Monday, September 15, 2014

The Test of Freedom

After the Hebrew people were liberated from slavery in Egypt, after they crossed safely through the Red Sea and escaped Pharaoh’s army, after all the ways God had cared for them, there came a time when they grew weary of it all and longed for the days before their liberation.
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  (Ex. 16:2-3)
The story of the Exodus is one of the world’s great stories of liberation.  Liberation, though, no matter how marvelous it may be, is still change.  And change is hard.  Liberation is particularly hard.  It means taking responsibility.  It means being at risk.  It means paying a price.  Freedom does not exist without cost, and the cost of freedom in ongoing.   The temptation as old as humanity itself is to trade freedom for slavery in order to avoid paying the price.
In the story from Exodus, God provided manna for the people to eat, but there was more to God’s provision of bread than met the eye.  Doing so was not simply a gift for the hungry people. Nor was it just a way to get them to stop their complaining.  It was a test.
“I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  (v.4) 
I’ve never noticed that detail before, that manna from heaven was not only a gift; it was a test.  Liberation from slavery and deliverance from Pharaoh were not only given to the Hebrew people by God; they were a test. 
Freedom is a test—a test to see what we will do with it.  So what will we?  Are we up to the responsibility? The risk?  The price?  God makes great promises.  Even promises must be accepted.  Big promises must be acted upon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Exodus: Life and Death

The Exodus from Egypt.  It may be a pretty central story to the story of God as told in the Bible, but it is a pretty disturbing story nonetheless.  It is not only the story of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery.  It is also the story of the destruction of Egypt.
Last week’s lesson (Ex. 12:1-14) was about the Passover, surely a central theme not only of the Jewish people, but of the Christian.  It is the beginning of the story of deliverance.  It contains the instructions for remembrance, remembrance in a deep sense, remembrance in a sacramental sense that makes the recalling of the great event of the past real and experienced in the present.  It is the story of the Seder.  It becomes the story of the Eucharist.
But even last week, the coming of deliverance was intertwined with death and destruction.  On the night God passed over the houses marked with the blood of an unblemished lamb, God also took the lives of all the firstborn of Egypt, animals and humans alike.  As the Hebrew people prepared for their liberation, plagues descended not only upon the house of Pharaoh, but on the houses of all Egyptians. 
This week’s lesson (Ex. 14:19-31) is similar.  The waters were parted and the Hebrew people walked through on dry ground.  The waters were rejoined and the army of Egypt was drowned.  Not a single person survived. 
It paints a picture of God that is at one and the same time marvelous and terrifying, hopeful and vengeful, life-giving and death-dealing.  It is a dramatic story.  It is a disturbing picture. 
I admit that I do not know quite what to do with that.  I cannot quite bring myself to see God in precisely the way described in Exodus.  Perhaps, I fear, that is because I have an easier time looking through the eyes of the Egyptians than I do through those of the Hebrews, an easier time identifying with the oppressor than I do, the oppressed.
And while I cannot quite bring myself to see God taking the firstborn of the children of the Egyptians nor calling the water back to cover and drown such a multitude in the Red Sea, I can recognize that my own view of oppression, wherever it is found, and my response to it, puts me squarely on God’s side or its opposite.  Life is in one.  Death pervades the other.  The story of the Exodus says this in quite a dramatic way, even a horrifying way.  Still, it gets at something important.  Whether we walk through the sea on dry ground or are drowned in the chaos may have less to do with God’s vengeance and much more to do with how we respond to oppression.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Community Property

The earliest beginnings of the Christian community experienced conflict among believers.  Jesus himself provided for it.  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Sin even by one believer against another, disappointing though it is, is not new. 
Here is what is new.  Sin by one member of the community against another is not a matter just between them.  Sin within the community may not surprise us.  What may is that “That’s none of my business” has no place within the community.  We’re in this together.
Sin by one against another weakens not only those two and the relationship between them, but the whole. The Christian community is only as strong as the weakest relationship within it. 
Jesus also said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  What I think it means is that we either all go into heaven together bound by our conflicts or we all go into heaven together liberated from them.  I’m afraid that sin in the kingdom of heaven is community property.  I’m encouraged, however, that so is righteousness.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Survival, Growth, and the Gospel

One of the things that concerns me most about the life of the Church right now is its anxious concern for survival.  That almost always means institutional survival, by the way.  For one thing, I don’t think you could kill the institutional church if you tried.  The truth is that it’s just too strong and its resources too vast.  You can, though, subvert its reason for being.  You can lead it astray.  You can make it an instrument of something far removed from the Gospel of Love.  All those have been done many times over the 2,000 years of its life. 

