Reflection for January 31, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Probably the most important thing about being human is security regarding food, clothing, shelter, and safety. Those are probably the most important things.
But right after that sense of security come two other important things about being human which are raised in the readings today.
The first of these two things is finding and trusting your authentic or true self, your reason for being, your purpose, or your basic identity. Who are you? And why?
The first and third readings today speak of two people who are getting in touch with their deep selves, their authentic identities. And both are given a hard time by family, friends, or the people around them because of who they are. The passage from Jeremiah is his attunement to his role as prophet, his authentic self, his identity embedded in him since before he was born. He is “called” to be a prophet: to proclaim the word of God. He is probably one of the most rejected prophets ever. You can see in the reading today, he and his message are being rejected because he is a young person. Young people can’t be prophets! He is too young to know what he is talking about! This is just the first of many forms of rejection that surround Jeremiah’s life and work. But note that he is firm in his understanding that he is called by God to this identity and that he will attune himself to this purpose. His real, true self gives him the courage he needs.
The passage from Luke is the attunement of Jesus to his deeper identity, his real purpose, his authentic self, his true nature. This incident in Luke comes at the beginning of his work. He is chosen by God to lift up the values of the old prophet Isaiah and to embody those values of caring for others and restoring joy. He is called to this identity, this purpose.
But he and his message are being rejected because he is the son of a carpenter or stone mason. What does he know? Carpenters can’t teach about God! He should be thrown off a cliff for such arrogance! His family, his friends, and his village all reject him. But note that he is firm in his understanding that he is called by God to lift up the old values that make life new. And this attunement to his true identity gives him the courage to face this withering rejection.
Today we might say that you should find your passion, or that you need to live your life the way you want to, or to be honest with yourself and others about who you are, or that you should find the work that suits you or something like that. Those are all good things. They are part of finding and living your true self. Many these days struggle with finding their authentic sense. Sometimes the issues involve sexual orientation, or the high expectations of family, or the limitations placed on us by limited resources, or the color of our skin, or not being able to clear away the pressures of friends or our culture. It can be difficult to be attuned to one’s true inner nature. It has been so since the time of Jesus and Jeremiah.
But whatever our struggle with identity, Jesus and Jeremiah remind us that we gain courage for the struggle as we deepen our self rather than deny it, as we move further into what matters rather than what people want or expect.
In his book, Becoming Who You Are, (Hidden Spring, Boston, 2005) James Martin, speaks of how Thomas Merton sought to move through of the layers of false self that need to be peeled away on the inner journey into the true self, that place of compassion, peace, joy, and justice where one is finally attuned not only to one’s self but also to God.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, (New Dimensions, NY, 1961) Thomas Merton writes: We must be saved from the sea of lies and passions which is called the world. And we must be saved from the abyss of confusion and absurdity which is our worldly self. The person must be rescued from the individual. The free child of God must be freed from the conformist slave of fantasy, compassion, and convention. The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, destructive ego that seeks to cover itself with disguises. (p.38)
In his book Immortal Diamond, the Search for Our True Self, (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2014) Richard Rohr says that we encounter God as we encounter our deeper self: The good, the true, the beautiful are always their own best arguments for themselves. Anything downright good, anything that shakes you with its trueness or beauty, does not just educate you. It transforms you. As we align ourselves with our deeper inner identity we are transformed, changed, and moved to courage we did not know we had. This courage comes from this inner encounter with God. (pp. 92-93) Its power and force creates the resurrection of the soul and body.
The human journey into courage is much more than finding your passion so that you can be a well-adjusted employee with obtainable career objectives. Jesus and Jeremiah, despite their youth and social backgrounds and despite the rejection, are grounding their sense of being in the One Who Is: the one who stands just underneath all being, the one who calls us by name and challenges us to live life to its fullest.
So let us encounter ourselves again, find ourselves, and live the lives we want to live, saved from the sense of falseness which pervades most of what passes for meaning and life.

But Thomas Merton also once said that introspection does not lead to isolation. And that brings us to the second reading, the one about loving others. The capacity to nourish and be nourished in relationships is that second theme of the readings this morning. We do need the security of food, clothing, shelter and safety. And we do need to find ourselves, our true selves. And the third thing is living together, living in community.
