Reflection for June 26, 2016

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

      I must say at this point in my life, I am attracted to the passage in I Kings regarding the old prophet Elijah. In the preceding verses, Elijah has said that he wants to retire from being a prophet, bring it all to an end. And this is the story of God’s response to Elijah laying down his mantle. He is to anoint two kings as a public act of political resistance, and then he is to anoint his own successor: Elisha. This is the story of succession planning for an old prophet who never really was that qualified to be a prophet in the first place. He is often depressed or angry. Often gruff or abrasive. But there was no one better equipped to do theological combat with the prophets of the fertility religion that was creeping into Israel. No one better suited to do theological combat with the prophets of Baal.

And so the old Elijah literally passes the mantle on to Elisha. Elisha will follow him for a bit in the next few chapters and then succeed Elijah when he ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot.

In the details of the story are embedded the differences between the two prophets as the story shifts our attention from the old to the young. Elijah with a J means YHWH is God! The name is the combination of two traditions for God. The Lord or YHWH tradition of the desert. And the God or EL tradition of the city. The name was perhaps a religious battle cry. YHWH is God!

Elisha with an S has a softer sound than the J. And Elisha was more nuanced and socially graced than Elijah with the harder J sound. S sounds are softer than J sounds. Elisha with an S means God is savior or God is abundant. It’s a shift from a battle cry to a proposition. Elijah was more of a loner of the desert. Elisha was involved in society and political life. Elisha came from a wealthy family. He had oxen at his disposal. And when it was time to leave home, he decided to throw a big party using the oxen and their wooden yokes to cook a great feast. Elijah would not be caught dead throwing a party. The prophets were different in many ways, but they both faced the challenges of changing religious times, war, and famine; seeking always to express the will of God in times of struggle as mantles were passed from one generation to the next. I like this passage.

But perhaps more relevant to us is the reading from Galatians. We have been reading from Galatians for some time. We are in the closing verses. Galatians was written by Paul to the new churches in Asia Minor or Turkey. In the letter he is angry because people have been telling the Galatians that in order to follow Jesus, they must follow Jewish religious laws and customs. After all Jesus was Jewish. Paul says that religious regulation is not what makes a Christian. It is our belief in Jesus. We are justified by faith not by works.

Galatians says that we are free from the law. It has become known as the great magna carta of the Christian faith. We are free to live as we wish, living as either Jew or Gentile, since we are bound to God through Jesus. Nothing else is required.

And yet in this chapter something else is required for life together. Freedom can become licentiousness. We are not free to hurt other people. We are not free to live pointless lives lost in conspicuous consumption as the planet goes to hell. We are not free to put ourselves and our wants before others. Jesus would not want that. And our faith in Jesus causes us to align our lives to the principles of compassion, justice, fairness and love.

So we are free in Christ. And yet we are bound by Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is a limit to freedom. I think this is important for us in these days.

Over a year ago now I read yet another book on spirituality in America which said that there is a difference between being spiritual and being religious. Being spiritual involves listening for the voice of God within us. It was a good thing to be spiritual in this book. Being religious however meant following a certain set of rules prescribed by a hierarchy and going to church and adhering to a doctrine. It was good to be spiritual. Bad to be religious. And then the author started to described the spiritual life.

That description included several chapters devoted to the problems facing the spiritual person. One needed discipline it turns out to do spiritual practice. And the author had a particular prescribed method for doing it right rather than aimless wandering. And there were some suggestions that other spiritual leaders may not be so good. And there were guidelines to be followed, and actually a group one could join or form so that one did not feel so isolated. For it turns out that one is spiritual without being religious for only a chapter or two. It turns out that there are limits on spiritual freedom just as there are limits on all freedoms, as we practice the faith in our hearts and in our relationships. And churches, if they have any perspective on themselves, at least have the advantage of knowing how badly we humans can mess up religion and the historical necessities needed to avoid the worst disasters of organized spirituality.

