Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dream a Little Dream

Today I'm thinking of the wife of Pontius Pilate. We hardly ever mention her or her dream.

While [Pilate] was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Matthew 27:19

There are many traditions about Pilate's wife, regarding her name, history and even her faith before and after the crucifixion. There has been speculation as to her dream being from the Holy Spirit to bring her to faith and rival contemplation that perhaps her dream was a move by Satan to thwart the plan of salvation through the resurrection. (If Jesus doesn't die, he can't be raised now, can he?)

Regardless, in this week of sleeplessness (full moon + breastfeeding + Holy Week), I think of this woman waking up in a cold sweat, calling for a servant and telling him to go without delay to her husband and give him this message. I wonder how she felt when Pilate came home and said, "You won't believe the day I've had."

There have been many elaborations on this verse. The rock opera/musical/move "Jesus Christ Superstar" gives the dream to Pontius Pilate. You can see that below.

You can also read a poem by Charlotte Brontë elaborating on the dream and the traditions around Pilate's wife.

We hear so often about the people at the center of Holy Week (Jesus, Pilate, Peter, Judas, Anais and Caiaphas, Herod, the Marys), but we should remember the people who were on the periphery. It's worth thinking of the events from their point of view. Given that this was an event of biblical proportions (ha!), the scope of the actions is hard to comprehend. So in the middle of the whole story that you know so well, look around at the faces in it and step into the shoes of someone's whose view point is new and, maybe, fresh.

Pilate's Wife's Dream (published under the name Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell)

I've quenched my lamp, I struck it in that start
Which every limb convulsed, I heard it fall
The crash blent with my sleep, I saw depart
Its light, even as I woke, on yonder wall;
Over against my bed, there shone a gleam
Strange, faint, and mingling also with my dream.

It sunk, and I am wrapt in utter gloom;
How far is night advanced, and when will day
Retinge the dusk and livid air with bloom,
And fill this void with warm, creative ray?
Would I could sleep again till, clear and red,
Morning shall on the mountain-tops be spread!

I'd call my women, but to break their sleep,
Because my own is broken, were unjust;

They've wrought all day, and well-earned slumbers steep
Their labours in forgetfulness, I trust;
Let me my feverish watch with patience bear,
Thankful that none with me its sufferings share.

Yet, Oh, for light! one ray would tranquilise
My nerves, my pulses, more than effort can;
I'll draw my curtain and consult the skies:
These trembling stars at dead of night look wan,
Wild, restless, strange, yet cannot be more drear
Than this my couch, shared by a nameless fear.

All black one great cloud, drawn from east to west,
Conceals the heavens, but there are lights below;
Torches burn in Jerusalem, and cast
On yonder stony mount a lurid glow.
I see men stationed there, and gleaming spears;
A sound, too, from afar, invades my ears.

Dull, measured, strokes of axe and hammer ring
From street to street, not loud, but through the night
Distinctly heard and some strange spectral thing
Is now upreared and, fixed against the light
Of the pale lamps; defined upon that sky,
It stands up like a column, straight and high.

I see it all I know the dusky sign
A cross on Calvary, which Jews uprear

While Romans watch; and when the dawn shall shine
Pilate, to judge the victim will appear,
Pass sentence yield him up to crucify;
And on that cross the spotless Christ must die.

Dreams, then, are true for thus my vision ran;
Surely some oracle has been with me,
The gods have chosen me to reveal their plan,
To warn an unjust judge of destiny:
I, slumbering, heard and saw; awake I know,
Christ's coming death, and Pilate's life of woe.

I do not weep for Pilate who could prove
Regret for him whose cold and crushing sway
No prayer can soften, no appeal can move;
Who tramples hearts as others trample clay,
Yet with a faltering, an uncertain tread,
That might stir up reprisal in the dead.

Forced to sit by his side and see his deeds;
Forced to behold that visage, hour by hour,
In whose gaunt lines, the abhorrent gazer reads
A triple lust of gold, and blood, and power;
A soul whom motives, fierce, yet abject, urge
Rome's servile slave, and Judah's tyrant scourge.

