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Archive for October, 2016

Zacchaeus is a peculiar person to be the hero of a biblical story. He is short in stature, is blocked and barricaded from seeing Jesus until he climbs a tree and he is the chief tax collector for the Romans in Jericho, which means he is one of biggest crooks around and he is also one of most lost to God in Jericho. He is a most peculiar man as the song goes.

Except, he is right up there with all the other peculiar characters as Frederick Buechner, theologian and pastor, has pointed out, “There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Rahab, one of the first spies for the people Israel. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition, and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David who thought he was a gift to the ladies, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, and Judas even.”

Yet, Jesus sees him in the tree and tells him to get down, so they can go to Zacchaeus’ home, eat dinner and hang out because Zacchaeus is both a son of Abraham belonging to the community of Israel and one of the lost people Jesus has come to seek and save and bring back into the community just like the lost sheep found and brought back to the flock, the lost coin frantically sought until found and put in the jar with the rest of coins or even the child who leaves home and comes back home to re-group and find the path to a life of well-being and meaningfulness. He is as Jesus pronounced the very person he was seeking, announcing to the crowd and the world that salvation has come to this house after Zacchaeus announces he is giving away half of his wealth to the poor and will repay four times the amount to anyone he has cheated.

Now usually when we tell this story and talk about this story, we say it is a story about Jesus’ transforming Zacchaeus from being a crooked tax collector to being a disciple of Jesus whose repentance is proven by his willingness to give away his wealth and be reconciled to the people he has cheated by repaying them four times what he took from them. It is in short a classic story of forgiveness and repentance followed by actions that confirms repentance and the journey toward following Jesus. However, that may not be an accurate reading of the story because of the way translators have rendered the Greek verb. Without getting deep in the weeds of Greek grammar and obscure, mind numbing theological hair splitting, essentially the conflict is whether the verb is a statement about an action happening in the future as in “I will give” or whether it is a statement about what is happening in the present as in “I give.” Is Zacchaeus responding to Jesus’ recognition and affirmation of him as belonging to the community of God’s people or is Jesus affirming the repentance and turning toward God Zacchaeus is already doing, but that no one around him notices until Jesus sees him, calls him, affirms him and pronounces salvation has come to this house?

While my own study and translation leads me to believe Zacchaeus is already giving away his wealth and reconciling himself with those he treated unfairly, but is still lost because no one except God notices his turning toward God, what interests me more is the effect his actions will have on the community. How will giving away half his wealth to the poor change their lives and the life of the community? How will his reconciling with those he treated unjustly by repaying them four times the amount he cheated from them have on those people? How do they react? What is the positive outcome for their lives? What is the positive outcome for the whole Jericho community?

Too often, we focus and celebrate the individual biblical character whose life is transformed and create an entire theological paradigm from their story without recognizing that their transformation impacts and affects their entire community. Zacchaeus receives the grace of salvation, but so does every member of his household from his family to his servants. Not only is he found, but so are they. Not only are they effected and influenced by the grace he receives, so is everyone with whom they are in a relationship. Zacchaeus and his family and the poor of his community do not live in isolated vacuums, but are part of a complex, integrated eco-system of life where every portion of the eco-system impacts and influences every other portion of the eco-system in the same way that actions by one person in a family effects and influences every other member of the family as I am certain we have all experienced or witnessed happening. When my father died I was effected, my brothers and sisters, our families were impacted by his death, but also the family from whom he was renting his apartment was effected because they lived in a house next to the apartment and they and their children often visited my father and invited him to dinner. In addition, his friends, his colleagues at the ACLU who worked with him writing legal briefs, the doctors and nurses who treated him and came to see him at his home, and the Veterans Administration volunteers who drove him to his appointments and to the grocery store were all effected by his death. This is the point Frank Capra is making in his wonderful movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” that will be broadcast during Advent and Christmas. We are all connected to each other whether we always feel the connection or understand the depth and breadth of our connections within families, congregations, or local and global communities.

This is the reason why what we do or what we fail to do becomes so significant even if we do not directly experience the outcomes. It is the reason a largely unknown prophet like Habakkuk living in the 5th century BCE just as the Babylonian empire is rising when the Babylonian army pushes the Egyptian army out of Carchemish into southern Palestine toward Egypt, which is the prelude to Babylon’s conquest of Judah, teaches us a lesson about faith and acting in faithfulness, steadfastness and fidelity.

