Thursday, February 20, 2020

Put the Time In (Reflections on Transfiguration, Year A)

Image result for images of Moses on the Mountain top
The wonderful and mostly retired gentlemen who assist funeral directors in Northeast Philly are always very respectful to me, but they’re often a little uncertain as to how I should be addressed. “Do I call you ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend?’” one such gentleman inquired of me recently. “What title do you prefer?”

I thought about this for a second and replied, “I think I prefer ‘Monsignor.’”

It took the old fellow a second to realize that I was having him on, and then we both had a chuckle. Now, I wouldn’t want to make too big a deal out of this, but it’s recently occurred to me that there are only three ELCA pastors in the city of Philadelphia who have served in their current calls longer than I’ve served in mine. I am the longest-serving pastor in my parish’s history, and I’m the oldest man in my conference pericope group. I’m actually rather shocked to find myself in the role of elder statesman—mostly because I’m not at all sure I’ve gained any wisdom whatsoever in my time in the pulpit. Yes, I’ve done hundreds of masses, hundreds of funerals, sat at hundreds of sick beds, read tons of religious books, watched kids I’ve baptized grow to young adulthood, and seen fellow clerics come and go. Still, I think I remain spiritually just the same everyone else—patiently among the ranks of the perpetually perplexed.

But, even if God never speaks to me in a whirlwind or a burning bush, I’m glad I’ve put the time in. I find in the First Lesson for Transfiguration, Year A (Exodus 24:12-18) there’s value in being a guy who is willing to wait. Dear Moses goes up the mountain to find God, but God takes his sweet time with Moses. Forty days and forty nights the old boy has to wait before he can come down and get back to the job of leading the children of Israel. Fortunately, he’s arranged for some good coverage while he’s away (v. 14), but taking off for over a month might’ve seemed a bit excessive to the folks left behind. While God spends the next six chapters of Exodus giving Moses an excruciatingly detailed lesson in liturgics, the gang down at the foot of the mountain starts to panic.

The children of Israel don’t seem to have much patience. They don’t get that building relationships—be they with each other or with Almighty God—will be time-consuming. Nope. Moses doesn’t come back in time to suit their short attention spans, so they go and start worshiping a Golden Calf[i]. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

God, of course, is not real happy with this turn of events, and it’s just one more reason why the Lord teaches this bunch patience by having them wait another forty years before they can reclaim the land promised to their ancestor, Abraham.[ii]

I think it speaks well for Moses that he’s willing to put the time in up on that mountain. He really wants to get to know what God wants of him. He’s different from Peter in the gospel lesson (Matthew 17:1-9). Pete’s an impulsive dude. He gets a little glimpse of the glory of God, and he starts shooting his mouth off. God has to tell him to shut up and listen. Moses is willing to be quiet, listen, and be taught by God. When he gets what God wants, it’s written in stone.

I don’t think we ever learn anything instantly. We have to put time in and learn slowly in order to have anything that looks like mastery. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do—hit a baseball, shoot a free-throw, write a novel, repair a carburetor, replace a heart valve, or fall meaningfully in love. It all takes time. So does learning to be a Christian.

If you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the already converted. But maybe not. If you’ve come seeking a transfiguration experience of God’s glory and promise, you may just have to wait a while. We’re on God’s time, not our own. The best we can do is be patient, faithful, and disciplined. That’s kind of what Lent is about: a return to discipline.

When young folks tell me they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I always ask them what their spiritual disciplines are. They generally look at me as if I were speaking Mandarin. But faith and understanding come with practice. Scripture takes on new and deeper meaning the more we expose ourselves to it. Prayer gets richer the more we pray. Generosity gets easier once we realize how generous God is. Worship is more of a blessing when praise of God becomes part of who we are. The “C & E” faith will certainly get you to heaven, but it may be a very dry and unsatisfying wilderness in this world.

Put the time in. It’s worth it. 

