Thursday, June 10, 2021

Grace Like the Rain--June 11, 2021

Grace Like The Rain--June 11, 2021

"Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for who it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.  Even though we speak in this way, beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation." [Hebrews 6:7-9]

The question is simply this:  what will do with the goodness God showers on us day by day?  What will we allow that grace to bring forth from us? And when we see noxious and pernicious weeds like hatred, greed, indifference, and just plain mean-ness growing up out of our hearts' soil, will we leave them to take over, or will we allow the hands of a good Gardener to root them out?

Our author here has painted a clever word-picture for us, and he has said something profound about God's grace in the process.  He talks about ground that gets sustained, reliable, plentiful rain, and how well-watered ground can bring up good plants (say, the sunflowers or tomatoes or corn that you planted), as well as giving rise to thistles and thorns.  The rain isn't a reward for good plants growing, but rather the gift of rain is given first.  From there, the question for the field you've tilled is, "What will come up out of the soil in response to the grace that falls like rain?"

Right off the bat, the order of things there should get our attention. We are so used to a world that thinks (and teaches us to think) in terms of transactions where good things only come as rewards for good behavior, rule-following, or productivity.  We are used to hearing things like, "If you produce well, God will reward you," or "If you all will be good little boys and girls, then God's grace will be given to you," because that's how so much of business-as-usual in our culture works.  But the writer of Hebrews turns that around and says we've been getting the cart before the horse--grace is poured out on us lavishly, like an afternoon rain shower in June, before the good plants or spiky weeds start poking their sprouts out of the ground.  Grace comes first!

And then the question becomes, what will we do with the grace God gives us day by day, moment by moment, all our live long?  It is possible that we will recognize how extravagantly and unabashedly we have been loved and respond by letting that same love blossom in us in our actions and words and practices toward others.  It is possible we will be moved to live in thanks and praise out of grateful awareness of how God loved us first.  It is possible we will let God's generosity bring forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and more from within us.  And it is also possible that we will waste such good gifts from God and become entitled, or self-centered, or hateful, or greedy.  We may let ourselves slide into thinking we're better than other people... or that we have earned our good things while others have just been lazy leeches.  We may think it's ok to hoard the good things God gives us rather than recognizing they are meant to share widely and deeply with others.  God takes the risk, so to speak, that we will be selfish jerks rather than humble and decent neighbors to the people around us.  God takes the risk that we will misunderstand divine goodness and think it is something we have earned with our religiosity rather than received apart from our behavior.  God takes the risk that we will turn our focus toward getting more, accumulating more, dominating more, and hoarding more, rather than on trusting that God will provide what we need and living with open hands to share.  This is the divine gamble in God's choice to lavish goodness on us all prior to our bearing fruit for good or ill.  Like Jesus says, "God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous alike, and is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked as well as the well-behaved people."

Jesus, of course, does not think this is a mistake on God's part, or a bad policy from heaven, but in fact the touchstone of God's heart: God's reckless and unconditional goodness.  It has to be given with the chance that we'll abuse it, waste it, or take it for granted--that's the nature of grace.  It has to be poured out like rain on us all, because that is the very nature of grace.

So... when we realize what sheer kindness and utter goodness we are given day by day in this world of beauty and possibility, the only question that remains is what we will do in response to the gifts that have been poured out upon us.  And where we see the first sawtooth leaves of some vicious thistle erupting out of our hearts, will we pull them out to make room for something good God is growing in us?

I hope so.  I hope you and I will recognize, too, that God is in the rain.

Lord God, weed out what is not planted by your love in us, and as you lavish your grace on us, let us respond with love, with thanks, with praise, and with goodness to all.

If It Takes Forever--June 10, 2021

If It Takes Forever--June 10, 2021

"For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt." [Hebrews 6:4-6]

Yes, it is a damn shame to have been given the awesome grace and infinite love of God and to shrug it off with indifference.

