Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reflection on Isaiah 45:1-7

This weekend I figured out who the Messiah is! I know...I know, you are thinking to yourself, “You’re a Christian pastor, shouldn’t you know?”

However, I could not believe it when I saw it right there is Isaiah. And, being the good bible scholars that you are, you are thinking to yourself, “But, Isaiah is in the Old Testament. Jesus is not in the Old Testament.”

But it was right there. It is the only place in the Old Testament where the name of the Messiah, the anointed one of Israel, is given. Isaiah himself tells the Israelites who it is. And, let me give you a hint: it is not Jesus.

And the Messiah is: King Cyrus of Persia, the conqueror of Babylon, the puff-headed, full of himself, “I am the greatest in the world,” "kiss my golden sandaled feet," “I will free the entire world from the Babylonian scourge because I am great,” Cyrus! In fact, “Cyrus” in the Hebrew language means “Messiah.” I assume that his parents were preemptively concerned about his self-esteem. The man did grow up, humbly baring the name, Messiah, on his chest in glowing neon with an “Oppressed? Turn Here” arrow flashing on and off. However, he did live up to his name, eventually unlocking the jail bars and freeing the Israelites from captivity in Babylon to their homeland to live happily ever after…or at least until the Romans conquered them.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. When the prophet Isaiah revealed the name of the Messiah to the Israelites, they had no idea that this foreign king would save them. I do not know much about Isaiah, where he was born, where he came from, how many wives he had, but I do know that the day he announced, "Cyrus as the Messiah," was the day the Israelites sent him to the old folks home for good. Telling them that a foreign king who did not know God, did not follow God’s commandments, and was not from the house of David was probably like telling Isaiah telling us that our economic crisis will be solved by none other than the economic genius, Osama Bin Laden. Despite how crazy it sounded, God chose to use Cyrus to be the Israelite's Messiah. Read what God had to say about it:

“I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”

God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing. The Lord took a foreign king, used the fault of his arrogance as an advantage, and freed God’s people. God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing.

The Lord once took a nun who continually doubted God’s presence and goodness, put her on the streets with the leprous and starving, and created Mother Teresa. Thousands have been saved by God through this “ye of little faith” nun. The God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing.

Jesus once indicated that the destruction of Israel’s temple by no means signaled the destruction of God. “From these stones God can raise up descendants of Abraham.” God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing.

Since becoming a pastor, I have to say that the name, “Cyrus” has been running through my head constantly. It runs through my head every time that someone says, “I think God left me out of God’s purpose. I don’t know any gifts that God has given me.”

“You may not know your purpose, but God knows. Just take a look at Cyrus,” I think to myself.

“I just cannot stand _____ who sits over there. She is worthless.”

“You may not see any worth, but God does. Just take a look at Cyrus,” I think to myself.

When God looked at Cyrus, God did not turn away when he saw the faults of arrogance or distance from the faith. No, God saw someone through whom salvation could occur.

Whenever, Mother Teresa looked into the face of a pealing, blood pustuled, leprous person, she did not see the disgusting, she saw someone whom Christ had died for. If Christ could die for him, then she could also. Seeing Christ in everyone was the basis of her ministry. And she is honored for it.

And, whenever God looks into any of our faces, it is not the mistakes and terrible faults that God sees there. Whenever God look into our faces, God sees someone worth dying for; God sees someone who is precious; God sees someone who is worthy being called a minister of the Kingdom of God; God sees someone through whom great things may happen. God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, through anyone whom God chooses, even your enemies, even you, and it is amazing.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflection on Isaiah 25:1-9

It was the alien ideas that did it.
Ideas alien to God that is.
The ideas are far from alien to us.

In fact, many of us hold these alien ideas precious to our hearts. The alien ideas go something like this: if you work long and hard you will be rewarded with a great feast that will allow to build your dream home, buy your dream car, get dream electronic gadgets to make your life better, take dream vacations, and enjoy it all with your dream family. The dream seems harmless enough. How could having a nice home and enjoying the pleasures of life with your family be harmful?

