Rise Up

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord was on Thursday, but since most of us aren’t in the habit of going to church on Thursday, and since Lutherans and other protestants don’t really know what a Feast day is anyway, we moved it to Sunday.  So, Ascension Sunday.  Except that it’s really still the 7thSunday in Easter.  Also this is Memorial Day Weekend when everyone is out of town in their RVs or boats, or out shopping at those great Memorial Day sales, so maybe not so many are attending this Feast.  

The Feast of the Ascension.  It’s almost as if we really didn’t want anybody to notice it.  Ascension? Uh… yes.  Isn’t that mentioned in the Creed?  Ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father…  and… he will come again with special coupons for everything you need for your Memorial Day barbeque.  No?

I have to confess that I’ve always had a little trouble taking the Feast of the Ascension seriously.  The way the Jesus ascending is described in Luke and Acts always felt a little cartoonish to me.  In my imagination I keep seeing it like a Terry Gilliam animation like the ones he did for Monty Python, with Jesus suddenly rising up from the ground then catching a ride out of town on a nearby cloud. 

I realize that’s not the best way for a pastor to be thinking about a significant event in the life and ministry of Jesus, an event so significant that it is included in the Creeds, so I’ve made an effort to think about it more seriously.  After all, the Ascension of Jesus has real significance for those of us who are followers of Jesus.  It deserves some thoughtful attention. 

The Ascension marks a turning point in the way God engages with humanity—with us.  For a very long time, God engaged with us infrequently through prophets like Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah.  They gave us Torah—the teachings—with all the basic information needed to build good relationships and a just society, and occasional corrective advice and direction.  And encouragement.  Worship in the temple and reading the scriptures in the synagogue were formative community experiences that reminded the people that they lived in the covenant of God’s teachings, that God was with them, and that their relationships with each other and with God were important. 

Then came the Incarnation.  God entered human history as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  Jesus came to expand on the teachings of the law and the prophets, to confront human systems based on greed and oppressive power dynamics, to renew our relationship with God and expand our understanding of God and to teach us not to be afraid of God.  As Richard Rohr says, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, Jesus came to change our mind about God.  Most importantly, Jesus came to proclaim that the reign of God had begun—that a human society structured on God’s values was being inaugurated and was within reach. 

So after going to all the trouble of incarnation and living a fully human life from start to finish, after challenging our religious and political and economic systems and suffering the most extreme consequences for doing that, after training disciples, after being crucified and then resurrected—after all that, why would Jesus just up and leave? 

I can think of two reasons, and they’re connected to each other.  First, I think Jesus ascended, returned to his trans dimensional life, because it was time for the kids to grow up and go out on their own.  The kids being us.  God decided it was time to engage with the humanity in a new way.  Instead of working and speaking through only one person, God was now going to engage the world through multiple persons by endowing us with the Holy Spirit.  And for that to happen, Jesus had to step back so we could step forward.  His disciples and followers would never fully take the responsibility of renewing and transforming their world if Jesus was still handy in person to arbitrate disputes, point the way through dilemmas, and make all the tough decisions.  

Jesus had prepared them for this.  Luke says he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  He reaffirmed the key points of what he had been teaching them, telling them that repentance, metanoia,and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed to all peoples.  Then he told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for his signal.  “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” he says in Luke.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” he says in Acts.

During that time of waiting in Jerusalem, the disciples prayed together, sang together, worshiped together, and ate together.  They created a model for the followers of Jesus that we still follow in many ways.  This life together was part of their preparation for the work that lay ahead.  Through all this they continued to remind each other of their discipleship experiences with Jesus, sharing what they had learned and imagining how they might apply that knowledge.  Though they probably didn’t realize it, they were building a foundation of community to fortify their relationships with each other and to build the mutual support that they would rely on to carry them through the challenging days ahead.

Jesus ascended so we could carry on the work of transforming the world as we are  empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit and enriched by our life together.  

I think the second reason Jesus ascended is that he had taught us everything we need to know to live a whole, healthy and helpful life.  These were the same lessons that we are called to share with the rest of the world: 

  • If someone lashes out at you, let it go.  Turn the other cheek. 
  • Don’t curse your enemies, pray for them instead. In fact, don’t stop there—love your enemies. 
  • Forgive and you will be forgiven.  
  • Do not judge and you will not be judged.  
  • Treat others the way you would like to be treated. 
  • Share—if you have an extra coat, give it to someone who doesn’t have one.  If you have 5 loaves and two fish pass it around to the multitude in front of you.
  • Give something to everyone who asks.  
  • Don’t make yourself crazy worrying about how you’re going to get by.  God knows what you need and God will take care of you.  
  • Don’t embrace violence or the tools of violence.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
  • And most important of all, love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s what all the law and the prophets were about.  Love each other.

