Sunday, August 26, 2018

Shout from the Rooftop

My phone rang this afternoon, an uncommon occurrence which usually means confirmation of an appointment, notification of a prescription that is ready, or someone wanting to sell me something.  This time, my caller ID showed me a number that didn’t look familiar, so I was hesitant about taking it. It was my daughter-in-law, and she seemed quite excited.

She’s usually a rather fast talker, but this time it was at a kind of supersonic speed, and her first thing was, “Guess what?”.  She’d called to share good news was they had just signed the final papers for a house. She was so excited; how could I be anything but tremendously enthusiastic for her and my son. The neat thing is things seemed to fall into place as if it were planned out that way. It’s a house that they have rented for the last 12 years, and it the landlord informed him that he was interested in selling the property about the same time that they had been discussing buying a house. Up until then, they were happy renting, but they’re getting older and figured it was time to contemplate purchasing a home. The fantastic part about it is that they love the house, the area, the neighbors, the proximity to places where they go frequently, and that that they don’t have to move a single piece of furniture unless they want to change which wall it is against.

Getting news like that is fantastic, like getting news of a new grandchild (I have a grand-cat, and that’s fine with me!), someone I know won the lottery or had some other wonderful things like that happen.  It’s the kind of news I’d like to yell from the top of my trailer or call everybody I know to tell them. I didn’t do the former, but I did do the latter.

Getting good news seems to be like getting a breath of fresh air. Reading the local and national news is frequently rather depressing. It appears as if disasters and violence are abundant, and good news stories don’t seem to be anybody’s priority. Occasionally there is something fantastic, but it doesn’t last in the news as a school shooting, a false arrest, or something scandalous floating around the news stations that they can fill focus on.

We claim that Jesus preached the good news. We Christians believe that indeed it is good news, that Jesus came as a human being to live as a human being and also to invite us to share in the message of salvation and of the beauty of God’s kingdom. In some places, however, it would be hard to think about Jesus message as good news. The hope that Jesus brought and the joy of his words often get overlooked, just like the Bible verses, and there are many of them, that repeat “Love God and love your neighbor.” That’s good news, but we don’t always hear that when we listen to preachers and speakers talk to us about the wages of sin, how evil the world is, and how the kingdom of God is in heaven, which we can attain if we say the right phrases.

It’s difficult to focus on good news like “Love your neighbor as yourself,” when we seem to hear condemnation and the like from people who profess to be Christian.  Where is the good news if someone is told that by just being who they are, they are condemned by God. What always amazes me is that people who often proclaim their Christianity the loudest are the ones who we later find have been adulterers, thieves, bearers of false witness, perpetrators of crimes against women and children, and any of a number of other crimes and misdemeanors. It’s no wonder the term Christian often brings scorn and disgust when someone brings up their faith.

Like buying a new house, good news deserves to be spread, allowing others to share in the happiness and the depth of feeling that goes with it. Like having a new baby, people forget about the cares of the world as they look over the new infant, hold it, and touch its little cheek or hand and feel the warmth. It’s good news when two people get married. It’s good news when our kids succeed in life and that they grew up to be responsible, loving, and contented people. It’s good news when we speak and act in such a way that helps others see the kingdom of God in their lives and the lives of others.  It should be worth shouting from the housetops.

I’m happy for my kids; in fact, I couldn’t be more thrilled for them. I would like to think that there would be lots of good news around to cheer up a world that seems to be getting more cynical, sarcastic, and mean-spirited. Jesus didn’t teach those things. The focus of his message was love, and it seems to be that love is in short supply in lots of places.

The kingdom of God isn’t a goal to be achieved once I take my last breath. It’s something that is as close as my next breath and as available as God’s grace.  It’s not something where I can add up points for righteous living like points for a gas discount by buying X number of dollars of groceries at a specific store.  It’s a no-strings thing, unlike a buy-one, get-one-free offer.  It does require some effort, difficult things sometimes, like loving my neighbors, even if they are very different from me. Still, I don’t have to raise a sweat to work on loving, or kingdom-building.

It could be as simple as shouting the good news from the rooftops.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 25, 2018.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Love and Betrayal

The story of Samson and Delilah is one of those stories that we don’t hear often, but we know it when we do listen to it. It’s a story of love and betrayal, all the characteristics of an epic that pits love against guile.