Habakkuk is another one of those peculiar people, who dare like Job to  faithfully to raise heavily ironic, almost sarcastic, questions about God’s work in the world. He voices a prayer out of the depths of his fidelity to God’s covenantal life that could be sung by any person who faithfully calls out in earnestness for God but has felt God was absent, distant or just plain silent.The same silence of God at the root of the most significant theological concern of the mid-20th century questioning why was God seemingly “silent” when six million Jews went to their death in Nazi concentration camps, seemingly “silent” when ten million Christians, gypsies, political prisoners, mentally ill, homosexuals, and developmentally disabled persons went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps? Why was God seemingly silent during the Armenian genocide, seemingly silent when African-Americans were being lynched in the South with photographs used to prove the terror of the KKK, silent during the genocides in Serbia, Ukraine, Rwanda, Darfur and now in Syria ?

Into this silence of God Habakkuk complains, then waits for God to answer. Of course, God responds by telling the prophet to write the vision God is telling him in plain, large letters, so that someone running nearby can see it, read it, and cling to it. The sign the prophet will write declares that God is going to change the Israelites’ situation. That God is not silent, is never silent. Then, Habakkuk is told that the word from God “does not lie.” It is a truthful word. Yet, he is also told to wait for the “vision” to come in its appointed time. It may seem to tarry but it will come. Don’t lose heart, God says. God will not long delay. Remember, God says, “The righteous live by their faith.”

Now,  the idea that the righteous live by their faith sounds pretty simplistic. Yet, when you think about the Hebrew word translated “faith” is  meaning trust, faithfulness, steadfastness, and fidelity it seems the perfect antidote to wondering what God is doing or not doing, to feeling overwhelmed by present circumstances, or being discouraged because we aren’t seeing the positive outcomes of our actions and no one else is noticing what we are doing either.

This faith is not solely the ability to trustingly persevere. Rather, it is persevering with the certain knowledge that God reaches out, seeks and searches for all who are lost like Zacchaeus, all who are outcast and all who are tired and suffering to bring them into a restored community, to tell them they are beloved of God and deserved to be treated that way and to create a new future for all people. It is persevering with the certain knowledge that God will bring the promised vision of justice, of peace, of a transformed future to reality. It is persevering in the certain knowledge God’s salvation is for everyone.

As Hebrew 11 reminds us faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is the ability to step out in trust like Abraham and Sarah and faithfully live toward the promises God makes. That first step of Abraham and Sarah’s to leave their homeland behind for a new place is the act of faith in God. David’s first step into the battle with Goliath is the act of faith in God. It is Zacchaeus giving back all the ill-gotten wealth he had taken from the people is an act of faith. Peter’s stepping over the side of the boat in the middle of the sea is for certain an act of faith. Martin Luther’s banging his 95 demands for the church to reform itself on the Wittenberg Church door and preaching grace alone as the key to salvation is an act of faith. John Calvin’s picking up the mantle of reform in Switzerland bringing the watchwords grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone to Geneva that is an act of faith that led the people of Geneva to live their faith by establishing public education and sewers and clean water supplies for all people.

Faith is the act of speaking the truth like Habakkuk did even when everyone tells you to sit down and be quiet then threatens your life if you don’t. It is to live by acting in the present moment to faithfully follow God’s way laid out before us by Jesus, the apostles, and all the saints who came before us without worrying about inconvenience, irrelevance, being tempted into thinking we have better things to do, or wondering if we are being effective. It is to live in fidelity to God’s vision for the world, even when people denigrate you, mock you, or tell you “thanks but we’d rather do it our way.”  It is to live steadfastly holding onto God’s promises and living your life based upon those promises whether anyone is with you or not, whether anyone joins you for worship or not or adult forums and Sunday school or not.  It is living in the present moment and doing, as Professor Tom Long writes, all “the spunky sacred deeds,” that have always started wild fires of transformation in our world.

Mahatma Gandhi knew it well when he said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want the world to reflect more faithfulness and justice, then you need to demonstrate it in your life by doing acts of kindness and justice, by being faithful and firmly committed to participating in God’s vision for the world. As Mother Teresa wrote:  “Be a living expression of God’s kindness, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your face, kindness in your warm greeting, kindness in your hospitality to other people, kindness to children, to the poor, to all who suffer and are lonely. Give them not only your care, your food, your treasure, but also give them your heart and your actions. And remember, People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered, – but love them anyway. Remember, if you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives -Do good anyway. Honesty and frankness make you weak and vulnerable – Be honest and frank anyway. What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight – build anyway. People do need help but may attack you if you help them, – help people anyway. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth – Give the world your best anyway. Because it is not between you and them, it is between you and God and God already knows that we are living faithful, steadfast lives and will comes to us saying, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased and salvation has come to this house.” Amen.