Even Paul’s Magna Carta on freedom in its closing chapters turns to the means by which a good life is constructed. Yes, we all desire freedom, as much of it as possible. But we also need limitations on those freedoms for the sake of a common good and the well being of our neighbor.

Next weekend will be dedicated to freedom with the 4th of July. These days there is a lot of talk about the need to get government off our backs and to restore freedom and individual initiative, especially in our economy. We value freedom and free enterprise. As well we should. Every summer 4th of July is one of several national festivals beginning with Cinco de Mayo and Syttende Mai in May, followed by the 4th of July, followed by Bastille Day, followed by Bundesfeier in Switzerland in August. All of these national days of independence echo the liberation found in Passover of the book of Exodus. Freedom is profoundly important.

But we are not free to hurt those around us. We are not free to do whatever we want, especially if it hurts our neighbor. Our freedom sometimes requires government and rules and laws to protect and defend our mutual and common good. Embedded in each personal freedom is a public responsibility. Balance is needed. That balance is not easy to achieve. The freedom to bear arms has its limits. Free market economies will always require regulation. In these times when we look down on government and those who work for the civic good, when we feel like we should be free to do what we want whenever we want; we should note that there is a role for government engagement to defend the good which allows our freedom to flourish with liberty and justice for all. Government and regulation allow us to define and defend the public for which we stand. Paul wants freedom to ring in Galatians. He also wants there to be limits on liberty. For even the most inspired spirituality will eventually require some discipline. And that mantle of responsible freedom has now been thrown over our oxen.

 

         

Reflection for June 19, 2016

Isaiah 65:1-9, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

     The Galatians reading continues the series from this book of the Bible. The reading from Luke continues the series from this book of the Bible. The Isaiah reading was chosen by the lectionary committee to compliment the reading from Luke. Both Isaiah and Luke refer to pigs. Both have people doing things in cemeteries. Both have a dark side to them. But sometimes it is best to get the most difficult chores out of the way the first thing in the morning. And sometimes it’s best to start with the most challenging verses of the readings. And those verses would be the ancient Middle Eastern proverb quoted by the poet Isaiah in the first reading.

Thus says the Lord: As the wine is found in the cluster,  and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it’, so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.

These are the most difficult verses of the day because we really don’t know what the parable refers to. And that in itself is important to recognize. Sometimes we don’t know what the Bible means. It’s a little more complicated than standing on the capitol steps, thumping away, using the Bible to prop up your particular point of view. The Bible is sometimes a difficult partner in bringing the longing of God to light.

This particular proverb’s meaning is lost. We can get some clues to its origin by the way in which Isaiah applies it. But we don’t really know what the original reference was: As the wine is found in the cluster, they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it.’ As Martin Luther says over and over in the Small Catechism, “What does this mean?”

Isaiah is using the proverb to talk about a remnant or leftover after a great destruction or harvest. Chapter sixty-five comes from a time of bitter defeat and exile in Babylon. The poet says that a great harvest or destruction has come. But the destruction is not complete. There is hope. But how is that related to clusters of grapes? As the wine is found in the cluster, they say, ‘do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it’.

There are several possibilities, all having to do with grape picking and winemaking. Sometimes people think that the proverb is about the crushing of the grapes to get the juice. After the juice has been squeezed out of the grapes, the pulp or the clusters remain in the bottom of the vat. The pulp should not be thrown away. These leftovers can be used to make something. Think of grape jelly. Now that’s a blessing.

But another possibility is what we in Wisconsin would call winter wine. After the great harvest, for us usually in early September, some clusters of grapes remain on the vine, missed by the pickers. Gradually as the leaves fall, these grapes over-ripen and then they freeze. Remaining on the vine increases the sugar content of the grape. And then these clusters are gathered to make a very expensive, deeply rich, sweet winter wine that is produced in very small quantities. Even after the great harvest, wine will still be found in the remaining clusters. It will be a special small, wonderfully sweet wine.