Samson was the seventh judge of Israel, a leader of his people for 20 years. He was born to a barren couple, dedicated at birth to the Nazirite life, and only as he grew did he realize the strength that he had was a gift from God. God promised him that as long as he lived the Nazirite life (which consisted of avoiding grapes and wine, and never allowing a razor to touch his head), his strength would be invincible.

The scripture portion for today opens up with Samson visiting a prostitute, who was approached by other Philistines in an attempt to gain the secret of his immense strength. The Israelites and the Philistines had been at war for some time, and, like many other tribal wars, each side tried to get the best of the other, and if it required a bit of spying and treachery, that was just a cost of doing business. Philistines tried to catch Samson in the morning after he had visited the prostitute, but Samson had slipped out at midnight and so was gone by the time they went to arrest him.

Samson then fell hopelessly in love with another Philistine woman named Delilah. The men of Philistia offered her 1100 pieces of silver from each if she could discover how to humble Samson and give him into the hands of the Philistines. It seemed to be an offer too good to be passed up. Delilah, far from using feminine wiles, wasn’t afraid to approach the subject of how Samson strength could be curtailed. She tried these three times, and each time Samson gave her a different answer. When she tried the various things he had told her, and then tried to wake him up by crying loudly that the Philistines were coming, Samson merely snapped whatever was holding him and proved that that was not the answer. That’s where the story ends today, but you can be sure there is more to come.

The offering of such a significant amount of money to Delilah was indeed an impetus for her to attempt to secure the reason for Sampson’s strength. He had already killed thousands of Philistines, at one time killing a thousand using a jawbone of an ass. He was a force that had to be subdued, and the Philistine men realized that the way to do it was through Delilah.

Delilah may have been attracted to Sampson, but it certainly seems as if the money that she would receive for betraying him was more important than a continuing relationship with the strongest man in the world. Perhaps she didn’t like the idea that he was an Israelite. Probably Samson represented a possible disaster for her and her people. Maybe she was trying to save her people from a traditional (and immensely strong enemy. However it happened, Delilah was determined to find out Samson’s secret and then betray him to her own people.

Love and friendship have always been components of stories of triumph and tragedy. Some spies have betrayed their country because of either a false loyalty to an alien ideology or perhaps just for money. How many have been killed because they were deceived by one person who never knew them, but who put his or her own good above that of thousands of others? Maybe Delilah did it for love, at least the love of her own people and their well-being. Who knows?

We have to be careful about people who want to know things about us. There are so many warnings out these days about scams were people call or knock on the door asking for information and offering to provide plans and programs that could benefit the person to whom they are talking. It’s only when it is too late that most people realize that they have been scammed, as it were, and that their savings have been lost. We listen to campaign promises from politicians saying all the things that they are going to do for their constituents, and some of them actually do come through, but it seems that many don’t. They put the benefit of themselves and their fellow congressmen, business partners, and golf club fellow members ahead of what’s actually right for the constituents.

This is not what Jesus had planned. Loving one’s neighbor doesn’t mean taking advantage of them. Loving one’s neighbor does not mean betraying them for personal gain. Loving one’s neighbor does not mean making false promises and ignoring them when the time comes for payment. Loving one’s neighbor means doing things that would benefit them.

Then the question comes to my mind, wasn’t Delilah doing something that she felt would benefit her people by learning the secrets of an alien from another tribe proposed a very significant threat to the Philistines? Maybe it wasn’t all the money. Perhaps she honestly thought that she was doing the right thing by gathering up his secret and passing it along to those who could implement the actual entrapment.

Maybe Judas was doing what needed to be done when he betrayed Jesus, as much as we would like to think it was purely monetary. We’re taught to focus on the 30 pieces of silver and the idea that Judas was greedy. But is that the whole truth?

We have to be careful. A betrayal can mean something as simple as letting out a secret that wasn’t ours to voice. Betraying our superiors’ trust in us when we “borrowed” pencils and paper from the office or even money out of the cash box. We can say to ourselves, “Oh, well, they’ve got plenty,” but it’s still a betrayal that can cost many thousands of dollars to employers who trusted that the employees would do right. I have been totally surprised by the number of people I’ve known who have taken funds from employers, betraying them, and going undetected and unpunished.

Samson eventually lost his life, but he actually took a lot of people with him. I wonder if Delilah was in the Philistine temple the day that Sampson pulled it down in his final act of strength and appeal to God? I don’t know, but maybe that would be payment for betrayal?

