Tag Archives: social justice

Some Thinking on Thankfulness

While not a very religious holiday, Thanksgiving is still my favorite one to celebrate. This has to do with my love of gathering loved ones around a table in fellowship. It truly is the great American love-feast, and often comes the closest many of us ever experience in our culture to the table fellowship of the early church (or for that matter the holy feasts of the Old Testament). There is something holy in the love that our green bean casseroles were made with. There something holy (and wholesome) about dedicating a day to spend together with family thanking God for His providence.

Thanksgiving seems to break through our individualistic culture and provide a sorely needed excuse for togetherness. In our fragmented and disconnected world, there is something that food and fellowship around a table provide, that I believe, is sorely needed. It gives us an opportunity to invite in that weird uncle or aunt or neighbor who sees the world so differently than we do, and to love them where they are (not as we want them to be). As Quakers, we believe that everyone is imbued with the image of God; that all people have value. At Thanksgiving, many of us put that commitment to love our neighbor to the test! We need this grace to us more than most of us are willing to admit.

As an Osky transplant, I am blessed with a newcomer’s perspective. I see the many things about this community that are amazing. For me, it has been kind of like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, in a very good way. I think as a community we have a lot of things to be thankful to God for, and that joining together in worship to celebrate God’s rich bounty is something that is worthwhile. While there may be theological differences and a variety of ways people experience God in worship in this community, I bet one thing we could all agree on is God’s goodness to us. This one brute fact should inspire us to live out our love modeling Christ’s example. If God truly loves us–US–warts and all…that should fill us with excitement.

In my Quaker values class I teach regularly about simplicity, something I like to define for a largely secular audience as “saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things.” I regularly do an exercise where I have the students physically stand in the left, middle, or right side of the classroom to show their response (agree, unsure, or disagree) to an intentionally vague statement. This really gets people talking because they have already made a statement in their walking. For the week on simplicity I pose the statement “having lots of money will automatically make a person grateful, happy, and enjoy a meaningful life.” I am always surprised with how this exercise reveals. Some, see money as giving a person the freedom to pursue a life of meaning unhindered. Others, resonate with money’s power to magnify good or problematic areas of a person’s life. They acknowledge statistics about high levels of suicide among lotto winners, and recognize that in many ways, massive wealth could undermine the things in life they value the most.

This is a crucial step in the class’ journey of exploring the intersection between simplicity and gratitude, something few of us wrestle with openly. To get the class moving in this direction, I read a quote from Robert Fryling’s book The Leadership Ellipse that asks such an important question:

“…Gratitude is the involuntary response of the heart to all aspects of life and ultimately to God. It is not based primarily on circumstance. Some of the most grateful people in the world are the poorest, while many that are rich often are characterized by their lack of gratitude as they seek to acquire more money or fame. If this is the case, what then makes us grateful, or how can we be more grateful people?”

I think how we answer that question powerfully shapes the direction of our lives.

It is easy for many of us to always focus on what we have not attained, to be driven (consciously or not) by our fears or pride, or other people’s expectations. Few of us ever stop and be grateful.

One girl, who warned me on the first day of class that she struggled immensely in all of her attempts at religion classes, ended the course having a spiritual awakening and getting involved in a local church. As she presented her journey of exploring simplicity, she found such freedom that as a part of her relationship with God, she had someone to be grateful TO for her many blessings and the beauty of creation. This, among many other extravagant luxuries, are easily taken for granted by us Christians. But at the end of the day–each day–so much of how we see the world is shaped by where our focus lies. We daily have a choice of what we choose to focus on–the blessings we haven’t yet received, or the ones we have. We can allow gratitude to fill our hearts…or jealousy. The only one who chooses this, is you or me.

How DO we become more grateful people? I think grateful people focus less on the negative aspects of their current circumstances, and more on their many blessings. It is easy to fall into the same trap as the nightly news which is basically to focus only on the terrible or controversial things that happen in the world, and to do so until we find ourselves ever torn between reeling in fear and addicted to outrage. There is a story of three couples–freshly moved to town–who encounter an old man on a bench. In separate encounters, he asks each of them, “What was it like where you came from?” One couple said everyone was always gossipping and backbiting, another that people were always looking down their nose at others as they kept up with the Jones’, and the last said that there were many wonderful people with friendships that had deepened over dozens of years. The man on the bench responded to each couple with the exact same answer, “You are going to find a lot of that here too.”

As Christians we are going to find a lot of what we are “looking for” as well. We may see slights or grace, good or evil, the fallenness of people or the faithfulness of God. Whatever we want to see more of we will find. But we seem to need extra grace to do as Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8,

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” How might Thanksgiving be an opportunity to see God’s value in all people? How might some food, fellowship, or even board games around a table be an opportunity to share God’s love? That table of old where Jesus sat with his rag-tag disciples transcended the differences between a radical zealot and his nemesis a tax collector. It brought together rough and tumble fishermen, and even had room for a traitor like Judas. There is something about Thanksgiving that connects us to the table Jesus shared long ago, and reminds us of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. I believe it is there to find for us, if we are willing to let God give us the eyes to see it.


