Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘mercy’

Generosity Cannot be Measured

Matthew 20:1-16

I have mentioned before that four-year-olds ask the most questions…and constantly. Their brains are built to ask questions, and so they do. As we get older, though, for some reason, we ask less questions.

And sadly, many of us stop asking questions altogether.

But let’s not do that as we read scripture. Let’s ask questions!
Since today is a “parable” day, asking questions becomes even more important. So here we go…

In your opinion, what is justice?

Think about it. Come up with examples or your own definition.

Now, in your perspective, what is generosity?

Now that you’ve thought about it, let’s compare notes.

For me, justice is fairness and equity.

An example: I believe that all people deserve to have food to eat, a place to live, and safety. Justice, then, would be when all people have access to these basic needs—regardless of what needs to happen in order for that to be so.

And now, generosity.

In my perspective, generosity is sharing what one has.

An example: my friend has a garden with some kale growing in it. He shares the kale with me and others. We don’t pay him for it, he just shares it. Generosity.

How did our definitions and examples compare?

And-nowA parable of Jesus of Nazareth from the Gospel of Matthew.

A landowner, some workers.
And generosity redefined.
And justice turned on its head.

This parable story is similar to the story of the prodigal son, isn’t it?
It redefines “fairness” and exposes an immeasurable generosity.

In the prodigal son story, the dad shows generosity to the younger son.
In this story, the landowner shows generosity to workers who only labor for a short time.

Of course, in both stories, someone isn’t happy about the generosity.

The older son in the prodigal story is ticked off. He stayed and was loyal to his dad, worked hard, and didn’t squander his dad’s money. The younger son wasted his dad’s resources and messed up. The older son is mad.

In the other story, the workers who labor the whole day are ticked off, too. They stayed the whole time working the land and were paid a day’s wage. The other workers only labored for a few hours and were also paid the same. The all-day workers are mad.

Seems that both the older son and the all-day workers wanted justice—or at least justice as they defined it.

Look at what the landowner in the story asks the workers who are mad:

Are you envious because I am generous?

Again, questions are important.
The landowner’s question is a translation of an idiom in Greek.

The question should be: Is your eye evil because I am good?

In this Greek-speaking culture, the “evil eye” signifies an issue within a human being. Jesus said that the eye was the lamp of the body. If the eye was healthy, the body was full of light. It seems that in this story, the evil eye is the opposite of generosity. Perhaps greed or jealousy.[1]

Imagine if the all-day workers in the story had reacted differently? What if they would have said: We got what we deserved—a day’s pay. And as for these other workers who labored less time than we did—good for them, too. We ourselves are not hurt by the landowner’s generosity, and besides—apparently, the landowner has plenty to spread around.

But that’s not how they responded.

And that’s probably good, because this is the real world.

Most of us react most of the time like the all-day workers.
We want justice [at least our definition of it].

We prefer our justice over someone else’s generosity.

So the point of the parable, at least for me, is to change the question.

The question that we should not be asking is: who deserves this and that, and who doesn’t.

The questions we could be asking are: when and where do I catch a glimpse of generosity without limits? When and where have I experienced this generosity in my life? When and where can I participate in that generosity in the lives of others?

Because let’s be honest: justice is basically a joke.

A lot of people living in the U.S. have jobs and homes and food to eat.
And yet, the world we live in includes all kinds of unfairness for workers and especially immigrants from other countries who come here because of violence, political oppression, poverty, or manipulation.

What is “fair” when there are migrant workers who cut grass and trim hedges; fill assembly lines at factories; clean bathrooms and office complexes; wash dishes at restaurants, all the while looking over their shoulders and receiving the lowest wages?

These workers in service industries are fueling the banks, corporations, and companies of our Western society. They labor so that our technology-obsessed countries can get the newest phone, computer, or TV—or so we can eat any kind of food at any time of day and in a moment. So we argue about minimum wage increases; meanwhile, workers cannot earn above the poverty line while working 2-3 jobs. But if we all work and receive pay accordingly, isn’t that fair? Isn’t that justice?

No, it’s not.

In a just world, things would be better than they actually are, and for everyone, right?

The Jesus of Matthew does not ignore the unjust nature of the world.
Some who deserve a full day’s wage do not get it.
Others who deserve the same actually receive a TON more than they should.

This is why the world is out of balance.

And so, the last need to be first and the first need to be last.
Everyone needs to return to balance.

But that will take a serious overhaul!

We’re not given a solution in the parable, but we are given a hint.
Generosity without limits.

The landowner, who obviously represents God, shows generosity without measure. Everyone gets a full day’s wage—regardless of where they started or ended up. Anyone disadvantaged still receives the same opportunities as those who began with advantages. Wow, can you imagine if this actually were true in the world?

If there were equity, for every person, regardless of where and how she/he grew up?

This type of great generosity of the landowner [God] seems so beyond our human capabilities, right?
However, maybe generosity holds to the key to justice.