 

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“I am not really myself. I am someone else. When others see me to talk to me, they are talking to a stranger. Not me. I am kept hidden away, safe from discovery or attack, behind the cover of my masks. Each day, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. As I sift through my closet, choosing which clothes to wear, I also search my mental mask menagerie, carefully selecting the image I want to project. Like an actor, I have learned to portray many roles. Many faces. Many moods. And I use a different mask for each.”

In this moment of honesty the young woman poet says what many people want to say, but have a hard time admitting. Very often in one way or another people often hide behind masks. Masks of happiness, because we want to be happy, though we may not be. Masks of the socialite because we want to have friends, though we are afraid people may not like us if they knew our real selves. Masks of self-sufficiency because we want to take charge of our lives, particularly when life seems beyond our control. Masks of “I’m fine” even when I am suffering from an illness or disease that threatens my life and I’m in denial. Masks of confidence when I don’t want to admit mistakes, weakness or hurt. Masks of superiority to tamp down feelings of being a fraud just waiting to be outed. Masks of all kinds to fit all the situations life presents to us each and every day.

I have often wondered why we wear these masks. Is it because it’s simply easier to go along to get along? Have we been rejected so many times in our lives that we choose not to risk being real? Or, is it as Henri Nouwen suggests that we live in the house of fear when he wrote, “The more people I come to know and the more I come to know people, the more I am overwhelmed by the negative power of fear. It often seems that fear has invaded every part of our being to such a degree that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like.”

Or, is it because we feel like a bowl that a friend of Joyce Rupp owned. This friend had a bowl with a lovely oriental design on it that was used at every family gathering for years. Over the years the design faded, one side received a crack and was chipped in several places. Pat, Rupp’s friend, admitted she turned the bowl, so that its “bad side” faced the wall and the bowl’s flaws were less noticeable.

Whatever the reasons, the downside of hiding behind masks creates more problems for us as the poet reminds us, “As I continue to wear these masks they begin to feel too comfortable. Natural. Necessary. As I get used to my masks I begin to believe they might really be me rather than merely a façade. Yet, meanwhile, my true self lies dormant within me. Isolated. Forgotten”

This is what has happened to the Pharisee, who has come to the Temple to pray, though he doesn’t realize it.

The Pharisee stands with his hands upraised and his face looking up in the traditional posture for prayer. Then, he begins his prayer without realizing how where he stands combined with the words he is speaking betrays the mask he wears. Now, to be sure this Pharisee believes he is a good man. In fact, there are a number of congregations that would welcome him with open arms, including this one. After all, he is not a crook, not a timeserver, not a womanizer. He takes nothing he hasn’t honestly earned, he gives everyone a fair measure, and he is faithful to his wife, and patient with his children. And, he is religious. He fasts twice a week, he puts his money where his mouth is: ten percent of all his income is for God, and he gives God thanks. Or at least he thinks he does.

You see the Greek phrase “pros heowton” can be translated as “standing by himself” or “praying within himself’ or “praying to himself.” By the first way of translating the phrase he is standing aloof from all the other people praying suggesting he has physically separated himself from the community as one who is too pure to stand near them, thus his words, “Thank God I’m not like other people,” and his actions of standing off by himself reinforce each other. By the second and third way of translating the phrase, he is mainly talking to himself in a narcissistic soliloquy and has separated himself from God.

Perhaps Jesus means he has done both, since the words of his prayer separates him from his community in its very opening, “Thank God I’m not like all these people” and he separates himself from God by listing all the things he does to justify himself-to save himself without God having anything to do with it. This is a man who has little need of God or the community. This is a man who leaves the hour of prayer self-assured and self-justified in his mask of self-righteousness, sort of like Ann Coulter or Bill Maher.

But, he has forgotten the one very important truth.

The truth known personally and deeply by the other man who is praying in the Temple’s shadows. The tax collector is a man, who knows he is only fit for the shadows and barely has any right to be in the Temple because he has sold out his neighbors and taken up with those who are oppressing them. He is the Tony Soprano of the first century enforcing Roman tax laws on his neighbors as well as bleeding them dry by adding on top of the Roman taxes his own greedy sum of money. He is hated by his neighbors as a collaborator and oppressor and treated with disdain by the Romans overseeing his operations. He has no place in the community, except in the shadows, where he stands with his eyes fixed on his feet, beating his chest the way men of the Ancient Near East did in heart-wrenching anguish, saying only a phrase adapted from Psalm 51- “God, have mercy upon me- a sinner.”

