27 September 2016

Lectionary Reflection—25 September 2016

“There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you’re in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’

“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

This is one of the most famous stories in the world. Admittedly, it’s not as famous as the other story about Lazarus, but famous nonetheless. Even people who aren’t followers of Jesus or particularly religious know this story—bits of it, anyway. But even though we’re familiar with it, I think a lot of us miss its point.

For the last two chapters, Jesus has been confronting the grumblings of the Pharisees and legal experts (Luke 15.1-2). He confronts them by telling stories that have been about two things—who’s part of Yahweh’s family and the separation of classes based on socioeconomic status and how those two things are intertwined.

In his first couple of stories, Jesus talks about people losing something precious, doing whatever they can to find it, and once it’s found, having a celebration with their friends. However, “there’s more joy in heaven” when someone turns to God rather than (supposed) righteous people (supposedly) doing the right things (Luke 15.2-10). A story that directly points to self-righteousness of the religious leaders of Israel.

The next story is the more famous story about the lost child (aka, “The Prodigal Son”). The real focus of the story, while it does talk about the life of the lost son, and the forgiveness of the father, is on the “other brother.” You know, the self-righteous one who thought his younger brother was beyond forgiveness, mercy, and love. After all, he had his chance to “live right” but blew it and, therefore, didn’t deserves their father’s love and forgiveness. The older brother, on the other hand, had done all the right things, said the right words, but still felt like he deserved more (Luke 15.11ff). Here again, the story clearly points to the way the self-righteous of Israel (the grumbling Pharisees and legal experts) looked down upon the outcasts who were coming to Jesus.

The story that precedes this one is about the owner of a business and the manager. We find out that the manager was only looking out for himself because we see him “cooking the books” and letting the people in debt pay less than they original owed. It’s like he had two sets of books—one for himself and one for his boss. Jesus tells those standing around him to be shrewd like the manager because the time was coming very soon when they would need the help of others around them (Luke 16.1-13).

So, the story above isn’t an isolated story; it’s a continuation of a series of stories Jesus told that were directed toward the sneering, self-righteous, money-loving Pharisees and legal experts (Luke 16.14). We can see that, in all of these stories, Jesus is contrasting those who thought themselves better than others (the religious leaders and wealthiest among them; Luke 16.15) with the outcasts, those seen as “tax collectors and other notorious sinners” by their own spiritual leaders (Luke 15.1-2; NLT).

In that world, those with wealth and power and religious superiority had name and position. But, in Jesus’ story above about God’s Realm, Lazarus, the outcast of that world, was named and the rich man has remained nameless and unknown. So once more, Jesus has leveled judgment upon those who are supposed to know better. The religious leaders of Israel were given the responsibility of showing the world what life looks like when God’s Realm of love, forgiveness, and justice was fully realized. But they were failing. They were more concerned with their own wealth, their own power, their own position. They looked down on others, thinking their plight was either their own laziness or God’s judgment for some sin. Jesus’ stories are about the reversal of those standards; about putting the world to rights.

Certainly, Jesus’ story has an unexpected climax, a climax that pointed beyond itself to his own approaching death and resurrection. But even then, he said, even if someone was raised from the dead, some people wouldn’t believe in God’s (then) coming Realm. They’d still cling to the “old ways” of power and greed. “That’s just the way the world works,” they’d say. “That’s the real world; not some fancy, day-dream, pie-in-the-sky, make believe world.”

But that’s not the Way God’s world works.

And it’s not the way the story ends.

Jesus was raised from the dead.

And because of that, the world will be—has been, continues to be becoming—rightside up. Like the family of the “rich man” in the story, the signs are all around us. God’s Realm is still speaking to us in the loving actions of others; in the “Big Book of God,” nature herself; and, yes, even in the sacred texts of many faith traditions. Some of us just refuse to listen.

The world seems to be going through some very dark times right now. But that’s because some people are fighting to keep hold of the “old ways.” They’re fighting to keep their places of power and wealth. But God’s Realm is here. It’s challenging the “status quo” to show all of us that love and peace and forgiveness and justice are the only ways forward. That God’s Realm is “without end.” That it will continue to grow until it covers the whole earth like the “water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11.9; Habakkuk 2.14).

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

24 September 2016

But why, though?

A friend posed a question on social media asking what’s the reason and purpose we follow the commandments and tenets of our faith. I replied:

“To love all, serve all, forgive all, and create no sorrow.”