Because I admit to having experiences in my own life in which someone showed me generosity that was too big to understand. I didn’t even ask for help or support, but I received it and so much so, that it overwhelmed me. That handful of people appeared in my life and then disappeared. They did not ask for anything in return. They just gave to me—whether it was money, or time, or kindness, or some talent that they could pass on. I cannot measure their generosity.

It changed me.

And I’ll never pay them back.

So I have and will pay it forward.

This is where, to me, generosity spills over into justice.
When generosity is not measured or controlled it can have a ripple effect.

When someone is the recipient of true generosity, that generosity spills over and out of that person and into the lives of others.
And generosity can bring balance.

Friends, we can spend our whole lives making a list of the crap that people have done to us or said about us, or the ways that society has hurt us, etc., etc. We can try to “measure” justice and come up with what is “right” and “wrong” and who deserves this or that.

But it will just cause us more suffering.

Generosity, though, isn’t measured.
It’s not limited.
And it can spill over into justice.

We started with questions; I end with one:

Will generosity flow out of you into justice?

[1] Emerson Powery, Professor of Biblical Studies, Messiah College, Grantham, PA, Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

Advertisements

Who Are You Willing to Be?

Matthew 16:13-20

I’ve been reading Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, over the last few months. I’m taking my time. It is a book that I think people who identify as Christians should most certainly read. It took Ehrman, a NT scholar, eight years to research and write. The main purpose of his book [to quote Ehrman] is to explore how an apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee crucified for crimes against the state came to be thought of as equal with the one God Almighty, Creator of all things.

EhrmanHowJesusThe book leads the reader through the history of thought about divine beings and humans who became divine beings—focusing of course on Israel and Palestine and the time periods relevant to the writings in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus, according to Ehrman, was transformed from a human prophet to the Son of God exalted to divine status at his resurrection. But this transformation happened because of how other people defined Jesus over the centuries. The closest followers of Jesus did not recognize him as divine until well after his death. And if you read the Gospels closely, not even all the writers were sure about Jesus’ divinity.

This could be a discussion for an entire year…or for a lifetime.

I recommend that you give this book a chance. At the very least, it will open your mind to the possibility that most of what you have been taught or what you have learned about Jesus comes strictly from your particular church traditions, denomination, pastor, or some creed.

People in the Gospels tried to define Jesus—all of them had different ideas. People in the 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th Centuries tried to define Jesus. Creeds again.

And after that, more and more people defined Jesus’ identity. The Middle Ages. The Reformation. Liberation Theology. Missional Theology. It never ends!

And so, here is the thing I want you to do. Just ask yourself this question, and answer it honestly, okay? Don’t let someone else or a denomination or a church or a pastor answer for you.

Who is Jesus to you? And why?

Think about that.

Identity [and not just Jesus’ identity] is really at the heart of the Gospels of the NT. Matthew and company all tell stories about Jesus of Nazareth, but in different ways; they all paint a unique picture of this man of Galilee. This is what I like about the Gospels, actually. There is not “one” tried and true definition of who Jesus was and is. The Gospels are more interested in telling the story of how communities formed around the teachings and life of this Jesus, and how people’s identities were formed. Think less about doctrine and more about formation.

Who is Jesus is not about a creed or a doctrine that is “right.”
Who is Jesus relates to who am I and who are we and what shall we do in this world?

Specifically, in Matthew’s story, identity is not just about who you are but who is around you. There is collective identity that goes hand and in hand with your own identity. Jesus was clearly preaching such a message. If someone knew who his/her neighbor was, then he/she had a chance to know themselves better.

And for Matthew’s community, they formed identity in a certain time and environment. We can never forget that those who followed Jesus of Nazareth were living under the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation of Israel was on everyone’s minds.

Would Jesus be the political leader to overthrow the Romans?
Would he restore the Israelites to power over that land?

None of that actually happened, did it? Jesus died. The Romans still had power. The predictions of God coming back to save and restore a new kingdom did not happen. People’s definitions of Jesus as king did not come to fruition.

This should not sound unfamiliar to us.
In this place and in this age, do you notice how empires still rule over us? Ancient empires like Rome did indeed fade away, but new ones with different names are imbedded in society. Armies and political structures exist, things we ignore or accept blindly as reality. We are placed in social levels, given categories and boxes into demographic stereotypes. Empires can trick us; they can tell us that we are not worth much, and neither are certain others around us.

That’s how Empires oppress; they mess around with our identities.

They run in with SWAT teams and heavy armor and guns.

fergusonGas

They hurl tear gas at peaceful protestors.

ferguson_tear_gasWoman ferguson_tear_gasMan

They criminalize people based on skin color, nationality, or religion. They silence truthful voices. They push back justice-seekers. They favor the materially wealthy and powerful.

And empires use fear to cause apathy, to calm passion, and to push us to forget who we are capable of being.

In Ferguson, MO and all over this country some people call the “land of the free,” young Black men are killed. This is not about criticizing all women and men who are police. This is about telling the truth. Young Black men are targeted, arrested, and sometimes even dealt with violently or fatally. We cannot ignore this.