Loving Local

One social justice issue that College Avenue Friends Church cares about especially deeply is hunger. You can see this in the many among us who volunteer at the local ecumenical food cupboard, in Jan Palmer’s Take Along Lunch program that helps hungry kids get through the weekend, and the Oskaloosa Summer Lunch Program that I especially want to highlight here. The Summer Lunch program was pioneered by a wonderfully Christ-like woman named Martha Comfort, who launched and directed the program on a volunteer basis for its first three years. It became a non-profit under the umbrella of the United Way of Oskaloosa and because of the high poverty levels in our community it is both fully reimbursed for every meal by the USDA, as well as is not required by them to ask the children for proof of their neediness. It now has twelve sites in the Oskaloosa area. Martha recently stepped down from the program as she graduated from a graduate program in social work and plans to pursue further ministry in the new doors God has opened to her in a slightly different direction.

At a Golden Circle program (a monthly small group for senior members) the winter before last, Martha came and told us about her program, and immediately I wanted to learn more about what it would take to become a site. College Avenue sits of course right next to the Friends Park, the shadiest park in Oskaloosa on a hot summer day, and its recently updated play structures and sand pit are the perfect place for large groups of kids to play. Historically CAF had its Jack and Jill preschool whose legacy is readily seen in our facility’s ample kitchen and nursery, which is a wonderful plan B location in the case of rain or bad weather.

After finding out all that was needed was a small about of food safety training and a few volunteers, and all we really had to do was show up and love on the kids and serve them, we started last year out as a smashing success. Lunches were served MWF from noon till 12:45 with a fifteen minute craft or game following. Martha brought a bunch of donated sand buckets to give the kids at our first launch last summer and the first day we had around thirty kinds having a blast in the sand box! I mostly did the activities and picked up the food, and got a chance to meet many of the kids in the neighborhood and minister to them. One child known by many of the neighborhood kids had died tragically from an allergic reaction to the anesthetic from a simple tonsil removal, and though I was not technically allowed to proselytize because of federal funding, the kids knew I was a pastor and I was of course free to respond to their questions.

I knew all of this work was worth it when I saw the kids enjoying hospitality together as equals free of the poor kid stigma I grew up with, as well as mothers enjoying each other’s company in a welcome break from the isolation that comes with small children. Also, many of these kids did come out in the fall for our movies in the park, and I remember one day walking over to the church when seven kids riding their bikes all greeted me gregariously shouting “Hi Pastor James!” when before, they might not have even realized a church met there for worship or recognized me at all. Seeds of love were scattered very thoroughly last summer, and I pray some of these relationships that started last year will continue to deepen and grow, and of course come to discover that Jesus is at work.

This year our Peace and Social Concerns committee at CAF is beginning to gear up for launch May 31st. This year, my wife Liz will be the head cook of the program, and we recently built a weatherized bulletin board in the park to help communicate to people in the park opportunities they will have to experience the love of Jesus at work among us. Liz is especially suited for this work and has been gifted to serve in the area of hospitality. Her degree from George Fox was focused on equipping her to start a restaurant, and she spent three years as the head cook of Barclay College. The amount of volunteers that showed up and worked hard to bless these children is truly inspiring and there are many ways to get involved for those who have interest.

God’s heart for justice is clear, but not all justice ministries need be perceived as overly political. I believe most what is needed is eyes to see those in need in our community and compassion to serve. There are many tangible ways of ministering to the hungry that are very practical and dead simple, and perhaps even fully funded in some cases. All that is sometimes needed is a space and a helping hand. Love has to be shared, and I believe, must be seen in the form of action. How might we as the church better share the love of Jesus with those who are hungry, and perhaps build relationships where their spiritual hunger may also be addressed? It is my conviction that the more one knows God, the more one recognizes His love for the least, the lost, and the last. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and it is the natural response to first loving God. When someone asked Jesus who was their neighbor, he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. Love is a verb, an action word. It is also a command straight from the mouth of Jesus. Let us pray for ears to hear and eyes to see what God might dream for our neighborhoods, and our world!

Agape,

James


Lenten Journey of Justice: “Holy Saturday”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read Matthew 12:38-45; 1 Pet 4:1-8

Devotion

In college I had the pleasure once of having a Greek Orthodox priest come speak in chapel. Though this was unique and had never been done before, some of the Quaker mystical tradition had developed friendships with mystics of the Greek Persuasion, as well as some who had been working with the Apprentice Institute. If memory serves the man who came was called Father Gregory, and he gave one of the most interesting and controversial homilies to ever echo through Haviland Friends Church. Seeking to correct against the Protestant excess with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement (a Law/Punishment paradigm), this priest told us the gospel story according to Origen’s version of the Ransom Theory  (an overcoming Death paradigm). While I an many of my classmates listened in rapt attention to this radically foreign perspective on the gospel story, I admit I had some reservations. But when it comes to the atonement, I think most of the theories are valuable and mostly help us see that the truth of the gospel in a multi-faceted truth.

