All Saints and the struggle of understanding Christian History

Sermon, Theology

All Saints Sunday, 2013

Luke 6:20-31

It’s All Saint’s Sunday. A day when we, as a Church, remember the saints that have gone before us. Generally, it’s a day for warm memories and challenging stories. Traditionally, capital “S” saints who are revered in the Catholic Church are people who are set apart, their holiness and particular living worthy of memory. In the Protestant church, many hold that all Christians can and should be categorized as “saints” even the not so holy. Therefore, on a day like to today, we remember all our beloved who have “gone to glory” before us.

This brings us a challenging thought however – isn’t our collective past as Christians fraught with very non-holy actions? Even our saints, upon closer examination, are not exactly paragons of holiness. If we expand the definition to include everyone, we’re really in a bind!

The Chapel where I pastor is called, “Memorial Chapel.” This year will be the 136th year of active worship within it’s walls. Those walls are covered with what are essentially gravestones marking the heroic dead – many of whom are officers who died during the “Indian Wars.” Surrounded by the memory of one of America’s bloodiest periods, where sovereign peoples were put to the sword and whole people groups laid waste by good Christians who worshiped in that very church is complicated to say the least. From here, native children were placed in good Christian homes forbidden to even speak of their cultural heritage. Fort Leavenworth was the edge of civilization back then, beyond that was war.

On All Saints day, I remember that our Christian past is complicated and not always terribly Christ-like.

Then, as I am preparing for my message, my text is from Luke 6:20-31:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Not helpful.

How do I, a Chaplain in the mightiest Army the world has ever known make sense of 1. Our bloody history and 2. Jesus words in this text?

As I thought about his text I remembered another pastor, a saint, who faced similar questions. Perhaps it might be helpful to remember his struggle.

Cheap Grace

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

These words were written by a young pastor. The words were first published in 1937. The pastor the wrote them had been overseeing an illegal seminary training pastors for ministry in Nazi Germany. At the time of this publishing, the Gestapo closed the Seminary in Finkenwalde and arrested 27 pastors and former students. This was a text written for a country in battle for its soul.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine was born on February 4th, 1906. His father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer is just beginning to teach neurology and psychiatry. He would go on to become one of the most well-known and most respected psychiatrists in Germany.  His mother was one of the few women in her generation who obtained a university degree. It was a happy family. A family of thoughtful, educated, and scientific people. D’s brothers would go on to become scientists and were dubious at best of D’s forays into the theological life.

Dietrich’s young life was marked by a continual interest and calling into a life in the ministry. His father is proud of his son but hopeful that this religious phase would pass and he would pursue something more fitting his vast academic abilities.

This didn’t happen however, and Dietrich did indeed pursue theology. He was published at a young age. Within four years after beginning theological studies at Tubingen University, he successfully defends his brilliant and ground-breaking doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints), a significantly new way of looking at the nature of the Christian church. He is just 21 years old.

Like any young seminarian, he wonders what comes next. He sails to New York and begins a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. He identifies with the African American church experience in Harlem where he spends a great deal of time teaching and interacting with the congregation.  He is exposed to the “Social Justice” movement as taught through what would become known as the “Social Gospel.”  It is a profound moment for him and would inform what came next.

He is a contemporary of the theologian Karl Barth and the two wrote often. Barth said to him that Germany needed his voice. Things were getting bad there. In 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.

1933. A pivotal year for Germany. Adolf Hitler, the Austrian Corporal turned artist turned political theorist completes his rise to power and is appointed Chancellor. Two days later, Bonhoeffer now a professor of theology at the University of Berlin, delivers a radio address on leadership attacking Hitler. He is cut off the air. In April, 1933 he publishes “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which was the first known essay to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship; his defense of the Jews was marked by Christian supersessionism – the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism, in history and in the eyes of God; the real question, he argued, was how the church would judge and respond to the Nazi state’s actions against the Jews; his essay was completed in the days following the April 1, 1933, boycott of Jewish businesses. Some scholars believe Bonhoeffer was influenced on this issue by his close friendship at Union Seminary with his African American colleague, Frank Fisher, and his direct observation of Fisher’s experiences under racism.

In the summer of 1933, many protestants welcomed the rise of the Nazi state. A group called, the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) became the voice of Nazi ideology within the Evangelical Church, even advocating the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Deutsche Christians cited the state Aryan laws that barred all “non-Aryans” from the civil service, they also proposed a church “Aryan paragraph” to prevent “non-Aryans” from becoming ministers or religious teachers; the Deutsche Christen claimed that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an “Aryan” German church even through baptism a clear repudiation of the validity of Gospel teachings. The mainstream church was also coming under the grip of Nazism, becoming silent on the world that Germany was becoming.

In November of that year, he is ordained pastor at St. Matthias Church, Berlin.

In 1934, he and a group of brave Christians, form the “Confessing Church” in direct opposition to the established church who was about the business of assisting the State along the path leading to genocide. The Confessing Church was free of Nazi influence but not Nazi persecution. On August 2, German President Paul von Hindenburg dies and Hitler is proclaimed Chancellor and President.

He moves to Finkenwalde in 1935 where he is part of the founding of the aforementioned Seminary training pastors for ministry. By December, Himmler declares all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all participants liable to arrest. German Jews are being arrested under the Nurmburg laws.

This is the world in which he writes about “Cheap Grace.”

He sets it against “Costly Grace” – “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

It is “All Saints Sunday.” A day where we remember those saints who have gone before us, stood with us, and in whose shoes we stand today. It is right that we remember them. It is right that we recall the stands that others have taken so that we can evaluate where we are, who we are, and what we represent. Our Faith is not a faith that exists in opposition to others. We have a faith that is typified in its best sense in Love.

However, if the shoe of opposition fits, are we willing to wear it?

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Dietrich lived in that tension between the being a peacemaker and embracing war – even internal war – against a State which was doing such wrong. By 1938, he had made contact with the German Resistance. His twin sister Sabine and her Jewish husband escape together to England by way of Switzerland.

1941, Bonhoeffer is forbidden to print or publish. He makes two trips to Switzerland for the Resistance. WW2 is in full force. Over the next two years, Dietrich would continue to write, teach and preach while making several visits to Norway and in Sweden he would meet with the British – all on the behalf of the Resistance.

1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arrested. He writes during his incarceration. He continues to minister while in prison – both to the other inmates and the guards. One guard, a Corporal, approaches Dietrich with a plan for his escape and the Soldier’s with him. The plot is laid but in the end, D stops it as he does not want other members of his family, incarcerated and not to be endangered by his actions or escape. He is transferred to Buchenwald. He is very cold in the winter of 1944. The news is that America and Russia are pushing in on Germany from all fronts. They cannot hold out forever. He leans up to the crack in his door and for hours converses with those near his cell, prisoner and guard, about the grace of God.

1945. In February an Allied conference is held at Yalta to discuss post-war settlements. On March 7 American forces cross Rhine River. On April the 3rd of that year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor, theologian, and author, is moved from Buchenwald to the Flossenburg concentration camp. On the 9th, he is executed with several other key leaders of the Resistance. On April 12 President Franklin Roosevelt dies; Harry Truman is sworn in as president. On April 30 Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker. By May 2 Berlin falls. On May 7 the German forces make an unconditional surrender.

“Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

So which was it? Was Bonhoeffer a combatant? A German patriot fighting for the soul of his country if not it’s government? Is there a time to take up arms? Is there a time to stop turning the other cheek?

These are questions I face regularly and struggle through. I recall Jesus words, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” I do not experience them as particularly judgmental but more of a statement of fact, if you live by the sword, it is very likely that you will die by it.

We live in complicated times but no more so than any other time. Those who are commemorated on the walls of memorial chapel lived in complicated times as well. They followed God in ways that made sense to the world that they understood. Let us not forget that their immediate peers and superiors had just finished fighting a war to end Slavery and the economics that the institution upheld.

When working through our Christian history and all the victories and failings of those who have gone before, we would be remiss forget the times in which they lived. They should be understood and given grace for the world that they understood rather than be judged by the one we understand.

Where does that leave us?

Living the Gospel in the best way we know how. Living out our faith in a way that makes sense to us in the world we understand hoping that a hundred years from now, we will be judged by the world we knew.

And in all this, seeking to live in the way that Jesus taught. Loving others. Blessing those that curse us. Doing good to those who hate us. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Is there a tension? Of course. But as a Chaplain who preceded me once said powerfully, “if you don’t feel the tension, then you’ve probably already given in to one side or the other already.” It is no wonder that the Apostle, in one of his last letters, written from prison, said that we were to take on the example of Jesus Christ in our lives. Living as a servant to our fellow man and, in the end, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Even so, I hope we can remain faithful. Perhaps when we, as saints “going into glory” meet Jesus he’ll say to us that we had this right and that wrong but in the end, we were faithful. I can only hope and work for that moment when he says to me, “Welcome home my good and faithful servant.”

