Monday, April 15, 2019

Prayers for Our Lady of Paris

Tonight, one of the members of my Monday night beer and Bible study group wondered aloud if it would naturally occur to United Methodists to remember Notre Dame, appropriate for us to pray for the people in Paris--and Catholic Christians around the world-- who are horror-struck and heartsick about the cathedral fire today...

He, like a couple of others in our group, self-identifies as Catholic, but attend our church every Sunday, just about. To a person they such important parts of our congregation.

Of course, it was appropriate. But I am glad he brought it up because, scattered as we are when we first gather, I am not sure it would have naturally occurred to us to mention it. That said, I think we all would have thought of it later...

So we prayed for all who are affected, and know that even as UMs we are affected in as much as we weep with all who weep and rejoice with all who rejoice. In as much as many of us have visited that great cathedral. In as much as when any place of worship is destroyed, it connects us to the Temple, the Jews, our Christian past and the deep spiritual impulses of all people to build to the glory of God and the spiritual (and practical ) truth that what is built with human hands cannot endure. Such weeping tarries for the night and leads us to hope for the Home that is eternal in the heavens.

Which led me to think about this being Holy Week: and the irony or tragedy or tragic irony or ironic tragedy of one of Christianity's most important and iconic cathedrals burning on the day we remember, liturgically, the cleansing of the Temple. In the week when we remember the death (and resurrection) of Jesus.

And the ironic conversion of the French government this "death" may occasion. If unofficially but historically and condescendingly, France is so secular and so anti-religious that, as I understand it, support for the cathedral has been virtually. Today, the French government has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame--and perhaps a part of the determination comes from seeing rank-and-file citizens weeping, wailing, gnashing their teeth as their holy place died. And not just in Paris.

Which is to say, I wonder if this death also gives way to a kind of resurrection? If this tragedy gives rise to a renewed awareness of what alone may last? It was when Jesus died, according to Mark, when the Centurion said, "Surely this man was the Son of God." Could this horrible incident in its own way proclaim the gospel: how for Jesus, and Notre Dame, and each of us and the world, Empire crushes Savior, despair consumes faith, nihilism swallows life... but by God's grace, the power of hope and the Resurrection of Jesus, death itself is swallowed-up in victory and soon, and very soon, death will be no more.

Resurrection comes, in spite of and no thanks to secularity, but on account of the prayers of the people (Philippians 1:19) to awaken even the cultural despisers of religion to the suffering wonder of faith and the beauty, even in death itself, of enduring faithfulness.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

All is Well... and All Shall be Well


For the last several days, I have waked-up with a verse on my mind, and a prayer in my heart.

The verse: from Psalm 118:24:

“This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

The prayer: from John Baillie, my mentor in such matters (A Diary of Private Prayer, Ninth Day, Morning, p. 41):

“Of all that shall come to me this day, very little will be such as I have chosen for myself. It is Thou, O hidden One, who dost appoint my lot and determine the bounds of my habitation…It is Thou who dost keep in Thy grasp the threads of this day’s life and who alone knowest what lies before me to do or to suffer. But because Thou art my Father, I am not afraid. Because it is Thine Own Spirit that stirs within my spirit’s inmost room, I know that all is well.”
All is well. And all shall be well. I believe that, and I hope you will remember and believe that too.


On Monday, April 8, I found out that I have prostate cancer.  

I had had a biopsy only the Friday before, and when the doctor called early Monday morning I did not say, “Praise the Lord” or "Please, Lord." I muttered an expletive because, with his calling me so quickly, I knew what the news would be. Sure enough.  

After a few unsettled moments, my thoughts immediately turned in two directions: to my children, and to my congregation. How to tell them? Or you?  

For love, I want to tell the truth—and not least the truth of my assurance that all is well. But when? 

I had not told my children about the biopsy, which had been scheduled five weeks prior. There was nothing at that time really to tell them. And they have enough on their plate: their mother is dying, Bethany is remarrying, Jacob is courting. I concluded that, absent a diagnosis, telling them of an upcoming test would be worry they did not need.  

(I did share with a very few close friends and church officers, just as an FYI.)   

