Friday, May 27, 2016

Cleansing


Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying,
“Is it not written, 
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)
What comes to your mind upon reading the verses above? What comes to my mind is these other verses from Paul....
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Jesus drove out the money changers and the sellers of doves from the Temple in Jerusalem because they were cluttering up the place and distracting the people from the purpose God had for that part of the Temple. God wanted to the court of the Gentiles to be a place where all people could pray, not just the Jews.

This story makes me wonder: what might Jesus want to drive out of my life in order to clear the way for something higher, nobler, to take place there? Are there certain attitudes or actions that distract me from prayer and communion with my God?

One thing is for certain: I cannot drive out the distractions and replace them with prayer on my own power. I need Jesus to do this work in me.

I am reminded, once again, of this vignette from C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce....

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then be turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains. “Off so soon?” said a voice. The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day. “Yes. I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came--which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.” "Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit--an angel, as I now understood. “Of course I would,” said the Ghost. “Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward. “Oh--ah--look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating. “Don’t you want him killed?” “You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.” “It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?” “Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here--well, it’s so damned embarrassing.” “May I kill it?” “Well, there’s time to discuss that later.” “There is no time. May I kill it?” “Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please--really--don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.” “May I kill it?” “Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.” “The gradual process is of no use at all.” “Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.” “There is no other day. All days are present now.” “Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.” “It is not so.” “Why, you’re hurting me now.” “I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.” “Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.” “This moment contains all moments.” “Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me–before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.” “I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?” The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying. “Be careful,” it said. “He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it isn’t for us. Yes, yes. I know there are no real pleasures now, only dreams. But aren’t they better than nothing? And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams–all sweet and fresh and almost innocent. You might say, quite innocent….” “Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost. “I know it will kill me.” “It won’t. But supposing it did?” “You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.” “Then I may?” “Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.” Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf. “Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards. For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialised while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man–an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinneying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled. The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I well knew what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning. (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945, pp. 89-94.)
What might we be willing to allow the Lord to kill in us so that he might replace it with something far better?


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mercy

Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:5, 9-10)
What do you feel as you read these words from 1 Peter? I don't know about you, but I feel a sense of unworthiness. How am I spiritual enough, holy enough, acceptable enough to be built into God's house? Why would God choose me to be part of his royal priesthood? How can I proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into light when I still feel sometimes like I am living halfway into the darkness?

Thankfully, the answer to all of these questions comes in this same text. The only way that I am worthy of all of this is through God's mercy. One helpful reminder of God's mercy that I often find myself praying is called the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner." This can be shortened to the even more easy to pray: "Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy." I wonder how it might change my perspective if I prayed this throughout the day?

Often when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think of is this verse from the Hebrew Scriptures:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, 
 his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; 
great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

I am so thankful that the Lord gives me a fresh start every day, that with each new day, the slate of my sin is wiped clean by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Then, throughout the day, when the ministry outlined in 1 Peter seems too much for me, I have this little reminder on my bookshelf that gets me focused in the right direction again. A notecard with this saying from the Jesuit priest, Peter Byrne, was given to me by an Episcopal priest and friend....

We are simply asked
to make gentle our bruised world,
to tame its savageness,
to be compassionate of all (including ourselves),
then--in the time left over--
to repeat the Ancient Tale and go the 
way of God's foolish ones.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

He Is Able


James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)
I hate to stomp on anyone's favorite hymn, but perhaps one of the worst hymns ever written, at least in terms of its theology, is this one:
"Are ye able," said the Master,
"to be crucified with me?"
"Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered,
"to the death we follow thee."

"Lord, we are able." Our spirits are thine.
Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.
Are ye able" to remember,
when a thief lifts up his eyes,
that his pardoned soul is worthy
of a place in paradise?

"Are ye able" when the shadows
close around you with the sod,
to believe that spirit triumphs,
to commend your soul to God?

"Are ye able?" Still the Master
whispers down eternity,
and heroic spirits answer,now as then in Galilee.
I say that this hymn has terrible theology because it is based upon an almost total misreading of our Gospel lectionary text for today. Let's examine the Scripture to see why....