[i] I always figured that the Golden Calf was a symbol for money in the bank. After all, nomadic folk looked on livestock as a sign of wealth. If you’ve spent any amount of time around bovines, you’d be hard pressed to find anything else majestic or god-like in their personalities.
[ii] 40 is a real big number in the Bible in case you’ve noticed. In Hebrew numerology, 4 is the number of earthly completeness. If you intensify it by adding a zero, it means you’re more than complete. If you’re wandering in the wilderness 40 years, you’ve certainly been there long enough to get your act together. Possibly, you’ve been there long enough for all the whiners and weenies to die off and pass the leadership to young people accustomed to rugged living.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Right and Wrong (Reflections on Epiphany 6, Year A)

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“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)

I’m not in any hurry to go to heaven, but when I finally reach the golden streets, I really hope there’s a golden Starbuck’s where I can find a comfy leather chair, enjoy a grande dark roast, and have long conversations with interesting dead people. One of the guys I really want to meet in the Great Hereafter is C.S. Lewis. I think he was one of the best Christian apologists of all time. He had a wonderful gift for explaining our shared faith in eloquent, erudite, but delightfully understandable ways.

It seems that Lewis had considered himself an atheist when young, and service in the trenches of the Great War didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to change his views. Fortunately for the rest of us the Holy Spirit began to work on him. By the age of 31 “Jack” Lewis, after many years of contemplation, accepted faith in God and Jesus Christ. If you read his wonderful apologetic Mere Christianity, you’ll discover that a lot of his thinking starts with the notion of right and wrong.

Lewis begins the book with the thesis that we all have some idea of right and wrong. If we start bickering with one another over something, we invariably argue that our point of view has some kind of moral superiority to that of our antagonist. The other party will then counter that we’re wrong, and that they’re actually representing a higher moral code, or, at the least, they have a very valid reason for violating our moral expectations. But inherent in all of this is the idea—and we all have it—that other people recognize certain things as being morally uplifting, decent, proper, and just plain right. These values are right, not because they’re in the Bible or because your momma told you, but because they are empirically right. The world works better when we love one another, respect each other’s feelings, show compassion and generosity, don’t take what isn’t ours, value truth, keep our word, honor interpersonal relationships, and refrain at all times from inflicting intentional injury on others. Different cultures may have different norms, Lewis points out, but you’d be real hard pressed to find a culture that considers cowardice, treachery, deceit, wanton lust, bullying, and unbridled greed to be virtues.[i]

I like the way Lewis puts things:

(There) are two main points I’d like to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Second, they do not in fact behave in that way.[ii]

I think, in looking at the passage from the Sermon on the Mount assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 6, Year A (Matt. 5: 21-37), Jesus is making the same point Lewis will make, but in a much deeper way. Jesus doesn’t pitch the Ten Commandments in the dumpster, instead he interprets them in such a way as to let us all know what kind of outlaws we really are at heart.

You think you’re righteous because you haven’t murdered anyone today? Guess again, dude! Your anger and arrogant disdain for your fellow human is still with you, and it’s just as destructive as if you’d blown someone away with a Smith & Wesson. The devaluing of others is what permits us to go to war. It's the sin that starts well before the violent act occurs but which makes the violence "acceptable" to us.

You think you’re pure because you haven’t tried to get it on with someone? Not so fast! When you’ve seen nothing but the object of your sexual wants in someone, you’ve dehumanized that person. And don’t blame her for being pretty—blame yourself for thinking that’s all she is.

Our Roman brethren have made, I think, something of a fetish out of the passage on divorce (vv.31-32), but divorce and remarriage aren’t the whole issue here. The sin Jesus warns us about in these two verses is a “what-the-hell” attitude towards breaking promises. In Jesus’ day, if a man divorced his wife, she could be left without resources. Not only did the man sin by neglecting an obligation, but he could very likely cause the woman to compromise herself because of her situation.[iii]

Jesus’ words in vv.33-37 assume that the righteous will be truthful without any need to ornament their testimony with oaths to the sacred. Such swearing is disrespectful and demeans the holiness of the object invoked. Honesty should always bring us to a place of humility, because if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit our helplessness.