Amen.

Nicely played Steward. Nicely played…

Sermon

Luke 16 

He was hired to manage people and property. That’s his job. Make money for his master, the landowner. Pause.

In the preindustrial world of Jesus, agriculture is the heartbeat of the economy. The chief issue at play in the economy was who controlled the land and who had the power to extract the surplus. In this case (Luke 16) the landowner had the power and the steward (manager) had the responsibility to manage the agricultural production on the property. In the case of this story, the debtors (who rented/worked the land) owe the master produce – olive oil and wheat. Money, in peasant economies, was neither the only nor the primary medium of exchange. The Steward will pay regardless if the peasants produce or not. Go.

But he was terrible at his job! He squandered his Master’s money. The property he was given to manage has produced and he has not managed it appropriately.  Now, he’s going to pay. Pause.

The verb translated “squandered” here is the same word that is used to describe what the Prodical Son did with his inheritance – wasted it. Threw it away. Took the blessing and responsibility from his father and spent it on worthless things. The passage does not say what the Steward did to squander the money, I suspect it does not matter, what DOES matter is that it’s time to pay up and there’s nothing to pay.

It’s worth noting that the Mishnah, postbiblical tradition in Jewish literature, identifies three kinds of renters: those who pay a percentage of the crop, those who pay a fixed amount of the crop, and those who pay in money. This passage speaks of the second kind. They need to pay regardless of what the ground produces. A risky business after all. If they do well, they will have a great year since it’s settled up front what they owe, if not, it’s coming out of their savings or debt. And it’s not a small amount. The amounts in question underscore the rich man’s wealth. The first debtor owes one hundred “baths” of oil. Since a bath is equivalent to nine gallons, this man owes nine hundred gallons of olive oil. The second debtor owes one hundred “kors” of grain. Estimates of the size of a kor vary from 6.5 to 10-12 bushels, and even Josephus gives inconsistent reports as to its meaning. Nevertheless, a hundred kors of grain would have been a large amount. The rich man and his debtors were dealing in large commercial interests therefore, and not in household quantities. Go.

The master returns angry. He calls the Steward to himself – you’re fired. You can’t produce. You are fired. The Master shows mercy to the manager. After all, he had the right to have him fined or imprisoned. He does neither, just lets him go. The steward’s reputation will proceed him and he’ll not find work anywhere else. The Steward is in chaos. What will he do? Where will he go? It’s not like he can go apply at the Synagogue for unemployment! He’s simply out of a job, out of a home, out of security, and out of time! He’s too old to dig (read: work) and too proud to beg! Desperation creeps into his thoughts.

Except… he’s not out of time. A plan forms in his mind. There is some hope here if he plays his cards right. Pause.

A Steward, or an Estate Manager, was entitled to a commission. He was entitled to a fee for each transaction, which itself was recorded, principle and interest, in a public contract. There is no way that he could extract a fee of 50% as peasants would immediately inform the Lord that of the extortion. If the Lord and the Steward were in cahoots, there would be revolt. What he does here is described as “shrewd” or brilliant, or terrible based on how you see it. Go.

The Steward realized that he had a window of opportunity to write new contracts with the peasants before they realized that he was no longer the Steward. He rushes out and speaks to the debtors. You owe the master 100 measures of oil? Make it 50. You owe the master 100 measures of wheat? Make it 80. The peasants love him! They begin to dance in the streets! They begin to praise the master’s generosity! What a great year it’s going to be!! The Steward has never been more popular. Pause.

Here’s the brilliance – by renegotiating the contracts, he has set the Master up. If the Lord rescinds the legally binding contracts because they are unlawful, he will alienate the renters AND the entire village who are out singing his praise. If he allows the contracts to stand, he will lose money but will gain honor. And in the ancient Mediterranean culture, honor is better than money. To some extent, it IS money. The good favor received from these transactions will carry him far in the economy of the time. That said, it’s still going to be a touch year. The Steward, though now unemployed, can turn to his former clients and make claims on them for favors as he needs them since everyone knows who “arranged” the deals. Nicely played Steward. Nicely played. Full Stop.

So. Now we ask the obvious question – why?

Three possibilities:

1. Steward is a worthless manager, also corrupt, so in response to getting fired, cheats the master out of the contracts. He sends a blanket email to everyone in the company and does not use BCC declaring that they are all… wait, I’m jumping ahead a few centuries…

2. Steward was acting righteously by excluding any interest figured into the debt.

3. Steward reduced the debt by his own commission – however, no steward gets half as we’ve already discussed.

Whatever the reason – it costs the landowner a significant amount of money. The mere fact that he does not have the faithless steward killed on site probably reveals a good deal about how wealthy this guy was. Seems like the owner looks at the big picture and decides that there are better things than money – honor being one of them. So he commends the steward… and then has him escorted off the property.

Jesus follows this up with what seems to be a sarcastic comment – make friends with unrighteous mammon and you’ll be welcome in that world but it’ll cost you. Is that the kind of person you are? Slave to money?

Faithfulness and honesty. These are bywords of the person who desires to live a “kingdom life.” They can be described as faithful and honest in all their dealings. You can live shrewdly but there is a reward for that – emptiness, separation from the service of the master. There are more important realities than things and money – there is faithfulness and honesty.

Notice the conclusion:

1. A slave cannot serve two masters.

2. If he does, he’ll hate one and love the other or despise one and love the other.

3. We cannot, as servants of God, serve God and wealth. The two do not go together. This is not to say that wealth is somehow bad or that Christians should immediately give everything they have away and move into socialist communes (although, to be fair, the early Christians did…) – it is to say that if wealth is driving you, God certainly is not.

It is reminiscent to me of Ephesians where Paul admonishes the Christian to be led by the spirit of God (rather than drunkenness).

One of the marks of a Christian is that they are faithful regardless of the size of their paycheck or responsibilities. Our faithfulness is not about a measurement, it is about our faithfulness.

This week, you may be called upon to “defend the faith” but probably not. It is more likely that you will be challenged – even today – to be faithful in what God has called you to be. Will you help another on the road of life? Will you offer a listening ear to someone suffering? Will you defend that person who is always getting picked on at work? Will you be patient with your children? Will you be honest in all you dealings? Often, we say we want to have God challenge us to greatness – I’m wondering if we’re actually ready for it.

The Church is community… even when we don’t like one another…

Chaplaincy, thought of the day

One of the unfortunate results of the American need for puritanism is that we tend toward more and more “pure” churches. It’s far too easy in our congregations to leave one body for the other. Disagreements, petty and profound, take on the language of God and our passive/aggressive side kicks in and we “have” to leave. As though we can somehow escape human nature.

We are human. We are going to disagree. I wonder what it would be like (in the salt/light context) for churches to model the idea that humans can get along even when they dynamically disagree? I wonder what it would be like for Christians to embrace the idea that they are peacemakers in themselves, their homes, their churches, and their local organizations? I suspect that the healthiest congregations are those made up of republicans/democrats/libertarians/green/coffee and tea parties – all worshiping the same God – all proclaiming the same gospel.

From the introduction to Bonhoeffer’s Spiritual Care:

Christ is the mediator not only between God and humanity but between persons within the Church … The Church is not an assembly of like-minded individuals, nor is it an agency organized around a certain previously agreed-upon principles (like a social agency or a labor union). The Church is entered through baptism, and it is baptism which gives us our relationship within the church. W are ties together in the body of Christ even if we don’t like each other. Community is not the same thing as camaraderie. 

 

Well. Said.

True community works through the disagreements rather than leaving one disagreement for the comfort of people who are where I am at.

Living It

Sermon

Living out your faith is going to cost you something; not likely the classic idea of the “lay your life on the line for Jesus”, but a more visceral laying down of pride, rights, justice, money, social status, family – for this new family and life in Christ.

The scene is the prison in Ephesus. It is a dark place but the Old Man is someone of some significance. His importance in the community gives him some creature comforts that other inmates might not have. He has a network of family that will bring him food and drink. He has a cot and a desk on which to write. He has influence in the prison. Guards and inmates alike seek him out for counseling and advice. It might be slightly more comfortable for this minimum inmate, but let there be no doubt, it is still a Roman prison in ancient Ephesus!

Narrator (italics): The Old Man graciously receives a cup of tea from his young associate. The steam rises from the cup and he smells the bittersweet aroma. The Young man is quiet. He has the takes the subservient position of the slave, head slightly bowed, hands folded, he pulls back to the corner.

“You should go back.” The Old Man finally says, after sipping the hot liquid.

The Young man knew this was coming. “My father, how can I? It is a return to slavery. He was not a nice man.”

“It is true.”

“And I am a Christian now, I am your follower, your disciple.”

“Also true.”

“I need to stay with you and learn more of Christ!” The Young Man’s eagerness betrayed his complicated motives.