Sometimes life together is broken, as it is twisted to conform to false expectations and manipulated to sustain power. That happens in families, households, communities, nations, and churches. But we are not and never were meant to be people alone. We are called to life together. And the only thing that will make life together work is love. That is the theme of I Corinthians 13.
The love of which Paul speaks is not the love of brides and grooms. It’s about more than that. Paul intends these words to apply to all human relationships and all human community, especially those groups of people that are having trouble getting along. Paul intended his passage not for weddings but for shaping life together on the more difficult days. For those times, for Paul, love is the most important thing. It is the only thing that will save us from the mess we otherwise make of things.
But for Paul love involves lots and lots of work: forgiveness, willingness to work with others, listening, forbearance, patience, compromise all mark the life of love.
And for Paul just as the self is the pathway into the deep encounter with the sacred, so also love is the one thing that abides, that continues, that goes on and on: drawing us ever more deeply into the compassion of Christ, the grace of God, until overwhelmed by the love we have been given, we are given the courage we need to love, over and over again. Love endures, with hope, gradually giving us a clearer vision of what God intended for us and the world. Love never ends.
Probably the most important thing about being human is some sense of security regarding food, clothing, shelter, and safety. But after that security come two other important things about being human in the readings today: finding and trusting your authentic or true self and moving more deeply into the love of God and those around you.

Reflection for January 24, 2016

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

Chapter eight of Nehemiah relates a critical moment in the recovery of the people of God from a great national disaster long before the birth of Jesus. Nehemiah’s story takes place amid the ruins of the once great city Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been the capital of Israel.
Seventy five years before it had been overrun by foreign invaders. The capital was destroyed by armies who leveled and burned the city. Its inhabitants had been carted off to do forced labor in Babylon. For seventy five years there was no nation of Israel: only remnants and tattered bands of exiled slaves who through the years in Babylon retold the old and faded stories of God creating the world, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the stories of David and Solomon, and the great temple and city. It was all gone, and existed now only in the second and third hand memories of the children and grandchildren of those who had been deported.
Seventy five years is a long time. And kingdoms rise and fall. And the Babylonians were themselves overcome by powerful new armies from the land of Persia. As the Persians overcame the Babylonians, they freed their slaves, and these children and grandchildren of the original exiles were now free to return home. Of course some remained in Babylon. It was the life they knew. But some found their way back home, back to back to the old site of Jerusalem, back to this hill, to these ruins, back to this desolation, and back to the realities of building a new country in the ashes of defeat.
The Persians put a governor in charge of these newly freed slaves. His name was Nehemiah. And Nehemiah was responsible to the Persians for rebuilding this land and this people, out of these ruins.
As the tattered bands returned, Nehemiah, one of the most significant middle managers of the Bible, began to gather the returnees together until there were sufficient numbers to begin the tasks of reconstruction. Nation building is always difficult. There is the challenge of rebuilding agriculture and an economy. There is the task of rebuilding a legal system and government. There is the challenge of rebuilding homes, villages and cities. There is the task of rebuilding lives. These are all tremendous undertakings. But all of that requires first the rekindling of hope. And that is what is going on in chapter eight. A new hope is born. A sense of national identity and purpose are restored to a shattered people.
They have gathered in the public square: perhaps a hundred or so who had made their way back. Each day everyone came to the square to get water. And at the water gate of the square, at the community well, a public meeting was called early in the morning when people came to get their water.
Nehemiah, the governor, began the public forum. Knowing that these dispirited refugees needed to find their purpose, find themselves, find their bearing and their hope, he turned the meeting over to a priest who was there. The priest was named Ezra. In the charred ruins of the temple an old copy of the Torah had been found, an old copy of the laws and stories of the people. A charred, tattered but still readable copy of the law had somehow survived the wreckage.
Ezra, the priest, began to read from this dusty, newly discovered scroll. The reading took several hours. And then it was followed by interpretation.
At first the reading only brought tears and sorrow. It was a heavy reminder of all that been destroyed and lost. These were the scrolls of their lost parents and grandparents. The reading brought to mind the tragedy of their lives. And the readings spoke grandly of this place which now lay in complete ruin. There were many tears.
