Posts Tagged ‘new possibilities’

Amos and the story of the Samaritan remind us to ask the question, “What kind of community are we?” The prophet Amos tells Israel of the Northern Kingdom that God is measuring their faithfulness to God and the covenant of God’s way against their unfaithfulness in the same way a builder uses a plumb line to measure a building’s vertical line and its ability to stand if its vertical line is true or the likelihood of it to fall down because it does not have a true vertical line, instead it is crooked.

The prophet tells the people God’s judgment is coming because they have failed to be the people God created and anointed them to be. Their community is highly stratified with the poor being bought and sold like commodities and are oppressed and crushed by those with wealth and power, that the merchants cheat their customers by using dishonest weights, the people worship idols of their own making or the gods of other people, the leaders-kings, priests, and the imperial prophets-have failed the people time and time again with the priests and the imperial prophets telling the king and the people what they want to hear as opposed to speaking God’s word of the covenant. The Northern Kingdom has become just like all the other kingdoms around it instead of being the distinctive people of God.

While Amos speaks a word of judgment and justice, the story of the Samaritan stopping to help the critically wounded man on the side road running from Jerusalem to Jericho is told to a gathered group of Judeans, some of whom are testing Jesus to see if he is orthodox enough to included in the community’s tradition. The story comes as a response to the lawyer, who began testing Jesus. The lawyer has asked, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers by telling the story.

Typically, we would focus only on the Samaritan story as an example to be compassionate to strangers in need without delving more deeply into the story and its significance for a people trying to comprehend what it means to be God’s people who “Love the Lord with all heart, mind, soul and strength and Love my neighbor as myself” while ignoring or somehow toning down the prophet Amos’ words and God’s justice, however the events of this past week and the steady, highly polarized drumbeat of stereotyping, blaming and violence demands we dive more deeply into both.

Certainly, both readings challenge us to describe the community we live within and the community we want to be. The Amos readings reminds us about the way God desires to order human life as a community of inclusion with  each person treated with equality without regard to their position or status in society and treated with the same restorative justice, that each person in the community stay connected to the resources of food, vocation and a home, so all have a share in the abundance of the community’s life, and that those who are the most vulnerable-children, the elderly, and the resident migrant- be kept safe and free from oppression and abuse while being treated with neighbor love as are all persons in the community. This is a community valuing integrity and the truth and faithfulness in all relationships between people and between people and God. It is a community where Sabbath rest is valued for all persons, animals and machinery as much for the need for re-creation and healing of a person’s body and the mind as for the recognition that endless work is unhealthy and destructive to each person and animal and machinery and will destroy the community. It is a community living together with each having all they need for life without falling into the trap of envy and coveting what their neighbor has. Indeed, it is a community where such envy is unnecessary because no one has more than their neighbor. It is a community where leaders focus on the well-being of the entire community without regard for reward or their own agenda. It is a community that articulates gratitude for the blessings received from God as the recognition that life is a gift from God and that they did not create themselves. Amos further reminds us that if we ignore God’s way of community we will be like the crooked building that loses its ability to stand. We will crumble and fall into complete destruction.

Just as Amos is a critique of the status quo of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, so too is the story of the Samaritan a critique of Judah in the first century because they too live in a highly stratified society with power and wealth exercised for the benefit of the few while leaving the poor and the marginalized of the community to fend for themselves, then the scribes, priests and Pharisees condemn them for not being quite good enough to be part of the community. It is a society that does not tolerate critique and sees critique as threat and rebellion with the only response by the state to destroy those who question and offer alternatives to the status quo. Into the midst of this society, Jesus comes teaching God’s desire for a community of loving God with hearts, minds, and strength and neighbor love that is inclusive and seeks ways to bring persons back into the community from the margins without hierarchy and which seeks an abundant life for all persons. The Samaritan story challenges us to ask whether we are content to walk past those neighbors needing compassion,  we are willing to stop and provide all the resources needed for the neighbor to regain health and well-being, or are we willing to receive the help we will need by persons we, too often, regard as inferior to ourselves.

Both Amos and the Samaritan story challenge us to ask what kind of community do we want to be? We are challenged to question and critique the prevailing cultural perspectives of Anglo-Saxon privilege and dominance, laissez-faire or mercantilist economic policies that privilege the wealthy at the expense of the poor, philosophies of ideological or religious intolerance in the name of purity and homogeneity, all the ways the community is divided into discrete demographic sectors that are viewed monolithically, and the drive to maintain or gain political power and control using whatever means will provide the outcomes desired. We are, also, challenged to name the issues or problems needing to be solved without making people the issue because if people are the issue or the problem the only solution is to separate ourselves from those people, which is not a solution that will achieve peace nor a solution God desires for humanity and creation. Finally, we are challenged to become the community God desires and creates us to be, a community where each person is equal and connected to each other in the dance of life that is the very image of the Triune God.





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         “To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

            Mark Nebo reminds us with these few words that we, who choose to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, are all pilgrims. We are sojourners on a transformative journey whose final destination is far off into an eternity that stretches well beyond these Lenten days and weeks to the foot of Christ’s cross where we will weep our hosannas and shout joyous hallelujahs inside the empty tomb of resurrection.

            Now, you may not feel you are sojourners after all we haven’t physically traveled away from home toward some distant place, however the truth is we are all pilgrims in the same way that all Christians are pilgrims because the Greek word “paroika” means sojourner and is the root of the English word “parish” meaning a “congregation of pilgrims or sojourners” and second,  because the life of faith is a continuing journey with and to God that is not limited by geography, but rather is both an outward and an inward journey. 