The Old Man smiled sadly. “My son. It is the law. Roman law requires you to return to your master.”

“But we are subject to a higher law! We are subject to the law of Christ! You said so yourself, the Law of Love. Does not love dictate you keep me here with you?” Desperation crept into his voice. His confused affect betrays the growing anger rising in him. He had reached out to this prophet, this preacher, this teacher who had introduced him to a new faith. Surly, this faith would save him from returning to his master. Law! The law was not helpful! The law separated people into the haves and the have nots! The Law made classes of people. The Law made some rich and some poor. The Young Man’s simmering anger began to move towards rage. How could he just sit there! How could his mentor and leader just sit there, sipping tea, in this prison and speak of following Roman Law! He was here for disobeying Roman Law!!!

The Old Man sat watching the drama play out in the Young Man’s face. He watched the angry thoughts dart back and forth, fighting reason and emotion. His smile drifted away and was replaced by a pained look, he grieved for the Young Man. He knew his baggage. He had heard his story. The Young Man was a tradesman seeking to grow his business. He had a rough go of life. Coming from a distant Roman colony, his parents died early and he had been apprenticed at a spice seller’s shop. Selling spices on a far flung Roman outpost is an unpredictable trade at best. If a ship goes down in a spring storm and the tradesman has not prepared, they are destined for poverty. This was the Young Man’s story. He struck out on his own too soon. He was passionate, full of dreams and vision, he saw himself a wealthy man at a young age and did not adequately prepare for the reality of selling a luxury item in a poor place. Add a particularly vicious storm and soon, he was over his head in debt to creditors. In desperation, he entered the slave market, indenturing himself to a wealthy spice trader in Rome. Philemon paid Onesimus’ debts. In return, Onesimus was now a slave.

Onesimus tried another approach. “My father. When I was captured by the slave hunters and brought to this prison, I thought my life was over. I really believed that when I was sent back, Philemon would exercise his rights. He would have a limb removed or chain me in his kitchens, beat me, or even have me killed. I was so overwhelmed with this thought, I planned to end my life in this prison but then, I met you and…” his voice trailed off, breaking under the strain of his emotions.

Paul, the Old Apostle who had met so many in his journeys recognized that you cannot reason your way out of an emotional decision. He reflected Onesimus’ fears. “My son. Of course. Philemon still has those rights. He can still do all of those things to you. It would still be justice if he did yes?” Onesimus was sobbing by now and nodded. “You do not want to return because you fear that he will do those things to you?”

“Yes! Yes my father! I believe he will.”

“Oh, my son. There is something you do not know about your master. He is as you are. He too is a Christian and he is your brother. I have some sway with him. I will write a letter to take with you. He is my spiritual son as you are. I shall appeal to him on the basis of his obligation to honor the elderly and his obligation to kinship. I shall ask to pay whatever debts you owe. He shall put them on my account. We are all brothers. You, me, and even Philemon. I shall ask if he will take you back and not carry out retribution as is his right.”

“Thank you, oh thank you my father.”

“Onesimus. Hear this. You will still need to work. You will need to be faithful to your master, as a though you were faithful to Christ. Obey him with fear and trembling not only while being watched, in order to please him but, as a save to Christ, do the will of God from the heart. God would have you be a faithful servant. Whatever good you do, you will receive from the Lord, whether you are a slave or a free man.”

SCENE

Philemon is reminded by Paul that when he came to Jesus, he was choosing a life that was challenging. He was choosing a life that would challenge and change him. He chose a life that came with it, some responsibilities. Was he really ready to give something up for Christ?

Was he ready to give up his rights?

He had a right to justice. He had a right to retribution. He had a right to a world he made. Paul calls him to something else. He calls him to fully embrace another way of being – the way of grace. Let God handle the retribution, let God handle justice, let God handle his pride.

I wonder what it was like when Onesimus came back. I wonder what it was like when he walked in and handed Philemon that letter. Did he throw him in the dungeon to wait for justice? Did he stand there and read it while Onesimus knelt before him? At what point in the Onesimus/Philemon relationship did Philemon, the wealthy merchant with the right to kill Onesimus demonstrate that he was a different person? That he had changed? That he actually saw and experienced life differently? How would Onesimus know that Philemon had really, truly changed?

This takes us to Luke 14. From the New Interpreters

14:28-32. The twin parables that follow might aptly be entitled “Fools at Work and at War.” These parables have no parallel in the other Gospels. Jesus draws attention to a simple observation: A prudent person would not begin a project until being sure it can be finished. A man would not lay the foundation for a tower unless he was sure he could finish it. A king would not go to war unless he had enough soldiers to resist the opposing force. By the same token, God has not entered a redemptive process without being prepared to complete it, and Jesus did not set his face for Jerusalem without being prepared to face the sacrifice that would be required of him there. Thus no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus.

The two parables move from the lesser to the greater consequence. In the first, the threat is merely that one may be embarrassed before one’s neighbors. In the second, the consequence may be defeat at the hands of an enemy. The parable does not advocate building stronger armies; it illustrates the folly of embarking on a venture without being sure one can see it through.

14:33. The parables lead to the third condition (v. 33); they demand that one be ready to give up everything to be a disciple. If you seek to follow Jesus, then understand first that what is required is all you have.

Applying this principle in the area of one’s material possessions, as Luke often does, v. 33 concludes with a return to the refrain found in vv. 26-27: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” The verb translated “renounce” or “give up” (ajpota”ssomai apotassomai) literally means “to say farewell to” or “to take leave of.” The descriptions of the sharing of goods in the early church in Acts 2:44; 4:32 probably illustrate what Luke understood this demand to mean.

14:34-35. Sayings on salt also appear in Matt 5:13 and Mark 9:49-50. Although Luke uses these aphorisms as the conclusion to this section of warnings, the sayings actually make a different point from the preceding sayings, which were directed to the crowd of would-be disciples. The sayings on salt are more appropriate as warnings to those who are already disciples. The value of salt lies in its salinity. If it loses its saltiness, it cannot be restored. The point of the analogy is that the disciple is defined by his or her relationship to Jesus. If one gives up that relationship, one is like salt that has lost its saltiness.

Real salt cannot lose its flavor, but the complex minerals found around the Dead Sea were not pure salt and could, therefore, become tasteless. The taste, once lost, could not be restored. Jesus observed that this tasteless salt was not even good for fertilizing or killing weeds; “it is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile” (14:35). The point seems to be that salt that has lost its saltiness is not even good for menial, alternative uses.

The call for those who have ears to hear is a call to decision. The reversals of the coming kingdom have been dramatically illustrated, the conditions of discipleship have been set forth, and the consequences of rejecting the call to discipleship have been made clear. Now is the time for decision.

Some churches, preachers, and TV programs present the gospel as though they were selling a used car. They make it sound as easy as possible, as though no real commitment were required. Jesus’ call was far different. He was not looking for superficial commitment or a crowd of tagalongs. Instead, he required his followers to be totally committed if they were going to follow at all.

The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just to a way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life.

In a sense, no one can know whether he or she will be able to fulfill a commitment to discipleship. Jesus was not asking for a guarantee of complete fidelity in advance, however. If he had, no one would qualify to be a disciple. Through these parables, Jesus was simply calling for each person who would be a disciple to consider in advance what that commitment requires.

Cultural accommodation of the Christian faith has progressed steadily in recent years. As a result, many see no tension between the teachings of Jesus and the common aspirations of middle-class Americans. On the contrary, a complete change of priorities, values, and pursuits is required. Paul wrote that in Christ we become not just nice people but new creations (see 2 Cor 5:17). When Jesus turned and saw the crowd following him, he was not impressed by his own success. He was not interested in the casual, easy acceptance the crowd offered.

The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would-be disciples. No part-time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.

Are you ready?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Hale, a Unitarian Minister  wrote  the short story, “A Man Without a Country” in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. It was a simple story, patriotic, and became one of the most popular short stories in the 19th century. It is a story about a rash young Army Officer who thought he had found a new identity  and hero in Aaron Burr who wanted to set himself as king of the Louisiana territory. He was caught and tried a traitor. In his Court Martial, he lost his head and cursed the United States. He wished he might never hear of the US again.

The Judge who heard the case was a Revolutionary War veteran himself and thought that since young Philip Nolan had such distain for the US, he would oblige the request. Nolan was put to sea, sailing away the rest of his life with the US Navy. Every captain that took him aboard was under strict orders to never mention anything about the US to him. For 50 years, he traveled just off the coast line, far enough to never see or hear of the US in his lifetime. He dies a broken-hearted man.

One of the stories told of Nolan involves him translating for a group of slaves saved off the coast of Africa. The captain of the ship wants to, for their safety, drop them off at a nearby island. They have none of it, “home, take us home!” they cry. Nolan translates their anguish at being close to home but not able to step ashore. The reader shares the narrator’s discomfort as the irony is in full display.