How can I love, or mourn, or pity him?
I, who so long my fettered hands have wrung;

I, who for grief have wept my eye-sight dim;
Because, while life for me was bright and young,
He robbed my youth he quenched my life's fair ray
He crushed my mind, and did my freedom slay.

And at this hour although I be his wife
He has no more of tenderness from me
Than any other wretch of guilty life;
Less, for I know his household privacy
I see him as he is without a screen;
And, by the gods, my soul abhors his mien!

Has he not sought my presence, dyed in blood
Innocent, righteous blood, shed shamelessly?
And have I not his red salute withstood?
Aye, when, as erst, he plunged all Galilee
In dark bereavement in affliction sore,
Mingling their very offerings with their gore.

Then came he in his eyes a serpent-smile,
Upon his lips some false, endearing word,
And, through the streets of Salem, clanged the while,
His slaughtering, hacking, sacrilegious sword
And I, to see a man cause men such woe,
Trembled with ire I did not fear to show.

And now, the envious Jewish priests have brought
Jesus whom they in mockery call their king

To have, by this grim power, their vengeance wrought;
By this mean reptile, innocence to sting.
Oh! could I but the purposed doom avert,
And shield the blameless head from cruel hurt!

Accessible is Pilate's heart to fear,
Omens will shake his soul, like autumn leaf;
Could he this night's appalling vision hear,
This just man's bonds were loosed, his life were safe,
Unless that bitter priesthood should prevail,
And make even terror to their malice quail.

Yet if I tell the dream but let me pause.
What dream? Erewhile the characters were clear,
Graved on my brain at once some unknown cause
Has dimmed and rased the thoughts, which now appear,
Like a vague remnant of some by-past scene;
Not what will be, but what, long since, has been.

I suffered many things, I heard foretold
A dreadful doom for Pilate, lingering woes,
In far, barbarian climes, where mountains cold
Built up a solitude of trackless snows,
There, he and grisly wolves prowled side by side,
There he lived famished there methought he died;

But not of hunger, nor by malady;
I saw the snow around him, stained with gore;

I said I had no tears for such as he,
And, lo! my cheek is wet mine eyes run o'er;
I weep for mortal suffering, mortal guilt,
I weep the impious deed the blood self-spilt.

More I recall not, yet the vision spread
Into a world remote, an age to come
And still the illumined name of Jesus shed
A light, a clearness, through the enfolding gloom
And still I saw that sign, which now I see,
That cross on yonder brow of Calvary.

What is this Hebrew Christ ? To me unknown,
His lineage doctrine mission yet how clear,
Is God-like goodness, in his actions shewn!
How straight and stainless is his life's career!
The ray of Deity that rests on him,
In my eyes makes Olympian glory dim.

The world advances, Greek, or Roman rite
Suffices not the inquiring mind to stay;
The searching soul demands a purer light
To guide it on its upward, onward way;
Ashamed of sculptured gods Religion turns
To where the unseen Jehovah's altar burns.

Our faith is rotten all our rites defiled,
Our temples sullied, and methinks, this man,
With his new ordinance, so wise and mild,
Is come, even as he says, the chaff to fan

And sever from the wheat; but will his faith
Survive the terrors of to-morrow's death?

I feel a firmer trust, a higher hope
Rise in my soul it dawns with dawning day;
Lo ! on the Temple's roof on Moriah's slope
Appears at length that clear, and crimson ray,
Which I so wished for when shut in by night;
Oh, opening skies, I hail, I bless your light!

Part, clouds and shadows! glorious Sun appear!
Part, mental gloom! Come insight from on high!
Dusk dawn in heaven still strives with daylight clear,
The longing soul, doth still uncertain sigh.
Oh! to behold the truth that sun divine,
How doth my bosom pant, my spirit pine!

What Happened?

So, if you've been checking regularly for the continuation of the bracket series, it will be resurrected (so to speak) after Easter. Each bracket takes time and extra writing time is not magically appearing in the Holy Week season. And, yes, I do know it wasn't Holy Week last week, however- there is more than one week's planning going on here. I don't think I can manage 32 face-offs, but I've done three and I have at least five other topics, so an "Elite Eight" will happen. If you're frustrated by this, talk to the blog followers who've been waiting for me to finish the "50 most important Scriptures" series.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bracket 3: Infant Baptism v. Consecration Edition

Today's game is sponsored by:

The Real Presence of Christ.
So you aren't sure you're getting what you need from the bread and wine? Christ has promised to be present in these earthly elements to feed our faith and to strengthen us to do what He has called us to do. The love of Christ compels to come and eat and then to go and serve. He's there. He has to be. He promised.