Jesus’ interpretation of the law is not about mere behavior, but about the motivation which drives our behavior. Jesus calls us to a greater understanding of our sinful nature, our petty impulses, and our bondage to those feelings which are ultimately destructive if left unchecked. Martin Luther understood this to mean that the law, although it is always convicting us of our sin, is always drawing us back to our need for grace.

Our lived experience proves that Luther and C.S. Lewis were right—we’re never in full compliance with the law. It’s a mistake to confuse “right and wrong” with mere “do’s and don’ts.” We have to go deeper. We have to go to our hearts to seek the core of righteousness: the true, humble desire to love God and love everyone else.

God bless you, my friend. Glad you looked in this week!

[i] Except, perhaps, in the Trump White House.
[ii] From Mere Christianity (1943)
[iii] You’ll want to note that Matthew’s version of this saying gives a man the option of divorcing a woman for “unchastity.” The King James Bible translated this as “fornication,” but the word in Greek is actually porneias (porneias) from which our word “pornography” comes. It can mean unfaithfulness, but it can also be used for any kind of sexual immorality. There’s a belief that this condition for divorce may have come when Christianity was spread to Egypt where there was a tradition of incest.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Salt of the Earth (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year A)

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“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5: 17)

Do you ever try to imagine what it must’ve been like to hear Jesus preach? The gospel lesson from the Revised Common lectionary for Epiphany 5 (Matthew 5:13-20) is part of the “Sermon on the Mount,” and there’s some really cool and pertinent stuff in it. Now, granted, if Jesus gave this sermon in my homiletics course in seminary, the professor would probably give him a D- grade and say that it was too random and lacked focus. Don’t let that throw you. Old Matthew probably, the Bible experts tell us, glued together a bunch of Jesus sayings and stuck them in the middle of his narrative. How Jesus actually preached remains a mystery to us. An equal mystery might be what it felt like to hear him.

The gospels tell us that Jesus attracted huge crowds. He was a rock star in his day, so he must’ve been saying stuff that no one had thought about before—stuff that really touched peoples’ hearts and imaginations. Here he’s saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” I’ll bet those Galilean peasants never heard anyone tell them that before! Salt in the ancient world could be used as currency. Jesus is telling these poor folks that they are something of value. This, I’m sure, may have made them feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but Jesus goes on to remind them that things of value have a purpose.

Normally, of course, we consider things to be valuable because they have a purpose. I don’t just admire my computer or my car because they are nicely designed. I value them because I can use them. It’s the use that creates the value. But God’s grace works a little differently than that. We aren’t valuable to God because we’re useful. We’re useful because God has valued us.

The confirmation class I teach is studying the Hebrew Scriptures, and I’m trying to get the kids to understand the idea of a covenant. God strikes a bunch of bargains with folks in the OT, but they’re always somewhat one-sided. That is, God ends up doing the heavy lifting, and God’s people get the benefit. The covenant at Sinai—the Law—is a great example. God has already promised never to destroy humankind[i], and God has promised to bless the descendants of Abraham only in exchange for Abraham’s faith that God will do this. By the time we get to Sinai, God has already freed God’s people from famine and slavery and delivered them safely out of Egypt. God’s already done God’s part before God asks anything of the beneficiaries. The Law is not a condition for God’s blessing. It’s supposed to be our response to it. God isn’t into quid pro quo.

God’s also not looking just for ritual piety. The scribes and the Pharisees might’ve been into that stuff, but, as far as Jesus seems to be concerned, they’re like salt that’s lost its flavor. Jesus is always calling to our hearts. He’s not like some evangelical TV preacher who’ll tell you that you’re holy as long as you aren’t gay and don’t have an abortion. A response to the Law of God calls for a radical repentance, a willingness to see God in others, a transcendent love. That’s the difference between real religion and superstition. We become hidden lamps and tasteless salt when we think all we need to do is get our kids baptized and confirmed so we can satisfy ourselves that we’ve paid our dues. Jesus wants us to experience that which goes beyond ritual observance—a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The lectionary pairs this passage from Matthew with a reading from Isaiah 58. Here the prophet lays out what righteousness means in terms of love of neighbor:

Is this not the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and to bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Our response to being God’s light and salt is to feed and shelter and heal and end oppression. It’s to restore relationships.