When it’s done, the usually diminutive Nolan is moved and tells a young ensign to think of home, his family, his country. “Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in his mercy to take you that instant home to his own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no more matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there had got hold of her to-day!”

It’s a beautiful passage that gets to the heart of “country.” Hale does not define what it actually is – there is no “real America” here, just the recognition that whatever your country means for you is what you need to remember about that country. It is the remembering that is important. Distilling everything that is great about one’s country to the one essential element – and then rushing to it. Patriotism to Hale’s Nolan is not letting the people, bureaucracy, government, ideals etc. get in the way of the essence of “the Country herself.”

Beautiful.

Hebrews ends in a similar fashion.  The book is written for a very specific purpose and to a very specific audience. The readers are Hebrews who have chosen to follow Christ. These would be at least second and perhaps even third generation Christians. They have become teachers of the Way, they have a confession, they are thoughtful and educated. They have ritual and engagement in doctrine. The very complexity of the arguments presented demonstrate this! But the readers are a faith community in crisis. Some members have grown lax in attendance at their assemblies, and commitment is waning. If the writer’s urgings are problem specific, then we have in the letter a painfully clear image of their condition. Christ has been dead long enough to pass into legend. He is not discussed as a person – as he is in the Gospels – but as God. Specifically, “so much better” than all gods. “So much better” than all the systems of worship before. This Christ, this deity is worthy of all adoration and worship. This is this point. Hebrews is heavy. It is theological. It is profound.

Until the end.

The end of the book crystallizes Christianity. Here, the author gets to the very heart of community. Like, Hale’s Nolan, it is as if he says to the Church, “look, beyond all this doctrine, beyond the arguments and the evidences, beyond apologetics and esoteric philosophy – there is the Community itself, your community – you belong to it and it belongs to you.”

This deeply theological book ends with a discussion of faith heroes and then, an appeal to simple community living. The community is everything. I wonder what Christianity has if it does not have community?

I often point out that Wicca has a solitary path. Buddhism has a solitary path. Druidism has a solitary path. Christianity does not. Christianity is at is best when functioning as a healthy community. It is described by Christ as a “body” after all.

Hebrews 13 begins simply – Let mutual love continue. Love that cares for one another. It’s present in the community. It is the basis for mutual respect and affection. Think of it – the old apostle, who has seen it all, traveled, planted churches, mediated fights and helped to shape what this Christian thing is going to look like – says to the young, driven, maturing church, “if you want this thing to thrive: love one another.”

Love the body AND love the Stranger.

Hospitality matters. Bring the Stranger to the table. Do not reject those who are different. They too, are the Body or could become part of the Body. The strangers in mind here are most likely the itinerant Christians who depended on local Christian communities for hospitality. It is understandable, however, why some house churches, either living in an atmosphere of suspicion due to opposition and persecution from society or facing the upheavals created by traveling heretics, would become reticent about extending hospitality. Some even used certain criteria for testing strangers before welcoming them. It makes sense that this would happen – being a Christian was not the most popular thing! However, caring for the Stranger came from the best part of the Hebrew tradition and mattered to the healthy functioning of the Community.

Remember those in prison and those being mistreated. Tortured. Suffering.

All is not well in the Community. Every gathering highlighted who was not there. Who was missing. Community does not end when separation begins. The Body cannot lose a member to suffering and not feel the pain of that loss. The language is so strong here – remember them, as though you, yourself, are with them in prison/suffering. As you are to join those in prison, so you are to be in the body of those being made to suffer. To do so requires more than a sympathetic ache; it means refusing to distance oneself from those suffering out of fear of becoming the target of the same mistreatment, providing for the needs of prisoners (prisoners depended on those outside for food, clothing, and all other needs), even though this meant exposing oneself as a fellow Christian, and being present with the sufferers in every way that might encourage and give relief.

What might this look like today? Clearly, no one is going to prison for being a Christian and, at least in America, prisons (while not pleasant places), provide sustenance. What does it mean for us to “remember the prisoner?” For starters, I believe that we need to recognize that prisoners are often there not because they are inherently evil, but in bondage. Their choices have not come out of nothing! There are reasons they have done what they did and, quite frankly, none of us are far from that.

If I have learned anything from my time in prison, it is that anyone is capable of anything. I cannot think of an exception to this off the top of my head though I’m sure there is – put anyone, put me or you, in a certain set of circumstances; add a healthy dose of pleasure and escape from pain; take away proper oversight or inherent inhibitions; add a dash of unhealthy coping  – anyone reading this is capable of just about anything to include myself.

I don’t judge. What’s the point?

I also don’t equate – I don’t say, “well, there but the for the grace of God go I.” That’s a silly comment – as though you got some special grace that the Other did not. No, I made choices based out of what I had available. There is a reason that I am not a prisoner. However, I also do not hold to any notion that I am a better or worse person for not having gone to prison. I certainly am capable of it. And so are you.

So what? Are we to pretend that we are sex offenders so that we can identify with those in prison?

Lets at least start with seeking to understand. Seek to understand why a person is now labeled a “sex offender.” Seek to understand why a person made the choices they made. Seek to understand so that we can help rebuild and repair. Do we really believe in restoration?

I read an article by a chaplain in the Minnesota State Penal System. He compared how we view sex offenders to how this ancient culture would have viewed lepers. Outcast. Scorned. Unclean. Horrible people needing to be cleansed from clean society. God forgive me for ever using my fear to vote for laws that only help drive predators further under ground and set up a world where no one can get help. Just like there is a safe way to integrate an alcoholic or addict into the Body, there is a way to integrate a sex offender. Jesus was not afraid of lepers because he had the means to cure them, cleanse them, help them become clean again. So. Do. We.

The Apostle goes on – be sexually pure. How can the community thrive if people are afraid that their homes are not safe? That the impurity that so defines how the World interacts will bring itself into the Church.

Finally, he warns against loving money. The destroyer of so many communities. Introduce money to something that just watch the community struggle. Greed that knows no limits. It has even become theologized in the church. As though capitalism is the way of God. Saints, it’s just an economic theory. If we love money more than each other, the Stranger, the prisoner, the suffering, our families – all that has been said in Hebrews about Christ being “so much greater” than all the angels… it’s just so many words. We make it true. We put action to it. It’s just hot air. Fancy arguments. Lovely debates – until it becomes action

What the Apostle is talking about here is action.

Doing.

Living.

This is the Kingdom of God.

Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Chaplaincy, Sermon

Salt

Peace, Sermon

Luke 12:49-53

This generation is noted as being the “most tribal” of many generations before it.

The Mindset List for the Class of 2016 – Beloit College

For this generation of entering college students, born in 1994, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Richard Nixon and John Wayne Gacy have always been dead.

They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of “electronic narcotics.”

The Biblical sources of terms such as “Forbidden Fruit,” “The writing on the wall,” “Good Samaritan,” and “The Promised Land” are unknown to most of them.

Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.

Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge.

They have never seen an airplane “ticket.”

On TV and in films, the ditzy dumb blonde female generally has been replaced by a couple of Dumb and Dumber males.

The paradox “too big to fail” has been, for their generation, what “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” was for their grandparents’.

For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.

They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.

There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.

Since they’ve been born, the United States has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16 cent rise in the price of a first class postage stamp.

Benjamin Braddock, having given up both a career in plastics and a relationship with Mrs. Robinson, could be their grandfather.

Exposed bra straps have always been a fashion statement, not a wardrobe malfunction to be corrected quietly by well-meaning friends.

A significant percentage of them will enter college already displaying some hearing loss.

Women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles.

White House security has never felt it necessary to wear rubber gloves when gay groups have visited.

Having made the acquaintance of Furby at an early age, they have expected their toy friends to do ever more unpredictable things.

Outdated icons with images of floppy discs for “save,” a telephone for “phone,” and a snail mail envelope for “mail” have oddly decorated their tablets and smart phone screens.

Star Wars has always been just a film, not a defense strategy.

They have had to incessantly remind their parents not to refer to their CDs and DVDs as “tapes.”

Probably the most tribal generation in history, they despise being separated from contact with their similar-aged friends.

They were too young to enjoy the 1994 World Series, but then no one else got to enjoy it either.

While the iconic TV series for their older siblings was the sci-fi show Lost, for them it’s Breaking Bad, a gritty crime story motivated by desperate economic circumstances.

Simba has always had trouble waiting to be King.

Before they purchase an assigned textbook, they will investigate whether it is available for rent or purchase as an e-book.

History has always had its own channel.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has always been officially recognized with clinical guidelines.

They watch television everywhere but on a television.

Point-and-shoot cameras are soooooo last millennium.

Despite being preferred urban gathering places, two-thirds of the independent bookstores in the United States have closed for good during their lifetimes.

Genomes of living things have always been sequenced.