To which I was asked, “But why?”

And here’s my reply:

The short answer? Because the love of Christ compels me.

The long answer? Because I believe that God is Love (1 John 4.8). That the God of all creation was embodied (somehow, mystically) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Colossians 1.15). That through Jesus’ life and death, God reconciled the world to Godself (2 Corinthians 5.19; Colossians 1.19-20) and started the rescue of all creation. That through him, God continues to work through people and has given humanity the job of extending that life, love, and rescue to all others—humans and non-humans alike (1 Corinthians 3.9; 2 Corinthians 6.1). That God’s “ultimate future” is “someday” all of creation will become one with God’s Realm of Love, Peace, and Justice (Revelation 21.1-5). That those who follow Jesus of Nazareth are called, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be about doing good works of loving kindness and justice and forgiveness to help bring that future into the present (1 Corinthians 15.58; 3.10-15). And to do that, we have to “love others as [Jesus] has loved [us]” (John 13.34; 15.12) because “love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Romans 13.10; Galatians 5.14).

This, my friends, is what compels me to look at the world differently. In the face of others, I see my sisters and brothers made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-27). And when I look at creation, I see the glory of God, for all things have the Light of God within them (John 1.4-5; Psalm 19.1; Romans 1.20).

So I extend the original question to you, dear friend—what compels you to follow your faith and how does that impact your actions toward others and creation?

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

18 September 2016

Lectionary Reflection—18 September 2016

Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’

“The household manager said to himself, ‘What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.’

“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you’ll be welcomed into the eternal homes.

“Whoever’s faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who’s dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who’ll trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who’ll give you your own? No household servant can serve two masters. Either you’ll hate the one and love the other, or you’ll be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You can’t serve God and wealth.”

A lot of people misunderstand this passage. At first, some assume Jesus is telling us that God’s the “Master” in the story. The story, then, is about what God would have us to do with money and our relationship with the world of finance — that the best way to get ahead in this world is to take on the fraudulent characteristics of the business world. I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t line up with the image of God Jesus paints in the Gospels. It’s just the opposite, in fact.

Another problem is the translation of the word αἰώνιος (aiōnios) as “eternal” in verse 9. Here, it seems that Jesus is saying that one might possibly buy oneself into “heaven” by following those “dishonest” business practices. Is that really what Jesus is saying?


Later on, Luke tells us —

The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. He said to them, “You’re the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What’s highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God” (verses 14-15; adapted).

Clearly, Jesus isn’t telling people to adopt dishonest business schemes to ensure they have an “eternal” home in heaven.

So what’s going on?

Before we can address this passage directly, we have to remember Jesus wasn’t talking to us. He was talking to his contemporaries, i.e., first century Israel. Israel had been given a vocation — to be the light of the world; to show the world what it looks like when people follow Yahweh, the world’s true God. All throughout the story in the Gospels, it seems quite clear to Jesus that Israel was failing in their mission. Instead of setting the world free, Israel was adding more bondage to it, especially among their own people.

And getting rich in the process.

The problem was that Israel’s leaders were acting a lot like the leaders of the rest of the world. They’d already adopted those dishonest practices. The Law stated that one couldn’t charge interest on loans:

Leviticus 25.35-37 (adapted): If one of your fellow Israelites faces financial difficulty and is in a shaky situation with you, you must assist them as you would an immigrant or foreign guest so that they can survive among you. Don’t take interest from them, or any kind of profit from interest, but fear your God so that your fellow Israelite can survive among you. Don’t lend a poor Israelite money with interest or lend food at a profit.

Deuteronomy 23.19 (adapted): Don’t charge your fellow Israelites interest — whether on money, provisions, or anything one might loan.

The “master” in this story, then, isn’t God but the leaders of Israel. Jesus’ warning to them was that, when trouble comes (and it would in the form of the Roman army crushing down upon them), they might want to make sure they’ve made friends with their enemies or they’ll get crushed just like all the rest.

But, Jesus warns, know this — one can’t serve God and money. Pick a side. If they’re going to be friends with the enemies of God, then they’re not friends of God.

This whole passage, then, is an indictment upon the nation of Israel in the first century. They’d already colluded with the practices of the world instead of showing the world a better way of being. Jesus’ point is that there’s still time for them to change sides — but they can’t have it both ways. The real issue is that playing both sides against the other leaves one “hating” this one but “loving” that one; having “contempt” for this one but being “loyal” to that one.