Which is absolutely true. He is a sinner. He knows he is a sinner and is not about to pretend to be what he is not. He has come to prayer hoping for God’s mercy because only God can forgive him. Only God can save him. He cannot save himself.  By the simple words of his prayer he takes off the mask he has been wearing and admits he has separated himself far away from his community and from God. He knows that on his own he cannot be reconciled to his community or be reconciled to God, only God is able to do that. He has come to the truth novelist Douglas Coupland writes, “My secret is that I need God- that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

This tax collector has come to this moment because, I suspect, somewhere before he arrived at the Temple he discovered that one important truth the Pharisee has not yet discovered. We can hide from our neighbors by the masks we wear. We might be able to hide from ourselves even when we look in the mirror. But, we can’t hide from God.

God knows us as the psalmist tells us, “ O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.”

There is simply no place where we can go that God is not present. There is no thought we might think that is hidden to God. Nor words, nor actions. Like the Psalmist, we encounter God who knows us through and through. God knows our daily habits, our most intimate thoughts and intentions. God’s knowledge, moreover, is not casual or indifferent. It is searching, penetrating, disturbing. It lays bare the innermost core of our being. We are surprised to find that God is not only near, God is uncomfortably near. God is before us and behind us; we are surrounded and if we are as aware of God as the psalmist is then we too will feel the constraint of God’s hand upon us.

Such a God is disturbing, disquieting, unsettling. God threatens our self-sufficiency. God does not confirm us as we are. Rather, God upsets the compromises we have made with the world and ourselves. Like most of us, the Psalmist yearned to know God. Obviously, neither he nor us had expected such a God as this. One may discern in the shadow of the psalmist’s surprise that the God he yearned to know was a projection of his own wishes and values, the champion of his cause. Isn’t that the God we have often yearned to know? The one who will do what we want, who will answer our prayers as we deem best on our terms and on our time tables? However, the encounter with the One who is truly divine is too much for the Psalmist. It requires a revolution in his life he feels he cannot make.

Yet, here is the good news Jesus brings into the world like the rising sun lit dawn chasing away the darkness of night, “God loves us.” Loving us not for our perfections, but with our flaws and imperfections readily apparent. That’s why Jesus called a tax collector to be one of the twelve disciples. That’s why Jesus constantly ate with thieves, prostitutes, lepers, and all who were sinners and beyond the bounds of the community of respectable people. That’s why Jesus so infuriated those who opposed him. They thought they had the in with God and when the Messiah came they would be confirmed. They are like the older brother in the prodigal son story, who gets angry when the ne’er do well younger brother is forgiven and is welcomed with a lavish feast, but forgets he is already blessed by his father. They have forgotten they have already received God’s grace because they have become so comfortable behind their masks of self-righteousness and have forgotten they too are sinners just like all those other people. They too need God.

They too need God’s mercy to see that their flaws are some of their greatest treasures, being irritated and grated by the sand of God’s presence in Jesus, so they become pearls. The pearls that keep our ego in check by reminding us daily of our need of God’s grace. The pearls that keep us growing and becoming more the real persons whose lives resemble Jesus’ life. The pearls that helps us to be more understanding and compassionate with the inadequacies and flaws of others. The pearls that help us to continually grow into being more loving persons, seeing what our flaws tell us about our relationship with God and with others. Reminding us not to hide behind masks or to turn our flawed side to the wall, but to rejoice in the grace of a God, who knows us inside and outside and still loves us and wants us to walk God’s path of life where there is fullness of joy and peace.

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“We are planting trees whose harvest will be enjoyed by others” is an adage I have long used to describe my ministry as an interim pastor because everything I did was to guide a congregation toward health and wellness, preparing them to enter into a long and fruitful relationship with their next installed pastor. I also used this saying when I did youth ministry because I knew the fruits of what we do today with children and youth will not come to complete fruition until five years later.

In many ways, this adage is about persistence because unless one is willing to patiently, diligently work today for the harvest that will not come until some point in the future, one is not persistent. Unless one is willing to put off the momentary fleeting reward of today, the immediate gratification of this day for the true, long lasting and life of well-being and peace that will come in the future, one is not persistent.

Persistence is what both Jeremiah and Luke are teaching us today, though in different ways. Jeremiah speaks God’s words about the heart transplant God will be making in the exiled Israelites, so they might live as God has been trying to persuade them to live, trying to teach them to live, trying to command them to live, inviting them to live, since Abraham and Sarah.

