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Posts tagged ‘Romans’

Come Out & Come Spring Forth

Matthew 28:1-10

butterrain
The season of spring is one that many people point to as their favorite season–at least for those who live in places where winter cold is a reality and the arrival of spring’s warmth and sunshine is a welcome change. Even in other places where the weather doesn’t seem to change, like in Honolulu, Hawai’i where I once lived, one can sense the change. Though on the island of Oahu I never experienced cold weather and grey skies, I did experience a rainy season that eventually gave way to sunshine…and rainbows. I’ve also been to a place called the city of eternal spring or la ciudad de la eternal primavera, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

1280px-Cuernavaca_c274_oCuernavaca is located in a tropical region, but its temperature stays pretty much in the 70s Fahrenheit, because it is situated on the southern slope of the Sierra de Chichinautzin mountains. When you wake up in the morning in Cuernavaca, warm air flows up the mountains from the valley below. When you’re having a coffee in the late afternoon, cooler air flows down from the higher elevations.

Spring as a season, of course, is full of symbolism. Rebirth, new life, flowers blooming, etc, etc. Across religious traditions there is a rich tapestry of spring-like themes and expressions. In the Christian tradition we read a story each springtime about Jesus of Nazareth disappearing from a tomb where a body was supposed to be, and then varied experiences of people seeing or hearing Jesus alive. It’s impossible for me to address all of the nuance and history of the resurrection stories in the four Gospel accounts. For the sake of our conversation, I’ll simply remind us all that each of the four Gospel stories about Jesus’ resurrection are different. The original story, in Mark, is really short and contains no actual appearance of the risen Jesus. Luke and Matthew expand Mark’s story, and John has a different take. The fact that all four stories differ from each other tells us that there was no established narrative about Jesus’ resurrection in the 50-100 years after Jesus’ death.

We are looking at Matthew’s version, a story that includes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb, but without spices and ointment. A great stone stood between them and the inside of the tomb. Matthew uses the word “behold” a lot in this version. Behold! A great earthquake! And behold! One lonely angel of the Lord [same wording Matthew uses when Jesus is born]. The angel is like the Incredible Hulk and thus able to move that great stone out of the way, and feeling quite pleased, the angel plops down on that great stone and takes a seat. The angel is wearing shiny, white clothes and looks quite like Jesus did in Matthew’s transfiguration story. A little resurrection bling-bling.

discoJesus

Kudos to the Disco Jesus creator.

Anyway, the Roman guards, symbols of power and strength and the military, are scared out of their minds and are shaken. They become like dead ones. Not so powerful now are ya? The angel, with a play on words, says to the women: Fear not! He is not here, he has been raised.

For the women, this would have been good news for many reasons. First, because they were all still upset about what had happened to Jesus. Also, the fact that Jesus had been raised to life meant that the work and words of Jesus would also not die, i.e. the way of compassion, gender equality, acceptance of the unclean, the sinners, and the marginalized being embraced.  The women are invited by the buff angel to look closer in the tomb to notice where Jesus once lay. But then, they are instructed to go right away and tell the others who followed Jesus. The angel must have a limited vocabulary in ancient Greek, because the angelic hulk keeps saying: Behold! He is going before you into Galilee, Behold! I have told you…and then Matthew adds one more in there: Behold! Jesus met them…

The women aren’t afraid and leave quickly to spread the news. And Behold! Jesus appears to them and greets them with xairete, a common phrase that was an everyday greeting. Funny, isn’t it? In spite of the earthquake, a great stone, an angel, and lots of Beholds! Jesus’ first words to the women are akin to: hey, what’s up, how you doin? The women are smart and go right for the feet of Jesus. And no, that’s not weird. You see, Matthew wants us to understand that this resurrected Jesus is not a ghost.

Okay, I get it. Each one of us will have a different take on this story and the whole resurrection thing. Just like the conflicting accounts in the Gospels, we won’t have the same view of it all. And that’s just fine, because the whole point of the resurrection story isn’t to prove something or disprove it, the point is not to claim that one religion is better than all the others because its prophet rose from the dead; the point is to find resurrection ourselves. That’s what each person who followed this Jesus were invited to discover–the resurrection in their own lives. This idea is all around us in nature with caterpillars, seeds, and eggs–going to dark places and seemingly lifeless–only to emerge reborn and beautifully alive. So no matter how you see this story, hear this:

Behold! You and I are invited to come out, to spring forth. It can be scary sometimes to do that, to be our true selves, to emerge just as we are. But we are encouraged to do so. We are encouraged with love and with healing to trade fear for emergence, for new life. Great stones and obstacles are moved to the side and we have room…to come out, to see this day [and every one after it] as a resurrection day, as a new start, as another opportunity to say and live: this is me. This is who I am. And I am loved. I am beautiful as I am. I may have scars and wounds and I may have felt dead on more than once occasion, but right now, in this moment, I am me. It is spring and I’m coming out, I’m blooming again.

