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Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Law & the Woman & the Capitol protest: some thoughts on John 8: 3-5

 “The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along
who had been caught committing adultery; and making
her stand there in the middle they said to Jesus: Master,
this woman was caught in the very act of committing
adultery, and in the Law, Moses has ordered us
to stone women of this kind.
What have you got to say?”

--John 8:3-5

 

What a fearful statement.  The scribes and Pharisees make such a fearful claim when they say, Moses ordered us to stone women “of this kind.”  The implication is that the Law, from God, commands us to kill her. What other choice do we have? It’s God’s law! 

 

But then, as if to trick Jesus, they ask: What do you think?

 

There are a few things here I would like to think about.  First, that word “ordered.”  Did God actually “order” His people to kill anyone guilty of adultery? In Leviticus (20:10) and Deuteronomy (22: 23-34) the punishment for adultery is prescribed as death (for both man and woman). And the idea behind it is that it is a grave sin and must be driven out of the community.  So, in a sense the scribes and Pharisees are right.  And yet, how does Jesus respond?

 

His answer isn’t: No. You’re wrong. You misinterpreted the Law. Or even to blame them for spying on the woman. What were they doing, that they were able to catcher “in the very act?”

 

No. He responds with silence.  He kneels down and begins “writing on the ground with His finger.” (8:6) Why?  Why doesn’t He correct them? Why doesn’t He chastise them?  In Matthew’s Gospel, when the same guys come with another question about God commanding a writ of divorce, Jesus seems almost to shake His head and sigh, “It was because of the hardness of your hearts that Moses allowed you to divorce…” (cf. Mt 19:7-9).  Why doesn’t He say something like that here, too?  I wonder. 

 

They are saying something provocative and dangerous. And it is very clear that they have come to Him not seeking answers but an excuse for something they already have in their hearts. They are truly hungry for blood. This crowd has been riled up and is ready to erupt.

 

On some level, they remind me of those people in Washington DC who stormed the capitol. People who were clearly riled up and ready to explode.  They were not in Washington to seek answers or debate issues. From all appearances, they were there to cast stones.

 

I have been wondering about that event for a few days now. The horror of it, the anger that overwhelmed many of the protesters --turning them into a violent mob. Five people died. But I have also been thinking about some of the faces I keep seeing on the news. On many of them I see anger and rage and frustration, but on others I see smiles and something like glee. In some of these pictures and videos, I see what looks more like a bunch of middle-aged high-schoolers out for a last fling—a lark! A kind of Spring Break from Covid and isolation and the exhausting lives they find themselves trapped in.  

 

I do not mean to denigrate their anger, or deny that they may sincerely feel aggrieved; may even sincerely feel like their election was stolen. But… how do we stop this craziness? How do we stop this divisiveness? How do we stop our country, our society, our culture from self-destruction, from becoming nothing but a raging series of reactionary riots?

 

One way might be to look to Jesus for an example.  The crowd comes to Him, ready for a fight, hungering for justification and confrontation.  And instead of correcting them, or engaging in their anger, He listens and even takes notes.  And by doing so—what happens? The tension is released. The crowd is dispersed—in fact, it disperses itself. The frenzy that caught up the crowd has been calmed, because someone helped them slow down and think—slow down and remember who they were. Not riotous murderers, but people, families, fathers and brothers and sons, mothers and daughters and… people. Just ordinary people who have struggled with their own sins and failings, their own weaknesses and longings.

 

Jesus doesn’t argue with them or their understanding of the Law.  He simply listens to them, to their concerns, and then asks them to remember who they are.

 

What a beautiful lesson we get every time we open the scripture. If only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

 

 

 

Lord, open my eyes that I may read Your word more clearly

Lord, open my ears that I may hear Your word more fully

and open my heart, that I may be filled

with the Love that is always found there.