Father Gregory spoke in some fresh ways about what was going on during this interim time, a mostly silent time in Scripture though it is hinted at what happens during this time in the Apostle’s Creed and writings of the church fathers. In Gregory’s Greek Orthodox view, this was the time Jesus battled death in a spiritual reality beyond the cross. As Jesus went went into the grave it was seen has him being swallowed by death, going down into the belly of the beast so to speak.  Spiritually, Jesus descended into the bowels of death just as Adam and Eve had, and when Jesus arrived he found them there. Adam and Eve were trapped in their sin and could not get out, but death could not hold Jesus. According to this view of the gospel what Jesus did was essentially to grab Adam and Eve and burst back out from the belly of death,  giving Adam and Eve a path to their freedom and reversing the work of the devil.

While this stretched our protestant lens a great deal in chapel to seemingly speculate so much about how Jesus did this work of reversing the curse, I found it a helpful way to think about Holy Saturday. I do not know what to make of Jesus’ pointing to the sign of Jonah, nor or what to make of 1st Peter’s concept of Jesus. But I do understand that what is signified by them is is more than simply Christ resting in death. What happened during this period is a mystery, but one worth chasing a bit as we celebrate the gospel story at work within us.

A. Katherine Grieb, in her book, “The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness” argues persuasively that as Paul is arguing for Jesus’ work on the cross in light of his role as a New Adam figure, that Paul is borrowing from Jewish Holy War theology the idea of a representative fighting solo for his people, something akin to what David and Goliath agreed to do: they could spare the cost of war by choosing a representative from each side to fight for all. I like how these ideas blend together in reflecting on Holy Saturday, like David at Ziklag, Jesus comes to rescue a people in bondage. As Isaiah pointed to, Jesus came to set the captives free and break the yokes of slavery. He may not have fought an earthly battle but in facing off with Sin and Death the Lord was a warrior who took the fight to the powers and principalities of our darkened world crying out for redemption. Though scripture is silent or even confusing about what was going on on Holy Saturday, I think the case can be made that Jesus kept on fighting and took the fight into the belly of the Beast. Jesus conquered death, undoing the curse of Adam and Even, and leading God’s people to freedom.

Take 10 to 20 minutes in solitude to ponder the victory of Jesus, both on the cross above and in the realms below. At the incarnation God came on an all out rescue mission for our sake, at the cross that rescue took the form of redemption and atonement, and in the grave we find Jesus conquering sin and death. As we await the coming Act of the gospel story–the resurrection, let us not lose the importance of Holy Saturday; where the seeds of our redemption germinated and began to sprout, ready to burst from the soil Resurrection Sunday with unexpected glory and joy.


Lenten Journey of Justice: Good Friday

 

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Read Luke 23
Devotion
In Luke’s version of the Last Supper it ends in a cryptic dialog where, after fighting over who was the greatest, Jesus tells the disciples to go and by swords. Here Jesus performed a prophetic sign pointing to the meaning and significance of his death; He was to die as a Sufffering Servant, living out a vision of redemption envisioned in Isaiah 53. Another reason Luke include this is to foreshadow the actual way in which Jesus was to die: he would be numbered among the transgressors. It would be no shock to Jesus that he would die between two insurrectionists, but it was bitterly ironic for Jesus was not a Judas Maccab eus-style Messiah who came to raise up an army and drive out the Romans, he was a radically nonviolent Suffering Servant type, a type not on the radar of the Jewish paradigm’s land-centric focus.

He may have driven the money changers out this temple, but Jesus was not interested in building an earthly kingdom. He may have stood up to the self righteous and the status quo, but he was not as willing to kill for his beliefs as much as die for them. If one were left with any doubts about the humility of Jesus, we must recognize that the incarnate Creator of the universe here “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage, but rather poured himself out, taking the form and nature of a Servant (Phil. 2:6-7 translation mine). There is great truth in the Christian cliche that “it was love that held him on that cross” because staying there was not just a sacrifice but a choice. A choice of love he made for you and for me.

If Jesus hadn’t left it up to us I have my doubts that the day Jesus suffered through would have been called Good Friday. This rightly recognizes that this is the event at the heart of the gospel or “Good News,” but when I think of Good Friday I always recognize it was good for us, but not good for Jesus. And from the earliest days of Christianity it has been a day of sorrow, penitence, and fasting… something preserved in the German terminology for this day Kartfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday.

