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David’s Community Bible Church

2 July 2017

 

Today we’ll look at one of the Gospel of John’s most beautiful stories. This story is about Jesus’ encounter with someone who truly needed his touch. I’m drawn to this chapter for the combination of tenderness and strength that is so much like Jesus. But I also love it because I, too, am lost without Jesus’ touch. And so, frankly are you. We all share something with this ‘woman taken in adultery’, as she’s often called.

Here’s how the passage reads:

Early in the morning (Jesus) came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’

This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’ (John 8:2–11 ESV)

I want us to talk about three experiences. We’re all familiar with two of them. Most of us have experienced all three.

  • Shame
  • Sin
  • Freedom

Now it’s possible that you’ve never thought about ‘shame’ and ‘sin’ as two different things. But they are different.

In fact, people who study the way cultures work speak of two different kinds of cultures.

Shame cultures (or ‘honor/shame cultures’) are those in which people suffer most from the disapproval and contempt that their actions bring on them. People in shame cultures don’t entirely dismiss the idea of objective righteousness and sin as a falling short of that standard. But what wrenches at their hearts and beats them down is the sense of shame that comes from having failed or having been thought to fail. And what raises them up is being respected …  honored.

Law cultures (‘forensic cultures’) are those in which people speak more easily about sin than about shame. They speak the language of guilt and righteousness and are less comfortable thinking about, talking about, or even feeling shame as the deepest reality in their lives. What raises them up is forgiveness … knowing that their law-breaking is no longer held against them.

In the US, we have traditionally been a law culture. We speak of the rule of law and are given to classifying people as law-abiding or law-breaking. People are either innocent or guilty. We don’t worry as much about what they feel.

Now I wonder if you’ve observed a shift between those of us are, say, 40 years old or older …. and those who are younger than 40. Maybe you think the younger ones among us seem to belong to an honor-shame culture more than to a law culture. If you have that idea in your head, you’re not alone. Many culture-watchers would say that we are in fact undergoing that kind of shift. We’re becoming less like Germans and more like Italians. We’re less concerned about law or righteousness as an objective standard that ought to be upheld no matter what we feel about it … and more concerned about how people feel, whether someone has been humiliated or excluded … or shamed.

One of the things I love about Jesus’ encounter with this woman in John 8 is that he seems to deal with both shame and guilt. As he does so, I think he says that both kinds of culture … both kinds of people … both ends of the spectrum of our experience as human beings are important. Both are redeemable. Most importantly: we can be freed from both shame and sin.

Now I need to take a little detour here for a minute, so bear with me:

If you’re an especially sharp-eyed reader or if you have a Bible that calls your attention to this sort of thing, you may have noticed that this short passage floated around for quite a few years before it found its eventual home in the Gospel of John.  These verses don’t appear in our very earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John. They do show up in a few manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke. And then, finally, they come to rest in their current location at the beginning of the Gospel of John, where I think they fit so beautifully as a real-life example of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness.

I want to say just a few words about this in order not to leave anybody hanging:

First of all, this kind of thing is very, very unusual. Our manuscript evidence for the books of the Bible is so solid and indisputable that this kind of uncertainty almost never occurs.

Second, there’s nothing to worry about in this. Most scholars who study this kind of thing say that this passage has all the earmarks of a genuine encounter of Jesus with this woman. It’s hard to say why it had to struggle to find its home here in the Gospel of John.

I like to think of the passage itself as suffering some of the same un-belonging that this woman must have felt as she was dragged into this very public humiliation and then eventually abandoned to the care of Jesus’, her merciful rescuer.

Now let’s talk about an unfortunate woman’s shame.

Jesus challenged the religion and the religious leaders of his time in many ways. But no challenge rose higher than his insistence on showing mercy to those who had been most shoved aside by the mainstream. The Old Testament tells us that ‘the LORD draws near to the broken-hearted’.

Jesus certainly did so. He saw right through appearances. He was no respecter of persons. He recognized the point at which piety and spirituality actually push people away from God rather than drawing them towards Him. He knew the hypocrisies and the half-truths that sometimes seem as though they flourish much better in religious soil than they do in other places.

And no one pushed back against Jesus and his teaching more than the men whom the gospels call ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’. These guys were the custodians of the faith and of the people, as nobody else was.