We have to learn to be faithful and honest and most of all, aware of who and what is around us. We need to take care that we avoid betrayal of friends, family, business associates, and even God. We must be aware that our duty in life is to honor God by following the teachings of Jesus and living honest, upright lives. It may not be the easy way, but it’s God’s way, the only way.

God bless.             

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 18, 2018.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Clare and Francis, Special Friends

Luke 2:32-37 , gospel reading for the commemoration of Clare of Assisi

The story of Clare of Assisi, whose feast we commemorate today, is one that almost sounds like a fairytale, but not quite. Claire was born into a rich family, and grew up living almost the life of a princess. She was educated, taught needlework and household skills that highborn girls were expected to have, and she was expected to marry well. That’s where Clare and her family held very different viewpoints.

Claire was a devout girl, and one who was eager to explore the spiritual side of herself. She was not interested in getting married and told her family that. It was not what her family wanted to hear, and especially after Clare had heard an itinerant preacher in the town, and was persuaded by his simplicity, eloquence, and his faith. She began to speak with Francis of her desire to live a life totally devoted to God and service to the poor.  Her family had arranged a marriage for her when she was 15, but she was having none of it. One night, when she was 18, she ran away to attempt to live the life to which she was called. She met some monks who took her to Francis who accepted her as a follower.

He cut off her long beautiful hair, gave her a stiff homespun shift and a coarse rope to serve as a girdle. He then sent her to a cloistered Benedictine house. It is said her family attempted to remove her from the house, but she clung to the altar and finally ripped off the veil to reveal her shorn head. The family gave up, and Clare remained in the house for 41 years.

She continued with both visits from and correspondence to Francis, and their relationship deepened, not in a sexual way, but in the role of close friends who are comfortable with themselves and each other. Claire grew and blossomed under the discipline of the Benedictines and the discussions that she had with Francis. The friendship they shared lasted for the remainder of their lives. As Francis lay dying, Claire was by his side as his nurse and support. After his death, she returned to her duties in the Abbey where she had been made Abbess when she was only 21. She died in 1252 after a long illness.  In 1255 she was made a saint, based on several miraculous events and a lifetime of dedicated to the service of God and God’s children.  She is considered the patroness of a number of occupations and conditions such as needleworkers, goldsmiths, laundry workers, gilders, and also of television, telephones, and those with eye disorders.

I think the thing I like about this story is not the miracle of turning back a marauding army simply by standing in the window of the church, holding up a monstrance with a consecrated host which stopped the marauders in their tracks and saved not only the Abbey but also a number of local people. The thing I like most is that here was a woman in a time when women were seen as possessions and almost chattel.  This woman was intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated, had a friendship with one of the great theological figures of the time, re-wrote the Benedictine instructions the nuns were ordered to live by, and was the first woman to have done so. With Francis, nothing suggests that it was a master- servant relationship, or a father-daughter relationship; it seems to have been more a meeting of great minds, two people with the same goals and the same approach, and the same faith in what they were doing. It’s a good reminder that men and women can have deep friendships without it necessarily turning into something more carnal.

Both Francis and Clare were dedicated to caring for the poor. Francis and his followers went about preaching and evangelizing but also helping to raise awareness that God loved the poor. Clare, in her turn, created the Poor Clares, who lived very austerely, and did all that they could to help others to live more godly lives. The nuns slept on the floor on burlap with a burlap coverlet every night. They wore course habits and went barefoot. They ate only food that was donated, and shared it with those who came to them hungry. They gave up any form of luxury for themselves in order to help others, including caring for the sick, elderly, and infirm. The lesson from Luke was about serving others while remining as humble and invisible as possible. Clare and her nuns did their best to live lives that exemplified that teaching.

With Claire and Francis, we see the partnership that can be beneficial to both parties while at the same time leading them to follow what Jesus had preached so much about, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and in so doing, making the world better. They didn’t focus on the material things. If they had to live on bread and water, they lived on bread and water, but they didn’t do it begrudgingly. They gave this as a gift to God and a gift to their fellow human beings. They worked together, as did their individual houses and followers, and, as a consequence, they both were given the accolade of saint. Claire’s beatification came only two years after her death.

The order of Friars Minor and the order of the Poor Clares gave us a glimpse of living a Christian life the way Jesus explained and taught. They didn’t have Jesus to go to in the flesh as the disciples did, but yet Francis and Claire both seem to catch on to Jesus’s message far more easily. With them, it was a partnership with God, a meeting of the minds, the joining of the hearts, and a gift to all the generations to come after them.