In Gaza, children die because of bombs. These bombs are funded by the U.S. and other countries that have political and economic interests in Israel and Palestine. We cannot ignore this.

In Iraq, soldiers, drones, and heavy military presence of the U.S. and others continue. People are dying. And people of particular religious traditions or cultures are being pushed out of Iraq or even killed. We cannot ignore this.

Just like we cannot ignore the identity question.
Who are we?
Are we Christians?
If so, what part of the Jesus message moves us to identify with others who suffer?
Which part of that message helps us to be more human as we are?

Does our faith/spirituality inspire us to be love/mercy for others?

The I AM of Jesus and the I AM of all of us is about deciding who we are willing to be. Are we willing to stand up against injustice, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular? Are we willing to tell the truth and lift it up, even when others do not want to hear it and seek to hide it? Are we willing to take a risk and befriend someone, even love someone who thinks differently or looks differently, because we simply value their humanity? Are we willing to be real about society’s evil empires, the prejudice embedded in them, and our sometimes apathetic response?

Are you willing to answer this vulnerable identity question with action?

Who do you say you are?
Who are you willing to be?

To close, if you haven’t seen this, watch it.

Orlando Jones’ take on the “ice bucket challenge” speaks loudly.

The challenge:

To listen without prejudice;
to love without limits;
and to reserve the hate.

Leaving the Church to Find God

 John 4:5-26

What are some specific places or activities that cause you to feel the presence of G-d?

Where or when is God especially absent from you?

 

Where do we think that God or the Divine or the Great Spirit or the Eternal Consciousness is?

Here?
[Sikh Gurdwara]
gurdwara

 Or here? [Hindu deities]
twindeities

Or here? [Mosque]
mosqueprayer

Or here? [Buddhist meditation]
WonFullMeditationCircle

 Or here? [La Sagrada Familia, Spain]
sagradaoutside

Or here? [nature]
NICA2 toucan CR1

Or here? Where you currently are…

Where and when we think that the Divine is present matters. Usually, it is in a building, a structure, a religious site supposedly constructed for the purpose of experiencing the Divine—whatever we call it—G-d, Jehova, Elohim, Allah, Brahma, the Eternal Consciousness, the Great Spirit…

What I learned last week as I visited seven different religious communities is that the Divine is definitely contained and limited by us.

Religion certainly can inspire and organize people to do amazing things that bring about peace and unity and justice. But religion, because of its limitations of the Divine, can also be so destructive that it turns people against one another—even leading to violence and killing and war.

Religion, in its extreme form, can limit our views and cause us to hold on to many prejudices and convictions that separate us from others.
It can isolate people and limit their imagination and creativity.
Religion can lead people to claim that they know where G-d is and where G-d is not.

But somehow this Divine Being or Eternal Consciousness we call G-d claims to live outside of walls, outside of religions, a G-d completely present with all kinds of people in many different places. G-d says no to restrictions.

Philosopher Paul Tillich once wrote: God is inescapable. God is God only because God is inescapable. And only that which is inescapable is God.

G-d is inescapable, not limited to buildings or even religions.

And this idea is promoted in the Gospel of John: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

Talk about an encounter with someone outside of your comfort zone—this was it. Jesus of Nazareth, of course, was not a Samaritan. Jesus’ “people” and her “people” did not like each other and thought each other’s religions were false. Jesus’ religious temple was in Jerusalem and her religious site was on Mount Gerizim. They both read different scriptures. Their two religious traditions both made competing truth claims about G-d. The divisions seemed to be too much to overcome, right?

But unlike John’s story about Nicodemus, another character who encountered Jesus, the Samaritan woman meets with Jesus during the day—not at night. And unlike Nicodemus, a prominent Sanhedrin member [religious elite], the Greek rendering of Samaritan woman is like a double negative. She was powerless in society.

She doesn’t even get a name in the story.

What she gets instead is living water.

What is that? In her case, a new identity in life. No person [much less a Rabbi], had ever made her feel that she was fully human. In John’s Gospel, the word salvation is not about saying some words and “getting saved” by joining some religion. In this Gospel, salvation is being delivered from something that holds you back.
In her case, she was delivered from the limitations placed on her life.

But…

As I mentioned before, our religions [and our G-d-buildings] often prevent us from experiencing the Divine at all. Our religious limitations also lead us to prejudice, misunderstanding, and misconceptions. So it still was for the woman.

She was still caught up in the where of G-d’s presence. Wasn’t the Divine limited to a certain mountain? Jesus’ response is liberating, I think:

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

All well and good, Jesus. But her religious traditions were so strong that she still was convinced that the Divine presence was limited to the future coming of a messiah.

Jesus responds, but he doesn’t say I am he.
He says simply:
I AM.

G-d is here. In this moment. You don’t have to wait for some messiah, you don’t have to run to some mountain or some temple—the Divine is here with you. The Divine is not limited to a certain space or even a certain time.