And yet at the same time, it is an amazing claim that the God of the universe chooses to be so persistent in loving us as to keep bearing the pain of our rejection, as often as we turn away.

This is the real scandal here, I think: Christians dare to confess that the Almighty, all-knowing, infinite and deathless Creator of the universe not only went to a shameful death on account of love for us once twenty centuries ago, but that this God continues to endure our rejection, even to this very day, when we shrug off the goodness of God like it doesn't matter.  The writer of Hebrews says it is like we are crucifying Christ all over again when we ignore the gift of his love for us.  And yet--and this is the thing that makes the Gospel so scandalous, I think--God willingly bears that kind of heartache for us, being vulnerable and risking that we will spurn God's self-giving love.

The gods of ancient mythologies aren't such gluttons for punishment.  The Greek gods were said to be immortal and lived in perpetual bliss, unable to experience suffering like humans.  The legend of Mithras had a death-and-resurrection thing going on, too, but it was a one-time event.  Even the famous legend of Odin from Norse legends, sacrificing himself to himself on the world-tree Yggdrasil, only lasted nine days--and led to the payoff for the Viking deity of learning the runes to control the world.  But a God who doesn't just die once on an imperial death stake but who permanently chooses to bear the contempt of being rejected by the very ones God chose to die for?  A God who loves recklessly and then takes the risk of us spitting in the face of that love because we think we can do better on our own, or because we think it looks "weak" or like God is a "loser" to love us so?  A God who loves us like children, only to have us take our inheritance and get lost in the far country, who stands on the front step every day with arms open and waiting, knowing that it will hurt to keep looking for us, but doing it anyway?  That kind of love boggles my mind--and yes, it is a terrible shame, once you realize that this is how you have been loved, to keep slamming the door in the face of the One who loves us so persistently.

Maybe that's what we need to take home most here today--that this is indeed how you and I are loved.  And when you have been deemed so precious, but then scorn the one who holds you so dear, well, that is a tragedy.  We don't have to let it be that way, though.  It makes no sense to keep turning away.  Our "No" doesn't have to be the last word.  In fact, it sounds from the Scriptures like the living God is determined that our rejection will not be the last word, but rather that God is committed to bearing the pain of our rejection for as long as it takes.  Like the song from the band OkGo puts it, "If you should be the last autumn leaf hanging from the tree... I'll still be here waiting on the breeze to bring you down to me.  And if it takes forever, forever it will be."

That's how you are loved, dear one--the living God is willing to bear the hurt of our rejection, determined to outlast our stony hearts. 

And if it takes forever... forever it will be.

Lord God, turn our hearts back to you where we are astray, and help us to stop shrugging off the infinite love you hold out for us.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

A Method to the Madness--June 9, 2021

A Method to the Madness--June 9, 2021

"[Therefore let us go on toward maturity, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation]: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits." [Hebrews 6:1-3]

If yesterday's devotion was intended to make the case for moving beyond the basics of our faith to deeper and more involved elements of it, today the writer of Hebrews is going to lay out what some of those elements might be.  And to be honest, at first blush, this list might just seem like a collection of random churchy ideas, picked at random.  But let's give our unnamed author the benefit of the doubt--let's start from the assumption that he has reasons for saying and choosing what he does here.  And maybe we'll find there is a method to this madness, and we'll find ourselves being led deeper into our own faith here and now.

For starters, once you know the love of God in Jesus--once we "get" it that we have been so loved as for God to come among us in the human life of this homeless rabbi who welcomed outcasts and healed the hurting--then a lot of other things come into focus.  For one, you realize you don't have to spend time trying to win this sort of God's favor--you've already got it!  You don't have to get God's attention or earn heaven points with your good behavior or religious rituals, and there are no merit badges to be awarded or won.  You are freed, then, from what the writer of Hebrews calls "dead works" and you are freed to life of trust in this God who is already so completely in love with you as to come into the world sharing our humanity to get through to us.  In other words, once we are grasped by the reality of God's love in Christ Jesus, we can quit trying to earn (dead works) the love that God has already given us for free--we can simply trust (faith) the God who promises we are already beloved.