I think Francis and Clare together helped to change the world, even if only a little. I think Claire shows us what being steadfast and open to the will of God can do, regardless of gender or economic status. Sometimes it is the strength of love rather than the strength of arms that make things change.

Now to go out in the world and not fear to make a change. Claire was one person, and a woman worth admiring and emulating.  I may not be of her caliber, but I can always try my best to be even a small force for change.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 11, 2018.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Watching the Money

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests* had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So, they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day. Matthew 28:11-15

Part of the gospel for today seems to be another one of those tales that echo down through the ages as a model of what not to do. Granted, looking back at it from our point of view, it seems almost contemporary. The story is familiar; only the cast has changed.

The chief priests and the Pharisees convinced Pilate to put guards on the tomb of a man considered to be a revolutionary and who had been crucified in the most public and shameful way. A respected man had given his own unused tomb to hold the body, and then a big stone was rolled across the front. Now who was going to break into a tomb and steal a body? Evidently enough powerful people thought it was not only possible but probable as well. After all, whoever heard of someone rising from the dead and disappearing? It was just too hard to understand and believe. The guards seem to have been witnesses to the appearance of Jesus, the “dead criminal,” over whose tomb the guards were expected to stand watch, after his resurrection and his meeting with two Marys. Upon their return to their barracks, some dared to go to their employers and report what they had seen.

Anxious to keep the true story a secret, the priests and the Pharisees together decided that the men who were guarding the tomb should say nothing, but if they were pinned down, they were to say that Jesus’s followers had broken into the tomb and stolen the body while the guards were asleep. That’s when some money changed hands, just to ensure the guards had enough motivation to do as they were told

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a similar situation in our contemporary society. In fact, if I look hard enough, I can undoubtedly find lots of examples of payoffs covering things that the higher-ups do not want known. It’s almost a way of life. Today, however, it seems to be a way of life in certain quarters, not just in the gangland societies, where if you slip some dollars under the table, it will get somebody’s legs broken, a family member of an important person kidnapped, or just about anything else. It seems that money makes the world go around. The “haves” are always happy to have a group beholden to them and upon whom they can call to do certain little jobs for pay that will keep the higher-up’s hands clean, at least until somebody figures out who is behind whatever the action was.

Money, or the love of it, is said to be the root of all evil. Scruples can be overcome if the amount of money offered is sufficient to make the scruples of even an honest person totter a bit, or even fall completely. Gangland bosses know that, politicians know it, captains of industry and chieftains of commerce know it, the government knows it, even the church knows it. In short, it far from an uncommon thing to pick up a newspaper or turn on a news broadcast and not hear something that someone has done for which they were paid to deny that it ever happened. It’s almost become a farce, and it runs through all levels of society, although the poor are usually the ones that are set up to take the fall while the rich go on about their merry business with the most innocent faces in the world. Somehow, I think things like that would probably make Jesus cry – or at least face-palm.

Jesus understood money. He spoke of it from time to time and always in the sense that money is not something that should be the be-all and end-all of things. Wealth is to be shared, not hoarded and not paid out to accomplish something criminal or even slightly criminal. Proof of that was in Jesus’s own disciples; Judas betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. Now whether it was something that Judas had to do or whether it was offered to him and made into such a good offer he couldn’t refuse, Jesus himself betrayed because someone paid money to get rid of a pesky problem and to make sure that the originators of the plot looked as innocent as newborn babes.

I think I’m going to have to look at the news a bit more critically and to see where the money trail goes. I may not be able to find out much, but I think if I see where that money trail is leading, I’m going to find that it’s not leading to God’s kingdom on earth but rather to the enrichment of those who are already rich and the increased marginalization of the poor who, we are told, are always with us. I think I have to choose whether to follow Jesus or follow the money. The truth is that Jesus was a poor man, killed by the rich, and by people who bought off others to betray and to lie. I don’t think I’m going to have to look very far to find who the Judas is and where the tomb guards are operating in the world I live in.

Look for yourself. Remember that the kingdom of God may require money, but not at the price of someone’s life, freedom, or beliefs. It’s time to get serious about this kingdom business and doing things the way God wants us to, not with the ways of the world.  It’s time to watch the money and see where it goes—and where it should go.

God bless. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August , 2018, under the title "Moneychanging."