The Taste of Cherries--November 22, 2021
Sunday, November 21, 2021
The Taste of Cherries--November 22, 2021
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
An End to Flags--November 18, 2021
"I saw one like a human being, coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed." [Daniel 7:13-14]
It's for everybody. That great and promised Reign of God where all things are put right--it is, in the end, for everybody: for people from every nation, every tribe, every ethnicity, every language, and every people-group. In the end, all those lines we have been drawing between one another to keep each other out or keep ourselves divided will be erased, and all will be drawn into the encompassing claim of God's Reign over the whole creation. For whatever else that means, it sure as heaven tells me that our present-moment experience of being sorted into different squabbling nations, states, and parties with their own allegiances and loyalties will not be the end of the story. There will come an end to our divided humanity. There will come an end to our various flags.
The biblical writers, like the visionary speaking here in the book of Daniel, aren't upset or outraged by that claim--they are hopeful about it. They see it as a sign of God's ultimately victory, and of the promise that God will gather all peoples together in the coming of Messiah--the promised "anointed one" who would reign, not merely as king of Israel or Judah, but would gather in all nations, in all their variety and diversity, into a new dominion that would last forever. Christians have for two thousand years now pinned our hopes on the conviction that Jesus is that Messiah, and that his way of bringing about this universal Reign of God doesn't have anything to do with imperial armies conquering their foes but with a cross and empty borrowed tomb. Our deepest hope, one sustained for countless generations before us, is of a coming day when our old divisions are set aside, even if we remain different in appearance, language, and culture, and where we no longer need to rally around competing banners, teams, parties, sides, or nationalities.
To be sure, there's a certain kind of limited unity you can have when you've got a flag in common--but it's always dependent on having somebody else to see as an outsider. "To be on the Blue Team means you're not on the Red Team!" To belong to one nation means you have to see others as enemies, opponents, and competition--their success means your failure, and your victory means their defeat. We've been dividing ourselves under different banners and along different lines forever, we humans. Sometimes the threat to outsiders (those with different flags) is subtle and implicit--sometimes it's outright nasty. In the days of the American Civil War, for example, you not only had Union armies marching under the Union flag (what we would call the American flag today) and the Confederate flag marching under their colors, but you had a number of instances of Confederate-sympathizing families who would fly a "black flag" from their poles as a sign to strangers that they were not only not welcome, but would be given "no quarter" and would be killed on sight if you came to their door. It wasn't merely a symbol of one team or side rather than another--it was a outright declaration that if you weren't of "their kind" they would take no prisoners but only ruthlessly kill those who came near. It is a sobering thing to see the return of such black flags in yards once again, I confess. Heaven help us.
All of this is to say that our hope as Christians has to be that at some point, somehow, God will be able to overcome the divisions that have set us drawing lines between each other and seeing our siblings as enemies to be defeated since Cain first rose up against Abel. Our hope is not that one day there will be an American section of heaven, kept separate from Kenyan heaven or Indonesian heaven or Colombian heaven. Neither is our hope that only people from one nation will be there (we Americans tend to assume it will only be Americans, of course). Our hope has to be big enough to dare to imagine that at the last, God's Reign gathers in all those disparate groups and makes us one in serving God's good purposes sharing in the common humanity we have as people made in the image of God in the beginning.
In Dr. King's words, "God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and in the creation of a society where all [people] can live together as [siblings], where every [one] will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality." For King, of course, that vision of a future Beloved Community shaped actions now--the goal of combatting racism and segregation, for example, was not only to free Black Americans held down by Jim Crow, but also to free White Americans who were trapped in the soul-distorting role of looking down on their neighbors. The goal of the Beloved Community isn't to have one group prospering in wholeness at the expense of the other, but for each to be freed from the various ways we are disfigured by enmity and hostility. In other words, we are called to work for the good of all, even those who have cast themselves as your enemy, because we dare to believe that at the last those lines between us will not hold, and our various banners will be set aside.
If our lives as Christians are aimed toward a future with that kind of hope--where Christ is Lord of all and draws all peoples, nations, and languages together in a renewed creation--then it will change our priorities and cut away our pettiness between one another. It will mean we begin to picture a life without having to see "the other" as "the enemy." It will mean we dare to believe that even the folks we have the hardest time getting along with are still beloved of God and will be included in the reach of God's Reign. Ultimately, to hope for Jesus' kingdom will mean we will lower whatever black flags we have been flying from our hearts and burn them to ash, and instead to see the people God sends across our paths today, not as "enemy" or "threat," but as people whom Christ, the "one like a human being," is gathering alongside us in the infinitely wide Reign of God.
There will come an end to flags in the end--thank God.
Lord Jesus, gather us together in your love for all peoples, and help us to live now in ways that anticipate your Reign that includes all nations and languages.