For Jesus this day would be a nonstop train wreck of pain, with Jesus fresh off his experience with betrayal to spend all night enduring three religious and three civil trials–none of which were as concerned about justice as they were with pleasing the court of popular opinion. Jesus endured a flogging severe enough it may have eventually killed him. He carried his heavy crossbeam through a mocking crowd hurling rocks, dirt, spittle, and insults. He had his hands pierced by cruel nails. And to make matters worse, while hanging on the cross the only way to keep breathing was to push his feet against the nail through his legs. The wooden footrest we see in pictures was considered optional and since they wanted to hasten the death and get things cleaned up for the the Passover Festival, it probably wouldn’t have been there.

Jesus had to earn every breath on a clock he knew he would never outrun. Near the end of this exhausting process his states of rest would be like waterboarding himself in a rapidly downward spiral of energy loss. Jesus experienced pain on a level we could scarcely imagine, he experienced the death of a criminal, a transgressor. It was a death reserved for those the Romans wanted to make an example of. It was a warning to all who would follow the path of this “transgressor.” It is a warning to us as we follow him that we are also on a journey of a cruciform life.

Good Friday wasn’t that good for Jesus, but it was exceedingly good for us. It was the culmination of a human life of suffering: Jesus grew up in a town that ostracized him for a scandalous birth, he fled a genocide as an infant, he was rejected in his hometown and nearly thrown off a cliff, he lived as a homeless man wandering the countryside teaching people about God, the very people who would reject him. He truly was, as Isaiah envisioned, a man whose life was well acquainted with hardship and sorrow. To die a painful death between two insurrectionists is the zenith of his suffering, but it surely wasn’t the beginning of Jesus’ many encounters with pain and brokenness.

The two insurrectionists who shared crosses with Jesus point us in two ways we can respond in taking up our crosses and sharing in the death of Jesus. One eased his pain by joining in with the mockers, rejecting outright the idea of a Suffering Servant. The other criminal recognized in this injustice that it was actually God at work through Jesus’ death on the cross; in sharing in the suffering of Jesus he recognized he was not innocent but that Jesus was. This latter path is the one where we earnestly share in the death of Jesus. We must recognize Jesus in his sinlessness, suffering the fate we deserved and ask to be identified with him. This man’s desperation led him to publicly identify with Jesus in the face of a mocking crowd. At times it can be that black and white… and when our chips are down in our suffering we see glimmers of where our identity is truly coming from. We face the same choice.

 

Friday Fool’s Challenge Prayer
Gather some paper and dark writing implements such as a sharpie or pen, and also a pencil. Spend some time doing your best to draw Jesus on the cross with a sharpie or pen. The drawing need not be very detailed, but if you have enough artistic ability to move beyond stick figures to a silhouette please attempt to do so. When you are finished flip the page over and look at where the figure of Jesus bled through the page. Next take the pencil or some other lighter weight writing implement and draw yourself onto the “bleeding through” silhouette of Jesus on the cross. As you draw prayerfully and artistically “identify” with this cruciform representation of Jesus, recognize the spiritual reality that your sin like, ink or graphite–where it falls on the cross– is identified with him and removed. It is forgiven, and you are free. Good Friday is Good News indeed!


Lenten Journey Of Justice: Maundy Thursday

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read: John 13:1-34

Devotion

Many of us feel a special kinship to Peter, a man who both shined brilliantly and failed mightily. His example give us who stumble hope, and us who are a bit cocky a needed does of humility. As Peter comes before Jesus with all his pride and frailty, it reminds us of how we all are before God; well intentioned, and yet ignorant of even what we do not know. Peter was oblivious to the work of the devil, oblivious to the ways his pride had shut up his ears and eyes to the call of Jesus to the mutual submission and annihilation of hubris that is taking the role of the servant.

Jesus would show a radically new way of being King in washing the disciple’s feet. It was a way of kinship that showed love through service, forgiveness and grace. It was a way of kingship that involved mercy, humility, and submission. Peter speaks for many of us with his gut response “No, you shall never wash my feet.” And then again, after realizing he has shot his mouth off with, “Then Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” We struggle to recognize our need for cleansing; our need for a savior. Like a dirty kid we are comfortable in our filth, and at first unwilling wash our filthy hands before supper. Next Peter overcompensates, asking Jesus for an entire bath, and Jesus points out that this is not what is needed.

At times dramatic cleansing is needed, but sometimes we just need to be freshened up by God’s forgiveness for small things. I think this speaks to relationship. There are times for radical redefinitions in a relationship, such as a proposal, but other times it actually undermines commitment and faith in the relationship to behave as if every day would result in a monumental change. If one proposed say every day, especially if one was unfaithful the next, this would not be a healthy relationship. Yet some of us come to God thinking everyday will be a radical transformation, like every day we should experience radical forgiveness and grace. At times we should trust in the grace we have already received, and we should submit to the routine opportunities for cleansing God sends our way. To do otherwise is to pretend to be greater than our Master.