Or there is another possibility. Some years the harvest is not good. There can be many reasons for this. But after a bitter harvest, when perhaps much is lost, there may be a tendency to give up on the clusters and the vines themselves. For the sake of the future harvests and with all their possibilities for fecundity, the proverb reminds the vine grower to protect that which makes the clusters. Have patience through the difficult times.

So we may have the call to patiently protect the vines. Or we may have the vision of sweet winter wine. Or we may be talking about the pulp that remains in the bottom of the vat. We don’t know.

But in each case the prophet is talking about a leftover, a remnant, or care for a future after a great harvest or a very poor one. And that sense of retaining hope, of reusing and recycling confidence, of wine in the winter, of sustaining the future is important for Isaiah and us.

Each of us faces times of harvest, times of winnowing, challenging times when we feel crushed in the vat of life, left for dead hanging on the vine, beyond redemption in light of the current crops failures. Sometimes we face those feelings as we look at the hatreds of our own world and the violence they spawn. Sometimes we feel this way as we face the inhumanity embedded in current affairs as we witness the death of so many. At other times, we feel this way about things in our personal lives as we face a startling difficulty or the consequences of our own actions.

Like these ancient ones, we so often forget the values upon which we are founded: the compassion, love, and mutual good will offered to all in Jesus. We wander far from our spiritual roots. But when we are all laid low, crushed, forsaken, or empty, the poet’s proverb reminds us of the rare wine to come: the wine of recovering from the disaster, the wine of reconciliation in the bottom of the barrel, the wine of renewal in the face of even demonic possession.

For demons have invaded the homeless person in the gospel of Luke. Here is the genuine homelessness in the New Testament. He is demon possessed, mentally ill. He can’t hold a job. His family has disowned him. He lives in the cemetery. Among the graves, he assumes a ghostly aura. He haunts the city, casting shadows as he passes by.

Like many in these situations, he has special insight into the spiritual. He knows who Jesus is. Today’s confrontation with ultimate compassion restores some of the person underneath all the illness. The forsaken swine become the means of recovery. And no one is really sure what to make of this.

For this story in Luke is also a mysterious proverb. It is about how we move out of our preoccupations with death and the deadly ways that capture our imagination and hearts. It is about how there is still some good juice at the bottom of the barrel, a blessing even when we’ve lost it all, including our homes, when life is empty, when we’ve been left to hang on the vine, been crushed for the sake of someone else’s juice. The forces that overwhelm us in the vineyard of death are legion. And yet ultimate compassion brings us to the blessings that remain in the leftovers we never really believed were there and have often disregarded.

Today, may you and all of us move. Move beyond that which binds us, that which we treasure more than what is right and good, that which keeps us in the cemetery, that which feels like our end. Today may you move. Move into the new life that comes after the crush of the harvest, that comes with the departure of the forces that bind. For as the wine is found in the cluster, they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing.’

     

Reflection for June 12, 2016

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3 

In today’s readings there are six women. There are at least three different religious traditions. There are two parables. There are two angry men embroiled in two disputes. And one king behaving badly. And then there is Jesus.

Let’s start with the women. Of course there is Bathsheba in the first reading. She is not seen as a temptress, more as a victim of a king’s lust. Her husband is killed. She will lose a child. The story teller does not blame her, but the king. Then there is the woman in the story of Jesus, unnamed, who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears. Again, through Jesus, the story teller sees her more as a victim than a temptress. As she feels the shame of her exploitation by men, she feels release and forgiveness in her encounter with the compassionate one. She feels whole and good again. And she is grateful.

And then there are the women followers of Jesus in Luke. Quite a few are named. They are all praised for supporting the mission. In Greek, that word support is not limited to serving meals. It involved that, but also financial support and management of the growing movement, and everything in between. Some of these women were women of means and major donors. The stakeholders in the Jesus movement are women. As we learn more about the early church and how it came to be, we discover how women played not a secondary role but a founding role in their Roman households and funerary societies in which the Gentile church grew. Today women continue to found the church as they exercise gifts of service and leadership.

