Friday, February 12, 2016

Where will you run to?

The Cleansing of the Temple statue at a Liverpool art gallery
The Rev. Richard Hall explains this photo:
Visitors to a Liverpool art gallery are being shaken by the sight of a new statue of Jesus. Called ‘The Cleansing of the Temple’, I don’t suppose it is meant to represent ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’, but reactions have been even more extreme than the artist intended. Some are convinced the statue is evil and recoil in terror. Others fall to their knees in prayer. Some say they see sparks coming from the statues eyes.
Gerard Van Der Leun quotes the lyrics of 16 Horepowers’ song, “Sinnerman.”
 o sinnerman where will you run to
sinnerman where will you run to
sinnerman where will you run to
All on that day
Run to the mountain
The mountain wont hide you
Run to the sea
The sea will not have you
And run to your grave
Your grave will not hold you.
All on that day.
Gerard explains,
Many years ago, I was flipping through the pages of a newsmagazine and came upon a photograph of the machete-hacked corpse of a child floating like some half-chewed chunk of jetsam in a backwater of Lake Victoria. This was during what we now think of, because we have to think of it as something distinct from our normal run-of-the-mill massacres, as the Rwanda genocide.

It was a crystal clear photograph showcasing an act of genocide like any other, only the meaningless details changed: children, machetes, an African lake. As a professional in the pornography of violence, the photographer had gotten in close. The child’s eyes could be seen. They were without pupils, a dead fish-belly white; the white of clotted milk. …

The child was long since buried or left to dissolve as mere carrion. What had disturbed me was only the abstraction of a child snagged out of the world with photographic film, transmitted across the oceans via orbiting satellites. printed up on sheets of flimsy paper, and delivered to me and millions of others on a weekly basis…. to what purpose? To. What. Purpose.

Because I needed to know? What did I know? That we are, each and every one of us, capable of the darkest evil? This much I’d known long before I’d known it. Did I see it because I needed more confirmation? I’d long been confirmed. And yet the image stuck in my mind, not as an obsession, but as an unbidden harbinger. And in time, I came to know it’s purpose.

It’s purpose was to teach me to hate God. …
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted! 

(Johann Heermann)

Gerard continues,
Childhood leukemia? God’s on the job. A close friend is shot-gunned on 14th street in a mugging? God’s there pulling the trigger. Yet another mass grave in yet another subdivision of Hell in Europe, Africa, the Middle East? God’s working the back-hoe. It’s all a tough and dirty job and nobody but God has the moral clarity to do it. He’s the original Bastard. A real Professional. To top it all off He had billions of fools convinced of His mercy and His goodness. They were ready to tell you that “God so loved the world. …

O sinnerman where will you run to
O sinnerman where will you run to
O sinnerman where will you run to

All on that day

Then one day,
It was a jester that stopped my hate of God. Not a great jester, I'll grant you, but a jester just the same. He used to caper for donations in the Central Park Zoo. Perhaps he capers there today. I wouldn't know.
Since this jester's act was pitched towards humans with no more than five or six years of experience in the world, the only people that ever stopped and listened and watched him were little children with their parents or nannies. And on one particular day, for no clear reason, myself. ...

Maybe it was because I was tired of hating God at every turn. Maybe it was because I'd simply come to the end of wanting to take the woes of the world onto my shoulders. Maybe it was because I just happened, at that moment, to be ready to snap out of it. Or maybe it was because of the childish message of the song. Urban sophisticates can, after all, be some of the densest matter in the universe, and sometimes need to be spoken to in very simple ways. 
For me, the voice said something like, "Oh, come off it and cop to your own shortcomings. I gave you everything there is and now you want Me to fix it? Be glad I made it fixable. And, if I hadn't made it the way it is, there'd be no you hanging around to hate Me, would there?"
And my hatred of God left me. 
There wasn't any kind of great switcheroo where my hatred was replaced with love and the peace that passeth all understanding. It wasn't a replacement. It was a departure. And nobody waved goodbye. Least of all me.
I did not forget the photograph. I would never forget the photograph. But I did let go of the idea that the evil it embodied was an Act of God. It took me a long time, a lot of hate, and a very simple song before I came to understand that every act of evil is an Act of Man. 
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded.

