What is true religion?

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The Collect for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost gives the best synopsis of what the lessons for the Sunday call for: God is “the author and giver of all good things” which are the love of God, true religion, goodness and good works. The First Lesson (Sirach 10:12-18, or Proverbs 25:6-7) is all about humility. Humility in acknowledging God because “the beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord”. Also, “do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great”.

How about “true religion”? What is it?

It is interesting to note that the word “religion” appears only five or six times in the Bible – depending on which translation you follow. In comparison, compassion is mentioned more than 50 times and love – depending on translation –  between 500 and 700 times.

True religion has very little to do with statements of faith, creeds or doctrines, or worship forms and practices. As James defines it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). It is active.

That is precisely the emphasis of the Epistle Reading (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16) and the Gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14). True religion is action in relationship with others, outside oneself. The Epistle urges: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured”. This is compassion, not simply in feelings or emotions but in action.

In the Gospel Jesus teaches, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind…” Reach out to the stranger, in other words, to those outside one’s social class.

That is very challenging, is it not? It is one thing to serve a hot meal to the poor and the needy. It is quite different to sit at the table and have a banquet with them. And yet, that is what the Gospel is all about. It is challenging, discomforting, unraveling. It is a call to move from the comfort zone and engage with those outside the social group.

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This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?

The power of forgiveness

Meditation on John 6:60-71

The NRSV says, “this teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” The Tyndale, NLT has, “this is very hard to understand; how can anyone accept it?” while the NCV has “this teaching is hard, who can accept it?” Hard or difficult teaching, the resulting question, or even conclusion is: It is not acceptable; no one can accept it. Who hasn’t been at such a point of bewilderment?

I have, a lot of times or even most of the times!

This text reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established in South Africa in 1995 in the aftermath of the abolition of the apartheid system. One of its mandates was to hear confessions – to encourage people to come forward and disclose all the atrocities they committed, to tell the truth, thus paving the way for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The hearings began in 1996 and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who chaired the hearings would say later that it became impossible, right from the beginning, to proceed. People came forward and made confessions of horrid atrocities that could not be imagined of human beings but monsters. People recounted how they tortured and dismembered their victims – atrocities committed by both sides, blacks and whites!

After hearing these horrifying confessions, the members of the commission could not sleep at night, nightmares haunted them. One could not hear these stories and think of forgiveness/amnesty and reconciliation. The overriding impulse was revenge. That was what looked like justice.

This is very difficult teaching; who can accept it?

Chapter 6 begins with Jesus feeding the 5,000, after which a large crowd followed him. In verse 19 he walks on water (in the evening) and in the morning the crowd went to Capernaum in search of him. There he taught about eating his flesh and drinking his blood – that is the teaching about the bread of life. That was too hard for the crowd; they deserted him: It was too difficult a commitment to make.

Sooner or later, that moment arrives when a commitment is called for. If it is not unsettling, unraveling, shaking one’s comfortable world, it is not the real thing. That comes in every area of life.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend who completed the recovery program last April. We talked about his first few weeks in the program and one of the things that stuck in my mind was how he stared at the outside. He would walk by the back office, stand by the glass wall, and just stare outside – for quite a long time actually.

I asked him what was going on in his mind. He said, “I was asking myself, ‘how did I end up here? Am I really going to go through this?” That was what was going on in his mind: “This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?”.

He made the commitment and yesterday we looked back in wonder, at how good it has been.

Every time we confront this call for commitment – for whatever cause in life – Jesus is asking, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Like Peter we say, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. And when we look back at the commitment we made, we are amazed at God’s grace because it is only through grace that we are able to take it.

Set free

stock-photo-2807197-good-news-travel-fastA Meditation on Luke 13:10-17 and Isaiah 58:9b-14

The Gospel Reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Luke 13:10-17 – shows Jesus facing more questions and opposition, this time for setting free from bondage, “a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years”.In the last meditation the opposition was rather general: By what authority was the question. Here the issue is the Sabbath.

This story appears in Luke only – not in John or the other synoptic Gospels. Since his audience was primarily Gentile, the fuss about the Sabbath would have made no sense to non-Jews. Thus, he concludes his story with the observation that Jesus’ opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing”.