And all around us are people with great stones holding them back and all around us are people who have been wounded and mistreated and pushed to the margins, and we have this chance, every day of this life, to say to them: Behold! I love you as you are; I accept you here and now and always; and you can come out and experience love and be who you are. This is resurrection. This is every day. Come on out. Behold! Your are loved, you are beautiful, and you are made to love, and to recognize the beauty in others, and in all life.

P.S. MUST listen to this song. It’s great. It says this better than I can.

 

Remembering

Matthew 5:1-12   NRSV

Halloween is a time of year that brings back many memories for people.

And if you are one of those who gives out candy to kids who come to your door, then probably every year you remember when you dressed up and carried a bag that would eventually fill up with a sugar-laced mass.

candyComaCandy Coma.

Even so, for some, hearing the word Halloween makes them cringe a little. Perhaps it’s because they saw the movie by the same name and that creepy piano theme music makes them remember a scary character. Still others cringe at Halloween because they think that it might be some evil celebration that certainly Christians should not participate in. Others go to the other extreme and set up their homes like haunted houses or witch’s cauldrons, equipped with fake, impaled heads, plastic witches, mummies; scary sounds [that can also be quite annoying, I might add] playing on a continuous loop.

And yes, some fanatics even have a Spirit of Halloween charge card.

Okay, so extremism aside, let’s look at reality.

The name Halloween is old English. It refers to the night before All Hallow’s Day, better known as All Saints Day, which is Nov. 1. All Saints is actually a Christian celebration of Protestants and Catholics, remembering the faithful people of all ages who have passed away, yet who lived lives of love, generosity, faith, and humility. This celebration of people’s lives and service goes back to the 8th century.[1]

Hallowe’en is more like Christmas Eve than you could ever imagine.

Hallowe’en was the preparation night for people to get ready for the feast and party on All Saint’s Day, which was called Hallowmas, just like Christmas. So on Halloween night, people lit candles and prayed; maybe sang songs; hmmm…sound familiar?

But these traditions were and are not Christian by nature or origin.

The ancient Druids, from what we know, were a priestly class of Celtic people living all over Western Europe during the Iron Age, which may have begun around 1200 BCE. Druid culture included a celebration for the beginning of the New Year on Nov. 1st. When the Romans started conquering Western Europe, the Druid Celts combined traditions with the Romans.

And they changed their name; or at least the history books did.
The “Roman Celts” as they were called, started a new tradition on the eve of Samhain [end of summer]. They believed that evil spirits were unleashed to create havoc on the earth on this particular night.

Or maybe they knew what Costco and Wegmans are like on a Sunday afternoon in the fall?

CostcoLOR wegmansSWAnyway, to keep these evil spirits from causing too much havoc, the Roman Celts had a great idea: let’s put on scary costumes made of animal skin to scare those spirits away!

And so they did.
You can connect the dots.

The religion of Roman Christianity spread throughout Europe, mixing in old traditions as it went. People lit fires on Halloween night to honor and remember the dead, all the while wearing costumes to scare evil spirits.
But the Middle Ages led to the craziness we know today—the witches, fairies, ghosts, and spirits. And then the legend of this poor guy named Jack who was kicked out of heaven for being bad and even kicked out of hell for joking around too much with the devil. Who knew that the devil didn’t have a sense of humor? In cartoons and such he always seems to be laughing with a sinister chuckle. Oh well.

Anyway, this Jack got his punishment: he had to walk the earth with a lantern until Judgment Day.
Connect the dots again: Jack O’Lantern?

And it wasn’t until the 17th century in Ireland that a certain tradition of poorer folks going from house to house asking for money began. All they wanted was to buy food for the big feast on All Saint’s Day.

Trick or treat, you’re so funny; now please give us a bit of money…

I think you get the idea—how all these traditions, legends, and stories mixed together over the years and formed new ones.
And of course, some traditions are easily marketed. Commercialism has made Halloween into another shopping season.