We each come to God in need of cleansing, reluctant to receive it, and reluctant to offer service to others in humility. Obedience is a struggle for all of us, but it is through obedience that we demonstrate our faith in and love for God. Peter looked disobedient but came to be realigned with obedience, Judas looked obedient but was not where it counted the most. Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin biblical text where Jesus say “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Faith, love, and obedience intertwine in us, yet the example of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet shows us that these things intertwine around service and humility, the service and humility in following the example of our Servant King.

Fast, Read and Pray:

As you fast one meal today, reread John 13:1-34. Consider how Jesus’ Royal Law of Love works itself out in obedience, service and humility in your life today, or how God might want it to look anew with a bit of washing.


Tuesday Lenten Journey of Justice: “God’s Business”

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Read 2 Cor. 5:11-21

Devotion

A Jesuit spiritual director I know has an interesting art form he engages in; he loves mosaics. Some of his favorite works begin by getting a bunch of different colored glass and stoneware plates and smashing them to pieces with a framing hammer. He then picks up the pieces and arranges them in new ways that highlight the beauty hidden among the brokenness. These once perfect plates become essentially glued back together as if by grace, into a new creation; a reconciled creation. Far easier than reconnecting all these little pieces is to give up and walk away. Reconciliation takes time, patience, skill, and a lot of creativity. God’s business, and our business as Christians, is the business of reconciliation. But with God at work in our lives we can look past the pain and disorientation of brokenness because of the hope we have of becoming a new creation. Hope shows us that the brokenness doesn’t get the last word.

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word that comes the closest to “grace” is chesed. It is an interesting word that is not bound up as much in the idea of “unmerited favor” as it is in the idea of help that comes in time of need. It is often translated “loving-kindness,” but the idea really is more that of being helpless and crying out for help to someone who has the power to act, and when they do act, that is chesed. This Old Testament understanding of grace is one well acquainted with our need for God, a need beyond ourselves. Like pieces of colored glass shattered on the floor we are in no position to put ourselves back together, yet God takes us and makes us a new creation. He sees just the place we fit together once again and makes a mosaic, joining the brokenness back together into something beautiful beyond the jagged scars.

As Jesus journeyed to the cross he knew he would experience brokenness and suffering. He knew his body would be broken. He knew his blood would be poured out. But he also knew that God’s grace would knit the world back together through this act of obedience. Often, when we think of what things will be like when they are fully restored, our imaginations go to something more like the whole plates before the hammer. We think God will restore creation in a way that shows no evidence of its former brokenness. But Jesus’ raised body still bore the marks of his suffering. He still had holes in his hands and side. Reconciliation is not without its marks… but it shines forth like a mosaic with the scar tissue of grace binding it back together. It shines forth with beauty, beauty made even more beautiful by its brokenness; brokenness united together by love.

Watch

Pray

Pray that the Lord would reveal to you the patchwork of grace that has been woven through your life. While cliche, we often only get to see God’s grace from a “back of the tapestry” perspective. One day we will get to see the fullness of the beauty of God’s plan, but even now perhaps as you prayerfully look back at your story of redemption, God might reveal to you some of the beauty that has come through brokenness… Some of the good that has been brought forth from some of the pain.


Monday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Powerless”

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Devotion:

 

The Apostle Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. He came tot he church as an enemy, and joined the church as a trophy of God’s grace. Paul wrote Romans long after the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, yet he wrote about the theological realities at work in the gospel story. In Romans, Paul further explores the justice of God. He does this directly, but also indirectly as he elaborates in the mercy of God, and God’s heart for reconciliation. Paul reminds us that this divine mercy sought us out, that God heard our cries for a way back to Him. He sent Jesus, as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love of us,  and that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul points us through this passage to the spiritual reality of atonement at work in the actions of Jesus leading to the cross. It was to a world that was trapped in sin that Jesus came and died, but as Jesus died–so our sin died with him. As he would soon rise triumphant, the seeds of reconciliation and restoration sprung forth into the world… beginning to work themselves back into creation like leaven through the dough.

Lectio Divina Instructions
Lectio Divina (or divine reading) is a spiritual reading of scripture. We come to the scripture not for study only, but approach the text in a sense with openness to receive from God. The traditional lectio framework has four distinct stages outlined in the instructions below.

Reading God’s word (Lectio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 slowly twice (this is the larger reading from a physical bible). If you are doing this in a group have the listeners close their eyes to help them focus on hearing. As you read listen for a word or phrase that seems “illuminated” for you. Sit in silence a couple minutes.

Reflecting on God’s word (Meditatio)
Read the passage again. During the silence reflect on how the passage speaks to your life today.

Responding to God (Oratio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 again. During the few minutes of silence consider how God is calling you to
respond. Pray and tell Jesus your intended response to what you have heard. It might be praise or action of some kind, or something to think further on etc.

