Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What further testimony do we need?

Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ They kept heaping many other insults on him.

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us.’ He replied, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.’ All of them asked, ‘Are you, then, the Son of God?’ He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’ Then they said, ‘What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!’

- Luke 22:63-71

A kangaroo court, indeed. Is this an honest trial of a man? I don't think so. We start first with the scene in the cell - one of deliberate humiliation of someone who has been a spiritual teacher. It makes me recall Jesus' teachings and preaching and the nature of spiritual faith. Jesus' healings took place via faith: there had to be (to my mind) a connection between himself and the healed first. Within the person who received the healing - and we can think of spiritual teaching as a form of healing as well - there was already an inner connection, a reception, of the truth in Jesus' words, and a connection to him as a deep response, a form of relatedness. I think it is important to understand this particular "electrical" nature of spiritual reality. It's like a circuit that is formed between people. Faith is a relationship, a deep inner response. In the Christian case, it is response not just to a set of ideas but to a Person, a deep relatedness, a kind of devotion that confers with it values and notions of truth that originate in that Person. So, to spit with contempt upon Jesus and tell him to prophecy is a profaning of that spiritual reality, and spiritual relatedness. It is a profane way of demanding signs, something akin to the practice of magic. Of course, its intentions are simply brutal, here. This is an abuse of a prisoner, designed to humiliate and degrade with contempt.

Finally we go to trial before the council, which could only take place in the daytime. Jesus himself says that his interlocutors don't really want the truth from him. They're not asking him questions in order to seek the truth about him. Instead, they ask so that they can condemn. Jesus says, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer' when they ask if he is the Messiah, and I think he's right. This is not a question, it's a demand. Neither, says Jesus, is he allowed his own defense - to put questions to the council. When Jesus goes on to say, 'But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God' it is an affirmation that his status with God the Father is as an equal. To call himself the Son of Man is also an affirmation of a title of the predicted Messiah. I also see this statement as affirming his imminent death and what is to pass - this is something he knows is already before him, and he understands the aim of this court. Indeed, the moment he seemingly admits positively his answer to the question - or rather the demand to tell them if he is the Messiah, Jesus is finished in this particular courtroom. "What further testimony do we need?" they ask. Jesus is already condemned as a blasphemer.

To me, as I've said above, this passage reminds me of the power and nature of faith. It is, of course, a false courtroom, and a man convicted without testimony and without a fair hearing. But more than that, the nature of faith is something that is seemingly either within us or not. Either there is a connection to something deep inside of ourselves or there is not. One thing is certain, in order to receive any form of wisdom or faith or truth, our hearts must be at least open to receiving it, at least open to accepting what may be there that is true, and useful, and good. If we have made up our minds in advance, if we do not hold out our hearts to truth, we are going to miss something new that may be added to our understanding in life. To ridicule what we don't understand is not proper in terms of the practice of faith and the seeking of spiritual truth. To treat others with contempt or menacing harassment is a form of the highest ignorance, and to do so is cementing our ignorance within us. Pride, the assumption that we have all the answers, is perhaps the worst spiritual sin - at least in these gospels, it seems to confer the worst forms of blasphemy and rejection of the Good that are possible on those who assume their righteousness to be unquestionable, unassailable. And yet, we recall, these gospels also teach us that the heart is always capable of metanoia, of reconsidering and thinking again, of opening to a change of mind, a return and restoration to our true selves when we open to truth. If nothing else, this "court" scene teaches us the importance of truth, an honest searching even for that which we do not know, an open heart and mind to that truth, and a willingness to learn lest we practice some injustice and deprive ourselves of Good.

May we always remember the lessons in this scene; may they continue to inform our own notions of justice and truth and the search for meaning as we go forward in time. I feel this spiritual literature itself is responsible for many of our modern notions of what is fair and what is just, the story of Jesus having served as an example of what can so easily be wrong with our human social structures and institutions. May it continue to serve the needs of mankind, opening us up to our own flaws and injustice, and our easy sins of assuming that what is outside of what we know must just be wrong.

Monday, June 29, 2009

But this is your hour, and the power of darkness

Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’

Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.

- Luke 22:52-62

In this passage, we continue the moments of great darkness, what might have been called more colloquially, a "witching hour" - a time of great reversal. Jesus himself says, 'But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’ What is being done is done in secret, and not before the people. There is suggestion here of extrajudicial action, something beyond the scope of normal due process. Jesus says that he is being treated as a bandit, and not as someone who was day after day teaching openly in the temple, where no one would approach him.

As he is being led to the high priest's house, Peter follows, and what happens afterward is a sign of this reversal, this hour of darkness. Peter is questioned three times about his allegiance to the Teacher - and three times he refuses to even acknowledge any connection with Jesus. This is Peter's predicted betrayal. In the heat of his emotions so often, our "Rock" Peter has sworn great allegiance. Yet Jesus knew him well, and predicted his betrayal. Verse 61 notes that after this betrayal of denial three times, "The Lord turned and looked at Peter." This personal note of a glance between Jesus and Peter, the master and disciple, is found only in Luke, our great physician and doctor of human nature.

But of course, there's a purpose to this beyond our hour of darkness. Whatever happens in life, we know that reversals and trials are going to come. There's none of us that's perfect. But Luke, our physician, is always about restoration, that which heals and restores us to ourselves. The glance of Christ, here, toward his friend and apostle Peter, is so profound, because it tells us that no matter what the darkness, who we are is known and acknowledged. Peter's deepest failing as a man and as a follower of this Teacher, as someone who has sworn his deepest allegiance only a short time before, is acknowledged for what he's done. The evangelist leaves no doubt that Christ knows full well his apostle's betrayal of Jesus and his own word.

But unlike Judas, Peter's deep repentance, his bitter tears, will lead to a humble desire for forgiveness, a return to Christ. But that will come later in the gospel. For now, let us focus on and understand this nature of ourselves as emotional beings, given to great sworn statements (to ourselves or to others) of our intentions, our best-laid plans, our most high hopes for some sort of personal plan or resolution. I think it's important to be aware of our own natures, that we can't predict what a time of darkness will do for us - or rather "to" us. We don't know what every test or challenge will bring; what hardships may bring out our own weaknesses, our own betrayals of our best intentions and deepest hopes for the kind of person we think we are. In this example, we know what we are and that we have weakness, and it's important to acknowledge that, and know that despite our imperfections, we're not put in the world to serve as plaster statues or absolute models in some sort of static sense of being, but rather life is a dynamic process of growth and advancement. We have our ups and downs. We fail. And then again, we may just return for an even greater, and deeper response and affirmation to life that lifts us beyond our greatest hopes for what we can leave behind us, and who we can be, what virtues we are capable of embodying in response to deep challenges.

In the darkness, I pray for you, and me, because we'll all feel it one way or another. The question is really how we go through it, and understand it. If you experience this particular darkness - of evil, of injustice and deceit, of reversal, betrayal, or even your own heart-breaking weakness despite your best intentions, know that there is a way through it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Change your minds

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

- Matthew 21:23-32

A lesson here on hypocrisy and truth. What's more real, the thing we preach or the thing we do? The thing we say or the thing we believe? We've all heard the expression, "Actions speak louder than words." What's in your heart is who you are, seems to be a theme repeated in Christ's teachings.