Meanwhile, the traditions with stronger meaning tend to be less marketable; they require more thought and even some spirituality.

And yet, all over the world, people still practice remembering traditions.

For example, in Mexico and in other parts of the Americas, people observe El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Children, youth, and adults prepare homemade “altars” to remember their loved ones, decorating them with flowers and candles, their favorite foods, or other items to remind them of those who have gone on to the next life. Thousands of candles illuminate cemeteries and homes and huge crowds gather in large communities to sing, remember life, and celebrate.

In other cultures around the world, people remember those who have passed on and celebrate their lives.
Here are some striking photos of these remembering traditions from around the globe:

MexicoDiaDeMuertos budapestAllSaints Mexico-City-Mexico-Miniat-003 Mexico-City-MexicoA-man-d-006 Croatiacommemorate-All-012 PeruDayDead MexicoSanGregorio GuatemalaDead Perucemetary HaitiDead Spaindead An-Indian-Christian-famil-027 An-Indian-Christian-famil-028Remembering those who have gone before us, and pausing to do so—is counter-culture. Typically, holidays in the West do not include much pausing at all, but are in fact busier. Many, many people will not take even a few moments [much less two days] to reflect, pray, light candles, sing, eat with friends and family, and to remember.

Perhaps that’s why we struggle so much with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They are not bumper sticker material or perfect for your newest t-shirt design. Jesus’ teachings, like those of any spiritual leader, require time and effort to unpack, study, and think about.

While the world keeps trying to convince us that we ought to fight with each other and compete for resources so that we will be in a certain social class, if we pause, we can hear something different.

We can hear from this Jesus of Nazareth that the path of humility is the one to walk; that our so-called important accomplishments are not so important.

That taking risks for the sake of others is important; that forgiving is far worth the time and energy; that loving people unconditionally as they are can move psychological mountains; that it’s better and more healthy to be skeptical of what the world says is normal; that it is oh so beneficial for you and for everyone if you stop judging others; and that if we do something good for a living creature [whether animal, plant, or human], without expecting anything in return—something positive spreads.

I don’t believe in saints [at least I don’t believe that there were or are certain people who are religiously more important or spiritually superior].

But I do think that we have an invitation to remember.

We’ll need to slow down our busy minds and bodies for a moment, though.
We will need to remember that where there is death, life is right next door.
And vice versa.

We’ll have to admit that the Jesus we often talk about in churches is not the Jesus of Scripture, who especially blessed the kinds of people who are typically left out of most churches.

And if we light candles, sings songs, say prayers, visit cemeteries, meditate, or think about it deeply—we’ll need to remember that blessing is not immunity from pain or loss or doubt. Remembering to be blessed is also remembering to be honest about what you feel, what you’re going through, and not ignoring it.

Such a practice will also help us to see others and their pain, suffering, and sense of loss.

And such remembering can lead us to the real blessing of wholeness [Shalom], recognizing our full humanity and that the Spirit lives and moves in us all. Such remembering can lead to contentment and an authentic joy in life that does not depend on all the external circumstances.

So friends, remember.

[1] 1. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saint’s Days: A Study in Origins and Survivals in Church Ceremonies and Secular Customs. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1974) pp.190-97.

Alarming Love

Romans 13:8-11a

Matthew 18:15-20

Sell your crap.

Pay your debt.

Do what you love.

This was the title of Adam Baker’s TED TALK in 2011—the story of how his family moved away from being the “typical” debt-laden U.S. family trapped by the next thing to buy to a family that envisioned freedom from that debt and then took the necessary steps to truly be free.

Let’s listen to a bit.

Adam argues that most of us live a life based on a script.

And we did not write that script—someone else did, or perhaps even a government, or a company, or an institution wrote that script for us.

The script, sadly, can become our life.

And that script involves debt.

debtFinancially, many people in the world are born into debt. Those who are fortunate enough to be born into a family without debt have a better chance, but even so, they often accumulate debt of their own. It piles up, because we follow the script of what we are supposed to buy, what is the next “logical” step in our relationships, when to get the house with the yard, the new car, and where to send our kids to college.

But is this really freedom?

I don’t think so—not if we’re following someone else’s script.

Not if we’re buying things because we think we need them or because that celebrity or that commercial told us to.

Not if we’re moving from one life decision to the next without actually reflecting on those decisions because…

We’re just following someone else’s script for our lives.

