01 February 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You’re the holy one from G‑d.”

“Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

Following The Way of Jesus should impact every area of our lives. There shouldn’t be a difference between “sacred” and “secular.” There should only be The Way.

To often, though, especially in today’s world, things are separated into different spaces. For example, at work, one’s not to talk about “religion or politics.” In some families, this is especially true! Another one is, “Don’t bring work home with you.” What that means is your “work life” is your “work life” and your “home life” is your “home life.” And while I get the basic idea, they’re really false boundaries. Your religious and political views shape you as a human being. The things that happen at work affect your mood and, therefore, they affect how you may react to your family once you get home. And that works the other way around, too. Something tragic happens at home and it will certainly impact your “work life.”

What we’re really saying when we make the above statements is that expressing one’s views or opinions will most likely make other uncomfortable (at the least) or cause a huge argument or lead to a violent outburst (at the worst). Therefore, it’s better not to say anything at all. In other words, people don’t want to be confronted with different views or opposing ideas. They want to continue on thinking that their way of seeing the world is “right” and other ways of seeing the world are “wrong.”

But that’s not reality. People aren’t made up like a computer application where this app only does this thing and that app only does that thing. People are more like the operating system (the OS). The OS is the underlying software that allows these (sometimes) diametrically opposing apps to run smoothly and side by side without any issues (I could make a jab at my least favorite OS here, but I won’t. For that, see my other posts.).

In other words, people are integrated. Like I said above, our beliefs shape our actions — whether they’re political or religious beliefs. I think one would be hard pressed to find a Democrat who opposed women’s rights or a Republican who was against the ownership and use of firearms (before I get nasty comments, I’m not saying those people don’t exist, but, in my neck of the woods, those people are pretty rare).

So, our lives are more complicated and integrated than post-Enlightenment society would want us to believe. I think it’s just this type of thing that’s meant by Jesus’ teaching has authority in today’s Gospel reading.

A lot of the religious tradition of Jesus’ time were about appearances and not so much about real life and how it works. There’s a classic story that illustrates just this point. In John 5.1-18, Jesus heals a lame person and tells him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” The man does just that. He gathers his things and heads home. But this took place on the Sabbath and there were laws that prohibited that type of behavior. So the man is accosted by the religious authorities and questioned about his breaking of the law. In other words, they were “religious” without any positive connection to the real world. The religious theories about what’s lawful and what’s not may be great in seminary, but in the “real world,” some things just don’t work like that.

I remember when my brother-in-law returned from seminary. He told me, “I don’t know how to talk to people anymore.” What he meant by that was, before he “went in,” he was a street preacher. He did mission work in the ghettos of the world. But now? He didn’t know how to even talk to those people. There was no connection between academia and the average person.

But here comes Jesus teaching with authority. The things Jesus talks about deal with this life as well as the next life. His teachings and actions are not solely about “what happens when you die,” but about the here-and-now, too. Jesus is about balance and presence. He’s not teaching some great philosophical ideals — they have practical uses. “Do you want to know what the Realm of G‑d is like?” he asks. “It’s not about ‘going to heaven when you die.’ It’s about this…” And he heals the possessed man. That’s a very scary thing! It instantly questions the religious authorities of the day and their power. It brings into question their whole religious institutional business. In short, the appearance of Jesus changes everything.

May G‑d grant us the wisdom of seeing the world in this way. Of knowing that our religious views impact our lives and the lives of others in deeply profound ways. May we seek courage to reexamine our faith and its impact on ourselves, our neighbors, and creation.

Let me end this post with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that we use in preparation for the Prayers of the People in Grace Garden’s Common Prayer:

“Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let’s fill our hearts with our own compassion — toward others and towards all living beings. Let’s pray that all living things realize that they’re all brothers and sisters, all nourished from the same Source of life. Let’s pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other. Let’s plead with ourselves to live in a way which won’t deprive others of air, food, shelter, or a chance to live. With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the sufferings that are going on around us, let’s pray for the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.”
Thich Nhat Hanh (amended)

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

25 January 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Third Sunday After Epiphany

Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached G‑d’s Good News. “The time promised by G‑d has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of G‑d is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”

One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.

A little farther up the shore Jesus saw Zebedee’s sons, James and John, in a boat repairing their nets. He called them at once, and they also followed him, leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men.

What is the gospel? The good news? The εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion [e-van-gel-eon]; that’s the Greek word)? For a while now, this gets asked a lot more than one might think. With the “emergent” movement or “emerging church” — that is, followers of The Way of Jesus who question many of the traditions in Western Christianity and seek to shape their faith through a shared conversation with many voices — the old understanding of the gospel has been called into question.

And rightly so, in my estimation.

For most people the gospel of much of Western Christianity can be summed up like this, “The wages of sin are death and we’ve all sinned against G‑d and our neighbor. Therefore, because G‑d’s eternally righteous and holy, we all must be eternally punished. But, instead of punishing us, G‑d chose to punish someone who’s completely innocent — Jesus, G‑d’s own child! All we have to do is believe that and we’ll be forgiven and saved from G‑d’s wrath. But if we don’t believe that, G‑d will punish us eternally. So, believe in Jesus and we’ll be saved!”

That’s such a huge departure from what Jesus said the gospel was. “The time promised by G‑d has come at last!” Jesus announced. “The Kingdom of G‑d is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1.15) According to Jesus, the good news is that the long awaited Realm of G‑d had finally come!

But what does that mean?