I have to say, I’m pretty proud of my little congregation for being involved in sheltering the homeless (we partner with Interfaith Hospitality Network), and for helping to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (we partner with Feast of Justice and support their clothing and food cupboards). If God has blessed us at all, it is certainly that we may continue to be a blessing. Nevertheless, I get a sneaking hunch that Jesus is calling us to even more. When I imagine hearing Jesus talk about righteousness, I imagine he’s firing me up to a more radical sense of mercy that goes beyond what’s done in church.

When I listen to the news these days or talk to folks I get a feeling that we’re confusing righteousness with “fairness.” We’d rather see needy people neglected than have “unworthy” people get something to which they’re not entitled by our way of thinking. But, if we are the salt of the earth, aren’t we called to something more?

[i] Please note, there’s nothing in the covenant with Noah that says God will prevent us from destroying ourselves. That’s all on us. If you think God will magically reverse climate change after we’ve put so much crap into the atmosphere, you’d better think again!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Do You Really Want the Light? (reflections for Candlemas)

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“…a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32)

Merry Candlemas!

Yup, February 2nd, long before it became Groundhog Day, was celebrated as Candlemas. It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It probably won’t come as a shock to Lutherans that we don’t use that latter designation, but I think a word of explanation for it is in order.

Normally, we don’t make a big deal out of this minor festival in the liturgical calendar unless February 2nd happens to fall on a Sunday. It celebrates an event in the life of Our Lord which Luke records and is used as the Gospel reading for the day (Luke 2: 22-40). Mary and Joseph come to the temple in Jerusalem out of pious observation of Levitical law. They’d already had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. Now they’re observing two other statutes. The first is to present this little guy, Mary’s first born, as an offering to the Lord.[i] The second is to offer sacrifice so Mary can become ritually clean again after giving birth.[ii] The price of being a mom was the sacrifice of a lamb, but poor people like Mary and Joseph could get the discount price of a bird. I always like this detail Luke includes because it reminds us all that Jesus came from poor folk.

When Mary and Joseph bring their little tyke to the temple, they encounter two really cool senior citizens, Simeon and Anna. Old Simeon blesses the baby boy because God has promised that he wouldn’t die until he had a chance to see the Messiah. He sings a little song of praise which, in liturgical Latin, is called the Nunc Dimittis, which are the first words of the hymn—roughly translated “now thou dost” or “now you do.” We use this hymn often as part of our liturgy for the canticle we sing after we’ve received Holy Communion. Like ol’ Simeon, we too have seen the Lord’s salvation through the Holy Supper and can depart in peace.

Where the term “Candlemas” comes in is Simeon’s belief that this little baby boy has come to bring light to the nations of the world. Subsequently, church tradition held that candles were to be blessed on this festival. But preaching Jesus to non-Jewish folks isn’t the only kind of light Simeon suggests. He tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…” (v.35)

Now think about that: Would you really want your inner thoughts revealed? If the candle of Jesus’ righteousness were lit in the cellar of your brain, what do you think it would illuminate? We’ve always been taught that Jesus is the light of truth. Jesus in the gospels is a light of compassion, mercy, inclusivity, generosity, and forgiveness. It’s just possible that we don’t really want that light to shine on us, you think?  Compassion, after all, will cost us. It will require sacrifice we might not want to make. Inclusivity, as Jesus showed to the Gentiles, might mean we lose our feelings of superiority over others. Forgiveness means we might have to surrender the grudges which provide a sugar high for the voracious appetite of our brittle egos. If our inner thoughts were revealed, would we embrace Jesus or oppose him? Would we fall or rise?