And much of what the scrolls contained did not make sense anymore in this situation in which they now found themselves. But gradually, as the people settled into the word, as the interpretation or application or adaptation began to emerge, as the underlying framework for how to live, how to pray, how to love even strangers began to reveal itself in this tattered scroll, the mood changed. These motley, dispirited bands of people had an identity after all. This group had a purpose, a history, a reason to be, and a way to live. And grounded in that purpose again, at that moment they became a people again. They knew who there were. They had something to hope for. Something to rebuild.
And when Ezra, the priest was finished, and the interpretation completed, then Nehemiah, the governor, announced that the time for tears was over. It was time to party. There was feasting. And that was followed by the long and hard, but inspired rebuilding process.
This chapter of the Bible lasted an entire morning. And it has lasted for decades of centuries. For this day we still gather in the mornings to re-discover who we are. Each week, in the morning, we gather in this sacred rectangle to share the dusty, ancient word, discovered in pages almost never read the ways to be. This day we not only read the ancient words, we also interpret them for our present time. We still gather, by the baptismal water that is the gateway, by the gate or threshold created by bread and wine, to hear the word and to ground ourselves again in its dusty truths, so that we can rebuild our lives, our community, and our world, one week at a time. It lasted the entire morning, and that morning shaped the mornings of the people of God for thousands of years to come.
The rebuilding of hope. That is what we do. In public squares. In the darkness of a homeless shelter late at night. In the conversation between those who are mentally ill during the day. In the conversation of eastside friendships that have lasted all our lives. In the hearts of people wondering about how they are ever going to make it. And in the minds of people who are seeking to make a deeper sense of things or to make a difference as they find their way in this neighborhood. We build hope. That is what we do.
Building hope is a lot of work. It requires more than a book and its interpretation. It requires many things, too many things for one person. It requires people working together, over the long haul, bringing different skills and different ideas so that gradually things come together and then change. That is the insight of the second reading this morning. The hopeful body requires many parts, many skills, many gifts, and many roles. The people around us who are different are not our enemies. God has placed them in our world as part of that hopeful body. Their presence, skills and wisdom are needed to build that hope, to continue the reconstruction and renewal that always needs to take place.
As this renewal, this reconstruction, this hope shaping happens, God is always breaking into the scene, using our past, giving us ancient words and fresh ideas, introducing us to the variety of people around us. When hope is born, God is breaking into the scene. God is always breaking new ground, renewing the present moment, making it the moment of importance, calling us to live in the present where hope is kindled.
And that is the point of Jesus in the synagogue this morning. Four hundred years after Nehemiah, on a Sabbath morning Jesus once again read from a dusty scroll, the scroll of Isaiah. And then he did a one line interpretation: now is the time to hope; now is the time for change; now is the time to rebuild your life for this coming week. Hope is not about some glorious or disastrous past. It is not about some promised future. It is not about what we worry about, or what we long for. It is always God breaking into the now, this moment of your life, offering you new possibilities on, yes, even this cold January morning.
For once again, we have opened the dusty and mostly unread scrolls in this sacred space, we have heard the ancient words, we have considered them for our lives, and it is now time to feast at the font, before the gateways of the water, bread and wine, moving beyond our tears into this day, this week, this now. What are you rebuilding? What is God doing with you now?

Reflection for January 10, 2016

Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptism. Today is the larger church’s remembrance of the baptism of Jesus. The last two readings focus on baptism. They are from Luke and Acts, two volumes of church history written by the same person toward the end of the first century.
Perhaps seventy years before Luke and Acts were written, as Christianity was in its very first years, and was still really nothing more than a Jewish sect, a merger took place. It was the first merger in Christian history. It was the merger of the followers of Jesus and the followers of John the Baptist. And the fingerprints of that merger are all over these passages today, as these two different Jewish reform movements came together after the deaths of their leaders.
Reform was in the air in first century Palestine. For some it was a revolt against Roman rule. The Romans had been ruthless. For others reform focused on economic oppression. This was not a trickle down economy. It was a trickle up economy. Wealth from the land was to trickle up to the wealthy establishment.