Okay, but that sounds almost too good to be true, right?  I mean, how do I know I really am beloved?  How do I know I belong?  How do I know God's grace claims me, the real person, the actual individual, and not just some abstract group of "humanity in theory"?  Well, we need these tangible, touchable, experiential events in our lives where the promise of God is made available to our senses, as real and certain as the sound of splashing water and the touch of human hands.  In the early church and still today, we baptize and lay hands on people as tangible signs of the promise and power of God.  We don't baptize people because God somehow needs a ritual to be accomplished in order to stop hating us; we baptize because we need the assurance of the promise that God already loves us--we need a word so powerful you can feel it pouring all over you as well as hearing it spoken.  We don't lay hands on people at times of blessing, or prayer, or being set apart for a particular role and calling because our hands are magic and God needs the physical touch for a spell to be cast or power to flow; we need those signs of touch because we are physical beings whose lives are experienced in touch and feel as well as in words and ideas.  It's our need, not God's, that brings the physicality of the water and the laying on of hands. But in that gift of the tangible, we are given assurance that the promise of grace which can otherwise sound too good to be true is the real deal.

And then, once we know the reality of God's love, for all of us and for each of us personally in the waters of baptism and the laying on hands, our faith points us to the future.  The good news of Jesus moves like a story toward a culmination, and it insists that love wins in the end, because God wins in the end.  And so death doesn't get the last word--God does, and the word is resurrection.  And injustice doesn't go on forever--God promises to set all things right.  As scary as the phrase "eternal judgment" might sound, it's really simply the assertion that the bullies and blowhards of history don't rule the day forever.  It's the claim that the systems that harm people and the crookedness that seems rampant will not be in place forever, but will be set right, because God cares about justice and God is in the business of setting all things right.  It means that God does not simply look at the brokenness of the world and give up on us, nor does God just zap the universe out of spite--but God insists on there being justice, so that those who have been stepped on can be lifted up, so that those who are hungry can be fed, so that those who are puffed up in arrogance can be taken down a few pegs, and so that all our strained relationships can be restored.  Resurrection and justice are the future of this story--and because we know what God is like in Jesus, we can have confidence that God's justice is good, merciful, and restorative.

So even though at first, these phrases from Hebrews can sound disconnected or random, they all flow from a common center point: the goodness of God as we have seen God revealed in Christ.  Knowing Jesus, then, helps us to quit wasting our time trying to earn the love God has already given us for free. It helps us to know God's love is for each of us specifically, and not just in theory, as surely as you can feel the outpoured water on your head at the font.  And it helps us know we can entrust our lives and the world's future into the God who restores the lost, returns justice from crookedness, and raises the dead.

There was a method to the madness after all here.  Knowing Jesus helps shine a light to make sense of everything else in our lives, so that we can keep on putting one foot in front of the other and walking our way through this life in faith, in hope, and in love.

Lord Jesus, help us to make sense of our lives in light of who you are.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Holy Play--June 8, 2021

Holy Play--June 8, 2021

"Therefore let us go on toward maturity, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation..." [Hebrews 6:1a]

My son is a whiz at Lego creations.  A lot of nine-year-old boys are, frankly.  One thing I have noticed, as I have watched him growing up from a toddler just learning how those oversized Duplo block interconnect to being able to create intricate spaceships and battle scenes and vehicles and houses, is that while the basic principle of Lego creations is the same, the more advanced he gets, the more specialized the building and creating gets, too.  

Every Lego set is still basically the same physical action: pushing little plastic pieces together until they click together and hold. But when he was very young, those pieces were pretty basic in shape and color--they were pretty much all easily graspable rectangles in all the primary colors.  Now he's got sets with tiny little pieces, some smaller than an insect, and they interact and go together in all sorts of new ways.  His most recent sets can transform from airplanes to robots, or fire actual projectiles, or have secret compartments and lights that really light-up.  