Six women. And then there are three religious traditions in these readings. Two are found in the first reading today. The Hebrew Scriptures occasionally combine two or more traditions. Sometimes the text we have seems to repeat itself, as it does here. When that happens, the ancient scribe is combining two different traditions of the story into one narrative. Two of the traditions use different names for God. The old desert tradition uses the word YHWH translated as The Lord. The other later, more sophisticated tradition of the city and temple uses the word ELOHIM translated usually as it is here God. The Lord God of Israel is actually a double condemnation of the king’s behavior by the prophet Nathan. Both traditions, old or new, desert or city, tent or temple, condemn the actions of the king whose lust has led to murder, and whose sin is revealed in the parable. There are just some things that are wrong no matter which value system you hold.

The third religious tradition is Christianity, the tradition of Galatians and Luke this morning. But it is not the Christianity we know. It’s so new that it’s not even a tradition yet. There are no churches as we know them. Just gatherings of people who have little in common except an interest in the story of Jesus and the work they do together to help people in need, run clinics and hospitals and shelter all the orphans. They gather on Sunday evenings for shared food, song, and reflection. They come from all walks of life, rich and poor, powerful and slaves, soldiers and refugees, and they struggle with each other as they try to figure out how to live. The only thing that holds them together is a trust in the story of Jesus. But that seems to be enough, as they slowly find their way. And this primitive Christianity has so much to teach us about being church in the coming decades.

There are two parables. Each told by a prophet. Each has an edge to it that cuts into authority’s responsibility and responsiveness. Each gently lifts up the woman victimized by men. Each moves us into the challenges of forgiveness, restitution, and making things right again. What is the story that cuts into your heart? The story that tells of your own struggles with forgiveness, restitution and making things right again?

There are too angry men: Nathan and Paul. Each speaks the truth with honesty and intensity. Their sense of conviction, purpose, and intent is clear to all. Such anger always leads the way to what really matters. What really mattered and what still does is living with integrity, trusting in God rather than human endeavor, and treating our neighbor with justice and kindness.

And there are two intense disputes. In Galatians we see how these first Christians struggled with whether or not one should become Jewish in order to be Christian. They went back and forth on this. Eventually, as more and more non-Jews became Christian, they decided that only belief in Jesus was needed to belong and practice the faith. Today we still struggle sometimes maintaining the clarity of conviction to trust only in Jesus and are tempted always to make Christianity more complicated or focused on a bunch of rules, or expectations, or someone’s secondary agenda.

The second intense dispute is in Samuel. Often this story is interpreted as the lonely prophet Nathan having the personal courage to stand up to the powerful king and condemn his unjust acts. We like to say he speaks truth to power. As we learn more about this era, we begin to sense however that the struggle is between two political ideologies: the idea of having a strong, all powerful king on the one hand and a strong, all powerful temple and religious system on the other. Monarchy is a new thing in Israel. And it threatens the older power of the religious elite. This memory of the confrontation between David and Nathan is grounded in this struggle between two power centers for the heart and soul of the nation. The writer of I and II Samuel comes from the priestly side of the conflict. The writer recognizes the value of kingly power, but at the same time places limits on that power so that the priests remain in charge of many things.

And then here is the story of a king behaving badly, as told by the powerful priests. Both founding religious traditions are evoked in the condemnation of David. There are religious limits to the power of the king to take what he wants. He will suffer consequences.

Perhaps our best learning from this struggle is that there are powerful interests behind most stories, shaping and reshaping who becomes the hero, and who becomes the villain. Powerful interests create narratives that appeal to our sense of the right even as they support their own agenda. And yet, despite all that, there are things that we know to be good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, regardless of who is telling the story and why.

Because after six women, three different traditions, two parables, two angry men, two disputes, and one king behaving badly, after all of that is said and done, there is just Jesus. We have one Jesus, who challenges the religious and civil powers and pressures, who cares for the victims of exploitation, who offers forgiveness and recovery, and whose words today call us to lean into healing and forgiveness, fully accepting it, and fully living it as we rejoice together.