Category Archives: Discipleship

Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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Loving our Neighbor in Contentious Times

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
One of the ugliest aspects of the contentious time in which we find ourselves is the strong, indeed overmastering encouragement it gives us to detest those with whom we disagree politically. America is in fact two nations, one to the left of center, the other to the right, and there is no foreign power each detests as deeply the other. We have become the enemies of ourselves, beloved.
Of course, vehement differences of political opinion are nothing new. America always has been a polarized society–our two-party system is based upon that reality. But under this present administration the two-edged sword of partisan politics has been honed to a razor’s edge, while our public discourse has fallen to a new level of coarseness. Respect for government has vanished. And should we be surprised? When the one who occupies the highest office in the land uses that office to excoriate and ridicule his enemies, both real and imagined, in the most vulgar and cruel ways, how great is the temptation for all of us who differ from him to see the Abomination of Desolation set up in the White House and to demonize those who support him.
And there, you see. Off I go. I am as guilty as any. It is part of the profound tragedy of our American moment that the present administration has imparted its chaotic and vitriolic character to the whole nation, beloved. As a nation and as individuals we act as if we have received permission to be our worst selves. Yet in our hearts you and I both know that this is not right, let alone righteous. The loathing and denigration of others stand in opposition to the law of love that Jesus taught and lived. Such may be common currency these days, but they are still profoundly anti-Christ.
So what should we do, beloved, for the sake of our souls? If you have dealt with the problem to your own satisfaction I hope it goes well for you. But I myself am perplexed. And it is not enough to tell myself that detestation of those from whom we differ is nothing new. It comes as naturally to us as having beliefs and opinions to despise those who ridicule them. And for me it makes it no easier that on the crucial matters that face our nation and our world–health care, human rights and climate change–I firmly believe that I am right. But my sense of my own rightness only throws fuel for the fire. It may come naturally to detest as we are detested, to loathe as we are loathed. But the Lord summons those of us who call upon his name and want to be called by it to live beyond and above what comes naturally.
“Love one another. . . . By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Like all the commands of Christ, love it is not impossible, if you understand it concretely and practically, as a matter of doing rather than feeling. Back home in North Dakota my father was a yellow dog Democrat, and yet his best friends were the dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who lived around us. When they met after church or on the street they talked about the weather and the crops. They all knew each other’s political opinions, but they suffered and rejoiced together. They helped each other. They respected one another. The struggled together against the powers and the elements. They were neighbors, and they rose above politics to regard each other as such. They made a decision to live in unity. And dispassionate civility of that kind is a gift of divine grace, beloved, coming directly from the Holy Spirit.
But things were different fifty years ago. In our time when truth is so degraded by fake news and civility so compromised by the power of a bad example, it may no longer be possible to practice that that kind of enlightened detachment. With the issues of immigration, health care, the equality of rich and poor before the law, and the warming of our planet pressing in upon us, it may be morally impossible to remain silent and inwardly seethe. We live in an apocalyptic moment, at the end of something and the beginning of something else. This is time to tell the truth and live the truth you tell. In such times, writes the prophet Joel, “your sons and daughters will all prophesy, your old men will see dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (2:28).
How you go about living prophetically is a matter for you and Holy Spirit to decide. For myself, this writing is a start. And furthermore I have decided to examine some of the more divisive issues coolly and without passion, issues that I had once considered closed, to see them in their complexity, recognizing that people of intelligence and sound conscience come down on both sides with great furor.
Abortion, for instance. No other issue cuts so deeply to the center of what we believe and no other issue stirs more dissention between right and left. But if we are pro-choice, while affirming a woman’s control over her own body, we need to consider the creeping—and creepy—technology-driven nightmare of eugenics. What is the next step beyond freedom? A more profound bondage? Do we really want to live in a world where imperfect fetuses are routinely culled?
And if you oppose abortion as a choice, if you are pro-life, have you considered what you would do if your daughter or grand-daughter–sixteen years old say—were being forced to give birth to an unwanted child. And what if that child were the result of rape? Or if the fetus were already dead in the womb? What then? Would your emotional and theological arguments melt like lemon drops in the heat of the situation?
Life is complicated, beloved. The truth is complex, more complex than anyone can conceive. And no one is completely right about anything. It is the recognition of that simple fact that forms the foundation of the kind of human connection the risen Lord is talking about when he commands us to love one another. He calls us to approach each other, even those from whom we differ most deeply, with a measure of Christ-like humility and treat them with a courtesy that has become uncommon in our time.
But at the same time we are summoned out of the world to tell the truth with boldness. There is the greatest spiritual danger in surrendering one’s own sense of the right and maintaining an angry silence. We each have a prophetic role to play. In this regard the collect we prayed in church a few weeks ago impressed itself upon me: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…”
Boldness and compassion–that is not easy tension to live in, but that is what love means in this time and place, not a childish affection but a difficult decision. We may be solely tempted to detest those from whom we differ in this deeply polarized nation. But at the same time we need to recognize that to have compassion on those who differ from us is to have compassion on ourselves. We are all what we are–trapped in this corrupt human nature. But that does not nullify to call to righteousness, to speak the truth with boldness and to live above the standards of a debased and soiled world.

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Life inside the Trinity. John 16:23-33

The risen Lord says to his followers—and to us, by the way: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Because the national news has been so disquieting lately, I often find myself taking refuge further back in the paper. Here in Florida the homegrown stuff is liable to be rather bizarre and garish—but that somehow seems reassuring in troublous times. It usually consists of the familiar litany of opulent drug busts, alleged vampire attacks, and naked liquor store heists. Just business as usual here in the Sunshine State. Then every once in while a local story comes along that is in its own way even more troubling than the national news, because it represents such intimate, recognizable human suffering. You feel as if you might well know the people involved personally, and you are forced to grieve for them.

For instance in last Sunday’s paper there was the story of the murder-suicide of a St. Petersburg couple. They belong to a type familiar to us here–Florida has more than its share of such vigorous, affluent senior citizens living out their dream down here where everyone knows that 60 is the new 40. The husband was in fact 69, a longtime, much-decorated St. Petersburg police officer who had reinvented himself and found a lucrative and interesting second career as a financial adviser. The wife was 72, a business consultant and guest columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Over the years she had contributed over a hundred articles about business and career development. She was the president of Strategic Communications, a consulting firm she founded in 1985 that specialized in public relations, marketing, and employee motivation. The husband was an associate vice president for investments at Raymond James. He told a friend that did not intend to retire for another six or seven years. He loved what he was doing. They were prosperous, well-liked and much-admired–poster children for “the new old.”