We can't often help what's in our hearts. Perhaps we're angry, we've been rejected, or abused, or subject to injustice. Perhaps we're proud (as opposed to a sense of self-respect) or arrogant in some way. Every possibility is there. But we can choose how we will go through things and approach them, and we can choose to find, deep within ourselves, a relationship to that which will help us along the road to healing and correction. We're not slaves to our past choices or our emotional states. When Jesus speaks here of repentance - of the salvation of the "tax-collectors and prostitutes," he's speaking of the heart's ability to respond to truth. There is an inward part of our hearts, deeper and truer than the things that may stand in the way, that we can open up to, that responds to truth and wants it. The depth of the heart can respond to truth and love even if we've been hurt or harmed in our lives, even if all the emotions there rile us up, confuse us, and we're plagued with frustration. We're still endowed with something that allows us to find a better way. This is a sense of the heart, or the deepest part of ourselves, in spiritual language. It's the place we seek God, to know something beyond "the world" that may present us with a harsh view indeed of life.

In this passage, Jesus is accused of breaking the law for having chastised the tradesmen in the temple. He's also asked by what authority he's done so, since he's not officially a Levitical priest and doesn't have the training normally required to be a rabbi. But, instead of giving in to this accusation and its set-up to put him on the defensive, Jesus responds with a few charges of his own. What's in the heart of his accusers, however, isn't sincere seeking here. It's a way to bring charges against him because his power with the people is growing too strong, and because this faith of the people he's preached to is a threat to the way that things are done. These motives have to do with envy and competition. So, when Jesus asks about John the Baptist, they can't answer, because they fear the will of the people. And then Jesus goes further, and speaks about sincerity, the embrace of the truth, and the always-open power of repentance - this capacity to "change our minds" and to seek with that deeper sense of self that which we respond to that gives us peace, a reconciliation to something we know is true, and that asks us to clear out the things, the obstacles, that stand in its way in us.

In Luke Chapter 6, Jesus is quoted as saying, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." So, we could ask, what's your treasure? In the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition, there is what is known as "the mind in the heart." In spiritual or religious terms, "the mind" is a faculty capable of apprehending God, or rather God's wisdom - something with which we are endowed that enables us to understand more than what's around us and what our experiences are, but also to have insight, a faculty for wisdom and not just information, to understand a relationship with God. "The heart" in spiritual terms is that deepest part of ourselves, the place where we dwell as a child of the Creator before all else. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has put it, this is the place that denotes us as a "spiritual subject." "The mind in the heart" allows us to recall that which might just change our minds, produce repentance, see a better way to live or to look at life, differently from what we've always done or thought. It allows us to go beyond our assumptions, our emotions, our threatened feelings. This acceptance and integration of "the mind in the heart" is a lifetime process, a day by day kind of going forward in this sense of repentance - in Greek metanoia or "change of mind." May you make the most of the gift, and recall, in Jesus' words, that we all stand as equals before this reality that gives us the gift of this truth, and seek it for yourself in the depth of the heart.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.

- Luke 22:39-51

My first "concern" in this passage is the business with the swords. Why does Jesus tell his disciples (in yesterday's reading) that they need swords? When they get two of them, Jesus says that it is enough. In this passage, the confrontation with the violent begins; a sword is used against the slave of the high priest, and Jesus says, 'No more of this!' and touches his ear and heals him. My conclusion - at this point - is to say that Jesus' concern for his own followers was so complete, he wanted them at least to have some form of protection lest they come to harm. But the aggression and violence should not come from them; and indeed he goes so far as to heal whatever harm they cause to those who've come for him. I also feel that these passages set us down into that place of reversal, and they tell us that Jesus does not know exactly what to expect in terms of the violence with which he will be taken. It may be somewhat controversial, but in this time of reversal, it is not Jesus' power that's being used to create the conflict, but another power over which he is not exerting his control. He knows what's in the mind of others, he has known they wish to kill him, and he knows that it is a time of violence and death. But he cannot predict to what extent the violence will occur, nor even how his own disciples will react. We have free will; we can embrace the Good or that which is against the Good. We make our choices and God himself does not control them. This free will is a part of who we are. Our Lord, here, knows there is great violence afoot, but he is not the author of the violence - these passages tell me the power behind the violence is far away from the power of the Lord. It is something other.

Truly, the nature of violent confrontation is its unpredictability. When war begins, when some sort of conflict starts, part of the nature of its fearfulness and harm is in its unpredictability, and how quickly things can become completely out of hand, and violence can escalate far beyond the understanding even of its originators. We see this time and again in conflict of all forms; there is a chaos and anarchy to violence once it begins. We don't know where it will end; we don't know the limits of depravity even we ourselves could be responsible for in its grasp. But we must come to understand this, and know when we are in "all hell" (to quote Gen. Sherman), and far away from the Lord. We know it is a true breakdown of order, culture, civilization and reason - the opposite of Logos. I believe that this confrontation gives us a glimpse into the spiritual reality of the conflict between good and evil in the world; and the freedom through which we act and make our choices.

We also observe the great fear and foreboding that exists in this scene before the confrontation actually happens. Our Lord, who knows all, does not seem to know precisely how this will happen - again, to my mind, telling us that the nature and author of this violence is far away from the Lord. It is from a different mind and a different source. So fearful is Jesus himself of the outcome of this betrayal and violence that he prays it will pass. I am certain he feared for his flock, for what would become of them if he were put to this violent death. We know he feared for their faith. He tells them here they must pray not to be put to trial. It is a sense in which great evil, once it is plunged into headlong, knows no limits. There is no reason here, no law. The unpredictability itself is evidence of its lawlessness. It is not Christ who behaves without law or reason here, although in this upside-down time of darkness, he's counted as "lawless."

Finally, the great betrayal is the centerpiece of this passage. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. And in this act we have the great reversal itself, an example of anti-logic, if you will. A man is sent to his death and destruction through the kiss of an insider, one of the twelve, his inner circle. What is conveyed is a great act for which "hypocrisy" is not a suitable enough word. There's murder in this kiss - and I think we have another spiritual clue about the nature of evil, of violence and death and destruction of the good. That it is the opposite of truth; it must hide its action in a false front, it is a deceiver. This spiritual character of evil is "reversal" itself: nothing is as it seems, it seeks to hide, to convey a nature opposite to itself, it is a trick. This is the substance of our greatest fears.

May God be with you in whatever time of trial you experience in life. May you stand with the Good in all of it, and uphold the values of Good, and God's peace.

Friday, June 26, 2009

This scripture must be fulfilled in me

‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’

He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

- Luke 22:31-38

This is a time when what's "right" is turned on its head. The logic of the kingdom - that the Good should be embraced, that life should be reinforced, abundance chosen - is being stood on its head, reversed. This is a time of deep reversal, and, in Jesus' words, an attack of the evil. Christ is betrayed by one of his own, Jesus fears for the faith of his most devoted and emphatic followers, and he tells his own flock that now they must be prepared for anything, for any reversal. The savior of the world, the preacher of the good news, is now counted among the criminal. It is a time when Logos (the universal creative principle, the giver of reason, form, understanding) is declared "lawless" in the affairs of the world. We are in a time of strange reversal, of that which obstructs the good, sets back progress and love, and denies the reality that helps we humans see ourselves through life in this world.