As soon as I got the news, though, I talked to the kids. The phone calls were hard, but good. Hard, because they know my father died of this same disease in 1988. Harder, when I reminded them that my maternal grandfather, for whom I am named, died of bladder cancer (which is in the same basic zip code).  

But good, because they are comforted by my confidence that there is plenty of bracing news to calm the aftershocks of the bad. Among the rest: treatment options and strategies are much better than when dad died at 72 of this same illness (I am 64). And yes, I am younger than he was when his cancer was discovered; but his was at a more advanced stage at the time of his diagnosis.  

Another assuring piece of the puzzle: Dr. Damani was in no particular hurry to discuss treatments. Not until next Wednesday—during Holy Week, aptly enough—do I have my next appointment.  

He told me—as I told them, and as I have told countless others through the years—that if you going to have a cancer, this is the one to have; that most men, if they live long enough, will get it; that prostate cancer is typically very lazy, typically very manageable; that most of the most of us who get it will die of something else.
“We are going to get you cured of this,” he said. I was almost embarrassed that my news is as good as it is, when so many others have more dire conversations.

That said, another anecdotal assurance: I have had parishioners live for decades in the “after” of this same diagnosis. Some of them in this very congregation.

My Internist says he has never in all his practice had a patient who was diagnosed under his care to die of the disease. Only one, at all, and he was advanced before my Internist started tending him.

So, great. Still, I take no particular comfort from any of that, or from the numbers and percentages one hears in these circumstances. If only because, Hey! I only had a 17% chance of a positive biopsy result…but I nailed it! Did I nail it? Yes! I nailed it! And on my first try! How about that?

In truth, I take comfort from my faith, and my hope, and Jesus’ love.

And from humor, not a little bit. I am determined to keep my sense of humor. And did, even on Monday.

One of my best friends, when I called to tell him, said, “THE MYSTERY HAS BEEN SOLVED!” I about drove off the road laughing. Then he said, “Hey, lots of beers to be drunk, lots of cigars to be smoked before we plan your funeral.” Amen. Amen to that.

My next thought was how to tell you at HLUMC. And when. What you are reading is the result. 
I hate having to share this now, in view of Palm Sunday, but I see no alternative. I do not want this week's worship to be overshadowed by concerns about me; but I REALLY don't want Easter to be about me. If I tried to wait till the 28th, I fear the word would begin to leak-out—despite the fact that every one of the few who know have pledged confidentiality.

So in an effort to get ahead of any rumors and speculation that might start flying, Carrie and I talked. Together we  decided to drop the news here and now because we want Palm Sunday's service  to be about Jesus. I do not plan to mention this at all on Sunday because I do not want to put a damper on the joy of the children and their palms. I do not want you to leave the service with me and my cancer on your mind instead of Jesus and his Cross. I do not want to make the prayer time about me.

Informing you in this way at this time is not a perfect solution by any means… not even a preferred solution. But I want you to know the facts, and I want you to "hear" them from me: I have been diagnosed; the doctor will guide my treatments; I am all right; and I say again, with all assurance, that all is well. I hope my assurance will reassure you.   
Let me reiterate: All is well. 
I refuse to be silly or maudlin about this. Or self-absorbed. Many others have far more pressing concerns. Still, it is my role to live-out my faith and ordination vows publicly, and it is my desire to give voice to feelings others may not be able to share.

I also want to teach, even as I learn. So let me start here:   

I am at peace. Really. I believe what I have been preaching all these years. As to my prayers?

I am asking Jesus only to give me grace enough to have faith enough to see this leg of the journey not as a detour or broken road—but as a part of my pilgrimage.

That Christ will be evident in my sickness and in health, for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in my living and, whenever down the road that time comes, dying. And I do expect that to be a good ways down the road!

I believe Jesus will answer my prayers. But I ask for your prayers, too. And not for healing, though if healing comes, Christ be praised. Rather, please pray that I can be a witness in the midst of it, and that I make good my promise to be faithful to His prior and eternal promises. And whether by word or action, fearlessly to proclaim Christ—him crucified and risen, for each of us and all of us and for the world. Or as Paul said it to the Christians in Philippians, that "I will not be ashamed but have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death" (Philippians 1:20). 