Then almost overnight everything fell apart. The husband suffered an accident at the gym that left him unable to walk without a cane, and then only haltingly. The wife learned that a hip injury she had suffered would eventually leave her dependent on a walker or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “If you don’t have health, you don’t have anything,” the husband had told a friend back when he was still “a picture of health.” So when their vigorous good health abandoned them, everything else they had meant nothing. They experienced what all of us will if we live long enough—they went from being healthy and independent to being feeble and infirm quite suddenly. It was the greatest shock of their lives. They had always expected their bodies to obey them, and then all at once their bodies declined. They felt betrayed, empty, at the end of their rope. They had no other life. The husband was especially depressed by their declining physical condition—he was very “down the dumps” the friend said afterwards. It had occurred to the friend to suggest professional help, but he hesitated, as we all might. They were such self-sufficient people. They had never needed any help.

Then one day last week, their daughter in San Francisco tried and couldn’t get in touch with them, so she called a neighbor. When his knocking was answered only by the barking of couple’s dog, he called the police. The husband’s body was found dead in the front hall. His wife’s in her home office. He had apparently shot her, and then used the same handgun to end his own life.

I repeat this story not to sadden you, beloved—although it is a very sad story—but to give us both pause. It is a story the demands our attention. As someone with a firsthand knowledge of depression, I can never bring myself to pass judgement on those who come to such a terrible place as those people did. I pray for their souls, but I don’t venture to pronounce sentence on their actions. None of us are really that much stronger than the rest of us, beloved. And no one knows the darkness and emptiness of the hell into which people not so unlike ourselves can sink. Only Jesus knows.

But at the same time we have no business judging, we also have to say clearly that this is not where we are intended to end up, driven to a despairing act that repudiates everything good that has gone before it. Our end should offer us and those who survive us peace and resolution and a sense of balance. It should be the part of our lives that makes sense of their whole.

Because in every part of our lives—but especially at their ending–the difference between hope and despair, between order and confusion, the distinction between purpose and meaninglessness depends upon where our souls are situated. We have to have another life—the one we live in these fragile bodies is not enough. Either we are also living inside the Trinity of Three Persons, as part of the eternal life of God, or we are in trouble.

But it isn’t a simple matter, living inside the Trinity. Some people talk about “being saved” as a once and for all, cut and dried arrangement they strike up with God. They accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, confess and receive forgiveness, and then ride off like Judge Roy Bean to condemn the rest of humanity from the saddle of their high horses. But their self-righteousness and unkindness reveal the truth. It just isn’t that simple. The judge is just as guilty as the defendant. As sinners we are condemned to complexity, beloved. Life inside the Trinity can never be reduced to a tract entitled God’s Plan of Salvation with four points and a prayer.

It is complicated because we have to live it out in the world, and the world is a complicated place. We may want to love God single-mindedly with our whole heart, mind, and will, but our desire for him is constantly being muddied by our all-too-human lack of concentration. We are easily distracted. We get confused. We waffle. We get angry, and then we get sad. We chase our own tails. Then our tails turn and chase us. We worry about ourselves, and when we tire of that we worry about other people. Then we just worry. We get so caught up in what Jesus in the Gospel calls “the world”–which is roughly half gorgeous spectacle and half ghastly nightmare—that we lose our focus upon what is Really Real.

But then quite suddenly and unexpectedly we stumble upon that Really Real again, because it is prevenient, always there, and grace enfolds us like the cloud of glory enfolded Moses—but not for long and never permanently. The grace of God never leaves us, but we are constantly leaving it to dwell in our own selfishness. We step in and out of that magic circle of grace–the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is better imagined as an endless circle of being and loving rather than as an equilateral triangle as it is often pictured—every day of our lives and sometimes several times each day.

But it is always there–that’s whole the point. The life of eternal grace is there for us to step into. The fullness of joy is always possible to those who ask. “Ask, and you will receive,” the risen Lord says, “that your joy may be full.” Our goal in life is not to understand the Holy Trinity, which would be an exercise in futility, but to experience it from the inside. And the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes that possible for us. “I have overcome the world,” the risen Lord says to his followers. Jesus died on the Cross and rose again that he might offer us those worlds of light that live inside the Trinity. It did all that so that we might have another life.

And that’s what makes the tragedy of that murder-suicide in St. Petersburg so heart-rending. That couple, who had everything else, only seem to have had one life, the life they lived in their bodies. That is not to say that that life meant nothing–no love or compassion is ever wasted, beloved. Whatever was good in those people survives. I believe that. But when push comes to shove—as it always does—life in the body is not enough.

It lets us down. In the end our bodies always leave us alone, even when we are surrounded with an admiring crowd, even when we are in the arms of those who love us best, we are abandoned. That is our condition. Jesus calls it “tribulation,” the confusion of ordinary human life. “In the world you have tribulation,” he says. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peace versus tribulation–that is the conflict in which we have to live out our lives—in the tension between the chaos and confusion of life inside our bodies and the calm and stillness of life inside the Trinity. It isn’t always a very comfy place to be—pulled as we are in two directions. We know that, don’t we, beloved? But as my dentist said to me recently in a moment a considerable discomfort—“Don’t worry now. This isn’t going to last forever.”

 

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Sermon on John 18:33-37 for the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 22, 2015

According to the gospel of John at Jesus’ trial Pontius Pilate asked him a searching question—“Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus replied–“My kingdom is not from this world.” But that wasn’t good enough for Pilate and he pressed for a straight answer, “So you are a king then?”

Well, here we are again, beloved, after all these years. We’re both still alive, you and I, and I think we deserve congratulations for that, because staying alive is no mean feat in a world where literally everybody dies. And living in Florida, as my wife and I do, mortality is a fact that is continually being driven home to you–It isn’t easy staying alive in the Sunshine State. For one thing, everybody down there seems to pack a gun, and they shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the law. And the way they drive!  Oh, don’t get me started on the way they drive!

So cheers to you, and cheers to me, and three cheers for us both, beloved, for being among the quick and not the dead this morning. It is so good to see you all again! I can’t tell you how good it is!

I remarked to somebody recently that most of the people I know are dead now, and she said—Oh, surely that can’t be true. I replied–Oh, yes, but it is true. In all those churches where I was the pastor over all those years, I have known so many people who have passed beyond the veil, that those of my acquaintance who are still alive are more the exception than the rule.

But I still recognize those faithful departed, and they are still very present to me—especially at certain moments like this one.  I feel their presence around me here this morning—Raymond Davis, Dick Oetgen, Charlie Finley, Meg Gartelmann, Jim Pervier, Ben Tucker, Carr and Augusta Glover, Cornelia Rollins, Don Meyers, Shirley Brodley, Paul Senior and Miss Mary Ewaldsen, the Belle of Springfield, and so many more I could not begin to name them all. But you can name them, dozens more, without once pausing to catch your breath.