            Indeed, you traveled outward on Sunday mornings when you leave your homes to come to a church to worship and in doing so you continue your sojourning, your pilgrimage to deepen your inward spiritual journey. Even a sanctuary is a place for traveling whether one walks up the aisles to find a place to sit and rest and to listen or one is invited to walk up the aisle to participate in the Lord’s Supper by intinction or to bring an offering to God’s table. Classic cathedrals have ambulatories, which are simply a rounded corridor at the very front of the church that is literally, “a place for walking.” I suppose every sanctuary could a place for walking around if they did some major renovations. Of course that might be a risky thing to do.

            Yet, risk is part of every pilgrim’s journey. My favorite psalm, Psalm 121 speaks to us of the risks of sojourning in its very first line, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” Here is the affirmation that every pilgrim knows, the world is a dangerous place. The psalmist wrote those words to describe the foreboding sense of danger from nomadic bands of bandits or armies as well as the wild beasts of the wilderness taking refuge in the crags and crevices of the hills. However, the world is still a dangerous place shrouded in the darkness of seeking hidden answers to big and important questions such as, “how did life begin?” How do I find the purpose for my life? Where will I belong? Where can I be safe and find good food and shelter?

            The world is, also, a place shrouded in the darkness of death from physical violence, emotional turmoil, unremitting and destructive chaotic change, disease, and fearful anxiousness leading to conflict. Think about how the survivors of the 8.9  and all the other 350 earthquakes and the tsunami and the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan must have felt after more than a week of complete darkness and bitter cold with very little heat,  little water, little food while saturated with grief and despair? How can they not be lifting their eyes to the hills and wondering, pleading, crying out, “from where will our help come?”

            I imagine Abram asked that same question as he and Sarah and his nephew Lot began their journey from Haran to the place God would show them. Their sojourn comes as a response to God’s call, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” but this was not an easy call to hear because it meant leaving everything that was familiar, that was safe, that was secure, everything that defined who Abram and Sarah were at a time in their lives when life should have been settled. At a time when their lives had become routine and when the shape of their lives must have seemed complete. Instead, they leave all of this behind them to begin a journey solely based upon God’s promises. This is very much like what the Irish monk Columba did around 563 AD when he set out in a coracle, a circular dish boat, without anchor or oars, praying God’s wind would carry him to a new life.

             What makes this extraordinary journey possible is Abram and Sarah’s being like open cups ready to receive what God was offering them. And, they had to be open. As Joyce Rupp writes, “Most everything needs to be opened in order for it serve its purpose. Clothes need to be opened before we can put them on and receive their warmth and protection. A book requires opening before the contents can be shared. A house has to have a door or window opened before it can provide us shelter.”

            It is the same with a cup. If a cup is full to the brim, nothing more can be added to it. If a lid is placed over it, nothing can be poured into it. The same is true for the cup that is our being and our life. God needs an opening in order to get our attention, to have a conversation with us, to nourish us and to stretch us toward greater growth, to revitalize and renew us as Rupp has said. This means we have to let go of some of the stuff filling up and cluttering our lives. I have to say this was very much on my mind when my wife and I bought a house and realized we didn’t have enough room for all our furniture, so we have to decide which of our possessions we have to let go.

Indeed, letting go, emptying ourselves of all that clutters our lives physically and spiritually is one of the demands sojourners with God need to do. We can’t take everything with us on our journey because if we try to hang onto everything we won’t get very far. We won’t be open to the new direction God may be calling us to go. As a matter of fact we may not be able to hear God speaking to us for all the clanging and banging of the stuff we are trying to carry with us. In addition, we have to willingly take the lid off our resistance to change, so we might be open to what God is offering to pour into us.

            You see, I believe God is offering us a new life that is not just an extension of the same old life we’ve lived, but one that will be transformative for each person’s life, for an entire congregation’s life, for an entire community’s life and, for the life of all humanity and creation.

            That is what is significant about the promises God makes to Abram and Sarah. Yes, God promises to show them the land that God intends to give them, but more importantly God intends to give them children and grandchildren who will be the foundation of a whole people who will be a blessing to the world. Abram and Sarah have no children when God calls them and they are in their eighties, well beyond children bearing. They have been barren for all of their married life and in their old age this translates into them not having much of a future. Indeed, this family’s barrenness had become a metaphor for human hopelessness because there is nothing Abram and Sarah can do to create their own future. Until God speaks a powerful word of life directly into their situation of barrenness with the promises for the blessing of new life through children, who are brought into being by the sheer grace they receive as a gift. Abram and Sarah did nothing to earn or deserve this grace, nor will they do anything on their journey to earn and deserve this grace. God does not depend upon the potentiality or actions of this family to bring the blessing of a new and transformed life into being because God’s word of life carries within itself all the power it needs to create life, to create a new people defined, shaped and molded like a clay cup by God’s summoning and life creating word. God’s Word on its own asserts the freedom and power of God to work God’s will to bring life out of death like situations or even death itself.

            Here in this beginning of Abram and Sarah’s journey with God is the resurrection paradigm of a call to sojourn to a transformed life by being open to receive, to be filled with God’s presence and in the willingness to trust God alone in a journey away from the status quo, away from the predictable toward the mystery that we will only comprehend in the light of hindsight when we taste the providential fruits of grace, which have been with us every step of the way as the psalmist assures us is the truth because our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth and it is the Lord who is with us always, in all our going out and all our coming in, today and for all our days..

            On this day, I invite you to pray with me this prayer from Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), “O Lord Jesus Christ, yourself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, grant to us who shall tread in your earthly footsteps a sense of awe, wonder and holiness. May our hearts burn within us as we come to know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.” Amen.

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