Resting in God (Contemplatio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 one final time. Rest in the words in silence for a few minutes. Close in prayer.


Sunday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Swordplay and Sifting at the Last Supper”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read Luke 22:14-38

Devotion

For my New Testament class, I wanted to do something interesting for my final paper. I felt like writing about Jesus’ non-violent teachings because I really care about peace, but that has been done before, and by smarter people than me. But one passage seemed to always come up in discussions about peace, the closing bits of our scripture today where Jesus tells the disciples to go buy a sword. I was always puzzled by this passage that seems so out of step with other teachings of Jesus. There are places he talks of his message as being as divisive as a sword, but that idea does not really fit here. In fact, this command didn’t even seem to fit with the scriptures that follow it—where at Jesus’ arrest, Jesus stops Peter from wielding his sword and heals the man wounded by the sword. Why would Jesus tell the disciples to buy swords they would be forbidden to use?

Often in the peace debate this sword saying is used as a prooftext to discredit Jesus’ radical nonviolent teachings, like his call to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I have even heard it coopted by modern gun rights advocates who attempt to twist the scripture into a view that Jesus supports the second amendment. In fact not long before I began writing my paper, Sarah Palin was quoted in a brand new article to this affect.

I was not sure what I was going to find as I dug into this passage, but at the time I was not really thinking about Easter, or the significance of this passage as a foreshadowing of that, but that is exactly what I found. What I found was actually a bit of how Jesus seemed to understand the significance of what was happening, how he pondered the significance of his death. He pointed to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Before we get too far into that, let me first sum up the content of the passage. We will be digging deeper into Isaiah 53 for Easter Sunday this year:

Luke sets the stage for more than a presentation of what other churches call “the words of institution,” there is a certain gravity beyond merely the supper itself, to the words of the supper. Jesus is betrayed and the announcement of his betrayal leads to dissension over the loyalty of the disciples. The group begins debating over ambition and status immediately after supping together, and Jesus promises each will rule beside him and judge Israel. Satan’s sifting is experienced by the group and Jesus speaks of how his prayer for Peter will see him through the coming time of sifting where he will eventually commit his acts of betrayal. This seamlessly leads into our text about remembering the provisions of a previous time, the exchange about the swords, and the fulfillment of Isa 53. But in almost no telling of the story of the Last Supper does anyone ever think to include the squabbles of the disciples or these mysterious words of Jesus about buying a sword.

And this is probably to avoid some controversy, as scholars fight about how to understand what Jesus meant but these words. Some take the talk of swords figuratively, some literally. In my studies I found no good reason to take it figuratively. Some see it as Jesus play acting being an insurrectionist, setting the stage for people to treat him as the leader of a violent revolution. Others see it as irony, or even disgust. Jesus’ words “that is enough” could just as easily be translated “enough of that!” It is impossible to know if Jesus abruptly ends the discussion because he is frustrated or was just done saying what he had to say.

Some have pointed out that two swords for 12 disciples seems like a laughable amount of weaponry to rise up against the might of the Roman empire. Others that the disciples would need to defend themselves after Jesus was no longer with them. Whatever is meant by Jesus’ talk of swords, what is clear is that he saw this as part of being “numbered with the transgressors,” a reference to Isaiah 53; a role written about himself long ago that would soon be fulfilled.

The New Testament story is the fulfillment of the Old Testament story. It is a story of the justice of God, told in the symbols of the story of Israel. It was the Passover that showed the people of God a way out of their oppression and slavery. It was the Passover that gave Israel the Passover Lamb, the symbol of how God’s people—acting in faithfulness— would be protected by God from their enemies. And it was the Passover Lamb whose blood would break the bonds of slavery in Egypt, just as Jesus’ blood would break the bondage of sin for the world.

And here at the Passover we see Jesus enacting a new Covenant, a covenant made through his blood as the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb. We spent Advent exploring the Old Testament idea of the Kingdom of God, and in many of my Lenten devotions some of you are following along with, we have been examining how this Kingdom vision of Justice was expressed in the example and teachings of Jesus. He taught in parables about the mercy and justice of God, a God often offering grace to those who do not deserve it. And revealing how Jesus—as the Messiah— came to inaugurate this kingdom the prophets of old longed to see.

It was the kingdom’s fulfillment, it seems, that even this late in the game the disciples were still oblivious to. As Jesus unveils to them this new thing God is about to do, they got caught up in fighting about who would play the biggest role in this new kingdom to come. Who will be the greatest? Who will have the seat of honor as right hand man of to Jesus?

Not who you think Jesus says. It will be the humblest, the servant. It will not be the most dominant—the one most willing to do whatever it takes no matter how violent—to Lord it over the people of God through military might… It will be the one who is the most willing to take the form of the servant, the one who will suffer most out of their love for others. The one who rules will be like the one who serves, and this is exactly the picture we find alluded to in Jesus’ death on the cross.

