Let Me Help You?

Let Me Help You?

John 13:5-17 When you ask people what passages in Scripture are “difficult” for them, it quickly becomes clear that what’s judged problematic for one person is not at all difficult for another.  That may be the case with this week’s choice, the washing of the disciples’ feet passage in John’s Gospel.   There is one line in that passage that is curious and at least needs unpacking, if not “solving.”  The line is: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:7). Why would Jesus say that?  It was already apparent that he was turning the concept of leadership on its head—stating that the master should be the servant and giving these leaders the role of servanthood as their responsibility.  He was quoted in Luke as saying: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors.  But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant…I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).  So why did he say that to Peter?  He had already made his point that the leader in the new community has to be willing to get his hands dirty and smell the foul smells of dirty feet and wash the grime away .  Was Jesus’ reply about NOT letting Peter keep him in the “master” role (because that would indicate that Peter didn’t “get” the essential structure of Jesus’ Way)?  Or was it something more? Receiving help, allowing yourself to be taken care of, ministered to—is not always easy, especially for those of us who have never accepted charity, who always decline offers to help.  We don’t like to be put in the position of NEEDING anything.  We don’t like to feel indebted.  It hurts our egos to feel we can no longer take care of ourselves or accomplish what we used to.   We like to be in control. And so I wonder if Jesus is making the point to Peter, who would deny him three times and run away like they all did, except for John and his Mother and her friends,  with this gesture and these words that implied: “Peter, you don’t yet know the depth of your cowardice and fear in the face of violence and evil.  And you have to let me help you, to let me heal you, to let me bring you back from that betrayal so you will not despair.  I want you to continue to be my follower and to lead others to follow me.” The counter-intuitive relationship here goes something like...

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From Rape to Murder: 1 Kings 18:17-40

1 Kings 18:17-40 We went to a memorial service recently, of a beloved widow who lived a full life, but died rather suddenly.  Each of her four children spoke.  They all told different stories.  Although there were commonalities, each adult son or daughter had his or her own perspective on what was an important memory.  It took all four to  round out the picture of who this person was. And so we get to this difficult passage from the First Book of Kings.  According to the book itself (First Second Kings were obviously one book broken into two scrolls), the authors had various sources, like a preacher giving a eulogy, who interviews surviving family members, but may also look at the internet or at church or community news articles and archives.  Sources for the Books of Kings were the Books of the Annals of the Kings of Israel and the Annals for the Kings of Judah.  Then there were the Book of the Acts of Solomon and sources dealing with the “Elijah Cycle” and the “Elisha Cycle,” Isaiah, and other prophets. The children at the memorial service were making a point with their stories—they were giving evidence that a very good woman had lived and had done much to improve this world.  Similarly, the authors of Kings, according to the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “selected, combined, and arranged the written and oral traditions of Israel and Judah to express their theological understanding of their histories” (p. 479). We can imagine someone preaching a eulogy from the theological viewpoint that “everything has a purpose,” or—as one of my Spiritual Reflections on biblicaljoe.com is titled: “There Are No Coincidences.”  Indeed, that reflection, written some years ago, refers to this very passage in the First Book of Kings! What’s difficult about this passage, of course, is not that Elijah—God’s favored prophet—causes fire to come from heaven and consume an offering that has been doused three times with water—but that he has the crowds who then come to believe that his God is the “right” God, bring him the 450 prophets of the “wrong” God so that he can slit their throats.  –A mass murder, right there in the Bible!  –No moral comment, no justification offered, no sanctions afterward…all dead. What are we to make of this?  It was a time when the theological understanding was that illness and disease were the consequences of sin; epilepsy was a sign that you were possessed by a demon; blasphemy was punishable by death, and there was no greater crime than infidelity to the “right” God.  There was no separation of church and state.  Infidels did not deserve to live, especially since they were spreading the...