There’s something else I love about this passage. I really dig that it lifts up the wisdom of two mature individuals. Anna is celebrated as a prophet (or profhtis in Greek), a term which refers to one who is a channel of communication between the divine and the human worlds. There aren’t that many women who get this title in the Bible, so you’ve really got to love Anna. She’s the first to see in this little boy the promise of God, and she’s not afraid to tell folks about it. She may be old, but she gets around. In my ministry I’ve known many an elderly widow who has spent lots of time doing God’s work in a house of worship, and—believe me!—the church could not stand without the faith and prayers of such as these.

So, Merry Candlemas, everybody. The challenge for this feast, I think, might be to let a little of the light of Jesus into your inner thoughts and, like Simeon and Anna, be ready to receive him.

So glad you visited today. Please come again.

[i] See Exodus 13:2
[ii] See Leviticus 12:4-5. Mary had to wait 33 days after Jesus was circumcised before she could step back into society. If Jesus had been a girl, Mary would have to wait 66 days. Those ancient Hebrews were really sexist bastards, weren’t they?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Follow Me" (Reflections on Epiphany 3, Year A)

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“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)

The story in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus calling the first disciples (Matthew 4:12-35) has always had me a little perplexed. In Luke’s gospel it makes sense: Jesus performs a really cool miracle. He has these professional fishermen who have fished all night—these guys who are sure, based on their own personal expertise that there’s no catch to be had—drag their butts back out into the water and shazzam! The Sea of Galilee is spewing fish like a slot machine paying off in quarters. Now that story makes sense. If you’re confronted with a miracle, you may well have faith in the guy who performed it.

But Matthew and Mark’s telling of the call of these first disciples offers no explanation. Jesus just wanders up to these fishermen and says, “Follow me,” and they follow him. Why? What is it about this dude that gets working men to walk off the job (and leave their dad in the case of James and John) and start marching around behind him? Would you do it?

Short of performing a miracle, it’s awfully hard to motivate folks to leave the comfortable and familiar and set off into the unknown. But I imagine that, given their circumstances, Peter and Andrew and James and John said to each other, “What have we got to lose? Things are crappy enough as it is. John the Baptist is in jail, so we might as well give this new guy a chance.”

It’s significant, I think, that Matthew marries this story of call and response to the promise from Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Things must’ve been pretty dark for working stiffs in Jesus’ day. They could choose to give up and sit in the darkness, or they could take a chance on finding light.

Matthew says that Jesus withdrew to Galilee after John had been arrested. Galilee was the territory run by Herod Antipas, the tyrant who arrested John. Maybe the fishermen were impressed with the gutsiness of a preacher who would come and continue the message of a man who was already in danger of death and do so right under the nose of the ruler. Maybe they wanted to hang on to that faint glimmer of hope that God had not abandoned them completely, and so they were willing to take a chance on a man who told them that God’s rule was near, and that they had to change their way of thinking in order to experience it. Maybe they were just plain friggin’ desperate.

I think we all know that, when times are hard, people are willing to fall for anyone who comes along with a slick line of b.s. But these guys not only followed Jesus, but stayed with him. The proof was in the deeds, not just the words. Jesus showed them compassion for the ones on the margins of society, the sick and those with diseases. He also broke the barriers by welcoming those from the other side of the Jordan in the land of the Gentiles (vv. 24-25). This must’ve been something new they hadn’t seen before.

Today in the United States it seems that just about everyone who is a registered Democrat thinks he or she should run for President. Some of the candidates have dropped out, but some are still slugging it out, trying to attract voters. If someone wants to get my vote, I want to see a little Jesus in them. I want to be challenged to repent—that is, to change my mind and see things a new way. I want to see compassion for the ones who have been left out, just as Jesus showed love for those who had been discarded from the society of his day. I want to see faith. I want to know that someone believes that change can happen, and that that change will be for God’s glory. Please, someone, give me a vision of a world and a society that works as God intends—full of peace, mercy, and justice—and show me how we’ll get there.