God says through the prophet, “The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, I will put my teaching in their hearts, I will write it on their hearts; and they shall be my people and I shall be their God.” This is the promise of an intimate relationship that is not dependent upon following words etched in stone, but operates from within like blood flowing through veins and arteries bringing nourishing life to the entire body. God is promising to be “one flesh” with the people, so that finally sin and judgment will be a thing of the past and God’s people will live in the closeness of a life giving and life sustaining relationship that cannot be broken and cannot be destroyed because we do not have to learn God’s teachings, they are intrinsically part of who we are, our actions and our words will express the truth that God lives within us.

Now, while we tend to focus on the heart transplant of the Israelites, we often fail to appreciate God’s persistence in the relationship with humankind. If we were, as one commentator suggests, to summarize the biblical story of the Old and New Testaments it would be about God’s persistent, unshakeable, everlasting, faithful love for humans and for all creation. Time and time again, we discover the depths of humanity’s penchant to ignore God, thinking we must be God and trying to live according to our own agendas, rules and philosophies. Yet, God is so in love with us that God refuses to let us go our own way. Rather, God persistently stays bound in this relationship through God’s own sovereign actions to save us-often from ourselves-whether in flood or Exodus or Exile or Cross and Resurrection, offering us a way to comprehend justice that restores people to community instead of banishing them out of community, listening to our prayers of gratitude or lament, our crying day and night in pain, without ever forgetting us, then forgiving us time and time again, even to the point of taking on all the deadly consequences of our sins upon God’s own being in Christ, just to bridge the chasm separating us from God and from each other, bringing us to a renewed life of health, well-being and peace.

In the face of this reality of God’s persistent love, God’s people are challenged in every generation from the man and woman in the garden of Eden to those of us sitting in this sanctuary and around the world by Jesus’ question, “will the Son of Man, find faith on earth?” This question challenges us to respond to God’s persistence in this relationship with our own persistence.

Indeed, reformed theologians including John Calvin have emphasized that we cannot separate who God is and what God does from who we are and what we are called to do. God’s sovereignty over all areas of our life does not allow us to compartmentalize our faith into private and public boxes. Rather, our whole life is connected to God. This is why the parable of the widow, who unrelentingly seeks justice from a man who is a judge and who disrespects everyone and who ignores everyone and cares little for their concerns or opinions is about persistence not only in praying for justice and praying for peace and health and well-being, but faithfully living lives attuned to the way God calls us to live.

However, as we know being persistent and living faithfully is not easy. Just read the epistles and the stories of the church’s struggles throughout the centuries in all the many different places where followers of Christ have tried to live faithful lives, persistently trying to live God’s way in the world. Whether it has been persecutions, the social culture, false teachers or false pastors or the institutional church leading people to worship and follow them instead of worshipping God and following Christ, Christians have had to struggle and persistently seek to faithfully live God’s way. It has never been easy and it is not easy today in this country when we discover in this election the way so many Christians have forgotten the point of being a follower of Christ.

Yet, praying consistently and persistently is not easy either. Teacher and pastor Fred Craddock said this about prayer, “All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking, and waiting, trust sometimes fainting, sometimes growing angry.” He could say the same thing about faithful living because we will come up against people who have more power than we do and who are willing to do whatever they want to keep their power and privilege. The widow certainly had that experience with the judge.

Widows after all were powerless in ancient Israelite society. They needed a strong advocate just to be treated with some small measure of respect and to be treated fairly. Of course, this is why God time after time declared that one measure of Israel’s faithfulness to God was how that community cared for its most vulnerable and powerless members-widows, orphans, poor, and the resident migrants and immigrants living in the community’s midst. A measure of its faithfulness as God’s people was how just, fair and equitable a society it was. Did the lives of one group of people in the community matter more than the lives of other people in the community? Did the wealthy get special treatment, did the priests in the Temple get special treatment? Were the rules of the community stacked in favor of one group people at the expense of other people in the community?

Yet, Jesus tells us that as powerless and poor as this widow is she does not give up. She constantly seeks out the judge in the day and in the night crying, weeping, and wailing until at last the judge can no longer bear to be confronted by her persistent pleas and gives her the justice she seeks.

Jesus is pointing to this woman as emblematic of persistence, as the example of what it means to never give up, or as Vince Lombardi, the great football coach once said, “It’s not important if you get knocked down, but whether you get back up every time you get knocked down.”

