Sunday, June 28, 2015

Worship and sandwiches

The weather began to look stormy as we prepared for the worship service in the only shaded corner of the parking lot at Market and Monroe in downtown Jacksonville. The forecast called for severe storms to begin at 1 pm and it looked accurate. We tore down what we had set up, brought the bag lunches we had made at our pastor's house this morning inside and about a hundred of us sought shelter inside the conference room of the Episcopal Diocese. It was steamy inside as we sat or stood shoulder to shoulder. We sang some hymns. Then, we read the Scriptures. I noted how different Psalm 130 sounded in the midst of 90 people who were living on the streets. Some had all they owned in backpacks or in grocery store carts outside. One man in front of me said I need a shower and walked outside to get drenched. Some people were waving their hands to the LORD. Most read the Scripture with the reader. Some added their own interpretive comments.

Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord, we prayed.
Let Your ears consider well the voice of our supplication.
My soul waits for the Lord, and we waited.

While a man, bald and maybe 55, sweat stained and wearing well - worn shorts and a t-shirt, read the New Testament reading from 2 Corinthians 8. I was surprised he read so well (why?), and wondered what he had done before he ended up on the street.

You know the generous act of our LORD Jesus Christ, though he was rich, for your sakes he became poor (Poor - it hit me like a gut punch). Your gift is acceptable according to what one has not according to what one does not have. The one who had much to give did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little.

Then the pastor read the gospel from Mark 5, the story about the raising of Jairus daughter from the dead. There was a woman seated to the right of the pastor who obviously knew the text and kept up a running commentary on it. When he read that the people laughed at Jesus for saying his daughter was not dead only sleeping, she said, of course they did. I imagine she had been laughed at a lot. She nearly shouted, Talitha cum. And then raised her hands and looked around the room, smiling, shaking her head and said, He raises the dead, as if that was a matter of fact and there was no denying it.

The pastor finished up and led the prayers of the people. Many people prayed for the sick, for job interviews, for addictions and for family members a long way off and everyone responded: Hear our prayer.

A few of the young people from our church were recruited to take the plate holding the cups of grape juice around the room following the pastor who held the bread and gave a generous piece to each of us. I thought it tasted like King's Hawaiian, a little bit of paradise.

Everyone got up and passed the peace. The blessing followed another hymn. The bottles of water and sandwiches, cookies and fruit were distributed. The skies had cleared and people hung out in the parking lot talking.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Charleston, the flag, and the Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer is a short prayer. Jesus disciples asked him to teach them to pray and he gave them a prayer they could pray in about a minute! I expect they were looking for something a bit more comprehensive and profound. Most Christians are still looking. Some of us pray it together in church weekly and some of us may have heard a series of sermons on the "points" of the prayer. Do we use it as Jesus gave it to us, as a pattern for prayer? Do we dwell on the "points" of the prayer and let them suggest richly how we might pray? Have we learned how to pray so we have moved on to our own prayers? Do we ever get beyond praying the Lord's Prayer?  I don't think so. I think it along with the Psalms remain our best and basic training in prayer.

So, does Telford Work in a 2007 book entitled, Ain't Too Proud to Beg. He called it a book about living the Lord's Prayer. Praying it in order to live it. And by reading this book I realized he covered a lot of ground. All of life.

This weekend are the funerals of the members of the Charleston AME church who were gunned down at their midweek Bible study in their church. It seems unbelievable to even write that. Died at a church Bible study...killed by someone who did not think Black Lives Matter. And he is not the only person who thinks that. He related to a organization that teaches that. He was only the latest link in a historical process that has systematically denied Black persons the right to live. This was not the first killing of Black people in their church. This was not the first time they had been deprived of their basic human rights, the right to live! This was not the first time they had been terrified that someone would harm them just because of their race. There is a deep history of racial violence in Charleston and in many other places. This was not a one time action by a rogue terrorist.

As I read Work's book this week and prayed the Lord's Prayer he helped me understand what I was praying. He wrote, "apocalyptic prophecy reveals a world so stubbornly evil, so thoroughly schooled in self - centeredness, that our only part in its conquest is the difficult work of perseverance. One must keep evil starved of its sources of power, or it is sure to grow back." I thought of the Confederate Flag debate. How have we let that symbol of oppression and suffering fly for so long? On the Diane Rehm show on NPR this week, Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, was asked about the debate to remove the flag and she said she knows of Black Americans who are terrified when they see that flag. Because of what it stands for. I thought of Work's words that we must keep evil starved of it's power. The day after I heard Wilkerson speak I was on my way to an early morning bike ride and I saw a pick up truck flying the largest Confederate flag the driver could find. I was angry. I thought about what I could say to him if I could catch up to him. Was he a racist, or just a Fool, or was he only thinking about himself, I will fly the flag if I feel like it! I thought of Work's words about how we are so thoroughly schooled in self-centeredness, that that's what it means to be an American, to be free to do whatever the hell I want to do. No matter who or what.

I thought of the difficult work of perseverance Work talked about. I saw the film, Selma, and read the book on which it was based (Selma, 1965 by Chuck Fager). The long fight for civil rights, and it isn't over by a long shot, is nothing if not about perseverance.