 

 

    

Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Christmas box from a friend

 “…one gift replacing another…”

--John 1:16

 

Gift giving has been on my mind lately.  Tis the season, you know.  In particular, I have been thinking about this one friend of ours who has sent us a gift box every year for the past –almost 30 years it seems.  She was a friend of mine in college, and over the years we have kept in touch by phone and mail, but our lives have gone off in their different directions. After college she moved back to Denver. She married, has 3 grown sons and a daughter. My wife and I are godparents to her daughter and she is godmother to one of ours. Like most people, we keep in touch by phone call and Facebook and letters, and remind each other how much we are loved. But, Barb is different from most friends.  She takes this whole friendship thing to another level.  And it includes gift-wrapping!  Every year just before Christmas she sends us a rather large box (or two--sometimes) filled with wrapped presents.  And when I say filled, I mean filled. She sends us a box full of presents; multiple presents for each member of the household. Books, toys, jewelry, clothing, candy, kitchenware, herbs from her garden. I think she even sent the cats a present one year. Each gift is wrapped and labeled, often with a silly note. And, keep in mind, she’s been doing this without fail for almost 30 years now. Some of the presents are silly, but some are beautiful, and so perfect—they seem like gifts from God. 

 

For instance, a couple of years back she gave me a black plastic fountain pen. It came in a goofy retro ‘50s packaging and looked like it was something she may have just tossed in at the last minute—thinking: Herman likes to write. He might have fun with this. And yet, it quickly become my favorite pen—and now, I do all my writing with it.  I think it may have even changed the way I write! The pen seemed to be filled not with ink, but with words, with ideas, with poems, with inspiration. But, I guess what it was actually filled with was love.

 

We joke sometimes about it, but it has become a part of our Christmas that we all look forward to. Not the presents themselves as much as the box! It has become for us a sign of Christmas, of the promise of Christmas. Has the box from Barb arrived yet?

 

There have been years when her gifts were just about the only presents under our tree.  And though we have on occasion reciprocated with boxes of biscotti and books and crafts and other homemade items, we have never met her level of generosity, nor have we ever been as regular and timely.  Yet still, regardless of our efforts, every year, the box from Barb arrives and on Christmas morning we open it with delight.  Her generosity, her constant and abundant generosity came to mind as I was thinking about this phrase from the beginning of John’s Gospel.

 

“…one gift replacing another…”

 

In other translations it reads something like “grace in place of grace already given…” or “grace upon grace.” Gift upon gift… Whichever translation, I hear in it a statement of overflowing abundance and generosity.  A vision of God’s love; a seemingly bottomless box of personally wrapped presents poured forth again and again! As soon as we open one gift, we find another. And if we aren’t happy with that, there is one more and one more after that.

Reading God’s word, I hear not a message of judgment and warning, so much as a message of love and generosity.  Again and again, the prophets remind us of God’s tender love for His creation.  They remind us again and again of His seemingly endless mercy and the abundance of His grace, His love for His creation. Each time we fail, we stumble and fall, He is there to lift us up and offer us again some new sign of His love, always replacing one gift with another, one grace with another, one covenant laid over another.  Until finally He gives Himself wholly and utterly into our hands. Taking upon Himself all our sins—our stumbles and falls, our rejection of His many gifts—He becomes the gift itself. Unexpected, undeserved, He is the gift.

 

Like that box from Barbara, that box overflowing with gift upon gift, God’s love comes to us grace upon grace and here at Christmas we are called to come together in joy over the abundance of God’s love.  It comes to us again and again, renewed again and again in great and small ways alike—even in the simplest and humblest gifts, individually wrapped and waiting for us to open with delight.  It may look like a Pez dispenser or a bookmark or a box of tea, a pair of socks, or even a newborn baby in a borrowed manger. Thank you Barb for helping me remember, the gift is always love.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Something like a trap--A meditation on God's love

 “…like a trap.” (Luke 21:35) 

 

Reading the ending chapter of Luke’s Gospel, I have come to the passages that have always seemed so fearful and anxiety inducing to me.  Here in chapter 21 Jesus is about to enter into His passion and He is preparing the disciples for what is to come.  There have been questions about authority and about resurrection and now He warns them about the signs and the days to come.  He warns them of wars and earthquakes, of plagues and famines and the persecutions they will suffer.  The temples will fall and a captivity will come that will make Babylon seem like a summer vacation.  And through it all, throughout this almost chapter long warning, Jesus repeatedly reminds the disciples to hold on, to “persevere” and “stand erect” because their “liberation is near at hand.” (21:19 & 28)  