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Difficult Passages: Conflict Old and New

Difficult Passages: Conflict Old and New

As last week’s lectionary passage from Luke resonates in our memories, I cannot resist citing a link to Rev. Cam Miller’s sermon for last Sunday [http://subversivepreacher.com/2013/10/20/the-physics-of-pain-or-gallstones-of-the-soul/. ] His sermon calls us to look into conflicts that we avoid above all costs —even people that we avoid—as the judge does in the story of the widow seeking justice in Luke 18.  His sermon also challenges us to struggle with God, just like Jacob did on the night his name was changed to Israel (in Genesis 32).  Dealing with and discussing these issues may also help us resolve that very difficult passage that is only one chapter away from the Jacob wrestling match—the story of the rape of Dinah in Chapter 34.  Dinah’s rape and the terrible revenge for it that Jacob’s sons took forces us to consider the position of women in that age and in ours. It is so difficult to imagine ourselves in another culture, in an age when women were protected by their husbands, brothers, fathers but no one else, and could be traded for money, land, and power.   In the Genesis story, we moderns get the distinct impression that the rape was avenged not so much for Dinah’s honor as for the tribe of Israel’s honor.  The Israelites were offered assimilation by the Canaanites—what’s ours is yours, even our own wives and daughters—and they were having none of it. Trust was surely an issue, of course, when it comes to cultures merging in such a way, and the narrator of this chapter in Genesis reveals in the story that something devious was happening as the Canaanites made their ‘generous’ offer to the Israelites: “Will not their livestock, their property, and all their animals be ours?  Only let us agree with them, and they will live among us” (Gen. 34:23). And so the issues of living together were never put on the table and seen for what they were.  The list would have been long: who is your God?  Monotheism.  Laws.  Promises from God.  Who did the land belong to?   Would negotiating these issues  have helped?  Or would this discussion have prevented both sides from ever agreeing to joint living arrangements in that land?   What do you think? In marital engagements, before the couple say the powerful three words (I love you!), shouldn’t they have a few fights first?  Shouldn’t they test whether they can approach and resolve conflict or will soon develop the habit of avoiding it?   Like a man in the ad saying: “Here I am in this bathtub, watching the sun set, and you are in the bathtub next to me, and we are supposedly waiting for the ‘time to be right;’ but as...

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Another Look at the Lepers

Another Look at the Lepers

In last week’s blog, we did NOT focus on the story of the ten lepers that was the lectionary’s choice, but chose instead  the verses in Luke 17 that came just before it (17:5-10). However, there is no denying that the lepers’ story is or can be a difficult passage in scripture.  Like the earlier verses, it’s about faith (“Your faith has healed you,” Jesus says to the Samaritan who returned to say thank you).  I love Cam Miller’s comment in his post on October 13, 2013,  that the Samaritan was ALREADY unclean, and whether he was cleansed of leprosy or not, the temple clergy would still have had nothing to do with him.  He couldn’t show himself to a temple priest.  He might as well have gone home. The Samaritan’s predicament adds a new flavor to Jesus’s comment about his faith.  The Samaritan did not show himself to a priest.  Instead, he came back to the Jewish teacher (Rabbi) who healed him and acknowledged what a miracle had occurred in his life and how grateful he was. It makes me wonder if the nine others were caught up in their prescribed rituals and saw no NEED for faith.  They noticed their disease was gone and knew the drill–they had to get to a priest to verify this cure so that they could resume their lives.  I wonder if they took things for granted: You get leprosy, it gets healed, you get it verified, that’s all there is. But besides taking a backwards look at the lepers’ story, last week we noticed the first four lines of this chapter contain some VERY strong words from Jesus,  words that could be used to justify capital punishment, I think.  It’s a small step, is it not, to actually tie the equivalent of a millstone around the neck of a child abuser or child pornography addict rather than just agree it would be better if… How strange that this draconian statement should be followed by language of forgiveness–as many times as it takes.  Do you suppose such words give hope to those enmeshed in those vices? Of course, the catch is that word ‘repent.’   –Not a free pass to continue nefarious behavior.  And so we get to the serious problem of all sinners and addicts:  They may feel terrible about their thoughts and actions, but they don’t want to give them up.  It’s like hating your foul habit of smoking, but not taking the steps necessary to break the addiction to nicotine. So where does that leave us?   Do only the pure, the reformed and the brave get into the kingdom?  Or is it time to remember the lady with the lost...

