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Reflection October 29, 2017

Published on December 16, 2017 by in Misc.

Deuteronomy 34; Matthew 22: 34-40

Which way from here?

Dear friends,

Paul tells us that faith, hope and love are the only three things that remain.  They are what the Christian carries with her or him.  Those are what the Christian is supposed to tap into.  At the end of each conversation he has with a guest on television, interviewer Tavis Smiley (PBS) predictably says: “And as always, keep the faith.” How does Moses feel about keeping the faith at this moment on the heights of Moab as He can see the Promised Land his people had abandoned soooo many years ago? You can count on that: Moses cannot enter the Promised Land, frail and old as he is. The people must enter the Promised Land without Him. They have to depend on faith as they are there without their leader.  Psalm 90, from which we take our call to worship today, has as its heading that it is a “Prayer of Moses.”  It is a Psalm that puts our life in context as fleeting and temporary.  But it is also full of the hope for God to come and satisfiy us in that fleeting life.  So after faith, here is hope.

Because the leader is not allowed to go, he is just allowed to see from a distance, is symbolic. Now the people must go alone. Martin Luther King, in Memphis, appealed to the memory of Moses when he said: ”I have seen the Promised Land, but I may not get there with you.”   Because that is what Moses could say. In fact I can clearly imagine him saying that.   And I can also imagine the people after all their complaining suddenly feeling very insecure without their leader.  It is a clear journey they must take. The landscape lies clearly stretched out before them: they must cross a desert landscape, from the heights across the Jordan down to Jericho, one of the oldest towns and lowest places on earth and then climb up toward Jerusalem and then spread out over the land, each group of descendants of Jacob taking their place.  From there they will live a history that is even more volatile than the history chapter they are closing off.  There will be Judges and three kings under the united kingdom, then the kingdom will split into two, next comes a slow crumbling of the nation, two exiles to the east which will empty the whole country over again.  Then only a small number will return, making another journey home to a land they have never seen and they will settle and rebuild the Temple.   All along they have to keep their eyes on one great commandment: “Love the Lord with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul.” The story of the Old Testament is pretty much the story of how well the people kept his commandment.   We too have that same commandment to follow: “Love the Lord with all you heart and all your mind and all your soul,” but Jesus in our Gospel reading on our cover adds another commandment to it “and your neighbor as yourself.”  Love for God Who loves us translates into loving our neighbor.  So after faith and hope we are back at love. Faith, hope and love are the principles we must carry on with, in this land we call America and the Presbyterian church USA.  But that is a narrow road to walk. It is not easy to do.  Loving a Being we cannot see is hard for most of us.  Loving the neighbors who annoy us isn’t much easier.  But the Bible throws out this challenge: “do these things and you will get it right every time.” And, friends, as Christians our lives are a record of how well we have done that.  

The Bible doesn’t say we can’t enjoy our lives, but it is still a narrow path. We are constantly losing the trail, veering left and right, high and low.  Right now we love in a age an fanaticism. David Brooks wrote a column entitled “how to engage fanatics.”(New York Times, November 2017).  He says:  “The only way to confront fanaticism is with love,” he said. “Ask the fanatics genuine questions. Paraphrase what they say so they know they’ve been heard. Show some ultimate care for their destiny and soul even if you detest the words that come out of their mouths.” It is not an easy thing to do, but it is what is required of us.

Friends, we too are the people, the spiritual descendants of the people of Israel. We always find ourselves in some bend in the road, some crossroads, in the valley or on the heights and we ask ourselves: ”which way from here?” Does the old formula : faith, hope and love still apply? Yes, it does: think of the alternative: cynicism, despair and violent hatred.  Faith, hope and love are what we carry and always will.  They need one another, for without faith we are alone, without hope we are stuck with no future and without love we cannot breathe.

It implies three things: one, that God exists, two, that God is reliable and three, that God is love, that God at the heart of it is loving.  “God so loved the world.” Everything begins and ends with that. As Paul so clearly states. May God inspire us. 

 
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Reflection April 24

Published on May 9, 2016 by in Misc., Reflections

John 13:34, 35; Acts 11: 9, 17, 18

What it boils down to

We have all boiled pasta from a package before.  The hard, cream-colored pieces almost seem like plastic.  Only a fool would try to eat it like that.  No, it needs to be dropped into boiling hot water and after it boils down it becomes edible.  We have all forgotten to heat up water before (at least I hope so) and we know that ground coffee or tea leaves or honey do not do what they are supposed to do when the water is cold.  It has to be boiling or nearly so.   But maybe that’s not exactly what we are looking for here. In the different dictionaries, “boiling down” originally means reducing (or condensing) bulk or elements by boiling.