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Monday, November 15, 2021
Why He's Worthy--November 16, 2021
"To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen." [Revelation 1:5b-6]
The usual thinking says you only get to be in charge if you are a winner, that it is victory over your opponents that makes you the rightful authority. In the old days of kings and queens with squabbling factions and armies, you knew who was the sovereign by looking for who was left standing after they faced off in battle or a duel between contenders. In other, perhaps less-respectable chapters of history, you took the throne by assassinating your predecessor or launching a coup to overthrow whoever was in charge before. Even in our time and place, we still have a system based on winning--although our approach has something to do with elections rather than bloody battles, at least theoretically. We may use the polling place as the site of the conflict now, but there is still ruthless strategy about whose votes will get to count, how to arrange the field in the favor of your "side," and how to keep as many of your opponents' supporters from being counted. We are so used to defining the qualifications for being in charge in terms of "defeating the other guy" that we probably have a hard time even imagining that there could be any other way. How else would one decide who is qualified to be the ruler, unless they have shown themselves to be a winner?
But Jesus is different--and the early community of his followers understood that. The community that handed the book of Revelation onto us understood that Jesus' kind of kingship is completely different. It's not derived from a victory on a battlefield where he killed his enemies--my goodness, there's not even a hint of Jesus zapping his foes in the name of "self-defense." Jesus doesn't conquer any enemy lands or assassinate would-be competitors. He doesn't even appeal to winning more votes than his opponents (after all, Rome's promise of "bread and circuses" always had mass appeal). What makes Jesus worthy of "glory and dominion forever and ever" is... his self-giving love.
Notice that: the writer of Revelation gives praise to Jesus--and counts him worthy of being Lord of all creation--not because of looking like a "winner" at all, but because he was willing to lose everything for our sake. It is because he "loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood"--that is to say, it is the choice to lay down his own life for ours that makes Jesus Lord. It is Jesus' willing to lose--to lose big and to lose it all--all the way to a borrowed grave, that makes him the rightful sovereign of God's upside-down kingdom. It is what Frederick Buechner called "the magnificent defeat" of the cross--where Jesus doesn't kill his enemies or even escape their grasp with his life, but dies at their hands for their own sins--that makes Jesus king.
In a culture like ours that sees everything--literally everything, it seems--as a competition to be won or lost, and that certainly still thinks of leadership in terms of "defeating the other guy" (rather than--gasp!--the notion of "who can build consensus"), Jesus is beautifully subversive. He brings about God's Reign, where the last are first, the nobodies are treated as somebodies, and the arrogant and proud are taken down a few pegs, and he does it without having to defeat somebody else on a battlefield. It is his love that makes him worthy, and it is that same self-giving love that has grabbed hold of us, motley crew that we are, and made us into his kingdom.
What would it look like if we stopped seeing things in terms of who we can defeat or who we have to overpower in order to look strong? What could happen if we no longer had the impulse to have to look tough or threatening or intimidating to anybody else? And what might happen if we defined a leader's authority, not in terms of who they can "win" against, whether by percentages of polls or weapons drawn, but in terms of how they give themselves away in love for all? How will we be changed by giving our allegiance to Jesus, who doesn't think in terms of killing others to save his own skin, even when faced with enemies who want to kill him? And how will we be different because we confess the crucified rabbi Jesus as Lord of the universe, not in spite of the cross, but exactly because of it?
Go... be different. Let the strange sovereignty of the King who reigns from a cross make you stand out from a world bent on "winning."
Lord Jesus, shape us in the likeness of you kind of kingdom, where love leads us to lay our lives down for others rather than taking life to preserve our own.
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Jesus the Truth-Teller--November 15, 2021
"Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth." [Revelation 1:4b-5a]
This coming Sunday the church does a wonderfully provocative thing: we confess and celebrate Christ Jesus as King, exactly because he looks nothing like the powerful, privileged, and politically potent people. It is actually one of the reasons I find practices like the church's liturgical year (so often treated as just "too confusing" or "outmoded and irrelevant to what people want these days") to be exactly what we need. We desperately need the reminder, constantly, that the real and true ruler of the kings of earth doesn't coerce, doesn't threaten, and doesn't carry a weapon, much less rattle a saber. He just keeps telling the truth.
That is such a beautiful and strange notion, isn't it? That Jesus is worthy of our allegiance and praise, not because he is louder than others, or because he dominates and crushes others, but because he is "the faithful witness"--the One who just keeps telling the truth about things, and who lets that truthfulness be enough to win the day. It is amazing to me that the early church, threatened as it was by the brute military force and relentless propaganda machine of Rome, recognize that Jesus triumphed over the Empire by refusing to play by its rules. He simply kept on speaking, and doing, and embodying, the truth, even when it got him into trouble with the authorities. And that relentless truth-telling, that insistent honesty about ourselves and about God that was Jesus' way of showing his true authority.