Now let’s not be too quick to write off these ‘scribes and Pharisees’ as the miserable, rotten people they often sound like. The Pharisees grew out of a movement that had paid a very high price for standing form against all kinds of political and religious compromise back in the day. And the teachers of the Law had studied long and hard to master the deep truths of God. They weren’t lazy bums. They were diligent. They cared. They wanted their children to grow up in a culture that honored God and that walked in the ancient paths.

But, you know, our zeal is never enough. Sometimes we who are closest to the truths of God find ourselves wanting to master God rather than to be mastered by him. We come to place where it’s no longer possible for God to surprise us because we’ve possessed him. We’ve domesticated him. We know all sorts of things about him. But we don’t know Him and are no longer undone by how good and gracious and demanding he is. And then we become an obstacle that stands between God and people who would really like to know Him.

This is what happened to too many of the scribes and Pharisees. So Jesus was not welcome among them. He was a threat.

When the scribes and Pharisees bring this woman to Jesus, verse 6 tells us that they did this ‘to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him’.

So here they come … and here she comes.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.” John 8:3–4 ESV)

She’s been caught in the very act of adultery. Imagine her shame. Who knows if they even allowed her to throw something over her body, to cover herself up.

There’s a crowd of people with Jesus, listening to his teaching, learning from him, becoming his disciples.

This crowd of religious officials bullies in and they place this woman in the midst of everybody. They text doesn’t even tell us her name. I think it withholds that information intentionally, as a way of signaling that this woman … this human being … had been reduced to a legal case study … She’s an object lesson to them, not a human being who needs redeeming. She has no name.

A few minutes before, she had been in the embrace of her lover. Misguided as her love might have been, maybe she felt loved there, cared for. Maybe she was finally finding some tenderness.

We sometimes collapse this story with others that suggest she was a serial adulterer or even a prostitute. But the text says nothing to suggest that. Likely she was a normal woman, maybe a lonely one, and—dishonest and damaging as her act might have been—she was experiencing some affection.

And then suddenly here she is, in the midst of a crowd … embarrassed … shamed … condemned.

Can you imagine the shame … ?

What are her thoughts: ‘Even if I get out of this alive … and I may not … where do I go from here? I have no more secrets. I’ve lost my dignity. Everybody is staring at me … and scowling.’

Now, before we go any farther, one question hangs over this scene. At least in my mind it does, and maybe in yours too.

Maybe the guy was faster on his feet than the woman was, and got away. Or maybe the hypocrisy of this woman’s accusers is evident in the man’s absence. Maybe they let him go. Maybe he was one of the boys. Maybe they could sweep his cheating on his wife under the rug.

‘But this woman …’, you can almost hear them saying, ‘… we’ll make an example of her, and we’ll trap this Jesus along with her.’

Have you ever felt utterly alone? Abandoned?

This woman, in this terrible, public, shameful moment … certainly feels that way. And, as far as anybody knows, she should. She’s got no one to stand up for her. There’s no fairness in this, no dignity in this, no mercy in this.

Many of us live with shame, so this woman may not seem so different than what we know.

There are two kinds of shame you know:

  • There is shame for something you have done or someone you have been. This kind of shame flows from our own sin. It’s a step beyond regret, and you see it in the eyes of people who know the thing they’ve done or the things they haven’t done and they wonder how it ever got this way. But there’s no going back. You can see it in their eyes.
  • Then there is shame that is bred into us. Some of us feel shame even though it doesn’t flow from some real sin in our lives. If you’ve come from a home with a domineering parent or a family where other dysfunctions ran really deep or suffered abuse at an early age, you may feel that this second kind of shame is far too familiar to you. Everything’s not your fault, but it sure does feel like it is.

Whatever its cause, shame is debilitating. It traps us. It becomes a dark story and we live in that story, never quite able to escape its darkness. We long to be free, but the shame is stronger than we are. It keeps us from responding with joy to God’s calling on our lives. It keeps us from reaching out in joy and concern to others, keeps us from focusing on others rather than on our own darkness.

Shame is a cage.  A really frustrating, trapping, debilitating cage.

I bet you know something about shame. I do. Most of us do, sooner or later

But this woman was not only suffering shame. She was also caught in the act of one of the most awful of sins: awful because it involves the shattering of marriage promises by one or by both of the people involved. The Bible understands adultery as sexual relations outside of marriage when at least one of the participants is married. The Germans call it Ehebruch or marriage-breaking, because that’s exactly what it is. This woman was not merely a victim. She was a sinner.