In Acts Peter has a dream about edible things. He is told to eat them, but he refuses.  When you boil it down all those things are foods he as a good Jew is not supposed eat and as a good Jewish man he refuses.  But then in that dream he is told in so many words that of God does not consider those things profane, why should he?  When you boil it down, it isn’t about following dietary laws.  It is about something much greater: the power of the Holy Spirit.  So Peter’s faith overnight goes from becoming a faith of rules and laws to a faith of Spirit.  He sees things differently.  Friends, these images Peter has of food boil down to nothing. Faith is not about laws about food or anything else.  It is about love that comes through the Holy Spirit; when you boil it down. Of course we need commandments in faith, but none can ever be greater than the commandment to love God and others. This is what Jesus is making abundantly clear in the Gospel of John. Now returning to the passage in Acts, things become a little complicated because it also seems to be about Jews and non-Jews. What it boils down to friends is that He affirms once more that the new faith is no longer Judaism. It is a whole new world faith where everyone is included. You see what unites people in no longer the religious law, but the love that comes through the Holy Spirit. Again this is what Jesus is talking about.  Actually in a Christian perspective the whole Bible boils down to the Jesus who calls us to love.  For Christians Jesus is the prism through which the while Bible must be seen.

Friends, let’s talk about Prince. Actually I can’t.  I know nothing about him other than what I have learned in the last several days. I was living in Asia when he was at his most popular. But the other day it felt more like I had been on another planet.  I could not have identified a Prince song even if my life depended on it.  I had to get from news shows what he and his music were all about.  They boiled it down for me.  I found out he was a few years younger than me, that he was from Minneapolis and never really left there, that he could play almost any instrument, that he battled with the powerful record companies and that you could never pin him down. His identity seemed to be elusive. Extreme creativity and freedom seem to be what he was most about. He was so creative that he could bring together many genres of music and as a result his fans were a mixture of races and ages and economic levels.   Even they could not be defined.

Friends, we have just seen Peter boiling down what is important to the brand new Church.  We have just heard Jesus boil down what the new Christians will be measured by: how they love one another.  Earlier we tried to boil down the life of well known people, but found that it was hard to do. In the light of this, what does your life boil down to? How would others boil it down?  Now, let me make it clear, this is not about image.  It is who and how you really are.  Two weeks we talked about the lives of Peter and Paul and how different they were and also so complicated and how it shed light on our own complexity.  Last week we talked about who the there is a tension between being a lamb and being a shepherd and how me need both to be wholehearted human beings.  Now if we through that in a big pot with all the things we say and what we do, what does it boil down to, friends?  There is so much that distracts us throughout our life, like: finding or not looking for a mate, financial security, family responsibilities, how well our children do in life and whether they are health and happy, the success of our careers, how well we appear in the eyes of others and above all the constant worrying we do about each and every one of those.  Each phase in our life seems to be preoccupied with one or the other.  So when we learn about mindfulness we realize it is a good thing: living in the moment as effectively and compassionately as we possibly can. However, friends, there is another layer to mindfulness and that is: at its core and beside all our worries, what is the deepest meaning and purpose that drives us, what does it all boil down to?  May God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit give us insight and vision.

 

 
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Reflection January 24, 2016

Published on February 11, 2016 by in Misc.

Nehemiah 8: 1,9,10; Luke 4. 20-24

Strangers in their land

Dear friends, There is a popular cartoon my kids loved when they were young called “Samurai Jack.”  It is about an honorable Samurai warrior who travels through time and finds that his skills are not necessarily sufficient in a modern time.  He feels strange most of the time and the viewer feels strange along with him.  In a recent interview on the BBC Henry Rollins, former band member of the punk band Black Flag talked about how he became a punk rocker. He said he was always angry. He couldn’t do anything right in high school: couldn’t throw a ball straight, couldn’t talk to girls, couldn’t get good grades.  He was asked whether he was still angry. He responded that he was, but now it was about political anger.  As you may know punk rock is probably the loudest rock, with the most shrieking.  There seems to be a lot of anger these days.  A lot of it is very vocal in this election year.  A lot of the talk is visceral.  There is a lot of shrieking.  So called “Establishment” candidates of both parties are scratching their heads.  Anand Giridaharadas in the International New York Times wrote about that people feel these days that “power is somewhere where you are not.”  That makes people angry.  It makes people feel afraid.  It makes people feel estranged.  It is a reaction to things being out of control:   Congress, the stock market, the Middle East, China’s economy. In reality no one can fix all that by themselves, but nevertheless there are these cries for fundamentalism (Cruz), authoritarianism (Trump) and realignment and restructuring of economic power (Sanders).

In the book of Nehemiah some leaders of the exiled Jewish people get a green light from the King of Persia to go west to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple which lies in ruins.   These people raised in a land where they were strangers go to a land that was theirs but where they are now strange.  They pray and read the old texts and they weep.  We are left to imagine what their tears were about.  We can guess. Maybe they themselves did not know. But here is a question: could it be that the experience of strangeness exactly made them more effective in their task?