Jesus is the one, after all, who doesn't go toe-to-toe with the Romans by riding into the Capital City on a white horse like the occupying Roman governor would have--he borrows an ornery donkey and mocks the puffed-up pageantry of the Empire as he does it. Jesus is the one who doesn't bargain or threaten or yell when he is on trial before Pontius Pilate. There are no whipped-up tears from Jesus on trial before Pilate, nor does Jesus go railing on a tirade trying to force his way on others in the name of national unity. Jesus' sole weapon is to tell the truth, and his willingness to bear in his body the costs of telling that truth. That is decidedly un-king-like--and that is exactly why we confess this "faithful witness" as "ruler of the kings of earth."
We live in a time when truth-telling seems awfully rare, or naive to believe in. In a time like ours when you can choose whose version of the facts you want to listen to, and thereby remove yourself from ever having to hear anything unpleasant or that runs counter to the narrative you want to tell yourself, it seems awfully weak to insist that the truth matters. In a time when we easily confuse "complaining from a place of privilege" with "telling it like it is," it sometimes feels like we don't really care about who is being honest--just who sounds the most incensed and angry. In a time when we often feel like courts and courtroom antics are more about putting on a convincing show than about getting at justice, it can feel hopelessly naive to believe in the power of a "faithful witness" rather than the power of the violent to cast themselves as victims. And in a time when folks get headlines for insisting they should be able to impose their particular religion on everybody (while claiming to name the name of Jesus), it seems incredibly counter-cultural actually to follow the way of Jesus, which doesn't coerce or threaten or cajole. He just tells the truth...
It's worth sitting a while with this idea, I think. What makes Jesus different from the echo chambers and spin-doctors of our time, as well as the Roman military-and-propaganda complex of the 1st century is that he is utterly committed to the truth, at whatever cost it brings. One of the ways we get better at learning the way of Jesus, then, is actually to practice truth-telling, and with it, truthful listening, to others. It will mean we make the attempt intentionally to get outside the echo chambers of our consumer-chosen news and media bubbles, to listen to voices that we know will challenge us. It will mean we find the courage to admit where we were wrong, or where something we thought at first turned out not to hold water after all. It will mean we are willing to learn from people we didn't think could teach us anything... and also to be able to see places in ourselves where our thinking is less than solid.
Of all the titles we church folk ascribe to Jesus--King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Mighty God, Savior, Healer, Great Physician, and the like--maybe today is the day to recover and to think about the way the ancient community that gave us the book of Revelation saw Jesus: as "faithful witness" who was, by virtue of that relentless truth-telling, worthy of being ruler of the kings of the earth. What would it look like today for us to be people committed to embodying the truth like Jesus?
Let us dare it today.
Lord Jesus, let us embody your way of telling, and of doing, the truth, in love.
Thursday, November 11, 2021
A Graceful Goodbye--November 12, 2021
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free; and if he comes in time, he will be with me when I see you. Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy send you greetings. Grace be with all of you." [Hebrews 13:22-25]
Grace gets the last word. That seems right.
Seven months ago--to the day, actually--we began this journey through the book we call "The Letter to the Hebrews." And now, coming to the final few parting notes our anonymous author is making as he closes his "brief" (thirteen chapters!) message, the last of the last things to be said is to speak grace to them. And, perhaps just as appropriately, grace is also the most certain of all the things spoken in these last moments.
It's funny to me in a way how we've gotten to know something of this author, the unnamed writer of this book, and to learn how his mind works, what is important to him in his understanding of the faith, and what he wants us to carry with us--and yet we don't even know his name. That's pretty unusual for the New Testament. With most of our books in the New Testament, we have at least some hint of a tradition of who wrote them, or who was a source, or who was remembered in connection with them. Tradition connects the gospels with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Paul signs his letters and has a distinctive style to his writing. Even the fever dream we call the Book of Revelation gives us the name of the dreamer, whom we know as John the Seer. But this book just got right to a running start without even so much as a "Hi, I'm Apollos (or James or Bartholomew or Priscilla), and I'd like to share some of my thoughts with you." We don't know who wrote this book which which we've been engaged in reflection for more than half a year!
And for that matter, we don't know much more about the details he references in these closing sentences. We can guess from the allusion that "Timothy has been set free" that this could be the same Timothy who shows up from time to time in other New Testament letters, although that would be another educated guess rather than solid fact. We can guess that "set free" implies he had been imprisoned for his faith, especially since this book spent so much time talking about being willing to suffer for our faith. But beyond that? We're just speculating who the recipients are, and who their "leaders" might be, as well as who the folks in Italy are who are sending their greetings. We call this book the letter "to the Hebrews," but that's not because we have the original mailing address on the envelope--it's just a guess that the readers of this book would have been thoroughly immersed in the ritual and scriptural traditions of Israel, because the anonymous author assumes they know what he is talking about. But we don't even know where those readers were--Jerusalem? Galilee? Damascus? Some synagogue in a small town now lost to memory? We just don't know.