Indeed, that may well have been so for Gentiles. On the other hand, the First Reading – Isaiah 58:9b-14 – was familiar to Jews, and there it says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord…”

Isaiah’s text is about removing the yoke, and a continuation of last meditation’s debilitating question: By what authority? For him, not “pointing of the finger”, not “speaking of evil”, offering “your food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted” is what it means to remove the yoke. Simply put, this is service to and on behalf of others. That is precisely what Jesus does in the Gospel – setting free one who had been in bondage for eighteen years.

The issue of contention is that he did it on the Sabbath! Nevertheless, even Isaiah clearly points out that  the Sabbath should be “a delight” as opposed to a yoke, or means of continued bondage. It is being set free from any and all encumbrances that hold one in bondage. The good things and blessings of life should be liberating not limiting and debilitating.

Think of the Church or the Faith Community. It ought to be liberating not a yoke. It ought to be a vehicle of setting free the sons and daughters of Abraham who have been in bondage for too long. It is not for “pointing fingers”, or gossip and murmurings or “speaking evil”.

By what authority?

Jesus Healing

Meditation on Mark 11:27-33

Jews answer a question with a question. It is an ethnic technique common in Rabbinic Literature (for example in the Talmud). All the four Gospels provide ample examples (as many as 30) where Jesus answered questions with questions. This text is one of those examples.

Let’s begin with a question: What things? Jesus was asked a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” At the end of the text Jesus answered (or said, really, because he did not answer the question) but said: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things”

What things? Previous to this text, there is the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree because it did not have fruits, then smashing money counters in the temple and chasing away money changers. (By the way, money changing is still a very lucrative business in Jerusalem today). Are these the things he is being questioned about? May be! And as the Jews would say, there is a high probability of this possibility!

Elsewhere too, Jesus’ authority was questioned when he healed or forgave sins, and perhaps even when he fed the hungry.

So, the purpose of Jesus asking a question for a question, and the principle behind this whole Jewish ethnic technique is to help one – the questioner – examine issues critically. The danger is that often, the deepest issues are passed by while actions are merely superficial.

Let me give an example for illustration: Last week, in a small discussion group, we watched a video of a pastor illustrating how listening to God’s – what he called –  whispers is often discomforting, challenging and even involves risking. He talked about his church, how they experienced expansion while attracting diversity. That was very good and certainly in accordance to what God would desire.

Before long, they started a special ministry to serve an increasing Hispanic membership in the congregation. Then, lo and behold, they were facing a deep issue: Most of the growing Hispanic membership was what is known as undocumented, aliens, illegal immigrants… Some in the congregation started asking: What shall we do? By what authority are we doing these things?

God’s commands regarding the stranger, the poor, the widow, the orphan – without qualification – are very clear. Jesus’ examples are equally very clear. So the church was led into looking critically at the larger immigration issue.

The major part of the so-called broken system that resulted in 11 million “illegal immigrants” is in the question: By what authority? Often the question is debilitating, causing inaction or at best a simple examination of issues on the surface only.

God stands in control of all achievements, discoveries and innovations

Planet Earth

The following statements from the scripture readings for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, provide important reference points or compass for meditation. Even before the scriptures, the Collect affirms Jesus Christ as “an example of godly life” and goes on to ask for “grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life”.

This is from the First Reading (Jeremiah 23:23-29): “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?…Do I not fill heaven and earth?” The Epistle Reading (Hebrews 11:29-12:2) reminds us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”. Then, Jesus, in the Gospel Reading (Luke 12:49-46) puts forward this challenge: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

That, indeed, is our challenge today: Given what we have seen and experienced, all the knowledge available to us and every kind of invention and discoveries made, do we see God at all as the source? In Jeremiah’s time, there were false prophets who – intentionally perhaps – proclaimed falsity with regard to what was happening in their world.

So, what is going on in our world, really? (See, How are you;Really)

Today we know more about ourselves and our environment than ever before. We are discovering more and more about the universe: we have a rover on Mars, telescopes and satellites in space, all revealing new information everyday – literally, everyday – about our world. We know when hurricanes will strike, we have the technology to forecast most weather conditions and the consequences.

Is any of this outside the realm of the Almighty God? “Do I not fill heaven and earth, declares the Lord” (Jer.23:24). The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews  shows God’s mighty works throughout history.