Friends, in the Gospel of Luke Jesus goes back to His home region and He reads from the text in the synagogue and He tells people that this text has to do with Him.  You cannot blame the people for thinking Jesus is pretentious.  He gets it too: a prophet is never accepted in the prophet’s own land.   How often do we see that?  Could it be that Jesus’ experience of being rejected by His people made Him a more focused and effective leader?

Friends, how about you?  What makes you feel strange or like a stranger?  How has the experience of strangeness affected you? This leads me to a question: is it possible that sometimes strangeness allows us to push boundaries?  Let me give a personal illustration.  I assume that over nearly twenty years you know more about me than you care too, but try to pay attention with your own experience.  In the movie “The Jane Austen Book Club” two grown women are in the restroom.  One of them is crying and the other asks why? She explains that it is about relationships from high school.  The other says: ”But high school is over: “Says the first through her tears:”high school is never over !” There is some truth to that.  When I was in high school, in a suburb of Amsterdam, there were four things that caused me to feel strange.  First, my father’s health was frail because of severe heart disease and finally he offered to stop smoking if I would never start. I agreed.   Unfortunately almost everyone else in high school smoked which effectively took me out the circle of other teenagers rolling their cigarettes.  Second, I wore a mental and leather brace on my back for almost two years which kept my back straight all the time and when I bent a little, I either looked like a humpback or a purple faced patient with respiratory problems.  Third, I spent the summer of my sixteenth year in Texas with my sister at the time of the biggest revival conference in American history.  The theology was pretty main stream for the south but the religious principles I came home with kind of made me a freak in the Holland of antiwar protests and sit-ins and dwindling main line churches.  Finally, my best friend was of Indonesian descent and his parents indirectly introduced me to an exotic world of otherness and strangeness through their stories.  Now here comes the good part. When I graduated the back brace was off ( I snapped it cleaning office buildings) and I had snapped out of my hyper-religiousness, but because I had been independent and somewhat isolated I was perfectly positioned to leave the familiar.  So because of the experience of strangeness I was not tied to my hometown.  So I spent my professional life working among people who shared nothing with me but my faith tradition.  As a result, stepping into other cultures became a natural move.  I would not have done that if I had been the most popular kid in school.

Friends, oppression and discrimination are never good, but feeling strange can be.  It teaches us to find connections where we otherwise might not find them.  We see much of the bad side of people feeling strange in today’s political campaigns, bringing out the worst instincts in people. But there can be a good side too. Maybe feeling strange isn’t so bad.  So where do you experience the strangeness in your life and how can you use it to be a better human being and a better servant of

Our God?  May God give us wisdom.

 
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Reflection December 27, 2015

Published on December 31, 2015 by in Misc.

I Samuel 2: 26; Luke 2: 47, 50, 51, 52

Tradition and innovation

Today is our New Year’s service and I want to talk about doing things in a new way. I want to talk about innovation.  Yet I am doing so in the setting of 2000 year old Church with a deep tradition.

Ivo van Hooven is a Belgian director directing Arthur Miller’s play “A view from the Bridge.”  Van Hooven understands the tradition of the theater and it is because he understands it that he seeks to change it.  The current play has some of the audience on the stage. There are no props: no couches, no tables, no lamps, no costumes, no shoes even. The actors are barefoot. The director wants the play just to be about emotions, about relationships, about honesty and also about energy.  Innovation comes out of the tradition of the theater.

We all have our taste in art.  Some like abstract art, some like impressionism, some like realism or romanticism. There is no right one.  A year or so ago I saw an exhibition in the Dali Museum in St.Petersburg FL.  It was a comparative study of Salvador Dali, the surrealist, and Pablo Picasso.  They were contemporaries and they were both Spanish.  It showed an early period in their art which was much more realistic.  Their paintings weren’t that different.  Those painting showed that they were both accomplished and skilled artists who could paint like the masters before them.  From there on, though, they went their separate ways. Dali remained in Franco controlled fascist Spain while Picasso refused to go back and he lived nearby in Southern France.  Picasso went into cubism and Dali into surrealism. Totally different approaches.  But what they did was go from the tradition to innovation. They didn’t start with the art they were famous for. No, they worked out of the tradition.  Innovation came forth out of tradition.

The singer Tom Jones was never a favorite of mine, but after I saw a late night interview with him, I appreciated him a lot more.  He grew up in Wales a Presbyterian. At age 12 he contracted tuberculosis and spent two years lying in bed recuperating.  At 16 he was married with a child.  When he was ill listened to the radio all the time. One of his favorite singers was Mahalia Jackson and his teachers were amazed that Jones sang the Old Rugged Cross not like a Welshmen but like an African American Gospel singer. Gospel and blues affected his popular singing career tremendously. He explained how similar things happened to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. They tapped into the African American musical tradition which came out of the church.  Tradition again led to innovation.

