Reflection for March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
Vision, Mediation, and Loss

Vision, mediation, and loss. Those are the themes in these readings, and each theme is woven into all human experience. I’ve had a long personal history with the first reading from Jeremiah. When I was ordained a long time ago in the congregation in which I was raised, I chose it for the first reading that Sunday. I was focused on religious education as a young pastor, and you can see that this reading focuses on learning ministry. Faith formation is a matter of the heart. We don’t teach content so much as conviction. We don’t teach the regulations as much as responding. We don’t teach correctness as much as compassion. And it is not so much about putting something into the head as it is pulling something out of the heart, regardless of the age of the person or the stage in life, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Jeremiah the ancient prophet issues a still contemporary call to impart the faith that grows in the human heart as we live lives echoing life, death and new hope.  And I am still inspired by this primitive vision of God’s work in the human heart.

The reading from Jeremiah is frequently if not almost always the first reading for Reformation Sunday at the end of October. As such it is a the 16th Century Lutheran call to reform and renew the people of God so that God dwells not in our buildings, nor in our customs, nor in our traditions, but in our hearts. As a Reformation reading it often echoes the confirmation of our young people on that Sunday, calling them and all of us into our hearts to find what we need to outwardly express our faith. Jeremiah’s ancient call to take the matter to heart, still gives us a vision. The vision is to deepen, enliven, and rekindle the faith until we no longer attempt to teach each other but instead learn from each other as we become one people of God. What a vision.

But so much of what I have done as a pastor since then has not so much to do with this lofty vision, but something else: mediation, standing betwixt and between, moving differing people and groups together into a forged, negotiated, and shared vision, helping people along the way, moving us as given the power to do so, beyond where we are into a deeper sharing of God’s presence. All of this requires negotiation, careful crafting of possible common ground, and patient standing in the middle while things develop. This mediation is not in the first reading. But mediation is the theme of the second reading from Hebrews. In this passage, Christ is called a priest, one who mediates. His calling is grounded in his baptism. And as the great high priest Jesus mediates between God and humanity, moving us along, providing us that perfect vision of compassion, and bringing us closer to God and each other along the way. Jesus is the mediator between the divine and the human. Jesus is a priest.

Martin Luther, in reaction to the abuses of the Roman church said that in the end, as a matter of the heart and a matter of Protestant principle; we are all priests. He coined the phrase the priesthood of all believers. Like Jesus, our priesthood begins in baptism. And as priests each one of us is called to mediate something. I’m would not know what exactly you are called to mediate in your life this week. There are plenty of tensions, struggles, disagreements, discord, strife, strident opinions, and broken relationships to go around. And in each of our lives there is something that probably especially needs work. Pick something, and begin to move toward reconciliation, mediation, and peace. It will involve negotiation, careful crafting of possible common ground, and patient standing in the middle while things develop

Notice in Hebrews, what makes mediation work is humility. The humility of Jesus makes the reconciliation happen, and that is true for all mediators.  Strife will always continue until the first steps toward humility are taken. And mediators are called to model that by imitating the one who emptied himself so that others might be filled with God. We’re not Roman Catholic. We are priests. Each of us is called to mediate the tensions of life. And the first step is our humility.

We hold a vision. We are called to humble mediation. And then we face loss. Oh, I know, this seems like such a downer. But the third reading brings us face to face with the impending death of Jesus.  Here we discover the secret not of success but of defeat. Unless we lose, unless we let go, unless we hit the hard times, unless we die, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, it and we remain just a single grain. To gain, in the end, we must loose. To rise we must die. This is the mystery of loss, the secret of defeat, and it is found not only at the end of life but in its daily living. One sorrow at a time, we find ourselves moving through the loss until we enter a different state of mind, a different matter of the heart, a different place and vision.