Let’s look at it like this. In Jesus’ day, when there was a new Roman Emperor — say, when Tiberius became emperor during Jesus’ life (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified) — heralds were sent out to proclaim the “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον, it’s the same word). They would arrive in a community and say something like this —

“Greetings! We bring you good news! Tiberius has become the Lord of the world! He’ll bring peace and salvation to the realm! He demands your loyalty and allegiance! Hail Caesar!”

Now notice there’s nothing like, “If you will only believe, Tiberius will save you.” The heralds make a proclamation about something that happened that changed the world — Tiberius was now in charge. It didn’t matter if people believed it or not. That’s the new reality.

It also spoke of things to come. Under Tiberius’ reign, there will be peace and salvation. This meant, of course, that peace and salvation would only come under the Roman sword and taxes. Again, it didn’t matter if one believed it or not. That’s what Tiberius was going to do. He was changing the world as he saw fit.

That’s the same idea we have when Jesus announced the “good news.” So let me say this as plainly as possible:

It doesn’t matter if one believes it or not, the Realm of G‑d has been established. Jesus is the new Ruler of the world. He will restore all of creation.

As St. Paul wrote:

For G‑d was in Christ, reconciling the world to G‑dself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And G‑d gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.

For G‑d in all fullness
   was pleased to live in Christ,
and through Christ G‑d reconciled
   everything to G‑dself.
G‑d made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
   by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Somehow, only G‑d knows, the Realm of G‑d was brought into our world through Jesus of Nazareth. At Jesus’ resurrection, that Realm was inaugurated. At the fall of Jerusalem, it was fully established. Since then until now, G‑d’s Realm has been spreading all over creation, slowly changing it; rescuing it. Through people following The Way of Jesus, G‑d’s Realm is fully coming “on earth as in heaven.”

But what does that look like? How’s it being accomplished?

I think we’re given a clue by looking at what Jesus said in Luke’s telling of the story.

When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

“The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me,
   for Yahweh has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
Yahweh has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
   that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of Yahweh’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”

When we see things like the poor being fed and clothed and housed, when they’ve been set free from poverty; when the prison system has been restructured, for-profit prisons dismantled, inmates being treated like people; when the eyes of the blind — emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually — are being opened and people are truly seeing; when the oppressed receive justice; when the 1% truly changes their hearts and minds to act on behalf of the 99%; it’s there, in those places where G‑d’s Realm exists. It’s there, that G‑d’s Realm is expanding.

So, the “good news,” is about something that has happened that changes everything. The call of humanity is to live in that change.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

19 January 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Second Sunday After Epiphany

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Come, follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, Andrew and Peter’s hometown.

Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.

As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here’s a genuine son of Israel — a man of complete integrity.”

“How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”

Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you’re the Son of G‑d — the King of Israel!”

Jesus asked him, “Do you believe this just because I told you I’d seen you under the fig tree? You’ll see greater things than this.” Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you’ll all see heaven open and the angels of G‑d going up and coming down on the Son of Man.”

In our Gospel reading today, Jacob’s Ladder is the backdrop to Jesus’ coded message in the last verse.

It’s a great children’s story from Sunday School. In that story Jacob has cheated Esau, his twin brother, out of his blessing and inheritance. Because of this, Esau vowed to kill Jacob. So, Jacob ran away! On his journey, he fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream, he saw a ladder (or staircase) stretching from earth upward to “heaven.” Jacob saw Yahweh’s messengers ascending and descending the ladder. Then Yahweh appeared and told Jacob —

“I am Yahweh, the G‑d of your father Abraham and the G‑d of Isaac. I’ll give you and your descendants the land on which you’re lying. Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you’ll spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. I’m with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you” (Genesis 28.13-15; CEB; adapted).

Jacob woke up terrified because he recognized that he’s slept in a sacred place — “It’s G‑d’s house and the entrance into G‑d’s Realm” (verse 17; adapted). He then took the stone he used for a pillow and made a sacred pillar out of it — a standing stone. He poured oil on it and named the site “Bethel,” meaning “G‑d’s house.”

In ancient times, the Celtic people also erected standing stones for various reasons — mark territory, burial sites, etc. And, just like Jacob, some standing stones marked sacred places. The stone was used to mark a thin place — a place where our world and the Other world was believed to be easily accessible. Some used the stone as a warning. Others, as a place of ritual.

When Christianity came to the island, some of these stones were used as places for Christian worship. Some were decorated with Christian symbols. In other places, the standing stone evolved into the celtic high cross. This cross was used as a place to build communities. Often one would find it marking the center of a monastery.

So what does Jesus mean by using this as his backdrop? More often than not, one will hear sermons about how Jesus is the ladder; how he’s the way to get to heaven. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.

In Jacob’s understanding of his dream, he slept in a thin place; a place where heaven and earth met together. And that’s exactly the message that John tries to convey over and over again in his Gospel. Jesus isn’t saying he’s the ladder for taking people to heaven. He’s saying he’s the place where “heaven” comes “down” and meets “earth.” He’s saying that he’s the place where “heaven” and “earth” unite. He’s saying that he’s the place where G‑d’s Realm and our realm become one.

For those of us who follow The Way of Jesus, that’s our story, too. We’re suppose to be the place where “heaven” and “earth” meet. Too often, though, I’m more “earth” than “heaven.” May G‑d grant us the courage and the grace to be a thin place. May we, too, be a standing stone for those around us. May we be the place that opens others to The Way of Jesus.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.