The Divine just is.

I don’t know what names you give to the Divine. I’m not sure where you think G-d resides. Truthfully, all of us around the world give different answers.

That’s okay, actually.
What we cannot do, though, is to insist that the Divine is surely in our churches or in our temples. What we cannot do is to claim that our religious buildings and traditions have more G-d in them than others. All the symbols, buildings, icons, and traditions that we create are simply meant to be reminders that the Divine is with us. That’s all. But they don’t contain or limit the experience of the Divine.

That’s why sometimes you will have to leave the church to find G-d. I am serious about this.

You will benefit from walking away from stained glass and pews and crosses and all that is familiar and religious to you. The Divine can be found and experienced all around you—sometimes in other people’s temples and places of prayer; other times outside amongst trees and birds and flowing water; or when you sit down with strangers or friends and share good food; or when life is heavy and sad and someone shows you compassion; or in a breath, a sunrise, a smile, a merciful act.

Let’s stop limiting the Divine to only what we know or think we know.
Recognize that religion is something that we humans come up with in order to give some cultural form to faith in a G-d we cannot see.

But if the Divine is a presence we believe to be merciful, loving, and universal—then the Divine cannot be limited to our spaces, times, and cultures.

May this impact how you live.

Life As Vocation

Matthew 4:12-23

womenFishing

Women fishing in Bangladesh

Here’s how this story goes: Jesus just got tested in the wilderness. He then returns to Galilee after his cousin John is arrested for eating too many locusts; or something like that. Then Jesus finds two willing fishermen and begins an adventurous journey with them.

This story originates in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew mostly copies Mark, but also adds the Isaiah reference and changes what Jesus is quoted as saying, eliminating The time is fulfilled and changing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of heaven. Also, Matthew leaves out the bit about Simon [Peter] and Andrew leaving their hired hands behind along with their dad in the fishing boat.

The story takes place in Capernaum–a major port city. It was a great trading and meeting center. It would have been a great locale in which to spread news or to communicate with a wide variety of people. Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee [actually a lake, as you can see].

capernaum1

But the story also references Naphtali and Zebulon. This is less geographical and more cultural. Naphtali and Zebulon were the names of two tribes of people who lived in the northern region of Israel [also west of the lake of Galilee].

naphtali So consider that while Matthew includes the reference from the prophet Isaiah, it is not about predicting that Jesus would walk from Nazareth to Capernaum. If this were an actual literal prophetic prediction, Matthew would actually look stupid. Why? Because Naphtali and Zebulun were two separate regions. Capernaum was only in Naphtali and not Zebulun. You can see this on this map. Also, look at the actual Isaiah text from which Matthew borrows:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.[1]

Isaiah says by way of the sea [meaning the Mediterranean Sea there on the left] while Jesus in Matthew’s story traveled by the Sea [or Lake] of Galilee. Keep in mind that while some love to jump to prophetic conclusions and put two and two together by using OT passages to predict NT Jesus events—this alters the spirit and meaning of the story. Matthew uses the Isaiah reference [and geography and culture] to show that Jesus didn’t just care about the Jewish people, but also about those who were called Gentiles. We are supposed to notice the Zebulun and Naphtali reference and also the phrase repent for the kingdom of heaven is near because John said that earlier in the story in the wilderness of Judah [Jewish land] and now Jesus was saying the same thing in the Northern territories where there were more Gentiles. You see the movement of the story? I hope this helps.

Let’s continue on the journey. Nazareth to Capernaum was about 26 miles, depending on the route one decided to take.

Put it in context. If you traveled from the address of the United Church of Christ in Warminster, PA to where the University of Pennsylvania is in University City, you have just gone from Nazareth to Capernaum. Yes, keep in mind that most of the stories about Jesus take place in a very small geographical area.

So we have journeyed to Capernaum and we’re on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, there is fresh water and lots of fish. The lake is controlled by the wealthy Greeks and Romans and Jewish folk who were in with King Herod. Fishermen worked for them. Yes, that’s right—local fishermen had to buy fishing licenses just so they could fish. It was all regulated and of course, everything, including the fish, was taxed. Much like today, those who worked tirelessly raising crops on land or those who fished the sea–sadly they saw most of their food exported to other lands and they gained very little for their own families. It is to this group of people that Jesus appeals. Keep in mind that in Matthew’s Gospel and the other three, the issue of debt and money comes up a lot. We need to notice this in the story.

But most of the time we’re obsessed with the “fishers of people” idea and kind of end up thinking like Peter in this cartoon:

peter.stupid.fishIt’s true. Recently, a smart little girl inquisitively asked:

Why would they fish for people? And why did the other people go in the water in the first place?

Uh, yeah. This is a weird thing to say: go fish for people.

That’s why I really believe that details in a story are important. You see, we often see this Biblical story of calling disciples as some up-in-the-clouds, impossible tale. And so we are disconnected from it. But like most of the stories about Jesus, this one is quite ordinary and human, and therefore it is a story with which we can identify.