Even last Friday I was not afraid, as near as I could tell (though the fact that that verse and prayer were and have remained on my mind indicates my subconscious would like to have a moment). If I am afraid at all, it is more of the discomforts associated with treatments and such. I hate IV’s. And I have to admit I am a bit sad. Just a bit sad. Not least that my kids and you, all of whom have dealt with such grief and loss of late, now have me on the prayer list. I’m truly sorry for that.

And on that rainy morning as I prepared for the biopsy, I found myself thinking that, over the next few hours, some good people in Charlotte would get devastating news regarding their health, their loved ones’ health, their finances or whatever.

And so I determined, for my part, instead of praying for myself at all (except for those subconscious ones from the Psalms and Mr. Baillie) I would pray intentionally for those for whom Friday turned out to be a dread day, and not just a dreary, inconvenient and, in my case, uncomfortable one.

In that way I was taking my own advice: those of you who read my Praying for Dear Life may remember the part where I wrote of the young man who was convinced, in his paranoia and neurosis, that he had AIDS. He had multiple tests for it, all negative. He was not sexually promiscuous, but had psoriasis and worked as a busboy at a restaurant frequented by folk who were HIV+. He was SURE he had gotten the disease from incidental contact. The doctors assured him that was impossible, but he kept getting himself tested anyway. He was talking to a psychologist of some kind but came to see me too, and I suggested that every time he got nervous or fearful, that he pray for someone or all the ones who really DID have AIDS, instead of just praying that he didn’t. I thought it might help him get his prayers off himself so much, which I sensed only took him into the darkness instead of into the light. Anyway, I did his marriage a couple of years after all that.

In this blog I include four graphics. All are very evocative for me.

Two are shots of paths at Red Rocks, with a dry, rocky desert way leading toward beautiful mountains. You cannot see the whole path but you can see the destination. Those of you who are familiar with The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis may understand why these particular shots fascinate. 

The idea of "wilderness" is part of it too--the desert through which the Israelites journeyed to Sinai, and were fed and given drink by the hand of God.

Another is a picture I took while on a trip to the Holy Land some years ago. It is a shot of the tunnel under the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When I still did Facebook, I had it on my page for a long time. Again, it is quite evocative to me—because when you follow this tunnel, after a good while you come to a place right below where the Holy of Holies was, and in it, of course, the Ark of the Covenant.

Get it? Walk the dark narrow way down and eventually you find yourself standing under (and under-standing) the Promised Presence of God. There, now, at all hours of the day, rabbinical students and others gather to pray, and as close to the actual place of God’s historic dwelling as it is possible for Jews (and Christians) to be.

The fourth, sent by an old friend, is a path through the trees. Notice how the path leads up, though toward what, exactly, you can’t see. I am okay to follow the path wherever it takes me.


I am determined NOT to act like daddy—who died before the end of his life: pretty much just crawled up into his chair and disintegrated. I am determined NOT to act like mom, who for long years bemoaned her fate to everyone and imagined that her suffering was somehow exceptional and unfair—and begged for death when she might have had much life to live.

Which is to say, I plan to keep doing what I am doing. I am not retiring earlier than I had planned (barring unforeseen complications or consequences). I am not moving from HLUMC. I plan to keep working and serving much as I have till now.

Oddly, a couple of people have asked, in effect, what are you going to do now, as if, “Now that you are on the clock: now that you know you are dying or will.” I guess they are asking after my “bucket list,” so to speak.

I have replied in each case: “I have been on the clock since the day I was born! I have always known it was just a matter of time. It’s just a matter of time for all of us!

“For my part, I plan to do and keep doing what I love most, which is what I do every week, which is about all the list I can get into my particular bucket:
“Take care of Eleanor (every week, at least till she starts kindergarten), study the scriptures, preach and teach at Hawthorne, counsel and challenge, worship and pray—as long as I am physically able.

“I plan to write blogs and books; to watch UT football (and even basketball, now that Rick Barnes is staying! YYAAYY!). I hope to go to a UT game each fall; on a Mediterranean cruise next fall (2020, come go with us!); to Belize in June to fish for permit; to the Holy Land again, soon…

“I plan to take another sabbatical, perhaps in 2021, by the grace of God and the generosity of the Lily Endowment.

