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Month: March 2017

Lent 5: Freedom from Fear: Luke 8.22-39

Lent 5: Freedom from Fear: Luke 8.22-39

Today’s Lenten reflection is on the theme of freedom from fear. We journey with Jesus on a small boat in Lake Galilee. A sudden storm assaults us with howling winds and large waves. Later, we land in the country of the Gerasenes. There we come face to face with a violent man named Legion. The storm and Legion both provoke emotions of fear for our safety and well-being.

 

I suggest we begin by thinking about fear. Fear can be healthy. Our lives depend on having a realistic fear of certain conditions that threaten our well-being. We should fear sidewalks that are covered in ice. We walk carefully to avoid a fall. We should fear children standing too close to a busy street. We should fear running out of gas late at night on a long journey. We should fear the over use of anti-biotics so that they become ineffective in combatting common diseases. We should fear the long-term impact of climate change and environmental damage. In these cases fear means a thoughtful concern that may move us to forms of preventative action.

 

The problem is when fear paralyzes us. This may happen in different ways.

  • We may not develop gifts or abilities because of fear of failure. Our anxiety about the opinions of other people means that talents and passions are never developed.
  • We may develop anxiety disorders. The literature indicates that up to one-third of us will face serious periods of anxiety at different points in our lifetime. These anxieties or fears will affect our sleep patterns, our digestive system, our emotional well-being, and our relationships with others. Anxieties are not a sign of weakness. The causes are related to genetics, fatigue, circumstances, social settings, and the nature of our emotions.
  • We may close the door to opportunities for growth and meaning because we fear the unknown. Some of us fear getting on a plane. Some of us fear speaking in public. Some of us fear sharing our emotions. Some of us fear dancing or learning a new language.

 

We live in a tension between fear that warns us of danger and fear that holds us hostage in some manner. How do we find the Spirit’s help in facing our fears and finding the freedom to live joyfully and meaningfully?

 

Scripture: Luke 8.22-30

 

The passage has two narratives – the storm on the lake and the man named Legion. These are related to two themes that provoke fear in our time. We fear the increased intensity of storms due, in part, to the way we have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the oceans. Legion represents people who are possessed by evil in ways that we do not understand. They are unpredictable and violent.

 

I invite you to feel your way into the two stories. Begin by placing yourself in the boat. The Lake of Galilee is known for sudden, intense storms. Your family were farmers not fishers. You swallowed hard when you got into the boat with the others. The sea was calm. The wind was gentle. Jesus went to a quiet spot on fell asleep. You thought you would be alright.

 

The storm came unexpectedly out of nowhere. The wind roars and waves swamp over the boat. You are beginning to panic. You are surprised that Jesus seems unaware of the danger. You awake him with the words: “Master. Master. We are perishing.”

 

Each of us surely can connect with these intense feelings and desperation. In our lives, in different circumstances, at different times, we have felt alone. Dangers have threatened us and God seemed unaware and distant.

 

We know how the story ends. Jesus calms the storm. The terror passes. He turns to us in the boat and asks about our faith. We feel that he is asking a difficult question: Do we only trust him on the land, in the sunshine? Do we trust him in the storm when we are afraid?

 

It is striking that Luke only mentions the fear of the disciples at this point in the story. They are afraid and amazed at the authority of Jesus over creation. They do not understand this power.

 

There are many ways to read this story. Death and the forces of death are all around us. We walk with people through the journey of cancer. We see loved ones threatened by addictions. We fear changes in relationships. We are anxious about finances and debts that need to be paid. Some of us may fear violence even in the relative security of Canada. There are times when we feel that we are perishing.

 

Please allow me to offer one of my readings. I have a personal perspective on this story that comes from my environmental commitments. I understand that our social and economic system is responsible for:

  • Dead zones in the ocean.
  • Increasing damage to rivers and lakes.
  • The loss of biodiversity and the extinction of species of plants and animals.
  • The pumping of hydrocarbons into the air resulting in climate change.
  • Threats to future generations.