Friends, in I Samuel the young man Samuel comes of age in a kind of godless time when there were very few visions.  The family of his mentor Eli had behaved badly and there was a kind of moral wasteland.  Nevertheless Samuel followed the tradition that Eli in his time had followed.  Innovation happens as a result of the tradition, not separate from it.  The same is true of Jesus. Jesus first learns all He needs to learn in the temple from the experienced scholars who make studying the scriptures their life.  Time and time again Jesus refers to those scriptures and then He innovates. He questions the interpretations, he exposes hypocrisy in the way the people manipulate the text to oppress and exclude people. This is still going on today. People manipulate Bible texts to exclude and to oppress.

So friends, innovation comes out of tradition, but there are a few other things I would like say about innovation.  The first is that it is liberating.  There is something tremendously freeing about making a fresh start, doing things that haven’t been done before.  This is true of music, this is true of architecture, this is true of art, this is true of ministry, this is true of Samuel and of course of Jesus.   Second, it can be very risky.  If you have a way of doing things that sort of works, that has people’s attention and cooperation, then changing can be considered weird or dumb or downright dangerous

This is true of music, this is true of architecture, this is true of art, this is true of ministry, this is true of Samuel and of course of Jesus.   So innovation has to do with tradition, with liberation and with risk.

As a congregation we are taking risks. When it comes to this residency program, we are being completely innovative. Yes there are other church residencies, but one with a multicultural focus and on-campus living is new.  So there is tradition, yes it is freeing because we don’t just do things the same old way, but at the same time it is risky.  It’s the inevitable consequence of innovation.  Stephanie Paulsell writes (Faith Matters):”We need places to pray as if someone were listening, to study as if we might learn something worth writing on our hearts, to join with others in service as if the world might be transformed. Churches are places to learn to practice, with others, a continual conversion of life,  permanent openness to change.”  Friends, as the New Year comes upon you, how will you innovate from your own tradition, how will you free yourself, how will you take risks? May God give You guidance.

 
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Reflection November 9

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Misc., Reflections

Joshua 24: 15-18; Jonah 1:1-3

Forks in the road

Dear friends, I used to be a great fan of the Muppets and in the first Muppet movie Fuzzy Bear and Kermit the Frog are driving down the road in Fuzzie Bear’ s Studebaker (Fuzzie called the Studebaker the “Bear’s natural habitat”).  Kermit says that they are supposed to turn right at the fork in the road.  As they approach a spot where two roads converge there actually is a huge dinner fork sticking up by the road. What makes that extra funny is that Kermit is surprised by that fork in the road for a moment and Fuzzy is completely unaware.

In some ways we do not have to make as many decisions on the road anymore. With GPS and Google maps we are told to turn.  But once in a while we do have to pick where to turn and we do so based on our analysis of the situation or of our instinct.

A week or so ago a young teenager called Brooklyn took a picture of a young man named Alex  she fancied. Alex is a bagger at a Target in Prosper, Texas.  This picture went viral, but for no apparent reason.  People just kept on clicking on it and twittering it on.  But nobody really knew why.  There wasn’t anything special about the boy or the situation as far as anyone could tell.  Some say some internet company sponsored the craze just to show the potential of marketing on the web.  What it really exemplies is the consequences of little clicks on devices and how with minimal motions of our fingers we can have an impact.

Let us recap what we learned from our encounter with the texts earlier. Joshua is facing the people in a moment of recommitment. They are back in the land of their ancestors, but a lot of other people have moved into the vacuum and the Hebrew people will have to learn to live with them.  So here is a practical and at once spiritual and moral question by Joshua:” Do you still want to stick with God,” or do you want to go with the gods of the people around you?  Think of the consequences, friends.  If they say: we’ll try out another god and shelve their faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,  Hebrew faith might have gone the way of the Greek and Roman gods.  And the way you and I came to Christ was through the faith of Israel. The Church might not have been born.  So this was an enormously important decision, just as important as the decision of the early Christians to open up the faith in Christ to all the world’s people instead of to the Jews alone.  Jonah is asked to be obedient and warn the people of Nineveh, but he does not listen. He makes the decision to board a ship and goes in an entirely different direction. In his case God has a way of bringing him back to his task, but at the cost of near shipwreck for his fellow passengers. The story of Jonah illustrates how decisions matter.

Now think of yourself being in these pews.  What decision brought you here, what fork in the road were you facing?  Friends, sometimes in order to be fully aware of the decisions we will make for the future is to review our decisions of the past.  We are given a certain number of momentous decisions in our lives.  Some we take without thinking, because in our context and culture and family that decision is understood.  We think there is no alternative.  This may even be the thought of young European Muslims who decide to travel to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. They may think it is the only thing they can do, but years later the blood and murder of women and children will haunt them as they raise their own.  Friends, you and I might have had the same face and haircut or even similar clothes if we had made very different decisions about our life. We would have different spouses or none at all, we may have had other jobs or none at all, we may have lived in different climates. Our world would be different.  It is true, God goes with us and God’s grace is always present with us, but we are free to choose. Our choices have not been pre-determined.