"After I do retire, I hope to serve the British Methodist Church for a year and have Eleanor, at least, to join me there for a spell.

"All that to say, there is lots left to do, but nothing much more or other or better than what I already do…”

Because what I do now, I do because these things alone are worth my life in trade.

NOTHING more interesting to me than what I already do. And by God’s grace I will keep doing it.

As members and friends of HLUMC have heard me say HUNDREDS of times--and truer today than ever before--“I will retire or die from Hawthorne Lane; hopefully, the former before the latter; hopefully a good long while before the latter.” In sum, I hope to be with you for a long season of continued ministry.

Peace of Christ.

And much love to each and all of you.
Pastor Tom 
PS... I promise I will not bore you with too many updates or anything like a running commentary on all this... in the first place, it is not that interesting. There are many people with far more pressing issues and way more immediately threatening illnesses (and much better wisdom and insight) for me to indulge in such self-indulgent self-importance. At the same time, I wanted to let you in on the facts of the matter. I will post occasionally as there is need to apprise you of things. Mostly, though, I will try to keep making observations and interpretation regarding the gospel and the Church and our desire to follow Jesus, make disciples and transform lives.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Crisis of Interpretation

You will remember that Jesus once said to a lawyer, “What is written in the Law? How do you read?”

The lawyer had stood to ask Jesus’ which command was greatest in the law.

Not a bad question. Not a bad question at all. In point of fact, all of us at one time or the other, each of maybe now, might wonder the same thing. What is most important to God in how we live? What, among all other things, does God pay most attention to in terms of whether we obey, or do it or don’t?

At least let me say I would sometimes like to know.  

The lawyer was not asking Jesus for information, though. Not really. He was interrogating Jesus. Cross-examining. Trying to set Jesus up.

As would be the case later, though, when he stood before Pontius Pilate, Jesus turned the tables: proved the real Interrogator. He asked the lawyer two questions in turn:

”What is written? How do you read it?”

While we sometimes read the second as a reiteration, or paraphrase of the first, in truth they are very different questions. “What is written” can be stated clearly: is as plain as verses on a page. But how one reads what is written is a whole other matter.

The lawyer answered the first question rightly: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, strength and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Exactly, Jesus said. Do that and you will live.

But “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. In other words, “How do I read—how am I supposed to understand—that second part?”

“That’s what I asked you,” Jesus as might have said, for that is the deeper question: not just what is written, but how do you read what is written?   

Jesus would have the lawyer not only quote, but interpret.

Look beyond the letter to the spirit; beyond the words on the page to the heart of the Inspirer.

For us, this challenge is this—call it a crisis of interpretation: trying to figure out how both to love God with all our hearts, soul, strength and mind, and simultaneously how to love our neighbors (and for the moment, especially, our LGBTQI+ neighbors) as we love ourselves (or, better, as Jesus loves them).

+ + +

Those two questions continue to interrogate me, and they interrogate us as United Methodists  as we continue to negotiate the aftershocks of the Special General Conference in St. Louis. The subtext seems to be that whoever rightly interprets what is written, they will find themselves near to the heart of God, and not far from the Kingdom of God.

For some, loving God, first and foremost means adhering to a traditional understanding of oft-cited biblical texts (Leviticus 18:22, for instance; or Romans 1, or even Acts 15 where “acts of immorality” are equated, one-for-one, with homosexual practice). And if allegiance to that historic interpretation of what is written means we can’t bless or welcome (or marry or ordain) LGBTQI+ folk, then we will sacrifice the second great commandment for the sake of the first.

That, or claim that to love the neighbor means they have to change or repent or forego.

For others, love of neighbor means embracing emerging understandings of persons and relationships, celebrating the non-traditional as a way of affirming the ongoing and creative work of the Holy Spirit. And if that means setting aside certain scriptures or overturning traditional positions of the church, then we will sacrifice legal and traditional renderings for the sake of neighbor-love.