Also note this about the widow, she isn’t sitting at home waiting for something to happen, she is actively seeking the justice she needs for her health and well-being. I imagine her life of persistent prayer and trust in God has empowered to her to be so active, knowing she is not seeking after justice alone because God is with her and with God nothing is impossible, as the Torah, the psalms, the prophets and Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and the epistles persistently teach us.

As professor Tom Long notes, if we really trust God and really believe in the power of prayer, in the power of praying that God’s kingdom come, so “thy will be done on earth as it is heaven,” if we really believe that prayer can effect world peace, if we were truly convinced that prayer changes things, changes us, heals broken lives and restores severed relationships, then we would be praying constantly and we’d experience the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit driving us out into the streets where the people are, so we might persistently and actively work for peace, for well-being and for the health of the community as an act of resistance against all forms of injustice.

For as Luise Schottroff emphatically writes in her interpretation of this parable, “praying and crying to God against injustice describes the whole life of the believers; their efforts, their protests against injustice. It describes also their trust in God, for they know that God acts very differently than the unjust judge.”

As Jesus teaches us through the story, God grants justice because God not only persistently loves us through self-giving actions, but God’s loving justice reveals God’s resistance to individual and community sin, resistance to the powers that greedily seek their own agendas, their own way at the expense of the rest of humanity and creation. God’s loving justice reminds us that the point of following Christ is persistently glorifying God by helping humanity, especially the exploited, the destitute, and those trying to survive as well as humbly serving others; being joyfully hospitable; working to create economic and social structures, so every person has all they need for life; radically loving all people because there is no us and them, it is only all of us and being grateful to God for the life given to us as a gift, mindfully aware of how precious and wondrous it is because God created it out of a persistent and steadfast love.

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Gratitude for Living

Ten lepers and a rabbi were walking down the road in the borderland between Samaria and Gaililee and when the lepers saw the rabbi they stopped and cried out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us!”

When Jesus saw them, he said to the ten lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went further down the road, they realized they were healed of their disease. One of the ten when he saw he was healed, turned back, ran to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, then dropped to lay on the ground in front of Jesus and thanked him. This one was a Samaritan. Why did he turn back and other nine just continue going to Jerusalem?

Perhaps it has to do with gratitude.

“As I was driving around Chicago with my parents,“ Don Postema writes, “we passed the hospital where I was born. I said to my mother, ‘Tell me once again, how when I was born-how did you almost die?’

His mother replied, “It wasn’t I who almost died. It was you.”

“Well,” Postema writes, “Somehow I had twisted the story around all those years. I’ve thought about that conversation a lot during the past years. It’s helped me realize that my life is a gift. Of course, I had thought that before-that it is a gift. But it comes home to me with particular poignancy when I say to myself; “On July3. 1934, I almost died!” I now accept each day of my life as a gift-a gift for which I am deeply grateful. Life was something that I took for granted so often. But now each day I awake I can say with Hezekiah, “The living, the living, give you thanks, O God, as I do today.”

Gratitude takes nothing for granted. Every gift, every moment when something good happens to us whether unexpectedly or not, both big and small, are moments to be grateful. It doesn’t matter if it is a cup of coffee, a compliment on a task you’ve completed, someone going out of their way to ask you to go for a walk, see a movie, a simple dinner, receiving a kidney, or having your life saved. These gifts and many more like them seldom leave us cold, rather they create within us a surge of joy, a slight impulse of recognition that they are a gift and the wellspring of thankfulness bubbles up within us as our brain, as neuroscience tells us, activates the brain region where dopamine and serotonin live and are released that create better immune responses and well-being as well as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex. These areas are associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.

This means not only do we feel good in that moment when gratitude surges through us, but we also see the person who gives us the gift with a social connection being created, an emotional connection is made between one person and another person bonding them together. It is the same thing that happens when two people share stories of their lives and discover they have a link to each other in the similarity of their experiences.

When we make this connection with another person we become aware of the concern it took for someone to bring you that coffee, the time it took for that person to notice you doing the task, the love involved in making that dinner or the willingness to give a kidney or to risk saving a life. In these moments, we also become aware of all the gifts inundating our lives, the daily miracles of life like watching your grandson or granddaughter see leaves falling from the trees and as they look up or catch one in their hand and they just say, “Wow!”

This is when we discover how we are connected and are intimately part of something much larger than ourselves. This is the moment when we are almost overwhelmed with such great and copious effusions of God’s beneficence and surrounded by God’s gifts of love wherever we turn our eyes, by such numerous and amazing miracles of God’s hand, that we never stop experiencing gratitude or stop being grateful for life.