But you can’t kill it.  To tell you the truth, I’m not always sure that’s completely good news.  And here’s why.

Survival is not a value of the Gospel.  Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  (Mt. 16:25)  Salvation can only be had by those who can die.  Life can only be had at the risk of losing it.  The way of life is the way of the cross, and that leaves no room for survival.  This is slightly off the point, but there is an ancient heresy called Docetism, which would say that Jesus, because he was not truly human, could not have died on the cross.  If so, that would mean there is no hope for salvation.  Jesus lives, but Jesus lives precisely because Jesus did not survive.  And that’s how we live, too, at least truly live, as individuals, as a community, and one hopes, as an institution.

We spend a lot of time as the Church these days anxiously worrying about our survival.  Our numbers are dropping.  Our collections are shrinking.  We don’t have the influence we once did.  We are losing our place of power, privilege, and prestige.  And so we come up with a lot of plans to grow, to get more people in the pews, and to increase giving.  We’re trying to hang on, to survive. 

Every plan or strategy to grow born out of our survival anxiety, every single one, is doomed to failure because it cannot be blessed by God.  It may succeed for a little while, but if it does, it will be one of those moments, once again, where the church has lost its way. 

The Church can only be itself when it risks its life to pick up its cross, which is a way of saying when it carries out the ministry of Jesus, is it not?  The church can only be itself when it risks its life to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, cure the sick, restore sight to the blind, and free the oppressed.  Those may not, we must admit, be prudent growth strategies, especially when the culture around us is quite invested in keeping the poor poor (as are our own institutional interests).  They are, though, a very sound plan to be who we are, baptized, as we have been, into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

The Church in its first four centuries grew, not dramatically as we sometimes like to imagine, but slowly, steadily and consistently.  It grew, I suspect, because it was true to itself, to what Christ had made it to be, not because it had a strategy but because it lived the Gospel.  It grew, I suspect, because it cared not for its own survival, which strangely enough, is inherently attractive.  The second century Christian apologist Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  I think it is true on many levels.  The pre-Constantinian Church had a plan for life, not survival.  It had a commitment to faith, not growth.  It isn’t that growth is a bad thing.  It is the inevitable fruit of the Church’s life.  But it is endangered by the Church’s survival. 

The post-Constantinian Church grew, too, by the way, maybe even more dramatically.  But it grew because it allied itself to power and forced not a few conversions at the point of the sword and became attractive as a way to partner with the culture rather than as a witness to the resurrection to it.  It shifted its focus from the reign of God’s imminent arrival to something distant and other worldly and far less threatening to its own survival.  It was, one must admit, an effective growth strategy. 

But Jesus asked, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?  Or what will they give in return for their life?” (v. 26)  It’s a good question.  And it worries me about what this means for an institution that cannot be killed.  We’ve got to at least be willing for it to die in order for it to have any chance at life at all. 

Now is the time to ask ourselves if the fundamental reason we are in decline is that paradoxically because we have given up our willingness to die, without which there can be no life at all.  And if that’s the case, we can only hope our desire to survive will kill us.


Monday, August 18, 2014

The Rock on Which It is All Built

[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:15-18)

There are two general ways to interpret this exchange.  One is what I call the institutional interpretation, that Jesus was naming Peter personally and his successors as the rock on which the church was to be built far into the future.  The only problem with that, though, is that Jesus did not seem to have expected there to be any need for a church to be built.  He seemed instead to expect the imminent end of the world as we know it.  Indeed, he once proclaimed, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  (That’s next week’s Gospel.)  But while Jesus was planning for the immediate coming of the reign of God, the church is planning on the long haul. This is the interpretation of institutional power.

An alternative line of interpretation is that this is somehow about Peter’s individual faith as the rock against which the powers of hell shall not prevail.  The problem with that is that Peter’s faith was, shall we say, not so rock solid.  It is only three verses after the passage for today ends that Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  (That’s next week’s Gospel, too.) 

And it gets worse.  On the night before Jesus’ death, it was of course Peter who denied him.  At the foot of the cross, Peter was not to be found.  On the morning of the  Resurrection, Peter was down the list in the order of those to whom the good news was announced.  By any stretch of the imagination, Peter was not the most solid of foundations for much of anything. 