 

And then He adds this odd phrase:

            “…that day will come upon you unexpectedly, like a trap.” (34-35)

 

Reading that phrase I began to wonder—why would Jesus use that image? Where or how is the Love of God to be found in that image of a trap?  Normally when I come to these passages, I read them with a bit of trepidation.  I hear warnings and I hear challenges that seem beyond my mortal strength, and beyond my humble faith.  I read them with the fear that I will fall short, not be up to the challenge; when God’s test comes, I will be found wanting--lost.  That image of God feels not just confrontational, but prosecutorial—as if God had no interest in the outcome, in my salvation. As if my life were just one more show, among the billions and billions of others, He was streaming to kill time until the apocalypse.  It is not a vision of love…

 

But, this morning as I read those words I felt a sudden tinge of hope.  I heard in that phrase “like a trap” not capture and destruction, but the love of a parent.  I heard the cry of a father playing chase in the front yard with his children and seeing one rushing to close to the street, he swoops down and snatches her up and cries out, “I got you!”  

 

And I wondered—why? What would make me hear those words so differently today?  And then I noticed the message that comes right after that trap.

 

“Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive
all that is going to happen, and to hold your
ground before the Son of man.” 
(21:36)

 

And I heard for the first time, the reassurance of this image—not that God is setting a trap for us, to catch us in our sin and throw us into the fire, but that God is setting something “like a trap” for us, to protect us. To gather us into His love and hold us in a safe place—a place where we can find the strength to survive—and that place is prayer.  This thing “like a trap” is not a prison or a cell, but more like a chapel, a place of security, peace, renewal and love.  

 

And it is “like a trap” because God knows we are all afraid sometimes, and that if we are afraid enough, we will flee even from the grace and love of Christ.  So, to gather His flock, sometimes God must set a kind of trap—to protect us even from ourselves, to awaken us to the love, to the grace, of that is always waiting there, at our side, at your elbow, whispering in your ear—you are my beloved.  And hoping only that we will hear, and be stirred to prayer.

 

One last word about this chapter (Luke 21).  It is almost entirely a message about the coming trials, but it begins oddly enough with a brief little observation of a poor widow and her “mite” (21: 1-5). Sitting in the temple, watching the people with their offerings, Jesus points out an impoverished widow who puts two small coins into the treasury and uses her as the example of true giving.  And that is how he begins His lesson on the end-times here in Luke. Why?  Is it possibly because she is also our model of what God asks of us? Not for some heroic gesture or grand sacrifice that will land us on the front page of the New York Times or win the Nobel Prize, but only that –like this widow—we give what we have. Even if it is just two small coins… give it all.

 

The trap is not set against us.  The trap is set for us.  This is the whispering I hear in my ear:  Don’t be afraid… The trap is love.

 

 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Christmas... Again?

 ’What do you want me to do for you?’

‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘let me see again.’”

--Luke 18:41

 

 

Entering Jericho, approaching Jerusalem, near the end of His ministry, Jesus is stopped by a blind man begging beside the road. The crowd has told the blind man to leave Jesus alone, but he only cries out the louder. Hearing his cry, Jesus stops and asks him what he wants, and the man replies:

            “Let me see again.”

 

And Jesus restores his sight. 

 

Again.

 

Again.  That word is what stood out to me this morning as I did my reading.  How many times have I come to God asking to be forgiven “again.”  How many times have I come to God asking to be healed “again?”  How many times have I come asking for help “again?” Asking God to help me see His will, His love, His grace, His presence… Am I not constantly, in one way o another, asking God to let me see again?

 

In the stillness of this quiet morning, let me see Your grace.  In the weird way my daughter loves turtles, let me see Your love for all creation.  Even in my struggles and failings, Lord, let me see Your will.  In the flat tire or the broken alternator let me see Your hand.  In my loneliness and sorrow, let me see Your cross.  In the homeless man walking through traffic, begging for help, let me always see Your face.   