I think this is why the Samaritan leper turned back and ran to Jesus. He is walking along with the others in a community of outcasts because that was what lepers were. According to Levitical law, lepers couldn’t come within 50 yards away from any healthy person, and any begging must always be done away from heavily populated areas. Leprosy was, of course, contagious and caused not only physical disfigurement, but also, led to numbness and a dangerous proclivity for injury to the affected parts of the body. Yet, perhaps the greatest suffering a leper endured was isolation, was their inability to love and be loved as children of God.  They have no place in society because the disease has turned their skin from what is natural to what is unnatural. And, what is defined as unnatural does not belong in society. As a priest might have explained it, “Just as dirt belongs in the farmer’s field and is out of place in a home, so lepers are out of place in the village. Like the dirt that makes a home dirty and unclean, so will their presence make the village unclean.” Anyone who touches them will be made unclean which is one of the reasons they are excluded from worshipping God at the Temple. Not only might someone touch them and become unclean, but anyone who is unclean does not belong in God’s house. The only way that lepers could rejoin the community was to be certified as clean by a priest-acknowledged as “holy” enough to rejoin the human, spiritual community.

Imagine spending your life that way! Then, imagine being told to go to the priest and show yourself to him and as you go with the rest of the community of lepers you discover your skin is being healed as you walk. That is the surge of gratitude the Samaritan leper experiences within himself as the dopamine and serotonin are released and the rest of his cognitive brain acts to draw together the threads of this experience into a single flash “Wow” moment. Of course, he turns back and runs to Jesus! This is part of his response to this wonderfully amazing gift and that is what gratitude also compels us to do. We respond. This is why we say thank you. We write thank you notes, give handshakes and hugs and it is why we pray thanksgiving to God for the blessings of life we see around us each day. It doesn’t matter if it is the simplicity of food, the beautiful dawning a new day or the peaceful serenity we experience at the close of the day, we respond to these and many amazing blessings from God with prayers of thanksgiving because we are grateful. That’s why we say grace before meals, give thanks for the health of our children and grandchildren, are grateful when a hurricane passes them by without harm as I did these past few days because I had children and grandchildren in Florida along Matthew’s path. This is why there are so many psalms of thanksgiving. God’s people are trying to find the words to express their gratefulness in gestures of gratitude.

For the Samaritan leper his gesture was not only running back to Jesus, but it was also prostrating himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet to say thank you. The moment he made this whole gesture of gratitude the love of God expressed in Christ’s healing returns as the love of this Samaritan for Jesus, for God, creating a spiral of love through their relationship that unites them, solidifies their relationship into the mutuality of belonging. The Samaritan knows he is not self-created or self-sufficient, but more importantly he knows he belongs to God and God embraces him.

This is what we do in worship, particularly, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Communion, which is more aptly called the Eucharist-meaning in Greek thanksgiving. The entire liturgy of Eucharist, which is by the way the word translated in this story of lepers and Jesus as “thanked,” is giving thanks to God for life from creation to salvation in Christ. We are admitting that we are not self-created and not self-sufficient, but we depend upon God for everything we have and everything we are capable of being and becoming. We are saying, yes God we know we are not our own, we belong to you. When we embrace God’s love and acceptance of us out of gratitude, we experience God’s love embracing us, uniting us with God and solidifying our relationship with God. Gratitude is, you see, at the heart of Christianity.

And a grateful heart lives each and every day filled with gratitude, being aware of all the blessings of life, big and small, God gives to us and which we receive in the spiral of grace. May it be so for you and for me.

 

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Living The Faith

Sojourning to Sabbath

There is smoke. People are running. Weeping rises in the air matching the upward flow of dust. An uneasy tension permeates the very core of a person’s body seeping deep within it.  Questions spew forth like a summer rain storm from nearly every person.

What will happen next? Where is a brother, father, sister, wife, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather?  How could this have happened to us?  How will we live? How will we know what to do?  Will I ever feel safe again? Where is God?

Underlying the questions are the emotions washing over each person like a spring flood in a dry riverbed.  Anger, fear, sadness, despair, abandonment, vulnerability, uncertainty, uneasiness, loneliness, denial, bewilderment, disorientation.

The weeping, the questions, the dust, and the emotions congeal together into the loud cry of lament, “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow…

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Living The Faith

There is smoke. People are running. Weeping rises in the air matching the upward flow of dust. An uneasy tension permeates the very core of a person’s body seeping deep within it.  Questions spew forth like a summer rain storm from nearly every person.

What will happen next? Where is a brother, father, sister, wife, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather?  How could this have happened to us?  How will we live? How will we know what to do?  Will I ever feel safe again? Where is God?