No wonder human superstition persists through time and throughout the world. We see in this example of this dark hour something akin to what is colloquially called a "witching hour" but is in fact something much more tragic and difficult. Because what we understand to be a deep reversal of the Good is in fact something we're vulnerable to. At our most powerful moments, we are tried in ways we don't expect. Jesus stands on the brink of a final saving moment, of the moment of sacrifice which in fact will change the course of history in establishing this story we still read and ponder. But at this moment is the greatest temptation and acts of evil; the door is opened to persecution and harshness. I feel, quite often, that as I take a step forward in faith in my life, it is also somehow a time of trial. Perhaps I face a great temptation at the same time, or I need to "undo" through my own internal capacity for change, something from the past that I had decided long ago was a way to live my life, or some great false attack of guilt or of what I "should" do instead takes on great force in my mind. Here we see Peter warned that he'll be tempted. He too, will betray his Master. But Christ sees past this temptation and betrayal, and prays for Peter's restoration on that path of faith. And I think this is what we must remember.

How can the apostles possibly prepare themselves for what is to come? It must have been unimaginable to them. How could it be that the Messiah could be murdered, hung upon a cross with the greatest criminals, the most dangerous, and those considered deserving of this harshest form of death? How is it possible that human beings could put God to death? These questions will serve as stumbling blocks, and still do. We are in a time of reversal - yet, also, the time of opportunity. Through the strange workings of this will of God, of the Father, Jesus will go voluntarily to his unjust death, and in so doing, sow the seeds of redemption, transcendence and victory. Nothing makes sense, and yet it is still with us, this story of deep paradox and the deepest challenges, saving in its power and its grace, and its power to inspire us to acts also of transcendence and commitment to the Good.

Transcendence is the word here, now, at this moment, for so many things. We know of one great betrayal by Judas; and yet at the same time Peter's betrayal is also predicted but his redemption is also in the picture. Judas did not return to the flock for forgiveness - one wonders what would have happened if he did. Peter will go on to become the great orator and leader of the apostles. But in this moment, we understand the test and the darkness. Fear is a power reflected in our lives to this day; violence continues to shake our world, to set back hopes for peace or progress; culture and civilization break down in that violence of war that has been called "hell." We cling to our prayer, our hope, our redemption. We need it as much as ever. It is good to remember that in times when we take our deepest steps forward, we also just might face a trial of reversal - and remember that transcendence and victory just might not look like what we predicted or thought it might. May peace be with you in all of your trials; may we all have the wisdom - the grace - to understand what victory is like, even if it's not what we expected at all.

Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
- Psalm 73

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The greatest among you must become like the youngest, the leader like one who serves

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

- Luke 22:24-30

In this passage we read some key ideas about hierarchies - about what that means in terms of Jesus' kingdom and the relatedness or relationships he wishes to establish among his followers.

Jesus has just declared that he is to be betrayed, but seemingly at his annunciation of this new kingdom, all the apostles can do is debate among themselves who's going to be in charge, who will be the top man. Sadly an indication of our own understanding of hierarchy and rank, Jesus sets them right by announcing a sense of service that turns these common earthly or human notions of rank on their heads. His own idea of relatedness is to serve one another. He goes even further than that, the one who would be greatest among them is the one who must serve all.

Jesus says here that it's part of the "ways of the Gentiles" that kings and the greatest Lord it over the others. He says that those in high positions are called benefactors, and we're given to understand that this is a mere title, while practice essentially means something else. This is a call to understand the nature of relations within his kingdom, his vision of what he wants his followers to be, and we need to pay heed to this as much today as ever.

Given the sensibilities taught in this central book of literature 2,000 years later, we too call our leaders "public servants." Christ has instituted an ideal to live up to; we consider those whom we elect or put in high office to be responsible for acting for the greater good. Corruption is when they "Lord it over" the rest of us, or call themselves benefactors while benefiting themselves! We can think of many issues in which leaders of various types of public institutions behave with corruption, without really living up to the responsibility given to them. But Christ's institution goes much deeper into notions of service and responsibility than even our high-minded public notions of service. The one who is greatest must be the one who serves. Think about that. Service, in this notion, is indeed the mark of the leader, the character itself of leadership, of greatness - in Jesus' case, even heroism. Can we possibly value service, in our daily relationships with others, as something that confers the status of greatness? Could we envision that vision?

Furthermore, what does it mean exactly to serve? Here, Jesus elaborates that he will share his very kingdom with those who have shared his trials with him. All of his apostles have been through hardship with him, and will continue in hardship working for the kingdom when he is gone. A spiritual kingdom that is to come is one in which he will share his own power with those who've stood by him and been through his trials with him. So, I think we're given, here, to understand the nature of Spirit, of spiritual reality. This isn't a reality just like the one of hierarchies and rank that we live every day as a "worldly" reality, but one instead where spiritual power multiplies and shares itself with those who choose to participate in it. Just like the loaves and the fishes, the bread of this Eucharist is to multiply itself, to feed all, to share with all. We can each participate, and we will each be gifted with grace which we can share, serving others and something beyond ourselves. We can then experience this hierarchy of service as greatness for ourselves. Do you have a special grace in your life? Is there a place where you can relate to something or someone as in this kingdom?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Do this in remembrance of me

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.

- Luke 22:14-23

The Last Supper, here reported in Luke's gospel, is the Passover meal. Passover, we remember, is the remembrance of deliverance of the people of Israel. They would leave to find a promised land, a new kingdom - the Passover itself a remembrance of the "passing over" of the Spirit of the Lord of the Hebrew homes marked with the blood of a lamb. So, in this symbolic Last Supper meal, remembered to this day in the practice of the Eucharist, we have layers upon layers of meanings and symbolic spiritual messages. Jesus says here that he is entering into a new kingdom, with a new covenant, for a new deliverance. All will be fulfilled in the drinking of the cup, spiritually and metaphorically, on a number of levels.

But first we have here the great Eucharist, an institution of the remembrance which will be practiced in the church - the bread and the wine serving as remembrance of what is taking place in this moment. I read in commentary (in the Orthodox Study Bible) that "remembrance in its biblical significance is a reliving of the original event." Jesus has said, in Monday's reading, that "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place." In this passage for today's reading, it seems to me that Jesus is making similar reference to the tremendous, significant spiritual events that are happening as he prepares this Eucharist at the Last Supper, the Passover meal. Being fulfilled in this moment is the deliverance into a new kingdom, the defeat of the great enemy, Jesus' sacrifice as the instrument of victory. Our remembrance, our recollection, of this timeless spiritual reality, fulfilled in that Passover Supper, is the Eucharist. We recall it to ourselves, we remind ourselves of its living and timeless reality, when we share and partake in that remembrance. To remember is to bring again to life a reality, a person, a relationship - this is the spiritual understanding of remembrance. We recall to ourselves that which lives and is always present to us, a part of the cloth of life we don't always see or experience but nevertheless must recall to ourselves, remind ourselves, is always there and present to us. And we need this reality.