 

The gospel narrative reminds me that creation belongs to God. I need to listen deeply to this message. I also need to listen to the scriptures teaching that God gave humans the role as stewards and caretakers of God’s garden. I need to recall that being a caretaker requires prayerful action around issues of consumption, transportation, land use, and sustainable practices. These are matters of faith. This passage calls me to a deeper faith in God as the creator and sustainer of creation. I can only play the role of a servant. The lives of my grandchildren, for whom I fear, is in his hands. .

 

The boat lands. We move into the country of the Gerasenes. We are in a foreign land across the lake from Galilee. We feel relief when we put our feet on solid land once again. However, we are immediately confronted by Legion. He is frightening in a different manner than the storm. The evil power of Legion is beyond explanation.

 

People tell us that he once lived in the city. He was a son, a brother, a friend, and a neighbor. Somehow the evil of the times overpowered him. They chained him in an area near the burial ground. People felt secure for a time. But Legion broke through the chains and leather bonds. He would shout and cry uncontrollably. The very name, Legion, reminds us of the cruel power of the Roman army.

 

You wonder if Legion was a victim of Roman violence. Was he traumatized by the cruelty of Roman soldiers? You also wonder if he once served as a foreign mercenary in Rome’s Legions. Did he commit horrible actions against civilians in the border areas of the empire? Has the trauma driven him deeper into evil?

 

The demons inside Legion begin to speak. They realize that Jesus is a threat to their existence. They beg him not to send them back to the abyss. The ask Jesus to send them into the pigs. At this point we see the destructive power of evil turning on itself. The pigs run into the lake and drown. But the story is not over. We are witnesses of Legion’s transformation.  He is seated at Jesus feet as a learner, a disciple. He is clothed and in his right mind. Legion has been saved or redeemed or restored. He has become the person that he was created to be.

 

When people come out from the city and the rural areas, they are afraid of Jesus. He has a power that they can neither understand nor manage. They ask him to leave their region.

 

Let me ask you a question. Is there something here that reminds you of the power of evil in our own time? Immoral displays of power can be terrifying and beyond explanation. These stories come from places like El Salvador, the Great Lakes region of Africa, the Ukraine, and the Middle East. The power of evil is also present in our country Canada. How else do we explain the residential schools, the pass system, and missing and murdered aboriginal women? Evils of the dominant society have deeply wounded indigenous people. At certain times, with certain people, evil can overcome individuals and make them intensely and unpredictably destructive to themselves and to others around them.

 

When we are confronted by evil, we are inclined to run or to become protective. We may lose our faith that God can transform people like Legion. We may be tempted to hold up a sword rather than the cross.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Let us try to draw some lessons for our walk with Jesus through Lent.

 

Lesson 1: We are never in control as much as we might want or desire. The chains do not hold Legion. A storm comes out of nowhere. Fear is natural because we are all frail and vulnerable. It helps to accept that reality.

 

Lesson 2: “Master. Master. We are perishing,” called out the people in the boat. God invites us to express quietly or with loud voices our fears and anxieties. He knows us. He knows our apprehensions and concerns. Prayer is about opening our hearts to God, even the dark places. We are his beloved children. Never forget, you are his beloved.

 

Lesson 3: Change is Possible. Jesus calmed the storm Legion is transformed. God works in our lives and in our world. Anxieties and fears can hold us back from living passionately, creatively, and fully. God works with us and in us. It might help us to remember that the most repeated command of the scriptures is: Do not fear. This command only makes sense in contexts that provoke fear. Sometimes we simply need to repeat this scripture to ourselves as a mantra. Do not fear. Do not fear. The Risen Lord is with us. Do not fear.