The Kung Fu master Steve de Marco supposedly said the following: “every decision we make and every action we take has meaning and affects everything else, now and always.”(in Awakenings, Asian Wisdom for everyday).  What this means is that not every thought we have or every movement we make will radically change life as we know it, but it will have some impact, some consequence which reverberates through creation.  No action happens in isolation.

So friends, I would like to think about your faith in particular, like the people of Israel under Joshua’s leadership, how has the way you said yes or no to God changed you and changed your world? We may say: “I didn’t think about it.” But our thoughts and actions have consequences and we are responsible for them.  God is with us as we make them, but we must choose. “Not thinking about it” is not an excuse.  May we live consciously every day and may God bring us back time and time again to where we are supposed to go.

 
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Reflection October 26

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Misc.

Deuteronomy 34; Matthew 22: 34-40

The narrow road home

An Australian writer named Richard Flanagan just won the prestigious Man/Booker prize for literature with his novel “A narrow road to the deep north,” based on his father’s experience on the Burma railroad.  The title of the book is taken from the famous Japanese haiku poet Basho.  Although I have not read the book, the title appealed to me as I was reflecting of the journey of the people of Israel. Moses cannot enter the Promised Land, frail and old as he is. Because the leader is not allowed to go, he is just allowed to see from a distance, is symbolic.  Martin Luther King, in Memphis, appealed to the memory of Moses when he said: ”I have seen the Promised Land, but I may not get there with you.”  I also thought of the comedy in theaters right now and how its title would also be an appropriate reflection title for today.  It is “this is where I leave you.”  Because that is what Moses could say. In fact I can clearly imagine him saying that.   And I can also imagine the people after all their complaining suddenly feeling very insecure without their leader.  It is a clear journey they must take. The landscape lies clearly stretched out before them: they must cross a desert landscape, from the heights across the Jordan down to Jericho, one of the oldest towns and lowest places on earth and then climb up toward Jerusalem and then spread out over the land, each group of descendants of Jacob taking their place.  From there they will live a history that is even more volatile than the history chapter they are closing off.  There will be Judges and three kings under the united kingdom, then the kingdom will split into two, next comes a slow crumbling of the nation, two exiles in the east which will empty the whole country over again.  Then only a small number will return, making another journey home to a land they have never seen and they will settle and rebuild the Temple.   All along they have to keep their eyes on one great commandment: “Love the Lord with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul.” The story of the Old Testament is pretty much the story of how well the people kept his commandment.  Mostly they didn’t keep it, with terrible consequences. 

Friends, we talked earlier about the reformation and about American history and how these histories were also bloody and bitter.  We too have that same commandment to follow: “Love the Lord with all you heart and all your mind and all your soul,” but Jesus adds another commandment to it “and your neighbor as yourself.”  Love for God Who loves us translates into loving our neighbor.  These are the principles we must carry on with, in this land we call America and a Presbyterian church that stands solidly in the Reformed tradition.  But that is a narrow road to walk. It is not easy to do.  Loving a Being we cannot see is hard for most of us.  Loving the neighbors who annoy us isn’t much easier.  But the Bible throws out this challenge: “do these things and you will get it right every time.” And, friends, as Christians our lives are a record of how well we have done that.   You may have seen these ancient posters of the wide and the narrow road. They were a bit silly.  The wide road had all the sinful acts including having lots of fun and parties and the narrow road was a path of sacrifice and prayer. It isn’t like that of course. The Bible doesn’t say we can’t enjoy our lives, but it is still a narrow road. We are constantly losing the trail, veering left and right, high and low.

I try to stop once a week at the school to work with one sixth grade student and last week I found him on a bench at the edge of the playground in the warm October sunshine as kids of other grades were running and exercising all around him. All very distracting for a kid like him.  He was busy writing one line over and over again:” treat others the way you want to be treated. Treat other the way you want to be treated. Treat others the way you want to be treated. ” That’s us friends, on that bench, that’s the story of our lives: having to remind ourselves over and over again that we must treat others the way we want to be treated. We’re finding ourselves on that bench writing that sentence.

And now you may ask the question: ”Aart, how do you do this ‘love the Lord your God thing?’”  My answer would be: start with thinking of God as loving You, totally and unconditionally. Could you love such a Being?  Religious people have filled our minds so much with the idea of the judging God, that we don’t see things in balance.  The judging God is our default image.  But God is at the heart of it loving.  “God so loved the world.” Everything begins and ends with that. May God inspire us.

 

 
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Reflection April 18 Good Friday

Published on May 20, 2014 by in Misc.