It all adds up for Jesus’ adversaries to being the perfect trap.

They know Jesus is stern with them … and off-the-charts merciful with the weak and the needy. But it’s hard to book a guy for mercy.

But they also know that Jesus honors their Scripture. And they think they can trap him between his own mercy and the Scripture’s severity.

That would be their opening to get rid of this very popular Jesus once and for all:

Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? (John 8:5 ESV)

It’s worthwhile, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, to look back to the verses that are being quoted. Here are the passages from the Law of Moses that are most likely in their minds:

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NRSV)

If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:22 NRSV)

So Jesus’ adversaries have a strong point.

What will Jesus’ do?

This is where this passage slows waaaay down … and becomes very mysterious.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. (John 8:6–9)

What do you think Jesus wrote in the dust? Wouldn’t you love to know?

I have no idea why the gospel writer withheld from us the details about what Jesus wrote.

All kinds of theories have been offered about what those words in the dust might have said.

The truth is, we simply … don’t … know.

And the fact that we don’t know puts our focus back on what we do know: the words of Jesus that were not written in the sand but rather were spoken to this woman’s accusers and recorded in the Gospel of John:

Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.

Now I have a question for every follower of Jesus in this room:

Having known the grace and forgiveness of Jesus, how could we ever entertain a judgmental spirit in our hearts. How could we ever allow un-grace to creep in and poison our relationships? How could forgiveness and restoration ever fail to be our deepest desire when there is sin and shame in those who walk along beside us?

Now Jesus and this anonymous woman are left alone.

Probably for the first time in this whole sad calamity, someone looks her in the eyes and speaks to her. It’s Jesus, of course, who does so.

Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

She said, ‘No one, Lord.’

And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’ (John 8:10–11 ESV)

Is there a more poignant, more moving question anywhere in Scripture than this?: Does no one condemn you?

 Notice that Jesus removes from this woman two terrible burdens:

First, he takes away the terrible burden of her public shame. He restores her to dignity in the sight of other people, for none are left who condemn her.

But then he also speaks as the Incarnate Lord who wields an authority that belongs only to God: to forgive sin.

He assures her that he himself does not condemn her. Yet this does not mean that sin does not matter, that adultery is a trivial thing, that our actions don’t have consequences. Jesus stays very far from that conclusion. Having forgiven her, his last recorded words to her are ‘From now on sin no more.’

Honestly, it’s hard for me to decide which message this amazing passage brings to Christian people most powerfully.

Are we meant to hear in this how utterly unthinkable it is for us, having been forgiven just like this woman by the sheer mercy of Jesus, that we should be judgmental, condemning people? People who classify other human beings as better or worse depending on the kind of sin in which they’ve indulged and forgetting our own?

Is it a message about how we should live towards those who are trapped in shame and even in sin? With mercy, as Jesus addressed this woman?

Are we the scribes and Pharisees, who need to watch Jesus writing in the sand and then hear his biting, liberating words, ‘Is there anyone here without sin? If so, you go first … Go ahead, throw your stones.’

Maybe. And maybe that’s what your heart and mine need to hear this morning.

Or is the main message to us as those who become trapped in shame and sin?

Maybe we’re not the scribes and the Pharisees. Maybe we’re more like this woman, caught in a family-bashing sin, a light shone upon her own personal evil … discovering that in Jesus there is forgiveness and freedom from our shame … and from our sin.

Maybe that’s the main message for us this morning.

We have fine pastors and trusted elders in this congregation, and I know that if you’ve been trapped in that cage and would like to begin your break from it this morning, any of us would be delighted to talk with you about that.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:8–11 ESV)

Now I think we need to see those faces again …. (more…)

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Discernimiento y valentía: por qué nuestros pastores requieren una formación teológica.

Seminario ESEPA, 5 mayo 2012

Cuando recibí de parte de Sadrac Meza la invitación a dar una charla en este notable evento, comencé a identificar mis opciones.