Same basic concept of interlocking pieces?  Sure.  But is his Iron Man-themed Tony Stark workshop set with its many little figurines and spinning components the same as the old red and yellow block shapes from when he was four?  Not a chance.  

Now, if I ask my son if he would like to build Lego creations with me on a free afternoon sometime, he still gets excited about what we can make, and he's always challenging himself to make something new that he's never done before.  But if I tell him, "No, wait--let's just build these clunky rectangles into an even larger, clunkier rectangles," he'll be upset that I'm holding him back.  Even though advanced Lego sets are still a matter of putting pieces together, he's ready for more than the basics.

The writer of Hebrews wants us to be in the same state of mind.  There's never a point where we leave the essentials of Jesus' love behind as our faith deepens, just like there's never a point with Lego-construction where you aren't putting blocks together.  But as you grow in your ability, the ways the pieces come together can become a great deal more involved.  The same inner logic remains the same, but what it looks like takes on a million new intricate variations.  In a similar way, the way of Jesus continues to be the constant of our faith, but as we grow and deepen in that faith, we can come to see all sorts of new expressions of what our faith in Jesus looks like, and what it means.  We're still building--same as at the beginning--but what we can put together takes on greater depth and beauty the more we explore the way the pieces fit together.

I want to suggest that something like this is how our faith really works.  There is a certain amount of "play" to it--of faithful imagination, taking pieces and parts of the story, taking big ideas from the Scriptures, powerful prayers of the past, breathtaking visions of the prophets, and deep realizations from our own lives and the world in which we live, and putting them together with creativity and wonder.  The essence of it is the same and runs through all of our constructing like a constant--the God we have met in Jesus remains the same, just like putting bricks together is the constant feature of Lego construction--but there are lots of ways to explore and express what that looks like.  

And while it is perfectly appropriate for a preschooler to just work on the gross motor skills of putting one big clunky rectangle on top of another, it would somehow seem like a missed opportunity if you never let them grow into the more intricate and details sets of castles, spaceships, monorails, and cities.  The writer of Hebrews doesn't want to deprive us of the possibility of getting to that kind of wonder, as well.  He wants us to be able to see how the basic notions and understandings we come to early on in our faith lives connects to every area of our lives.  And it's true--taking the love of Jesus seriously is going to make ripple effects in every part of our lives.  Our faith in the God Jesus reveals will change how we think about our relationships to our possessions and to our neighbors, what we hope for in the future, and what gifts of God are given to us in the present moment as well.  Once we have the hang of the basic idea, we'll start making connections to everything in our lives, and indeed, everything in the world!

It's been said that ancient Hebrew doesn't have a word for "spiritual" (even though it has a word for "spirit"), because in the Hebrew mindset, there is nothing that isn't spiritual--that is to say, there is nothing that doesn't matter to God or have a component that connects with the divine.  Growing crops is a spiritual matter as well as physical labor, and so is raising children.  Singing a song of praise is a spiritual reality, and so is whispering to your beloved.  Each of them is a unique and new combination of the same core connection--love--that binds all the other pieces together:  God's love holding each of us in relationship with God, with each other, and with the universe.  And in that infinite variety of combinations we get a glimpse of God's own utter genius and artistry and love and goodness.  What a shame it would be if all we ever had was clunky rectangles in blue and green that could only become bigger rectangles.

So, let's allow the writer of Hebrews to take us into some of those other places he wants to show us.  Let's watch as he makes connections, perhaps in ways we had never thought of, to see how different parts of our lives and God's goodness combine and fit.  The usual phrase we have for all of that is "doing theology." But maybe it's just as true to call it holy play.

Lord God, stretch our faithful imaginations to see new combinations and connections of who you are and how we live in this day and beyond.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Seeing Below the Surface--June 7, 2021

Seeing Below the Surface--June 7, 2021

"But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil." [Hebrews 5:14]

You would think that telling the difference between good and evil is always clear and completely obvious, right?  I mean, they're opposites, for crying out loud--as starkly different as night and day, as wide a difference as north is from south, or east is from west!  