For others, reform was religious: the temple system of worship and sacrifice, now used by the Romans to keep control, was rejected by many reformers. And generally in the first century, people were moving away from established pagan temple worship into something new. Religion was increasingly based on the individual’s belief. Instead of slaughtering animals in both Jewish and pagan temples, worship should involve building a sense of community. At the core of this renewal was a rejection of established temple leadership, and a call to live in a way that lead to justice, fairness, and compassion. The term for that was repentance. And repentance did not involve one’s social, political, or economic heritage, but one’s spirit, one’s desire, one’s hope.
The reform movements of John and Jesus both were born in, with, and under this mix. John’s was a movement of personal and communal renewal located in the desert. People came out to John in the desert to hear the words, to be baptized, and to renew their lives. The Jesus movement was in towns and villages and emphasized healing: first physical healing, and then spiritual and social healing. All these reform movements were seen as threats to the temple and Roman authorities and the establishment in general. They were. And so John was beheaded and Jesus crucified.
But the movements did not die. For several reasons probably, in the years following the deaths of Jesus and John, the Jesus movement grew more quickly than the John movement. But very soon there was some kind of merger, and the two reform movements became one. Stories about John and Jesus were woven together in the memory of the newly merged community. Since the Jesus movement was larger, John was remembered as less important, but as making substantial contributions to the now larger community. It may have been the case that the merger gave both of them the resources they needed to grow within the Jewish tradition. And all of the stories of the life of Jesus we now have somehow weave together the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus.
As they negotiated this ancient merger, the followers of John realized they were in the back seat on most matters. But they negotiated well, and made sure of two things: that John would not be forgotten in the memories of the new group. And that John’s practice of baptism would be the ritual by which all believers came into the fellowship. It was agreed by all that the baptism would be in the name of Jesus, and the deal was made.
Followers of both John and Jesus were then baptized in the name of Jesus using a ritual reflecting the practice of John. This means that the followers of John were probably re-baptized, this time in the name of Jesus. And the community grew.
Later, but not much later, the united movement began to work its way out of Jewish circles into the general Gentile population. And Gentiles added another layer of concerns, matters, and issues, reflected in the letters of Paul in the New Testament, and in the book of Acts.
I believe that the movement was able to adjust to the Gentiles and to assimilate this new layer of non-Jewish followers because they already knew what it would take to accomplish a merger. Based on their experience they hammered out a way to follow Jesus that embraced both sides, Jew and Gentile. This way to follow Jesus was not based on following Jewish law, but on faith. You did not need to follow the Jewish law or be circumcised to be a Christian: only believe in Jesus. But then the ethics of this community became a life based on the principles found in those Jewish laws. And today we still honor the Ten Commandments.
These new Gentile people coming on board valued something called the spirit. The Gentiles of the Greek peninsula were very spiritual. So baptism gets something else added to it. It was important to baptize in the spirit as well as the name of Jesus. And so another layer of meaning was added to baptism. And so people were re-baptized a third time. And that is what we have going on in the book of Acts this morning.
True to the spirit of that first merger, we still baptize. And true to the spirit of that second merger baptism is in the name of Jesus and is done not only with water, but the empowerment of the spirit.
Baptism remains the ceremony by which we welcome new ones into human community, into life together. But baptism is also the empowerment, the foundation for spiritual empowerment, for renewal and change for all those who are part of the fellowship.
And that is what we have done today. We are welcoming Lydia into the human community, into life together, into this world, this family, this community of faith. Today, with water, word, embrace, and tears of joy, we welcome Lydia.
Since the time of John the welcoming involves washing. In the time of Jesus a host would offer water to refresh the guest when the guest arrived. And this water is that sign of hospitality that we offer to Lydia as she begins her life with us all.
And since the time of John, and through the contributions of the later Gentiles to the movement, she is empowered with us in the spirit of God’s love. We are baptized in the spirit of God’s power and might. She and all of us are challenged to, as John would say, repent: to change things about ourselves, our household of faith, our home life, this city, state, nation and world.
And as we do that, we would be wise to follow the insights of those first reformers. The insight that we must come together, we must work with new people and different groups, often negotiating our way into broader and deeper understandings, as we construct a new vision for human life together. For the only way Christianity made it into that first century was by working together for the common good. And that may be the only way humanity will make it through the twenty-first century as well.