This Last Supper is an occasion of deliverance from sin, I read in commentary. We have to understand the reality of that deliverance from the perspective of what it means that Christ makes this sacrifice: we have a new form of the blood of the lamb in the Passover, and the unleavened bread. Christ brings with him, and with his sacrifice, a spiritual kingdom, a defeat of the bondage of sin, a deliverance in spiritual terms that is set out for the whole world, in which we each can participate. It's up to us, I believe, to try to understand that deliverance from a perspective of good judgment. What does it mean that he faced his own death in such a way? How does a death on the cross create such a defeat? These are the important questions to ask ourselves as we go through these passages. Certainly we can see his heroism - he dies for a cause, a community, a relationship of people stretching into a new age, and beyond.

But what of this sacrifice? How did it defeat death and sin? How does it set us free from bondage? As Jesus accepts betrayal and death, we are to see what it means to serve a cause that is beyond this world, that transforms life through his death. The Greek Orthodox hymn of Easter tells us he "trampled death by death." Have we been through transformation and rebirth in our own lives? On what spiritual level does a condemnation of archetypal sin: betrayal and envy, the persecution of the Good, help to liberate us from its bondage in us? Can we transcend the most difficult circumstances and live to deliverance from fear, even of death? We will think about these things as we go through these passages; the deepest transcendence, the darkest and brightest moments of deliverance and death, and the final blessing of the birth of the kingdom. Many will follow in Jesus' footsteps as martyrs for something beyond "normal" human understanding. May these depths of transcendence serve you in all your difficulties as well. That's my prayer for everyone today.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.

Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.’ They asked him, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for it?’ ‘Listen,’ he said to them, ‘when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ ” He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.’ So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

- Luke 21:37-22:13

The great Passover festival approaches, significant here for so many reasons we can try to understand. I think it's no coincidence that just prior to this period of the Passover, Jesus has been discussing his return and the prediction of the desolation of the temple. We are stepping into a period of cataclysmic events, all profoundly tied in spiritual significance through prophecy and through Jesus himself, his life and his teachings. The Mount of Olives, or Olivet, I read in commentary, was a place where pilgrims stayed who came to Jerusalem for Passover, when the city overflowed with people. So Jesus' night encampment is with fellow pilgrims who've come to the city for the Passover festival. As at his birth, this is a "time of no room." As was the case with his birth, and as he lived his life of ministry, Jesus stays with those who have nowhere else to stay, no formal roof over their heads. He is the outsider, and it is in great part the outsiders - those outside the formal structures of power - who hang onto his words and are held by his teachings.

But he doesn't stay on the Mount of Olives (or Mount Olivet) to teach. He goes to the temple to teach. Despite lack of formal authority, he goes every day early in the morning to this central place of worship, this beautiful sprawling temple, and teaches there. I read descriptions of the temple and it must have been extraordinarily beautiful, a splendid place, of immense construction, and unimaginable that it could be destroyed as it was.

But of course, Jesus' words about corruption hit home. His popularity with the crowds who come to hear him teach tells us, to my mind, about the connection that Spirit makes within people. To this day, we understand the pull of the Spirit: when we hear words that seem to us true, that speak beyond a seamless image that everything is well and fine, and we know it is not. Nothing has changed, if you ask me, about this nature of Spirit and of truth, that it cuts through all things and goes to our hearts. We don't know what it would or could have been like to stand in the presence of this Jesus himself, alive in the world as Son of Man, but we do know the electrifying quality of truth when we hear it - of something that commands our loyalties despite all appearances contrary to its message. And I imagine the crowds who were glad to hear his teaching made an impact on those who were his targets for criticism.

One other person who was criticized by Jesus (also over an issue in dealing with money) was Judas Iscariot, his apostle. In the story of the woman who broke an expensive jar of ointment in order to bathe Jesus' feet, we are told that the woman was criticized for wasting something that could be sold and given to the poor. Jesus rebukes those who criticize her, because the woman has acted out of great love. This story appears in all four gospels, but the specific critic of the woman is named in John's gospel as Judas Iscariot. We've also been told that Judas was the treasurer for the apostles and this early church of followers, so it would make sense that he'd be the one to complain about the expense and criticize the woman. Although Jesus' rebukes to all of the apostles seem to occur at one time or another and for various reasons, here I believe we may come to understand its possible effect on Judas. A native of Jerusalem and presumably of some sort of family of rank, we may possibly understand or surmise that Judas was unhappy with the direction of Jesus' ministry to begin with. Perhaps he had other expectations for its outcome and direction. I am just speculating. But I do think the turning point lies here in a response to rebuke. And that's where an important lesson starts.

In the archetypal stories of a rebellion in heaven, a rebellion against God and the authority of Christ, we are given to understand that Lucifer's rebellion occurs chiefly because of envy. Who is this Christ, whence comes his authority? Over and over again, it seems, in the stories of the bible, we're warned about envy and its effects and consequences. This goes to the intentions in the heart of each of us, an understanding about human relations. So we are told here, also, of the envy of the powers that be in Jerusalem, especially because of the following of Jesus by the crowds who listen to his teaching. Do we listen to a true rebuke in the spirit in which it's given?

Don't we all know people who have our best interest at heart, as well as those who'd rejoice in our shortcomings and failures? I believe that it's essential to understand these passages and the psychological motivations within ourselves in terms of these archetypal realities about the human psyche, about our souls. Everything seems to be combined into intention; it all begins and ends there. A reasonable misunderstanding is something quite different from deliberate malice. A great joy in shared success different from the envy that may shape our response. As we go toward these cataclysmic events we read about in the passages of the bible, I think we do best to turn to our own hearts and understand its meanings in terms of telling us about who we are as humans, and what it means to be a human being. Our ultimate understanding comes from this encounter with truth within ourselves: can we love it and embrace it? or do we resent the one who says it? Is a criticism given in the spirit of love, or of envy and rejection? I ask these questions today because I think they're pertinent, and how we live our lives comes down to these crucial questions. The archetypal sins of spiritual literature - at least in our tradition we're discussing - are there for a reason, to teach us about ourselves and our nature. Whatever we read in these gospels and in these texts - both Old and New Testament - is, in the end, all about us, about the reality we embrace and share and how we live in it, what we do with it, how we embrace it.

Finally, the day of Unleavened Bread is here in our reading. To this day, an essential part of the Passover celebration is this remembrance of the time when the people of Israel had to flee, leaving no time for the rising of the bread. So it is at this point in Luke's gospel, that we are aware of warnings that this time will come again - for Jerusalem, and for each of us. We prepare for that day by being vigilant about what's in our hearts and how we choose to relate to the world - and to the truth about what we may need to do or to be, or how we might need to make an internal change.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away

Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

- Luke 21:29-36

I read in commentary that there are two ways, historically, of interpreting the passage about "this generation" (verse 32). "This generation" may refer to Jesus' contemporaries and "all things" pertains to the capture of Jerusalem. On the other hand, "this generation" may be the new Christian generation and "all things" include the return of Christ. The latter is the preferred interpretation, I read, of the Church Fathers. However, I think once again we're speaking of both together - at least I tend to see it that way. I continue with the impression that the two events - the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem and the final end, the end of the age and the return of the Son of Man - are inextricably linked in some important spiritual way. I find it a little peculiar, grammatically, that Jesus' words do not read "until all these things have taken place," but rather "until all things have taken place." This puts a sort of eschatological turn onto the phrase and the story. We are in the midst of cataclysmic world-changing events. The spiritual reality is clear - and we know, given the time in which this passage is taking place, that the defeat of the great Enemy is near, that the reality of that Judgment and that second coming is assured, and that time and its nature overlap in terms of an eternal reality and our temporal reality.