 

 

Personal Reflection

  • Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  • Make a fear inventory. What are the three greatest fears in your life? Offer them to God. In the silence listen for what is the Spirit whispering to your heart?
  • Remember a time when you were afraid? Walk through that experience imagining God’s presence. Where was God? What did God want to tell you during that time?
  • What grace from God do you seek in the coming days?
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Lent 4: Freedom to Risk. Luke 9.18-27

Lent 4: Freedom to Risk. Luke 9.18-27

We are all familiar with the tension between risk and safety. When we choose our investment plan for retirement we are specifically asked about our risk tolerance. High risk investments can have wonderful financial results when the market is good. They can also have heartbreaking losses. A conservative portfolio offers security but not the possibility of remarkable growth. We navigate the risk-safety tension in different ways depending on age and other factors.

Let me ask you a question: How would you measure your personal risk tolerance on the journey of lent? What factors would you use to evaluate your tolerance of risk in following Jesus?

“He saved his life by never risking it.” This cryptic phrase was written in the journal of Dag Hammarskjold. Hammarskjold was the second secretary general of the United Nations. He served in a tumultuous period of the cold war and national independence movements. He died in a mysterious plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1961. His journal, discovered after his death, revealed the depth of his faith and commitment to God. “He saved his life by never risking it” was his critique of people that chose to play it safe with their lives.

Friday, 24 March, marks the 37th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. Romero had been elected by colleagues who thought he was a safe choice. He was sixty years old. His track record as a priest and theological educator showed him to be a conservative. He served as Archbishop for only three years. His perspective on faith and the gospel were shaped by stories he heard from the poor. He once said that the poor inform us of the nature of the world and the service required of the church.

In his last sermon, Romero called on soldiers of the national army to convert to the gospel and to disobey orders that conflicted with the law of God. He demanded in the name of God that the government stop the repression. Colleagues advised him to go into hiding for his safety. But he refused. The next day he was shot while celebrating mass in the chapel of the hospital of Divine Providence. It is a holy place for those of us that have visited that site.

Romero received regular death threats. In 1979, near the beginning of his role as archbishop, he asked for prayers that he would not abandon his people and that he would run all the risks that his ministry demanded. There is a portion of his journal in the chapel where he was killed. It expresses his thoughts a few weeks before his death. I want to quote from it:

It is not easy to accept a violent death, which is very possible in these circumstances… my attitude should be to hand my life over to God regardless of the end to which that life might come; that unknown circumstances can be faced with God’s grace; that God assisted the martyrs, and that if it comes to this I shall feel God very close as I draw my last breath; but that more valiant than surrender in death is the surrender of one’s whole life – a life lived for God.

We have the contrast. We make choices. We live somewhere between risk and safety in our daily decisions. There is a voice that says we save our lives by protecting them with money, possessions, and security. There is another voice about living for God. We are familiar with these two voices because they are always with us. I invite you to recognize them and then to listen to the words of Jesus in Caesarea Philippi.

Scripture: Luke 9.18-27

The reading begins with a description of Jesus at prayer. He breaks from speaking with God and now speaks to his disciples. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” What are they saying about me? What are the opinions of people in Galilee? Jesus is a controversial figure. The answers given by the disciples look to someone from Israel’s past in order to understand Jesus.

The second question is much more personal. It is a question that keeps coming back to each one of us?

“But what about you? Who do you say I am?” The text asks us our own time and circumstances: What do you believe about Jesus? What words would you choose? Saviour. Lord. Teacher. Friend. God. Healer. Leader. Merciful One.

Peter answers: God’s Messiah. You are the one we have been promised. You are the one we have been waiting for you.

The friends gathered around Jesus are not given time to think about titles. The theme changes. The conversation becomes dark. Jesus surprises his followers. No one expected God’s Messiah – the hope of Israel – to talk in this way. The Son of Man must suffer many things. He will be rejected by the leaders of his own people. He will be killed. Then he will be raised to life by God.

Put yourself in the position of the friends gathered around Jesus. This is not the future you expected. You longed for success not for pain and humiliation. You are in shock. But the message does not stop at this point. We need to pay close attention to the following words because they are spoken to us. It is here that we need to listen to God’s Spirit whispering to us.

Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their crosses daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for me will save it.

Here we have it. The two options. The first is based on the primary motivation to save one’s life. Jesus goes on to speak about the desire to gain the whole world at the cost of one’s soul, one’s inner life and integrity. On the other side, there is the call to lose one’s life for Jesus. Did this mean violent death? Is Jesus speaking about an insane desire for martyrdom?

The answer is clearly “no.” Jesus is speaking about the freedom of self-denial and allowing the Spirit to lead us into the world. He is helping us to put the natural instincts for security, pleasure, and safety in their proper place. These concerns should never be the primary motivations of our lives.

Let us go back to Oscar Romero. He understood that the big question was not the date or circumstances of his death. The real issue was about living each day for God. Through his words, Jesus is encouraging us to live each day for God. He leads us on life giving path of conscious resistance to the forces and propaganda around us. The gospel tradition helps us to understand the freedom of self-denial and carrying the cross. The double love command moves us toward the freedom to embrace diverse people as neighbors. We have the freedom to sit at a common table where food is shared with the rich and the poor, the marginalized and secure. We feel the Spirit leading us toward the freedom of simplicity in order to live joyfully with generosity. We find our identity and our life by following Jesus and attending to his teaching.

The call is both demanding and gracious. The cross is a symbol of death. Self-denial in our culture of excess is viewed suspiciously. The world has always judged success using material measures rather than in measurements of the Spirit. We discover unexpected grace in this call of Jesus. When evening comes, we may feel that we have stumbled and dropped the cross. Each new day is a gift with fresh opportunities. We leave the past behind. We raise the cross. We follow Jesus into the world.

Conclusion

I want to conclude this Lenten reflection by emphasizing the importance of this theme. We are challenged to live creatively and obediently in the tension between security and risk, between acquiescence and dissent, between self-care and acts of compassion and justice for others. It takes honesty, thoughtfulness, prayer, and a certain tolerance of risk to have the freedom to follow Jesus in our time.

Small Group Reflection

  • Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  • Do you remember a time when you wrestled between playing it safe and taking a risk? What were the options? How do you feel looking back on that experience?
  • What does it mean to you to take up the cross daily and follow Jesus? How would you explain this saying to a friend?
  • Self-denial is a virtue of God’s rule. What practices of positive self-denial or resistance do you wish to develop in order to live with greater freedom, faithfulness, and love?
  • What grace from God do you seek in the coming days?
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Lent #3: Freedom from the Past John 21.1-19

Lent #3: Freedom from the Past John 21.1-19

This Lenten reflection is devoted to the theme of freedom from the past through forgiveness received and forgiveness offered to those who have wounded us.

We are never fully comfortable with the past. We carry broken bits and pieces in our memories and our emotions. There are times that we may unexpectedly meet people from the past. Our happiness in seeing them again is coloured by difficult memories of painful events that we can never quite forget.

We bring the past with us into each new day. Victims and witnesses of violence understand this reality. A woman that has been abused may never feel safe. A man wakes up at night sweating in terror because of a flashback. My friend Shadrack Mutabazi, a refugee from the DRC, could not watch a video about Oscar Romero because the violence resonated so deeply with his own experience of killers in his country. Those that have committed deeds of violence live with their own harsh memories of acts of cruelty that they can scarcely believe. They seek explanations of madness or possession by evil spirits.

The struggle with the past is less intense for most of us. But it is there. The flashbacks are different in nature. Words said in anger. Unfair accusations leveled against us. Feeling abandoned and without defence. A conflict that you could have handled better. A confidence betrayed. Someone you loved that seemed incapable of receiving that gift. A time when you remained silent rather than defended the vulnerable. A career decision taken or not taken. An accident caused by lack of attention. We all have these memories that are painful reminders of past wounds that never fully healed.