So... we don't know who wrote the book, or to whom he or she wrote specifically. We don't know where either sender or receiver were located, or the exact group of people around them as they wrote and read what we now have in our hands. But we do know this--grace gets the last word. The end of the book, the very last sentence, speaks God's grace--God's freely given goodness--into the lives of "all" the people the book was sent to. That is solid. That is certain. That is more than a speculation.
I think there's something fitting about letting that be our ending point in this series, too. There's very little you and I might know about each other, from where I am writing to where you are reading, or what other troubles and joys are going on in your life right now. Even when we see one another face to face, we often have only the smallest glimpse of what others around us are going through but don't share below the surface.
But what we do have for certain is grace. What you can depend on, even when you don't know much about me, is the gift of grace that doesn't come from me, but from God. And God's way of being extravagantly generous to us apart from our earning or deserving is something you and I can depend on. Grace is a good place for us to leave things for now, because it's the one thing we can count on, in a world full of uncertainties.
So, at least as far as this devotional series in Hebrews goes, we are at the end of one journey, with another new one to start again in a new week. But for this moment's good-bye, let's part ways as our unnamed friend in this book has done, as well. Grace be with you all. Always.
Lord God, give us your grace, wherever we are, and whatever our needs. And let that be enough.
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
The Velveteen Benediction--November 11, 2021
"Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen." [Hebrews 13:20-21]
It's about so much more than we usually settle for. The Christian life, that is. We have a way of zeroing in on just one part of a bigger whole and missing just how big a promise, and how deep a gift, is given to us through Jesus.
Because in the end, the Good News is really about being made whole... complete... fully ourselves and fully alive. It is about all of us becoming Really Real, so to speak.
Far too often, you hear the Christian faith either reduced to a matter of post-mortem fire-insurance (how to get to heaven when you die) or made into a pawn of political parties who aim to get more voters and dollars to support their platform by casting themselves as the "godly" choice. But when you hear the writer of Hebrews talk about it, you see the Christian message is about so much more than getting into a celestial country club after you die or winning political power in this life. It is about how all of us become wholly holy, how we are made complete and thus more fully alive.
I can't help thinking, then, about that beautifully wise passage from The Velveteen Rabbit about how the toys of the play room become Real. You probably know that speech of the Skin Horse to the title character. When the Velveteen Rabbit asks about how to become real, and whether it happens all at once or slowly, the veteran voice of the play room says, "It doesn’t happen all at once.... You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand." And of course, that's just it--it is Love that makes you beautiful, Love that makes you really Real, Love himself that makes you finally, at last, complete.
That's what we are aiming for in this life, as well as in the life beyond the grip of death. We are seeking to be whole at last. Complete. Really real. That is so much more than just making sure we've reserved a spot in heaven, or leveraged our piety for political points. It is what life itself is really all about. That's what the writer of Hebrews blesses us with here--he calls on the living God to make us "complete" all the way down to our actions and choices in every day. He doesn't stop with wishing, "May God let you into heaven when you die," or "May God help you fight a culture war and take back your country in the name of your religion," or any such rubbish. He gives us a benediction of wholeness: that we would become--even if it takes a long time, as the Skin Horse cautions it might--Really Real.
In the end, however, becoming Really Real isn't so much about our effort to rack up brownie points with God or accrue political capital with a base of voters. It's about what Love does to us--how Love makes us to become most fully ourselves. We should be prepared, then, to have Love reshape us, into the likeness of Love himself, Jesus. Our sharp edges will be worn down, and most of our hair will have been loved off, to borrow the Skin Horse's way of talking, as God's own hands hold us and mold us and bring about a new creation within us. We will find our own selfishness and bitterness worn down. We will find our capacity for love and empathy strengthened. We will find that the things which never really mattered have all been stripped away. And instead we will be the kind of creations God has meant for us to become all along--fully alive, fully loving, and fully beloved.
When I think about what the point of being a Christian is these days, that's what captures my faithful imagination. I don't think about, "How to get to the VIP room in the afterlife?" and I sure as heaven don't think about, "How can I leverage my religion to score political points and get my party more raw power or influence?" Rather, I find myself like the Velveteen Rabbit, longing to be Really Real, and convinced that the love of God in Christ Jesus is making me just that--what I have been meant to be all along.
That's worth giving my life to, as far as I can tell. That's how we become whole... complete... real.
Lord Jesus, make us as Really Real as you are, shaped by your cruciform love.