 

Let me see again.

 

Isn’t that the point of Christmas?  To open our eyes. To let us see again…  There had been a time when God walked with man in the shade of the garden.  There had been a time when He went before us –leading us-- as a pillar of cloud, and followed behind –protecting us—as a pillar of fire.  Or when God was seen face to face by Moses, or witnessed in a still small sound by Elijah… God’s glory had been seen or felt in so many ways… But time and again we are blinded by our own glory, by our own worries, our own jealous desires. 

 

And so, He came again. Not in the pillar of smoke or the pillar of flame, not in some mysterious symbolic action or strange radiance or shekinah glory. But in the flesh. As a tiny baby in a simple manger, humble, vulnerable, like one of us… like ALL of us.  And for all to see, again.

 

And again… This year, as you prepare for Christmas take a moment to pray the prayer of this blind man on the road to Jericho.  The crowds may be telling you not to bother with God. The crowds may be telling you to worry more about last minute shopping, and packages and Christmas cards and delivery dates and long lines at the UPS store.  But, don’t listen to the crowd.  For they too are blind.

 

Instead, take a moment to still your heart, pause all the preparations, and the gift-wrapping and cookie baking, and the Hallmark movie marathons, and just sit down for a moment, someplace quiet and still. Light a candle.  Take a moment away from all the busy-ness and close your eyes to all the distractions.  Take a breath and be still. And wait… He is coming. Truly.  In the stillness, can you hear Him?  He is on His way. Now, whisper the blind man’s simple prayer:  Lord, let me see again.

 

 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

So Many Things --a Meditation on Advent, Busy-ness, and Luke 10

 

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You worry
and fret about so many things and yet
few are needed, indeed only one…” 

--Luke 10:41-42

 

 

Martha and Mary—such a famous story; how often have we heard this tale of these two friends of our Lord?  How often have we listened to that famous plea from Martha:  Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? (cf 10:40) And how often have we felt a tinge of sympathy for her plea?  It is such a human cry for help, for recognition, for affirmation.

 

And I hear it echoing in my own heart here at the start of another Advent.  I hear myself crying out incessantly: I have so much to do. How can I get it all done? Work! Chores! Laundry, dishes… Christmas lights to put up! Decorations to dig out of the garage or the attic! Where did we put that wreath? How about the Christmas pug? Did anyone remember to order groceries this week? What’s on Hallmark tonight?  

 

There is so much that wants to get done, that I want to get done.  And the tension of it, the constant busy-ness of it, can lead me away from the one thing needed—to rest in the Lord. 

 

All my life, I have felt a strong sympathy for Martha.  I hear in her plea a cry that echoes in my own.  It is a cry for fairness, for justice!  And it is a cry for recognition. A desperate cry to be noticed—Lord, Lord! Look at me.  See everything I am doing!  See me.  And I know this plea to well.

 

How often have I bitterly cried out to God as I cleaned the cat litter, or fed the cats, or turned on the bathtub so one of them could drink from the spout, or… And how many times have I resentfully folded the laundry? Or bitterly washed a pile of dishes?  Standing there at the sink feeling unappreciated. Unnoticed. Taken for granted.  Feeling like Martha, my soul crying out:  Lord, Lord! Look at me. Don’t You care? I’m overwhelmed! I’m trying to do everything, and nobody seems to notice!

 

And yet, what does Jesus say to her. Not that her work is unappreciated, or unworthy, but…that she has lost he focus.  She is fretting and anxious over many things, but there is only one thing necessary. Only one thing, needed.  And, I am pretty sure, it isn’t the laundry, or the dishes, or the cats… 

 