The positions seem intractable: this way of loving neighbor has to discount allegiance to scripture; this way of interpreting scripture mitigates love of neighbor.

I sympathize. I do not want to offend God disregarding the Word. But I do not want to think the Word is defined, qualified, by an isolated verse, or even scattered verses offered staccato and understood discreetly according to our personal lexicon—a verse here or there to define God or what is most important to God.  

Increasingly, I think that to obey God’s first and greatest commandment is honor the sweep and scope of God’s gracious hospitality and welcome—the ever-widening circle of God’s desire for justice and mercy—and then apply that back to discreet situations and moments in our lives and ministries.

And it is odd, I think, how so many preachers latch onto one thing as if that is the only thing. How even the legalists and fundamentalists among us would decry the legalism and fundamentalism of the Rabbis and Priests and never seem to see the contradiction of their own position.

Odd, too, that even among traditionalists accommodation is made for divorce and even polygamy (about which Jesus spoke plainly), and for women preachers (which, according to traditional interpretation of isolated texts, are disallowed), and for the abolition of slavery (which scripture never advocates but just moves on, as if to say those old categories no longer apply)…  we might say that the church has invoked, formally or informally, the “binding and loosing” power granted to it in these matters; so why not with LGBTQI+ matters? In other words, why do people get stuck here?

Fr. Rohr says that it may relate to “shadow material”: that those who spend too much time and energy on any one thing  may be saying more about themselves than others.  (remember your Shakespeare? “Me thinketh thou protesteth too much”) I have no idea. Just wonder why this issue, unlike so many other relational, sexual, ethical issues, are such quicksand.

In St. Louis, the pastor of a large UM church in LA would not even talk to me about these matters. He quoted Acts 15 as the final word. I wanted to talk about the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) in light of Deuteronomy 23:1-3; Leviticus 21:18-20 and Isaiah 56:1-8.

There is more to the text than “acts of immorality” in Acts 15, and two of the three “prohibitions” we do not enforce; could call null in light of grace. So why the other?

That is the crisis of interpretation… not just what is written, for as Barbara Brown Taylor has long maintained, for every in scripture there is a not saying, an alternative reading or interpretation. The Spirit tells Philip to do what the Law did not allow: join a eunuch for spiritual conversation. AND BAPTIZE HIM—there was no reason to prevent the eunuch from being baptized, though there had been ample reason under the written words of the law to exclude him.

I could recall the story of Cornelius: Do not call unclean what God has called clean. I could mention Peter saying to the legalists in Jerusalem, “If therefore God gave them the same gift as he gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:16-17, NKJV).  I could expound any of the texts cited above.

But as Tom Long said, long years ago, “It is not enough to know the words of Scripture. What is crucial is knowing the heart of the One who inspired it.” And the way to know God’s heart is to know Jesus’s heart—who always drew circles and never lines; who always welcomed in the other (and even the judgmental others!); whose harshest judgments were always upon those who “tithed the mint and the cumin, but ignored the greater matters of justice and mercy.”

Saturday, March 23, 2019

He withered-up a tree!

A long time ago, now, when I was in seminary, there was a popular Christian singer, at least among Baptists in the south. And she is still around: her name is Cynthia Clawson.

Dove winner, multiple times, Grammy-nominated…  If you have ever watched any of the Gaither Homecoming shows or videos, chances are you have seen her. More of what she looks like now…

And she is still at it, but long past her best or most popular days.

This is my favorite picture of her: from one of her albums, called "The Way I Feel." Kind of angelic, a bit mysterious.

On that album she did the most beautiful arrangement I have ever heard of Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling—that old, Sunday night, come-to-Jesus, you sang it if you grew up Baptist hymn.

Here is a link to it, from the 1985 movie, The Trip to Bountiful (which is a great movie, if you have never seen it):
The song is in our UM hymnal, too: number 368, I believe.  

If Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows and the Crusade choir made Just As I Am the most famous invitation hymn of all time, I came to Jesus, walked the aisle—and maybe some of you did too—while the choir and congregation Softly and Tenderly.

I will go so far as to say that that if our choir had sung Cynthia Clawson’s version of it—or if she had been there to sing it—I would have come to Jesus twice. I would have walked down, to shake the preacher’s hand, then hurried back to back to my pew so I could come down the aisle again.