Now, let each of us renew our vision of the will of God, discovering again the God that dwells in us. Let each of us become the mediators we are called to be. Let us renew our sense of humility. And let us know that loss will be gain as we bury ourselves again in the life and death of Jesus.

Reflection for March 15, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21 

     So today we have snakes. Our first reading from Numbers is part of the story of Israel’s wandering in the desert, between the time of liberation from slavery in Egypt and the settlement of the fertile valleys of Canaan. In these betwixt and between desert days we have stories of people coming together to form a nation from several different tribes and traditions.

And then in the desert there were snakes. Of course. This is the desert. And there are snakes. In the story we can almost see how two different tribal traditions regarding snakes are preserved. For one of the founding tribal groups, snakes were bad and something to be feared. That’s understandable. Many of us hate snakes. And snake bites can kill.

For another of the founding tribal groups, snakes were seen as healing agents, or a force for good. They may have been the source of a natural medicine. Or their presence meant that disease carrying rodents were held in check. That’s understandable, too. Even today, the sign of the healing arts is a snake on a crossed pole.

As the tribes merged into one confederation, two very different traditions regarding snakes were preserved together in one story. Yes, snakes were bad. And yes, snakes were the source of healing. But notice how the story lifts up the one god of both traditions regarding snakes. Snakes, whether good and bad, were instruments of the God that united the people by means of one faith in one god.

I think this very primitive story is even helpful to us post-modern folk. We too are a loosely united people often holding opposing views about almost everything. And so it is good to sense how two different perspectives are both preserved and combined to tell one foundational story.

This week our community has faced the tragic loss of a young black life at the hands of the police. One view is that there is just too much violence against people of color; that this is an expression of racism; and it must stop. Another view is that we need to support law enforcement in their work to uphold the law; that sometimes that does mean the use of force; and that sometimes these things are unavoidable.  Two different views. But actually they also might be combined into one vision in which both perspectives interplay. For racism does contribute to the causes of poverty, crime, and the loss of many young black lives, both quickly and sometimes slowly by means of our criminal justice system. And it is also true that police sometimes must use force and that there will be difficult loss of life; so that we must support, equip, and train law enforcement to react instinctively to very complex human situations, as we give all civil servants the support and respect they deserve as they struggle to sustain our common good. Both views are needed to construct our common story as we wander together betwixt and between, through this wilderness on a journey into solutions to the complex issues of race, justice, and the support of civil servants.

Two different views. We face these differences in our work lives, homes, neighborhoods, economies, friendships, and communities. Actually on many issues, we’re lucky if we can come down to only two different opinions regarding the snakes around us.

And to make matters more complex, as we consider the issues; often what we thought was good, turned out to be bad. Sometimes what we thought would be horrible, was actually the best thing after all. Are snakes bad or good? From the story in Numbers we can’t tell. The combination of two different traditions into one story reminds us that moral ambiguity has been with us since ancient days. And that both sides of the story are needed for the best accounting. What we think of as good almost always has a shadow side. What we think of as bad almost always involves some hidden good somewhere along life’s way. It seems that there may be a good side and a bad side to everything.

That ambiguity continues in the readings from Ephesians and John. For the spirit or spirits in Ephesians can be both good and bad. In Ephesians the unlovable are loved. And being dead brings life. And being broken opens us to God’s grace. And being poor in the spirit opens us to immeasurable riches.

And in John the light struggles with the darkness as God does something horrible: sacrifices a child, so that there might be new life. And this horrible salvation is something deeply intimate and also for everyone and all of creation. And the lifting up on a horrible cross becomes a sign of love. And there is no condemnation, but there is also a sense of being lost. And all we can do is try to examine in the light of day what we are doing so that we can try to do the right as we are given the power to see the right.

This week, you and I may not encounter any snakes, but I am sure in this metaphorical desert that you and I will face some sort of moral ambiguity. We will need to figure out whether or not something is good or bad. We will need to make decisions that involve the good and bad in ways we could not predict. Usually, no matter what the issue, we will find truth in things that seem contradictory. We can only try to do the right as we are given the power to see it. It’s been that way since they discovered snakes in the desert in the book of Numbers.