Regardless of how we choose to look at these passages, one message is particularly clear - that the important thing is not precisely when or at what date these events occur, but rather how we view them and are prepared for them. Do we accept this a spiritual reality, and do we live with it in our conscious awareness of our own state of being as if we accept this as fact? Are we part of this "acceptable time" and do we live our lives accordingly? I think these are the important questions that remain unanswered, and for us to answer for ourselves. Where are we in this grand scheme of things, and what signs do we remember or witness around us in the world that remind us that we have a consciousness of something to remember for ourselves, when we choose how we'll live out our lives?

Ultimately, notions of Judgment and of cataclysmic upheaval, of great important change and transitions impact each of us in our own lives. We each must relate to them as individuals, although they concern in some sense the whole human race. It's as individuals that we come to Judgment - or so I believe. We're told "the very hairs on our heads are numbered" and that this Spirit is as close to us as our heart, that even the Trinity Itself indwells us as human beings. So we must remember, I think, that these "signs" are for us to recall to ourselves and to remember that it is a part of our consciousness to be aware of a higher reality, of something that asks us who we are, where we are in our lives, how we are doing in terms of spiritual reality. And that's how we stay prepared. It's that consciousness that teaches us that we have a different measure by which we're measured than the competition of life day by day, and how we're doing in that particular fight and struggle. There's a "good fight" going on as well that we have to give our attention to, and pay respects accordingly with our choices.

It's all voluntary, of course, this "good fight," this spiritual struggle. Jesus tells us to "be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." No one will escape this reality, in time. All religions, I believe, teach us about a kind of a code, something that is external to the reality of the life we live day to day, but nevertheless something of which we must be aware. It's that cognizance that drives us to understand that "we" are not all there is, that there's a measure by which we're measured that we must take into account and which pulls us out of ourselves, and gives us that uniquely human capacity for self-consciousness - to contemplate who we are, how we're doing. Jesus teaches us nothing if not to be vigilant in this awareness, not to lapse in our understanding of this sense within ourselves of this other reality that is always there, for every generation and all people.

I received a quotation via email the other day, and I'd like to share it here. It's from a Buddhist spiritual leader, and I think it fits our sense well of the consciousness about life and this "struggle" that we are to retain. Jesus as Logos, as universal reality toward which we all struggle, is something we may find reflected all over the world, in some sense, to my understanding.

"On this small planet, in the daily dreams of our life, beneficial deeds are always recommended, simply because we are all born to help each other.
By sharing our love with different expressions and through the practice of generosity, morality and understanding, we will then be fulfilling our purpose of being members of the human race." - His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa May 2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

- Matthew 19:23-30

So important is this story to the evangelists, that it appears in three gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. The quotation about the camel and the eye of the needle appears in each. The final sentiment, that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, also appears in all three gospels. The statement about riches, about discipleship and humility is inextricably linked in the writing of all three gospels. So we must take this passage as a whole, and understand its great emphasis in the teachings we find in the evangelists' works.

To this day, of course, the difficulties of separating ourselves from what we own, and what image that makes in the eyes of others, remain. The sayings remain true in the sense of how hard it is for we human beings to separate ourselves from all the things that add up to make an identity - socially - of who we are. We're best off counting things: what job we have, what house we have, where we stand with others in terms of rank through some form of wealth in the world. But spiritual life asks us to be able to separate ourselves from all of those things in the sense that we put an allegiance first to something else, something Other - something that will radically define us as human beings in the context of our relationship with that Spirit, with the something Other. God, the ultimate Other, pulls our allegiance and understanding away from possession and what we have, and asks us instead to work on who we are at places within ourselves that "neither moth nor rust can corrupt."

This ability to distinguish between all the things that define us - all the possessions and wealth, if you will - in terms of a social context, and the things that define us in prayer and relationship to God seems to me to be crucial to the practice of our faith. At least that's what I find so completely and emphatically emphasized in the gospels, if only through repetition (not just in the repeated instance of this same story, but other passages illustrating the same point as well). We have to be able to pull back and ask, "How'm I doing?" in the context of a relationship to Spirit, to values that aren't about climbing a particular ladder of social status or accumulation. I might even venture here to include the notion of accomplishment as well as one of those things we tend to look at as accumulation. All of this, I believe, has to be framed first in the context of "How'm I doing?" with regard to God's particular answer to that question. There are all kinds of ways of being "someone" in the world, but there's one place where "someone" is defined spiritually - and that place is intimate and apart from all the rest of it, yet frames the rest of our lives within a particular context of Spirit. Deep in our psyches, in our souls, we can reach out to a place where we separate who we are from what we have and think about how we live, and how we're doing.

Humility is an extraordinarily difficult virtue to practice. I think there's nothing tougher. Jesus goes to the great length, and our three evangelists each repeat it exactly to us for emphasis, to tell us that this kind of humility is not possible for us alone. So difficult is it to be a human being and to create this personal detachment, that Jesus declares it impossible. For you or me alone and of ourselves, it's simply not possible. But with God it's possible. It's the intervention and union or relationship with Spirit that gives us the ability to do this for ourselves and our lives. So, the very act of seeking, of declaring ourselves loyal to something beyond the world we understand socially and with our five senses, our framework of reference for an earthly life, opens up a door to a different perspective, to detachment.

The apostles have given up everything for this kingdom. Absolutely everything: homes, family, work. The rewards, Jesus says, will be a hundredfold. There's a phrase I've heard repeated that casts disdain on such teachings - "Pie in the sky, bye and bye." But I think such phrases are meant to cast doubt on leaders who'd ask us to refrain from finding that true internal identity. Far be it from me to claim this doctrine has not been used to enrich the pockets of hypocrites! The whole point here is not about receiving the same wealth in return, or promising the riches we're told we must detach ourselves from (that would be a ridiculous contradiction). No, the point here is about a kind of richness and membership in a reality, a place in which we dwell in union with something, that rewards us in ways a hundredfold more rewarding than the comfort provided by what we collect. It's a hard saying, but in the end, what defines who we are - whether we possess millions or we are impoverished - really rests within ourselves. It colors our perspective about who we are and what wealth we possess internally, in the nature of our souls and our psyches and our depths of relating to the world and even ourselves as human beings. In this hierarchy of values there's a deeper structure to be attained within ourselves and in that relationship to God than the one we put so much faith and effort in through our daily lives and social status. And really, what can be more cruel or unjust than the values assigned to persons through rank in the world? It is a teaching of mercy to understand the radical equality of this internal life of the spirit within us, an uplifting doctrine about the worth of every human being. The value of faith in adverse circumstances can make all the difference to how we go through difficulties. I see this teaching as a call for the redemption of the humble and the recognition of this essential spiritual equality, of worth, within all people.

"Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" is a statement about rank, a statement about humility - an understanding that what is internal reality in that life of the Spirit may be something opposite to what we find in life and in the society. We put our faith in who we are as persons in relationship to Spirit, and then let life unfold through that relationship. A tall order, but one we practice, and which millions of people put their faith in every day. By oursleves, we're told, it's impossible. But with God all things are possible.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in a cloud"

‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

- Luke 21:20-28

As we continue with this discourse, begun in yesterday's passage, we are once again encountering a discussion that intermingles the destruction of the temple (and indeed, of Jerusalem itself, and the scattering of the people of Israel) with the time of the end of the age, and the return of the Son of Man. It's of great significance that these two events are linked in Jesus' dialogue with the people, because the two events must be tied up in the minds of the people due to prophecy - especially that of the desolation of the temple. As we wrote yesterday, this destruction of the temple predicted here by Jesus was to occur in 70 A.D. The temple was fully destroyed; however, I read in commentary that those members of the early church at Jerusalem survived essentially due to this prophecy. They were able to leave Jerusalem before this great tumult and cataclysmic event due to this prediction and their faith in it. Certainly we can see the history of Israel and the Jewish people reflected in this prophecy 2,000 years later. I, for one, wonder what it means or if it is spiritually significant that there is now a state of Israel once again in the world - but in the spirit of respect for Christ's words in yesterday's reading about such speculation, I leave that discussion to others.

However, I would like to make a little digression about notions of "the age" and what it means to be in a certain "age." Jesus here denotes - as far as I can see - three significant periods of time, significant "ages." The first concerns the destruction of the temple and its desolation (as prophesied in the Book of Daniel). Jesus calls this the "fulfillment of all that has been written." This phrase denotes a marking of one particular period of time, an age, a marker of events of tremendous significance, a fulfillment of a particular time.

Then Jesus comments on the time that is to follow, as he uses the phrase "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." I suppose we are to understand this to link to his statements about the church and the cornerstone: having been rejected by Israel, it will go to the Gentiles. But I cannot be sure of the interpretation of this statement. At any rate, it is a significant statement of a marker of time, of an age, a fulfillment of yet another prophecy.

And finally, there is the statement about the clear end of a great age, when the Son of Man returns. We are given statements about signs, things that portend the fulfillment of a time, but we've been told before we are not to speculate about when such things will happen. This remains a great mystery. However, into this digression on "times" or "ages" I'd like to add a little note for further reading. It's about the introduction of the time we must consider ourselves to be in, that is initiated through the birth of Jesus into the world. As we approach in Luke's gospel Jesus' imminent death as a human being upon the cross, we pause to remember that it is his birth that initiates this "time" we're currently in. This is a time in which we consider ourselves, like the early church members, to be awaiting Jesus' return. Thus we are in what is called an "eschatological period." We are awaiting his return, and all the history of the church in each period, through all that it has been through, has been a part of this eschatology, this period of waiting. When we think about such "end times" we shouldn't forget that we're living in them now, and that we must live with this awareness about what that means for the significance of our own choices day to day, to live a spiritual life, to understand the meanings there for you and me, to make our own choices accordingly.

I'll end this particular commentary with a link to an essay that I greatly admire. I hope it sparks thoughts and considerations in my readers for what they are to make of these notions. It's an excerpt from a book by Thomas Merton. The book is titled "Raids on the Unspeakable" and the excerpt is frequently reprinted under the title The Time of No Room. I hope you will find it as inspiring and thought-provoking as I do.

Friday, June 19, 2009

By your endurance you will gain your souls

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

- Luke 21:5-19

This passage is for me a little confusing, because there seems to be a dual discussion going on here: about the destruction of the temple and the siege of Jerusalem and about Jesus' second coming, the end of the Age. But upon closer reading, perhaps we have a little light shed on this difficult passage.

There is first of all the clear implication of the total destruction of the Temple (which will take place in the year A.D. 70). But then Jesus goes on to warn about those who would declare they see signs of the end times, and the return of the Son of Man. We shouldn't be deceived, Jesus warns us. There are several places in the gospels in which he warns that we should not be deceived by those who claim signs of the end of predictions of his imminent second coming. Upon further examination of the gospels, we see that discussion involving the destruction of the temple and a prediction of the end of the age also appear in Mark and Matthew, and as here in Luke's gospel, the discussion of the destruction of the temple and the end of the age involves both topics simultaneously as well. These two topics are invariably linked in Jesus' discourse - as indeed they must have been linked in the minds of the Jews at this time. Discussion of "end times" was nothing new; the Old Testament predictions - specifically Daniel's prediction of the "abomination of desolation" was something known. This would occur at the time the temple was destroyed: because of rumors the temple stones contained gold, every stone was dismantled except that of a retaining wall (now known as the Wailing Wall after it became a place of mourning). The Roman general Titus would walk in the Most Holy Place.

So, it is no accident that the discussion of what we might call "end times" coincides with the discussion of the destruction of the temple, for these two events were intermingled in the minds of those who make up Jesus' audience here, from prophecy and discussion already known and understood. But Jesus goes on to warn his own disciples and followers about what will come - that the ultimate end is not near, that they will go through persecutions, they must be vigilant in their faith and understanding. And that when he does return is not a matter for prediction and speculation. We've already been told this event will be obvious to everyone when it happens. The important thing, Jesus suggests, is our faith and understanding of the here and now, and what we must do in terms of following and practicing that faith.

As Jesus' own death is near, he warns his disciples - and indeed he seems to be speaking openly here to the public in the temple - about the destruction and persecution that is to come. There will be wars and rumors of wars; civilizations will clash. His own people will be persecuted, put to death. Family ties will be broken and great betrayal will be known. This thus becomes a discussion about upheaval and violence on many levels - not something we're used to expecting to hear from the Lord of Love when we turn to the gospels. An unpleasant subject, covering a multitude of horrors: but we are told we must persist to the end. Even in times of persecution, not to fear, but to keep our faith, to testify to it under persecution, to have faith in the Spirit. Indeed he says, we should not even fear death, for we will keep our souls.

We have reached a point in the gospels where Jesus prepares us for the worst calamities and upheavals, for the worst forms of persecution, for death and destruction. There is no wincing here and no avoidance of disaster. But what we do have here is faith, an unshakable faith in something that endures past death, in the values and the reality of that kingdom of the soul that we cannot lose except through our own undoing. All the events predicted here came to pass, but obviously the church persisted, faith persisted, and we have these words today to teach us not to be deceived, nor deluded by speculation about the end, but to understand what it is to endure our own difficulties and upheavals, our times of violence, and the things that frighten us.

These words still live as reference points today through the changes our own times bring, the transitions and difficulties our own lives bring. We understand that our world today is going through yet more great shifts in all sorts of dimensions. We're faced with potentials for violence on scales unimagined in past centuries, and we are also inundated with speculation about what it all means, where it all might lead. But through it all, we have these words teaching us to focus on the day, to practice and retain our faith, and remember what we're to do in the here and now. We're to keep our courage and our souls, to focus on Spirit to sustain us through. Difficulties, transitions, betrayals, violence, even martyrdom: all may come, but through it all we have our way to go forward. We are to retain our right focus. This doctrine that faces squarely upheaval and violence and death may turn notions of how to live our lives on their heads. Instead of a kind of self-centered awareness, the focus shifts to what kind of life we lead, and how we live it day to day, moment to moment. If we can remember at any given point in time that it's not what we have nor where we are nor even who we are but how we are living that is vital, it may do much to give us focus in the moment and in the proper way, and to alleviate stress and fear. Life is far from perfect; but what we can do is focus on the strength and practice of faith, and how we focus on the day, on the moment. Indeed Jesus tells his followers they are not even to make up their minds in advance of defense during persecution, but to rely on Spirit for testimony. Can we seize a moment of the day to turn to Spirit? Can we, in the midst of whatever we're dealing with, focus on the moment and turn to that inward place for wisdom?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Poor Widow

Then he said to them, ‘How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”
David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

- Luke 20:41-21:4

Jesus here continues his disputing and teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, as we have continuing passages throughout the past few days after the point at which he arrived in Jerusalem. In yesterday's passage, we read that some of the scribes were impressed with Jesus' response about the resurrection of the dead to the Sadducees' questioning of him. Today Jesus poses a new riddle of interpretation: How can David call his own son "my Lord?" The answer, of course, is in the understanding of authority, and of what confers authority, and I think this goes right to the heart of Jesus' teachings about himself, and the nature of the spiritual reality he addresses.