For me, travel to Vancouver forces me to face my brokenness and pain in an intense way. When I am with my children and grandchildren, I can never free myself from remembering the night we told them that I was leaving the home. I would be their father but I would not live with them. I was betraying my marriage vows and my relationship as a father. I am grateful that words of forgiveness and actions of love have been graciously extended from each person around that table. But the healing is never complete. The emotions of that night never go away. I suspect we all have times, places, and people that are painful to recall. We carry them with us.

Forgiveness is such an easy concept. But in practice, forgiveness can be hard to extend and hard to receive.

My wife Regine has a haunting story from Rwanda.  A man in a village murdered his Tutsi neighbor in the madness of the 1994 genocide. A few weeks later he became part of the mass migration of Hutus to refugee camps in the Congo under the protection of French soldiers in Operation Turquoise. He repatriated to Rwanda in 1996 deeply troubled by his participation in the violence. In his village, he dug up the body of his victim from the place where it had been buried. He took the skull, wrapped it, and turned himself in to the authorities. He was sent to prison immediately. He put on prison clothes but refused to give up the skull. He clung to it. He took the skull to work duties. He placed the skull beside him when he ate food. He took to skull to bed when he slept. This man was eventually killed by other prisoners. He made them uncomfortable and afraid. He died, a wounded soul in a wounded country in need of healing. He died unforgiven.

Scripture: John 21.1-19

I know it is strange to use a story of the Risen Lord in a Lenten reflection. I can only say that the breakfast on the beach is the response of Jesus to things that happened earlier in Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem. The apostle Peter had very painful memories of exuberant promises and cowardly betrayal.  It is a credit to the early Christian tradition that these difficult stories were retained and not covered up.

Peter had been the first disciple to confess that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. When Jesus began to explain the mystery of the cross, Peter had taken him aside and rebuked him. Jesus had said the harshest words in the gospels: “Get behind me Satan.” Later in Jerusalem, at the last supper, Peter had promised that he would not abandon Jesus. “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

A moment of crisis comes in the courtyard outside the staged trial of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Three times he saves his skin by denying Jesus. “I do not know this man that you are talking about.”

A relationship is betrayed. Promises are broken. Try to imagine the pain of Peter. How does he deal with his cowardice and expediency? How does he handle the embarrassment? How does he come to terms with his disloyalty? How does he imagine the pain inflicted on Jesus who is left alone before a violent mob? How does he face the past and find freedom to live his role as the rock on whom Jesus would build the church?

We know these questions in different places and different circumstances? How do we free ourselves from the past? How do we forgive and find freedom from a pain that was inflicted on us? How do experience forgiveness and find the freedom to live into the calling of God for our lives?

The story in John 21 is about the Risen Lord who comes to us. He shows us the way forward in finding freedom though forgiveness received and extended.  The narrative is for you when you long to be forgiven and healed. You can keep coming back to it. The story in John 21 is for you when you feel the Spirit leading you to forgive someone else and are praying for God to walk with you.

Peter decides to go back to fishing. Resurrection appearances do not take away his deep sense of shame and failure. He goes back to his old life in Galilee. Some of the others join him. They fish all night without result. A voice from the shore encourages them to put down the net on the right side of the boat. The catch is amazing – 153 fish. One of the men realizes that the person shouting from the shore is Jesus. Peter cannot wait for the boat to land. He jumps into the water and swims to shore.

Jesus has made a fire on the beach. He invites the group of fishers to share breakfast with him. They offer their fish for the meal. Jesus has bread. When they have finished the meal, Jesus turns to Peter. The three questions must have been so painful to hear:

  • Do you love me more than these?
  • Do you love me?
  • Do you love me?

Each time Jesus extends again the call to mission to Peter. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. And then there is the warning that the call will be difficult. He has failed in the past. Now he will have another chance. People will forcefully take him to places he does not want to go. And then the final words: Follow me! These are the same words with which Peter began his friendship and discipleship with Jesus.

