Sunday, August 25, 2013

Straightening that which is bent over

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
that one day (right there in Alabama) little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom (to) ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The above quoted words are segments of the great “I Have A Dream Speech” by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., heard by about quarter of a million civil rights supporters; spoken in the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., back in August 28, 1963.

They were powerful words, very apropos in a time that reeked with bigotry, racism and social injustice. They were words of yearning and of hope, coming from a people whose preoccupations in life seemed to hinge on the hope that some form of recognition of their human dignity would be the norm of the day.

Those were very “prophetic” words that continue to find relevance in our time and are so reflective of our calling as a church being sent into the world to bring the gospel of salvation. Those are words that need to be re-echoed in our time and in the spirit of our missional character in order to bring about a paradigm shift from an assault to human dignity into an appreciation of the image of God that is in all of us.

It is with frame of mind that I now invite you to consider two of our lectionary readings for this 14th Sunday after Pentecost and look at a way where we can possibly relate to it.

Our Old Testament Reading (Jeremiah 1:4-10) talks about the calling of Jeremiah to be a prophet for God. Prophets, as a distinctly “gifted” people, are erroneously thought of as the ones who could see what the future looks like. A good example is Nostradamus and his predictions or “prophesies”. This is a common misconception that continues to be coaxed in the world of entertainment and superstition.

They are not, however, what biblical prophets are supposed to be. In the Old Testament sense, prophets were individuals who had a divine calling; called by no less than Yahweh and whose intended mission was to speak on God’s behalf.

By Jeremiah’s time, there had been several prophets and each had a remarkable, challenging career. Their vocation as medium of God’s prophecies was a tough calling, so much so, that Jeremiah didn’t think he qualified.

Notice where he based his hesitation to heed his calling; it’s on his young age – Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Perhaps Jeremiah had seen how the prophets in his time faired in their special calling on God’s behalf and how they would get in harm’s way and that just scared him. Or perhaps, Jeremiah had, indeed, quite a limited understanding of who were qualified to do such a huge task. He most likely have thought that only the seasoned ones could do it; only those whose lives were impeccable. This might have been a plausible basis for his refusal – but not with God. God didn’t buy it.

Here’s what God, instead, said: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

These words must have been the turning point for Jeremiah’s paradigm shift. God assured Jeremiah that there’s more to it than just his youthful appearance. After all, God does not look at the external qualifications when He makes His call.

Jeremiah was called by God not only to be a spokesperson for God’s good news but also “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” His mission included that of being the carrier or messenger of God’s corrective measures; to do what it takes so that something right can begin to happen. It could be a painful tearing down or a plucking up so that something new and something fresh can begin to happen; so that a new life could be had, however high the cost might be.

It is in this juncture where the main character in our Gospel lesson takes it to a higher level.

Jesus, according to our Gospel for today (Luke 13:10-17), was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. It was one of those gatherings where people listened to what someone had to say about the Scripture. It was there that a “bent over” woman appeared and Jesus noticed this woman. She didn’t ask for anything but Jesus went up to her and spoke the words of healing: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 

And then he touched this woman. Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. She was freed from her 18 yr. old ailment; freed from her limited vision, considering that she was constantly looking down at her feet for all those years. She was liberated from a form of social oppression as she ranked among others whose physical deformities were thought to be the outcome of their sins or their utter disobedience from God.

Not everyone present, however, viewed with gratitude such a remarkable restoration not only in terms of posture but also of gaining a new perspective. Unfortunately, It was viewed from a very myopic lens. This was demonstrated in the protest of the synagogue leader, who, in his overindulgence on the man-made interpretation of the Mosaic Law on Sabbath, failed to see the bigger picture of how a new life has just been awarded. The synagogue leader needed to have his paradigm shift; to broaden his interpretation of the Mosaic Law away from the rigid and almost absolute stance. His protest that “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” needs to shift to an affirmation that the bent over woman’s healing and restoration could happen, as it did, even on a Sabbath day.

Lest we get judgmental on the religious leader, it should be noted that he was not really mean-spirited; he was just trying to champion his cause for obedient faithfulness. But so was Jesus. They both wanted the Sabbath to be observed, but they were not on the same page on how to keep it. Jesus says the time for salvation isn't tomorrow; it's right now, no matter what day it is.