Then Jesus goes on to comment about the scribes themselves. According to commentary I read, the scribes were a professional class of teachers and experts in Mosaic Law; their roles in the society very influential. "In the hearing of all," we are told by the evangelist Luke, Jesus very pointedly criticizes the scribes. This is a kind of criticism that to my mind pulls no punches whatsoever. If we are to assume this is in the temple and in full hearing of everyone in the temple, then Jesus is indeed going on the offensive here. At least, that is the way I read this. He criticizes their hypocrisy in the fact that they make for themselves a tremendous appearance of piety and influence in the temple circles, while in practice they harm those who can least afford it.

Once again, our evangelist Luke is placing great emphasis on fair dealings. Over and over again (especially here in Jerusalem) we read passages that condemn the use of money and financial practices that are unfair and unjust to those who are the least able to afford it, the "little ones," the humble. This is in poetic juxtaposition to the questions with which the authorities try to trap Jesus regarding payment of taxes to Rome. Jesus' first act in Jerusalem was the cleansing of the temple, the attack on the money changers and sellers - and he has gone on from there to make a point about how we deal with one another, whether or not we are fair in our dealings and in the ways in which we approach the use of money and our relations with others. Here he does not spare the scribes for a moment, very pointedly calling them hypocrites in their behavior, their outward appearance, and their dealings with those from whom they acquire wealth. Once again, we are in a question of what confers authority: the outward behavior, dress and appearance of the scribes speaks of authority - but what of their behavior? Where does religious or spiritual authority come from and what truly conveys it? This seems to be the theme of this passage.

Finally, Jesus compares the scribes and their outward appearance of piety and importance in the religious sphere to the poor widow, who is casting two copper coins (the smallest denomination, like a penny) into the temple treasury. Jesus tells us that in her poverty, this widow gives far more in her love for God than do the scribes and all the rest of those who have great wealth, because her gift is generous beyond the measure of their own. In the Orthodox Study Bible, I read the following comment: "The value of a gift derives from the spirit in which it is given. A gift that seeks recognition loses spiritual value; a gift made from the heart gains immense value." So it is that we are to understand what confers Messianic authority in the quote from David's scripture, in Jesus' criticism of the scribes, and in his praise of the widow. The value of a gift derives from the spirit in which it is given.

We are gifted through grace with a Teacher; the widow gifts the temple with her love and her heart. The amount, we know, is irrelevant. It is the internal spiritual reality - as Jesus teaches over and over again - that is our true measure of value, of truth and of meaning and of worth. We have been told to "clean the inside of the cup," that we should "put out an eye" if it offends us, that "adultery in the heart" is still measured. The emphasis here is on the reality of the spiritual state of our souls, and not on the outward appearance we make to the world. The pointed, caustic criticism in this passage is Jesus' most harsh attack he'll make on anyone - and this sort of criticism for this purpose and meaning is consistent in the gospels. We remember the phrases "whited sepulchres" and "wolves in sheep's clothing." It is important that we practice our own vigilance in seeking to understand the reality and importance of the spirit in conferring value, in teaching with truth and authority, and in the value of any gift.

Can we remember and carry with us this internal value structure Jesus shares with us? Do we develop it for ourselves as fruits of the spirit? Are we vigilant in practicing the true measures of the heart, and what makes a person someone who carries with them "life in abundance?"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

He is God not of the dead, but of the living

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

- Luke 20:27-40

Jesus is still disputing in the temple - open to questions and teaching. Sadducees were a powerful group in the temple life: a high priestly and landowning class which controlled the temple and the Jewish Council. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees rejected the notion of eternal life, resurrection of the dead. So, here they come to dispute with Jesus about this important theological issue.

What I enjoy about this "feisty" Jesus is precisely his brilliant oratorical capacities. Through the gospel of Luke we have witnessed his teachings and his parables in multitude: the phrases from these teachings have become part and parcel of every language into which these gospels have been translated and used in worship services. His brilliant teaching devices still serve their purpose - his parables are simple, yet profound; his teaching loving and direct. Here we have him dealing with more sophisticated folk, disputing issues and questions basically designed to trap him in one way or another. But here the Sadducees ask him a question designed to impute their own theological assumptions, and in the words of some of the scribes, Jesus "speaks well."

The notion that God is the God of the living and not the dead is an important one in the sense that we are to understand the communion of saints. For me, this issue comes up over and over again in different forms. It's an important spiritual notion to understand that the circle of love and relatedness is never broken between those who live in God. Our loved ones, dear friends, those whose memories we bless and are grateful for (as would be Jesus' audience for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) - all of these live in that communion of reality of the living God. We don't worship the dead, we don't love the dead. What we understand is that life in the Spirit continues. And we continue in relationship to a reality that transcends our notions of time.

This notion that God is the God of the living is crucial to the Eastern Christian understanding of "icon." Continuing from the ideas expressed in yesterday's passage, about how we each bear the image of God within us, we come to understand icon as conveying that which transcends the limits of time and death to bear an image with which we continue to have relationship. As we have a living relationship with Christ, so we continue to bear within us relations of love with those who may be deceased but continue to bear the fruits of beauty within us. Is there someone who was close to you who inspires you today to continue on with your life in some admirable fashion? Is there someone you have known, or have heard about, whose words or thoughts may appear to inspire you when you need it? If you look at a photograph of a deceased love one, do you think of your relationship as passed, or does it still live within you? The notion of icon carries with it the understanding of the timeless image we each carry within us, an image of God in whom we continue to have living relationships of love.

In this timeless place of relationship, we continue in a line of thought, belief and faith that hopefully bears us forward with love. We understand ourselves to be not simply a part of a community in which we worship, or we encounter people day to day, but a part of something that extends much more deeply within ourselves and much more profoundly into human spiritual history. At some level within ourselves we bear an image or "icon" which unites us within a relatedness of love with that which is Good, True and Beautiful, and within which we call for our own strengths and we share strength with others. In prayer, we come to access this relatedness and this depth. So, notions of our relatedness to those - like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - who live in God are centrally important to our own understanding of who we are and to the community to which we belong and whose values and inspiration we hopefully continue for others. The God of the living lives within us, and we are related in ways more profoundly life-giving than we understand. I believe this is part of the notion of life in abundance: do you have an image of someone whose life inspires you? Do you aspire to follow in the footsteps of someone who has lived the life of beauty and truth that is meaningful to your notions of God, and of what is good? In the God of the living, we are related and continue to have that relationship, that "icon" that gives that person a presence to us - a memory that is real and vital and living, not dead, that continues to inspire in love and relatedness.

