and ours] is real.
Living as fully human, we can stay in that moment of suffering and get angry, sad, and upset.
Ignoring the our own suffering and the suffering of others will fool us into thinking that we’re all meant to be zombies.

Well, we’re not.

We’re meant to live as resurrected people…and now.

So how will you unbind yourself and let go this week?
Who will you help to unbind and be alive?

 

[1] R. T. France, Commentary on The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT, 2007)

Freedom in the New Life!

Luke 20:27-38 NRSV

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

You may have seen this video before or at least heard about this story. Certainly, sometimes things can get too much media coverage. This is just one story of many around the world related to someone showing compassion to someone left out.

But today we are bombarded with a lot of negative thought and rhetoric. And I’ve seen firsthand that some have chosen to believe all of that trash; some start to think that they are not capable of compassion or empathy. These Olivet middle school students did not save the world from itself. They just ran a football play called the “Keith special” for this certain kid. Keith had touched their lives in a special way and so they felt compelled to touch his life in a special way.

As the kid Justice said at the end of the video, he used to just think about himself.
Players and their parents are obsessed with first downs and touchdowns. In football, you don’t take a knee at the one yard line when you could score a touchdown. You don’t keep secrets from your coaches. But what happens when the rules of football are no longer important—no longer relevant? What happens when a kid is isn’t “normal” becomes your friend?

What happens when life is less about rules and norms and just about acting out of love and compassion?

Luke’s Gospel tells us a story about an obsession with rules and norms and a tendency to not love others. But in order to understand this story, we will have to know a little bit about the Sadducees. Who were the Sadducees?[1] They were a group of priestly Jews, part of a religious sect, who opposed another group of Jewish leaders, the Pharisees. The Sadducees were the ones who insisted on the literal interpretation of scripture. They looked at the first five books of the Old Testament [the Pentateuch, often called Torah or Books of Moses] as the only legitimate holy text. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the Oral Torah or the Talmud, which was all the traditions of Jews passed down from generation to generation since Moses received commandments on Mt. Sinai. So to sum up, the Sadducees rejected anything that was not specifically written down or literally applied from the printed text.

The Sadducees were also the elites. They had money, they had influence and power, and they had political clout. Which brings us to the conflict. The other Jewish sect, the Pharisees, believed that when a person died, he/she would be raised to life in both a physical and spiritual way. Jesus of Nazareth, however, taught that resurrection or new life was more than just a destination after death. Jesus talked about a resurrected life on earth. So the Sadducees were honestly testing Jesus to see if he aligned with the Pharisees, or if what he was teaching was something different. And always this question echoed in the Sadducee mind:

Is it consistent with what the scripture says?

The Sadducees’ example of a woman marrying seven brothers is a desperate attempt to hold onto what some call traditional family values.

You know where this is going, probably.

It is impossible to not find examples of this in our life today. The last couple of years, it seems that every news outlet, every political group, and many religious groups have used this phrase “traditional family values” to define their stance or to push an agenda. The raging debate about same-sex unions—legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples—has risen to ridiculous heights. Sadly, Christian denominations and sects have drawn theological, social, and organizational lines based on this issue alone. People leave churches; people start new denominations; people picket, write, and post hateful comments. What is going on?

And the most disappointing and embarrassing part is that there are still too many people who act in this way, all the while saying:

That’s what scripture says.

Really? Does it? Or are we making the same mistake that the Sadducees made? You see, they were convinced that their view of “family values” was scriptural. But in fact, their idea of “family values” and even marriage came from the Roman Empire—not God. Notice that Jesus referred to marriage as an institution of “this age.” Marriage was a practical solution for society. That way, when someone died, there would be a way to provide for any children still living. Marriage was not some kind of scriptural mandate that God ordained with a lightning bolt. Marriage and the cultural rules established by society were just that—cultural rules established by society. But some religious elites, like the Sadducees and like any today who obsess over a perceived “literal” interpretation of scripture—insist that Jesus would never approve of Bob marrying Jim or Sally marrying Kristina.

This story reminds us of how we can get caught up in theological debate or unwritten rules more than we get caught up in compassionate living.

The thing is, Jesus taught about a resurrected life on this earth.

The kingdom of God was not something to wait for or to discover when someone died.

The mustard seed, the yeast, the pearl of great price, the hidden treasures of God’s kingdom—they were here, in the flesh, and people were supposed to catch the spirit of that movement. And all were invited to the parade—not just an elite few.

But so often we are obsessed with dead debates and conversations that lead us to nothing but separation and hate. So I wonder: if we took this whole “following Christ” thing seriously, how would we reframe our thinking? And how would this affect our living?

I strongly suggest that the Sadducees were given an opportunity by Jesus. He was inviting them to find some freedom in the midst of their trapped and limited perspective. In short, stop being obsessed with the words in a book, and start living. And notice that the Sadducees didn’t argue with Jesus’ assessment. They stopped asking him questions after that. After all, what could they really say? Indeed, God is a God of the living!

So to reframe our perspective, we ought to act more compassionately and focus less on societal norms and written rules.

After all, aren’t people more important?

Keith is a kid with special needs. In many ways, Keith is an outsider. He’s not cool. He’s not someone you would expect to be hanging out with football players. In a society obsessed with competition, Keith doesn’t seem to have a place on a sports team. His hugs make people feel uncomfortable. But who is really “special needs” here? Keith inspired students who previously were selfish. Keith convinced parents, coaches, and players to care more about people than football. Keith is alive. He is a human being who deserves friendship, empathy, and compassion. He, above all the others on the team, deserves to score a touchdown.

But Keith is not the only one.

There are many left out of society just because we see them as different or not fitting into our rules or norms. There are many people who are marginalized just because of words in a book that we think we know how to interpret. We categorize people; we say who is in, popular, normal, and even holy. We see some as dead and dehumanize them.

But Jesus taught that God sees everyone as alive.

Chew on that for a moment.
God sees everyone as alive.

We should be speechless. Perhaps we can talk less and do more?

Friends, let’s reframe the conversation. Let’s stop arguing over literal interpretations of words or societal norms.
Let’s focus on real people—believing all of them deserve our compassion.

We have freedom to do this.
We have freedom to live as resurrected people.
For all of us are alive, too.
And we are capable of love, compassion, and grace.
We are capable of doing the kind thing when no one else will.
We are capable of forgiving past and even present hurts.
We are capable of embracing wisdom and then sharing it.

We are alive. And so, let’s live as resurrected, compassion-filled people. Amen.

 


[1] Tenney, Merrill (1998). Josephus Complete Works, Vancouver.

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