We turn to the other side of the cross and we meet the soldiers. Who are they and what do they see? We must know that during the days the Roman Empire crucifixions were used as a cruel form of execution that was meant to scare potential criminals from behaving badly.  It really is the opposite of death with dignity. It was perfect humiliation.  Soldiers would always be present and they could not leave until the crucified was dead.  This was not pleasant for them, unless they had particular cruel personalities and enjoyed seeing other people suffer.  There had to be Roman guards at the execution, but Pontius Pilate would have taken a number of Syrian Greek soldiers with him from the Roman town of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean. They were therefore people from the region.  The text tells us that the legs of the first and second criminal were broken.  Believe it or not this was an act of mercy in a way. The soldiers would want to inflict as much trauma and shock to the body so as to speed up death.  Sometimes they would start a smoky fire to asphyxiate the condemned.  There was a self-serving aspect also.  This would not be a desirable assignment, especially to soldiers from Italy who would have regarded Palestine as a chaotic backwater full of intrigue.  They wanted to get away. And these crucifixion’s would take days. But not in the case of Jesus Who expired sooner.  The text tells us His legs did not need to be broken.  But then we read about the spear in the side that lets out water and blood.   Is it symbolism of Jesus as Rock of Ages and the image of blood and water coming from rock in the Old Testament? That isn’t clear.  But for the soldiers this is a common event. There was no emotional connection. It was just a job.  Then comes the mention of Jesus’ clothes being divided up.  It was a tunic of one piece, seamless, so it would have to be cut. The text says they cast lots for it.  It is supposed to remind the readers of Psalm 22 where the author laments about clothes being divided up.  It is perhaps the final reality check and humiliation. This condemned on the cross won’t be coming back.  Whatever Jesus owned on this earth is now taken from Him divided up.  The soldiers do not have the respect to wait.

So the soldiers, friends, represent the cruel and the indifferent, those who aid and enable the punishment. There is no emotion.  This is troubling to us because it means that not everybody standing face to face with Christ is moved. There is a reason for that: they could not be moved because this has to happen.  This crucifixion must take place for it is the ultimate symbol of God’s love in the world.  This is how a loving God shows God’s love, by suffering. It is the like the great aunt of the teenage passenger on the Korean ferry said just yesterday.  “I want to jump in the water to be with her.”  This is God’s version of jumping in the water with us.  There was no room for unnecessary emotion here. The job had to be done. The world had to move on.  Jesus was gone before they had to break His bones.  The spear in the side, who knows whether that was curiosity or cruelty or just a way of determining if there was more they needed to do.  Perhaps they just wanted to know if He would still move.  If only the other two criminals would go as quickly, then they could all go home.

Not only then do we see God in Jesus on the cross humiliated and suffering, but there is the indifference of the soldiers added to it all.  In the soldiers we see all those who turn away from the suffering of others and from God, Who leave God hanging there literally.  They go home and don’t look back.  It just underscores for us how truly desolate the scene is, but at the same time how utterly engaged God is with suffering humanity, entering into it fully and completely.   Thanks be to God.

Pastors cannot real do Good Friday well. Not as well as lay people. There is a reason for that.  As pastors prepare a Good Friday meditation, they are also preparing for Easter.  So as they go toward Good Friday, they are already thinking beyond it.  They are not standing still, pausing for the moment.  You have stood in front of the cross today and you have stood on both sides of the cross, or imagined that you have done so. You have seen the perspective of the criminal and of the soldier and of Mary. You have heard Pontius Pilate’s side of the story.  Now you stand beside it and you must imagine seeing what a disciple saw, a disciple who was incognito, who was hiding, making sure he wouldn’t be spotted.  The texts tell us there were no disciples, but let’s assume one had made his way in- which is not that hard to imagine- and he looked at the cross from the back, what is going on? 

For one thing, he probably couldn’t see much of Jesus body.  Perhaps part of the head hanging down.  Hair with dried blood from the crown of thorns. Perhaps some of his finger tips were visible or his feet.  Imagine the tornado if emotions that disciple was facing: imagine fear, the fear of being spotted as a disciple.  But that would be the least of it. The fear of Jesus would be greater.  This man had had great powers of healing. He was the kind of person who could take one look at you and  know what you were thinking that moment and many of the moments before that too.  What if he walked up to that cross and there was still just a little bit of light in those eyes, eyes that would recognize him as a disciple.  Before letting out His last breath, Jesus’ final  gaze would be one of disappointment and of hurt.  And the hurt and disappointment would be because of him, he would own this disappointment.  Or would Jesus be happy to see him? Would He be moved that one of His disciples had made it to the cross.  Or could there be a sense of embarrassment in Jesus’ eyes that He couldn’t climb down from the cross and fly off into the clouds?  No more than anything the disciple would be afraid of the women, Mary in particular who might be brokenhearted that her Son’s disciples were nowhere to be seen.  He knew he couldn’t face that look, now as the indifferent busyness around the cross was increasing, a sign that the end had come.  So that fear would be greatest, looking the devastated woman into the eye.  And this fear had a lot to do with guilt.  There is fear in guilt you know.  There is fear in looking so deep inside yourself that you cannot hide from yourself. Looking so deep inside yourself that you cannot buy your own story anymore, the excuses and the reasons why you did not come and stand right before Jesus and told Him how much you loved Him or even climbed of on that cross to tear Him off singlehandedly.  Yes guilt is part fear that you will not be able to sell that image you have of yourself, that your actions have obliterated it. Guilt holds the fear that mirrors become horrible things when you walk past them, that you can’t bear any longer what you see in them. Think of Judas.  The whole understanding of yourself, your whole identity, is no longer valid.  This man Jesus had given people a way out of crippling guilt, through the warm embrace of forgiveness.  Now He was gone or almost gone.