  • Podría contar anécdotas y memorias de ESEPA de antaño.  ¿Quién de los que estuvieron no recuerda con aprecio a Alberto Barrientos, Juan Kessler, Guillermo Brown, el inolvidable Eugenio Green, Kevin Jezequel, Gaby Murillo, Juan Macadam, Dorothy Andrews, y tantos más. Pero para muchos en esta noche, semejantes memorias serían reliquias y semejantes personas seríamos reliquias.
  • Podría navegar las aguas de la exposición bíblica. Pero mañana es domingo y ustedes estarán en sus iglesias, recibiendo—por lo menos los afortunados—lo mismo.
  • Podría enviarles a sus casas con exhortaciones fervientes. Pero me falta suficiente presencia en este contexto para asegurar que mis exhortaciones sean alineadas con su realidad y su momento histórico.
  • Podría contar cuentos sobre la vida de Sadrac. Pero sólo tengo cuarenta minutos …

Al final del día, como entonaba un ex-rector de ESEPA con una memorable frecuencia, mis opciones reales se reducen a una: hablarles del corazón respecto a tesoro frágil que es un seminario … que es ESEPA … en un mundo que todavía no sabe como atesorarlo suficientemente, porque no le ha tocado vivir sin él. (more…)

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01 Strange Times (1 Kings 13)

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The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:1–10 NRSV)

What shall we do with a desert? I offer you this morning five words of counsel that emerge from this poignant hinge passage from the biblical book of Isaiah.

Call it a desert!

A desert is not the natural state of things from the biblical angle of view. The desert of Isaiah 35 is the result of YHWH’s blasting of the landscape (Isaiah 34). It is a consequence.

A desert is a tragedy.

The desert bears in its drought the memory of promises unfulfilled and opportunity lost. In fact, the desert is a kind of topographical Paradise Lost.

A desert stands between Babylon and Zion, between this damned place to which we have been dragged and the home we once knew and for which we cannot cease to long. It is the desert’s divorcing in-between-ness that makes it reasonable for the captive Jewish community to say:

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’ O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalms 137:1–9 NRSV)

No rigorous piety, no outstanding prayer life, no psychological technique, no ecclesiastical novelty, no spiritual secret can turn a desert into something pleasant. It is, in the Isaianic vision, a lethal, death-dealing, black hole of a thing and it shall always remain one.

Name it a desert!

Avoid it if you can!

A desert is not, in the biblical view, the natural state of God’s good earth. After he has ordered his earth and provisioned it and set its human caretakers in place with their commission to guard it and serve it, the land is not meant to revert to a desert.

Space once intended for better things becomes a desert because of deep, prolonged human rebellion or because innocent land and its relatively innocent inhabitants find themselves caught up in a drama larger than themselves. They become its casualties and find themselves faced with a desert.

One of the demanding tasks of Western Christians in a run of centuries in which blood has flowed as never before in human history, in which the threat of cities being annihilated if the wrong machinery or the wrong organisms fall into evil hands, in which the Church struggles to keep itself alive while Christian faith leaps, sings, and grows in other latitudes … one of our demanding tasks is to work out as best we can whether our desert is the legacy of our conduct and that of our fathers and mothers … or whether we find ourselves caught up in a cosmic drama which has for the moment blighted our land and faced us with … a desert.

Deserts are serious business. They are to be, if possible, avoided.

Ask your Maker for a life where you never see a desert (as some people grow up never having seen the sea), but don’t expect that you will be granted your request. Few of us are.

What shall we do with a desert? Avoid it if you can.

Laugh at its claim to finality!

A desert makes one fatal mistake: it imagines itself to be final. It presumes that is has conquered.

It is a miscalculation that is common to all human beings as well who would choose to destroy what God has created. It is the besetting intellectual weakness of all who set themselves over against the merciful, redeeming purpose of our recklessly loving Creator.

Those who must traverse deserts or live near them or rescue dying travelers from them learn to flavor their tears with laughter at the Grand Presumption that the desert has exercised.

For all its vastness, all its potency, for all its enormous capacity to devour those who challenge its domain, a desert is in a sense a pathetic patch of ground.

A desert forgets—almost willfully, it forgets—that beneath its sands, somewhere, the Lord’s loyal love courses like some subterranean stream, seeking the place and the moment when it will burst onto the surface and make a green, flourishing mockery of the desert’s claims.

