Thursday, July 30, 2009

When Being Fed Is More Than Food

This week's scriptures are Psalm 78:23-29 and John 6:24-35.

I hope that you'll read Jeremy's blog below before you read this one. I found his blog amazing in a number of ways; one of which is that it is such a wonderful lead in to what I'd like to talk about that it couldn't be better if we had planned it...and I assure you, we didn't.

The people in John's passage come looking for Jesus and are confronted with Jesus' statement that they are looking for the wrong thing. Phrases like "more than this" and "beyond the miracle" could easily be attached to our discussion. Jesus is inviting them, and us, to look beyond the 'important' to the 'imperative'.

This passage can remind us that we all too often fall prey to what C.S. Lewis called "Christianity And..." He described this as the situation when we get focused on Christianity as a way to some other goal; whether that goal is Feeding the Poor or Global Peace. Pretty soon we make Feeding the Poor our focus and Christianity just a way to get there.

Please don't get me wrong; I believe that feeding the poor is important and global peace a goal worth striving for. And my relationship with God in Christ leads me to work for both of these things. But listen to the word of the Psalm talking about the manna in the desert: "Mortals ate of the bread of angels," and "they ate and were filled. for God gave them what they craved."

Now look at Jeremy's description of his meal again. This is much more than food. It is, if we believe that "where two or three are gathered in My name, I am present" it is also a place where God is. It is a 'filling' that goes beyond food. Jesus invites you and me to more than world peace or feeding the hungry or rehabilitating the criminal or caring for our neighbors in West Virginia. Though each of these things can be an outgrowth of what Jesus offers us, the thing that we are offered is a relationship. This is the "bread of angels" it is "giving us what we crave" because it is in relationship with God that we are truly "filled."

This week's lectionary reading begins a series of weeks in which we're looking at Jesus talking about himself as bread. Let's explore this together as we think about what it means to be truly filled...truly "eat the bread of angels"...of those who live in the presence of God.

See you Sunday.

Georgian lessons

Hey there, folks,
I'm currently sitting in the very nice offices of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, just outside of northwest Tbilisi. I am more or less on Georgian time, but not "Georgian time" as I wake up very early compared to most Georgians in the city.

After arriving in the middle of the night on Wednesday, I woke up to a find myself at the foot of a huge mountain. The lack of hot water and the truly open door policy of Georgia in some ways reminds me of Kentucky, the home of my Leonard grandmother. Within 2 minutes of seeing an elderly woman outside my door, she waved to me to table filled with breakfast, set for one. I can't tell you how touching that was (and remains). We couldn't really speak to one another - I don't know Georgian and she doesn't know English. I didn't know that she was the mother of the Archbishop, and I don't think she knew who I was, really. But it didn't matter to her - she invited me into her home to eat. Embarrassed, I ran to get some blackberry jam I made and brought as a gift, small though it was. When she saw what it was and tasted it, she went and opened her own can of fruit preserves, which she spread on local bread (puri) and handed to me. We pointed at the food, gestured, spoke the few names I knew of her family (see, I was starting to catch on!) and I used my baby-like Russian and Georgian to "explain" what I was doing in Georgia. Mostly, we just laughed and smiled and ate (though it took some doing to get her to stop worrying about me and eat some herself).

Despite the language barrier, we were able to communicate through sharing, through actions. This relates to what should be a familiar message of community fellowship and reaching out to people we hardly know. It makes me think that sometimes, words get in the way. People who know me well know that I ask a lot of questions and am all for talking - but perhaps I should concentrate on more "engaged doing."

Just some thoughts from a member in Georgia!


Friday, July 17, 2009

Jesus' gut reaction

Passage: Mark 30-34, 53-56

I was hoping I would be able to post earlier this week but life has been busy.

We all have weeks when we yearn to withdraw into a quiet place with Christ and rest away from the noisy crowd with its odd demands and ever-pressing needs. And yet, those needs press in just as much in the quiet of the wilderness as in the busy city, office, or home. It is as if need runs ahead of us and meets us at the next shoreline, stoplight, or front door. So often my response to need is to hide behind the words of Christ, the poor you will always have with you… There is so so much need. What difference could I make in a world where few people never earn more than a dollar a day, and most of them make much less? What is the point of wearing myself out when those suffering in the death-grip of HIV-AIDS still have no hope of recovery, or the child forced to carry a gun in the Sudan will have nothing to return home to but misery, starvation, and violence?