He is not thrown on the rubbish heap of failure. The Risen Lord extends to him the freedom to come to terms with the past and then to leave the past. The three questions respond to the three denials. Each question lifts the burden and shame. Peter is re-commissioned to a life of meaningful service to God and to others. He can celebrate the freedom of forgiveness.

We can readily identify with Peter because we have all been there. His story is our story. The challenge is to also identify with Jesus. Are there times when we are called to make a fire on the beach and share a meal with someone who has betrayed us? The technical vocabulary of forgiveness is not as important as actions of restoration. An embrace. A hug. A smile. A  task that is shared.

Conclusion

So where does this Lenten mediation leave us. The Methodist theologian Gregory Jones says that forgiveness is a way of living and a craft to be learned. It does not come naturally. It is more natural to hold on to resentments or to bury ourselves in feelings of self-recrimination. We may need help and guidance in both receiving forgiveness and in humbly offering forgiveness to those that have offended us. Forgiveness offered and forgiveness received express a determination to live in the new creation that God is fashioning even in the evil and brokenness of our world. Forgiveness is a key part of finding freedom from our past.

Individual Reflection

  • Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  • Recall a time when you experienced forgiveness from someone you had offended? Were there internal barriers to forgiveness that you faced? Dwell for a time on the feelings of a relationship restored.
  •  Recall a time when you extended forgiveness to someone that had offended you? How did you handle the pain of betrayal? How did the other person respond? Dwell for a time on this experience?
  • What do you long to leave behind? What is the Spirit whispering to you about forgiveness either received or extended?
  • What grace from God do you seek during Lent?
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Lent 2: The Freedom to Follow (Matthew 23.1-12)

Lent 2: The Freedom to Follow (Matthew 23.1-12)

We entered in to Lent on Ash Wednesday of last week. We reflected on the theme of living meaningfully and fruitfully. We considered the need to make changes in direction as we begin the Lenten journey with Jesus. There are times that the Spirit leads to launch into a process of major change such as when we feel called to a new vocation or to change locations. At other times, we sense an inner conviction about certain, deliberate adjustments in order to live more joyfully and fruitfully. You were left with the question: How is God speaking to you about change during the period of Lent?

Today’s theme contrasts a religion of imposed expectations and a faith that liberates us to live passionately and creatively. Every social group has written and, mostly, unwritten codes of behaviour. I had a friend in Vancouver who was an accomplished lawyer. She presented refugee cases before tribunals on which I was a decision maker. The written reports she submitted were always pertinent to the case. The clients were well prepared to give testimony. The closing arguments were succinct. I was surprised when she told me that she planned to give up her legal career. She went on to share that there had been social pressures in her ethnic group and her family to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. She did not feel called to law. Law did not touch the passions of her heart. She wanted to be a writer. But the unwritten code of family and ethnicity did not value that vocation.

David Livermore’s work on cultural intelligence has helped us to understand that organizations have unwritten cultural codes and expectations. Professional success in an organization requires recognizing and embracing the code. Acceptance and advancement are based on fulfilling expectations. Lack of conformity puts people on the margins of the group and may eventually lead to dismissal. There are many positive things about such codes because they create a shared ethos. But they run the danger of becoming too rigid and too heavy. The company Kodak was once a mighty industrial empire. The code of unquestioned loyalty to film spelled the end of Kodak long before it declared bankruptcy. The code did not allow employees to question the direction of the company until it was too late to save it in a world that was going digital.

You can see this phenomenon of loyalty to a code within political parties. Politicians that belong to a particular party seem to answer questions in such a predictable manner that you are left to wonder if they are reading from a book of authorized responses. Here in Canada, one of the 14 candidates for leadership of the conservative party, Michael Chong, believes that carbon taxes should be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not the conservative party line or message. There are allegations that he is not an authentic conservative. He does not match up with unwritten party expectations and codes. In the US, John McCain questions about Donald Trump make him a maverick in the Republican Party.