Because a church like this one is not just a gathering of the living—it is a digit–a finger or a toe–of the mystical body  of Christ—a communion of saints, composed of everyone, living and dead, who tried, with varying degrees of success, to follow Christ the King in this place in their own time.

So just pause and consider this congregation, the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, over your astonishing 275 years of life—-just pause and try to calculate how many thousands of souls have communed together here, how many have lived here in faith and  died here in hope.  Why, this morning, as the writer of the Book of Hebrews puts it, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as thick as molasses in January.

And then just pause and consider, beloved, what all those souls endured here and remained faithful—what plagues, wars, depressions, what divisions, scandals, and congregation free-for-alls, what bad times and good, good pastors and screw balls—the thought of it all simply boggles the mind.  And yet in spite of all that here we are again, beloved, after all these years.  It is nothing short of a miracle!

This church is not perfect–was not and never will be—but the angel of this church—and every congregation has an angel, a guardian spirit, a corporate identity and personality, the sum of all those living and dead who are a part of that church—the angel of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension is a warrior, the battered and battle-toughened veteran of many conflicts. And at certain times the angel of this church has been truly great, clothed with the Spirit from head to toe in fire. And since we are here together anyway this morning, beloved, it is worth considering what that true greatness means.

Because greatness is the subject of the gospel lesson for today—two kinds of greatness, each radically different from the other,  contrasted for us in the personalities of two quite different men.   We have before us the encounter between Jesus of Nazareth, who is on trial for his life, and Pontius Pilate, a man who would have cast his fleeting shadow across the stage of history and then vanished completely if he had not been the Roman governor of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ trial.

But because Jesus was crucified “under Pontius Pilate” we recall his name every single Sunday we say the Creed. He is remembered in perpetuity for his part in the greatest injustice ever committed. But what we forget is in his own time Pilate was a real person and a considerable one in his own right.

He was a successful politician—in some ways Pontius Pilate was the ultimate politician. We can easily imagine Pilate standing among that mixed lot of wannabes on the television hotly debating among themselves which among them would the least objectionable choice to be our president. Pilate would have been right at home among those politically ambitious women and men. Like them he was somebody who would have defined greatness in terms of wealth—great wealth–billions of real—and imaginary—dollars. And like them Pilate was somebody who would also have defined greatness in terms of family connections. He knew that it in politics it matters who your father was and who you are married to.

But most of all Pilate was somebody who knew that in order to achieve political greatness you have to be a dog who will eat a dog. He knew that to survive in the dog eat dog world of politics you have to be willing to say whatever is necessary, and that truth is only the direction the wind is currently blowing. Pontius Pilate was somebody–somebody who would have defined greatness in terms of himself and people like himself, who live only in this world, by the rules of this world, for the prizes this world offers.

And so he found Jesus of Nazareth a source of great puzzlement. Here before him stood a man with no visible wealth, no high-flying family connections, a nobody in this world—a man who had achieved some modest fame as a popular preacher and worker of miracles, but who had dropped to zero in the polls, despised by his own people and abandoned by his own followers, apparently helpless in the face of death—yet so composed and serene was Jesus that he was positively scary.

Here was something uncanny Pilate had never encountered before, a greatness not from this world, and he was puzzled by it. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked, even though he did not for a moment believe that Jesus was a king in any political sense of the world. But he did realize that he was in the presence something else, a greatness not based on wealth or class, and Pilate struggled—as you and I struggle when we encounter the Man from Nazareth–to get his head around what makes this one different from all the men and women who are great with the greatness of this world and nothing more.

So, beloved, that brings us around to the occasion of our being here together, the anniversary of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, the celebration of your astonishing survival through two hundred and seventy-five years of uppity up ups and downitty, down downs. Your endurance, that you are still here, is a great accomplishment, and I would be the last to sell it short. But we are living in evil times, beloved, and in evil times endurance is not enough. In such times as these a different kind of greatness is called for.

Here in America we are living in a time of the profoundest moral confusion, when those who have no values talk of nothing but their core values, when selfishness is exalted as strength of character, and kindness, decency, common courtesy, and respect for the opinions of others are treated with contempt.

This is the Age of Lead, beloved. Our world has already entered upon a century of violent religious conflict. There are forces of destruction already unleashed among we cannot yet imagine. Last year in November 2014, just to take one month, there were 664 jihadist attacks in 14 countries, killing a total of 5,042 people. In the last thirty years 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamist militias in Sudan, not to mention the rape, the pillage, the abduction of young girls. And the violence is spreading. What happened in Paris last week, horrible as it was, is nothing to what is coming. Fasten your seatbelts, beloved; it is going to be a bumpy night!

But in these evil times we still have a choice—the eternal choice, as individuals and as the angels of churches, whether to pursue one kind of greatness or another—the this-worldly greatness of Pontius Pilate or the true greatness of the man from Galilee. We have a choice whether to turn in on ourselves, protect our property and our principal, and let the rest of the world go to hell in a handbasket, or to hear the call of Jesus to live in his kingdom.

It is a real and immediate choice. Because every single day of our lives we wake up a different person, and each single day some measure of true greatness is available to us.  Every single day we can be a little like Jesus. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate to make his greatness available to us.

And wherein did the greatness of Jesus lie?  Come on! After all these years do I still need to tell you?  We can see it as clear as day in our gospel lesson.  There Pilate asks Jesus—“Are you the king of the Jews?”  And Jesus answers him, “My kingdom is not from this world.” We live in nation and a world torn apart by conflicting political agendas. The violence of our political dialogue, fueled by the media, is shocking, and that violence has entered all our hearts, beloved, to one degree or another. And that firestorm of loathing and disrespect threatens to engulf us all.

But Jesus is not to the left and he is not to the right—his kingdom is not from this world. He is enthroned as King above all political parties and nationalities and religions. And those who desire to live in his kingdom must treat each human being as Jesus Christ incarnate, the image and icon of God. In Jesus’ kingdom people are not labels–they are souls each with an earthly dignity and an eternal destiny. In that kingdom there are no aliens, no illegals, no migrants and no walls to keep them out.

As long as there are human beings there are going to political differences among us. But Jesus was not only the Son of Man he was also the Son of God, which means that he is neither liberal nor conservative, alien or citizen, black or white, rich or poor.  He is simply The Truth. And churches and individual women and men who desire to live in his kingdom and share a measure of his true greatness must seek not only tell the truth, but to be the truth, which means not only saying what you know to be so, but also living as if you believe what you say.