Jesus calls us to be ready. To pay attention. He gave us many signs of the kingdom (Matthew 24-25). Work writes the Church thinks we need revival - and churches are holding revivals all the time where I live - but Jesus wants us to wake up. Overcome evil with good. Be ready, vigilant, diligent, righteous and confident that God's grace has given us what we need. Pray, Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be Done.... Deliver us from evil. And live it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Is LeBron James humble?

This week LeBron James was applauded as a great basketball player but not a humble one. He said he was the greatest basketball player on the planet. I would not bet against that statement. Michael Jordan said he could beat any one of his current players one on one. I think he was right. He still is great although he didn't claim to be able to beat LeBron one on one. Greatness is a passing fashion. Tomorrow LeBron may not be the greatest any more. I watched the film about Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, this week. He claimed to be the greatest, too, as great as god who he did not believe in. His wife said one of the reasons she stayed with him as long as she did was because someone needed to tell him he was not god. He was not. He was the smartest person on the planet at one time, that might be true. Some one will come along who is smarter.

Is it humility if you are great and deny it. God is great he says and He is good and created everything and claimed it was all very good. He wants us to praise him for his greatness. Yet, he wants us to be humble too. So, what is humility?

The prophet Micah tells us what God wants from us: to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with him. How can some one walk with God and not be humbled?

The NY Yankees held one of their Old Timers games this week when they honor past Yankee greats. Jim Leyritz, who starred for the Yankees in the 1996 world series, and then became a Yankee outcast for a while after a 2007 DUI and vehicular homicide charges was back in Yankee pin stripes. He said he had been humbled and then some amazing things happened. He is now doing some work for the Yankee front office and charity work. He pointed to A-Rod's own amazing turn around and hinted that A-Rod's humbling in his year out of baseball punishment for using PEDS has been a blessing for him. He said baseball players can start to think they are bigger than they are and need to be humbled some times.

Life can be humbling. Bodies break down. Marriages fail. Skills are lost. Good jobs are hard to come by. You don't have to look too far to see people living in humbling circumstances. There are wars and rumors of wars and refugee camps and all kinds of places where people are eking out an existence. The Old Testament word for humble started out as a word to describe the poor who had no land of their own and therefore no means of support.  They were often abused and oppressed by the more fortunate. Sort of the way it has always been.

In the New Testament several writers urge Christians to be humble which in the Greek world was equated with lowliness and shamefulness and was to avoided at all costs.

The rabbis taught their people to be humble which was seen as a necessary virtue for the help of God now and in the future. The New Testament writers saw humility as a sign of the kingdom of God. God regarded the low estate of Mary, the mother of Jesus. John the Baptist lived humbly and simply and his preaching "brought every mountain and hill low." Jesus was "gentle and humble in heart" and blessed those followers who were meek.

Several times in the Bible, we are told to humble ourselves before God and He will lift us up. At the end, the humble will be exalted and the proud put down.

Humbling yourself or being humbled by life or by God is not a matter of self abasement or false humility, its more like seeing yourself as you see others. Frederick Buechner wrote that humility is not thinking ill of yourself but thinking of yourself the way you think of anybody else.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Do We Need the New Testament?

John Goldingay (JG) is one of my favorite Old Testament teachers. He has a number of short commentaries on Old Testament books that are accessible for daily reading of the Scripture with comment by JG. He has written many other larger works, as well. He is sort of the NT Wright of Old Testament studies. Or the First Testament as JG prefers to call the Old Testament. He believes the OT has been neglected by the Christians. Ever since Marcion (influential leader of the early Church who didn't think we needed the OT) gave it a bad review the OT has had a hard time gaining traction among Christians. It remains like a very poor cousin of the New Testament. In JG's latest book, Do We Need the New Testament?, (how's that for a provocative title?) he wants the OT to get the respect it deserves. It should have been entitled, Why We Really, Really Need the Old Testament because right on page one of the text he admits we do, of course, need the New Testament! Of course, we do. But in the process of coming to that conclusion, he argues that we need the Old Testament just as much as we need the New. In fact, he says, we neglect the OT to our peril.

He makes the case that most Christians are closet Marcionites. We have the NT and we don't really know why we still need to read the OT except to mine it for Sunday School stories about the heroes of the faith. We may not admit it but we probably believe that the God of the OT is a god of wrath and we need the NT Jesus to balance that account as the God of Love. We probably believe the OT has examples of God's people hating their enemies (and killing them) while the NT teaches us to love our enemies. Most likely we believe the NT teaches us grace whereas the OT is all about the law. The OT used animal sacrifice to pay for our sins and set us right with God over against the NT which shows us Jesus paying for our sins. There is no more need for sacrifice, or the law or a priesthood. Isn't the what the book of Hebrews teaches? We may think the OT is mostly for ethnic Jews while the mission of the NT is take the gospel to all people. Most importantly, now we know we have direct access to God through Jesus instead of going through that whole OT religious system.

If we believe any of those things, we need to read this book because JG will prove us wrong.

And additionally, he will show us how our worship, prayers, social justice ministries, mission enterprises, and politics need to be informed by the OT. In a word, JG believes Christians have misread the OT (if indeed they have read it) and it shows.

There are some points I would argue with JG about but I think it is mostly a matter of semantics and where he puts the emphasis. JG's passion for the OT comes across in this book and I hope it rubs off on many of us in the Church.