This heading of this Sunday’s Psalm 82, in Latin, is Deus stetit. This verb is perfect, indicative, active, meaning he/she stood or has stood; stayed or has stayed; remained or has remained. From the Hebrew, there are various English translations, including, God presides, takes his place, has taken his place – present perfect, or simple present.

It is not uncommon that we ask, “where is God” when facing natural disasters or when an individual commits an unthinkable atrocity like the massacre of children or when the innocent endure extreme suffering as some are today, in Egypt, Syria and around the world, or when someone is diagnosed with cancer. Within that question is the desire to know and to be reassured of God’s presence.

How about those times of success and achievement; those times of discovery and innovation! Indeed, in our own time of advancement in medicine, economics, technology and science, do we acknowledge God’s involvement in it?

Trusting God translates into comfort and relief

As we continue our reflection on the First Reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost and the story of Abraham we take note of those who have pointed out that Abraham was indeed rich in possessions when the Lord called him. Often we hold on to the erroneous conviction that possessions give us an assurance about life and the future. This is indeed the opposite of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel Reading for this Sunday (Luke 12:32-40): “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.Abraham's uncertain futureAbraham's journey 2

Abraham’s journey begins in Genesis 12 where “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. This is a most uncertain situation. His wealth and possessions could not match this uncertainty. But he trusted the Lord.

In the foreign land he did not know what the future held – at least not from what he had control of, including his possessions. And so he waited, and waited, for God’s voice.

My first two years in a parish, after seminary, were exciting and inspiring. Then the honeymoon was over and everything I tried met with opposition. At the same time I had opportunities to go somewhere else. Indeed, the difficulties I faced seemed to me to indicate that the Lord was telling me it was time to move. Yet, a mentor, in a far away land, kept reminding me: “Stay where you are until the Lord tells you to move”.

“Well, excuse me!” I thought, “but the Lord is right now telling me to move”. I was frustrated, angry and questioned God: “How long do you intend to keep me here? Do you see my suffering?” As I pointed our previously, Abraham was most probably frustrated by the uncertainty he faced. He most probably was angry at God. And, yes, it is alright because communication with God was open.

When one has nothing to hold on to but trust in God, one feels a lot of burden lifted away. In the poorest countries of the world, the people have nothing they can hold on to materially. They face uncertainty day and night. Their only hope is God.

With that they find relief and comfort. With that they are joyful.

Listening to God’s voice is the foundation of a relationship

Abraham's journey 2Abraham's Journey

I want to continue the discussion in the last blog with a close examination of the First Reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – Genesis 12:1-6.

This text is of immense significance for both Jews and Christians. It is an account of the covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. We note that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”. In the New Testament, Paul makes a strong argument that Christians are likewise beneficiaries of God’s covenant with Abraham on the basis of the same faith (Romans 4).

The first thing, though, we want to consider is the back and forth dialogue between God and Abram. The word of the Lord came to Abram and Abram listened. Then Abram said to the Lord, and the Lord answered. Then the Lord took Abram outside and showed him the heavens and the stars, and said…to Abram.

What is going on here is a relational connection and it takes place in the present, in the moment. It is this relationship that makes it possible for the word of the Lord to come to Abram and for him to listen and hear. Without the relationship this dialogue would not be possible.

The second thing to note is the trust that Abram has in the Lord. Indeed, his faith is actually trust. He stakes everything he has and empties himself to trust nothing but God. He goes to a foreign land without knowledge of what lies ahead. He can only trust God. Furthermore, at his old age, and his wife Sarah barren, he is promised a child. The odds of this eventuality, in human knowledge, don’t exist. He has only God to trust. (The Epistle Reading – Hebrews 11 – explains this best).

Abraham can question God; he will not have answers to all his questions; he can be disappointed with God – even angry at God. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the two-way communication channel is open. Our faith or trust in God is not diminished when we raise questions or express disappointment, nor does God lose faith in us on that account.

There is an important lesson here because often people from rich or wealthy nations find it difficult to fathom how people in poor countries manage to be happier and more content in spite of their abject poverty. In the next post I share my own experience and how happiness and contentment depend on relationship rather than possessions.

Listening to God’s voice for direction and salvation

right-and-wrong-wayIn a small discussion group, we have, over the past few days, focused our attention on “hearing God’s voice”. This, in turn, has come from our acknowledgment that God does speak to us and that God desires that we listen. God, is a communicating God. So, the question has been: Are we communicating?