True greatness is not about prestige and honors and accolades, it is about humility and service. It is not for those who are impatiently wrapped up in taking back their country by violent revolution, not for those most willing to lay down their life to drive out the Romans and win back the Holy Land. It is for those who live lives of faithful service, content to take the kingdom of God as it truly is—a kingdom of peace and justice with thrones sitting around a table of unity, not that unlike these twelve people sitting together around a table to celebrate the Passover. It will even be the same people, and more in fact.

And think about who is sitting around the table with Jesus: some fishermen and a skeptic, a violent revolutionary and a tax collector who had betrayed his country; the one who would deny Jesus three times and the one who would betray him with a kiss. If it wasn’t for Jesus, these men would have very little in common. Some would even have been mortal enemies, yet with Jesus among them they gathered around the table of fellowship to be thankful to God. That is what the Kingdom of God is like, and that is what church should be like… sinners and saints, people of every stripe gathered around Jesus. Learning how not to squabble… learning how to be more like their Servant King.

The question we have been wrestling with this Lent is, what does the justice of God look like? And in this passage we find our answer: It looks like a divided Israel healed despite many differences, gathered like the 12 disciples around the Prince of Peace. It looks like the freedom earned by the Passover, freedom from slavery. It looks like the new covenant, providing a way into the family of God for those left on the outside. It looks like the kingdom of God reigning above human agendas or dreams of power. The justice of God looks like the humblest is the greatest; the one who trusts God’s promises for the future rather than the discouragement of the present. God’s justice is found in those who can look back at the faithfulness of God and see how God took care of his people, and can trust that there is no need for fear based thinking or worry to justify acts of desperation.

But there are hints of much more in the story, hints of Satan sifting two disciples who would betray Jesus, Peter and Judas Iscariot. One would deny him three times and turn back, and one would betray him only to throw his life away in despair. God’s grace was deep enough for both, but only one repented and believed. We see a great deal of fear at work in both Judas and Peter, but it was only Peter who would put those fears aside one day and race to the tomb. As the people of God, we too are being sifted. There is something valuable at the heart of us that will be uncovered, if we can let our sifting point us back toward the hope of the resurrection and not toward selfishness and self-preservation justifying acts of betrayal.

When it comes to the gospel story we see Jesus being sifted too. We see his tortured prayer at Gethseme. We see his betrayal; his painful death on the cross. We see his people spit in his face and mock him, and we see his love and grace go all the way to the end—all the way to his dying breath. But Jesus, in this passage, presents his death in light of Isaiah 53, of being the Suffering Servant through whom true freedom would come.

As the disciples of old—we Christians are often eager to flash our swords and take up arms, yet we see Jesus present himself not as the giver of wounds but as the receiver of wounds—wounds by which we are healed. We see Jesus, who committed no sin, numbered among the transgressors, hanging between two violent revolutionaries in the shameful death of an insurrectionist. A humiliating death that would serve as a warning to all who followed in the ways of transgression.

In this death, which we might be tempted to see as the ultimate act of injustice; proof the world can never be changed, Yet Jesus invites us to see his death on the cross as an act of service, an act of redemption. For God took the sin and shame and wickedness of this world into himself and absorbed it. God suffered, but God suffered as a servant, righting the creation that had drifted as far from God as it could go; paying the ransom for a world held hostage by sin.
As Isiah puts it:

“he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”

We find ourselves puzzled at the justice of God. What does this mean for us, in our time? I think the unity and humility we see Jesus pointing to gives us our best clue. It is not enough just to believe in Jesus intellectually, as the book of James puts it even the demons do that. If one would truly reign with Jesus, truly be his disciple, we must lay down the fear based thinking that justifies violence and strife. We must become like him in humility, in joining into the suffering of our world and living humble lives of service. We must look back on God’s faithfulness and go forward in hope. We must do more than be grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice, we must follow in his example.

When the devil sifts us, we are all too ready to take up a sword. We are all too ready to miss the point of what God is up to. Our fears can often point us away from trusting in God, but the battle Jesus faced was one of fighting through that fear to the victory on the other side of the cross. He could have taken the path of violence, he had every right to it in the midst of all the injustice he faced. As the ruler of the universe, he could have “lorded it over” this path of suffering. But Jesus took the path of the Passover Lamb, he let himself be numbered among the transgressors, he took the path of the Servant King.

For those who would reign with him, we must also be willing to suffer with him. For those who would rule with him, we must also be willing to serve with him. We should not be a people wondering about the minimum requirements of making it into heaven, but people wondering how far, with God’s help, our transformation can go. But the direction, long before it becomes a picture of us exalted—ruling with Christ on a throne, is a picture of the path of the cross. It is the path of the Suffering Servant.