So we muddle through this ambiguity knowing:

  • That one God watches over us, and all creation.
  • That God is behind all that is, however we judge it.
  • That God is giving us a helping hand, a new light, a fresh perspective on whatever snakes we encounter as we dialog with other tribes.
  • That although we may disagree about the snakes, we are bound together in a common faith that God will see us through this.
  • That we gradually move all moral questions along a path toward healing, wholeness, compassion, and love.
  • And that we hold the memory of Jesus whose death brings life, whose sorrow brings joy, whose loss is gain, and who in the face of violence and hatred, offered peace and compassion.

Reflection for March 8, 2015

Exodus 20:1-17, I Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22 

Three ancient voices today speak to how we approach those issues we face in our lives, our actions, our relationships, and our communities. Each ancient voice shares a different insight. Together they provide fresh ways of thinking for our problems. They may be helpful to us as we consider the events of Friday evening.

The first reading reminds us that sometimes it’s best to work with guidelines and rules. Our first reading today is often called the Ten Commandments.  Usually the commandments are divided into two tables: those commandments in relation to God and a second group that speaks to our relations with others. But it might be helpful to remember that this is written not when Moses came down from a mountain but at a later time of national reconstruction. This passage of Exodus is a retelling of the story of Moses. And the structure of this re-telling of the story reveals the combination of different strands of material to form one common code. Three strands are woven together to form eleven commands.

Yes, there are actually eleven commandments; which may be a clue that our usual approach may be something we press upon the passage. In order to get to the number ten, two commandments regarding God are often combined. Martin Luther subsumed the commandment about no graven images under you shall have no other gods. That works. Some combine the two commandments regarding coveting into one in order to get to the number ten. That works too. But in the end there are actually eleven commands.

Instead of two tablets of Ten Commandments, I’m going to suggest that the eleven commandments are the combination of three streams of thought about human life together and living well. Each stream is distinct and still visible both in content and style in the reading we have this morning. First comes material about God, worship and ritual.  This material is somewhat verbose. There are explanations and details which indicate that the issues regarding ritual are complicated rather than simple and perhaps the subject of controversy. Controversy always generates many words. Yet here we gain the clear impression that the God to be worshiped is a God beyond all gods, beyond all words, images, and descriptions.

We are warned that our attempts to describe God are limited. We are never able to understand or communicate the vastness of God. So we recognize the vanity of our pretensions to speak about God or portray God. And at the same time we are called to be faithful to and fully participate in the rites of our faith. Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy is a call to fully embrace the spirit while recognizing the limits of our understanding. Further in this section of the passage, remembering who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going is important in the life of the spirit.

(Interestingly, doing the faith is seen as practicing a Sabbath rather than sacrificing an animal. In the time of Moses, to sacrifice would have been the command. But by the time of the prophets, remembering the Sabbath in the synagogue rather than sacrificing in the Jerusalem temple was the way faith was practiced.)

This first cluster of religious material calls us to fully enjoy and participate in our faith while at the same time remembering that God is beyond all our efforts to describe God. Our God is ineffable. But let us remember and recall God’s faithfulness as we praise God together.

Then a very different voice is heard, with a change in form, style, and topic. Instead of the longer detailed sentences, we have four or five simple, direct, and straight forward injunctions. Honor your parents. You shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, or lie. These terse directives are not concerned about ritual behavior but express basic rules for human life together. Their short, direct form indicates that they were widely known, considered foundational, and used broadly. There was not really a need to explain them. Such behaviors are the necessary building blocks of society. This voice reminds us that there are still simple principles for human life involving restraint and respect that are important for us as we consider our own problems and face complex issues.