There's something really appealing about the idea that we will always (and easily) be able to distinguish between good and evil clearly.  We want to imagine, at least, that you should be able to spot the difference a mile away.  And all the classic westerns whose heroes wore white hats and whose villains wore black hates sure made us think that the world is like that--good always clearly demarcated with one color scheme, and evil with another.

And yet--a lot of times in life, it takes a skill developed by practice and wisdom to know how to discern what is really good, and what is merely dressed up to look the part.  We might think we would know how to tell the difference between day and night, but take a picture of a sunrise and a picture of a sunset, and unless you know which way is east or west, the images might look awfully similar.  And to be very, very truthful here for a moment, evil has a certain cleverness in its ability to present itself with the trappings of goodness, righteousness, and piety.  It often very explicitly claims the trappings of religion, and if we don't do the hard work of critical thinking, we'll fall for anything that comes branded with crosses or halos or drapes itself in the pious sounding language of "defending our religious heritage and freedom."  

You probably know that famous line often attributed to Sinclair Lewis that says, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."  The point, of course, is that it's awfully easy for the worst impulses to dress themselves in symbols, images, and language that we cherish and to get us to stop looking any further below the surface to see whether it is really good, just, true, and for us as Christ-followers, whether it fits the character of the God we know in Jesus.  What's frightening is just how often Respectable Religious People--folks who claim to be skilled at discerning good and evil, and who claim to be seeking God's will--let terrible things get dressed up in the appearance of goodness or godliness, and end up giving religious cover for profound rottenness.  Christian preachers were among the loudest supporters of slavery in this country, as well as the eras that followed that were marked by lynching, segregation, and redlining.  Christian leaders in Germany--many in my own Lutheran tradition--were persuaded to give their support to the nationalism and bigotry that metastasized into the Third Reich.  Christian voices of authority have lent their support--and implicitly said they spoke for God as well--endorsing policies of pre-emptive war, ever-expanding nuclear arsenals, unchecked greed, and a not-always-subtle assumption that American lives are somehow more important to God than the lives of people half a world away.  And while it is also true that each of those moments found other Christian voices speaking up as an alternative minority report, that just proves the point--that sometimes folks who all strongly insist they are seeking to follow Jesus and to do good end up seeing very very differently what that good looks like.  Just when we want to assume that good and evil are always obvious to label, our own history reminds us how often Respectable Religious voices have fallen for evil that came quoting Scripture in support of racism, or waving Bibles around in the air like a prop, or using the language of religious piety as a cover to justify greed, violence, and bigotry.  And more often than we would like to admit, we fall for it.  

So when the writer of Hebrews talks about distinguishing good from evil as one of those subjects for the mature in faith, he's right.  It's not always easy, and it's not always clear--especially when we are tempted to settle for a shallow, surface-level reading of things.  Just because it's hard doesn't mean we can let ourselves off the hook for doing that hard work. It means we do need to be willing to invest the time and do the critical thinking to go beyond the empty slogans and symbols that sound pious. It means we don't get to buy the shallow thinking that in a country with a two-party political system, there is always one that is the "right" one in line with God's priorities, and one that is wicked and evil.  It means we don't get to settle for endorsing whichever voices are promising to give special prominence or treatment to Christians, because Jesus never sought that for himself or for his followers, but rather the opposite, sought for his community to seek the good of others, especially those on the margins.  It means, too, that we are called to do the honest soul-searching of where each of our actions and choices may be tinged with goodness and evil, righteousness and rottenness, side by side, inside us and hard to disentangle.  We always want to assume each of us is always on the side of good, but maybe wisdom means learning to see where those we most strongly disagree with have something true that needs to be considered... and where we ourselves have been fooled by wickedness that pretends to be righteous.  That's not easy, and it's not for the faint of heart.  But it is our calling if we want to be people with mature faith, so that we won't be taken in by every huckster dressed in holiness, or worse yet, by evil that calls itself greatness.