This is not a mystery hidden from us, it is not something that should take us by surprise as it did the first disciples. We already know the end of the gospel story. But to get to the end of the story we must walk the path of Jesus, the path of the cross, the path of humility, the path of the Suffering Servant. We, as the people of God, must look past our fear of the present dangers we face… and have the courage to follow God even there.


Saturday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Banging the Pipes”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read Matthew 21:12-17

Devotion

Many scholars of the historical Jesus quests see the cleansing of the temple as the final straw that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. This act solidified Jesus as an anti-temple establishment figure. Jesus did more here than challenge the status quo, like a prophet from the Old Testament he performed a prophetic sign. As the embodiment of God on the earth, Jesus quickly and somewhat violently brought about a kind of temporary justice. The profit of temple trading had driven the establishment to chose to occupy the court of the Gentiles, a part of the building designed to make room for God-fearing Gentiles. A robbery had been done. These people earnestly seeking to be as close to God as they could be, were forced out. Justice, a core aspect of the heart of God, had long since been violated. Prayer, the primary activity to be done in this space of worship, had taken a back seat to human greed. And the outcasts who had been invited in by design were once again cast out.

One unique aspect of Matthews account is Jesus, after cleansing the temple, healing the blind and the lame. Like Ezekiel’s vision of water flowing out of the temple and bringing God’s healing out among the nations, here I see Jesus inaugurating a piece of that vision. The healing must start in the very temple itself, before it can trickle outward. I think Jesus in performing his prophetic sign marked this spiritual transition to an new epoch, to the time the people of God, like living water, would flow out bringing redemption to the world (Eze. 47:1-12). I think Jesus, also in line with Micah’s vision, was enacting how the Torah of peace, would soon be coming down from Mount Zion and outside Jerusalem into the world (Micah 4:2). What was alluded to, in my imagination, was the gospel itself being made ready to finally enact the part of the covenant Isaiah and later Simeon would understand as Israel’s calling to be a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:29-32). Jesus, in cleansing the temple, was doing far more than engaging in civil disobedience. He was unveiling to the world that the Son of God had truly come. He was opening the floodgates of the redemption of the world that would culminate in his journey to the cross.

Take 10 to 20 minutes in solitude to ponder Jesus’ action of throwing out the merchants and inviting in those in need of healing. We too often prioritize money over prayer, exclusion for our benefit over inclusion for the benefit of those seeking God. As you reflect on this passage, reflect also on Jesus’ words from Mt. 9:12-13 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”


Friday Lenten Journey of Justice: “A Vision of Renewal”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read Mt 19:16-30

Devotion

Jesus’ command to give to the poor is perhaps one of his most controversial in the American church. We truly are a church of “Rich Young Rulers” who are attached to our wealth like an anchor. Like a camel passing through the eye of a needle, what would be left of us if we followed Jesus in this way that seems so impossible? As Jesus reminds us, what seems so impossible is not impossible with God’s help.

The disciples were amazed because they believed something about prosperity that is challenged at nearly every point by Jesus’ teachings: they believed that the rich were God’s favorite. They believed that the material blessings the rich received were the benefits of a righteous life. Now it is true that there are many rewards of a righteous life, and prosperity of many kinds is somehow mysteriously attached to it.  It is true that the wisdom of God can work itself out in life in a way that can result in accruing wealth. But it is also true, as we all know, that injustice is just as likely to produce prosperity in a material sense. Sometimes it is the richest among us who are the most corrupted, the most self serving, and selfish. The most likely to do anything to make a buck. Jesus points us to a vision beyond what we can get out of this life, he points us to the renewal of all things. He points us to a vision of justice transforming life at every level.

One of the harshest railings against the truth of this can be found in the book of Malachi. There we see that God at times lets rich and arrogant people just have these short term “blessings” that will eventually be their own undoing. And many are the rich people who would never follow a man who said things like “foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head.” Sometimes the things we own can end up owing us. Sometimes we are all to willing to forsake the hope of final judgment and heavenly reward for a few glittering trinkets and material comforts. Though Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” he also said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The greatest rewards one could ever receive are not the kind that can be bought in a store or clung to with a clenched fist, they are not the kind that are even found in the best of human relationships: the greatest treasure of all are those who choose Jesus now over all other things. As Jim Elliot, the martyred missionary to Ecuador once wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Friday Fools Challenge

Take a 20 dollar bill and pray over it asking God to use help you use it to bless someone today. Continue to pray that God might open up your eyes to some need around you. In some cases, handing someone money can be a bad way to go. For instance if you give 20 dollars to an alcoholic it might do more harm than good, or if you give cash or a gift card to someone they might not spend it in a way that really seeks blessing. Pray seriously about this adventure and see if there is a more tangible way to turn this physical dollar into a blessing for someone. If you can somehow give it in secret you will be even more blessed.


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