I still have a question, though: why did Peter and Andrew listen to this Jesus of Nazareth, leave behind their fishing equipment, and then follow him on a crazy adventure? Why?

I think most people assume that these two guys just picked up and left their previous lives to make some sort of incredible religious commitment. Many look at any story and assume that anyone who follows Jesus has to drop everything and make an overwhelming pledge to change their lives completely. Perhaps that’s why there are so many people who relate Christianity to fanaticism.

And they would be right, in many cases.

But I’m certainly not criticizing people who really do need to drop everything because they may live destructively and need this type of major change. Certainly, I have known people for whom practicing the Christian faith helped them to overcome addictions or destructive behaviors that kept them from living full lives. I don’t underestimate the joy and healing they discovered. But I think everyone’s experience is different. And I also think that religion itself is so very limited and also created by us, so being “called” or “following” Jesus will look different for every person.

That’s the point.

Your life is a calling.

You don’t have to be a fisherperson, a pastor, overtly religious, or someone who experiences an enlightening moment or a conversion. Your life, from its very beginning, has been and is a calling.

But yes—we are called to live with more imagination. And with more love. And with less hate. And we are called to live with more mercy, forgiveness, and more honesty. And we are called out of comfort and into conflict, recognizing that the conflict leads us to meet new and amazing people who will journey with us. Along the way, we start to realize that comfort is overrated. We can even find strength to leave it behind, as well as all the attachments to material things and prejudices that limit us so much and keep us from living a full life. And yes–we’re called out of fear to love—a very difficult calling, for sure, because we are called to face our fears and to stop ignoring them or  running away from them. And all of this looks so different for each and every person, doesn’t it?

Recently, the Lilly Foundation, an endowment organization that funds religious research, interviewed pastors, seminarians, church and ministry leaders, etc. about their careers. The study found that most of these people felt called to their vocation. Okay, but the problem is that most people don’t feel the same way. They don’t feel called like most pastors do. They hear sermons and read religious stuff but often they don’t think that what they do outside of the church has much to do with some calling worthy of God’s attention. Most people see Peter and Andrew or any of the other 1st or 2nd century disciples as super Jesus followers and faith heroes who they could never measure up to and with whom they cannot identify.

Well, that’s a big problem.

We are missing the whole point, then. I mean, it’s all well and good to interview pastors and seminarians and other professionals, but being a pastor myself, I see great limitations here. Look, personally I do find joy and fulfillment in my work as an ordained minister—both with UCCW and also with the Interfaith Center. But my “calling” [vocation] is not any higher or more worthy of God’s attention than anyone else’s. I don’t think of what I do as more Christian or more faithful to following Jesus.

And no, I did not put down my nets and follow Jesus like Andrew and Peter. I just didn’t.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried my best to be myself and to treat people well, and to love fearlessly and to speak and act creatively and compassionately. But that has zero to do with me being a pastor. That’s just my life. And for me, following Jesus’ life and teachings has helped to make me a better person. It has helped me forgive and help and empathize and heal.

Your life and calling is just as special as mine. Look, this Lily Foundation study discovered something much more important than what religious professionals think. They found that all these people had the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose—not because of their religious jobs–but because of their relationships.

Relationships. With people.

In Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t call the two fishermen [or any others for that matter] to change jobs. Jesus instead calls them into relationship. They are to be fishers of people. And while this sounds weird to most of us because we are not casting nets, you get the idea. We are called into relationships and we always have been.

And this is creative and not limited. Just like fishing. Check out the creativity of these guys:

creativefishingYour relationship with God, with this, Jesus—should be a good thing. It should add joy, healing, wisdom, wholeness. It should not limit you or take away your playful imagination or your creativity or make you think that you need to change who you are. No way. Likewise with your relationships in this life here on this planet. You should be challenged, uplifted, inspired, strengthened, and fulfilled by your relationships with people. Others should feel the same when they are in relationship with you. And no, you don’t have to have some really religious conversion story or some so-called “higher” calling to do that.

No way. Just be you.

And so, ask yourself:

How will I step out of my comfort zone and be in relationship with others?
How will I be a compassionate friend?
How will I be a loving partner?
How will I be creative, free, and joyful at work and at school and with others?
How will my relationship with God inspire and heal me?
How will this relationship with God move me to healthy relationships with others?

Live the story.


[1] Isaiah 9:1-2, NRSV.

Aside

Still Speaking and Water Still Flowing

Matthew 3:13-17

funny-baby-catholic-baptismBaptism stories are always fun to tell because if you think about it, what is stranger, funnier, or more awkward than dressing up someone in white clothes, sprinkling water on his/her head and rubbing it into his/her hair while people stare? Or, if you come from another tradition, what is odder than dunking the person in a religious bathtub, a pond, or some body of water while people stare? Wearing white in this case is also awkward because that means whatever is underneath is of great importance.