There was a day when Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, where he said,
“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” … And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
O sinnerman where will you run to …
Run to the mountain
The mountain wont hide you
Run to the sea
The sea will not have you
And run to your grave
Your grave will not hold you.

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Your grave will not hold you
all on that day
run to the lord

The Hebrew Scriptures say that the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD. Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.

O sinnerman where will you run to
O sinnerman where will you run to
O sinnerman where will you run to?

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. … The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the LORD, “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard … .

O sinnerman where will you run to?
Run to the sea
The sea will not have you
And run to your grave
Your grave will not hold you
all on that day.

Where can we run to? The Psalmist asked that question: “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Jonah surely did not think he could escape God. He instead sought to disqualify himself from carrying out God’s command by running away from what God wanted him to do.

Is that the escape we try to make, too? To run away from our God-commanded responsibilities? Why on earth do we think we can succeed? Not even the grave can hide us when the Lord comes again. The prophet Malachi had words to say about that:
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire … And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the children of Levi, and refine them like gold and silver, that they may give offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
O sinnerman where will you run to?
Run to the mountain
The mountain won’t hide you
Run to the sea
The sea will not have you
And run to your grave
Your grave will not hold you
all on that day.
Run to the Lord.
When you gonna stop running?
When you gonna cease fleeing?
When you gonna stop hiding?
When you gonna start heeding?
O sinnerman, Jesus is calling!
O sinnerman, Jesus does see you!
O sinnerman, Jesus is coming,
all on that day!
O sinnerman where will you run to?
Run to the Lord!

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
for my salvation.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


It is interesting, I think, that the Bible doesn't talk about commitment very much - hardly any, in fact. But consider Luke 9.51:  
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
John Piper wrote,
To set his face towards Jerusalem meant something very different for Jesus than it did for the disciples. ... Jerusalem meant one thing for Jesus: certain death. Nor was he under any illusions of a quick and heroic death. He predicted in Luke 18:31f., "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him." When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, he set his face to die. 
That's commitment. 

The Jewish prophets, Jesus and the apostles did talk a lot about obeying God and his commandments. For Jesus, commitment to him meant obeying his commandments: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” John 14.15. 

What that means is that Christian commitment is a matter of love, not mere duty. Nor, more importantly, does God demand obedience from his position power over us mortals. God, being infinitely more powerful than we can even imagine, surely could compel obedience if he wanted to. 

But he does not want to. God invites obedience from love rather than forces it from power. Do you wish to know how the the power of God and love of God are the same? Here is a hint:

And here it is fully known and displayed: 

Jesus explained this while he lived: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life." 

One of the central spiritual disciplines for Lent is commitment to shed habits of ungodliness and sin and to adopt habits of virtue and holiness. This is the real intention of Lenten sacrifice - to use the 40 days of Lent to kickstart enduring progress toward Christlikeness.

However, in some ways Christian discipleship is a zero-sum game. That is, if we are to grow in discipleship we have to shrink in whatever hinders us from it. If we are to add holiness to our lives, we have to give up ungodliness. In his book I Surrender, Patrick Morley writes that the church’s main misconception is “that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin.” We think we can change what we believe without changing what we do. We want revival without reformation, says Morley, and rebirth without repentance.

That is why this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, is commitment Sunday at our church. Everyone will have the opportunity to make a personal, and private, commitment to God for this Lenten period. We distributed a from last week, and will again this Sunday, a form that may used as a template for Lenten commitment. Of course, you may make Lenten commitments as you wish; the form is merely a suggestion, not a requirement.

Everyone this Sunday will be handed an envelope. After completing your Lenten commitment, fold it and place it inside the envelope, the write your name and address on the front and seal it. Bring the envelope when you come forward to receive the bread and wine of Communion, and leave it at the altar area. After the service, a team of volunteers will gather to pray for each person individually. Then we will mail your envelope back to you, unopened.