So I want to talk about debt; obviously, so far we have been talking about the financial kind of debt, because that will help us in the rest of this discussion.

In order to understand relationship debt, we first have to understand financial debt.

I include two Bible passages—one from Matthew [words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth] and the other from Romans [Paul’s letter to the Roman church] to help us honestly reflect and hopefully act.

First, Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew’s discussion about debt is based on human relationships and Torah Law. The Torah is the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Matthew’s debt discussion, the author includes references to Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Jesus of Matthew is concerned about how people treat each other. There was [and is] conflict between humans. How do we deal with such conflict?

The root of said human conflicts is a problem—which happens to be a problematic word—and that word is sin.

Not enough time to break down just how misunderstood this word is. So let’s just stick to Matthew’s view.

Sin isn’t about morality but more about missing the mark. Sin is a failure to be human—as we are created to be.

So when two people fight about something, talk behind each other’s back, hurt one another—this is sin or missing the mark showing itself. And there is no prayer, or physical offering at the altar, or religious duty that one can do to solve such conflicts. Notice here that it is completely up to the humans themselves to work this out. There is no mediator-priest.

The first step is to confront the other person directly. Honesty and direct communication come first. The goal of the confrontation, however, is to prove who is “right” or “wrong” but to reconcile. The goal is reconciliation and thus the direct confrontation is motivated by love.

Jesus concludes the relationship debt teaching with this:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Just in case we weren’t paying attention, we have the ball in our court.

Whatever we hold onto, we carry with us.

Any debts we have weigh us down.
If we keep others in debt to us, they are weighed down.

But if we choose to lose our own personal debts and release the debts of others, there is great freedom for all.

But clearly, Jesus leaves it up to us.
If two or more of us AGREE on earth, it will be done.

Do we agree to forgive the debts of others?

Do we agree to clear our lives of the debt that weighs us down?

————————————————————————————————

And now to Paul and his letter to the Roman church—a church under an empire and in great debt.

Time to WAKE UP!

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Paul flips things around: owe no one [including Rome] any THING.

But love one another.

Loving fulfills the law.

Then he lists some of the commandments [back to the Torah again, like in Matthew] but adds an emphasis that was Jesus’ teaching:
Any can be summed up in this word,
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The reasoning?
Love does not harm another person.
So love does indeed fulfill all the law.

If you don’t harm people, you won’t break commandments.
You only owe one thing this to the world and all its creatures—love.

And we are invited to wake up to this reality every day.

It’s not a script; it’s not predictable; it’s not popular; it’s not mainstream; it won’t be easy; it will be risky; love is like that when it’s actually lived out.

It’s like theologian Karl Barth once wrote:
Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world.

Friends, owe nothing to empires, institutions, companies, things, and even people! Don’t allow debt of any kind to weigh down your life and your humanity.

True freedom is letting go of any debts that exist.
And in true freedom you will learn how to love.

HOPE: What is it?

Isaiah 2:1-5

 

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth  instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:8-12a

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

hg.catchingfireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire, recently released, is the second movie in a series based on the three novels written by Suzanne Collins. The story of the hunger games focuses on selected people from various districts who are called tributes. They must fight to the death in order to provide food for the people of their particular district. For 75 years, the oppressive, wealthy Capital has staged the games. But in the previous games, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) won as a couple. Thus, they became victors—heroes for the oppressed people of the districts. But they are soon forced to obey the demands of the Capital’s leader, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) and compete to the death once again. Why? Because Katniss’ bravery and stubborn defiance have made her a symbol of hope for the people.

In one scene, Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’ sister says:

Primrose Everdeen: Since the last games, something is different. I can see it.

Katniss Everdeen: What can you see?

Primrose Everdeen: Hope.

It is this hope that has been the spark for a rebellion by the people of the districts against the oppressive rule of the Capital and President Snow. Sensing this, Snow puts an awful plan in motion to destroy Katniss and Peeta and to crush the hopes of the 12 districts.

snowOf course, the Hunger Games draws out some very appropriate and timely themes for us today. For certain, we live in a world in which there are millions of people who suffer needlessly without enough to eat, in unsafe conditions, and forced to compete against each other.

The strongest theme in this particular movie for me happens to be the use of fear to control people and the ability of hope to change the game.

That is what we will explore.

Throughout this season of Advent, I will be asking questions and encouraging you to ask them, too. So what questions do we have about hope?