Much of what Jesus taught was a restatement of what God had been trying to teach us from the beginning.  Jesus, himself, said, he had come to fulfill what the law and the prophets had been saying all along.  Jesus embodied what the prophet Micah had said 700 years before him, “God has told you what is good, people.  And what does God require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Or as Eugene Peterson translated it  in The Message Bible:  “God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”

What else was there to teach?  All the bases had been covered.  So it was time for Jesus to return to the place he called “My Father’s House.”  As one of my friends said, “The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the day that Jesus started working from home.”  

Jesus started working from home.  But he promised that we wouldn’t be left like orphans.  Yes, the work of the kingdom was now in our hands, but we wouldn’t have to do it alone.  He promised that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us to guide us and prompt us and remind us of what Jesus taught us.  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you,” he says in the Gospel of John.  “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

The book of Acts tells us that while the disciples were gazing up toward heaven and watching Jesus ascend, two men in white robes suddenly stood by them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  

Why do y’all keep looking up toward heaven?  Your work is down here.  Jesus will be back when the time is right.

Our work is down here.  And God knows we could be doing better.  War is still erupting all over the world even because people are greedy or sometimes because people are so convinced that their way of seeing the world is the only way and that people who see it another way must be eliminated. Or conquered.  Or controlled. People are still turning to self-medication in huge numbers because life for many is meaningless and painful or frightening…or just plain boring.   Whole groups of people are oppressed by other whole groups of people because we have made gods of power and competition and money instead of following the God of love and cooperation.  The planet itself is crying out in pain and becoming less habitable because we have trashed it instead of loving it and taking care of it and learning our proper place in the interconnected, intricate, and beautiful web of creation. 

In the church, the place where the followers of Jesus should be replenished and renewed for our work in the world, we are putting ourselves out of business with overthought, overwrought and exclusionary theologies that are long on structure and order but short on the love and teachings of Jesus, with patriarchies and hierarchies that Jesus never intended, and with abuse of authority and just plain abuse. 

In a week like this past week when a devastating mass shooting of school children is bookended by a convention of the Church of The Holy Gun in the same state, when yet another Christian denomination is revealed to have been covering up sexual abuse by its clergy and leaders, when once again a small cadre of politicians managed to block legislation that would make the country safer for all of us, it’s really tempting to gaze up to the heavens and hope that the next cloud that floats overhead will be carrying Jesus back to us to fix everything once and for all.

But that isn’t happening.  Jesus is still in heaven, working from home.  Which means that the work of transforming the world through love is still very much in our hands.  It’s time for us to rise up.  It’s time for us to ascend, not to a cloud that will take us away from it all, but to our feet taking us into it all—into the world with the ministry of love, healing, and transformation that Jesus has left in our hands.

God has told us how to live and what to do.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God and with each other.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love the world that God has given us.  Love it into peace and wholeness one person at a time.  And listen to the Holy Spirit reminding us of everything Jesus said.

Knowing Things Changes You. You Can’t Help It.

John 8:31-36; Matthew 22:34-46

“Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.”

Maybe some of you recognize that line.  I use it as a signature line on my emails.  It comes from one of my favorite novels, The Bromeliad Trilogy, from my very favorite author, the late Sir Terry Pratchett.  The novel is about of a civilization of Nomes who have lived for generations in an old-style department store, something like a Harrods or Selfridges.  These Nomes believe that their “world” of the department store was created for them, and that, in fact, Nomes simply cannot possibly exist anywhere else.  One day, though, a young Nome named Masklin learns that the store is soon to be demolished.  In a very short time he must convince the other Nomes that their world is ending, that they aren’t as important as they think they are, and that they can all survive if they’re willing to make some sacrifices and hard choices.

After significant struggle, Masklin manages to lead the Nomes to a new home just in the nick of time.  In his struggle to gain their confidence and find them a new home, he has to learn many new skills and absorb a great deal of new information.  Often the things he’s learned and seen put him at odds with the other Nomes.  At one point toward the end of the story, his girlfriend, Grimma, says to him, “Masklin, you’ve changed.”

Masklin pauses for a long, thoughtful moment before he replies, “Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.”

The human mind is a remarkable thing.  We can choose not to see things that are right in front of us. We can choose not to learn things that are clearly beneficial.  We can go through our days with our eyes and ears closed to anything that veers from what we already know—or think we know.  Or we can choose to stay curious, interested  and open to discovery, new information, and change.

In 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon was standing in front of a magnetron, a vacuum tube used to create high frequency radar waves, when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had started to melt.  He was intrigued, so he scattered a few popcorn kernels in front of the tube.  The kernels exploded all over the lab.  Spencer started tinkering and experimenting and ten years later he patented a “radar range” that cooked with high frequency microwaves.  Today you have one in your kitchen.   