Yet, this drive to “get the nice things in life” is what sent men and women of the banking industry down the road of selling bad loans to people (without any regard as to whether or not the loan would eventually ruin that person’s life). It was an easy sell, because the person seeking the loan had the same dream of a great feast and all the fine things in life. And, as long as the sale of the loan could buy me a nice sports car, it couldn’t be all that bad could it? This idea of ambition and personal prosperity is foreign to God and always has been.

We are not the first country in the world to wreck on the road of ambition and personal prosperity. And we will not be the last either. If only we would have looked to history before speeding off. If only we would have just opened our Bibles to Isaiah, we would have recognized ourselves in the story.

If we had done so, we would have seen a city, Jerusalem, with great ambition and personal prosperity. We would have seen a ruling, wealthy class, driving itself toward something great; a great downfall. We would have read of their alien notions of personal wealth and enjoyment and we would have seen how God allowed them to be completely ruined because they failed to speak the same language of God. They spoke this alien language of personal prosperity, allowed it to pervade their whole city, and in response God made “the palace of aliens…a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.”

These people, leading an alien life, were warned of course. Isaiah warned them to start speaking the same language as God and the city will not be turned into ruins. But, the allure of the alien language of personal prosperity and greatness was much too loud. They wanted the feast for themselves.

Is the economic downturn we are currently in our own version of Jerusalem’s final ruin, or is it just the Prophet Isaiah coming to tell us to turn ourselves around before it is too late? Is the threat of global warming our own version of Jerusalem’s final ruin, or is it just the Prophet Isaiah standing in the doorway of the church shouting out to the world to listen and to start speaking God’s language which cares for all of God’s creation?

The language of personal gain and prosperity is extremely familiar to us, but it is not God’s language. If we were to talk to God in God’s language it would go something like this:

“O Lord…you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat…On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth…” (NRSV, Isaiah 25:4,6-8)

Apparently, when Jerusalem had forgotten to care for “the poor” and “the needy” of “all peoples” and “all nations” they had forgotten how to speak the language of God. How had they forgotten to speak God’s language? How has our culture forgotten to speak God’s language when we have the example of Christ living out God’s language coming at us from our pulpits and televisions all the time? We regularly hear how Christ fed the poor, healed the blind, took concern for the children, ate with the sinner, healed the broken-hearted, refused the alien notion of personal prosperity as he turned away the young rich man, and sacrificed his life on the cross for the sake of all. How easy it is to ignore God’s language of grace for the world.

Perhaps this is not the end. Perhaps, this is the prophet Isaiah shouting at us to start speaking the language of God.

I do know that the language is being spoken out there. Christ is at work out there. If you have been watching the travel channel the last two weeks you just might have seen an amazing commercial. The commercial starts out with waiters dressed in white smoothing the wrinkles out of fine table clothes and precisely setting the tables with fine china and crystal glasses. The head waiter signals the guests to come into the exquisite dining area and soon you see a group of poor and homeless individuals and families enter in to start their meal. In the soup bowl of the first course set before them, the bread make the shape of a cross and these words appear: "First course, dignity.” Click Here to see the add: Watch the ads. It is a commercial for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is not a pie in the sky representation of what we hope to be. It is a real ministry of a real church in Bismark, North Dakota who has not forgotten how to speak the language of God. This church serves dignity for all. This church is filled with the language of Christ and knows in its heart that the feast is for all.

I hope and pray that the language of God’s grace and care for all permeate all of our churches. I hope and pray that the language is so strong that it spills out of our doors and starts to drown out the alien language of prosperity. I hope and pray that our nation be filled with this language so that it spills out onto the world. God, may it be so.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 21:33-46

Some parables are fun. The “Good Samaritan” is a fun parable that shows us who our neighbor is and what it is to be a good neighbor. The parable challenges us, yes, but it does not raise any fear. It is fun and refreshing. The parable from Matthew 21:33-46 is not fun. Are we not encouraged to read the Bible all the time by our pastors? And, if I am going to listen and invest some precious time into doing it, should it not be fun and refreshing? It should be a holistic experience that draws together the body and soul into one healed whole. It should cause you to walk away feeling good that you took the time to do it. Reading this parable is the opposite of that.