This is why we need each other, and why collectively, we need the presence of the God who has not left us to our own devices, but keeps raising up those minority report voices of prophets, visionaries, and dreamers who are so clearly rooted in the way of Jesus that they help us to see more clearly ourselves.

Keep discerning, friends.  Keep listening.  And keep your eyes on Jesus--he's the one who embodies what real good is.

Lord God, give us the wisdom and wise voices around us to help us to be able to see what is good--and what is rotten--around us and within us.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Grace of God's Persistence--June 3, 2021

The Grace of God's Persistence--June 3, 2021

"About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness...." [Hebrews 5:11-13]

Sometimes I forget what a gift of grace it is that God bears with me when I am slow... or when I am stubborn... or when my heart is hardened.  A less patient God would have given up on me--on all of us--and moved on to more faithful disciples to belong on the spiritual dean's list.  But the God who has met us in Jesus, the God who prompted the writer of these verses, too, is graceful enough to meet us where we are, and to stay with us where we are, rather than to leave us to our own devices where we are.

I don't always have this kind of patience with other human beings.  Not even my own kids.  Sometimes, they'll be struggling with some new concept in their homework, and I think they should get it already, and then I get frustrated when they can't figure out the answer to the net problem.  And from there, we end up in a meltdown of upset kids and upset dad.  Not a good combo.  Or sometimes the grown-ups will forget that little bodies get tired faster, and the Sunday afternoon nature hike to the waterfall or trek along the trail becomes a flashpoint for another stand-off, where my kids will insist that they are too tired to keep walking and then drag their feet slower and slower... and I have to remember then that when you love people, you need to be able to walk at their pace, even if you also need to move them along so they can grow, too.

It's that tension that I hear in these words from Hebrews today.  The writer is clearly feeling a little frustration that his readers don't "get" what seems so clear and obvious to him.  He feels like he has to keep going back to The Basics of God 101, when he wants to be able to lead them to grow and learn and mature in lots of good ways.  He wants them to be able to teach others, and to deepen their understanding of God and explore the beauty and richness and nuance of all the mysteries of Christ... but they're stuck back at the starting line saying their feet are already too tired.

And to be fair to the writer of Hebrews, I get that frustration.  I understand that sometimes I am the one who is slower than molasses when it comes to understanding something, or I'm the one who is ornery and resistant to the sway of God's love.  And in those times, God--and the good teachers and mentors God has put in my path--surely must be shaking the divine head at me, thinking, "When will this guy get it?"  At other times, I'm the one feeling the frustration myself, wishing that others would see what seems so obvious to me.  I know a lot of pastors who, in the last year and a half, have really wished they could have spent time expanding new ministries, or leading classes on deep and profound questions about God and life and meaning, or forming leaders in their congregations who could build up their communities, or any of a hundred other "advanced-level" things... but they've ended up having to start back at Square One with conversations over why we love our neighbors... and why, yes, it has been important as Christians to wear masks or get vaccinated... or why their decisions to suspend or change in-person worship wasn't a betrayal of their faith but an expression of it.  It's hard to want to delve into the deeper things, like the nature of the Trinity, or the way human choice and God's sovereignty relate, or contemplation of God's nature in creation... when you have to stop every five minutes to answer for the millionth time why loving our neighbors is not optional.  I get the feeling that the writer of Hebrews is in the same place with his congregation--he wishes he didn't have to keep going back to the first page of Chapter One so they could finally move on to new material.

Really that's the beauty to discover in this bit of biblical frustration.  The writer is weary by the dense minds (or hard hearts) of his listeners, but he keeps at it with them anyway.  He is tired at having to go back to the basics when they should have moved further on in learning the faith, but he is willing to start over with them, rather than leave them behind.  That is a wonder.  Or honestly, that is grace.