Through our prayer lives, I believe, we have access to life in abundance through our relatedness to all that live in God. We should recall that we are a part of that relatedness ourselves and understand our part in its life, and the contributions we make in this context. We call on its strength as well when we need it, and we share that strength in relationship with others when we make contributions to this chain of all the living in God.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s

When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?’ They said, ‘The emperor’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.

- Luke 20:19-26

I consider this to be a rather interesting passage, coming as it does so closely to the cleansing of the temple, in which Jesus condemned the money changers and sellers. Once again, we're dealing with the feisty Jesus, who's so articulate in his own defense against those who are trying to trap him in order to remove him from the scene, to get rid of his presence in their midst.

I read in commentary that this particular question is a trap, because if Jesus answered either way - in the way it was intended to be answered - he'd have been condemned by one group or another, caught between the Roman authorities and the Jewish people. If he answered "yes" it would turn the people against him, a "no" would bring a charge of treason from the Roman governor. But Jesus finds the middle way - his articulate alacrity once again bringing down the traps set by others. He does not give them what they want. As his interlocutors state themselves, Jesus "shows deference to no one, but teaches the way of God in accordance with truth." Jesus will not bend truth to suit what people want to hear him say, nor to "get along." There is a line that is drawn, something for which he is willing to stand up. It's also a poetic understanding of the gospel itself, because this issue of the image on the coin is precisely the reason for the existence of the money changers in the temple in the first place.

Commentary also reminds me of the importance of understanding image in the sense of persona. What belongs to Caesar is Caesar's, what belongs to God is God's. I am reminded that the problem for Christians comes when the state (or any other worldly power) may demand of us the things that belong to God. Jesus here teaches a middle way, in which there is no conflict between one interest and the other. But we know that soon, this line will also be crossed. Jesus' purpose is not a nationalist one, but a spiritual one. He will be loyal to God, and not render to others the things that are God's, and he will pay the price for this as well. But that price has a purpose, and it yields the greatest fruit. I think we should remember, when making such choices ourselves, that the goal of a spiritual life is to render unto God what is God's - and if there is a conflict seemingly between interests, it is to God we need to turn in prayer and discernment to understand the way forward. It's not through laws and rules, axioms or maxims - but this is where (in my opinion) the judgment of the heart in questioning and seeking in prayer has to rule.

In the meantime, we must remember Christ's strength in this pursuit. He teaches ways that constantly surprise, and yet always with fidelity to the purpose for which he is here, for which he has been sent. In prayer, we seek the creativity, originality, discernment and understanding he shows here in his answer. May we always find a middle way, outside of the "box" in which anyone tries to put us. Either way, we hope to understand what it is that we must stand up for, and when it is crossing the line to "go along."

Commentary reminds me, as well, that we each bear an image within ourselves of who we are to be in relation to God, of the person who is a creation of God, uniquely within us. We each bear the image of God. We must remember our fidelity to this internal image and reality. This is rendering unto God what is God's, and standing up for our true identity, our purpose.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone

He began to tell the people this parable: ‘A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’ When they heard this, they said, ‘Heaven forbid!’ But he looked at them and said, ‘What then does this text mean:

“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone”

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

- Luke 20:9-19

We come at this juncture in the gospel of Luke to a real story about Judgment and what judgment means. Jesus is again in Jerusalem; it is a continuation of yesterday's readings in which his confrontation with the religious leaders has begun.

In this passage we are told directly that the chief priests understand this parable is told against them. In commentary I read that this parable is a story of the history of Israel, the vineyard: of the prophets who have been sent to the people - God the Father is the owner, the vinedressers are the religious leaders, the servants are the prophets. The beloved Son is Jesus the Messiah. The "others" are the Gentiles. This seems to be a fairly reasonable understanding of the parable - at least as far as Luke's gospel indicates to us is to be our understanding.

Jesus quotation, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," is from Psalm 118:22. All are aware that Jesus here is referring to himself as the cornerstone. He says, 'Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.' This is a story about judgment and the consequences of outright rejection at levels of the highest responsibility. I believe that Jesus is speaking here directly to the priests as those who should know better: who shoulder a responsibility for already having studied and known and teaching what is in all the religious law, what are the sayings and the history of the prophets - for knowledge of spiritual reality and understanding. I think his direct confrontation here is with those he considers to have the greatest responsibility in terms of their decision to reject him and, indeed, to destroy him. He doesn't let them off the hook; for such level of responsibility - and for such a response - his prediction is destruction, extinction. I believe we are speaking here of a level of spiritual judgment that has to do with the ultimate Judgment. There is also a prefiguring of what will happen to the Israel of this time, the growth of a "new branch" among the Gentiles.

I don't pretend (nobody could, I think) to know all about Judgment and what it means. We're told we must seek God's judgment in all things: this is not about a human capacity for judging. But from the recent passages over the past couple of weeks, we can see that Jesus himself is teaching about judgment: about what is the nature of Judgment, what does Judgment look for, what is discernment, and what he expects of his followers, the disciples and apostles who will teach and preach in his name. We understand that salvation is part of the very heart of what judgment means in this kingdom: its goal is the restoration of the person at every level. But we also understand the fundamental difference between a heart that is open to this reality and one that rejects it - perhaps absolutely, perhaps violently. We understand the responsibility inherent in our response to the kingdom and its reality. We understand the need for kindness, compassion, truth and forgiveness. In all of these ways, we have been taught about what it means to judge good judgment, and about what it means to understand that we must be humble before God's judgment. We know the hand of compassion and mercy is always extended, that the door is always open for metanoia - our "change of mind." I believe that mercy is always extended and received through the merest questioning within ourselves that perhaps we should reconsider something.

But on the other hand, there is the notion of truth - that truth is part and parcel of good judgment. We do not look away when truth goes unacknowledged, or is unwilling to be acknowledged or considered. Our "change of mind" cannot take place otherwise. Repentance is not a cover up or a lie to smooth things over; it's something real. It takes place at the deepest depths of ourselves, of who we are. And it is perhaps there that we come to understand another fundamental question about what is Judgment: that in the place where we dwell most deeply we either say "yes" or "no" to that knoweldge of self we find in relationship to the Creator. This is why truth of the inmost kind is so important, so relevant to that judgment. Do we lose our lives or identity without it? What happens to personality that rejects good judgment, that practices lies and deceit, even to itself? What does it do to a person, to their basic sense of themselves, to reject embracing the compassionate relationship available to them - or even compassion itself and its root? I think we must remember Christ as Logos here - as guiding principle for Creation, for what is Good, True and Beautiful, and for what is truly "natural" to us, and as John the Evangelist says, as Love. If we take this rejection to be understood as a rejection of the Personification of all of these things, then we must understand what such depth of rejection - and the power of our free will - may mean for our personal identity and what exists of it. Do we create wholeness and wellness, restoration within ourselves, through such rejection? I believe we can also turn to the topic of Judgment within this consideration, of what it means to be a human being, to be full of "life in abundance" or to reject the source of that life and its capacity for abundance. I suggest we think about this only to consider what it means for us to accept a link to love and the balm of healing mercy within ourselves, and what difference that makes to the strength of our identity, our personas. I don't know what is the Judgment - but Jesus' words prompt me - and I hope my readers, too - to think about what it may mean, on all these multiple layers revealed in this gospel.