What got Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate was that he never lied; he was never trepid and cowardly, nor was he ever silent, in the face of lies, and if we follow King Jesus, neither can we be, beloved.  He was Truth, but at the same time he was also Mercy. The compassion of Jesus extended to the whole world, even to Pontius Pilate, and so must ours–compassion not just for each other and nice, respectable people like ourselves, but mercy, mercy, mercy for those think very differently from ourselves– wrongly perhaps—and active compassion for those out in the square, for the crazed, and the irreverent and the lost.

The angels of churches, even great angels old enough to know better, sometimes get confused about their true business and begin to pay too much attention to money and too little attention to needs of those who have none, too much attention to the condition their carpets and too little attention to welfare of the souls that walk upon them. But the only legitimate business of your angel, Ascension, is suffering humanity—yours and mine and theirs—because suffering humanity is the only real concern of Christ our King.

Now I know what you are thinking, beloved. You’re thinking–that old man doesn’t know when to stop.  But that isn’t so. I haven’t always stopped when I should have, but I do know when to stop.

My daddy back in North Dakota never wanted me to be a preacher. He wanted me to be a cattle auctioneer, like his good friend Slim Johnson.  “There’s good money in cattle auctioneering, Billy,” he told me. You get paid for every head you sell. And it’s a gentleman’s occupation—not like being a preacher.

But daddy suspected that I didn’t want to be a cattle auctioneer, so he added—“But if you are dead set on being a preacher, Billy, then for Heaven’s sake promise me that when you get done saying what you have to say you’ll have sense enough to sit down stop talking. Many don’t.” And I’ve tried hard to do that, daddy.

But before I stop completely I want to express my hope that as it approaches three hundred years of age the angel of the Lutheran  Church of the Ascension will look outside this beautiful box and reach out for the true greatness of Jesus, the greatness that flows from mercy and compassion for the lost and the lonely, and not the worldly greatness of Pontius Pilate, which does not last.

Pursuing that true greatness is never easy, beloved, and if you try ever so hard to achieve it, that still will not change the trajectory of this world. This world will go on chasing its own kind of greatness, to whatever end this world is destined.

But if you pursue true greatness–as the angel of this church and as individual followers of Jesus–it will most certainly change you, beloved. I promise you that.  It will change you. You will be able to face whatever terror and confusion is coming with the serenity of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate. You will be able to smile at a future and live in this crazy world without fear. You will be worthy of your history, Ascension.  The angel of this church has at times in the past been truly great, so I know it can be again.  And upon my soul, beloved, I hope it will.  I hope it will.

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Anger Management. Turning the Tables. John 2:13-22

Turning the Tables       John 2:13-22

“Ira furor brevis est. (Anger is a short madness.)”

–Horace, Epistles

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand,” the evangelist John tells us, and Jesus, upon entering the temple, “found those selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”

It didn’t change anything, of course. You can be sure that the next morning they were at it again. The animals were penned up again and the tables neatly piled with silver coins, ready for business as usual. If they gave it any thought at all, most of those who were present for the purification of the temple surely regarded it as nothing more than hooliganism pure and simple. But to Jesus’ disciples it was something else–an event of deepest significance. It defined who he was. After his death and resurrection Jesus’ followers remembered the day he “went postal” as a prediction of the Day of the Lord, a time when, according to the prophet Zechariah, there “will no longer be traders in the house of the Lord” (14:21). It was a messianic housecleaning. It was a foreshadowing—“prolepsis” is the fancy word—of the scouring of the world, for which you and I, together with all those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” are anxiously waiting.

But to everyone else it was and still is patently absurd. A senseless act of vandalism. No wonder the Jewish authorities angrily demanded to know by whose authority Jesus had made this terrible mess—and got an answer that must surely have seemed as absurd as the act itself—“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Apart from a belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord of All, his purification of the temple makes no more sense than the good news of his cross and resurrection.

After all, those sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers had a prefect right to be there that day. They were simply performing services demanded by ritual practice of the time—in the expectation of a reasonable profit, of course. So why the explosion. This story has always been source of an embarrassment to those who feel the need to sanitize and sentimentalize the person of Jesus. Those who want to turn him into a divine Lone Ranger, a proponent of law and order, like to explain away his “short madness” in the temple by suggesting that Jesus was outraged by the corruption he found there. Of course, there is always a certain amount of “funny business” going on wherever business as usual is conducted, but there is no evidence that an unacceptable level of dishonesty was present. The purveyors of sacrificial animals were just obeying the old law of supply and demand. And if they were charging whatever the traffic would bear, what of it? That’s just capitalism. What’s wrong with that?

When you are in business you have to make hay while the sun shines. And the sun was indeed shining on business during that week of Passover. Contemporary witnesses tell us that during that Feast of Feasts Jews flocked to Jerusalem from the furthest corners of the then-known world. The city was glutted with pilgrims, and when they arrived they found everything arranged for their convenience. Merchants were on hand to provide an acceptable offering, and priests were there to help them kill their sacrifice in the prescribed manner. Just business as usual.

The only difference was the scale on which it was being practiced, which was stupendous. During Passover the temple was transformed into a slaughterhouse. When Jesus and his disciples appeared on the Day of Preparation they would have been deafened by the bleating and bawling of the thousands of frightened beasts. The air would have been thick and heavy with the stench of blood, and the gutters would have been running deep with it. It required a torrent of blood to wash away a myriad of sins, both trivial and horrendous, and renew the ritual holiness of Israel.

Pledges and temple tithes also needed to be paid, and the money changers were there in the temple courts to sanctify the coinage.  Pagan coins bearing the image of the divine emperor and the pagan gods of Rome needed to be changed into sacred shekels—clean money for the tax. It was a necessary arrangement, strictly regulated by the temple authorities and all pretty much on the up and square. Just business as usual–as ordinary as a Monday night pot roast at the diner.

But when the elements of ordinary human behavior—our conventional indifference, our institutionalized greed and our horrendous bad taste–come into direct contact with the all-consuming purity of the living God—there will be—if the right catalyst is present–a violent explosion. That catalyst is Jesus, and the reverberations of what happened that day in the temple can still felt in the moral and spiritual lives of those who want to follow him.

