Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Luke 17:1-10

The kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim is an upside-down kingdom. Power as we understand it doesn't work right here. Neither does control. It is a kingdom built on God's ways, not our ways. As Jesus has revealed his Father's heart in chapter 15 and called us to the task of stewardship -- managing our resources well in light of the Father's character -- so now he begins to apply that to our interpersonal relationships.

Don't lose the context here. Jesus is still in tremendous tension with the Jewish leaders who have just condemned him. Yet we know that some of those same Jewish leaders became his followers. John's gospel tells us specifically that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus worked their way around to becoming disciples of Jesus. Have you ever had to forgive someone who at one point stood with your enemies? Have you had to release the wrongs done to you? Jesus recognizes both the seriousness of causing someone else to stumble -- sin is no joke -- and also the absolute imperative of God's kingdom of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not a blanket statement or a universal principle. It is excruciating: literally, from the cross. Forgiveness is the painful work of releasing the one who has hurt you, the one whose sin is real, the one whose fault is so obvious to you.

In the not too distant past I've heard through the grapevine of people who have been so angry at me that they say I am beyond forgiveness. I'm not surprised. I've also had people who have said and done things that have damaged me beyond what I can even calculate. On both sides of that coin, Jesus stands in between, mediating broken relationships, calling all sides to drop the hatchet and do the hard work of forgiveness.

Understand, we are not yet talking about reconciliation. That is a further step. Sometimes it's possible and sometimes it's not. But forgiveness is not an option -- not if we want to be healthy. We will not do ourselves or anyone else any good if we say "I will hold on to this hurt, nurse this grudge, maintain this condemnation." As the wag has said, that's like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.

Reconciliation is a topic for another day. But Jesus calls us not to step into a position of authority that doesn't belong to us. We all love to be judge and jury. It's a human instinct, a reflex. It feels like justice at first, but it only leads to bitterness. When you've been hurt, the kingdom-of-God practice is to release the hurt to the Father, to let him have it rather than hanging onto it yourself. The New Testament is absolutely full of this, beginning with Jesus on the cross saying "Father, forgive them ..."

The heart of this surrender (and it is a surrender) is recognizing our role. We are servants in this kingdom, not judges. We are waiters, not executioners. Humility, in other words, is not an option in this kingdom.

How can you become humble? Only, only by getting your focus off yourself. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, as the song says. Let go of the hurts. Let go of the shame. Let go of the desire for vengeance. Let go of the will to control. Focus on his face. Focus on his words. Focus on his grace. Take up the servant's task he has set before you and do it with all your will. Lose yourself in it.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A week nobody else has

My mom used to say, "All I want is a week nobody else has." When she said that, she was usually talking about tasks and projects she wanted to complete. I think if I could schedule such a thing, I'd certainly do it this time of year, not to focus on projects but to enjoy this beautiful season. The last few days of October and the first few days of November are so full of good things, and every year I struggle to fit it all in.

Some of these things are like clockwork -- the whitetail rut kicks in about now, and big bucks get a lot less secretive and start appearing in daylight. I'm seeing pictures of big bucks taken by people I know, and I've even seen some activity around here. Pretty exciting. Still don't have any fresh venison in the freezer, but we'll get there. Bowhunting these days is a delight, especially on crisp days when the deer make a ton of noise moving through the woods, and they seem okay with that. Hunting season is usually (this year is no exception) a good excuse for a lightning trip north to the farm where I grew up, and though the last few years (this year is no exception) don't allow enough time for leisurely hunting, it's a chance to be back at the farm, drive past Faaberg Lutheran Church, maybe stop in the cemetery and say hi to Mom & Dad, walk the woods and the farm where I grew up, and hopefully fill the freezer.

In my part of the world, deer hunting is a big deal. There's an excitement to early November that wraps up as many people as football season. The young lady cashiering behind the counter at the store yesterday couldn't stop talking about how this is her first year deer hunting, and she's so excited. Kind of fun.

Speaking of football, we're in that mid-range of the season when the Vikings haven't eliminated themselves from playoff hopes yet. It's a time of optimism in Minnesota, and people aren't ashamed to yell "SKOL!" out loud. Spending Sunday afternoons wrapped up in a blanket on the couch with the remote and a bowl of popcorn watching a game while hope still thrives -- that's a delectable gift.

Another delight that's a little more variable, timing-wise, is the appearance of the first snowflakes of the year. We've had a couple snow showers already, but daytime temps are still firmly above freezing, which is good. There's time to clean up leaves, finish fall projects, etc. Satisfying stuff.