But the story isn’t just about the charismatic power of Jesus. It’s about the willingness of the fishermen to leave their nets and follow him. Certainly God Almighty, if displeased with this hapless rock we call Earth, could just snap his/her Almighty fingers and make everything perfect again. But God is a more loving God than that. God desires our active participation.

The story of the call of the first disciples comes right after the story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness. The two tales together remind me of a Kris Kristofferson song called “To Beat the Devil.” The lyrics tell of a down-and-out musician who is advised by a mysterious stranger to give up his singing because “no one wants to know.” The singer is tempted, but ultimately decides:

And you still can hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,
To the things that I am sayin', prayin' someone's gonna hear.
And I guess I'll die explaining how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin', hopin' someone's gonna care.

Discipleship requires that we cast new nets—nets of vision and faith—and be active participants in changing our world, our church, and ourselves.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

What's Up with the Lamb? (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year A)

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“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

Don’t you love those dollar stores? I was in my local “everything-for-a-buck” place the other day to buy some thank-you notes. The cashier was this young guy named Haim[i] who, I noticed, had a whole passage from the Book of Proverbs tattooed on his left forearm. He seemed a nice enough kid. Noticing my clergy collar, he asked if I were a priest. I told him I was and, as there was no one in line behind me, we got to talking for a bit. Haim told me that he was recently in recovery from an addiction to drugs (I’m guessing opioids). He said that both of his parents were first generation Americans. His dad was Jewish and his mom was Roman Catholic.

“Neither community accepted me,” Haim said. “But Jesus accepts me.”

As long as his faith in Christ keeps him clean and sober I won’t quibble about where he worships. I’m thinking he probably belongs to some evangelical non-denominational church of which there are many in my community. I wished him well and said I’d pray for his  recovery, but I could’ve kicked myself as I got into my car and thought that I’d missed an opportunity to invite Haim to worship with my congregation.

“Jesus accepts me.” That kind of says it all, doesn’t it? In the gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 2, Year A (John 1:29-42), two of John the Baptist’s disciples—Andrew and an unnamed seeker—inquire of Jesus where he hangs out. I guess they asked him that to see if he was a local guy, or maybe it was just a way to start a conversation with someone who just might turn out to be the Messiah. Jesus (who rarely gives a straight answer to any question he’s asked in the Fourth Gospel) answers them with “Come and see.” This is a pretty cool invitation. It’s about 4 pm, so it’s possible he invites the boys to stay for supper. We’re told they remained with him that day. Maybe they spent the night. That’s pretty accepting of people you just met!

Andrew, of course, was looking for Jesus because John the Baptist had pointed Jesus out as the Lamb of God. And that’s John’s job—to point the way to Jesus. I’d like to think that’s the only job any of us really has. Well, maybe we have two jobs—both of which are illustrated in this gospel selection: we are to follow Jesus and to point others to him.

So what are these lads looking for? John has told them that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We probably think of this as an atoning sacrifice. That is, a lamb was given to pay for a fault. I was surprised to find out, however, that lambs weren’t used as sacrifices for sin in Jesus’ day. If you wronged someone back then, they handled it pretty much the same way we do now. You went to court and paid your fine or took whatever punishment the law prescribed. A “sin offering” was actually a sacrifice made to cleanse the temple should some poor schmo wander in without having observed one of the billion and one purity laws they had in those days. Lambs were not offered as sin offerings. For an impure temple you needed to sacrifice some beef. Why? Beats me, but those were the rules.

When John calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he’s actually making a reference to the Passover Lamb, that poor critter that got eaten the night before God freed the captive Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The blood of the lamb was the blood of rescue, of liberation. It’s not just paying the price of having done wrong, because we’ll all pay for our mistakes one way or another, right? We pay the cost of sin in guilt, or in broken relationships, or in physical ailments, or even in legal punishment.