Beautiful. Tears me up and tears me up every time I hear it: “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling. Calling for you and for me. See! On the portals, he is waiting and watching, watching for you and for me..." And so he is.

"Come home, come home. Ye who are weary come home.” And so I did. At age 8. Nor have I left home since... though there have been times I thought about it.

Another of Cynthia Clawson’s heart-rending, tear-evoking, soul-saving songs came to my mind this week, for the first time in decades. But tomorrow's morning’s scripture lesson--how Jesus turned over the money-changers’ tables--is bookended by another, stranger story: Jesus's cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11: 12-14, 20-21). That story of that poor fig tree brought to mind the lyric of I Heard About a Man. 

Here is a link: 

It is about as simple and as beautiful a presentation of the gospel as I know…

              I heard about a man, who came to live in time…

he did amazing things with water and new wine

              He helped the cripple walk and

he made the blind to see…

And then you know what else he did?

                             He gave himself for me.

              He was a simple man, he really had no home…

He’d go and stay where he was at, next morning he’d be gone

              He made the leper whole,

and the he set the prisoners free.

And then you know what else he did?

                             He came to stay with me.

              Because I know this one who was man and yet divine                    

              Because I know what love can do in just a second’s time

              Because he made me fully whole… he gave me a song to sing…  

              He was a humble man, but always he was bold

              He would stop and talk a while, but he could see right through your soul

              He fed a hungry crowd, and he withered up a tree…

He withered-up a tree.  Do you remember? Can you imagine?

And surely one of the most surprising, if not the most surprising episodes in all the gospel stories of Jesus.

Feeding hungry crowds? Helping cripples walk? Making new wine from water, and the blind to see?

Amazing as those things are, they are not surprising, given what we know of Jesus.

Making lepers whole and setting prisoners free? Absolutely in keeping with the loving, gracious, compassionate character of Jesus…

But withering up a tree? When it wasn’t even the season for figs?

I can only imagine it, think of it as a kind of displacement.

Do you know that term? You are mad at your spouse, but throw something at the TV. You are mad at your boss, but you snap at your children.

Displacement. When you are mad at one thing and take it out on another thing.

I can only imagine Jesus was angry at what he saw the day before, when he entered the Temple precincts… and took it out on the poor fig tree.

The day before, Jesus and the disciples had come into Jerusalem. Jesus was on a donkey. The crowds were excited. The religious and political and maybe even the military officials were a little nervous. But when Jesus arrived, after he looked around at everything, he left and went to Bethany.

I wonder what he thought, what he felt, being in the Temple again. Mark does not tell the story, but Luke says that when Jesus was a little boy, he had come to Jerusalem, to the Temple, had had good discussions with the Teachers of the Law. They were amazed at his understanding. For their part, Mary and Joseph were terrified. At least when they finally realized he was not with them. They went and searched for him… remember what he said? “I must be about my Father’s business.”

That was what the Temple was for. Even the boy Jesus could see that: discussing the scriptures, prayer and worship. 

Years have passed since last time Jesus saw the Temple. And now, what did Jesus see?

Not the Temple’s business. But the business of the Temple. The buying and selling and unholy pandemonium of what had the appearance of worship. Pretty. Lush. Prosperous.

The Temple area was huge: 32 acres, the size of 34 soccer fields, and on special occasions it could hold 400,000 people. The Temple and its associated businesses were the main employer and economic engine of Jerusalem…and every day, just humming, like the great machine it was.  
Jesus and the boys looked around at everything, then headed to Bethany. Next morning, they started back into Jerusalem.

On the way, Jesus saw a fig tree, lush and green.
Jesus went to it, to get a fig. Only it was not the season for figs.

Did you get that? It was not the season for figs!

So, no real surprise, there were no figs. But, for some reason it ran all over Jesus. And he cursed the tree: “May you never bring forth figs again!” And next day, it was withered to its roots.


We might also ask why Jesus was so upset at the Temple mount. At the buying and selling. What the buyers and sellers and money-changers were doing was perfectly legal, and even necessary.