Just before this story of Martha and Mary, there is another story about a man who is anxious over many things.  He is the lawyer who asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life (10:25ff).  Even when Jesus tells him that he is headed in the right direction, the man can’t rest in peace. He presses the Lord with that famous question: “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29) which prompts the Lord to tell one of His most famous parables—the story of the Good Samaritan (10:30ff). As I was reading this story the other day, I had a strange sense of kinship with the Levite and the priest who simply pass by the Samaritan.  I began to suspect that they weren’t just being cruel and selfish, but that perhaps they were distracted. Maybe the Levite was on his way to HEB to pick up new fuses for the Christmas lights, or the priest was on his way to get cat litter and some worms for his daughter’s turtles!  Maybe they were afraid to stop because they had so many other things they were tying to do… And, perhaps one of the lessons Jesus is teaching us here is the same one He is teaching us in the Martha story.  Don’t get lost in all that busy-ness. Don’t let yourself lose focus.  There really is only thing that matters.  And that is Love.  Act out of love, not out of a desire to be seen, not out of a desire to be affirmed, or to be justified. Not out of guilt or out of bitterness and resentment.  Like St. Therese of Lisieux reminds us, let Love guide your every action, let Love be your focus, because Love is the one thing needed. Whatever you are doing, do it with Love and you will find yourself fulfilled. In fact, the beautiful truth of Jesus is, wherever you turn, whatever you do, you will find Him already there, waiting for you, searching for you, wanting only to let you know you are Loved.  Even in that basket of laundry. Even in that sink of dishes.  Don’t be blinded by the distractions of the many unnecessary things; open your eyes and see the truth of the one thing needed. It is Love, and as the Beatles once sang, All you need is Love.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Those blessed sheep… a few thoughts for the feast of Christ the King

 

“Come you, who are blessed by my Father…”

--Matthew 25:34

 

Such a familiar parable, this story of the final judgment, this judgment of the king.  It comes near the end of Matthew’s gospel and is that wonderful story of the goats and the sheep being separated to the left and right because of how they behaved toward the poor, the sick, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner and the outcast; basically, those in want. It is a wonderful allegory of identity and ignorance, of revelation and reward, of charity and compassion and the sorrowful lack thereof.

 

I have too often focused on the idea of the reward in this story. The fact that the king invites the sheep into His kingdom because they were charitable, and sends the goats away with a curse because they failed to be charitable; that has always stuck with me.  As if it were a warning: be on the lookout! You never know when the king is coming; and He might be in disguise!  And I think that is one of the ways it is commonly read.  As a kind of instructional warning directed at those of us who struggle with selfishness, to be ever vigilant if we want to get invited into God’s kingdom. And I can see that this is a reasonable reading of this parable.

 

And yet, I hear something echo in that word “blessing,” that speaks to me on another level.  I looked up the word this morning. It is translated from the Greek eulogemenoi which literally means “being blessed” or “to be spoken well of; to praise” and is sometimes used to mean the conferral of something beneficial; i.e. praise or good words or a blessing!  But in this passage from Matthew the invitation to come or go is directed at those who “are blessed.” Which sounds like it could also mean that they have already received their reward. They ARE already blessed.  And as I contemplated that phrase I wondered something else.  I wondered about the kind of fable like premise of this parable. 

 

The parable implies that the king has been met and served (or not served) by these people in the guise of a prisoner or a beggar, an outcast or a sickly person.  And who is that “king,” but Jesus (God).  And so what is the reward that the sheep receive for their kindness to Him? They get to be in His kingdom, His presence forever.  And what is the punishment that the goats receive (or earn), but simply to be out of His presence forever (and to burn with hunger for it—I imagine).  And if that is the reward then what about that moment when they fed the hungry? Clothed the naked? Sat with the sick and comforted them, or visited the prisoner, welcomed the outcast?  In those actions, in those moments, when they did these things “for the least of [His] brothers,” isn’t the lesson that they [we] were doing them for Him. And so, in those moments of charity and kindness, where we serve Christ, aren’t we already in His presence? Aren’t we already in His kingdom? And if so, aren’t we already blessed? 

 

As St. Catherine of Siena famously said:  All the way to Heaven is Heaven. 

 

To be with Christ isn’t just a reward, it’s also a way of life.  Every time someone asks us for help, every time someone reaches out to us for consolation or even just a moment’s kindness, we are being invited to receive a blessing. We are being invited into the Kingdom of God.  Let us open our eyes to the glory of that invitation, and let us see in every face the grace of the one who is inviting us to come and meet Him not someday—but right here. Right now. In this moment. In this place. In this person.  And that, my friends, is truly a blessing.