Underlying the questions are the emotions washing over each person like a spring flood in a dry riverbed.  Anger, fear, sadness, despair, abandonment, vulnerability, uncertainty, uneasiness, loneliness, denial, bewilderment, disorientation.

The weeping, the questions, the dust, and the emotions congeal together into the loud cry of lament, “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces. She weeps bitterly in the night. She has no one to comfort her. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude. My soul is bereft of peace. I have forgotten what happiness is, so I say gone is my glory.”

In 587 BCE Jerusalem was reduced to rubble and ashes. The Temple was destroyed and all the royal family, the high government officials, priests, and craftspeople were led off as prisoners by the Babylonian army to nakedly walk the arduous journey to Babylon. It will become the Hebrew trail of tears. Their prayers in psalms of lament tell later generations of their suffering. Laments that cry out, “Why have you forgotten us completely? My groans are many and my heart is faint.” Psalms that ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?’ Psalms that tell us the story, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Their homes are gone. Their land is gone. The Temple is gone. The priests are gone. No longer will they bring sacrifices to the Temple. No longer will Passover be celebrated as it was. Gone are most of the external symbols that gave them identity and defined them as a people. The structured and reliable world that gave their lives meaning and coherence is gone. Their trusted religious symbols are mocked, trivialized, and dismissed. And, worst of all the Babylonians think it is self-evident that their god is stronger and more powerful than the Lord. After all, it is the victors who write history, not the vanquished. Israelites knew how the world was supposed to work, how their life was oriented in a direction they understood, lived, found comfortable and meaningful. But, not now. Now, all they feel is disorientation.

We know how they feel, don’t we? Their plight, their tears, questions, and emotions are all familiar to us because we too have felt them in some way. We have felt dazed, angry, abandoned, vulnerable, scared, uncertain, uneasiness, loneliness, and bewilderment. Whether it was the aftermath of 9/11, a train wreck or a car wreck. We have all experienced loss whether a friendship breaking apart, moving to a different place, disease robbing us of the ability to do that one thing we have a passion to do, or even the death of a father, mother, brother, sister, husband or wife.

I don’t know about you, but when I have those questions, then I recall the Israelites’ situation the one question that comes to my mind is, “What did the Israelites do at this moment of exile?” This moment when, as Alan Mintz writes, “the catastrophic events of exile shattered their existing paradigms of meaning?” What made it possible for them to cope in a strange, foreign place?

Well, strangely enough the answer dwells in one of the psalms of lament, Psalm 22. When I read this psalm I am struck by the anguish and the pain of the first 20 verses because they are so brutally honest and evoke a measure of vulnerability in telling the truth. Verse 21 is split in two with a space between the first half, “Save me from the moth of the lion!” and the second half “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” From the second half of verse 21 onward the psalm is one of praise and gratitude for new life.

Many commentators have suggested, as I do, that the space between the first half and the second half of verse 21 is where God acted to transform and heal the psalmist. Nothing is ever said about what God did or how God did it  or even when God acted, but clearly God did act. The “how” and the “why” and the “what” are not important. What is important is that God heard the psalmist’s lament and responded to transform and heal the situation. For me, this is a lesson of hope. No matter what the situation I find myself, I can lift up my laments, my concerns, my struggles, my praise, my gratitude and God will hear me and respond to me in some way, which remains a mystery, but will be transformative, healing and generative of hope. This comprehension of hope leads me to the tranquility of peace.

The psalmist’s lesson of hope leading to peace reminds me I am part of a long story of God’s people and that those who lived before me in this story teach and mentor to me as much as those who have been my teachers and mentors in faith and ministry. It is the reminder of what Cornel West said during his speech at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly that we are not self-created. Somebody gave us language, somebody loved us, somebody cared for us, somebody was attentive to us. Somebody taught us how to live faithfully. It is the truth of Nguni Bantu proverb, “I am because we are, we are because I am.” and the irish proverb, “it is in the shelter of each other that people live.” We are not alone, but are part of a community that stretches back in time and place and reaches out into the future through our children and grandchildren.

Knowing this, I think ought to compel us to be mindful about both being learners and being teachers and mentors within an ecosystem of integrity, truth-telling and commitment to love God and neighbor with the courage to speak and act, so faith may be received as a gift from God in the same way that grace is a gift from God. We are to be love letters from God to our children and grandchildren, so that they may be love letters from God for their children and grandchildren in continuing the story of God’s people as a community of hope and peace committed to self-giving love.

 

 

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