Communication is a two-way street, as anyone familiar with any kind of relationship, will acknowledge. So, is this two-way street open?

Over the past few days, I have therefore, thought seriously about why and how God keeps God’s end of the street open. If I get a grasp of that, it will facilitate my understanding of why and how I – or we – fail to keep our end open. I have been amazed by just how many biblical references there are, pointing to God’s desire – even appeal – to get our attention.

I am going to memorize Psalm 50:1: “The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting”. Think about that! God does not tire or quit seeking to speak to us. Then there is Psalm 95:7b: ” that today you would listen to God’s voice!”. This is repeated in Hebrews 4:7: “Today, if you hear God’s voice”. Again, it is about now, today, not tomorrow or on Sunday, or after this or that. It is this moment. A similar entreaty is found in Psalm 81:8b which says, “O Israel, if you would but listen to me!”.

There are benefits that come out of listening to God’s voice. The two examples above are predicated with “if”. From very early in God’s relationship with the people of Israel, in Exodus 15:26, we read: “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord, your God, and do what is right in the Lord’s sight, and give heed to the Lord’s commandments, …I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians”.

Thus, God desires to show us what is right in God’s sight. In a world driven by many and conflicting “truths” we need God’s voice to lead us. Even when we stray, there is hope and consolation, as Deuteronomy 4:30-31 shows: “In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed the Lord, because your God is a merciful God, and will neither abandon you nor destroy you…”

We see, therefore, that there is not only direction, but also salvation, in listening to God’s voice.

There is more on this still to come.

Forgiveness liberates: Give, receive and accept it

The power of forgivenessThis post was prompted by a discussion in LinkedIn‘s Spiritual Writer’s Association group.

I agree with Kendra. The discussion has veered away from the original blog which stated: “Because if you are holding onto unforgiveness your Father in heaven will not forgive you also”. I agree too that this is not biblical, from – if you like – God’s perspective. Thoughts of God not forgiving are prompted by Jesus’ remarks, when he taught his disciples how to pray. He said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

I look at forgiveness as having two sides. It is one thing to ask for forgiveness and quite another, to receive forgiveness. The two however, belong together.

In a worship service, for example, we begin with confession of sins where we ask for forgiveness. God does forgive us, but we – from the standpoint of humans – are reassured when the priest, pastor or minister pronounces the words of forgiveness. Such pronouncement helps us accept and receive forgiveness which comes from God, to be sure, and – I believe – it is complete.

Nevertheless, if I have, in my heart, someone against whom I am holding a grudge, it will be hard for me to accept forgiveness. As a result, I will continue to carry a burden even though God has forgiven me. That is why forgiving others is so important for our own freedom.

Forgiving others liberates, not forgiving enslaves. This is a spiritual fact which we control.

An encounter with the Divine transforms

The Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor

The Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor

The three Synoptic Gospels record the Transfiguration in almost complete agreement with detail. (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36). Matthew and Mark write that it was six days after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi while Luke says it was eight days after. Nevertheless, Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ and Jesus predicted his own passion and death, then the Transfiguration followed.

Where and when did it happen?

The church observes the Transfiguration on August 6 and tradition places its occurrence on Mt. Tabor in the Jezreel Valley. Though Mt. Tabor is logical because it is a high mountain in the area, some people have argued for Mt. Hermon further north. The view from both heights is picturesque.

Nevertheless, a church was first built on Mt. Tabor in the fourth century and dedicated on August 6. The Eastern Churches have therefore, observed August 6 as Transfiguration Day since then. It wasn’t until the eighth century that some Western churches began to observe the day and Pope Callistus III put it on the church calendar in 1456.

Peter’s desire to build booths suggests that it was probably during the Feast of Booths – or Tabernacles – Sukkot in Hebrew – that the Transfiguration took place. Nevertheless, what is significant in this event is the revelation of Jesus’ divinity, as confirmation of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus passion and death in affirmation of his humanity.

Yet, we cannot help but ask: What exactly did the three disciples, Peter, John and James, experience on that mountain top? It must have been frightening and indescribable. Hence, the Sinai experience in Exodus 34:29-35 serves as a powerful illustration. It says there that as Moses “came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been  talking to God”.

That is the transformation experience in these two mountain top events: An encounter with the Divine is truly transformative.