First off, James and John come to Jesus with a totally self-centered request. The fact that they preface this request by asking Jesus to promise first that he will give whatever they ask is a tip-off that they know Jesus will not want to answer their request positively if they ask for it straight away. The disciples are so childish in their selfishness at this point that it is almost unbelievable.

Even though Jesus probably knows a selfish request is forthcoming, he asks his disciples anyway: "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus is so good in accommodating us this way. He knows that it is no good trying to get us to focus on higher things until we first get the lower things out of the way. That is one reason why it is no good trying to pray about one thing when you really have something else on your mind. Why not talk to the Lord about what you do have on your mind? He will understand.

Then comes the selfish request. James and John want places of honor in Jesus' coming kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples straight out: "You don't know what you're asking for." I imagine that is Jesus' response to many of our prayers. So often we do not know what we are asking for, even when we think we do know, because we do not see the whole picture as Jesus does.

Then Jesus asks James and John a very important question: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

Jesus already knows the answer to the question. He just wants James and John to think about it and hopefully come to a realization of where they really stand in relationship to God.

Then James and John answer impulsively: "We are able."

Now here is where I think the hymn above is totally wrong. The fact is: James and John were not able in and of themselves to drink Jesus' cup. The cup Jesus was talking about was the cup of his suffering for the sins of the world. None of us can pay for our own sins, let alone pay for the sins of the world. Only Jesus as perfect man and fully God can do that.

Nonetheless, Jesus tells James and John they will drink his cup. In other words, they will share in his suffering. But certainly the only way they can do that is by God's grace and power.

That's why the hymn above is so wrong. It seems to assume that we are able somehow within ourselves to save ourselves. The hymn wrongly assumes that we are worthy of a place in paradise. However, what the Bible teaches us is that we are not worthy. We are sinners in need of a savior. We are not able to do all that God requires. So we are dependent upon Jesus to do what needs to be done for us, in us, and through us.

In the second half of today's text, Jesus goes on to point out how James and John's desire for places of honor in the kingdom was all wrong. Actually, Jesus says, if you want to be great in the kingdom then you have to become a servant, a slave even, of everyone.

Then comes Jesus' most important statement of all: "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus is our model of true greatness. And it is only by the ransom he paid upon the cross that any of us can become truly great.

Are we able? No we are not. But here is a better message than the one in the hymn above....


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

First & Last


Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:28-31)
When Jesus told his disciples that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" they wondered "Who then can be saved?" Jesus told them that "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."

Thus we learn that human beings cannot save themselves, salvation is only possible with God. And this leads us to our passage for today. Peter reminds Jesus that he has left everything to follow him. Peter must have been wondering what he would get in return.

So Jesus assures Peter that no one who has left family or fields (possessions) for his sake, and the sake of the good news, will fail to receive a hundred times as much even in this present age. Thus, the missionary who leaves home and family for Jesus receives a new spiritual family through those who are won to Christ through his or her ministry.

None of this comes, Jesus warns, without persecutions. Anyone who sets out to follow Jesus and share the good news about Jesus with others, is going against the flow of this world, and so there are bound to be hardships. But the reward the Lord has for us is greater than anything this world can give.

Many years ago, I was serving in youth ministry in a church, and started a Bible study with some 9th grade boys who were not members of the church. Those boys ended up giving their lives to Christ, and one of them, Tim, tried to bring many of his friends to our little Bible study. A few came and also received Christ. But many of Tim's friends were resistant, until Tim suddenly died one summer from meningitis. The very next week, we had over twenty young people attend that Bible study, and many more accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior over the course of that summer. The mother of one of the original boys in that Bible study gave me a framed saying for my birthday, signed by all the youth in that group. It said, "Work for the Lord. The benefits are great, and the retirement plan is out of this world!"

That is so true. Peter may have doubted what kind of reward he was going to get for following Jesus. That's why Jesus had to remind him that the ways of the kingdom are upside down and backward compared to the ways of this world. Many who seem to be first in this world are going to be the last in the end; and those who seem to be last, including many followers of Jesus, are going to be first in eternity.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Jesus & The Rich Young Ruler

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:17-23)

This is one of the first biblical texts I ever preached on some thirty years ago. It still challenges me all these years later. Like many texts in the Bible, it yields fresh insight with each new reading.