 

Everytime I read my Bible, I am amazed by what I discover about God’s love.  Open your Bible my friends and take a moment to read. I promise you, you will be blessed by what you find there. 

 

Here is a short prayer you might pray before you begin to read.

 

Lord, open my eyes,

that I might read your word more clearly.

Lord, open my ears,

that I might hear your message more fully.

and Lord, open my heart,

that I will be filled with the Love that is found there.

 

 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

On fear and silence and the end of Mark's Gospel

 “…and they said nothing to anyone,
for they were afraid.”

--Mark 16:8

 

 

This morning I finished the Gospel of Mark.  There is so much to say about this shortest of the gospels.  Most scholars now think of it as the earliest gospel, asserting that its conciseness is a sign of its chronological place. One theory is that the other synoptic gospels derive their basic structure from it, embellishing it with details from lost sources, including a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. The late literary critic Harold Bloom valued Mark’s gospel for its mysterious urgency and dramatic flair.  It is often referred to as a Passion narrative with a long introduction. 

 

Like all the gospels, all of scripture—I guess—I like it for its strangeness.  With this gospel, in particular, I am drawn to the way it seems to rush along, beginning in media res, then rushing head-long into the action, with Jesus “at once…” going out, and the disciples “at once…” following Him and the demons “at once…” crying out and the sick “at once…” being healed, etc etc.  As Bloom, and others, pointed out, everything in this story happens with a strange urgency.  Some translations use the word “immediately” (cf 1:12, 1:18, 1:20, 1:42, etc etc) to express this urgent movement.  I find this element of the book compelling and strange and worth meditation.

 

But this morning I am thinking of a different element from the end of this Gospel.  In my New Jerusalem Bible there is a note on 16:8 that informs me Mark probably originally ended there with the story of the  women who witnessed some manifestation of the resurrection and, overwhelmed by it, went away in silence and fear. No “immediately,” no “at once,” but only a kind of strange quiet and stillness—as if suddenly everything stopped. Ending as it began, in media res (which is Latin for “in the middle of things”).  The scholars speculate that the next 12 verses were an addendum derived from the other gospels and added in order to harmonize Mark with Matthew and Luke.  Those kind of issues, I have no insight into.  I leave that to the historians and the scholars with their degrees and dissertations.

 

My thought today is only of that image of the women saying nothing to anyone, “because they were afraid.”  They have received the “good news” of the resurrection, of the conquering of death, of the return to life of their beloved friend… Why wouldn’t they rush off to share this news? Why wouldn’t they be blowing a trumpet and crying from the hilltops to anyone and everyone?  Yet they “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” 

 

Why? What were they afraid of? Looking foolish?  Being ridiculed? Rejection? I think quite often I remain silent out of fear of how someone will react. What they might say to me. How they will treat me… Or worse, that they might question me, challenge me, make me begin to doubt what I know is true.

 

I fear that they won’t really hear what I am saying, but only the weakness of my words, my failure to express myself adequately.  Often, when I am overwhelmed by an experience, my words fail me. Too often, some might say, I flounder a bit and then suddenly (at once, and with a strange kind of immediacy) I melt into tears. And feel like a fool. 

 

What was it that made the women leave the tomb of Jesus and go away in silence and fear?  What was the author (Mark) trying to say about their experience? About the experience of the early church? Why that fearful silence?

 

It forces me to remember the many times I too remained silent for fear of how people might react.  But it also makes me aware of the importance of another kind of silence. Of the willingness to listen when someone comes to you with something to say. The willingness to hear them out and even to let them have the last word.  The willingness to listen, openly and completely; the willingness to listen without feeling a need to correct, or challenge or show my own intelligence.  To just listen to the message that the other person brings, their experience, their perception, their desire to share, and their witness to the wideness of the world.

 

There are so many lessons to be found in the Gospels, and even a few to be found in the footnotes.