Monday, August 28, 2017

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Yes! Yes! Yes! 

In my understanding of the scriptures, the closer our relationship with the God of Creation, the more closely we become identified with God’s care for creation. We are especially invited to “see” the way others are being mistreated, and “hear” the call to represent God’s good love for all. 

In January of this year I took a tour of the Holy Land lead by Richard Blackburn, the director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. I had taken classes from the Peace Center before. The promotional literature promised meetings with peace activists on the ground, so I thought I had a good idea of what I was in for. 

Each morning we would meet, and Richard, who has a passion for classical painting, would highlight the places we were to see during the day, and how they have been captured in the classical art of the West. Each evening we were scheduled to meet with folks actively engaged in addressing the Israeli/Palestinian issue. 

We traveled as far south as Hebron, went east to Jericho and the Jordan River, and spent time in the north in the region of Galilee including Nazareth. You can expect me to make frequent references to the places I went and the things I have seen as we share observations of the scriptures in our time together.  

I obviously did not understand much about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank before arriving. What I thought I knew was either wrong, or terribly shallow. The Occupation is oppressive, it is de-humanizing. I believe the Israeli Occupation provides an insight to the conservative movements in Europe and in the US today. It is an example of how easily we can systematize oppression of others. 

The Israelis do not use the word Occupation. When the issues are raised, they change the subject. They talk about the divine right of the Jews to ‘own’ the land as written in the scriptures. They comment on atrocities committed by other Arab countries. They talk about ‘Law and Order’ protecting good Israeli citizens from uncontrolled and random attacks by the Palestinians. I now consider appeals to “law and order” as code words for protecting the privileges of the people in power. 

If you would show the first picture please. The Israelis do not talk about the 19 ft. concrete wall that surrounds the town of Bethlehem, only four miles from Jerusalem. The Israeli Army controls all movement into and out of Bethlehem. It is possible for a Christian born in Bethlehem, to never in their life be given permission to visit the holy sights in Jerusalem. 

The picture here is of a boutique hotel opened this year, but after my visit, by the international artist “Banksy” - which invites Israelis in Tel Aviv to have an experience of what the Occupation means. “The Walled Off Hotel” is advertised as the hotel with the worst view in the world. 

The next picture is another portion of the wall around Bethlehem. There are more than 1900 miles of concrete walls, controlled 24/7 by armed security provided by the Israeli Army, and constructed to control the movements of the Palestinians within the West Bank. 

Jerusalem is a city that was divided in the United Nations 1948 Plan, assigning a portion to the new Jewish state, and a portion to the local inhabitants. In the War of 1968 Israel took control of Jerusalem, and though no international group acknowledges the authority of Israel in the city, the city and national government are systematically demolishing Palestinian homes and repurposing the land for Israeli projects. 

In the next picture we see the Temple Mount - the traditional site of the Jewish Temples, is home to the Dome on the Rock, the glorious Muslim Temple and Shrine was originally built in 691. The current Dome dates to 1023CE. The Western Wall at the base of the Temple Mount is the holy place where prayers take place. 

This next picture is taken from the Mt. of Olives looking at the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount with the Old City of Jerusalem, enclosed by the stone walls - restored in the early 1600s by the Ottoman Empire, which preserved many of the historical sites. 

The Mount stands at the west edge of a sharp cliff, the Kidron Valley, with a full view of the Mount of Olives directly to the east. The Garden of Gethsemane is at the base of the mount. A remanent of the Garden stands next to the Church of All Nations in this picture here. The oldest of the olive trees in the Garden is a mere 800 years old. 

About halfway up the hill is the church of Dominus Flavit. This is taken from the gospel of Luke 19:41-42, where Jesus looks over the city and cries, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, If only today you knew the way of peace.” Dominus Flavit means the Lord cries, or maybe better, the Lord’s tears flow. In retrospect, this best captures my experience of the Holy Land today. 