The question posed by the rich young ruler to Jesus is an interesting one, isn't it? "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Here was a young man who had probably inherited at least some of his wealth from his earthly father. So he comes to Jesus, as a respected teacher, wanting to know how he can inherit something even more important--eternal life. There is hardly a more important question than this one, is there?

Yet, Jesus counters this young man's question with another question: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." It's as though Jesus is saying to this young man something that parents and teachers often say to us when we are young: "Think what you are saying!" There are many things we say without thinking, and some of those things we say reveal what is deep in our hearts; sometimes the things we say without thinking reveal deep truth. So it is in this case. Jesus challenges this young man to realize that if he is calling Jesus good then he is saying that Jesus is God.

Jesus, as the divine Son of God, seems to know exactly where this young man needs to be challenged in his life. Jesus knows exactly what this young man needs to hear. Jesus point this young man back to the Ten Commandments as a rule for life.

But is it not interesting that Jesus mentions only those commandments that have to do with our relations with our fellow human beings? The young man's response to Jesus' statements is to insist that he has kept these commandments all his life. But Jesus' statement and the young man's answer beg the questions: "What is this young man's relationship to God? If Jesus had asked this young man about the first four of the ten commandments, what would this rich young ruler have answered?"

After this young man says he has kept these commandments we hear the most important words in this text: "Jesus, looking at him, loved him."

Can you imagine Jesus looking at you and loving you today? That is, I believe, the most important picture we need to keep in our minds at all times: Jesus looking at us and loving us.

In his perfect knowledge and love of this young man, Jesus knew that there was one thing that was getting in the way of his relationship with God. In the case of this young man, that one thing was his tremendous wealth. Thus, Jesus tells him to get rid of this one thing, give away his wealth to the poor, "and come follow me".

When this young man heard Jesus' invitation, he was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. The Gospels do not tell us what this young man did in the end. But the story begs yet another question: "What is getting in the way of our relationship with God?" And are we willing to give up that thing, or that person, or whatever it is, so that we can more effectively follow Jesus?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Hell or Heaven?


For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 
(Mark 9:41-50)
The Gospel lectionary reading for today has Jesus speaking quite a bit about hell. The word Jesus uses for it is "Gehenna" which was the name for the garbage heap outside the wall of Jerusalem. There was a perennial burn pile there. Jesus' main point seems to be that it is better to deal radically with sin in this life (cut off the hand or foot, pluck out the eye that causes you to stumble) rather than have to burn in hell forever with two hands, two feet, two eyes. N. T. Wright explains...
Virtually all readers agree that these commands are not to be taken literally. They refer to precious parts of one's personality--to aspects of one's full humanness--which may from time to time cause one to stumble, which may, that is, bring about one's ruin as a follower of Jesus. The immediate meaning seems to be that John and the others had better watch out in case their desire for honor when Jesus becomes king ... prevents them in fact from being his disciples at all. Anything that gets in the way must go.
In his novel, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis has his character, George MacDonald, say:
The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy--that is, to reality. We see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.
What might be getting in the way of our following Jesus today? And if something is getting in the way, isn't it about time that we got rid of it--even if it hurts? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Inclusive or Exclusive?


John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40)
The Gospel lectionary reading for today presents a cautionary lesson for all of us. Jesus' disciples see someone casting out demons in Jesus' name and they try to stop him because he is not part of their group. When told about this, Jesus tells his disciples to do just the opposite: don't stop anyone who is trying to do something good in my name.

I wonder: how often do we frown upon religious groups that don't bear our "label"? I think Jesus' words suggest that we should count as a brother or sister anyone who seeks to do good in his name. 


An Episcopal priest who is a friend of mine said to me some time ago, "I can't imagine that Jesus is going to be upset with me on Judgment Day for being too inclusive."

I think my friend was right. Jesus' view of the kingdom seems to be far more inclusive than that of his followers. How might Jesus want us to change to get in line with his inclusive vision?