The Purification of the Temple is one of the very few incidents in the life of Jesus recorded in all four of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it at the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before his arrest and trial. For them Jesus’ attack upon the profit motive being applied to holy things was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final act of defiance that the pushed Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities to the sticking point. After that, as Mark’s gospel puts it, the chief priests and the scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18). The evangelist John, however, places this story at the very beginning of his gospel, using it to set the stage for the sort of life Jesus would live, a life of absolute integrity that defied pretention and turned the tables on conventionalized evil. It was a life lived by the light of those words of the psalmist, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus burned. He not only told the truth—he was truth itself. And you and I, beloved, are called and enabled by the power of his Spirit to share with the same fire. The story of the Purification of the Temple teaches us as much about the nature of our discipleship as the Sermon on the Mount.

Oh, yes, I can almost hear what’s going on in your head, beloved. You’re thinking—I could never do anything like that—making a whip of cords to chase the sheep and oxen out of the temple and overturning the tables of the moneychangers and scattering their coins. I’m  much too nice, too well-brought-up, too agreeable a person for that. And I would reply that that is just exactly the problem with us, beloved—because I would certainly include myself in this–we are much too nice. That is good part of the reason the world is such an awful place, because decent people are too nice—too polite, too tame–to call evil and its best buddy stupidity by their right names and do something—even something ineffectual–in protest against the things we know in our hearts to be wronged-headed or just plain wrong.

And if I were to follow the example of Jesus, would that alter things? The day after he purified the temple, the sellers of animals were no doubt back to doing business as usual, and the money-changers had righted their tables. Would my telling the truth and acting on the truth have any tangible effect on the deeply ingrained evils of this world? That’s not the right question to ask, beloved. The question we need to ask of ourselves is this: How am I personally called to be the truth in a world of compromises?  Living with the integrity of Jesus does not always change matters—at least not in any apparent way–but it is still necessary for us to live as if it did. That’s what it means to follow the Master.

Of course, it is always easier not to do that. Who could pretend otherwise? In a poem called “The Second Coming,” the Irish poet W. B. Yeats wrote prophetically about the moral and spiritual lethargy of our time:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

We need hardly look beyond the morning paper for evidence that in our world and in our nation the “worst are full of passionate intensity.” The vulgarity of our manners, the loss of any standard of decency in the arts, the arrogance and corruption of the political class—you know it all as well I do. You can see the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor as well as I can, beloved. Speaking of his employees, I heard one wealthy businessman saying to another—“I don’t know how they live on what I pay them.”  The only moral response to such a statement is outrage. The church also seems to be in the hands of those who know nothing but how to compromise with the prevailing culture.

But outrage is a dangerous emotion. It can get you into all kinds of trouble–if we need proof of that, we have the example of Jesus on the cross always hanging before us. But the outrage of good people is also the symbol of God’s judgment, as the outrage of Jesus was, and expressing the anger that his Spirit stirs up in us is the duty of those who follow him.

The problem is that anger—even the most justifiable anger—needs some rehabilitation. “Be angry,” the psalmist says, “and do not sin” (4:4). That means stilling our instinct for revenge and refusing to hold a grudge. Anger can indeed be a sin if takes root as hatred. But outrage is the just and right response to injustice, callousness and cruelty, and you and I need to acknowledge and express it openly, as Jesus showed us how.

Anger is an energy like any other. Recall your high school physics. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy on an isolated system remains constant and is conserved over time. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but it can and will change form. So the energy present in a certain combination of chemicals can be converted into kinetic energy by the explosion of a stick of dynamite. BANG! And the anger that you and I feel, confronted by nasty human business as usual, has to go somewhere. The danger is that within the closed system of our hearts and minds, we transform our justifiable anger into guilt, self-loathing and what used to be called melancholia. The modern word for that condition is depression, and it is a disease both of the soul and of the body.

It is always a mistake to generalize from one’s own particular experience. Every person is a separate universe. And when you get to be sixty-five years old it’s certainly time to stop blaming your parents for your problems. But I know that like a lot of people of my own generation I was brought up believe that anger is always an inappropriate and shameful feeling. I learned a number of bad lessons early on, both implicitly and explicitly, about anger management. My parents were good people, but they were themselves highly controlled. They taught me that anger is inappropriate to nice people and a feeling that always needs to be suppressed. So rather than express it openly, you need to look instead for something inside yourself upon which to blame your feelings.

In my middle years I suffered from clinical depression, and for a while even took medication to control it. And these days suppressed anger is almost certainly a contributing factor in the high blood pressure—controlled but very real–from which I suffer. If I had learned early on to deal more constructively with my anger maybe I would not have to take those bitter white pills I swallow every morning.  Or maybe not. Who knows? High blood pressure is congenital in my family. (Big surprise there!) In any case, the pills now seem to be necessary. High blood pressure is a fact of my life. But it is possible—and better late than never—to do something better with your anger rather than swallowing it whole like one of those bitter white pills. You can express it honestly, and better still you can do something about it instead of turning it in on yourself.

Unfortunately in my own case—and in the case of a lot of other people who were brought up to be too nice for their own good–in dealing with their anger the church and its ministers have been part of the problem rather than of the solution. I once heard a sermon—I could tell you exactly where and when if I wanted to because it was one of the most memorably bad sermons I have ever heard—wicked as well as stupid–in which the preacher said in so many words that depression is a choice.  People who struggle with feelings of sadness and anxiety and helplessness are indulging those feelings in themselves. They enjoy being depressed, that’s why they are that way. If you are depressed it is your own fault. So get over it. If you want to, you can be a picker and a grinner like me, the preacher said–though not, of course, in those exact words. What utterly misguided foolishness! People who suffer from depression are trying harder than anyone can imagine to be good.

But that struggle is not good at all—for anyone.

That’s why I have taken the trouble to write this to you and to myself, by the way, beloved. The worst possible thing we can do in our misguided attempt to be “nice” or “Christian” or God knows what, is to try to manage our anger by absorbing it and blaming the resulting depression we feel on ourselves. Rather than saying and being the truth like Jesus, we try to be nicer, sweeter, politer than we really are. But unexpressed anger is a corrosive. It eats away at our bodies and souls like acid eats at our stomach lining. And furthermore managing our anger that kind of self-destructive way robs us of the energy we need to really be disciples of the Lord who purified the temple with a whip of cords. We need to hear and take to heart the words of the hymn we have so often sung–“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

Some Christians have been forced by their righteous outrage in the face of injustice to commit acts of violence, and they have suffered terribly for them. Acts like his purification of the temple are what inevitably brought Jesus to the cross–the gospels make that perfectly clear. But our problem—yours in mine–is not that we are liable to do something violent that will get us into trouble—our problem that when confronted with corporate injustice and individual cruelty we are liable do nothing at all. And then by an evil alchemy the energy of our outrage at injustice should give us is converted into regret, sadness and self-loathing.

