Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘relationship’

It’s All About Relationship

Mark 10:2-16

Take a moment to think about the important relationships in your life.

Now, think about the boundaries and rules you set in those relationships.

Do those rules and boundaries enhance your relationships or hinder them?

Obviously, society as a whole sets rules and laws. Such rules are supposed to keep people safe and to enable a higher quality of life. Families do the same thing. Parents set rules for their children—supposedly for the same reason. We set rules and boundaries with our brothers and sisters, our partners and spouses, and even our friends. But…

Do our rules actually help us connect to each other in healthy relationship?

This is an important question to ask, because relationships move the world.
Relationships really matter.

And in a world in which violence, political posturing, religious propaganda, and materialism continue to drive and distract people—relationships could very well be the salve that leads us to healing and community.

In this Mark story, we find Jesus of Nazareth in a crowd of people, once again facing his religious peers, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were testing Jesus by asking him somewhat absurd and impossible-to-answer questions. Imagine much of what political debates look like. Candidates are paraded in front of us and asked a barrage of questions—many of them not really having the ability to answer them. In the end, it is often which candidate looks LESS foolish who wins such debates.

Town-Hall-Debate-Meme

It’s a setup. And often, the real questions that could lead to some positive changes are never asked. For example, after yet another shooting in a school in the United States [in Oregon], how many concrete questions will be asked of presidential candidates regarding swift and federal gun laws that could combat this sad and horrific violence? Most likely, the questions will be ambiguous as best, and each candidate according to his/her party line will vaguely address it. But they will never get to the point.

It’s about relationships. Gun control laws have nothing to do with politics, or religion, or freedoms, or any of the absurd back and forth with the NRA.

It’s about relationship—protecting vulnerable children from such violence; raising youth to consider alternatives to guns in order to resolve arguments in the street or the classroom; giving incentive to gun shop owners to respectfully and honestly run their businesses without fear; pushing aside partisan politics to curb gun violence and to promote more…

Relationship building.

But that’s not what happens. And that didn’t happen when the Pharisees debated Jesus.
This is why, I think, that this part of Mark’s Gospel is so often misunderstood.

First of all, context alert. We’re talking 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine.
And, we’re talking about Jewish subcultures. Men married women.

Women were property and so were their children.
Men could remarry or marry more than one woman.
Women had no rights.

And now we rejoin the story. The Pharisees are asking Jesus about marriage laws.
But there’s a twist. Remember John the Baptizer, the guy who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan? Jesus’ cousin? Well, he was killed by Herod Antipas for saying that Herod’s divorce and remarriage was not lawful.

So the Pharisees ask Jesus this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” anticipating a response that might make him guilty of treason.

whaaat-2That was the political distraction.

The religious distraction goes all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy [the last book of the Torah]. There were different schools of thought in Judaism about divorce. Some thought that a man could only divorce a woman if she committed adultery. Others pretty much said that a man could divorce a woman if she looked at him and made funny faces or burned dinner.

Jesus choose not to answer the Pharisees’ question. He asks them a question!
“What did Moses command you?”

This is was a trick question, because Moses never did actually command anything about divorce. Instead, the book of Deuteronomy was created as a guide and interpretation to life in that era and part of the world. As every religion does, Judaism adapted to societal changes and thus, rules changed. Deuteronomy reflected that, and so technically when the Pharisees respond with: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” they were making the legal argument, according to religious law.

But Jesus flips it over.
“Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”

The Pharisees may have been very good at quoting scripture and trying to make others look bad, but they were now grouped together with the Egyptian Pharaoh, the arch enemy of the Israelites in the Moses story, who also was hard of heart.

Well, that must have embarrassed or at least royally ticked off the Pharisees.

Jesus isn’t done.
He moves on from divorce to marriage itself. He talks about God’s creation and instead of referencing Deuteronomy, he quotes Genesis.

Jesus reminds them that from the very start of things, God created “them” male and female. There is no hierarchy.
A man leaves his father and mother and joins with his wife.
They become one.
And what God has joined together, let no one separate.