(Actually, I am going to suggest that there are four commands here and not five. I think the first phrases of the paragraph, honor your parents so that your days may be long is an introduction to what follows. The introduction grounds the four foundations of society in the past and future. To me the passage reads: In order that our parents and heritage be honored, and in order that our future is secure; we shall restrain from killing, stealing, adultery, and lying. What a strong insight for all human interaction.)

These simple principles for human life together end with the word neighbor. This word is a turning point that moves us into the third stream or voice. The neighbor section assumes human settlement in households, villages, towns, and cities. It is probably the most urban voice. This third voice is wordier than the simple statement of basic principles. Life in the neighborhood has become and still is more complex as people live closer together. People have neighbors, and you know how that is. This voice speaks to neighborliness: approaching one’s neighbor with a sense of good will, voluntarily restricting one’s desire to possess what our neighbor has. In a list-making style, this voice speaks for good will toward the neighbor. This voice speaks to building a common good as humans live in complex urban settings.

So the three streams of command bound together remind us that we have only a limited vision of the deeper realities. Rejoicing in our faith, we are also humbly aware of the limits of our thought and practice.  Then we are reminded of the straightforward principles upon which human life is built. Then we are called to the delicate task of respecting our neighbor and caring for the neighborhood.

These three voices still speak as we consider how we might best live with God and with each other. But sometimes the rules, commands, regulations, and guidelines don’t really work for us. Sometimes we find ourselves facing new problems and delicate situations. Or there is so much human pain or suffering that the rules cannot function as they ought.  So now and then we need not the law, but the capacity to discern, to reflect, to discover a new path.  And the second two readings move us from the basic guidelines for living into how we think about things, how we discern what needs to be done, and how to solve a problem, especially when we encounter life on the edges.

In the second reading, for Paul there are three ways of thinking about something: (1) signs, or proof or verification, (2)  wisdom, reasoning, or thinking things through, and (3) realizing that some things are a paradox: such as the death of Jesus becoming the life of the world.  Verification; good reasoning; creative-paradoxical insight. We need all three dimensions of discernment as we make up our minds. Sometimes we do need the facts. And there comes a time when more and more facts are not all that helpful as we shape what is happening by good reasoning. And then sometimes we need to get creative, poetic, or paradoxical, and reach into other parts of our brain to find the solution to that which seems impossible. This is the framework for human discernment.

And then we come to the community of the beloved disciple responsible for the gospel of John. The third reading also speaks to the art of discerning and human reflection. All through the book of John the insight is look for the metaphor. Look for the symbolic meaning, what something represents, or the deeper implications; moving beyond or below the surface. Metaphors are the representation of the spiritual in the physical.

In John, water from a well represents the water of life. Bread fed to the multitude becomes the bread of life. Nicodemus is confused because he takes Jesus’ concept of birth literally while Jesus is talking about new life in the spirit. In John, Jesus is the lamb, the door, the way, the light. It’s all metaphors. In this reading the metaphor is the temple. Jesus is talking about the temple as his body. The metaphor speaks to his death as a sacrifice that brings healing, recovery, and hope — like a sacrifice of an animal in an ancient temple. Look for the metaphors around us. Discern the deeper patterns embedded in the details. Step back for a different perspective. For John the everyday practical events become windows into something deeper: the spiritual patterns and yearnings that shape our lives.

This weekend especially, as we reflect on Friday evening, we begin to look for the metaphor, to look for the deeper and underlying themes which the tragic loss of life represents. As we do so, we ense the issues of violence, the use of weapons, criminal justice, community policing, racism, respect for authority, poverty, mental illness, and (still more deeply) a call for justice and mercy.

And as we discern what is happening, we will need to focus on the facts, or verify, and also think things through, and also get creative. And let us fully delight in our religious heritage, even as we appreciate the limits of our own words, images, and understandings: living boldly with just a few basic principles that honor our heritage and secure our future:  while we respect rather than resent our neighbors as we share this neighborhood together.