Why are they so tribal? I suspect that it has something to do with the hyper-differentiated reality that can exist online. There, on your personal screen shared with no one, you only see what you want to see. Advertisements themselves are tailored to your personal habits and desires. More and more children in this generation are being home schooled or in private.

As our world gets more and more global, so our lives get more and more tribal.

The ancient Mediterranean world of Jesus was tribal. The average person Jesus preached to in the countryside didn’t often see others outside of their tribe. It was a homogeneous group. The family system was everything. Your place in the family system determined everything about your life. Who you married, what you did for a living, where you lived, whom you reported to. It was bigger than just some kind of cultural phenomenon, it was how the economy was set up. To retain ties to your family was as important to that world as attending the right college and securing a degree that is marketable is in ours. Maintaining the role in the family system kept the world turning as it needed to. Security. Safety. Tranquility. That’s what was needed at home.

But Jesus comes and says he’s going to turn it upside down.

Our passage opens with the image of the “earth-oven.” It is plausible that this ancient oven is what Jesus is referring to. It is something that everyone in his audience would be aware of. The “earth-oven” was a common stove in Jesus’ day. It was made of mud or brick. The fuel was often camel dung that was dried and salted so that it would burn faster. Salt had this mysterious power. It could heal. It could transform food. It could preserve food and it could be used as a catalyst for fire. Often a block of salt would be kept on the floor of the oven to keep the fire going just as the salt crystals did in the camel dung. Eventually, the salt in the oven would lose it’s catalyst properties and need to be thrown out – reminds me of a passage about salt losing it’s savor and needing to be trampled under the foot of men…

Jesus is not just going to be somewhat divisive. He’s not going to just have these ideas that people will debate about and discuss around the dinner table – his gospel is transformative. His gospel is a catalyst for change. The world will never be the same after Jesus comes through.

Specifically, following Jesus’ word’s will turn the status quo upside down. Following Jesus will drive a wedge between a parent and their children, brothers and sisters will no longer talk, those who depended on one another will no longer be together.

Jesus came to throw some salt on the fire.

How does this interact with the message of Jesus being a person of peace? One has to understand shalom. It is not a world where everyone just agrees. The Mediterranean world was loud and argumentative. In fact, challenging one another’s assumptions is a vital part of the Jewish faith. Questions, arguments, discourse – this is the stuff of shalom. I do not think that Jesus ever meant that a peaceful life would be one without questions, challenges, doubt and even argument – those will always exist in even a healthy family – shalom is where love is.

I read this passage as Jesus recognizing the reality that his disciples have been living in. They have experienced the pain of separating from their families as the cost of following Jesus has set in. Many of them have been on the journey now for many months, some for years and it has cost them dearly. The coming pain (Jesus is now dead set on the Cross) will cost even more.

One needs to read this passage in light of the rest of the chapter. Jesus opens the chapter by explaining that the traditional fears of those who could kill the body (sickness, Romans, civil leadership, bandits etc), the regular fears associated with life are not at all what is real. What is real is to fear the One who can kill both body and soul. He explains that the disciples are living in two planes of existence – the physical and spiritual – they need to remember which is more important. Jesus follows this with the parable of the rich man who thought he had it all. He counted his riches by the size of his 401k and the toys lined up in the garage. He was a fool.

Then Jesus tells them not to worry. They have committed to following God, God will take care of their needs. This must have been some wonderful assurance to those who had followed Jesus to the expense of their future.

I have done several conscientious objector interviews. I have counseled many more who have considered taking that route. Often, they are genuinely troubled at doing something that was just an idea before they joined but now, facing the reality that the Army exists to “close with and destroy the enemy” have trouble integrating that with how they view God and themselves. If someone brings it up to me, I lay out what it might cost them. The Army might just let them go. The safety and security they have come to appreciate might, in fact, go away. For a select few, it is a small price to pay for peaceful conscience. I tell them that if God is indeed calling them to the life of a pacifist, God is responsible to care for them. Are they ready for that kind of faith?

The disciples obviously were. I imagine Jesus identifying that God would care for them through each other – their new family system – was like water to the thirsty soul.

Then Christ gets real with them – get ready, be prepared, be watchful, pay attention – it’s time to get serious about this new thing that is coming. It has cost you, it will cost you – are you ready?

Jesus is a catalyst for change. We are called to be salt of the earth. We are to be catalysts for change. Being a Christ-follower is more than just the stuff of Sunday donuts ritual – it is the stuff of transforming lives. And yes, that is going to cause some division. There will be some separation. It’s ok, the God who called you is faithful and will care for your needs, but it is going to cost you something.

Holiness always costs something.

Forgiveness always costs something.

Humility always costs something.

Righteousness always costs something.

Community always costs something.

Are you ready to be salt?

Failing to thrive. In prison and everywhere else.

Chaplaincy, Sermon

“Blessed is he who considers the poor.” This might also be said, “blessed is the one who cares for the weak.” Being poor is a bad thing in our paradigm. It’s a sign of failure, a sign that somehow, whether through some calamity not of their making, some character flaw that causes them to not seek to better themselves (though just what “bettering one’s self might look like is up for considerable debate), or just weak – being poor and needing help is a sign that one is failing to thrive.

When I worked on the mother/baby ward during my year of CPE, there were babies whose diagnosis was “failure to thrive.” It seemed to me to be something of a catch all for babies that just struggled to make it, struggled to gain weight, struggled for life. In any other world, they would have just died but through the amazing advances in medical technology, nutrition, and medicine, they are able sometimes to recover and thrive.

I wonder what “failure to thrive” might look like in prison?

I wonder what “failure to thrive” might look like in a marriage?

In a professional career?

In a one’s personal life etc.?

The psalmist in Ps. 41 declares that the one who considers that one who is “failing to thrive” is blessed! The one writing the psalm is so sick, so in need that they seem despairing of their life. This psalm is often identified as a prayer of individual thanksgiving but it reads more as a plea for help. The prayer comes from one so sick that his continued survival is in jeopardy.  Reading the Psalm makes me wonder if the writer is so sick they are getting a little paranoid?

If the writer is David, it would have been written during a time in his life that he was running. Running from Saul, running from his past, running from death which is always nipping at his heals. David, in the story of his running, takes huge risks. He takes on huge responsibilities, does things that one the one hand are courageous and on the other, frankly stupid. He struggles as I have experienced America’s warrior struggling, with life.

Listen to what his enemies say:

I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord;
heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
My enemies say of me in malice,
“When will he die and his name perish?”
When one of them comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander;
then he goes out and spreads it around.

All my enemies whisper together against me;
they imagine the worst for me, saying,
“A vile disease has afflicted him;
he will never get up from the place where he lies.”
Even my close friend,
someone I trusted,
one who shared my bread,
has turned[b] against me.

Ever feels like someone is just waiting for you to die? Waiting for you to fail? Waiting for you to struggle, fall, give up? Ever feel like there are those around you whispering about you? Imagining the worst for you? A close friend, someone you trusted, your spouse, your loved one, your confidant – turned against you? Just when you needed them the most, just when it would have been so important for them to stand by you – they walk away, leave you in your failure to thrive?

Ever feel like this might be God?

Have you ever felt like the old Yiddish proverb, “Thou hast chosen us from among the nations – what , O Lord, did you have against us?”

I believe that it is reasonable to feel this way in chaos. If you experienced this, are experiencing this, or are wondering if your feelings about this in the time of your struggle are valid, I can say emphatically that I’ve been down that road myself and they are valid.

Saints, what holds the Psalmist together here is the confidence that they are acting in integrity. They are doing what is right. Though around them is scandal and pain – they are confident that this too shall pass and moving to a place of integrity will carry them through.

“You shall know the truth,

And the truth will set you free.” – Jesus

I read this as a promise that when we get honest with ourselves and move to a place of integrity, we will experience true freedom. It will hurt, it will be painful, it might even give those who have spoken against you cause to triumph but know that in the long run you are better, you are healthier, you are stronger because you no longer care what they say about you! You are no longer dependant on “them” for affirmation and strength. Your day is your responsibility! Your health is your responsibility! YOU are your responsibility!

How freeing would it be for verses 5-9 to not even matter?

Blessed is he who takes care of the weak.”  Once we have cared for ourselves, we can care for others. It is given to us to be authentic, be real, get to the truth and acting with integrity  – then, when we care for others, we do so from a place of love.

I wonder what world’s view of the church would be if, instead of lashing out against perceived ills and confessing grandly the sins of others, we got real with ourselves and spent our energy on what we could control , namely “considering the weak?”

Luke 10:Jesus stood in a field. Around him were his disciples and among them were the “72.” These were disciples that had gone out to spread the news of the coming kingdom. They had returned and were ecstatic! They were bubbling with news of what they had seen and experienced. With joy they relayed what they had seen. A crowd gathered.