Today we're looking at infant baptism versus consecration. The baptizing of infants is a sticking point for many Christians in getting along. How can an infant be considered able to respond to God's call? Furthermore, does an infant need cleansing from sin? Some people classify the opposite of infant baptism as "believer's baptism". However, I think it's safe to assume that the persons who bring their child to be baptized believe in what's being done there. So, let's say "adult baptism".

Are infants sinless? Well, yes, if you consider sin only to be deliberate, conscious actions. However, when we confess our sins, we confess to things known and unknown. Infants represent humanity at its best and worst, free from worldly encumbrances and yet totally self-centered. My son loves me, but he wants what he wants when he wants it. He did at 6 minutes and does at 6 months. Is this sin? Well, maybe it's not currently separating him from God, but if I don't help him learn (as he grows) that the world doesn't revolve around him (news flash from Copernicus!), then his faith life will be affected. At some point, even early on, we wrestle with the fact that we aren't in control. Maybe infants aren't yet sinners, but they aren't perfect.

The idea that lack of perfection brings us to baptism as strict salvation from hellfire is a problem. When we reduce baptism to a magical escape from hell, we bring infants (and adults) to the font (or river) out of fear, rather than out of a response to God's call and grace. Baptism is part of God's redeeming action concerning everyone. When people are baptized, we recognize and welcome them into the faithful journey with us. We're bringing them into the discipling and disciplining life of the church. Even children can be disciples (and disciplined).

People who disagree with infant baptism argue that an infant isn't able to "decide for faith". Consecrating an infant (like christening) dedicates a child to God, but allows the child to later make a profession of faith on their own accord and then be baptized. Presumably, this would happen when he or she was old enough to ask questions and understand answers about faith, God, Scripture and the life of the church. This can mean that children are young adults (or even older adults) by the time this happens.

If we believe that baptism calls us to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in a person's life (whether they do or not) and brings them into the life of the church, why wouldn't we extend that to every person around us- regardless of age? Furthermore, if we believe that God is always the agent of action (you can't invite Jesus, he's invited you), then who are we to decide the structure of the means of grace? If people can be baptized by their own tears, why do we need to control the ritual?

Because rampant grace is scary. It's overwhelming. And it means we don't totally have Christ nailed down. (We tried that once and it didn't work then either.) I've yet to meet an adult, any adult, who could fully, totally and confidently explain what happens during Holy Communion or Baptism. I've yet to meet an adult, any adult, who could fully, totally and confidently say that they believed in every promise of God, every day, with every breath. I've yet to meet one who didn't feel like they had more to learn.

Even Paul tells us that we must put away the things of children and act as adult (1 Cor. 13:11), but Jesus reminds us that little children are beloved to him and urges us to be more like children (Matthew 18:3).

When I see children at the communion rail with their hands extended, I know they're doing it because they see others doing it, because they see their parents doing it. They want to be in on the action. Isn't that the truest expression of faith, though?

I may not totally understand what's happening. I might not totally be able to explain how it happens. But I want in on it.

Somewhere between what we think we know, what we know for sure and what really confuses us, the Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words and helps us to say, "Hey, I want to be a part of that."

Children get it. They know they want it before they know they need it. By the time we're adults, we know we need it, but we aren't always sure we want it.

If we believe 1) that the Spirit is at work in the life of child from the time he or she born, 2) that children will grow in faith, just as adults do, 3) that God is capable of using even children for the good of the kingdom and 4) that the resurrection is for all creation, regardless of age or understanding...

Then why would we keep infants from being baptized? Baptism isn't the end, it's the beginning. And when you know what abundant life can be like, wouldn't you want that from the beginning?