So what should we do? Well, something, beloved. Something rather than suffering in bitter silence. I would recommend what I would call “measured outrage.” Say what you really think in language everyone will understand. Then do something. Scare the powers that be a little. Shake things up. The damage done by overturning a few tables and a chasing some animals out of the temple is in the end far less destructive the swallowing your anger and letting the nasty business go on as usual. As much as possible we need to direct our anger at the abuse and not at people who practice it, at the tables. We are all sinners in need of grace. Don’t indulge your bitterness. Don’t let dead cats sit on your porch, as my father used to say. Let your anger out and then let it go. Still your instinct for revenge, but nourish your hunger for righteousness. The author D.H. Lawrence, who had a tendency to express everything in terms of sex, wrote: “The profoundest of all sensualities is the sense of truth and the next deepest sensual experience is the sense of justice.”

And the poet was on the right track. Lawrence was a virulent critic of conventional niceness. He faulted the Christianity of the churches because it kept people from living passionately, spontaneously, acting on their deepest emotions, expressing love and anger openly. Now I wouldn’t want to get any of you in trouble, beloved, but a bit of trouble is not the worst thing that can happen to any of us. The worst thing that can happen already has. Jesus died on the cross so that you and I might be set free to be kind of people he was—albeit in miniature. What we could be if we truly followed his example is always something yet to be determined. The possibilities of discipleship are infinite and largely unexplored. But this much is most certainly true, Jesus did not die on the cross to make us nice.

Anger isn’t nice—not one bit–but that’s my whole point, beloved.  Anger isn’t nice, but it can be righteous nevertheless. It can be the mirror of the justice of God.  And even when it is gets nasty, it is always infinitely better than sitting around and stewing in our own juices.

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THE IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TEAM MARK 1:1-14

According to the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, “he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And [he] said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Everything really important happens fast.

This is certainly true in the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the gospels–only sixteen chapters long and cut off abruptly at the end. It has been suggested insects may have eaten the end of the ancient scroll, and if that could be proved it would certainly be a jolt to our fundamentalist friends. Imagine! The inerrant Word of God eaten by beetles! But setting that disturbing thought aside, we are left with a muscular, energetic little book, The Gospel in a Big Rush.  In it everything important does indeed happen fast.

In spite of its brevity, Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus is endowed with a special authority because it is the earliest we have.  It is a primary source for Matthew and Luke, and because it is located so comparatively early in the developing Jesus tradition, the Lord of Mark’s gospel in many respects more closely resembles the historical Jesus than later versions. Jesus’ words in Mark are as close as we will get to the “ipsissima verba Dei,” the very words of the God made man. And in Mark the Lord is always in great hurry, which the historical Jesus probably was, squeezing his whole earthy ministry into three short years. He rushes from one incident to the next as if he has a cosmic train to catch–which in the profoundest sense he does. In Mark Jesus lives on the razor edge of eternity, constantly aware of his own impending death and impelled onward by the Spirit toward his ultimate destiny. His heartbeats are numbered and he knows it. So it is only right that in Mark’s Gospel his first public utterance is about the shortness of the present moment–“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” There are no hours left to waste on trivialities.

Everything important happens fast. So in his little book everything is immediately this and immediately that–Mark uses that word “immediately” 39 times, more all the other gospel writers combined. So it is that when the Lord calls the fishermen Peter and Andrew, the evangelist tells us that “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They didn’t dilly-dally around. That is crucial to the meaning of the story–they responded to the emergent situation without delay. But you and I can take a moment to consider this–What if they hadn’t? Would Jesus have cooled his heels while Peter and Andrew tried to decide whether they really wanted to be fishers of people rather than fishers of fish? (In the Sea of Galilee those would have been a variety of tilapia—locally known as “St. Peter’s fish.”) Would he have hung around while they went home for lunch and talked the whole thing over with the missus?

We rather doubt it. In Mark the call to discipleship precedes and supersedes every other consideration, and it must be made quickly. Those who follow Jesus are intended to be his Immediate Response Team. And his call to “follow me” is never issued twice—certainly not in the same way. So when the Spirit of Jesus offers us an opportunity to follow him, beloved, we have to get busy and do it immediately. The biggest temptation we face is our tendency to dither, to revisit, to tweak, to endlessly reexamine, decide and then make revisions to our previous decisions. The things we consider longest and most deeply in the end we do not do. Everything really important has to be done fast.

Of course, we are all perfectly aware that rash decisions can be disastrous. I remember once a young couple came to me in distress. They had been living together for some time—“trying each other out” in the modern way—but they were planning to get married in the fall. I was to do the deal.  Now, however, all that was in jeopardy. They both said they still loved each other, but there had been a big fight, no prisoners taken. At the end of it she had told him she couldn’t trust him anymore and had given back his ring and gone home to her parents. He was genuinely perplexed by the heat of her anger. (I’m afraid this young fellow didn’t have what they call “an important mind.”)

So this is what happened. They had been saving up to buy a house together. Then one evening as he was driving home from work in his old clunker of a pickup, and he suddenly decided to stop at a dealer’s lot and look at the latest models. No harm in that. Right? (I bet you can already guess what had happened.) But he fell into the clutches of a salesman with a ready grin and a firm handshake who showed him a shiny new red pick-up truck and let him take a test drive. Before he left he had signed all the necessary papers. “It called out to me,” he said. Those were his very words—“ipsissima verba.” And he was naively amazed when his fiancé burst into tears when she saw his new sweetheart. “It was my money,” he said defensively. “I worked real hard for that money. And it called out to me.”

Now I could tell you those two patched it up and lived happily ever after, but I’m not going to do that. Partly because they don’t really exist, never really did–except as a negative example of what can happen if you respond immediately to the wrong sort of call. Act now! We have all heard those voices calling us to an immediate response. Don’t delay! The world is full of subtle and insistent salesmen with firm handshakes and ready grins, and they exactly know how to tap into our deepest fears and wishes. I know how to make you happy. I know exactly what it will take to fill your emptiness and mend your broken life. Try my product! Act now!

This was one of father’s favorite Uncle Ole stories. Uncle Ole was driving down a country road one summer’s day, when all of sudden oily black smoke commenced pouring out of his engine and his truck started to make a loud clunk, clunk, clunking noise. So he climbed out, raised the hood, and fanned away the smoke, but after he had poked around inside there for a while, he felt someone watching him. So he looked up and, lo and behold, a cow was looking over his shoulder.

“You’ve got a bad alternator,” said the cow, as plain as day.