My experience of the Holy Land was different than I had imagined. I love having a sense of the geography of the city of Jerusalem and the distances between the Upper Room, the Chief Priests home where Peter denied knowing Jesus, and the path of the passion. 

With my new awareness of the oppressive occupation, much of the “holiness” of the Holy Land failed to miss my heart. I was too full of compassion for the living souls than to have my heartstrings tugged by the rocks of ancient days.  

I realize that the movement of most tourist groups are controlled in such a way that the Occupation seems invisible. My trip was special because we sought out the company of the oppressed. 

I did have an emotional moment of connection. Late in the trip, we were touring the area at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Of the many churches/tourist stops, was a facility dedicated to the Primacy of Peter. It is a Catholic shrine celebrating Peter as the first among the disciples. 

The principal feature of this site is the church, constructed on the beach of the Sea. There is a large rock and the church was built for the rock to be both inside and outside of the church. Tradition says, the resurrected Jesus stood on this rock to call to the disciples as they fished, and where he served them roasted fish for breakfast. 

My tour group gathered inside of the sanctuary, and said a prayer that highlighted Peter and his role among the first disciples. There was no hymn selected for this particular stop. With the permission of the tour group, I lead them in singing a song I wrote, that highlights the relationship between Jesus and all of us, his disciples. It was part of a collection of songs I wrote about the season of Advent during a sabbatical in 2010. 

Richard Rohr, is a Franciscan priest who directs the Center for Action and Contemplation. The CAC is dedicated to inviting people to have an encounter with the divine, in a spirit where contemplative prayer becomes the impetus to act in the world to honor God’s love by working for justice. 

Rohr loves to say that Christians were in such a rush to put Jesus on a pedestal and worship him we largely missed his point. We made the Jesus movement into a religion of believing the right things and worshipping Jesus, which he never asked for. Instead Jesus asked us to “follow him.” Jesus asked us to behave in ways that demonstrate and share God’s love for all of Creation. 

The origin of this song is rooted in an Illinois Conference Women’s Retreat at Pilgrim Park more than 10 years ago. My wife Martha and several women from the church in Spring Valley attended. The focus of the retreat included saying the Lord’s Prayer in several different forms. The changes are based on cultural perspectives and highlighted areas where there are different ways to see God. 

For the next year, we used a different “Lord’s Prayer” each month. I will not lie to you, the congregation HATED it. We did love the translation of “Amen” by Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Bible into current North American English, as “Yes! Yes! Yes!” That is what I captured in this song, so it would continue to be a part of the faith language of the congregation. 

Let me invite you to sing this song with me now. It is a “call and a response,” I sing a line, and you sing it back to me. You can never get lost. The tune is very simple. If you are dependent on the printed word, we are going to try to project the lyrics up here. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Dog Days of August

The Dog Days of August 

  • Psalm 67, Matthew 15: 10 - 28 

It is late August. The kids are headed back to school, and we are happy about that, except that it “feels” too early. Part of our brains are more comfortable with school starting in September, even after Labor Day. 

The reality is based on simple logic and not on our collective feelings. High School football cannot start practice or have games except within so many days of the start of school. Football teams have regular season and conference games, then the best of them enter the playoffs. Many school districts start school to accommodate the state football championships on Thanksgiving weekend. 

We can know all of that, and still wish that school started in September. It is kind of hard for human beings to let loose of their usual patterns. Feeling the need to change can make us “cranky.” The psalmist says let God bless us all, and may all the earth praise God. In our heart of hearts, we visualize a world that is all Christian, knowing, loving, and serving God - with the same understanding that we have. 

The reality is different. God loved the Creation long before Jesus the Christ made his historical appearance. There are several traditions of knowing and loving the God of Creation with roots different from our tradition. God has used those traditions to bless creation, and continues to do that. It still may not “feel” right, but we know the reality is sometimes different from our feelings. 