Winner: Infant Baptism- Grace for all, exclusion for none

(Now who wants me to help them remember their baptism by pouring this Gatorade on them? Anyone?)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bracket 2: Paul v. Paul (Paul v. Women Edition)

There is no more loved and more hated person in Christian history than Paul of Tarsus. (I could make good cases for Constantine in that category, but that's not this bracket.) Paul deriders say he was a misogynistic egotist who hated Jews (might have even been the original self-hating Jew) and moved Christianity to the margins today because of his words. Paul supporters say he was a great philosopher who was far more open than his day would have allowed and, without him, Christianity might never have become a mainstream religion, much less the powerhouse that it is today.

For the sake of the argument, let's allow in the game the seven books (just like b-ball!) that we're pretty sure were penned by Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. There's a place for redaction criticism (as a point guard) later in this game, but I'd like to point out first that this Scriptural debate is brought to you by...

God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: True Author of the Written Word. For all your inspiration needs, see God. You might like the Big 10, but we worship the Big 3-in-1!

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Was Paul anti-woman? Let's consider 1 Corinthians 14:34-36: "[W]omen should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church."

Redaction arguments posit that this was added later to the text. As the letters of Paul were gathered together, an editor added this note (which appears textually in parentheses) to keep Paul in line with the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, James, Titus), which were being written at the time to help the early church as it became a more formal organization.

Using the "editor added it later" argument helps Paul, but I call traveling. That argument runs down the court with the ball, which gets you to the goal, but without abiding by the rules.

Let's throw it in from the sidelines and consider what else Paul has to say about women in 1 Corinthians (at the very least). How about 1 Corinthians 11:5: "[B]ut any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head- it is one and the same as having her head shaved."

People get caught up in the idea that this verse establishes the godly mandate for long hair on women. However, that misses the point just a little bit. Any woman who prays or prophesies would seem to be a more crucial phrase. Paul is taking it for granted that women will pray and prophesy. And this wouldn't be just among other women. Paul greets women by name in congregations in the Letter to the Romans and he affirms equality all before the Lord in Galatians, "In Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. " (Gal. 3:28)

Secondly, in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, Paul says, "But because of the cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise her husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self control!"

(Let the crowd do the wave, so we can get the air moving again.)

Paul will go on to say he wishes that everyone could remain unmarried, but not everyone has the gift for celibacy, which he did. However, this is a radical statement of equality in marriage. Unlike in non-Christians marriages, where each spouse might have his or her own lovers (or two) and unite only for the purpose of children (offspring being a necessity to cement a marriage, which was most likely political in nature at all levels of society), Paul is proposing that spouses cleave only (only!) to one another. Furthermore, he's asserting that the wife has the same rights regarding her body and her sexual expectations as does the husband! That's pretty impressive for an alleged woman- hater.

So, what's with that women-silent-in-church passage? Since we're going with the understanding that it was written by Paul, then we have to figure it out. It doesn't really stand with the other passages on women that we know are from his hand. Is there another explanation?

What if Paul was being sarcastic? He was known for putting a sharp twist on his words when he needed to.

1 Corinthians is one letter or a collection of letters that Paul writes to a congregation he knows and who has written to him with some spiritual issues. There are concerns about people speaking in tongues, eating meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality and other issues. Paul mostly advises people to play it safe when dealing with issues that could interfere with the faith life of a brother or sister. Is your brother in faith very worried about your habit of eating meat sold out the back of the temple, previously sacrificed to some Roman god? Then grab for the bean pods when you're with him and don't push him on it. (1 Cor. 8:13)

Yet, if Paul thinks it's important, he can have a firm hand. Romans 6:1-2, "What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?" Paul is dramatically making his point that though God's grace is for all people and covers all our sins, we don't keep sinning for access to that grace.

1 Corinthians 14:36- "Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?" This comment follows the dictates about women speaking in church. If we go with the idea that the instruction about silent women came later, this latter sentence would be read to understand that elsewhere God makes it clear that women have no authority or right to speak in church.

Since that does not stand with the rest of the biblical narrative (which has some mouthy, holy women!), perhaps this is Paul scolding the men of the Corinthian church for adopting maxim from other religions or the larger culture.