I’ve heard this quote a million times—either as part of a wedding, or in some hateful, misguided propaganda against gay and lesbian couples.

Leviticus

But I said that we’d not let ourselves get distracted with those things and that we would focus on relationships instead, because that’s what Jesus was doing here.

He shifted the whole conversation from religious divorce laws to relationships—relationships God intended to be important and life-giving.

But let’s not dump on the Pharisees. Jesus’ own followers were still harping on the dogma and doctrinal laws and missing the point. After the Pharisees scene, Jesus is with the disciples in a house, and they are asking him again about divorce.

Jesus’ response is tricky, if you don’t know the context.

Basically, his statement: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” is flipping the script again. Remember that in this culture and era men had all the rights. Adultery was defined like this: if a man had an affair with a married woman he committed adultery against that woman’s husband; if a married woman had an affair with anyone, she committed adultery against her husband. In other words, women were always to blame, and neither could they divorce their husbands. So Jesus’ words were blasphemous for that group to hear.

But his point was well-made: if God created humans equally male and female, why are women so powerless and considered property of men?

Likewise, why were divorced women left to suffer and starve, isolated from society?

Why were so-called “followers” of God’s law disenfranchising people, dehumanizing them, and pushing them to the margins?

And he drives it home when he welcomes children.

Children were [and I would argue that they are] the most powerless in the world. They don’t ask to be brought into this crazy mess of a planet, but here they are. Often they are neglected, abused, ignored, and considered property.

Side note: many last week were gushing over Pope Francis’ baby kissing episodes and the little girl from California who ran out to meet him, eluding security guards, delivering her personal letter to him. Consider, though, that many people were surprised, shocked, amazed even that the Pope would pay attention to children, as if it were something extra special or supernatural. Really?

It seems that many of us in the world don’t expect adults [especially religious rock stars] to embrace children.

Further, how many of you really know why the little girl ran to the Pope? The letter was about her parents who are undocumented. They have been living and working in the U.S. for years—picking fruits and vegetables. They are in real danger of being deported. Her letter was to ask the Pope to consider the many human beings who are mistreated and discriminated against because of outdated immigration laws. As a child, she was simply asking for religious people [who claim to love Jesus and love children] to work towards immigration reform so kids like her can be with their parents.

In spite of what some have said, I don’t think that Pope Francis welcoming her and receiving her letter was at all like the scene of Jesus of Nazareth calling the children to him. The kids in Mark’s story didn’t have to evade security guards and secret service; they only had to deal with annoyed disciples.

Further, when the disciples tried to shoo the children away, Jesus was furious. He called them out. He told them: Do not stop the children; for the reign of God belongs to them—not because they’re cute or good press or promote my agenda, but because they are the least. They are the women who are left out; they are lepers pushed away from society; they are Samaritans who are hated; they are the little ones, and you should bless them and love them.

It’s about relationships.

Friends, do this, please!
Any time someone or some church tries to use scripture as a way to exclude people, or disenfranchise certain groups, or to promote a political or even a religious agenda—redirect the conversation.

Don’t feel that you have to answer trap questions.

Instead, you ask the questions.

When someone claims that gay or lesbian people are outside of the Bible’s definition of marriage, and therefore, God doesn’t approve, ask them a question:

What did Jesus command?

When someone asks how your church could accept transgender people, or those who are in gender transition, or those who are still discovering themselves, ask them a question:

What did Jesus command?

When someone wonders how any American Christian could be friends with a Muslim, ask them this question:

What did Jesus command?

That question will most likely lead to silence, because people who use religion to justify their prejudice aren’t thinking about loving their neighbor as they love themselves.

And then, when children’s voices are silenced by guns; when women are made powerless and stripped of their human rights; when refugees are turned away; when addicts are locked outside the church; when people without papers are discriminated against and called names;

Remember, it’s all about relationship.

We are all related to each other on this planet. We were made that way. In all the craziness of culture, religion, and politics, it’s easy to forget that. But remember, we’re all related to each other. And the more we emphasize our connection to each other, the more we will find our way, the more we’ll show compassion and understanding; the more we’ll share; the more we’ll learn and grow.