Again, notice the response of the leaders, “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.” They really thought they could play both sides and come out on top. But, as we know, later on, their true colors come out when they bring up false charges against Jesus and exclaim, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19.15)!

So, what does this have to do with us? A lot, I think. When we look deeper we can see that a lot of us may have places in our lives where we’ve played “both sides” thinking we can skate by somewhere in the middle and then quickly jump to the “winning side” when the dust settles. There are parts of our lives where we need to more like Christ and let go of our own ways of being. This could be in our job or home life. It could be in our prayer life. It could be in our business dealings or the way we act towards others. We’ll have to look deep — praying that God will reveal those places to us where we’re playing both sides. It will take courage my friends, but Christ is with us. And in Christ, we will overcome.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

04 September 2016

Lectionary Reflection—04 September 2016

From Paul, who’s a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy.

To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house.

May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus the Christ be with you.

Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that’s good among us in Christ. I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother.

Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I’d rather appeal to you through love. I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus—appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. He was useless to you before, but now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He’s especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!

So, if you really consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me. If he’s harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. I, Paul, will pay it back to you (I’m writing this with my own hand). Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life.

Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask.

For quite a lot of people, the Apostle Paul is the “true” founder of the religion called “Christianity.” I suppose the reason for this is because most of the letters in the New Testament are attributed to him with 13 in total, although 6 of those are contested (Philemon is one of the uncontested letters). But he also catches a lot of flack, too. He’s been called a misogynist, a homophobe, and a narcissist, just to name a few. Of course, these thoughts all come from people who see the world quite differently than Paul and are clear signs of reading our modern sensibilities into the text.

Take the passage above. Philemon is a “one chapter” letter.* And some people wonder why Paul just didn’t come out and tell Philemon to set free Onesimus the slave. While he clearly has that authority (verse 8), Paul decides to “appeal to [Philemon] through love” (verse 9). The Greek word for “appeal” is παρακαλέω (parakaleō) and it means, “to ask, beg, plead; to comfort, encourage, exhort, urge; to call, invite.” In other words, Paul isn’t simply asking Philemon to set Onesimus free, it’s much more forceful than that. As can be seen by the other words, there’s a deeper urgency here. Paul’s begging, pleading, and urging Philemon “through love” to release Onesimus.

But why can’t Paul just tell Philemon to release Onesimus? While that’s the right thing to do—the Christian thing to do—Paul has to walk gently, here. In Roman society slavery was the norm; that’s the way society worked. But Paul knows that, because of Christ, slavery is on the way out for “there’s neither Jew nor Greek; there’s neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you’re all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28, adapted; cf. 1 Corinthians 12.13). But he has to do this delicately. It’s one thing to take on Judaism but it’s quite another to take on the Roman empire.

The overall tone of this little letter is παρακαλέω. Paul is clearly urging Philemon to do the right thing without coming right out and saying it. He speaks to Philemon’s love and companionship and partnership as, not only a fellow follower of Jesus, but a dear brother and friend of Paul. Further, Paul insists that Onesimus is now in that same group—he’s become Paul’s “child” (verse 10), his very “heart” (verse 12), and a “dearly loved brother” (verse 16). And just to make sure Philemon gets it, if Onesimus owes Philemon anything, Paul urges him to “charge it to [Paul’s] account” and he’ll pay it back (verses 18-19).

I think this letter gives us insight on how to negotiate many of the social justice issues we face today. What if, instead of trying to topple the whole fabric of the societal order through violence, we followed Paul’s example to make changes subtly, gently? How would that look? In a world where we like to see instant results, what steps could we take to make the slow work needed for lasting change? If we’re wanting to have a world of peace, a world free of slavery, greed, disease, and violence, we can’t succumb to those same tactics, even if we feel we have the “right.” Coercion doesn’t solve things in the long run—it just makes those who were forced to change bitter and resentful. And when the opportunity comes, they’ll lash out in violent revolt. No. The way forward is to appeal to each other’s common humanity. To see others, not as “less than” but “more than.” To see those affected by greed, violence, and slavery as human beings—as our own children. When we do this, we’ll see that we may save a few with acts of violence but we won’t change the world. Changing the world needs the slow work of Love.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

*When people started adding chapters and verses in the Bible in the 16th century, the letter to Philemon was only given one chapter.