Well North Dakota is a wonderful place, that’s for sure, but even there cows don’t ordinarily talk. Uncle Ole was so surprised that he took off running and didn’t stop until he reached the nearby farmhouse. Frantically he knocked on the door, and when the farmer answered, Ole gasped breathlessly, “A cow, a cow just told me what was wrong with my truck.”

The farmer only shook his head. “Was she a black cow with white spots?”

Ole nodded his head. “Yah.”

“Did she have one brown eye and one blue eye?”

“Yah,” said Ole, “that’s the same cow all right.”

“Oh her!” said the farmer. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She doesn’t know anything about cars.”

The world is full of experts who claim to know everything about everything and unafraid to tell you so. There is even a lovely, long word for such a person—ultracrepidarian.  It means one who criticizes, judges, or gives advice without knowing what he or she is talking about. And yes, I have fallen for the glib line of patter such people give us and you may have too. (Some of you may even have been married to one.) All of us have played the fool at one time or another. It hardly matters. Let’s just not let it happen again. What’s the point of getting older unless we learn something in the process? The truth is that no salesperson who promises us happiness or peace of mind can deliver on that promise. The only spring from which those things flow is a ready obedience to answer the call of Jesus Christ when and where ever that we hear it.

And what that call means varies for each of us and changes as our lives go along. It was different for each of those fishermen—Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in the gospel of Mark. It was different for Mary the Mother of our Lord and for Mary and Martha of Bethany and for that woman of mystery Mary Magdalene and for that other woman with no name and a checkered past whom Jesus met at the well of Samaria. They each had a call, but each call was as different as each she could be—individual unto herself. The only thing that every call of Jesus has in common is its urgency, its immediacy, its grave demand—Come and follow me. And Jesus is always impatient with our dithering. As he says to Judas in  quite another context—“What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27).

So how do we know what Jesus is calling us to do? How do we discern the voice of Jesus calling us from among the babel of other voices we hear?  Well, if I tried to answer that one, beloved, I would be no better than that black and white cow who wanted to tell Uncle Ole what was wrong with his engine. I’d be just another ultracrepidarian—Heaven help me! But there is a guide to follow in the examples of those people in the Bible like Peter and Andrew and James and John and so many others Jesus called along the Way. They were never called to do anything easy or to anything that someone else could do just as well. In baptism each of us was given a summons to obey and a task to do, and in our obedience to that calling lies our peace,—and nowhere else. But obedience to the call of Jesus never serves to un-complicate our lives, beloved. Those first followers of Jesus probably never agreed on much, but they all would surely would have concurred on that. The call of Jesus messes up all our human plans. It turns our lives up-side-down. It is never, ever a summons to do what you would have done in any case if left to your own devices. And the call of Jesus is always time sensitive.

The time is grown short. So, as St. Paul writes early Christians in Corinth, from now on let those who have family responsibilities act as if they were free, and let those who weep forget their misery, and let those who are happy forget why they are happy, and let those who buy act as if they were penniless, and let those who are attached to the things of this world let go of them. Why? “Because the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

I was checking out at the Walgreens Drug Store here in Tarpon Springs the other day. Things were particularly weird and wild—you know how things can get. An old man was wandering around, talking to himself, obviously drunk.  A woman was cursing her little boy and slapping him around. Everyone was being more mean and boorish than usual, and the nice Greek woman at the counter was standing there, surrounded by those tabloids with their lurid headlines, taking all this in. When my turn came I remarked, “Things are pretty rough in here.”

“They often are,” she said. “You know, I think the End of the World is at hand. There are signs of it everywhere. Look how people act. Everything is falling apart.” It seemed like a rather strange thing for someone ringing up your aspirin and dental floss to say, but this is a strange world. And in truth is, I have frequently had that very same thought.

“Yes,” I replied, “it does seem that way. But when the power of love takes over from the self-serving politicians who govern us, then we’ll know for sure that the End is near.”

Whether the end of the world is at hand is beyond the knowledge of us human beings. Now you have a handy name for those who think they know for sure—ultracrepidarians.  But this much is certain, beloved, each of our individual worlds is coming to an end. Our end is always impending. We all live our lives on the brink of eternity. Our response to that rather scary truth, however, should not be fear or denial, but obedience. God has given each of us exactly enough time to accomplish the task we have been given. Our heartbeats, beloved, are numbered. We each have exactly enough—which is not an excuse to waste our time dithering and worrying about things that won’t happen anyway. Quite the opposite. It is the best possible reason to get busy and do what needs to be done.

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Under Your Own Fig Tree, based on John 1:43-51

In the Gospel of John we are told that “When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’”

People in the Bible are seldom presented to us as ideals. They are painfully real people–so real that at times they make us squirm. King David, called a man after the LORD’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), was an adulterer, an accessory to murder, and a truly atrocious parent. His family life was a miracle of dysfunction. He is presented to us a hero of the faith, but a pitiful example of how to live it. And he is by no means unique in this. The lives of most of the characters in the Bible, both male and female, are the dog’s dish. It is neigh impossible to draw from them any guidance about how to live our own.

Nathanael, however, is the exception that proves the rule. In the Gospel of John we see him for only a glancing moment, but for that instant he shines. He is the perfect disciple, “the best a man can get.” Among Jesus’ disciples, who are certainly a basket of bruised and blemished fruit, he is what my father would have called “a true gent.” He even seems perhaps a bit too close to the ideal, and some commentators have suggested that Nathanael is not a real person at all, but a composite character representing the ideal Israelite, one who does not share all those dubious and shifty qualities of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob.

Jacob, like so many other bearers of God’s promise, also carries a lot of other baggage. The Book of Genesis gives us an abundance of excellent examples of his cunning and deceitful behavior. For instance, chapter 27 tells the unedifying tale of how he and his conniving mother cheated his hapless jock of a brother Esau out of their father’s blessing. In the story no one comes off very well–least of all Jacob, who ends up having to flee for his life from his angry sibling. Jacob, who is later given the name Israel, is a scallywag.

But Nathanael in the Gospel of John could hardly be more different—a son of Israel in whom there is no deceit. His name means “God has given,” and he is presented to us as a perfect package–devout and witty, reserved and passionate, the faithful Jew who is at the same time able to exclaim: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” The narrative of his calling is brief, and yet, like all of the Gospel of John, it is a chocolate layer cake of irony and mystery. It does not open itself to us immediately, but if we dig into it, the story rewards us with the opportunity to consider the habit of honesty, and specifically what it means to tell truth to ourselves about ourselves in solitude.

Solitude surrounds this story. Having met Jesus, Philip finds his friend, who seems to be alone at the time, and enthusiastically tells him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael, however, is not bowled over. And his brusque reply—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”– reveals the stubborn, tough-minded attitude which the gospel writer fully approves. Skepticism is the groundwork of all real faith. But Nathanael is also curious as well as doubtful, and despite his misgivings, Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation to “come and see.”