Microwave ovens became part of the restructuring and reordering of life after the disorder of World War II.  Kitchens are designed to accommodate them.  A whole industry of microwave foods and microwave cuisine was developed.  Schedules became more flexible because food preparation became less time consuming.  

Life has changed for all of us because Percy Spencer learned something.  He learned that the high frequency radio waves that could spot aircraft miles away could also melt a candy bar and pop popcorn and cook things.  It changed him.  It changed life for all of us.

Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.

All life moves in cycles of Order, Disorder, and Reorder.  Your life.  My life.  Our relationships.  Cultures.  Nations.  The world.  Order.  Disorder.  Reorder.  This is simply part of being alive.  This is the pattern of transformation and growth.  

As Richard Rohr has pointed out, “To grow toward love, union, salvation, or enlightenment, we must be moved from Order to Disorder and then ultimately to Reorder.

We can see this pattern clearly and repeatedly in the life of Martin Luther.  He was about to graduate with a degree in law and enter a life of order when a sudden lightning storm threw his life into disorder and drove him to the monastery.  Life in the monastery was one of imposed order, but his doubts and his anger at God kept his heart, mind, and soul in a turmoil of disorder.  He was sent to teach at Wittenberg, and it was there, as he prepared for a lecture, that the words of Romans 3:23-24 leapt off the page to bring peace to his disordered spirit:  “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  These words reordered his spirit and his intellect.

Knowing this changed him.  He couldn’t help it.

A changed Martin Luther began to ask questions.  Good questions.  Hard questions.  His questions began to shake the Church.  Order was threatened.  The Reformation began—a long time of great disorder, marked often by great violence.  But it was disorder with a purpose, and in the end, the world found its way to a kind of order once again.  A new order.  A different order.

“Know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” said Jesus.  He said this to Judeans who had believed in him but who didn’t quite understand what he was talking about.  He was trying to tell them that what they were hearing from him was nothing less than God’s own word and promise.  They couldn’t quite grasp it.  He was trying to tell them that they were so committed to their understanding of things, to the order that they knew, that it was making them blind and deaf to the truth of who he was and what he was trying to show them and tell them, making them blind and deaf to the new order of the beloved community that God was calling them to be part of.  

“I tell you,” said Jesus, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free, indeed.”   Remember, he says all this to Judeans who had believed in him.  So what sin could he be referring to in this context other than their refusal to see and understand?  What could their sin be other than that they were choosing not to hear what they did not want to hear, choosing not to see what they did not want to see.  Jesus was offering to free them so they could live in the freedom of the beloved community under the ethic of love instead of the yoke of the law, but they were choosing to live instead in the illusion of “all systems normal.” 

In today’s other gospel reading, Matthew 22:34-46, a lawyer who wants to test Jesus asks him what is the greatest commandment in the law.  In response, Jesus quotes back to him the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  But then he adds to it from Leviticus 19, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

Saul the Pharisee certainly knew these commandments in the days when he was persecuting the early Christians.  The Shema, after all, was part of every devout Jew’s life.  But on the road to Damascus a vision of Christ threw Saul’s orderly life into disorder and he heard these words in a radically new way.  His life was reordered to such a degree that Saul the Persecutor, the legalist Pharisee, became Paul the Apostle of grace. He wrote in Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

He had come to know the truth, and the truth set him free.  He knew something old in a new way and it changed him.  

Knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it. 

For 8 months now we have been all been living a very different life than any of us envisioned a year ago.  This time last year none of us imagined Pandemic life.  None of us imagined that we would have to think twice about gatherings with even a few friends and family.  None of us imagined wearing masks whenever we left our homes for even a simple trip to the store.  No one imagined that we would be meeting and worshipping and learning electronically.  No one imagined how much time we would have alone with our own thoughts or how much time we would have to look at and think about what is happening with the rest of the world.

After 8 months, one can’t help but wonder, what have we learned?  What do we know now that we didn’t know before?  What do you know now that you didn’t know then?  About yourself?  About your relationships?  About the church? About the country?  About the world?  How has it changed you?

We have had 8 months of disorder imposed on us by a virus.   What will reorder look like?  Are we content to simply try to rebuild what was or are we wiser?  Have we learned things that will change the way we reorder our lives?  Do we have a larger vision?  Is God guiding us to something that looks more like the kin-dom? 

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” said Jesus.  Have we learned a better way to do that in this time of introspection?  Are we being prepared for a new Reformation?  Have we learned a truth that will set us free as we move through disorder to reorder in our lives, in our nation, in the church, in the world?  Do we really need to know anything more than to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves? 

I think you know the answer to that.

And knowing things changes you.  You can’t help it.

I Can Read it Myself. Sort of.

Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproach, for correction and restoration, and for instruction in righteousness and justice so that the person of God may be completely equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16, (my translation)

“I have my own Bible and I can read it myself,” said the man, a little heatedly. “I don’t need anybody to tell me what it says.” Much as I wanted to respond, I knew it wasn’t the right moment. That discussion would have to wait for a calmer time. Besides, I knew exactly how he felt. I remember feeling that way, too.

When I first went to seminary I thought I was pretty darn well prepared, at least in the important qualification of Knowing My Bible. In 1980 I had worked as a line producer on the team that recorded and produced Zondervan’s NIV translation of The Bible for distribution on cassette. We would start recording the narrator at 6:00 a.m. Mid-day I would edit the tapes, cutting out mistakes and outtakes. In mid-afternoon we often recorded actors from the South Coast Repertory Theater voicing different characters in the text. I did some of the voice work, too. In the evening, more editing, then mixing with sound effects and music. Often we worked until midnight. Many nights I simply slept at the studio so I could start the cycle all over again at 6 the next morning. For nine months I was utterly immersed in the Bible. Genesis through Revelation. So when I entered seminary in the fall of 1992, I Knew My Bible.

I knew my Bible. Well, I knew that Bible, the NIV—and that was what set me up for my first shock in my first class on my first day at seminary. We were required to used a different translation! We were required to use the NRSV as our primary Bible, but also to use it in reference to other selected translations, commentaries and lexical materials. Not only that, but, at least in Dr. Victor Gold’s Old Testament class, the NIV was specifically NOT allowed. This did not sit well with me. When I asked why, he stated that there were several reasons and that he hoped that by the time I completed his class I would be able to answer that question for myself. Then he picked up my copy of the NIV from my desk, thumbed through a few pages and read from the forward, “One of the goals of this translation team was to adhere as strictly as possible to the traditional interpretation of the text.” The traditional interpretation of the text. “That’s code,” he said, “for the King James Version, and the King James, for all its poetic grandeur, is in many respects a very poor translation of the original texts.”

I thought I knew my Bible. I thought I could read it myself and didn’t really need anyone to tell me what it said. I was just beginning to learn how little I really knew. It was more than uncomfortable. Sometimes I felt something akin to anger as this thing I loved so much, this hard-won familiarity with the text in which I had taken so much pride and in which I had found some necessary self-assurance as I embarked on this adventure in seminary education was dismantled piece by piece to reveal a chasm of ignorance.

Thank God for my professors, my teachers, who managed to humble me without humiliating me so that they could spark a hunger for a deeper knowledge and more complex and meaningful relationship with the Bible and, more importantly, the God we encounter in its pages. Thank God for Bob Smith and Everett Kalin who taught us to read and translate the ancient Koine Greek of the New Testament and opened our eyes to myriad translation choices that must be made in doing so. Thank God, even, for curmudgeonly Victor Gold who set a very high bar for exegesis of the Old Testament, demanding that we understand the cultural context in which the texts were written, requiring us to compare translations and textual variants, and requiring us to compare the Hebrew stories to analogous stories from the ancient writings of the other neighboring ancient cultures. Thank God for Martha Ellen Stortz who boggled our minds in Church History with an overview of the astonishing diversity of beliefs that fell under the label of “Christian” in its first four centuries before Orthodoxy was officially established by imperial edict. Thank God for all of them for teaching us that The Bible, as such, didn’t even exist until Constantine ordered Eusebius to arrange production of 50 copies, and that, even then, the question of which books were in and which were out would not be “officially” closed for another 12 centuries and is, in fact, still an open question when different denominations and traditions discuss the matter. Thank God for Timothy Lull, that giant of a Luther scholar who helped us put all these pieces together in the context of Martin Luther’s writings, theology and interpretive paradigms. Thank God for Ted Peters, the systematic theologian, who opened our eyes to the ways that these sacred texts have created divergent theological rivers through history and are still branching new streams today because different people in different places living in different circumstances will hear the same text in very different ways—and God is speaking through all of them. Thank God for Gary Pence, the thoughtfully good-natured classics scholar/theologian/psychologist who helped keep our heads from exploding and steered our angst into what would eventually become deep pastoral channels. Thank God for all of them for reminding us, repeatedly, that this book we cherish and carry with us, this book which has quite literally shaped our world—this book is not a book at all, but a library, an aggregation of ancient pieces written at diverse times over a period of 3000 years by more than 40 authors in at least 3 languages—a collection of history, folk tales, poetry, laws and prophetic oracles that portray how these ancient peoples experienced God so that we can have some context for our own experience of God.

I have my own Bible. I can read it for myself. But oh, how much richer I am because I have learned to read it with others. And I still need others to help me discern more fully what it is saying. Thank God for those who have read with me, who taught me to read more deeply, who teach me still.

Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed, and the ears of those who have hearing will listen. –Isaiah 32.2-3

So…with whom are you reading your Bible?