Hmmm….do I go with the Steelers jersey underneath the white, see-through robe, or the Led Zeppelin t-shirt?
Whether someone is baptized as an infant or a child, as a teenager or as an adult…we have to admit that this ceremony is a bit weird.

So last Sunday I was asked to lead such a ceremony at a friend’s house. Mom and dad, two honest people, were just not sure what it was…a baptism, a dedication, a christening…what do these things mean and what we were actually going to do?

Really good questions, actually.

What are these things and what are we going to do?

50+ people were staring intently at this baby boy all dressed in white and screaming his eyelids out. He was red in the face; would he ever stop crying? Mom and dad tried to soothe him and so did the two godparents looking on. But he just wailed louder. I finally put the water on his head.

First time [Creator]: kid is still screaming.
Second time [Jesus]: tears rolling down like a waterfall.
Third time will be the charm, right? Spirit: he didn’t like it one bit.

Even his dad was like…geez, this kid is not content right now. So I said the blessing and a benediction—as fast as I could. Poor kid—he probably just wanted to eat; or sleep; or get the diaper changed. And here I was talking about him to all those people and asking his parents questions and then putting water on his head and oh, that white outfit just wasn’t a good look for him. I don’t blame him for crying. Man, these baptism/dedication/christening things are so weird.

I still think that the parent’s questions were right on.

What is this and what are we going to do?

heQiBaptismWhat is this Christian rite of baptism [just another way of saying tradition]? What is this so-called sacrament? There are a hundred different answers and it depends on your tradition. For the sake of time, let’s just say that a sacrament in general terms is a ceremony or ritual that has some sort of religious or spiritual significance. But some people take that much more seriously than others. I would argue, though, that most people take it just about as seriously as my two friends who had their kid screaming through the whole thing. They both wanted to do something to mark the occasion of the birth of their child. They wanted family and friends to be there and experience it. They wanted to celebrate and eat and drink.

But it was less about religious tradition and more about all that other stuff.

For the house was filled with Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, and plenty of agnostics/atheists and non-religious folks.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

The water ceremony—at least for me—is more about identity and community than anything else. I said this to the whole group gathered: it takes a whole village to raise a child. I asked them to agree to be part of that village. I asked mom and dad to agree to give freedom to their kid to explore spirituality and to ask questions. I asked the godparents be honest and to be mentors.

And I reminded everybody that this crying baby was….a baby. All of this won’t be remembered. He will have no recollection of the so-called sacrament. Even one day when he’s older and people show him pictures, he will still not directly connect to that experience.

So what was this?

It was, in all honesty, a moment for the adults—the friends and family—to embrace each other and their commitment to be the village that raises the kid.

And what will they do?

That question is yet to be answered. The kid, as he grows up, will answer with his own life. His family and friends will answer by how they accept and love him, mentor him, and teach him.

Fortunately for him, it’s quite possible that he will never again have some strange guy rub water on his head or say strange words while he’s crying.

You know, Jesus was baptized, too, but it was a lot different. It’s a story told by all 4 Gospels. Jesus wasn’t a baby, but an adult. And there was no ordained clergy to put water on his head in the name of the Trinity or whatever. Jesus’ baptism story must have been strange, because all 4 Gospels tell a very different version of the same event.

Kind of makes we wonder if this cartoon about Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount is right:
funny-pictures-auto-scumbag-jesus-469460Yep. The Gospels of the NT often tell very different versions of the same story. Why? In storytelling, the audience matters. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels were all written for and to different people. So each Gospel tells its own story so as to make sense to the hearers.

Matthew’s version includes a unique dialogue between John and Jesus. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “No, Jesus, I should be baptized by you—not the other way around.” It’s almost like a “you first, no you first” kind of kid’s game. Well, that happens until Jesus reassures John that it’s okay for John to be the baptizer. Jesus literally tells John: Release it. Let it go. All the ideas of hierarchical relationships—who should baptize, who should be baptized, religious rites, etc.—let it go. This is a clear attempt by Matthew to address some controversy in the early church. You see, some people were uncomfortable with Jesus being baptized by someone else. That would imply John in the role of priest and Jesus as underneath John. At least, that was their worldview.

But that’s not all. Many wondered: isn’t baptism supposed to be reserved for sinners? So how in the world could Jesus be baptized? Some people believed that Jesus was without sin. So to them, this makes no sense!

Matthew’s Gospel is of course making a point—or at least trying to. Unfortunately, many so-called religious people limit the waters of baptism to a chosen few—people they choose. But Jesus, in Matthew’s story, contradicts that. Water [and baptism] is for everyone. It’s for all who are not perfect.

And that’s everyone.

Jesus is on the same level as us; he is immersed in water just like anybody else; he identifies as real person. The heavens open, but not to prove some sort of religious doctrine or to fit into church hierarchy.

The heavens open to mark the occasion as important, for sure. Pay attention, world. God doesn’t show favoritism. God is pleased because God desires for humans to understand identity. God is not some cold, non-empathetic deity equipped with rotating, exploding judgment lightning bolts, although that might be a cool anime movie.
GodInstead, God understands suffering, and crying, and doubt, and fear, and love, and curiosity, and confusion, and humanity…as it is.

