Archive for September, 2009

Yom Kippur and Jewish-Christian Dialogue

September 28, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I was part of a Jewish-Christian dialogue sponsored by the National Council of Churches in Washington DC. This is an ongoing group which both Brian Grieves and I have been part of for a number of years. Initially it was set up to see if there was something Jews and Christians could say together to our government about peace in the Middle East.  In other words, to see if we could live up to the kind of cooperative witness Jesus is suggesting in today’s Gospel when he says, “…whoever is not against you is for you!”

 We thought we could at least agree to call for a cessation of violence on all sides, and a commitment to a two-state solution in the Holy Land, and a few general principles like that. And I do think we share those same basic commitments, but it has proven a lot harder than any of us imagined really to speak together, with one voice. Every time we get close, something happens in Lebanon or Gaza or a new election takes place over there, and we seem to get stymied!

 At this last meeting at least part of the reason for that became clear to me. We like to do text studies together when we can and, this time, my friend Rabbi Eric Greenberg did one on “Zion in Hebrew Scripture” and I followed up with a Bible study on “Zion in the New Testament.” It was amazing to me that, of the seven times the word “Zion” is used in the New Testament, it invariably refers (as our First Lesson from Zechariah did today) to “Jerusalem” or to the “people of Jerusalem”or to the Jewish people in general.

 “Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain.” (Zechariah 8:3).

 Rabbi Greenberg, however, in his study, never referred to Zion as “Jerusalem” but always to passages from the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) about the promise of the Land to Israel, and about the irrevocable Covenant God made with Israel, an essential part of which is “the Land!” So often, we simply seem to talk past each other in these discussions and it’s because our narratives are so different! And, even though we share parts of the same Bible, we look to different texts as authorities for our various positions!

 Well, I don’t know how we will resolve those issues ultimately. But I do know we have to keep the conversations going, and that we all have to start from a place of humility and penitence for so many things we’ve done and said in the past. Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. They will be in synagogues all day, examining their lives and confessing their sins.

 I think we would do well to join them in that, so I’ll be including a “Confession of Sin” in our own liturgy today. Because it’s only by starting from that same, shared space of penitence that we can ever hope to see the day promised by God in our First Lesson:

 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age.  And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets.  Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me?…I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem.  They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.” (Zechariah 8:4-8)     

 May it be so…one day! Amen.

Not Many Should Become Teachers?

September 15, 2009

It’s pretty ironic that, on the day when we begin our fall Christian Education program here at Trinity Cathedral and commission our teachers and catechists (along with our Pastoral Visitors), our Second Lesson begins with these words: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness!”

 No wonder congregations have trouble recruiting Sunday school teachers every year! Who wants to be judged “with greater strictness?” Actually, the Apostle James doesn’t spend much time in his letter developing that idea, but moves along to write about the importance of guarding our tongues, and pointing out how destructive slanderous speech and partial truths can be. We need only look at some of the recent political outbursts there today to see the truth of those words!

 Actually, I think his only point in saying that ‘not many should become teachers’ is to highlight the importance of that ministry, and to recognize the fact that not everyone can do it. Not everyone has that particular gift …any more than we may have other specific gifts.

 But teaching our Faith to others is important and that’s why we’ll be praying for those catechists and teachers  “God of all wisdom and knowledge, give your blessing and guidance to all who teach in your Church, that by word and example they may lead those whom they teach to the knowledge and love of you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Occasional Services, page 186)

 Sometimes people hesitate to teach because they don’t think they “know enough” about the Christian faith to teach it. But notice what the prayer says: “…that by word and example they may lead those whom they teach to the knowledge and love of you…”

We want our teachers to lead our young people and adults “by word and example” to know and to love God!

 I don’t want to minimize the content of our Christian education courses and experiences, but I have to say that – of all the many years I spent in Sunday school – I can’t remember much content, but I can remember the faces and the voices, and the love and the faith of Nelson Glass who taught the boys’ Sunday school in Junior High.

 And Barbara Kane who taught the co-ed Senior High School class (and who just happened to be the mother of the girl I was desperately and hopelessly in love with in those days). I remember knowing – even then – that these adults “knew and loved” God…even as they “knew and loved” me! That’s what teachers (and Pastoral Visitors) are supposed to convey.

 In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are journeying through the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and he asks them “Who do people say that I am?” In others words, what are people saying out there? How am I being received? How is my message being understood? And the disciples give a variety of answers – presumably different things they’ve heard in their travels – because there was still a lot of confusion about just who this new rabbi was!

 Well, some say that you’re really John the Baptist; others that you may be the “Elijah” written about in the Prophets; others that you may actually be another prophet, they say. 

And then Jesus gets specific: “But who do you say that I am?” It was apparently important for Jesus to get some kind of reading about what people were saying about him, about what the general population was thinking at this point in his ministry. Doing his own “opinion polling,” if you will.

 But what he was really interested in was what his closest followers thought! Who did they think he was? Because, in the final analysis, it wasn’t going to be what popular opinion happened to be that was going to preserve his message. It was going to be what the disciples, later known as “apostles,” thought that would come down to us through the ages! They were the ones who were going to preserve, carry on, and even in some sense enlarge upon, his teaching.