In other words, what Paul may well be saying is:

"I've heard you've adopted a new church policy: "Women don't talk here." You expect women to be silent worship participants, is that it? Women should go home and talk to their husbands and never in the gathering of the body, where men always know best. Well, how wonderful for you that you know the law so well? And where is that this is written? Oh, it's not, but you know that it's the desire of the Spirit? How amazing that we have such enlightened and spiritual individuals in our midst. They know the mind of God better than I, Paul, your teacher. They even know it better than God himself."

I think Paul snatches the ball, runs down the court and, despite his limpy, bowed legs, he's got a slam-dunk before others know he had the ball.

Christianity does have some misogynistic roots and it has a history of trying to keep women quiet, but that tree hasn't grown from Paul. Maybe from misinterpretation of Paul and misattribution of words to him, but I think Paul's writing stands as a testament to a God who does not discriminate and a Spirit who is equally indiscriminate and to a Savior who dined with and died for all.

Paul "Votes for Women" of Tarsus wins this bracket. Which means that women win as well.

(This topic got expansive. Other Pauline issues have been benched for future games.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bracket 1: Ecumenism v. Inter-faith Relations

In the spirit of the NCAA 2010 Basketball tournament, I've decided to do a little blog bracketing. Now, for the most part, there won't be actual competition between the "opponents", but I will do my best to explain something that's confusing about the two, how they're different or I just might bring them head to head and see who has the power.

In today's bracket, we have ecumenism up against inter-faith relations. These terms are often used interchangeably, as though they were synonyms. They are not the same thing. You could do both, but not with the same partner. An event could be both interfaith AND ecumenical, but it would need at least 3 participants.

Ecumenism is Christians working together. Since Vatican II (and before), there has been a desire for one Christian church, yet Christians often find more points of disagreement than agreement. While most (but not all) Christian churches are willing to participate in joint spiritual activities with other Christian churches, most continue to worship regularly, separately.

While, arguably, Christians should be able to unite under the cross for the sake of the world, it doesn't happen for a variety of reasons. I will offer myself as an example. I would be unwilling to join with the Roman Catholic Church and acknowledge the Pope as the head of the Church. That's a stumbling block to me. Yet I'm very glad to work with my Catholic brothers and sisters in ecumenical services. There are churches that will never permit the ordination of women. The fact of my ordination cannot be a fact to them since it is unacceptable. Yet they are willing, often, to put aside that issue so that we might work on a neighborhood service project or joint worship service.

Ecumenism is a struggle and a hope.

Inter-faith relations are exactly what they sound like. Relationships between people (or worship bodies) of different faiths. This could be relationships between organizations (a mosque and a church) or between people (a group of Methodists and a group of Mormons). Interfaith worship services can be touchy, because people either go ahead and acknowledge their differences (if a rabbi is praying, he/she is not going to do it in the name of Jesus) and let them stand or the organizers will try to make the service palatable to everyone and, thus, often meaningful to no one.

Inter-faith relationships are important because they increase understanding between groups. Faith families often have the power than states/governments lack to build relationships and develop communities.

The struggle in inter-faith relationships is how to take my faith seriously and respect yours. In my case, as a Christian, I have to take seriously Jesus' call in the Great Commission to go, baptize and teach all nations. If I take my faith seriously, then I do believe no one comes to God except through Christ. And I have to explain that to you, so that you might know the saving grace that is God's in Jesus.

Of course, the flipside is that the devout non-Christian sitting across from me is just as concerned about my soul as I, theirs. As much as we long to acknowledge one another faithfully, God calls us to be faithful first to the One who has been faithful to us. Even in acknowledging the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we're leaving out Ishmael.

[Positive] Inter-faith relations are a struggle and a hope.

So, if these came to a tourney, which would win? Well, I guess that depends on the nature of the competition. And who's playing.

Ultimately, I think they will go into sudden death overtime...

and God will win.

To tell the old, old story (Sermon 3/14)

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The story of the prodigal son is so familiar, most of us could give the highlights of the tale if we were woken up in the middle of the night. Boy takes inheritance, goes and wastes it, comes back, father welcomes him, older brother gets mad, father tells him that he’s been welcome all along.

It’s interesting because as this story becomes familiar and as we hear about prodigals returning more and more often, we begin to miss the sharp edges of the story. The edges that made the story shocking to Luke’s original audience, the edges that made the story uncomfortable to Jesus’ original audience.