Lord! Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus smiled and replied that he had seen Satan fall from heaven and that he had given them power to tread on serpents and scorpions – over all the power of the enemy. The crowd around Jesus were in awe of the stories they heard.

Of course, not everyone was all that impressed. Some were quite cynical. Cynicism always follows the miraculous. As is should with reasonable people. Doubt can be a good thing.

Jesus praises God –  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

He then says to his disciples quietly (but remember, people are quite close so they can hear), “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Jesus says to his uneducated, unlearned, unread, unstudied grubby, blue-collar, emotions-bleed-all-over-the-place disciples that they are seeing things that many prophets begged God to see and did not. Things that kings, in all their power and wealth could not see – something that might be just a little annoying to someone standing close by, a lawyer, a theologian, a learned and holy man.

He jumps to his feet and challenges Jesus. “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Immediately, all the air is sucked out of the space. It gets silent. People look to see how Jesus is going to respond to this challenge.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, questions are rarely perceived as requests for information. They are almost always viewed with suspicion as a challenge to personal honor. The hope is that the person who is asking the question will not know the answer and be shamed by ignorance. This is absolutely the case since Luke points out that the intent of the questions is to “test” Jesus.

Here, Jesus responds (as he does in other passages) by insulting the questioner back. Jesus asks the lawyer – a man who has spent his entire life becoming an expert in the law, a specialist in the Torah ,the written Word of God – “well, how do you read?”

What we have here is what is affectionately referred to in my military career as a “sharpshooter.” It’s that Soldier who knows Army Regulations and Field Manuals from back to front. They can quote paragraph and line number to contradict whatever point you are making and they do it in such a way as to make a fool out of you and make themselves look good. If they outrank me, I ignore them or say something like, “thanks for your input Sir. That is a good point.” Or if it’s not going to be disrespectful, I just call it out. “Help me understand why you needed to make that point???” Awkward silence ensues.

Jesus calls him out. “Ok smarty pants, how do you read it?”

The Lawyer, now on the spot, regurgitates the catechism answer. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 thereby revealing that he knew the answer all along. He question wasn’t just a test of Jesus, it was a lie. He pretended to be ignorant though he wasn’t. Instead of shaming Jesus, the lawyer shames himself and Jesus emerges – once again – as the honorable victor in the contest. I can see the gentle (and maybe a just a little condescending, trying not to laugh because the disciples are chortling off to the side) smile as Jesus answers, “You have answered correctly, do this and live.” By now, people are laughing out loud. The lawyer needs to save face. He retorts, “Ok, then, who is my neighbor?”

Now that is a good question. Its really the question. No one argues the point that God requires us to help the “other” what we argue about is just who the “other” is and how much help we have to give them. We don’t argue about the need to holiness, but oh the legalese that comes out when we get into just what that look like and who gets to say what holiness is. Soooo, yeeahhh…

Jesus tells a story.

“There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

It’s a parable in 7 scenes.

Scene 1 – Robbers strip their victim and leave him for dead. Now, no one can identify his ethnicity. This is important. Remember, this is a small place. Everyone looks the same. You distinguish your tribe, money, status by your clothing but now, that’s all gone. Helping this guy carries a risk. No one knows anything about him. If I help him, what does that say about me? What might others say about me, what might I be risking, I don’t know his charges, I don’t know his preferences, I don’t know if he’s weird or not, I don’t know if he can help me back – I just don’t know!!

Scene 2 – The priest comes, riding his donkey which highlights his own status as an elite. He sees the victim and ponders helping him. If the victim is dead or is a non-Judean, he runs the risk of defiling himself by helping him. Then, he would have to return to Jerusalem in shame in front of those for whom he had just performed, gloriously, his priestly duties! His shame stemming from the reality that now, he would have to seek purification rites. The risk is too great and who has the time for all that. No one will even know he didn’t help the “other.” Note: Sirach 12:1-7

Scene 3 – The Levite comes. He might have come a little closer to examine the victim since the road was not straight and it’s possible he even saw the priest pass by before. If the priest did not give first aid, why should the Levite? I mean, if someone else ignores the plight of the weak, should I put myself out there? This would be a challenge to the priest, an insult, and God forbid I insult a preacher! Moreover, if the victim lived in Shechem, that would make him a Samaritan and we all know what that would do to my rep! The Levite passes on.

Scene 4 – The Samaritan shows up. We talked last week all about how Samaritans (Northern Jews) were viewed by Southern Judeans. The fact that Jesus highlights this is shocking and controversial in this tale. Allow me to demonstrate. What if we read the story as this, “the Preacher passed by, not wanting to get his suite dirty – what if the man was a criminal or an addict?? He clearly has nothing for me. The deacon passed by, the director of the men’s ministry who has been a Christian all his life and always is there first thing on Sunday morning in his best three-piece praising God with practiced hand motions. Can speak tongues on command. This guy saw the preacher pass by and thought better of putting that guy into his car. After all, he had another marriage retreat to plan for. Then, an atheist comes. A person unwelcome in their church comes upon the man in the street. He is filled with compassion and reaches out to help.

Scandal.

Scene 5 – The Samaritan offers first aid (wine, oil and bandages), which the Levite could have done but neglected to do. This is risky. The victim could hate him once he regained consciousness since, after all, he was being treated with Samarian wine and oil – impurity. In this story, the Samaritan is “damned if he does and damned if his doesn’t.”

Scene 6 – The Samaritan does what the priest could have done but didn’t: he places the victim on his own animal (by the way, very, very risky – who knows if the robbers are not close by) and takes him to an inn and continues to care for him.

Scene 7 – Finally, the Samaritan, in contrast to the Robbers leaves money and promises to pay what else would be needed in the care of the victim. This is perhaps the most risky part of the story – if the robbers find out that this guy has a soft heart and helped a witness who was supposed to die (tying up loose ends right?) they might come for the Samaritan and his family. Or, if the victim survives, he might rage at the Samaritan for helping him. I cannot express effectively how much these two groups hated one another. Purity matters. Read Leviticus.

The story is not lost on the lawyer. Red with shame and anger, he cannot even bring himself to utter the word, “Samaritan”  when Jesus asks, “Which of the three became a neighbor to the victim?” The lawyer’s question was, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus question was, “To whom must you become a neighbor.” The obvious answer is anyone and everyone in need.

The victim is laying on the ground like the psalmist, failing to thrive, his life passing before him. Naked, his exposed skin (his shame) feels every pain and agony on that ground. He sees his commander, his NCO come near him. At last!! They will help me!! Then they pass by. He sees his Chaplain come near. “He’ll help me. He has to. He’s the chaplain!” The chaplain follows the commander’s lead and passes by on the other side. Then, in shame, he goes to prison. He deepest, darkest secrets known to the world. His career gone. His family gone. His success gone. He is failing to thrive when an inmate, a sex offender, reaches out to him and says, “come, be healed.”

Oh saints!! What stops up from helping? What stops us from healing? What stops us from receiving the blessing of God for “considering the weak?” What keeps up from becoming the neighbor of those who need us? Is it pride? Anger? Is it others? Men of God, this will never go away. You will not get some special dispensation from God once you leave here to help others. There will ALWAYS be a good reason to not help. There will always be a good reason, a solid justification why you can’t “get your hands dirty” if you will not help now, if you will not be a part of God’s healing in someone’s life here, when will you?

When will you?

 

Why are we giving? Why do we argue about giving?

thought of the day

A thought on giving. In America, we are a very giving people when there is a natural disaster etc. I sometimes wonder why we seem to have an issue giving to systemic or ongoing problems. Sometimes, I experience people fighting about the cost of the gift, whether or not they should give, or if there is a better way to give. Perhaps these are good questions but then, at the end of the day, we need to give.

The question is, why do we give? In Buddhism, there is the idea that giving does us no good when we do so for the wrong reasons – being shamed or intimidated into giving; giving to receive a favor; giving to feel good about yourself – these are impure motives. The gift helps the other but does nothing for us. The purest motivation is that of giving with no thought of return. Giving just to help.

Giving is essential to Buddhism. Giving includes charity, or giving material help to people in want. It also includes giving spiritual guidance to those who seek it and loving kindness to all who need it. However, one’s motivation for giving to others is at least as important as what is given.

What is right or wrong motivation? The Anguttara Nikaya, a collection of texts in the Vinaya-pitaka section of the Pali Canon, lists a number of motivations for practicing charity. These include being shamed or intimidated into giving; giving to receive a favor; giving to feel good about yourself. These are impure motivations.

The Buddha taught that when we give to others, we give without expectation of reward. We give without attaching to either the gift or the recipient. We practice giving to release greed and self-clinging.

Some teachers propose that giving is good because it accrues merit and creates karma that will bring future happiness. Others say that even this is self-clinging and an expectation of reward. In Mahayana Buddhism in particular, any merit that might come with giving is to be dedicated to the liberation of others.