If you were coming from Nazareth, say… like that time when Jesus was 12… Mary and Joseph and the others were going to Jerusalem to sacrifice. But that was a journey of 65 miles. Can you imagine leading a cow, herding sheep, for 65 miles to the place of sacrifice?

So, instead, you sold your cow, or sheep, and took the money—mostly likely Roman money, most likely with an image of Tiberius on it—and came to Jerusalem with it, there to launder your money, to change the pagan currency into currency acceptable in the Temple. You bought a sheep or a cow, doves or a goat to complete the sacrifice.  

There had to be money-changers. There had to be animal sellers. Thieves? Maybe. They did charge interest. Maybe some of them charged too much. Maybe the "business of the Temple" has supplanted the "Temple's business."

Which is to say, maybe there was a different kind of theft going on… not that the people were being robbed by the money-changers, but God was being robbed of the prayers of the people by the exclusionary practices of the religious establishment.

A house of prayer for all people that did not allow all the people close, and even determined who could and could not worship in the prescribed way. If you did not have enough money to buy even the doves, which were the poorests' offering, one had to walk away.

And perhaps that is what we are angry about too, some of us. In this battle of interpretation raging across the church, it is not just "what is written in the law" but "how we read." And Jesus' anger seems to indicate, at least in Mark, that if our churches are excluding anyone, we are robbing God of God's rightful due--praise from all God's children.

That said, Jesus' anger is not merely anger. It is rooted in love for God, for God's house, for all the people of God.
The end of I Heard About a Man is this:
          He fed a hungry crowd and he withered up a tree.
          And then you know what else he did? He blossomed forth in me.  

Without love, all our anger and cursing reveals is how our spirit is already withered to the roots. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Lent and the Power of Mirrors

Lent. A Season of self-examination. A time to look into the mirror, as it were, to see yourself as you really are.  In this rather long blog I want us to look at two stories from St. Luke. Both involve dinners to which Jesus was invited. Similar in a way, and at the same time very different.

For each I will give you a bit of set-up.
Then you will see the actual text.

Then three suggestions for reflection.

At the end I will give you a further   thought concerning these stories, and another story St. Luke told.

I invite you to let these texts be mirrors. Which is to say, look for yourself in the stories: for who you think you are, and for whom you hope you are not.

And look for Jesus, of course, who wherever he is, and even here, we believe, today, always seems to attract both the righteous, and the unrighteous; the put-together, and the broken; humble sinners and… the indignantly faithful. 


The first story begins with an unexpected call; the second with an unexpected invitation.

In the first story, the dinner at Levi’s house, the primary actors are Jesus, Levi (a tax collector) and his tax collecting friends; the Pharisees, and their legal advisers, the scribes.

Tax collectors were Roman collaborators, carpet baggers and scalawags, traitors to their own people. These guys are the Mafia, backed by Roman muscle… and Jesus calls one of them to be his disciple.

Levi in turn calls-over all his rowdy friends, as it were: celebrates with other tax collectors and sinners the welcome and summons he has received from Jesus.

Jesus also attends, which is no surprise to us, but it surely scandalized the Pharisees and scribes who were… watching from a distance, I guess, but close enough to see, and to fuss at the disciples, and to reprimand Jesus…

Already they don’t like how Jesus is not teaching appropriate respect for Sabbath; how he claims to forgive sins; how he is not reinforcing necessary cultural and religious identity markers (Sabbath-keeping, hand-washing) markers during the Roman occupation.

To their way of thinking—at least to our way of thinking—Jesus is not serious enough about sin, or resisting the empire, or making the nation great again.

Are they smug, or afraid, in their indignant self-righteousness? Either way, they seem to know who they are by whom they would not welcome to the table. Exclusion is the root and fruit of their religion. At least that is the way we see them now.