For all the times I get frustrated--or downright heartbroken--at our collectively hardened hearts and narrow minds, I have to remember that God feels that infinitely more than I do, and yet keeps on working with us to bring us along and help us get up to speed.  God is helping me to get up to speed, too.  And ooooh, that stings my pride.  That deflates my puffed up preacherly ego that imagines I have all the answers right myself.  That doesn't mean I have permission to let us all off the hook and never grow in our faith, our love, and our discipleship.  But it does mean that when someone is lagging behind--or, to use the image here from Hebrews, when someone who should be onto solid food still can only handle milk--we don't get to leave them behind because they aren't where we are yet.

There are a lot of ways I am certain I have grown in my own faith, beyond the immature vaguely pious wishful thinking that was an earlier version of my Christianity, and as I look back, I cannot help but see good and kind people who were patient with me, who loved me into new understandings, rather than giving up on me.  When I was dead certain that I knew who God was allowed to love and who God had to throw into hell (exactly in line with my own list, of course!), there were grace-filled people who didn't give up on me, but helped me to see the truth, shouting from the Scriptures all along, that God's love was audaciously reckless in its embrace of everybody, even the stuck-up stinkers like me.  When I was certain I knew all that the Bible had to say on any given subject, there were patient teachers who humbly pointed me toward deeper depths that also humbled me in turn.  When I was sure I had all the answers in a neat and tidy theology, there were good and faithful saints whom God sent in my path like blessed gadflies who helped me to rethink and poke deeper and live with questions and tensions rather than easy answers and deception.  When I have been tempted to let my faith be co-opted, even unwittingly, by political agendas, power structures, and prejudices, God has patiently kept putting people in my path who helped me to grow and to ask questions I would have otherwise been content not to bother raising.

One day in glory the writer of Hebrews himself may come up to me, put an arm around my shoulder, and say with a heavy sigh, "You know, sometimes we wondered if you would ever really get it... but we didn't give up on you.  God wouldn't let us."  And if I can be ok with the idea that God's persistent love remains patient with me in all of my slowness of spiritual pace, then I need to decide, too, if I can extend that same grace to the people who seem to be frustratingly slow in their faith's progress, too.  They are in God's field of vision, too.  God is not too busy with helping me to grow that God cannot send someone to speak the right word--patient but provocative, too--to help spur their faith along, too.  Maybe God is sending me.  Maybe God is sending you.

In any case, let's be ready.

Lord God, thank you for your patience with us.  Grant us the same persistence you have shown to us as we commit to meeting people where they are and loving them into the growth you will bring.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Jesus' Family Legacy--June 2, 2021

Jesus' Family Legacy--June 2, 2021

"Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." [Hebrews 5:8-10]

Jesus lived up to his family name, so to speak, by what he endured for us.  Maybe that's a place for us to start.

One of the things I have loved most about serving in the same place for a while is that I get to know extended families--like sometimes four or five generations of a family.  And in that time, you get to know family traits and traditions, their mannerisms as well as their distinctive facial features.  You come to recognize the Smith eyes or the Jones smile, or the slow drawl of a family patriarch echoed across later generations.  You come to know the sort of character that defines a family, too, quite often--these are the ones who pride themselves on being good hosts and welcoming all with their hospitality; those are the ones who raise their kids to be polite but tenacious achievers. And those folks over there are the ones who keep on showing their resilience through struggle after struggle in life.  That sort of thing.

Of course, a particular character doesn't just come with a surname--you may be raised in a family of hard workers and still grow up to be lazy and entitled, just as you can grow up in a family of apathy and dysfunction and still break the mold to become an overachiever.  You can grow up in a family that prides itself on its integrity and strength, only to grow up to be a sell-out; and you can break with all the family history of lying and deception to choose to be an honest and reliable person yourself.   All of that is to say that just because you happen to be a son or daughter in the Jones family, you may or may not yet have grown into the family legacy that goes with the Jones name.  It really comes down to what you do with the life you are given, and whether you resonate with the best your family identity has to offer, pass along their worst habits and hang-ups, or chart your own course entirely.  Or some of all three--families are messy that way.