Notice that in the call of Jeremiah, God said: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” God did not say: “OK, Jeremiah, you’re going to do all this but make sure you don’t do it on the Sabbath.” Also, notice that in the case of the bent over woman, it took place in a synagogue and on a Sabbath.  So, just maybe, the Sabbath might be the perfect time for healing and the church become a good place from which to initiate such healing.

My dear friends in Christ, we are the church and we have a mission; we have a ministry to do. It’s our “Prophetic Ministry” and as in Jeremiah’s case, we too are “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

If we are called to be engaged in our prophetic ministry, then we need to do it the way Jesus did it. Both the stories of Jeremiah in his call to be a prophet and the one concerning the bent over woman give us a model of what it means to be the church - the Body of Christ.

We profess that we are the church, the body of Christ that God uses to further His ultimate wish for the Creation He has made.

Our mission then should include the plucking up and the pulling down, the destroying and the overthrowing, in order to build and to plant.” Our mission should include the straightening and the aligning of things that had been bent over by human sin. Our mission is to be the hands and arms of the Great Physician Jesus Christ, the Lord. We become the medium or the conduit through which some restoration and new beginning could take place. Our mission should include looking around us for those who are still “bent over” and pressed down and there are more than a few out there. All we need is to open our eyes and more importantly our hearts for though we may see something worth our attention sometimes our hearts prevail in our denying of them the healing so badly needed.

Let us remind ourselves that our mission should not be bound by man-made parameters, even by those made in the name of religion.

 It is also my prayer that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. would find fulfillment and complete realization. Until that happens, we, through the exercise of our prophetic ministry, ought to promote such dream until all God’s people shall have been freed from their seemingly endless “bending over”. Then shall that song resound once more: “Free, at last. Free, at last.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Division. Division. Division."

Almost always, whenever we read passages or parables from the Gospels, we come away feeling uplifted, inspired or comforted.

Whether it would be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he says “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” or one of his incredible miracles like the healing of the leper or when he wept upon learning of the death of his friend Lazarus or of the embrace of the loving father in the story of the Prodigal Son – these texts and many more like them usually make us feel good about being followers of Jesus, and consequently make us hopeful that in the end, everything will be ok, that the world will be ok, that we will be ok.

That’s the common feeling we have when we leaf through stories in any of the four canonical gospels. But then, every once in a while, we encounter a passage that is quite unsettling – almost puzzling, just like the one we just heard proclaimed.

Regardless of the theological stance that attract us; meaning, whether we tend to be traditional, bible driven and evangelical as opposed to being progressive, radical or liberal, to say the least, quite often, the image we have of Jesus is one of peace, love, compassion, forgiveness, etc.

This image of kindness and love and mercy gets translated in Hallmark images, for example, as the Jesus whose eyes, often blue in color, penetrate your inmost being; an image often used to portray what a loving son of God we have. The Good Shepherd, particularly the Mormon version, is a good example of what I am talking about. And as I said, this is what we commonly imagine Jesus to be.

And yet, in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is being portrayed quite differently especially in line with the unsettling things that come out of his mouth. He appears to be mean-spirited.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

And then he continues on citing personal instances on how that “division” is played out. “Father against son, son against father; mother against daughter, daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

Although, that last one we can all understand. Right? Just kidding. But seriously, those are some pretty serious and disturbing things coming from the mouth of Jesus.

And so we wonder what exactly is Jesus talking about, and why does it not sit well with us if it is really what God wants to reveal to us?

I don’t know about you folks but I like an “Amazing Grace” kind of moment; comforted with the assurance that a “wretched” like me is saved. It’s the kind of assurance I get when He tells me: “Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I’m sure you too would like a happy and joyful and serene kind of relationship when you attempt to commune with the Holy.

Obviously that’s not the feeling I get in seeing Jesus paint a much different picture of how things are going to be. And if I’m being totally honest, I must say that I really don’t like the image Jesus is placing in my mind.

But that’s just me. I know that Jesus uses a variety of means in calling people to holiness with which he instructs his followers in ways where to base their discipleship. Sometimes he chooses stories or parables. At other times, he teaches through concrete examples of forgiving, feeding, accepting, understanding, and healing.  Often, he simply uses words of comfort and kindness and mercy. But once in a while he says the tough things to his disciples; giving it to them “straight” to their face and probably so they won’t misunderstand what he is saying. And I think, this passage is a good example.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Division! What a negative word! Indeed, it usually conjures a lessening of number; a disharmony of relationships; an inducement to the setting of barriers and walls and its derivative, exclusivism.