 Well, Peter gets it right – at least initially – and speaks up: “You are the Messiah.” In other words, you are God’s Anointed One, the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who is finally going to deliver us from this endless oppression by the Roman government, and set us free!

 So, he was on the right track but as Jesus began to sketch out how all that was going to happen, and that it was not going to be by starting a war, but rather by undergoing great suffering and rejection and even death, Peter loses the thread and suffers a pretty severe rebuke himself from the One he has just called “Messiah!”

 But even that blunder gives Jesus the opportunity to teach the disciples some important lessons; lessons about self denial, about taking up their own crosses, and about what following him really meant. About the “cost of discipleship” And, finally, he leaves them with the insight that it’s not really about “getting it right.” It’s not about “perfection.” It’s about…being “faithful.”

 “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed…” Conversely, if we’re not ashamed of him, he won’t be ashamed of us! So, it’s not so much about getting it right about me, Jesus is saying. It’s about not being ashamed of me. It’s about being willing to share the “knowledge and love” you have of me with those to whom I send you.

 That’s what we are entrusting our teachers and catechists, and our Pastoral Visitors, with here this morning at Trinity Cathedral. With conveying the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ to those in their classrooms (if they are teachers), to those at home and in hospitals and nursing homes (if they are Visitors).

 And, by the way, it’s what all of us are called to do…in the various callings and in the ministries we all have – in our homes and families, in our neighborhoods and communities, in the businesses and institutions and schools where we spend our time. We are to share the knowledge and love of God with those to whom we are sent.   

 There’s a line in today’s Psalm which originally referred to “the heavens” themselves, and the silent witness they bear to God’s glory and faithfulness. But for centuries Christians have applied these lines to ministers and evangelists:

 “Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the earth.” (Psalm 19:3-4)

 That’s what God asks of us too, dear friends. Whether we are teachers or visitors or ordinary Christians. Whether we feel that we have the right “words or language” or not.

 By word and example our sound is to go out into all lands…and our message about Jesus…to the ends of the earth!

Did Jesus Learn?

September 8, 2009

I wonder, do think Jesus ever had to “learn” anything? We’re not told in the Gospels that he ever went to school (although he may well have). There is that instance in Luke’s Gospel when he is 12 years old in the Temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47). One reference in Mark when some people said: “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him…is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” (Mark 6:2f) The implication being that Jesus was not known to be a theologically trained scholar or rabbi, but a relatively unlettered man who nonetheless demonstrated great wisdom. Ever known anyone like that? I certainly have. But I don’t think any of these instances require us to believe that Jesus was born with all the wisdom and knowledge he would ever need from the moment of his birth! A bright, interested, precocious young boy in the Temple does not require us to believe that he was teaching the scribes anything they didn’t already know, but simply that he was smart and attentive and articulate. The wonder that some felt that an “ordinary” person could impart words of wisdom does not mean that Jesus acquired all that wisdom without the need to learn just as we do. The Church’s teaching is not only that Jesus was the Son of God, but that he was God Incarnate – God in the flesh – and as such even he suffered some of the limitations of the flesh. I think today’s Gospel reading from Mark may well be an account of such a “teachable moment” in Jesus’ life. He’s confronted by a Gentile woman who asks healing for her daughter. All Jesus’ life he had been instructed to be wary of, and perhaps even to loathe, Gentiles. He’d heard that they were unclean, and that even touching them in certain circumstances would have made him ritually unclean. He had wrestled with his own calling and, at least initially, had come to believe that he was primarily sent to renew the house of Israel. If there were implications for the Gentiles, and for the rest of the world, so be it; but first he had to minister to his fellow Jews. Small wonder then that his initial response to this woman (as harsh as it may sound to us in our day) was “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7) But the woman “answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!” And, apparently impressed with her combination of humility and courage, Jesus replied, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter!’” (Pause) Well, I supposed you can read this whole story as a kind of set-up, something scripted by Jesus, or even Mark the Evangelist to make a point. But I think it has the ring of history about it, and that Jesus really did learn something – in his humanity – about the faithfulness and worthiness even of Gentiles! (Pause) There’s another factor that makes it appealing to me to assume that even Jesus had to learn. And that is, that the very the process of education and growth is somehow divine! One of our Collects several weeks ago read, “Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life…” Among many other things, Jesus was intended to be a moral example for us who are his followers. He prayed, so we should pray. He forgave, so we should forgive. He loved, so we should love. Why not, “he learned, so we should learn?” God knows, we have a lot to learn! And the Bible has been trying to teach us for thousands of years now! The Book of Proverbs is full of homespun wisdom. Today, we’re told that “The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all…those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor…for the Lord pleads their cause…” (Proverbs 22) And the Apostle James brings it home to how we treat one another right here in this congregation, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say “Have a seat here, please.” “While to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’ or ‘Sit at my feet’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves…Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters…you do well if your really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (James 2) The “royal law!” I’m not sure we’ve heard it referred to that way in Scripture before, but we certainly know this commandment et as “the second (after loving God) which is like unto it; You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Perhaps Jesus learned that lesson anew in a little town north of Galilee in Syria and he went on from there to bring hearing to the deaf and speech to the mute. May we learn that lesson right here at Trinity Cathedral in Davenport. And may our ears too always be open to the cries of the poor and the voices of the voiceless!