We sometimes feel the pressure of conformity in organized religion. There can be an unwritten code of public expectations that involve aspects of life like clothing, a specialized vocabulary, certain types of music, the “so-called Christian family,” permissible attendance deviations, levels of financial support, and friendships with people of other faiths. The code is so strong on LGBTQ and climate change issues that it can be hard to find safe places for discussion. Pastors and pastors’ families often feel a heightened set of expectations that need to be met for acceptance.

Along the way, some of us learned the skill of looking pious. We raise our hands in worship when others raise their hands. We look happy even when we feel bland or depressed. We can get by that way. We have learned to play the public part so that we fit in to the group.

 

Here is the problem. It can become easy to play the faith game without having our hearts in it. We conform to outside expectations while we lose our passion for faith. Organized religion can tame people into being nice rather than being prophetic witnesses of Jesus. We may become passive rather than creative. Some people struggle more than others to free themselves of the power of an imposed code. They lose a grasp on what St. Paul called the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Scripture: Matthew 23.1-10

Matthew 23 contains a series of critical pronouncements against the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes were men that had been given the privilege of an education. They could read and write in a social setting that was mostly illiterate. Hebrew scribes were trained in the Torah and taught its moral instructions. Most scribes carried out their duties under the direction of the high priests and associates in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were men who emphasized the radical separation of faithful Jewish people from the Roman Empire and its many ethnic groups. The performance of the purity code was both a political protest and set of religious practices. The purity code created dividing lines or boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, between observant and non-observant, and to a certain extent between socio economic classes.  It was an impossible burden for the poor to practice the code of ritual washings, tithing of produce, Sabbath, and food preparation.

The code of purity, in theory, was motivated by a sincere desire to order all aspects of one’s life to show respect for God. The problem was that scribes and Pharisees could get caught up in maintaining public performance in contrast to the unseen inner life of the heart. They could play roles that earned acceptance and respect in the community. But that acceptance and respect could degenerate into the end goals. When that happened, the inner life could stand in sharp contrast to the outer life. We call this hypocrisy. We know about hypocrisy because we have all played the game at one time or another. Organized religion can work to promote hypocrisy. This tendency to play a public role is the reason that the gospel writer, Matthew, retained the criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees long after the mission of Jesus. He saw the same tendencies in the Christian church.

The scribes and Pharisees made faith a matter of the code of the Torah, the Law, with all its written and unwritten expectations. Jesus made faith a matter of a call to follow him. It was offered to women and men. He called poor and rich. He called people with physical and emotional problems. He called young and old. He called people caught up in shame and people caught up in the pursuit of honor. In every case he called people to freedom.

  • They were freed to join a diverse community in which they found their place as sisters and brothers. There was gender, social, and ethnic equity.
  • They discovered unity in the confession of one Father and one Teacher. The confession did not require a professional class of people called scribes. It was not about separation based on performance to an outside code. The faith and the teaching was life giving.
  • They transformed the pursuit of public recognition and status into a motivation for mutual service to the community and the world around them. The greatest of the followers of Jesus would be those that humbly served the needs of others.

When we read this passage from Matthew, we may begin to feel something stirring in our hearts. Jesus is coming at Lent to remind us that he calls us discover freedom through following him. Faith is not a matter of external expectations that are imposed on you from outside. Faith is a response that starts in the heart before it is expressed publicly with words and actions. We are invited by God to:

  • Attend to the teaching of Jesus in the company of sisters and brothers.
  • Celebrate that together, with all our diversity, we belong to the household of God, our common Father. This identity is more important than what is written on our passports and our cultural backgrounds.
  • Learn to practice the supreme virtue of humble and sincere service. This service builds relationships. Your unique gifts and talents, your passions and creativity, are developed and offered in new and meaningful ways.

Question: Group Work

  • Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  • Describe a time when you felt external pressures to match expectations or performance standards of others?
  • How can you develop a faith that is based on the heart rather than external expectations?
  • Can you identify a particular gift or passion that you would like to develop in order to serve others? What holds you back? What grace from God do you seek?
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