This story is full of inappropriate behavior. Let’s start with the younger brother. A man needed two sons to take care of him in his old age. Two sons were needed to keep track of the family land, to keep the lineage going, to uphold the family’s good name. When the younger brother asks for his inheritance, it’s unbelievably bad behavior. I’m talking, selling the fishing boat for cash to buy drugs and wrecking the car on the way to the drug deal and then trying to beat up the police officers before running naked down the highway kind of behavior.

When the younger son asks for his inheritance, he’s telling his father, “I wish you were dead already, so I could have what’s coming to me. But even if you were dead, I don’t respect you or the family enough to keep your property the way you want it.” So the father has to put out a for sale sign, so to speak, so that someone will buy half his land, so that he can give the younger son “what will belong to him.”

Can you imagine how this looked to the neighbors? That the son doesn’t respect his father at all. That the father must have messed up in raising the son to have this kind of behavior and surely has no spine to stand up to him now. Imagine how the clotheslines buzzed when word came back about the son’s behavior, all wine, women and song. And then, of all things, slopping pigs- the dirtiest of animals and the lowest of work.

Jesus’ audience would have cringed at these details and they would have expected the moral right about now to be about tradition and respect. But Jesus goes on. The father, already embarrassed and reduced in social standing, is moping about and spends times daily looking for his son. Maybe he goes to the market each day, instead of sending a servant, hoping to hear some news about his younger boy. He’s spending enough time watching the road that goes in and out of town, where he last saw his son skipping off into the sunset, that people have noticed and they click their tongues. Yet still, he waits until the day when he will either see that familiar gait, way of walking, even before he can recognize the face or until the day he dies, which ever comes first.

The son decides to come home. And as he’s rehearsing his speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” As he’s looking down and concentrating on one foot in front of the other, he’s suddenly bowled over by his own father who has run (run!!) out to meet him. For ears in the ancient world, this is one of the most horrifying parts of the passage. Men did not run. Older men, respectable men, men of a certain age, did not, for any reason, run. It was beneath their dignity and unimaginable.

But here’s this father, who perhaps has practiced speeches of his own, who is so relieved to see his son that propriety has no place. He sprints to his son and throws him back a few paces with a full tackle. He’s got his arm around his shoulders as he brings the son back up the road, past the gaping neighbors, past the shocked servants and into the cool of the house, away from the hot sun. Here he offers the young man a drink and then starts giving orders for a party, stat.

Jesus’ hearers were confused. This story is now well off the beaten path. There’s nothing here that makes any sense. A party? For this embarrassment of a son whom the father should have spat on and refused even to take as a servant? This son who disrespected his father so and who fed pigs (pigs!) had the nerve to come back?

And then here comes the older brother. The brother who has upheld the family name, who is enduring the embarrassment of his brother’s behavior and the public commentary on his father’s mourning actions. This brother has been out in the fields, hears a party getting started, sees the neighbors coming with covered dishes and asks a servant, “Hey, what gives?” The servant catches him up and the brother blows his stack. He makes such a scene and throws what my grandmother would have called a hissy fit. He refuses to enter the house.

So his father goes out to him. In the ancient world, hospitality was everything. How you treated guests in your home reflected your status and your social understanding. You would give guests food you had been saving, the good bowl or cup, the freshest straw. Hospitality was the cornerstone of society. To leave guests during a party one was hosting for any reason was very embarrassing and wildly inappropriate. But the father goes out, goes out to get his older son, who is devastated by anger.

And the father is shocked not by the son’s behavior, but because this son hasn’t realized that the same extravagance could have been his all along. Jesus’ listeners and Luke’s readers would have reached the end of this story and been appalled and overwhelmed. Was Jesus really saying that the kingdom of heaven would be like this? That pig feeders would be welcomed? That people should embarrass themselves in this way?

What was Jesus saying? And what does it mean for us? I’m sure you’ve heard the interpretation that some of us are prodigals and some of us are older brothers and that God, our Father, longs to welcome us all home. And this is true.