When Israel chants and sings—the repetition is required because the lesson is a counter-intuitive one—that ‘the Lord is good, his loyal love is forever’—it means just this. It is not a straight-line, always-there experience to be taken down off the shelf as needed. It is rather a coursing river which for unexplained reasons descends deep under the soils of human experience and hides itself. But it is no less real down there, no less potent. It runs its course and then—when we have named it a myth or a bit of wishful thinking or a religious painkiller—it bursts onto the desert and drenches us its life-giving liquid.

The desert never sees it coming.

The desert kills, it steals, it ruins, it destroys, it separates what God has called conjoined. A desert is a wasteland because it lays waste to so many good things. But a desert is a stupid thing. It will always be outwitted.

What shall we do with a desert?

We train ourselves to laugh at its pretensions of finality. We employ the strongest language that Christian discipline will allow us to use in order to mock its titanic ambitions.

If the desert had not been so merciless to us and those whom we love we would almost pity it for its approaching doom.

But we do not pity it. We tell the crudest of desert jokes behind its back. We train each other to roll our eyes sarcastically as it sits there thinking the world of itself. We hate the desert and can hardly wait to dance on its sandy grave.

Look for your coming champion!

A desert does not go away on its own. It must be conquered or, saving that, a strong leader must take us through the desert.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:2–4 NRSV)

In the book of Isaiah, the desert loses its teeth only when Jacob’s God comes through it to rescue his captive children in Babylon and take them back home across the desert.

His arrival is an historical moment. He changes the course of events, takes his servant by the hand, rescues his servant from his captors, restores him to his blessed place, and infuses his life with mission and meaning that goes far beyond what little Israel might have imagined for itself.

Those who see their God coming—regardless of the means of their perception—are summoned to turn to those among them whose hands are weak, whose knees shake, whose heart races, and encourage them to live larger than that: Be strong, do not fear!

From Isaiah’s angle of vision, the desert is not so much destroyed as it is rendered irrelevant. It becomes a paper tiger. Its chaos no longer threatens, because God has come.

They thought the Lord was:
• powerless
• uninterested
• angry
• homeless

But ‘Here he comes!’, they cry, their voices straining to be heard over the desert winds. And his reward is with him.

What are we do to with a desert: Keep an eye out for your champion!

Dance and sing!

Deserts do lose their grip.

When they do, we dance! We sing!

We lose all our reservations because we were prepared to die quietly and alone and now we see our opening to live in community.

On our path home through the desert, we are overtaken as it were by bandits who are strong, faster and better-provisioned than we. But look, those who overtake us are joy and gladness. It is not we who flee them with our last, hopeless, burst of energy. It is rather sorrow and sighing that flee away.

We dance! We sing! We feast! We weep for joy, and then come back to song! We embrace, we love, we build cities—so runs the prophetic vision—where aged grandmothers and grandfathers walk the streets safely, bending over their canes with children playing unselfconsciously around their feet.

We remember the desert … a little. And each time we do, the vegetables that grow in its place taste a little sweeter, we sigh with pleasure a bit more loudly as we take in the aroma of the flowers that now bloom ahead of schedule.

When John the Baptist rotted in a Herodian prison, he sent a question to Jesus:

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’

Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’ (Matthew 11:2–6 NIV)

Jesus encouraged his beloved John to see symptoms of a desert losing its totalitarian grip on the most vulnerable to its violence. John might well have wanted more than this.

I do, too.

You may also, your desert unknown to me, as it should be.

Might it be that my little role among your worshiping community this morning is to speak old Isaiah words of anticipation?:

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’

And then to speak in paraphrase of Jesus’ tender warning to John and those who knew him?:

Blessed is the one who does not fall away in disappointment about the way I choose to make deserts bloom … eyes see … ears hear … lame leap … dumb sing … all things new.

Amen.

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When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ (Matthew 11:2–6 NRSV)

Compassion, as so many other features of human existence, has both a horizontal and a vertical axis. It is difficult to get our hands around it, difficult to work it into our lives, difficult to receive it as gift, difficult to pass it on to our neighbor if we ignore one of these two axes.

If we consider the horizontal axis that gives to compassion its this-world stability, we might well dip our toes into the shark-filled waters of etymology. We might ask ourselves what the word that attaches to the practice means. What are its constituent parts? Where did it come from? Why do we find the descriptive powers of the word to be adequate? Why do we still speak the word? (more…)

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