Well, if you can picture the way our families pass on traits, not only physiological things like blue eyes or tall statures, but patterns of virtue and behavior like honesty, decency, generosity, and hospitality, then maybe we can keep all of that in mind as we think about Jesus, and the "family" he embodies as Son of God.  The writer of Hebrews knows that just because you have a name or a title may not mean anything if you don't actually live into your your identity by your choices and your actions.  You can be the crown prince of a good king and still be a selfish jerk.  You can be the descendant of a wise and courageous ruler and still be a foolish coward yourself.  For that matter, you could be the great-great-grandchild of a Confederate officer or Klan member and yet still choose to reject that legacy of racism and work instead to restore justice rather than fueling hatred.  The question is what you will when push comes to shove.  And with Jesus, Jesus lives up to the character of the God whose Son he is.  Jesus embodied the faithfulness and grace of God in his own suffering love--revealing that he really is the fullness of God in a human life.

It really is saying something that Jesus doesn't just ride on the family coat-tails and coast his way through life claiming special status and privileges because he's God's Son.  You half expect that sort of thing anymore these days, when people cash in on having famous parents, or parlay having a celebrated relative in public office into their own political candidacy, based solely on name recognition.  We're used to stories of "legacy students" at posh and prestigious universities, who get in because their parents or grandparents are big donors.  There are, to be very honest, an embarrassingly large number of stories where wealthy or powerful parents use their influence or money to keep their kids out of trouble, or to get them into a cushy job, or to perch them in some position way beyond their talents, just because of the family name they carried.  And if anybody had the opportunity to play that card, surely it would be the one who called the Creator of the Universe and Source of all Being, "Abba"--Father.  Surely, there could have been the temptation for Jesus to just trade on the family legacy.

But the writer of Hebrews insists that Jesus is different than all those stories of nepotism.  Jesus revealed his character--and showed that he is indeed the Son of the living God--by the ways he chose to endure for our sake.  Jesus shows what he is made of by his self-giving love.  In a sense, this all goes back to the idea we first encountered at the beginning of Hebrews that Jesus is the exact and complete image of the living God in a human life.  We really get to know who God is by what we see in Jesus.  And instead of just trading on his family's reputation and coasting through life with privilege and comfort, Jesus chose the path of suffering love.  Jesus chose the difficult path of laying down his life for others.  Jesus chose the path of standing with the ones labeled "sinners" and "outcasts" rather than rubbing elbows with the country club scene and the politically well-connected. Even when the titles of privilege like "Messiah" were thrown at him, he redirected people to see him as the suffering servant rather than a privileged prince.  And in doing that, Jesus shows us the living heart of God.  God is, all the way down to the core, self-giving love. 

And so, in every instance we have in the storytelling from the Gospels, where Jesus puts the good of others before seeking his own comfort, we get a picture of God's truest nature as radical love.  When Jesus washes the feet of his confused (and bickering) disciples, he is living up to the family legacy as Son of God.  When he chooses the table fellowship of pariahs like Zacchaeus or Simon the Leper, he is showing that he is in tune with the audacious hospitality of the living God he calls "Abba."  When Jesus faces hostility by dying for his enemies rather than killing them, he reveals what God is most like, deep down. There are no coat-tails for Jesus--only the path of self-surrender that reveals who God really is.

That is why we can count on him.  That is why both Jesus and his Abba are worthy of our worship.  That is why our definition of God--our working mental map of the divine--only makes sense if it includes the love that goes to a cross.

And all of that is to say that Jesus really lives up to his family legacy--and his own identity as Son--in what he chose to endure for our sake.  Yours, mine, all of ours.

Lord Jesus, help us to see your self-giving love the reflection of the One whom you called "Abba," and whom you taught us to call with the same relationship of love.