People have tried for so long [and still try] to say that God only loves some people and only cares about my people and not them; and people still say this person who is gay or lesbian or Arab or from another land or speaking a different language or someone who is just plain different is outside of grace and mercy.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

Here’s the thing—if someone is never baptized formally in a church or even in a house—this is not really important.

Now some people will NOT like this on FB or repost this, for sure. But questions are much more important than the ceremony.

And how we treat people is way more important than baptism.

So what is this water?

stillwaterWater itself is a flowing, renewing, refreshing source of life for all living things—including us. When babies are well, babies—they are almost ALL water [75-78%]. That’s why they are so squishy. Water is part of our physical makeup. The rest of us are 50-60% water. We need it in order to survive. When the heavens open, so to speak, water comes down in the form of rain or snow.

So if you need to, forget the word baptism. Forget the word sacrament.

But remember to notice water.

Water is a sign of life. And water is provided for the whole planet.

Water should be available to everybody in the world.

The fact that some people in our world do not have access to water is a sign of our degrading humanity and our need to change. Water itself is essential—not to be a symbol for religions to argue about—but as a physical source of life.

And focus on identity. Because the second question of what will we do is one we must ask every day of our lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re an infant, a kid, a youth, or an adult. I think that God still speaks to anyone and everyone. Yes, we all talk about that differently and that’s fine. But I do think that God is still communicating with us. And I do think that God is pleased with people as they are. There is no hierarchy in humanity. We have created this lie ourselves. No one is more important than another, no one loved more or blessed more. We don’t have to wear white outfits or jump through religious hoops for God to love and accept us.

God is pleased with how you are you.

If you have ever been made to feel or have ever been told that the waters of healing, compassion, and purpose aren’t meant for you, then let the water wash over you. Put those harmful words aside. Let them go. Anyone who excludes certain people is just trying to control the water.

But the water is strong and free to flow and move as it will.

Just as God’s love is free to flow and move as it will.

I was at a Bat Mitzvah yesterday, and the girl chose this poem to be read in her rite of passage ceremony. It is a beautiful way to finish this.

200px-Lucille_cliftonLucille Clifton’s poem, blessing the boats:

 May the tide that is entering
Even now the lip of our understanding
Carry you out beyond the face of fear
May you kiss the wind then turn from it certain
That it will love your back
May you open your eyes to water
Water waving forever
And may you in your innocence sail through this to that

Water you can notice every day. It pours from the sky and comes up from the ground. It is not limited to a sacrament or a building or a church. Water is the still speaking, still flowing creator at work. And so be baptized, sprinkled, immersed, washed, refreshed and renewed by it every day. And be inspired to love, to show compassion to others…and be inspired to forgive. Because we are all filled with and surrounded by water….all of us. May the rivers carry us on our journey and lead us to live with love. May the still speaking and flowing water move through us and be shared with all creation.

 

PEACE: What Is It?

Isaiah 11:1-10

I thought that there was no better way to start a message and conversation about peace than to hear from the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died at the age of 95 this past Thursday, December 5th. His life and work are a testimony to what real peacemaking looks like. And that is why as we ask the difficult question today: what is peace? I wish to include Mandela in our reflection.

Often during this time of year, Advent and Christmas, the word and concept of peace can be quite superficial and abstract. We talk about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, we hear familiar words from prophets like Isaiah, we call the infant Jesus a peace child, and we sing silent night and peace on earth until we’re blue in the face. But what does it all mean really? Does one season and one day out of the year have any real, peaceful impact on our lives and on our world?

That is the question I am holding today. Do our words and beliefs about Jesus as the one who brings peace really mean anything? Or is it just a holiday tradition of hanging up pretty lights and tinsel and singing familiar carols and exchanging gifts? Is peace real? Is Christmas about peace? Do we really live peace in our lives?

I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in being calm and comfortable for a few moments on Sundays in Advent and then on Christmas eve—no interest in entering a church and singing some songs, lighting some candles, doing the same Christmas traditions—when out into the real world all is conflict, tension, and suffering. For me, hiding the tension makes me feel worse. It’s hard to sing Silent Night and Away in a Manger without thinking about kids in Syria, Palestine, Southern Sudan, West Philly, and Camden. Peace? Not so much for them. It’s painful for me to put up lights and exchange gifts when I know for a fact that there are plenty of people who see no light in their lives and don’t want gifts, because they just want food…or a job…or safety….or health.

So what is peace?

I’m coming clean here, being honest with you. This second Advent candle of peace is a tough one for me. I myself am full of tension; I’m full of conflict internally. And the world around me doesn’t seem to be cooperating.