And then Jesus sees the crowd. Any thoughts of rest are pushed aside in the face of overwhelming need. He is moved with compassion. I like that phrase. In the Greek the word is “splagch-nizo-mai” (σπλαγχνίζομαι) and it literally means that Jesus had a painful feeling in his intestines when he saw the crowd. He saw the crowd and instead of getting back in the boat and going on to a more secluded place his physical reaction was to give these poor, lost, hungry sheep the shepherd their existence yearned for, even if they couldn’t collectively voice their specific need.

There is no way that we can ease the suffering of those we encounter tired and hungry, wandering like lost sheep in our world unless our “gut reaction” is that of Christ who offers (as he does in v.34-44) his Word to guide and his Body to feed and strengthen.

The people’s response in v. 53-56 reminds us that wherever we go there will be need. People are looking in every place and every way for the one thing that will meet their needs and calm their restless spirit. Augustine wrote to God that, “our heart is restless until it rests in You.” We live in a restless world. There are days when we will be overcome with the task at hand. I wish I had a handy remedy of psychological trickery to convince us all that there is no reason to get discouraged; there is no fool-proof mantra. I do see the example of Christ, though: going on before us, pained in his very core to see the need still at hand, and stopping at nothing to meet that need with the only remedy that will truly answer to the issue of human suffering in our world. That answer is his Word and his Body.

We have the Word with us always. We are his Body.

May Christ give us the faith to follow his lead.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Our Cast of Characters for this Week... Mark 6:14-29

Hello, all:

I had trouble unpacking this particular passage this week. On the surface it seems pretty cut and dried (maybe not the best phrase to use). I've decided to simply elaborate on some of the issues and leave an interpretation up to you the readers. Our Dramatis Personae in this passage consist of a weak king, a conniving wife, a perhaps not-so-innocent daughter, and an incarcerated prophet.

I’ll start with the king: Herod.
There are a handful of Herods in the Bible, and if you don’t keep track of them all they can get a little confusing. This particular Herod goes by the name Antipas. His father, Herod the Great (a relative term), was the King of Judea that tried to have Christ killed and necessitated the flight to Egypt. When the great Herod died the Roman senate split Judea up between Herod Antipas and his brother Archelaus. Herod Antipas got Galilee.

Things started going bad for Herod Antipas from the get-go. He married the daughter of an Arab king, but then left her for the wife of his half-brother. This made his father-in-law quite upset and he and Herod actually had a small war over the issue. Herod lost. So that’s our Herod. A weak ruler (he technically didn’t even have the title of king), in relatively backwards part of Judea, with a dominating wife, and with the all-seeing eye of Rome watching his every move.

Then there’s the wife: Herodias. She left her husband in Rome to be with a man of real power and position (comparatively). She and Herod never officially married, and it was common knowledge that their union was adulterous. Her dislike of John the Baptizer is understandable, since the prophet publically condemned Herodias and Herod on many occasions. Josephus tells us that after the death of John and the crucifixion of Christ Herodias convinced Herod to go to Rome and beg Caesar for the title of king. Herod went and Caesar Caligula banished Herod and Herodias both to Gaul. Though the stereotype of the strong-willed woman manipulating the weak ruler may be overused in literature, this is one time where it holds true. A lot of trouble would have been saved had both Herod and Herodias stayed faithful to their respected spouses.

Herodias’ daughter was Salome. Keep in mind that Salome was the daughter of Herodias and her real husband Philip. It removes the air of incestuous overtones, but doesn’t make the situation any less creepy when she dances for Herod and his court. Not much is known about Salome. She married well, and twice, but there’s no indication that she was the demonic temptress and nymphomaniac that 19th century literature has made her out to be.

And finally there’s the prophet: John the Baptizer. The most unsatisfying element of this story is that John is only mentioned as the object of Herodias’ revenge. No lines, no stage appearance, just a name off in prison until his execution.

It’s hard for me to unpack this; harder still because this story has some familiar parallels with a later story in the Gospels. I’m referring to the crucifixion. Let me spell it out: There is a nation/wife that has been unfaithful to her husband/king/God, and deeply resents the one sent from God to warn her away from sin and adultery. Rather than listen and repent she conspires with the local ruler. Now this ruler would rather not execute this prophet, because he knows that he is a righteous man, and from God, but Herod/Pilot gives in for the sake of his image, and the prophet/Christ is executed.

I’d give this story a happy ending and some slick personal application notes, but the happy ending will have to wait until after the other execution later in the text, and I’m sure Steven will make the application clear this Sunday.

Until then muse on human nature, our own tenacity to hide and preserve our sin, and the hope of Christ who was, and is, and is to come.