You and I share a faith in a good and loving God, and embrace an understanding of the nature of God as revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. While a piece of my heart embraces the platitudes about the faith that I was raised with, I recognize that the reality may be different from those old “feelings.” Once in a while I need to remind myself to actively trust in God’s blessings, and check my feelings against reality. 

My personal faith evolves over time. As a person who is a second career pastor, I was relatively settled in my ways when I went to seminary. I began seminary when I was still working full-time. The usual three year program took me four years. I graduated when I was 52 years-old. In wrestling with church history, and theology, I emerged changed. 

One of the biggest changes I had to make was to accept my own feelings, and learn to evaluate how those feelings matched up against reality. I have tried to check my automatic emotional reactivity, and see if my emotions are rooted in a healthy love of justice, or rooted in the sentimentality of my childish faith in a narrowly defined God and country. Seminary put me in situations where I dealt with the faith of Christians from Africa, and the Far East, and marginalized communities in the USA, and forced me to see the limitations of my white, middle-class, suburban upbringing. 

Now, my feelings are valid. My upbringing was rooted in the love of God and nurtured by good, generous, well-meaning family and friends -  whose lives carry the evidence of faithfulness. But a mature faith, needs to leave room for growth. God is still speaking, and if I really intend to listen, then I need to expect that my more mature self, might be ready for more of God’s truth. 

I think we have an example of this in today’s gospel lesson. The evangelist Matthew makes an on-going case for Jesus as the new Moses. He is careful to present Jesus of Nazareth as a gift from God to elevate our understanding of God in contrast with the codified and law bound understanding of the Temple-lead Jews of his day. 

Here Jesus allows the immediate request of the Canaanite woman to challenge our claim to an exclusive access to God’s blessings. “It would be a shame to waste God’s blessings on the dogs” Jesus tells her. Talk about racism! Talk about lacking in cultural sensitivity! Talk about insensitive name calling! Talk about Jesus acting like a person of privilege to a person on the margins! 

Clearly we have heard the woman praised in sermons for holding her ground. “Still she persisted” in making a claim for her sick child to the renowned Holy Man. She is lifted up as a model of persistence in prayer. And Jesus shares the love of God with her. 

We could debate whether the human Jesus changed his mind, or if the divine Jesus staged an example of changing his mind for the benefit of the faithful. Lets just lay claim to the example Jesus sets for us. 

We can change our minds. The world does not stop when we see things in a new way. We can extend God’s blessings to others, even if they do not promise to repent, they do not promise to come to church, they do not promise to read the “Christian” Bible. We can and should, be a blessing to the whole world. 

Many of us were raised to think that the Bible stories are supposed to make us feel good about ourselves and our church. It is not quite true. The gospel stories, especially the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth - are supposed to encourage us TO DO good in the world, sharing the blessings of God with the creation that God loves. The shorthand for this is the expression; “the gospel should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” 

Our feelings are a valid indicator of where our emotional lives are, but honestly, they might not be rooted in what is true. For an extended part of my life, I held all of my feelings suspect. I over-reacted to the crass sentimentality that comprised much of my religious up-bringing. But when I do not acknowledge my feelings, they may be silently driving my behaviors in ways that can be damaging to myself, my family and my community. Behaviors rooted in an unexamined desire to feed pure ego needs have the potential for grave consequences. 

Today I try to recognize and appreciate my feelings, but also look for the real and deeper truths about the God I love and who loves me. Knowing that God loves me - and each person in all of creation - permits me to celebrate the Canaanite woman who was rejected, and still she persisted. Jesus shows me an example that I might change my mind, and then act to bless others, without consideration of whether they are worthy, and that challenges my sense of living out my faith. 

I stand among you today in Morton Illinois, and declare that Jesus loves every man, woman, and child in Morton, and the dogs, and probably the cats, too. It is our dogged duty to represent that good love, everywhere we go, even under the conditions that tend to make us cranky. God help us, we certainly need it. Amen.