But I do find something that speaks to me in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

I also find encouragement in what Nelson Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Peace as the presence of justice; peace as living in such a way that brings freedom to others. This stays right with the prophet Isaiah’s perspective. For Isaiah, the people of Israel had become a stump—dead, nonmoving, apathetic, unjust. So when Isaiah speaks of a plant growing out of this dead stump, it is a hope, a dream—that the people would wake up, be alive, and bring justice and peace to their lands, to their communities—to themselves. Isaiah’s belief about God was that the presence of God [called spirit] would be obvious in people because they would live differently. They would not be dead stumps but alive in this spirit. The spirit would awaken the people as an active agent of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, and justice. This spirit, at work, would show itself as the poor would be uplifted [no more injustice for them]; people would be equal and not pushed down, the evil oppressors would hold no more sway.

And only then, with the dynamic action of the spirit in people to bring about justice—only then would there be true peace. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion–a little child leads all of them. These images of contrast, of yin and yang, of strength and weakness, hot and cold, opposite things living together in harmony—are the image of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which people recognize the tension of injustice and suffering and do something about it. A world where hurting and destroying is not the norm.

And now to the other questions I received this week about peace:

  1. Did Jesus have one main definition of peace or was he concerned with many different types of peace – inner peace, peace between people, peace between countries? What was most important to him when he spoke about peace?

What we know of Jesus is found in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. Each time that Jesus used the word peace he usually meant shalom. This of course is the Hebrew word that expresses God’s desire for all of creation. Shalom means that people are in a good, healthy relationship with God; people are in healthy relationships with each other; they are in healthy relationships with their physical bodies and minds; and people are in healthy relationships with the whole earth [animals, trees, land, etc.]

So for Jesus, peace was about all of us living in balance—recognizing our deep connection to each other and to all living things. Jesus of Nazareth would have been well-versed in the Torah and in the writings of the prophets, like Isaiah. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he was echoing Isaiah’s call for the people to create a peace on earth. It was all about action. One clear example is in the Gospel of Matthew: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39).

For Jesus, acting out shalom was the whole point. How do we treat others? This was the proof of true peace. Let’s add a cool twist to this. Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY, explores deeper.

When you slap someone on the right cheek, consider that it is a back-handed slap. Why? Because in the time of Jesus, the left hand was not used for greeting or for doing much at all in public. The left hand was used for what we now call toilet paper. Yes, that’s right. So keeping that in mind, the right hand slapping someone’s right cheek would be a back-handed slap. This demonstrates to the other person that you are above them; a back-handed slap is to push someone down or insult them as lower than you. Turning the other cheek then, is not really an act of being passive, but rather an act of showing another that he/she is your equal. It is not responding to violence with more violence. Jesus actually never taught passivity or getting walked over. Shalom/Peace for Jesus was about seeing others as equals. In the end, Jesus was concerned with a holistic peace that was demonstrated in peaceful living with others.

Question #2:

How can you create peace when the other party doesn’t want there to be peace?  Can peace be one-sided?

When we seek peace with another person and that person rejects it—this is a sign of deep hurt and a broken shalom in the other. We often forget that we cannot control the attitude or the behavior of others; we just cannot. Even if you are behaving in a most peaceful and compassionate way, this will not change the person. He/She will ultimately have to make peace with him/herself first before accepting your offering of peace. So in this case, yes—peace can be one-sided.

When we forgive or offer peace to someone, this action is healing for us. We must recognize this. Only then will we be able to see that any person who cannot accept peace or forgiveness is greatly suffering. Of course, this does not excuse bad behavior. But when we offer peace to someone, we do it because it brings peace to us and we hope that the other person will also experience such a peace. But we must accept that we cannot force a person to be at peace; this will enable us to have compassion and to be able to move on.

Good questions.

In conclusion, let’s hear these words from Nelson Mandela, reminding us that peace in ourselves, peace with each other, and peace in the world— this is not a reality for everyone. So we must join with others and be the buds that spring out of the stump—committing ourselves to peaceful, just living and recognizing that all people deserve love, acceptance, and wholeness.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

 May we keep walking as agents of peace. Amen.

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.

Tag Cloud

My Journey 2 My Peace

Overcoming Anxiety and learning to live Positively

Deeper in me than I

eloquia oris mei et meditatio cordis mei

Mind Squirrels

Ideas that Work

Silence Teaches Us Who We Are

Silence, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Jesus, God, and Life.

Casa HOY

On the road to change the world...

myrandomuniverse

a philosophical, analytic, occasionally snarky but usually silly look at the thoughts that bounce around....

"Journey into America" documentary

Produced by Akbar Ahmed

Interfaith Crossing

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

Prussel's Pearls

An Actor's Spiritual Journey

The Theological Commission's Grand, Long-Awaited Experiment

Modeling Civility Amidst Theological Diversity

a different order of time

the work of a pastor

learn2practice

mood is followed by action

Imago Scriptura

Images & Thoughts from a Christian, Husband, Father, Pastor

the living room.

117 5th Street, Valley Junction__HOURS: M 9-5, TW 7-7, TH 7-9, F 7-7, S 8-5, S 9-4

the view from 2040

theological education for the 21st century