So what did Jesus mean, then, if the rock on which everything stands is neither the institution that the church has become or Peter’s individual faith.  If it is not Peter the individual or church the institution, might there be something in between those two extremes?  Might it be the church in the true meaning of the underlying Greek word, ekklesia, the community of those called out.  Is it not the community, with as little institutional trappings as possible, that is the rock on which Jesus builds?  Not the individual.  Not the institution.  The community. 

Community is the antidote to individualism, the sin so rampant in the western world of which we are a part.  Community glorifies not the isolated individual but the virtue of mutual submission, something the world has a hard time understanding.  Community is also the antidote to what is institutional.  The community, after all, is the only reason the institution exists, and the community reminds us of what is supposed to serve what. 
That, I suggest is the rock that the gates of Hades will not prevail against.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Terribly Disturbing Reality

This week’s Gospel (Mt. 15:21-28) ought to be terribly disturbing to most of us, those of us who have come to faith in the God of Abraham and Sarah as Gentiles.  We must never forget that we are included in that family by grace and not by right.  And perhaps we should give thanks to Paul for that (see this week’s New Testament reading, Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32).   Left to himself, Jesus does not necessarily share the same openness to non-Jews as Paul does. 
Once while traveling in the land of the Gentiles, Tyre and Sidon, he encountered a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, whose daughter was possessed by a demon.  The woman implored Jesus to help her.  Jesus ignored her.  His disciples asked that he send the woman, who was annoying them, away.  Jesus agreed.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he said.
The woman persisted.  Jesus rejected her again, only more harshly.  “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”  That’s right.  He called her a dog.  It is a disturbing picture of what Jesus really thought.
The woman, however, was not deterred by the insult.  In fact, she used it to get the best of Jesus.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”
And with that comeback, she not only bested Jesus, she brought him back to his senses. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’  And her daughter was healed instantly.”
It ought to give us Gentiles pause about our proper place, such special friends of Jesus as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be.  Maybe we could  learn a little about humility in that.  Maybe we could learn a little about the very special place in his heart Jesus had, and therefore must still have for Jews.  There is no reason to think, after all, that the resurrected and ascended Jesus continues his priority for God’s original people, the Jews.  And maybe there are times when that reality bests us and has the possibility of bringing us to our senses.  Terribly disturbing realities often do.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I am the first to admit that I’m not a very spiritual person.  It is for this reason that I’ve always had some difficulty with the concept of retreats, and for that matter, with the word retreat itself.  I shouldn’t have the problem I do, no doubt.  There is, after all, some very good precedent for it.
In the Gospel for this week Jesus takes some time alone to pray, in other words he goes on retreat.  “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.”  (Mt. 14:23)  His retreat follows a particularly difficult time after the beheading of John the Baptist in which Jesus must have been reminded again of the danger of the work he was about. 
The Old Testament lesson (I Kgs. 19:9-18) is also about retreat, this time one taken by the prophet Elijah.  Elijah’s retreat followed a bloody confrontation in which he killed all of the prophets of Baal following which Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah in return.  Elijah, like Jesus, went up a mountain to be alone. 
Retreat, though, is an ambiguous word.  It can mean to surrender, to acknowledge defeat.  It can also mean to fall back in order to regroup for the purpose of engaging again.  One is destructive in origin; the other, strategic. 
Jesus, I think, took his retreat in the latter sense.  He went up the mountain alone, prayed, and came right back to engage again, calling the disciples to courage in the face of strong winds blowing against them.  “Take heart,” he said, and “do not be afraid.” 
Elijah, on the other hand, seems to have had a different purpose, fear rather than courage.  He went up the mountain not to regroup but to get away.  He came to a cave and hid there.  God was not too interested and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah explained.  God was still not impressed and repeated the question.  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And then came the instruction:  “Go.”  It is as if God has to remind Elijah that there’s work to be done and it isn’t going to get done while Elijah is retreating.  “Go,” God says.  “Return.”  God’s servants do not retreat in defeat or surrender.  They may retreat to regroup.  They may retreat to rest.  But they always retreat in order to return. 
Retreats in a godly sense, it seems to me, don’t have much to do with escape, with safety, or with refuge.  They may have to do with regrouping for the purpose of reengaging God’s work in the world, which for both Jesus and Elijah had a considerable element of danger, a reality that God has not much interest in keeping us from.  It is what the service of God’s reign of justice, peace, and love always necessarily requires.
So here’s the key question for a godly retreat.  “What are you doing here?”  Retreats are good when they prepare us for the work and not so good when they keep us from it.