I received two questions this week that I would like to share with you:

 1. What did Jesus have to say about hope?

 2. How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?
How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

 3. And my question: what IS hope?

Since I am the one talking, I get to start with my question.

The English dictionary defines hope as:

 -a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

 -a feeling of trust.

 -[verb] to want something to happen or be the case.

But honestly, a dictionary definition is not really adequate, because hope as a concept has developed over thousands of years, throughout cultures around the world. Psychologists who study human emotion state that hope is an emotive response to circumstances that are pretty terrible. Hope can result when people are unsure about the future or are currently experiencing a tough time. Something happens in a person’s brain—he/she can open up to a new reality and remove the mask of fear and despair. This mental image of hope allows a person to see the big picture and helps creativity grow.

But hope, say psychologists, is actually quite different from positive thinking. Being positive is a therapeutic and systematic process used to reverse pessimism. But it can often lead to a “false hope” in a fantasy or an outcome that is highly unlikely. On the other hand, hope is cultivated when people have a goal in mind, determination that the goal can be reached, and a plan as to how to achieve the goal.[1]

In other words, hope is more than just a positive, mental image. Hope is thinking that turns into action.

Hope is imagining a better tomorrow when today is terrible.

Hope is taking the small steps necessary towards that tomorrow.

But what does the Bible say about hope?
A lot, actually, but we do not have the time to explore all of it.

So let’s start with Isaiah, from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Biblical literature, hope is about expecting or anticipating.

Isaiah is part of what we call prophetic literature. Everything you read in Isaiah is symbolic and not literal. In this second chapter of the prophet’s book, we are told that Isaiah saw the words. How does one see words? The Hebrew language helps us here. “See” means “envision.” Right away, the words on a scroll or on a page jump out at us. They are alive; they don’t stay on the paper. They are envisioned. Seen. Alive.

Isaiah challenges the people to walk in Yahweh’s light. They are to reject war and turn to ways of peace. This was shalom. Shalom is wholeness. Shalom is a vision of balance, justice, and unity. But this shalom is not realized yet.

This is important to understand because Isaiah was not a prophet who lived in some fantasy world. He saw the extreme poverty, oppression, and injustice in the world. That was reality. Suffering was reality. Isaiah was a realist. Hope was not false or merely a once-a-year, Christmasy kind of hope.

The world of Isaiah’s time and the world of our time was and indeed is screwed up—out of balance. So to have hope seems absurd.

At least, it seems absurd if it is just a good idea or a feeling.
Hope without action would have been absurd. But Isaiah’s hope is a calling out to the people for change, for them to help, to heal, to bring justice, to find balance in themselves and then to bring balance to others.

Prophetic books like Isaiah do not tell us about a current reality, but rather, challenge us to start building an unseen reality.

Build hope where there is despair.

When the night is long, scary, and full of despair, can you imagine the dawn?

I hear Katniss Everdeen: The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand.

sunpersists And so I return to one of the questions asked about hope.

How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?

How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

For each person, it will be different. The absence of hope, for many is fear; despair; hopelessness. So what is causing those feelings in your life? Identify the sources of fear and despair. And at the same time, identify a path that you may take to overcome fear and leave despair behind you. What steps can you take today? Tomorrow? Next week?
In short, we won’t hope without hopeful thinking turning into hopeful action. I can think positively and pray all I want, but if my prayers and thoughts don’t move me to positive action—I’m stuck in my fear and despair. This kind of progress in the midst of difficulty is not easy, for sure. But hope that is more than thinking is a spark that can set a fire.

And a very appropriate question during Advent: What did Jesus have to say about hope?

Actually, nothing. At least not specifically.

Jesus of Nazareth never mentioned the word or concept of hope. But he did talk a lot about fear. There are a myriad of Gospel passages attributed to Jesus that mention fear. And in each case, Jesus of Nazareth tells people: do not fear.

Why? Because when we fear, we have way too much trouble envisioning a new day.
When we are paralyzed by fear, we stop thinking wisely and certainly stop moving.
When fear dominates, we stop loving and accepting people as they are.

So it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ most famous words are echoed by Paul in the letter to Rome. And what else could be more appropriate for us to hear during Advent season [and every season of the year]?

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
Awake from sleep.

In fact, wake up your neighbor from his/her sleep. Wake up the world.

For the dawn is near.

Hope is real—if we live it.

Do more than imagine hope. Forge a path for it in your life.

Amen.


[1] Snyder, Charles D. The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. New York: The Free Press, 1994, pg. 19

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