Quite often, we get tempted to follow this line of reasoning and simply focus on the “division” aspect of this passage. When we do that, we miss out on what might be the main theme of Jesus’ message. We eventually become a bit unsettled on how to reconcile these two camps. On the one hand, we dismiss it as simply too “un-Jesus” like. On the other, we end up wondering what really is this all about.

So, here’s my take on that. Early in this passage, Jesus tells his disciples something that can help shed light on what this saying is all about.  He tells them: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Setting the earth on fire! Wishing it’s ablaze! It’s no longer just merely “kindling” but “blazing”. Think about that for a moment.  Jesus wants to set the earth on fire. What in the world does that mean?

When we think of fire, many of us see it as a tragedy, as something having gone wrong, as a destructive force that leaves virtually nothing in its path.

Those of you who had been to Reno or parts of Colorado and Arizona, must have seen grim reminders of the devastation that fire has caused in those areas. There were huge losses, acres and acres of land and countless property structures destroyed including human lives. Indeed, fire could visit us as a destructive force that renders those in its path devoid of forms of life.

I’m sure Jesus knew what havoc fire could cast upon us. But he saw something else that made him declare he wanted to set the earth on fire. He knew that fire not only destroys but it also has a transformative character! 

It is a fire like those forest fire in parts of the Sierras or Colorado or Arizona that clears out old growth and decaying trees but then, it also makes room for new ones.

And it is a fire like the fires deep within the earth of the Big Island in Hawaii which burst from the earth with terrible force and fury, but which also ultimately brings about new land, new life, and new possibilities.

It is like the fire used in metallurgy that wonderfully transforms seemingly useless fragments of ore into things of great beauty and usefulness. And it is like the fire within each human heart, a fire that is fueled by the living God within; a fire which continually creates anew every person who is open to it.

However, like the forest fire, the volcano, and the forge, the transforming fire of God does not always manifest itself in calm, gentle, soothing ways.  It’s quite the opposite. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he’s not calling us to something static or some kind of a detachment from the world. He calls us to something very demanding!

You see, when Jesus calls us to discipleship he calls us to a very arduous, taxing and challenging venture. There is always a cost to discipleship, always something that we need to let go of in order to live a life of faith – a life in which God’s Spirit continually pours forth from all who respond to the grace God so freely gives.

When we talk of how “costly” discipleship could get, we only have to look at the cross to know that doing the right thing, doing the loving thing, does not mean that life will be easy or simple or without difficulties.

In our Old Testament from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read of the Lord’s vineyard and His frustration about its harvest; producing wild grapes rather than the best. After all, God has set up His vineyard with all the best that He could think of. This passage alludes to the challenges needed to be met in order to produce the much-desired harvest. That, as the image suggests, needs a lot of work!

And that’s just but one image of the challenge of discipleship. And yet, if we think about what is possible when we open ourselves up to the transforming fire of God, we most certainly will come to realize that it far outweighs whatever the cost; far outweighs whatever it is that we must surrender for the sake of God and his kingdom.

Jesus has come to “set the world on fire”. He wants us to “burn” off the decaying and dead brushes of our life. He looks forward to our new state of transformed life. But that might be a bit more than difficult to do. And this is where the division will definitely come to play.

In the interplay of human relationships, as in between father and son, mother and daughter, including the extended relationships with in-laws, in all the interplay, there will be “division” especially when the demands of discipleship come into play. Responding to its demands would mean letting go of the decaying brushes and trees and Jesus wishes it’s already happening in your lives. He is wishing it were already ablaze!

My dear friends in Christ, are we ready to face the challenges of discipleship? Are we ready to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us”? Are we ready to let Christ “set on fire” the earth we have been grounding ourselves so there could be growth and new life and new opportunities? Are we ready to face “division” and are we willing to stir the seeming placid waters of indifference and isolation?

These are scary personal questions but that’s what we get by claiming to be disciples of Jesus. That’s what the sign of the cross on our forehead at our baptism demands of us.

Fellow Christians, it is my prayer that each of us become the fuel God uses to make the world the beautiful place he created it to be.  And may we never fear the fire of God, but welcome it with open hearts.