The Lamb isn’t here to bail us out of the earthly consequences of our sin, and he’s not just a “Get-Out-of-Hell-Free” card. No. Instead, he is here to change us. He is here to be our way out of slavery and bondage and guide us through the wilderness of our circumstances into something that God would have us be. For someone like Haim, it’s a radical release from addiction to sober living. For someone else, it might be the radical knowledge that Jesus accepts us even if we haven’t proven ourselves to the satisfaction of the world’s standards. Jesus frees us from those false expectations. The blood of the Lamb should liberate us from resentment, regret, and disappointment and lead us into acceptance and thankfulness.

At the end of the day, we have only two jobs—seek Jesus and show Jesus. Everything else we do can be evaluated in light of these two tasks. If we’re okay with this, the opinion of the world doesn’t matter.

[i] Haim is a variation of Chayyim, the Hebrew word for “life.” Just thought you might be interested. It’s a popular Hebrew name.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Usual Way (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Matthew 3:17)

There was this old guy in my congregation named Bob, now, alas, numbered among the saints in glory, who always liked the old Ferlin Husky country/gospel song, “On the Wings of a Dove.” If memory serves, we played that song at Bob’s funeral. It’s a really sweet song set in ¾ time or waltz tempo. It was a big hit for Husky in 1960[i], and it’s been covered over the years by many country and Christian artists. When the famous duo of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton recorded it, they added a verse which recounts the gospel lesson appointed for the Baptism of Our Lord in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 3: 13-17). The verse goes like this:

When Jesus went down to the river that day
He was baptized in the usual way;
When it was done,
God blessed his son.
He sent down his love
On the wings of a dove.

If you ask me, the Spirit of God alighting like a bird—and a particularly peaceful bird at that—seems rather anti-climactic when compared to the hoopla that went on the night Jesus was born. A dove seems pretty puny next to the multitude of the Heavenly Hosts praising God and singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” don’t you think? The whole event seems a bit too normal. Shouldn’t the beloved Son of God get a slightly more miraculous baptism? But the Bible suggests (as Dolly Parton sang) that Jesus was, indeed, baptized “in the usual way.”

Granted, John very modestly—and modesty is not a real big thing for John—suggests that Jesus should be baptizing him. But Jesus shows respect for the senior prophet on the scene and does things the usual way. I always figured that this was Jesus’ way of showing us that he’s willing to be just like the rest of us. In doing so, he’s practicing a becoming modesty just like John does. The event seems to be a little lesson in Christian courtesy.

Still, it’s not very spectacular. Even the Father God is somewhat laid back. Not only does he decide to let his Holy Spirit float down in a very calm and unobtrusive manner, but his pronouncement over the whole things seems a bit tepid. He says he is “well pleased” with Jesus. That’s nice, but don’t you expect that there’d be a little more effusive praise of Jesus? The word in Greek is eudokasa (eudokhsa for you Greek-reading folks[ii]) which basically means that God made a good choice or that he approves of Jesus. This isn’t exactly a stellar endorsement.

But then, does it really have to be? Maybe there’s something more divine in the quiet, gentleness of Jesus’ baptism. Not every encounter with the Holy Spirit has to be the rushing wind of Pentecost. We don’t always need the heavens to rip open and a chorus of angels to appear. A few sprinkles of cleansing water and the sedate reminder that God approves of us is really all we need. God speaks most profoundly at times in quiet whispers, in gentle moments of reflection, and in simple people.

It might be a good idea this week—when the world seems to be going crazy again—to take a break, sit quietly, and reflect that you are baptized. God loves you and God approves of you. Let the Spirit alight on you gently like a slow, soothing gospel song sung in ¾ time.

Be still. It works. Really.

PS-If you don’t know “Wings of a Dove,” listen to it by clicking here.

[i] I should mention that old Ferlin didn’t write the song. It was composed by a fellow named Bob Ferguson.
[ii] There probably aren’t many of you. I just dig that my computer has a program that lets me write in Greek. It makes me feel smart!