Paramitas

Giving with pure motivation is called dana paramita, or “perfection of giving.” It is first in a list of paramitas, or perfections, that are to be cultivated in Buddhist practice.

So, here is your thought for today, “A pessimist, they say, sees a glass half empty. An optimist, sees the glass half full. But a giver sees the glass of water and starts looking for a thirsty person to give them a drink.” Give just to give. Don’t argue or fret about it, just find a need and fill it.

Mothers and Goats.

Sermon, Theology

Mother’s Day is complicated.

For some, it’s this wonderful day filled with joy and excitement, love and comfort, poorly made breakfasts and eating out. For others, it’s a reminder of death. It’s a reminder of failure. A reminder that all the struggles to have children didn’t work out and judgments passed on those who choose for perfectly fine reasons not to have children.

Sometimes, Mother’s Days feels a little like “celebrating the fertility gods…”

During the Civil War and long after, Ann Jarvis had founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in Grafton, WV and five other cities to improve sanitary and health conditions. The Mothers’ Day Work Clubs also treated wounds, fed, and clothed both Union and Confederate soldiers with neutrality. A great legacy to mothers and their labors to better the world we live in. On May 12, 1907, two years after her mother’s death, Anna held a memorial to her mother and thereafter embarked upon a campaign to make “Mother’s Day” a recognized holiday. It was an opportunity to recognize what mothers go through and sacrifice to raise children. It was, and is, an opportunity to highlight that poverty and struggle exists for some mothers. She succeeded in making this nationally recognized in 1914. The International Mother’s Day Shrine was established in Grafton to commemorate her accomplishment.

By the 1920s, Anna Jarvis had become soured by the commercialization of the holiday. She incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association, trademarked the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day”, and was once arrested for disturbing the peace. She and her sister Ellsinore spent their family inheritance campaigning against what the holiday had become. Both died in poverty. According to her New York Times obituary, Jarvis became embittered because too many people sent their mothers a printed greeting card. As she said,

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

—Anna Jarvis.

Mother’s Day is complicated.

It’s complicated because we are complicated. We humans relate to one another in complicated ways. We have these great intentions but somehow, like Mother’s Day, it does not translate into the legacy we’re wanting to leave. Anna Jarvis had a vision of celebrating her mother, she had a vision of celebrating mothers everywhere but somehow that vision became blurred. When other’s started to carry the torch and started to make the day their own, it became something that Anna looked at with distain – “it’s not me!!”

…Cause parenting is never like that!!…

My own mother died 13 years ago this June. Mother’s day is complicated. I have three children who have an amazing mother and I celebrate her today. I also miss my mother. My mother’s mother died recently. They had a complicated relationship. It wasn’t always good. It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t always breakfast in bed, soft hair brushing sessions, saintly talks and iconic paintings. It was sometimes dark and moody. Stormy and frightening. Kind of like the relationship I had with my mom.

One of my fondest memories of my mother was out on the “farm” in Michigan. My mother was idealistic. She had these great dreams of simple living and independent subsistence – living off the land. We kids lived out that dream for better and for worse!

One year, we got goats. Little, jet black African Pygmy goats with white stripes down their throats – I hated them. I mean, they were cute until I had to care for them. Let me take that back, they were cute for about a day. Then the stinkin’ male, “Buck” put his little horns on me and we had a “hate/hate” relationship from that day on. We would milk them… have you ever tried to milk a pygmy goat? It is everything you could imagine. A bit like milking pencils. That bite. And kick. And crap all over you. Seriously cramped my style.

One year, my parents went to Pensacola for school leaving me and my sister home to hold down the fort. Buck gets into 50 pounds of corn feed. 50 pounds of corn feed. Do you know what that does to a goat? 50 pounds of corn feed? Bloat. Gas. Impeding death.

I walked in on a bloated goat staring up at me and immediately my life passed before my eyes. This was bad. There was no way I could tell my mother that I let the goat eat itself to death. I called my grandma Dee. She raised goats, she would know what to do. She laughed. Literally laughed out loud when I explained my plight. When she stopped laughing she helped me understand the proper way to help a goat pass gas.

I hated those goats.

We had the goats a couple years. The second winter, Buck got sick. Started acting funny and within a day went from ok to expired. I watched his little life spiral away. I was not sad. I mean, I didn’t do a little happy dance or anything, but I didn’t really grieve either.

Mom said to bury it out in the field.

January. Michigan. There was no burying of the goat that was going to happen that day!

But then, I was not about to tell my mother that. You didn’t really contradict my mom. You nodded and said, “yes ma’am.”

So what was a 16 year old boy to do with a goat that he hated?

Rigor mortis was setting in by the time I got around to taking care of the goat. The day was just starting to end, sun going down and it was cold. I stood in the darkening barn and stared at that goat. What to do? I saw a trash barrel and being the “inventive” young man who effectively sought for the “low hanging fruit” (some people call this lazy but they just don’t get me) I put the goat in the barrel. I mean, it was as good as place as any until I could figure out how to bury it in the frozen ground.

When I put the goat in the barrel, his hooves stuck out and it struck me as kind of funny since… oh stop! Don’t judge me. I was 16. I was burying a goat. On a farm. If you grew up like that, you would have a macabre sense of humor too…

So there the goat was, half in a barrel frozen in death looking like it was just about to jump out. I arranged it just so… looked taxidermied. By then, it was dark and I needed to do homework. I went back into the house knowing that I’d take care of it tomorrow some time. For the record, my sister thought it was funny too.

Later that night, I was reading in my room when my sister Emily pounds on the door. POUNDS!!

“Jon, mom went to get wood!”

“What? Ok. Why would I care?”

“Jon! Mom. Went. Out. To. Get. Wood…. IN THE BARN!!!”

My heart dropped to my feet.  I could see my burgeoning basketball career ending in years worth of grounding. I ran down the stairs as fast as I could go. I tore through the dining room and out the kitchen door…

…just in time to hear a blood curdling scream come echoing from the barn across the snowy lawn. I watched frozen in terror as the beam of my mother’s flashlight shot up and down reflecting her arm movements as she strode back through the deep snow towards the house.

There was nothing to say. There was no excuse. There was no escape.

“JONATHAN RANSOM FISHER! YOU DID NOT BURY THAT GOAT!!!”

I haven’t thought of that story in years but this mother’s day, it came to my mind. My mom died of brain cancer in June 2000. I was miles away in Idaho. I got the call on in the morning. I arranged a flight home that afternoon. The traveling singing group I was singing tenor for said goodbye with reassuring hugs as I was driven to the airport by a church deacon I can’t even remember in a beat up old red S10. My life had changed that day and I could not even know how. I could not even imagine what the future would hold.

I missed mother’s day that year. I had been home but Mom wanted me to keep my word to the ensemble group and the college. I was in Idaho. I don’t have any memories of that time except that my group was awesome. They were so kind. The chaos of my life reflected in their eyes.

Mother’s day is complicated.

Legacy is complicated. We hope that people will carry on what we have given them. I hope my children will carry the torch I bore from my mother/father, her’s from her’s and on it goes.

Jesus, in John 17, is praying for us. That we would carry the Legacy.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Its part of a greater prayer in this chapter and ends with our role in the coming Kingdom of God. The coming Kingdom of justice and mercy. The coming Kingdom of love and compassion.

The prayer has a present and future reference. It is a prayer, first, that disciples to whom God gave to Jesus may be one and, second, that those who “will believe” may be one and those present and future disciples may become “one.” Did we do it? I’m not sure sometimes… ok, most times…

Unity is never a fixed reality to be taken for granted as accomplished. Rather, it is an ongoing gift from God, who makes it possible to us, and an ongoing demand if we are, indeed to carry out our mission of bringing “the world” to the knowledge that “you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (v.23) Saints, our unity is the testimony that the “lost” need to experience. It is the testimony that Jesus was and is real.

Our unity.

God sends Jesus as the “Word” – logos – the very expression of God. We know God through the testimony of the Word. We know God through the incarnation of Christ. Jesus notes in this prayer that others know Christ by us. By our unity. By our love. They know Christ through us and God through Christ. That’s the mission. Unity. Love.

What about doctrine? What about dogma? What about worship? What about…

Unity. Love.

Saints, we are the second body of Christ. We are a revelation of Jesus. When we do right, Jesus does right. When we are hateful and bigoted, Jesus is hateful and bigoted. When we justify evil speech and call it Scripture, it become’s Jesus word. When we beat each other up over silliness and trite ideas, it is Jesus. That becomes the legacy. That becomes the testimony. That becomes the Word.

Hands. Feet.

These are not metaphorical, esoteric ideas in a dusty book of theological reflection – it is real! Literal! When I stand at an inmate’s door in solitary confinement, it is as a representation of the body of Christ. When I crawl next to a Soldier huddled behind the safety of a humvee wheel in Iraq, it is Christ huddling next to him. When I curse in anger and frustration, it is the voice of Christ. Christ represents God. I represent Christ.