It’s about relationship.

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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.

Prayers of Love, Prayers of Unity

John 17:20-26

It happens. A strange letter arrives in the mail, a weird email in my inbox, a random post on my Facebook page. People I don’t know, or I may know of them, but they are certainly not close friends or colleagues. I’m invited to something–a gathering of pastors for prayer; a group of community leaders for discussion; an event sponsored by some political figure. It is more than an invitation, I find out. The more I read the fine print, the more I realize that they want me to support their cause. A prayer meeting is not just to pray; it is to express how the government is evil and things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and undocumented workers are destroying the very fabric of the U.S. So come and pray about that. Or, the community meeting is not about learning or education or even networking. It’s about money, and how much money I can give to certain lobbyist groups, causes, or organizations. And the “Christian breakfast” invites are really fronts for political rallies for some candidate that of course, is looking for my vote and all of your votes. xianSpam

Each one of these comes with strings attached. And in every request, there are many assumptions made. First, whoever is inviting me assumes that as a Christian, I am just like them. I think like them, pray exactly like them, read and interpret the Bible just like them, worship like them, even vote like them. So the organizers of such gatherings are shocked when I call or email them back with a response of no—not because I cannot attend, but because I choose not to attend. How could that be? Am I not a Christian, just like them?

It is a common theme in our world today, I think. If someone doesn’t believe or think or even look like we do, they could not possibly be connected to us. We assume separation. People who disagree draw lines in the sand, rather than hearing out the other’s argument. People with differing worldviews never share a coffee, glass of wine or a beer, or a lunch. Even those who hang out or befriend another of a different religion, political stance, or philosophical view are told that they are watering down their own beliefs and stances. It seems that all too often we have to be exactly the same, or we cannot be together at all.

That is why, in this moment, I think it extra important for us to walk through John’s Gospel. Written last out of the other three Gospels, John has a nuanced perspective. Consider that when it was written, people had formed different religious and cultural groups, identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. We call them churches now, but these groups didn’t look much like what we see today. They were communities of people who lived together and supported each other. They were people from various backgrounds. They didn’t believe the same things. They interpreted their experiences of Jesus and God very differently. They even argued and had strong disagreements about ethics and theology. All of this is in the Gospel of John if we look for it.

Consider that these stories were written long after Jesus’ death and at a time when these faith communities were already expanding; assume that contextual, relevant interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings were being made. In other words, John’s Gospel interprets Jesus in light of the context and experience of that particular time and culture. We get a glimpse into a time, place, and culture simply by reading the words written about Jesus and even the words attributed to Jesus. You can read a novel about some historical figure like Abraham Lincoln or even see a movie, but it won’t really make sense to you unless you have some grounding in the historical context and cultural dynamics.

It’s no different with the Bible.

In the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine [and then in Greece, etc.] traditions were for the most part, passed on by oral tradition. They didn’t have email archives, metal file cabinets, videos, or audio files of Jesus. They had memory; and experiences; and stories told by one person to another and then to another, and then to another. Much later, scribes wrote it all down. In fact, John’s Gospel is particularly unique in its storytelling, because most scholars believe that various authors put it together over an extended period of time. It was a community of people called “Johannine.” In their context, Jesus’ story was often about relationship. And so it is in John 17, the longest speech attributed to Jesus—in the form of a prayer–26 verses.

 This prayer of Jesus focuses on unity, love, and relationship.

Let’s explore those three things. First, love. We have been talking about this a lot in John, and with good reason. To love is a command of Jesus. God is love. Those who love are of God. There is a direct correlation between acts of love and acts of God. If a person shows love to another, they show God to that person. Likewise, if a person refuses to show love to another, God is not present in that act and they are not of God. But this is not meant to be mere metaphysical language. Jesus was clear with the disciples about love. It wasn’t a feeling alone; it was how you lived. The disciples could love with the love of God. They were capable of it. Otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t have told them to do it in the first place!