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Difficult Passage 1: Luke 17:5-10

Difficult Passage 1: Luke 17:5-10

This year we will study “difficult passages” in the Bible.  By difficult passages, I mean those that: Are difficult to understand.  Some of Jesus’ parables and sayings will fall into this category; Seem to require us to do the impossible—the story of the rich young man leaps to mind; Contradict other passages, such as this week’s passage from Luke 17; Portray a harsh, punitive, vengeful image of God or Jesus—think of some of those Old Testament passages Belong to a culture and an era long vanished  and so are VERY difficult to apply to our contemporary lives. Well, there may be more.  Dealing with difficult passages is fraught with peril, because we may end up  studying them and discussing them and be no further in understanding at the end of our study than we were at the beginning.  We may be forced to just give up and say: “Yup!  That surely is a difficult passage!” The other peril is treating these passages just as some fundamentalists treat “proof passages”–find passages that suit your world outlook, political persuasion, or religious point of view and lift them out of context to swing them like weapons to swat down non-believers or puff up those who hold the same points of view.  We’ll have to be careful about context. Indeed, some preachers are afraid of the “lectionary” which sets reading for each Sunday and holiday of the liturgical year because these readings put the preacher into unfamiliar territory or challenge him or her to squeeze precious drops of moral persuasion from words that seem cold as stone or even forgiving of  practices the preachers would like to rail against [carrying out the punishments of the Law would  be one example]. But then we have people like Karen Armstrong who encourage us to wrestle with Biblical passages as Jacob wrestled with an Angel in the Book of Genesis, until we discover compassion in them, which is another way of saying: “until we discover God in them.”    And remember Dr. Walter Brueggemann’s talk at Trinity Wall Street on January 20, 2011, who asks: : can the Bible provide us with a place to stand amid the reductionism of science, the capricious hunger and injustice of much of the world, the failure of the nation-states, and the poverty of scientific solutions?  He wants us to allow the text to be generative, not static.  Forgive this long passage from the notes I took during his talk, but I think there are items of importance here as we begin our trek through difficult passages: a.      E.g. meditate on hesed in Psalms 103 and 109.  No one quotes Psalm 109, but it gives us four uses of hesed that...

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Comments on the Psalms

Comments on the Psalms

It is fitting that after Lent and Easter, we allow ourselves to attend the concert of songs which are the Psalms. We read the story of the Passion of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel this year, and echoes of Psalm 22 rang in our ears when the soldiers divided his garments and especially when Jesus began to pray the first verse of this psalm in his agony: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This verse has come to be known as the “Fourth Word” from the Cross, although for Mark and Matthew it is the ONLY word. John has references to Psalms 69 and 34 in his account of the Passion, both referring to thirst. These references confirm Dr. Beal’s point that “The Psalms give voice to the tremendous depth and breadth of human experience… “( p. 144). The Alleluias of Easter are there, too, and great hope, confidence and joy. If we were to “sing to the Lord a new song” every day, some people would use the psalms, picking one that matches their life situation, their need, their fear, or their heart’s being full of thanksgiving and joy. The psalms have not lost their popularity. Although some books of the bible are read and preached about infrequently, something of the Psalms usually finds its way into worship every Sunday. When the Cleveland Ecumenical Institute scheduled a four week course on the Psalms taught by Rabbi Roger Klein, forty people signed up, and we had to close the enrollment because of lack of space! A priest came to hear the Jewish interpretation of the Psalms. Rabbi Klein brought with him the original Hebrew text, intending to use the original language at times to enlighten the understanding of the translation. Dr. Beal chooses just 6 psalms to include in his book on Biblical Literacy. They are good choices. What mood do they evoke? In 1926, Archibald MacLeish wrote a poem about the nature of poetry, and concluded it with a line that used to be famous: “A poem should not mean, but be!” It was a modernist statement, wanting poems to be like little gems which we could hold up to the light and see the intricacy and ingenuity of their structures as if we were seeing all the colors of the rainbow, dazzling us with their beauty. That MacLeish quote, however, doesn’t seem to apply to the Psalms at all, and never has.As Dr. Beal points out, they do have intriguing parallel structures, and contain lots of imagery, symbols and analogies. But they are not read for their beauty. Many people might comment on the beauty of a Psalm 23, perhaps the most popular among the 150 songs, but people who know that psalm have held on to its verses...

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