But then there is this creeping sense of feeling betrayed or silly also maybe, a sense that this man Jesus had not been the man that He said He was.  Sure He had told them what would happen in so many words, but He could have done something dramatic. What would become of these oppressed people now?  Would there be more centuries of Roman rule and local corruption?  Had he as a disciple given up too much, had he been too naïve, too trusting, too starstruck? He doesn’t know, but he wonders.  Where does he go from here?  There is only this moment. There is no hindsight. There is no knowledge of the followers of Jesus going from 200 to 2 billion.  There is no next day, or second day or third day. There is Easter, Pentecost, no Paul, no pope, no Billy Graham, no Mother Teresa, no Martin Luther King, just a chaotic scene in a dusty back corner of the Roman Empire filled with paupers at the edge of time.  And so the curtain falls. This is what pastors may miss. Amen.

 
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Reflection August 18

Published on August 29, 2013 by in Misc., Reflections

Isaiah 5:7,8; Luke 12: 55-59

Do we understand our times?

It has taken me longer than usual to distill something from the Bible passages that prescribed or our worship today.  In Isaiah you have the problem that it is hard to pin down the exact events in the history of Israel that cause him to say what he was saying.  In Luke we have three sections of text in rapid succession where Jesus speaks. First he warns his audience that the words of Jesus sometimes will result in temporary divisions.  Next he underlines that his audience may have a basic understandings of everyday natural events, but does not understand their times, then he calls into question the judgment of the people and financially he call to reconciliation.  I mentioned the four themes that I think emerge in our Bible readings from the lectionary today.  These are the unwise and unjust use of resources in Isaiah, the lack of understanding of our times, the lack of judgment and the unwillingness to reconcile. Now if we spent some time thinking about these four themes, and I have, we can figure out these themes are not outdated and irrelevant at all in our times.  Brian McLaren, a former pastor and leader of the emerging church movement in theology today talks about the three p’s, the three most important issues for the church today.  These are: planet, poverty and peace.  In other words: protecting the planet, reducing poverty and making peace among people.   The new world wide mission focus of the  Presbyterian Church USA is three-fold: first, evangelism, meaning spreading the Gospel,  two, poverty reduction and three, reconciliation.  So, friends, we can say that the text is on to something.

We have arrived at the third of our four Hawaiian Sundays this month, so I want to say something about how the Hawaiian context can help us here.   When you fly into the airport at Kaluhui on Maui you will most likely come in from the West on your way into the low land between the West Maui mountains and the Haleakala volcano. On your left you will be able to see about 34 (believe I counted them) giant wind turbines that weren’t there a few decades ago and you first reaction is: why did they put those up?  This is Hawaii, they should keep this place open free from eyesores made by humans.  But then you start thinking: where are they supposed to get their energy from: gasoline that has to be shipped in on tankers from refinery in California? A nuclear power plant?  A hundred thousand solar panels on an area so small that’s dependent on tourism. It isn’t so easy. There is a new show on tv called Hawaii Life and it shows people buying houses on the islands.  Prices of course are through the roof, but sometimes you see a couple and their kids purchase three acres on Kauai and you wonder how an islands that small can afford to be sold off in big chunks of land like that.  And then it strikes you that the State of Hawaii is having to make decisions about how to survive and live together that we do not have to make yet.  Suddenly the whole idea of the owner of vineyard that keeps adding land at the cost of the lives of others has a huge moral responsibility.  Jesus reminds us that we do not understand our times, that we do not understand that there are decisions we have to make that did not have to be made before.   Jesus goes on to talk about our relationship with people and how we show bad judgment and how we fail to reconcile.  This finds echoes in today’s Israel:  The Israeli government keeps issuing permits for houses on Palestinian owned land that go for a lot of money and the arid land is tiny.  In that region there is almost no room.  This brings us back the question of the vineyard (and let’s remember this is all very close to the pieces of land that Isaiah is referring to).  In addition there is constant bad judgment in that region and an absence of reconciliation.  Moreover, people do not understand their times.  Friends, this is really the sentence out of Jesus’ mouth that I keep coming back to: you do not understand the times.   “True,” He says, you have a pretty good understanding of nature. If there is a cloud rising in the West you know there is going to be rain and when you feel the south wind coming from the Sinai or from the Arabian Peninsula you know it will get very hot.  This is true of us, friends, we know more and more about nature and what it will do. We come closer and closer to understanding what life is made up of so that we can influence cells to our advantage.  But do we understand our times: do we know what global warming can really do if do not stop reducing our emissions? Do we understand what ignoring the poor can do to the fabric of an ever shrinking world?  We don’t, we get it as little as the people in Isaiah’s day or Jesus’ day did.  We do not understand our times. We do not understand ourselves half the time. So, friends, you may think :” I came here to be cheered up, and now you are telling me that people are always messing up. This is not what I need to hear. “ Ydou see, friends, what Jesus is calling us to and what Isaiah is calling us to is faith, faith in a God Who is greater than us; a God Who can help us rise above our selfishness and greed, our divisions, our bad judgments and our inability to understand.  Jesus reminds us that life is not about us personally, but about all of us together. Without that faith, we are not going to ever do the right consistently for very long. Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