However, at some point, we will be each person in this story. At some point, you will be the prodigal. Maybe you won’t be considering pig slop, maybe you will just have gone far enough that the return trip to ask for forgiveness, to accept a reduced status, is humiliating to contemplate. It can happen when your spiritual life isn’t what it should be, when you’re estranged from a friend or family member, when you’ve wandered and squandered for whatever reason… we will all be the younger brother.

And at some point, we will all be the older brother. We’ll judge the people who don’t come to church as often, who don’t raise their kids the way we would raise ours, or who act in ways that are embarrassing to behold. We’ll be mad at who gets the same treatment as us, at who gets better treatment, at who gets the recognition we deserve, at who gets the party we didn’t ask for, but wanted someone to read our minds that we wanted. We will all be the older brother.

And at some point, we will all look down the road, hoping to see that figure coming back to us. We will have spent of ourselves extravagantly in a relationship, with a parent, friend, colleague, child, sister or brother, and they will have taken what we shared with them and left. We’ll try to move on. We’ll put on a brave face. We’ll stop talking about it when people want to stop hearing about it, but each day, we’ll look at our mailbox, our inbox, our answering machine, for a message in a bottle, a smoke signal or a distant approaching figure, thinking, “Maybe today is the day that they come back.” At some point, we will all be the father.

And in each of those times, at each of those places, our Creator is with us, calling us to the only true home we have. Down and out, dutifully working, regretful and mourning, Jesus remains with us. As John tells us, “Through him, we have received grace upon grace.” And it’s because of the grace we receive from God, that we are able to extend any kind of grace and love to one another.

How do we know love except that God first loved us? We can’t let the story of the prodigal become passé because it points to a kind of love that’s costly, embarrassing and everlasting. It’s a love that so rejoices in homecoming, a love that abounds in forgiveness, a love that throws aside social protocol to embrace an outcast, to embrace anger, to enfold hurt. It’s a love that is about the resurrection of relationships.

In the midst of what the world, ancient and modern, believes is powerful- money, physical might, death. The story of the forgiving father, the prodigal son, the self-righteous brother, is an embarrassing story. The story reveals a God who is willing to enter the world, take on human form, be down and dirty with all kinds of people, eat with sinners, touch lepers, talk to women, to overturn traditions. And the way the world responded to this God in Jesus was to say, “I want you dead.” But the way God responded, the way God responds, is to say, “But I want you to live.”

The story doesn’t go on to talk about when the father sat down and had a reckoning with either of his sons. Jesus didn’t offer an epilogue or a postscript. It’s just love. It’s a God who’s willing to go all out, no holds barred, if you don’t get it this time, I’ll give you one more chance, again and again. It’s a little embarrassing, this boundless love. There should be some people who just don’t receive it.

But it’s amazing love, amazing grace. Amazing grace for parents, for children, for sinners, for saints, for those who come to work early in the morning and those who join in but an hour before the end of the day. We think we know how the story of the prodigal works, but we don’t. Because, in reality, we’re surprised by grace… every time.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Joseph the Faithful

Today (March 19) is the feast day (saint celebration) of Joseph. Depending on your view of Joseph, he is called the husband of the Virgin Mary, the earthly father of Jesus or the guardian of Jesus. For many Christians, Protestant and Catholic, Mary is the first Christian, the first to believe in Christ. She served as Theotokos, the "God-bearer".

However, there is good reason to include Joseph, if not as the first believer, as the second. After all, he wasn't pregnant. In the gospel according to Matthew, Joseph learned about the circumstances Mary's pregnancy in a dream. Despite his misgivings and probable fears (do you want to be with the woman who is carrying the Son of God?), Joseph stood by his woman, helped her give birth in a stable, and raised Jesus with love and discipline. (Joseph, like Mary, was worried when they thought they lost Jesus during the post-Temple return trip in Jesus' 12th year.)

We don't hear much about Joseph once Jesus starts his formal ministry and it's not unreasonable to figure that he might have been dead, especially if he had been older than Mary at all. People probably whispered about him (and her) for the rest of their life together. Yet Joseph, for what we know, remained true to Mary and true to Jesus. We do well to consider his faithfulness and willingness to be God's servant as well.