Discussing wicked tenants who are given control of a landowner’s vineyard does not appear to begin a fun and healing parable. Why should we care whether or not they try to steal the produce for themselves because they were put “in control” of it? Who wants to talk about tenants staining red the soil of the vineyard with the blood of the slaves and the son of the vineyard owner? There is nothing fun about the vineyard owner coming in and slaughtering the bad tenants to make room for good tenants. There is nothing fun about this parable at all in fact. I believe that this parable was probably skipped in most Sunday Schools because of its bloody and quite frankly un-fun nature. Perhaps, we should do the same and focus on some nice Biblical texts.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Those are nice texts are they not? They are so healing…so full of hope. Everyone who suffers and hungers will be healed and fed by God. Surely those are the texts that God wants us to focus on.

I do this with myself quite often; I choose to read the Bible texts that make me feel good; the ones that do not poke at me and cause me to evaluate myself. The bad thing about a lectionary (the three year cycle of Biblical texts that we read in church) is that I am forced to look at texts I do not like. And, you are forced to read texts that you just may choose to skip over when opening the Bible. Of course, you still have the option to just close out this blog and ignore them altogether. I do not have that option.

What I do and you do when we choose to not read things we do not like is what I call selective blindness. We choose to remain blind when we start to read something we would rather not. We choose to remain blind when what we are reading starts to pry into our lives and wrench things loose. An example of this selective blindness is to take this parable and interpret the parable to be talking only to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. “They are the bad tenants who horde the power and wealth given them by God and we are the good Christians to whom God has now given the kingdom of God.” Selective blindness would stop right there.

Selective blindness would not venture to ask the question, “Well, if we are the new tenants, are we doing any better with what God has given us? Are we sharing all that the Lord has entrusted to us or are we hording it? Do we share God’s possessions or do we convince ourselves that God's possessions are our own to do with however we please? Do we share the good news that says, the sick are made well, sinners are restored to the community, and God is praised because it is all God’s doing,” or do we like to keep those hope filled biblical texts to ourselves? Are they just treasures that we keep hidden on our bedside night table for personal encouragement only? Selective blindness does not allow us to ask those questions because it fears the answers.

Fear from questions such as, “But, if I share it, what will I do if something happens to me?” penetrate us. It enters into our veins and muscles and allows us to ignore Christ. It allows us to want blessings for the poor in spirit but does not allow us to participate in making that happen. Not only that; this fear does not allow us to trust that Christ will find a way to provide for us.

What if we did get the courage to offer some of our wealth to our poor neighbor and something did happen to us? Is the only option that we will die because we cannot care for yourselves? Do we really trust Christ so little? Do we really need to steal God’s possessions and direct them only to ourselves in order to feel secure?

We and the Pharisees do not knowingly reject Christ and his wondrous kingdom where the blind see, the hungry are fed, and the sinful are forgiven. All we know is that we are scared. We do not understand how fear causes us to loose sight of what God’s will for the world really is. We cannot see unless we allow these uncomfortable, not fun texts to encounter us and unsettle us.

If selective blindness had not hidden this parable from those involved with sub-prime mortgages (those who handed out mortgages to people who could not possibly afford them) would our nation be in trouble now? They only saw the money from the sales of those mortgages that would make them personally secure.

Of course, it is easy to point fingers at others and showcase how fear and the resulting greed can ruin everything. What is hard to think about is how your own blindness has unknowingly hurt someone else. Trust me, it has. I have done it, and you have done it. This may be a fearful placed to trod. You might hate me for bringing it up just as the caretakers hated the son. But, do we really want to be the selfish, wicked caretakers? I thought not. It is time for some truth seeking and some truth telling; for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of our communities, for the sake of the nation, and for the sake of the world. Christ's light shines most brightly when the truth is close by.