 
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Reflection May 20, 2012

Published on June 20, 2012 by in Misc., Reflections

Psalm 1;John 17: 6,8,9

The two texts before us are part of a different Testament and were written in a different time.  The Old Testament Psalm takes us to the time when all the people had was the Law. By the Law is not just meant the Ten Commandments or all the instructions for religious rituals we find in Leviticus, it is the whole five books of Moses, the Torah.  Religious leaders used to debate this.  The first Psalm tells us that the Law, God’s Law, is a source of life.  The author compares it to streams full of water.  A person reading staying true to the Law is healthy, like a tree with access to water which is firmly rooted there.  Not long ago Carolyn saw a house for sale across the street from her mother’s.  It is a simple three bedroom house which has had many inhabitants over the years.  But we were its first inhabitants in the late eighties.  The garage floor and the walls and the roof were obviously in disrepair. We had a chance to walk around the house and look inside. To our delight the inside of the house, including the linoleum, looked pretty much the same.  We also looked at the plants in the backyard.  Everything was dried up, except for a tree we had planted ad which curved upwards. It seemed healthy, even though obviously the backyard water supply had been shut off. Then we figured it out: the tree was so firmly rooted that it had access to the water from the neighbor’s sprinkler system.  It got its water from the other side of the fence.

In Peru lack of moisture has turned huge swaths of the country into a virtual desert.  In some place there is a lot of moisture in the clouds and in the fog.  Some farmers have found a way to capture that moisture in metal tracks hanging from the trees.  On the Hawaiian island of Molokai similar moisture poor areas of the island have been turned into a desert. Roughly the eastern, windward, third of the island is lush and green from the prevailing easterly tradewinds. The others two thirds is parched, destroyed by pineapple plantations that moved away after the land had become less than profitable.  An organization called Permaculture from Australia has been helping the locals to dig channels and change the contours of the land so that rainwater can be captured and retained and plants can grow in the soil and the rain does not run off into the sea and destroy the fish ponds and reefs.  Most of us at one point or another have identified places in our yards were plants do not receive water or too little of it.  We still have to fix the sprinkler system along 8th street so that Bill Nagata finally can stop watering the plants in the new courtyard.

Friends, the text in Psalms makes it clear that the tree and the water and the roots are a metaphor for our spiritual life.  God is in the business of bringing life and health to people in as many ways as possible.  This is what God wants and God must find ways to do this.  The water has to get to tree. The Law has to get to the hearts of the people.  Now in the New Testament Jesus is praying an honest prayer.  He tells God that His disciples understand now that the words of Jesus are really words that come from God.  Jesus is dealing with the same question: how do we get God’s words to the people the way water gets to the tree.  But now the Law has changed. Jesus has summed it up in “You shall Love the Lord God with all your heart and your mind and your soul and your neighbor as yourself.” The law has become simpler but at the same time harder to live. Gone are the many regulations.  Friends, we must understand that in the New Testament Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. In other words: not those who follow the law will be like the tree. No, those who follow Jesus will be like the tree with plenty of water to draw from.  Jesus is even called the “Word,” for the name Jesus represents the last and most important word from God.

So, friends, our texts already knew thousands of years ago what we find out on a daily basis every day: that to draw life from God is not always the easiest thing.  To draw health from God has its challenges.  Like a tree, we may be in a wrong place. We may not go to the right place to find God.  Perhaps we are looking for God in consumerism or in the blessings of technology. Perhaps we are looking for God in bad relationships or with beautiful people.  There is a song that laments that the singer “was looking for love in all the wrong places.” In a same way we may be looking for God in all the wrong places.  In those places what we receive may even be toxic for us, like a stream poisoned with chemicals. Then there are the roots, perhaps where we go is not a place where we can sink spiritual roots.  That is why a community such as this is so important, for we try hard to provide a setting where fragile spiritual plants can sink roots.  Finally, we may not give God time to reach us, giving God a minute here or a minute there or we may expect instant gratification and fulfillment. Friends, God wants us reach us as the rain wants to reach the leaves and fruit of the tree.  Let’s be where God can find us. Amen.

 
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