There are certain people in whom integrity burns like a hundred watt bulb. And even before they are introduced, when he sees Nathanael from a distance, Jesus recognizes him and says—“Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.” That’s a modern paraphrase from the New Living Bible. In the King James’ Version the Lord’s words are translated more literally and more elegantly—“Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.”  The first translation casts Jesus’ remark into a positive statement, the second as a negative one, but the meaning of both is pretty much the same. In a world of counterfeits and frauds, here at last is the genuine article, the real thing.

Apart from the story of his call, we aren’t told anything much about Nathanael. The only other mention of the name Nathanael in John’s Gospel is in a list of those disciples who saw Jesus after his resurrection(21:2). There we are told that his hometown was Cana, the site of Jesus first recorded miracle (John 2:2-11), a village about nine miles from Nazareth, from which Jesus haled. So he was in a position to muse rather sarcastically whether “anything good” could “come out of Nazareth,” which was apparently a tough little burg in Jesus’ time. (And still is by some accounts.)

In the other gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke—a disciple called Bartholomew is mentioned in passing, and that may be our friend Nathanael under a different name. But we aren’t told anything much about Bartholomew either. Extra-biblical tradition, however, is anything but silent about Bartholomew’s later life. A number of colorful legends flock around him. The Church fathers Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Jerome tell us that he journeyed to India to preach the gospel there, and we learn elsewhere that he ended his life in Armenia, where he converted the king of that country to faith in Jesus. This did not, however, prevent his falling into the hands of the king’s pagan brother, who had him skinned alive.

So if  in fact Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person and even half the tales told about him are true,  his calling was the beginning of a great voyage of adventure that ended in a gruesome martyrdom. But all that lay far in the future on that day Nathanael first met with Jesus. But was that encounter really their first? Jesus was certainly a stranger to Nathanael, but Nathanael seems to be well known to Jesus.  “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile,” he says, or an extravagant compliment to that effect.  And Nathanael, understandably puzzled to be so singled out for praise by someone upon whom he had never clapped eyes before, replies—“Where did you get to know me?”

And now the story, which had been quite straightforward heretofore, takes a sharp turn to  the peculiar and marvelous. Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  Nathanael had been alone under the fig tree—or so he thought–but Jesus says he “saw” him there. Did he see Nathanael with the eyes of an omnipresent God? Or is there some more ordinary explanation? How you answer, beloved, rather depends upon who you think Jesus was when he lived among us. Was he more God than man, or more man than God. We can’t settle that question here. That’s up to you.

But Jesus’ words about the fig tree raise the interesting question–What does it means to be alone?  Are we ever alone? Really alone?  All of us are alone with ourselves—or so we think–even when we are in the company other people. Right now, reading this, you are alone with yourself, and I am alone with myself as I write it. I cannot break through the wall of your solitude, nor can you break through the wall of mine. Solitude is our shared human condition. What we make of it is who we are.

Some people are deeply uneasy with their solitude, because they associate it with feelings of loneliness and abandonment. We all know folks who can’t stand silence. They have to have the noise of the radio or the television playing in the background of their lives. Love should enrich and deepen our solitude, but for some people that’s not how it works. They are willing to remain trapped in miserable relationships rather than be alone and free.  We all know them–parents who cling to their children and children who cling to their parents long after they should let go because they are afraid to be left alone. They dread old age because it may leave them isolated. They fear death because of the awful loneliness of it. We all know those people because, from time to time, they are all of us.

I remember that when our children were small, they each had a cozy little room and a warm bed. But when the lights went out, they would silently creep out into the hall, pulling their covers behind them, and lie down on the floor at the foot of our bed, and there you would find them, like exhausted swimmers, deeply asleep. You had to be wary on the way to the bathroom not to step on one of them.  It must have been rotten uncomfortable as well as cold, but that didn’t seem to matter. Loneliness is the shadow that pursues us from the nursery to the nursing home. Something in all of us fears it.

But for you and me, beloved, as followers of the Lord our solitude is—or at least should be–our most precious possession, because it is only in solitude that we meet our true Self, who is Jesus Christ. “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael asks Jesus, amazed that an apparent stranger should presume to know him. And Jesus replied, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  He had thought he was alone there, and in one sense he was. But in our solitude we encounter that Self who is more closely acquainted with our secret life than we ever will be.

What all Lord knew about Nathanael’s secret life we are not told. The content of our secret lives is never altogether pretty.  What all the Lord knows about your secret life and mine is no one else’s business–and in one sense doesn’t matter so very much. What matters is that in our secret life is that you and I are completely honest with our true Self. What Jesus commended in Nathanael was that in his solitude he was without pretense. He was not a perfect human being—no one is—but Nathanael  under the fig tree  told the truth about himself to himself, and in that sense he was “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

So what about us, beloved? Are we honest under our own fig tree? No one else’s life can really be a pattern for your life and mine. Our discipleship is a private project. But in one sense Nathanael is an example worthy of imitation. We are too often less than honest in our solitude. In the mirror of our souls, we pose ourselves in the best angle possible. We pretend that we are wiser, stronger, braver, better than we really are. And we never try to blame others for our own mistakes. We try to fool others in order to deceive ourselves. But our true Self is not deceived.

Now honesty to other people is a good thing, beloved, and it certainly sometimes seems as rare as rocking-horse manure in our public discourse these days. We live in a world that pretends to place a high value brute honesty. People say and write all sorts of things in the name of honesty, trespassing every rule of civility and good taste. They exercise their civil right to free speech in order to insult, belittle, and debase those with whom they disagree and call that telling the truth. But that is bullying, beloved, not honesty. Real honesty has within itself its own limits, which come from the Holy Spirit, who always counsels us to love and keep silent much more often than she tells us to speak.

Honesty to other people is a very good thing and so rare, but it is not the place to start. We need to begin by telling the truth to ourselves about ourselves under our own fig tree. And having done that we cannot help telling the truth openly in every situation. But be warned, beloved. Righteousness goes against the very grain of our society, which runs on the oil of sham and self-delusion. In winning friends and influencing people telling the truth definitely has its limitations. If you are a person of complete integrity—“an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile”–you always run the risk of being skinned alive like our friend Nathanael. That’s just how it is, beloved.

But the closer we get to a life without deceit, the closer we get to the heart of Jesus, our true Self. In our solitude he is always present, and he is always saying to us—“Tell it all, brothers and sisters.” Like the song says—“Tell it all.”

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