Less tangible but no less important, we are poised at what I often think of as a "hinge" of the year when we turn the corner from the activity-rich summer and early fall into the relationship-rich season of holidays, family feasts, reconnecting with loved ones. Word to the wise: be intentional. Love endures all things, Paul tells us, but it takes maintenance as well. Schedule in face-time with those you haven't seen in a while. The next few weeks are some of the best times to reforge those connections.

Similarly, the "hinge" also includes a transition toward arts and charities making a bigger splash than they do in the summer. Look around -- the world is suddenly full of plays, concerts, galas, parties and fundraisers. Seems like they pop up this time of year like crazy, and it's a wonderful time to get connected to worthwhile stories, events and causes.

Outside my window this afternoon it's raining and gray. The trees are stark and bare, the water on the lake looks like steel. I find myself a little restless in the midst of it all -- tempted to give in to unease, to feel a little frantic like I'm missing something I should be doing. Instead I'm debating which of the six immediate options I should choose, how I should spend the rest of the afternoon and evening, what needs to be done and what I choose to do because it's simply the best. Work on a story I'm writing? Go sit on my tree stand in the rain and see if that eight pointer comes by again? Put in an old favorite movie? Invite a friend over and put those jalapeƱos on the grill, stuffed with cheese? Build a fire in the woodstove in the shop and start working on that oak table that's been on my mind? Oh, the options!

I don't have a week no one else has -- but like you, I have a bunch of weeks during this pinnacle of the year. I want to spend them well.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Luke 16:19-31

Three things to say about this parable, which closes out this section (chapters 15-16) of parables we've said are focused on stewardship: First we must know the heart of the Father, then we can figure out how to appropriately manage our worldly goods in light of who God is.

1. This parable is often cited as some kind of evidence of what the afterlife is like. I've heard in-depth teachings using this parable to explain that when we die, we are taken to a sort of holding area. Those who are good / God-pleasing / righteous / saved will go to a pleasant place called "Abraham's bosom" and those who are bad / condemned / unrighteous / unsaved will go to a place of temporary torment called "Hades" or something similar. Please understand that mapping out the afterlife is NOT Jesus' point here. That would be a little like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or watching Jeremiah Johnson to figure out how to be a good trapper. Yes, that element is in the story, but it's not even close to the point. The Bible is frustratingly, intentionally fuzzy and vague about questions of exactly what happens in the afterlife. Many cultures surrounding biblical ones had extensive writings on this topic -- the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" is the best example -- so one has to think this omission is intentional. Think about it a bit, and you'll see that it must very well be so. God doesn't want you to trust some road map of where you're headed after you die. He wants you to trust him, in this life and the next. We are to be like Peggy who, a couple days before she died, told me, "I figure all I have to do is die, and Jesus will take care of the rest." Sound wisdom.

2. Having laid the foundation of revealing the Father's heart in chapter 15, Jesus is now making explicit his advice in the first part of 16: We are to use our worldly goods to please God. The rich man (interestingly unnamed, though tradition sometimes names him Dives) uses his abundant wealth to indulge himself, ignoring the beggar at his gate. The first point of the story is that this self-indulgence is clearly against God's desire, and eventually the rich man will experience the consequence of his selfishness. We are not called to be like the younger son in chapter 15, squandering our resources on our own lusts. Nor are we to be like the elder son, selfishly hoarding those resources and never allowing ourselves to live like we are heirs of the estate. Instead, we are to manage our goods as a reflection of the Father's heart, who cares for the outcasts, the sick, the marginalized, the orphan and the widow and the slave and the prisoner and the blind and the lame. The problem with the rich man is not that he is selfish, but rather that his selfishness puts him directly in opposition to the Father's heart.

3. The end of the parable is one of those intriguing statements that must have puzzled people when Jesus first uttered it but came to be extremely important in the early church. As the first Christians after Pentecost tried to tell their fellow Jews about Jesus and his resurrection, they faced tremendous frustration and disappointment and some limited success. Throughout the New Testament we hear echoes of that frustration, longing for the Jewish people to recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Here Jesus foretells that frustration, saying that even if someone rises from the dead (as he will shortly do) those who are entrenched in their own structures of religious power and certainty (the old wineskins he has talked about before) will refuse to believe him. We live with the same frustration today.

So don't let's make this a parable about the structure of the afterlife and miss Jesus' point. In regard to questions about what happens after death, maybe we are wisest to cling to Deuteronomy 29:29, where Moses tells the people that the hidden things belong to God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever. In Jesus' resurrection, the heart of the Father that will not even be stopped in the face of death is revealed and victorious. We cling to that.