Joseph is considered the patron saint of carpenters, against doubt, dying, engineers, families, fathers, happy death, against hesitation, married couples, social justice, social workers, working men and the Church Universal.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life

Lately, our little church has been singing "Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life" twice a week. It's serving as our Lenten hymn of praise on Sunday mornings and it's featured in the liturgy we're using on Wednesday nights. You might not be familiar with the words of George Herbert's poem, which is quite beautiful.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, My Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.

We sing this to an arrangement by Ralph Vaughn Williams. (Ralph's friends pronounce his name "Ray-fe".)

I'm a big fan of thinking about the words we sing and this song/poem has some interesting and complicated phrases. Of course, in my interpretation, I might be terrible injustice to what Herbert meant, but I'm going with my best faithful guess and understanding.

Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life- This serves as an invitation to Christ, from the poet (or singer). We're inviting the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) to be the only shaper of our existence. It's important to remember that when we issue such an invitation, we're doing so through the help of the Holy Spirit and we're not inviting Jesus to come to a place he's never been. We're coming around to the recognition of our need for the creative, redeeming, and merciful God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and to the understanding that God has been with us all along. We're just getting with the program. (And we'll need daily (hourly! secondly!) reminders of our role in this relationship.

Such a Way as gives us breath- Without God, we have nothing. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away (blessed be the name of the Lord). Even breath. Without our breath, we are but dust.

Such a Truth, as ends all strife- Well, any time I hear about a peaceful Jesus, I think of him saying, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." (Matthew 10:34) At the heart of God, we find the Son, a gift to the world, so that we might know the love and the true expectations of the Father. The truth of the empty tomb ends our struggle with trying to make ourselves right with God.

Such a Life, as killeth death- I have no idea how eternal life works, I only know that I want it. And I believe that I can only have it through Jesus Christ. His life, resurrected life, brings the possibility of eternal life to all who believe. O death, where is your sting now?

Come, My Light, my Feast, my Strength- God's Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. (Psalm 119, John 1) When we eat together in remembrance of Jesus Christ, the Spirit spreads before us enough nourishment to go forth and do what God calls us to do. We can do all things through Christ, who gives us strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Such a Light, as shows a feast- Christ is our light, shining not only the way, but the abundant life that God desires for us to have. Does abundant life meant that we will always have everything we will need? In the light of biblical understanding, actually, it does. Because the community, the body of Christ, will lift one another up, sharing food, faith and fellowship until the time when the Lord comes again. Of course, outside of the church, society can warp the idea of sharing, but we who believe in the Light are called to live into the feast that is revealed to us, for us and for the whole creation.

Such a Feast, as mends in length- (The first of what I think are the two most confusing lines.) Christ, the feast of welcome, is everlasting. The life of Jesus, though confined to a time and place, is the mostly clearly understandable (!) part of the life of the whole Trinity, eternal and ineffable. When I hear "mends in length", I think eternal. That just when you think you've reached the end of the table, the end of row, the end of the line, the end of time- it keeps going. It's a mind-boggling concept, but it's a length that stretches into forever. A creative, forgiving, shaping, compelling eternal feast of love is our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Such a Strength, as makes his guest- (The second of the confusing lines) I'm never really sure what this says about Christ, God or my relationship with the Three-in-One. With Christ as Strength, it's more than "all things are possible". There's an granting of eternal grounding and a place of belonging. Perhaps this is illustrated in John 8:35 (paraphrase mine), "Now a slave does not have a permanent place in the household, but the Son abides there forever." Through Christ, we are guests in the house of God. Guests, in the sense of not originally members of the household. Yet unlike a slave, we are made children of the household, through the Son, and so we too can remain their forever. This is the strength of the bond between Father and Son, that whoever is welcomed by one is welcomed by all.

Come, My Joy, My Love, My Heart- Here is the invitation for that which can offer true joy, deep, abiding love, a place on which to hang our hopes and dreams.

Such a Joy, as none can move- Who shall separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35)? Short answer: No one and no thing. What could give greater joy and consolation?

Such a Love, as none can part- See line above. Ditto.

Such a Heart, as joys in love- Since Christ is not dead, but is living and living among us and in us, joy can still be his. How much joy is there in Christ and in heaven when love is shown and shared among those who believe and to the world for the sake of the cross? This is the love of Christ compelling us, so that our joy may be full as well. (2 Cor. 5:14, John 15:11)