Methodists have understood that the fullness of Christian faith and practice is found in four main areas:

  • Acts of worship - the public, communal praise of God and renewal by the Holy Spirit to be in discipleship throughout the week.
  • Acts of devotion - prayer, Scripture study, meditation, or journaling that opens the heart to the indwelling of the Spirit and asks God’s intercession for those in need. 
  • Acts of justice - those done in Christian concern, in cooperation with other people, which help affairs of the world or the church come more closely to the ideals of God as explained in the Scriptures
  • Acts of charity - personal acts of love or care that are individual rather than communal. 
No one is required to make resolutions according to these areas; they are one way to think about personal spiritual growth and religious life. Your resolutions are private. Please prayerfully consider ways that God is leading you to grow in Christian love, devotion, and service, and then bring your resolutions to worship on February 14.

Here is a link to download the form in PDF format:

God bless you for a holy Lent, and may the grace of our Lord rest upon you all!

Why we should not do Jewish Passover meals in church

There is a habit that waxes and wanes in churches over time, that of holding Jewish Passover during Holy Week, sometimes during the Holy Thursday service itself. Sometimes you may hear the Passover referred to as a Seder meal, but Seder simply means "order," not Passover. That is, any Jewish meal that follows a liturgical or ritualistic order can be a Seder, Passover or not.

A modern Passover meal setting. This is not how Jesus celebrated Passover.
In fact, we have no idea how Jesus celebrated Passover
But there are several problems with Christian churches co-opting this distinctly Jewish religious practice. One is that the Gospels are not unanimous that Jesus celebrated Passover on Thursday night. Passover is in the synoptic Gospels but not in John, which says that the Last Supper was the night before Passover. Also, even in the synoptic Gospels it is pretty clear that the Lord's Supper, on which we model Holy Communion, is not the same as a Passover meal; after all, it was after the supper was over that Jesus took the cup to offer it to his disciples as his blood shed for them and "for many for the forgiveness of sins." These differing accounts in the Gospels should make it clear that trying to press any specific actions into any particulars of Jewish Passover ritual of that or any time is problematic at best.

Practicing a Passover in a Christian church, especially on Holy Thursday, risks conflating a Passover meal with Holy Communion and confusing the two in the understanding of what either is. They cannot, and so should not, be co-identified with one another.

This is what Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards, director of UM worship resources, has written on the topic:
The United Methodist Book of Worship has this to say about Seder practices. "United Methodists are encouraged to celebrate the Seder as invited guests in a Jewish home or in consultation with representatives of the Jewish community, thus respecting the integrity of what is a Jewish tradition and continuing the worthy practice of Jews and Christians sharing at table together. Celebrating the modern meal without a Jewish family as host is an affront to Jewish tradition and sometimes creates misunderstanding about the meaning of the Lord's Supper.
But there is more. Most of what follows is derived from UM sources and discussion and historical studies of the subject.

First, any specific connections between the Last Supper and Passover ritual in the time of Jesus are actually impossible to establish. There are no reliable texts describing Jewish Passover practices at all until the third century, and there is no way to demonstrate that these texts, which are themselves rather sketchy on some points, reflect what first century practice would have been. Thus, trying to recreate a first-century order for Passover or imagine what it may have been is just that—an act of imaginative speculation, not an act of responsible historical interpretation. It should also be noted that Jewish Passover Seder practice today is also not based on these third century texts, nor does it claim nor try to be. Instead, it consciously embraces the later history of the development of this rite beginning in the late middle ages and into current times.

So if there was a Seder for Passover in the first century at all, literally no one today knows or can claim to know what it looked like.

Second, Jesus chose perhaps the most non-distinctive elements of the Passover meal -- bread and wine, common to all meals -- as the signs and bearers of his body and blood in all the biblical accounts of the last supper in the gospels and I Corinthians. Given conflicting accounts between Luke and the others about which cup of wine Jesus used to designate his blood, there is no way to conclude decisively, on biblical grounds, what the meaning of that cup would have been related to a first century Seder, even if we had access to a definitive text.

Third, the earliest forms of Christian Eucharistic prayers bear far more resemblance to Jewish thanksgivings for meals (Q’iddush) or for Sabbath than to anything we see from the third century or even later medieval Jewish Seder texts.

This is not a problem nor seen as a problem by Judaism. Judaism understands itself to be a developing religion. Not everything for them was settled in the biblical period. There is always more to be understood.

But it is a serious problem for 21st century Christians trying to read much, much later Jewish liturgical practices onto whatever Jesus was doing with his disciples in the first century.