Sara and were talking about this. She noted: As the Body of Christ, we rejoice with those who rejoice and we suffer with those who suffer. We show the love of God when we grieve with those who grieve. We show the love of God to our kids as model love to them. We show the love of God when we stand together as a body and don’t focus on our division. We show the WORLD the love of God by loving each other within the Body. The Body is ONE, it says. If we cut our arm, we bandage it. We care for it.

We in the Army realize this a little more than others I think. It is drilled into us that we represent the Army wherever we go. Whenever I put on a uniform, I am the Army to whomever I meet.

We are a family. We care for one another. Life is stressful enough without us beating each other up! We have surrogate grandparents, surrogate dads for kids whose dads are gone, surrogate moms for those who have gone to serve. We share the common suffering and the common pain.

We do this as an Army family and as a church family. We care for one another and so fulfill the law of Christ. Let us continue. Let us lay aside those things that come between us and live out the Gospel, the answer to Christ’s prayer. The testimony that He is risen! He is risen indeed!

13-19 Now I’m returning to you.
I’m saying these things in the world’s hearing
So my people can experience
My joy completed in them.
I gave them your word;
The godless world hated them because of it,
Because they didn’t join the world’s ways,
Just as I didn’t join the world’s ways.
I’m not asking that you take them out of the world
But that you guard them from the Evil One.
They are no more defined by the world
Than I am defined by the world.
Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth;
Your word is consecrating truth.
In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world,
I give them a mission in the world.
I’m consecrating myself for their sakes
So they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission.

20-23 I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me. (The Message)

 

Meditation on “Suffering Well”

Sermon, Theology

Text: Acts 9:1-20

I’ve been into a song recently: “I Vow to Thee my Country,”  a British patriotic song, created in 1921, when a poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice was set to music by Gustav Holst. I’ve loved the tune long before I ever knew it is also a song because the music of Holst has so long entranced me.  The words are very obviously an English patriotic song:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

“Her pride is suffering.” This line jumps out at me. Just like this phrase jumped out at me in our Text, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 1:16) God will show Saul how much he will need to suffer after taking the name “Paul.” In other words, “don’t worry about making Saul suffer Ananias, I’ve got that well in hand.” God, in order to accomplish God’s work on Earth through this newly minted Apostle – will show Saul suffering.

Is God’s pride suffering?

Suffering does in fact become a point of pride for us. Why do we do that? We even give it badges and tabs – airborne badges are not significant because someone jumps out of a plane (anyone who goes to a vacation spot can skydive with minimal instruction) it becomes something because of the school that goes with it. The suffering.

This is true across cultures. Suffering is worn as a badge of pride. If, somehow, a group can attach some kind of ribbon, award, t-shirt etc to suffering – hey, if we take your picture and put it on the wall, would you eat some kind of “ghost-pepper-habanera laced-pure gasoline-donut?” We do this because there is a measure of pride in our suffering. It’s that pride one gets when they are like, “I had all my children in a barn on top of hay with no anesthesia.” Look at me – I suffered through. See the badges on my arm? See the ribbons on my chest? I was there!

Suffering is a way to distinguish the truly motivated from the “posers.”

Suffering has been, for ages, a way to prove your worth. Show you are serious. Demonstrate that you are for real. Something to aspire to. Something to revel in.

Those who have “been there” often minimize the sufferings of others since they “weren’t there.” Sometimes suffering becomes politicized and abused – images of suffering become the stuff of commercials.

Suffering is cheapened. The video of the Soldier coming home to see their loved ones becomes something used to sell cars and insurance. A cheap shot – appealing to the emotions.

There is physical suffering. Mental Suffering. Spiritual suffering.

But the best suffering, the suffering deified in books, plays, and movies is that which suffers for another. We tend to see suffering as a way to get past politics and religion. Suffering somehow validates the message and the messenger.

It was suffering that brought down the british empire in India. Suffering that ended eras of discrimination in this country. Collective suffering has ended bitter wars. Of course, it is also suffering that extends them when people talk about the idea of “we can’t end it – think of the blood and treasure already spent…”

There are really only two kinds of suffering:

1. The Suffering that is a part of the human condition – the suffering that we all have because it’s just a part of life. The suffering that is necessary because to have happiness, you must have sadness. To have pleasure, you must have pain. To have the beautiful flowers of spring, we must have clouds and rain. One does not exist without the other.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism recognizes the reality of human suffering. The first truth is that there IS suffering, the second is the origin of suffering, the third is the cessation of suffering and finally the path to cessation of suffering.

Life is full of suffering. To suffer is to live. We can fight it, we can avoid it, we can shape our lives so as to discourage it as much as possible, we can muddle through it but in the end, everyone will suffer.

I spent Friday at Kansas University listening to a professor talk about depression – how it is actually, like obesity, a disease of civilization. It is a disease of affluence and abundance. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors (we know this by studying those who still live in those types of societies) knew nothing of depression. Depression comes because of our comfort. Even when we shape our lives to absolute comfort, that pursuit alone can be suffering.

2. The second type of suffering we experience is the suffering that comes as a natural consequence to the choices we make. Those choices can be good and we can suffer as a result or bad and suffering can still be there.

All this is in anticipation of a phrase from our Text this morning that jumped out at me. In Acts chapter 9, Luke recounts the salvation of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul has been about the business of persecuting those Jews who are challenging the established norms of power. Those people who are challenging the powers that control Jewish life through religion. Their leader was dead, they have been driven out of Jerusalem and now, Saul gets permission to pursue holy war against them in Damascus.

Of course, the more power is applied to the problem, the greater the problem becomes. Saul, on the road to Damascus has a classic trance experience. He sees a bright light, hears a message from God that changes his entire paradigm about the world around him, and finally interprets the experience as a calling to do something about it.

Of course, no one would believe him, why should they? He went all Gestapo on them! He CAUSED great suffering.

Ananias is afraid and should be. There is nothing about this situation that is a good thing. The man God is telling him to visit has been killing his people. Killing. In that situation maybe I would be tempted to rebuke this evil spirit that is calling me to interact with evil. Clearly can’t be a message from God!

Ananias goes. He accepts the calling by faith. In so doing, he plays a pivotal role in the Christian story. With Paul, the whole thing changes. With Paul, the whole thing shifts. What if Ananias had said, “no?”

Here’s the phrase, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” God will show Paul that suffering is a part of this calling. The Message puts it this way, “And now, I’m about to show him what he’s in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job.”

The suffering that goes with this job.

Why does Luke want us to see this? To know this? Because so much suffering has already happened. Think about it, there is really only one way for Paul to show that he’s not up to evil purposes and the testimony of Ananias is only going to go so far! All this hearing messages from God isn’t going to convince people who are full of fear! Paul will suffer as a natural consequence of his choices and that suffering will validate that his has truly been called of God.

You see, over the centuries, one of the things that has consistently validated the testimony of Christ-followers has not been dogma – it has been “suffering well.”

It is a hard saying no doubt but that does not make it any less true – when we suffer and maintain our testimony, our beliefs are validated.

Suffering is talked about, recorded, and struggled to be interpreted throughout the Scripture and it is beyond the scope of this morning to address it fully but we will look at one passage – I Peter 3. In this text, Peter writes to a church that is starting to experience what suffering really is all about. He assures this new Church that when they suffer for God, it is good. It is right. It is a blessing – so long as it is done with a clear conscience. So long as they are in the right and suffering it is a privilege.

Maybe you could even say, “Her pride is suffering.”

Of course, if you are suffering, as Paul notes, because of murdering, theft, or “meddling in others business” then you’re on your own! Good luck with that because there isn’t much to be gained there!

Here’s the thing: We love to claim that our suffering is of Christ, for Christ when sometimes we’re just suffering the natural consequences of our poor choices or the ramifications of our actions. If we are jerks and people don’t like us, it doesn’t validate the message of Christ, it just makes us look like jerks. When the Body of Christ acts like little children and throws a temper tantrum every time we don’t get our way and people start treating us accordingly, it does not have much to do with bearing the Cross.

Cancer is not a test from God. Diabetes is not a test from God. Failing one’s APFT is not a test from God. It is suffering, but not from God. How you respond to these types of suffering is, however, a profound testimony of faith.

Saints, suffer well. Know that Christ has suffered from you and before you. Many have walked the paths you now tread. Some have walked them and validated the message of their faith, others (like me) have walked those paths and come up a bit short. That’s ok. Everyday is a new opportunity to be the Body. To demonstrate the Love. To enjoy the blessing of walking through this life with Christ.

We all suffer. Anyone looking at these words are either recovering from, about to start, or are deep in the throes of suffering. Part of being in the Body is that we do not have to suffer alone. We are in Christ and with each other. Let us support one another and encourage each other as we muddle through this life, suffering well.