And we ourselves have seen folk like this, have we not? In our own day.  
I just got back from St. Louis, where outside the great convention center where United Methodist factions battled to their virtual and humiliating self-destruction: I witnessed up close the sign-carrying ministrations of Westboro Baptist Church.
I also saw people inside who were just as judgmental, just as smug and indignant, just as afraid, one way or the other.
(For another contemporary expression of the Pharisees' self-righteous and exclusionary pique, see the reaction of some commentators to Lauren Daigle appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres Show:

Back in Luke, in that first story: that evening at Levi’s dinner party, the Pharisees and their legal advisors, the scribes, are horrified that Jesus would call a tax collector to be his disciple. That Jesus would eat with sinners. But who is the sinner? Who is the righteous?

27 After (Jesus healed the paralytic on the mat) he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him. 29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”


In what ways do you identify with Levi and his guests?

In what ways do you identify with the Pharisees and their scribes?

Is there any way in which you identify with Jesus?


The second story begins when one of the Pharisees, Simon by name, invites Jesus to an outdoor dinner party. Probably on a big back patio, behind Simon’s house.

And a surprise, I think, that Simon invited Jesus to dinner at all, given the company Jesus keeps—which company could have made Jesus and everyone else at Simon’s party, ritually unclean.  
Surprising, too, because some of the Pharisees already have reservations, at least, about Jesus’ teachings; questions about the style and substance of his ministry, grave concerns about his disregard of cultural and religious identifiers.  

Do you consider it a surprise that Jesus seems as willing to eat with Simon and his friends as he was to eat with Levi and his friends?
Would you go to a dinner party with one of the sign-carriers from Westboro Baptist Church?

If not, why not? 

So, good for Simon that he invited Jesus. Good for Jesus that he went.

It appears, though, as if Simon seats Jesus at the lower tables, a good ways from the head table, but still close enough that Simon can see, can keep tabs, the way generous hosts are always checking on their guests.

Only, not like that, either. Simon is not so much tending to his guests as holding court, making notes. Nothing very gracious about his welcome. No water. No oil. No kiss.

He may have been playing a game. It may have been a power play:

By inviting the upstart rabbi, perhaps Simon is hoping to demonstrate that he is not threatened by the populist preacher. Is he asserting dominance, marking his territory, as it were, by inviting him, but not letting him too close?

Jesus finds himself close to the edges of the patio—where the uninvited would gather ‘round to watch the party—much as we read People magazine, or keep up with the Kardashians: we all enjoy the warmth of reflected celebrity. Gives us enhanced identity.  

You know the story. The scandalous demonstration by the woman. The indignant incredulity of Simon… if this man really were a prophet… the parable that Jesus uses to expose Simon… nicely played, Jesus… and the joy of forgiveness.

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”


        So, who do you want to be like in this story?

        Who are you most like in this story?

        What do you make of Jesus’ comments in both of these stories?


Afterthought: another story, same lesson: Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector, this time gone up to the Temple.
 The Pharisee says, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like the Publican.”

The Publican says, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

When I read that story I say, “Lord, I thank you I am not like the Pharisee: judgmental, condescending, exclusionary…”, I prove that I am a Pharisee.

In St. Louis, when I said, “Lord I think you I am not judgmental like the folk from WBC,” which only proved I was every bit as judgmental as the folk from WBC.

When we judge people’s judgmentalism… exclude them for excluding... exclude them for including... when we wish everyone were as enlightened as we are…

When we, too, only guardedly welcome those about whom we have our suspicions…

When, as we read the stories, we see ourselves as the heroes, or as Jesus… the mirror of scripture reveals we are the Pharisees.

As James Sanders famously said, if we read the Scripture and congratulate ourselves, we can be sure we have read it wrong.  

Prayer of Confession

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Let us pray:

Grant us to see our self-righteousness, O God, in those moments when we condemn the self-righteousness of others. 

        Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. 

Grant us to confess and repent of our own pride, before we ever decry the pride of others.

        Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Grant us to judge ourselves according to your Word, before we use your Word to judge others.

        Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Bring us to remembrance of our sins, before we ponder the sins of others.

        Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Then, in your mercy, forgive us. Free us to forgive others, and to believe in your perfect grace for all your imperfect children.

         Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
         Lord, have mercy.
         Christ, have mercy.
         Lord, have mercy.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayers for Our Lady of Paris

Tonight, one of the members of my Monday night beer and Bible study group wondered aloud if it would naturally occur to United Methodists ...