Second, love is tied to that word relationship. Jesus had a unique and intimate relationship with God, who he called Abba [Father]. God knew Jesus; Jesus knew God; Jesus made God known to the disciples; they were to make God known to the world. That is a lot of knowing!

So look at the actual Greek word: ginoskoto know. Its meaning is intense. Ginosko means deep, interior perception that influences one’s emotions and actions.[1]

Knowing in John’s Gospel is not just about being aware—oh yeah, I know that guy, or at least, I know of him…

Knowing means being changed. Knowing affects your life. Knowing moves you to be. This relationship connects you to something bigger.

God knows all of us.

We are known by God.

Jesus knows God; God knows Jesus.

Jesus made God known to others.

We are to make God known to others.

And how does that happen: love.

But this leads us to the most difficult and misunderstood part of this prayer: unity. In the letters and emails and posts I get, this word unity is thought to mean the absence of disagreement or conflict. We are supposedly unified, because we believe the same things. We are unified because we hold the same commitments. We are unified by what we eat or wear or the language we speak. We are unified by our sameness. Don’t get me wrong—I am a big fan of finding people who connect with me because we share a common value, concern, or passion. I am a bridge-builder.

But being one or the idea of unity isn’t about sameness.

I mean, the colleagues and friends I have who stand with me on certain issues or share important values with me are quite different than me in a lot of ways. Some practice other religions or don’t practice any religion. Some of them speak other languages. Some live in different states, towns, or countries. Others participate in things in which I have no interest. Some don’t go to church. Some enjoy hobbies that are completely boring to me. On some issues, we completely disagree. They vote for different people or don’t vote at all. So are we unified? Are we one?

That is the question. You see, I think in American Christianity we often forget that being one isn’t about a piece of paper we sign, saying we believe the same things. It isn’t about doctrine or dogma or even some mission statement we agree upon. Unity, according to this prayer of Jesus, is based on the two things we already unpacked: relationship and love.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention the Apostle’s Creed or some Council in Nicaea. The disciples don’t sign on the dotted line. But they are challenged to make a choice, aren’t they? They are challenged to mirror the life-giving relationship of Jesus and God.

Be unified in your relationship: know each other by how you love each other; be known to each other by the love you receive; and then make love known to the world.

Funny enough, the unity of Jesus isn’t even meant to benefit the church.

Unity is meant to bless the world.

The phrase so that the world may know is repeated again and again by Jesus, and it’s almost annoying! But I think there’s a reason for the repetition, because we tend to ignore this challenge!

We like unity if it makes us feel better about our religion or because unity strengthens our numbers and gives us a louder voice so we can fight against others who disagree with us. We like unity if it gives us black-and-white understandings of God, morals and ethics, and salvation.

Less to think about.

We embrace unity if it allows us to avoid conflict and especially that particular issue that we have trouble with…

But this kind of unity? It’s not really about us at all!

It’s about others.

We are supposed to be one so that the world notices our love.

And this unifying love points them to the unifying love of God though Jesus.

Crazy as it may sound, churches and people of faith, if we are really interested in following Jesus, we need to be with other people who are different in order to experience a loving, unified relationship with God and in order to show love to the world. Love pushes us to widen the circle, reach out, and include. But we shouldn’t assume that they will think, believe, pray, sing, dress, talk, or behave exactly like us. In fact, we are challenged to embrace the differences, the disagreements, and the uniqueness. Why? Because in that kind of crazy, inclusive, diverse, raw community, we get a glimpse of what Jesus was praying about.

We start to get it—that God knows us and loves us as we are.

We open our minds to grasp that Jesus lived this loving relationship on earth.

We begin to know God and be known out of love–not obligation or fear.

Then, we live that love in the world–not obligating others, not causing fear.

Friends, the more we love, the more our relationship with God is real.

The more we love, the more we know ourselves better.

And the more we love, the more our relationships make a real impact.

Amen.


[1] Strong’s #1097 – γινώσκω.

 

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