Who Are You Going to Believe?

The Woman taken in Adultery, c.1621 (oil on canvas)

One day, Jesus was teaching when the religious authorities – those who responsible for keeping the faith the way they thought it should be, especially in terms of deciding who was guilty of what – brought a woman to him. They announced that she had been caught in the act of adultery. Commentators for generations have pointed out the interesting fact that though she was caught in the very act, the man was not brought. Just the woman.

Her sin was punishable by death, according to the rules, according to what they had learned and inherited. It’s difficult to adequately imagine the drama of that moment. Not only was this a humiliating moment for this woman, but even more, I’m sure that she was so frightened. Those who brought her recited the rules: our book says that this woman should be stoned to death. What do you say?

She was…trapped.

The gospel writer says that they were trying to trap Jesus, as well. If Jesus said that “yes, she should be stoned”, then this woman was going to die. Did she have children? Did she have a husband? Did she have parents whose daughter was this close to death? We don’t know. But it must have been a moment when those present could feel the gravity of the situation.

Man, it’s hard to be on the front lines of new things that God is doing. I sometimes see the footage of the marchers during the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960’s. Mostly African-Americans, but you see some white people, too. Priests in clerical collars. Young people. And some old people, too. Those old white people are the ones that amaze me. I like to think, “if I was old enough back then, I would have marched with them.” But now I’m older, more honest. And I’m not as sure if I would. You can bet those people faced rejection by their friends, probably by members of their own family. It’s risky to be on the leading edge when God is doing a new thing – in your family, in the church, in society.

Jesus did not reply, but simply bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This is an amazing story, such a dramatic and beautiful story in which we are given a glimpse of God’s love and forgiveness, shown in Jesus. But the scandal, I think is not simply the fact that this woman has been labeled an adulteress. The scandal is not just the public spectacle created by those eager to judge her, who failed in their crusade. The even bigger scandal is the one created by Jesus’ answer, and his declaration that this woman was forgiven, and could leave behind her life of sin. The scandal is that though he knew the scriptures and knew what people for generations had said and believed, he dared to reveal the true heart of God that challenged those old assumptions and interpretations. That, I think is the real scandal in this story, because Jesus’ response has challenged the Law of Moses. And, in a very real way, it raised a pivotal question about authority – On the one hand, what Moses had said and taught about the punishment for this sin…. And on the other, what Jesus says about who has the right to condemn and punish her. On the one side, there is the Law, and on the other, this expression of grace and forgiveness. And the situation presents an important question in a very stark and direct way: “who are you going to believe?”

Ever been a sinner who got caught in a public way? It’s one thing to be a sinner and be caught in your own problems, addictions, failures – in the secrecy of your own soul. But public? When other people know about it? That’s different. Even if you change, you’re still trapped – by opinions, rumors, memories of others.

And then of course, there’s our own memories of failures, shortcomings. They can trap us, as well. Ever been trapped by your past, by your reputation? The promiscuous teen-ager you once were? The wild party animal? The one who made this mistake or that one, the one who got caught doing that thing, whatever it was. The one who is arrogant and won’t admit they’re wrong? The one who always admits she’s wrong, and gets walked over, time and time again? Who are you? Do you believe what other people say about you, or what God has said about us, in Jesus Christ? Who are you going to believe?

We are not told what became of the woman in this story, but this I can tell you for a certainty: there were those in that town who remembered what she had done, and probably kept remembering it for the rest of their lives. Some people are like that. And there you have it again, that question of who we’re going to believe. Who has the final say: the people who said, “You’re this. We know who you are, we remember what you did”? Or does the final say lie with the man of Nazareth, who said, “I don’t condemn you. You can leave your life of sin behind”. Who are you going to believe?

My own conversion to Christianity came in a sort of a prodigal-son type way. I had blown it, in so many ways. When I reached the end of my rope, I called out to God, and I somehow believed that my prayer was heard.

There was a verse of scripture that helped me during that time of my life. 2 Corinthians 5:17: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come.”  The version of that verse I learned said, “If anyone is in Christ, he (or she) is a new creation.”  I believed that, I hoped that, but there was still a lot of the old creation in me. Occasionally you’ll hear stories – and I don’t mean to insinuate they’re not true – but you’ll hear stories about someone being miraculously released from the addiction of smoking or drinking or drugging. They are just set free. In my experience, that’s rare. That’s not what happened with me.

But over weeks, and months, and years, more and more of that old self did go away, and more and more of the new me came. But sometimes we are held captive by the memory that those other people – that reputation – that police record – is still there. How can there be a new creation when all that stuff is weighing us down and holding us back?

Well, that’s where I think the New Revised Standard Version has gotten a little closer to the true meaning of what Paul was writing about. If you’re in Christ, there is a new creation. The past really is gone, because that’s the way God works. This is a philosophy, a perspective, a worldview. Your sins really are forgiven, because God says, “I won’t even remember them anymore.”

Others may hold onto those things, but they are but mere wisps of a reality that once was. Your own guilt and regret may cause you to doubt. But will you dare believe the truth? The truth is – that old stuff is gone.

Who are you going to believe?


Where Could I Get One of Those?


In mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, we are in the season of Epiphany. “Epiphany” is defined as “a revelation or manifestation of the Divine.” But how does one get one of those? How do you have an Epiphany?

In the story of Jesus’ dedication at the Temple (Luke 2), there are two people who have an Epiphany. Simeon and Anna, who when Jesus was brought to the Temple for his dedication ritual were somehow able to recognize the child for who he was. The way the story reads, it’s almost as if there were just six people there: Jesus, his parents, Simeon and Anna, and the priest who would have been a part of this service. My guess is that it was not that way. The Temple in Jerusalem was busy place. There would have been a lot of people there. But just these two see and notice, and to them is granted an Epiphany.

Does that tell us something? I think it can, if we can hear it. First, let’s note that they were looking. Expectantly aware. Hopeful. That’s important. They prayed, they worshiped. That’s important.  The more one worships, reflects, prays, and avails oneself of what are called “the means of grace”, the more those means seem to show up, and get through.

I’ve sometimes thought we should have folks go through a short course on how to come to church, how to worship. Because let’s face it, we all may come to the same place and experience the same things during our time of worship, but some people get it and some people don’t. The course would have little or nothing to do with dress code or gum-chewing. It was have a whole lot to do with attitude, openness, awareness, and expectation.

Make no mistake, I’ve been in worship plenty of times when I was not looking and listening the way I should have been. My attitude and level of expectation set the tone. I was judging, evaluating. The choir’s anthem. The ushers’ seeming confusion (haven’t they ever taken up an offering before?) The preacher’s posture or pronunciation. And, the one that most of us are guilty of – do I agree with her or him? Is he or she saying what I already believe? There have been so many times that I was like those other people who were in the Temple that day – so close to Jesus, in terms of physical proximity, but didn’t see it. Noticing cobwebs in the corner of the sanctuary. Didn’t get it. Went home unchanged.

It’s been several years now since I stopped praying, “Lord, be with us as we… (whatever)” because I realized that God was already present. Always with us. I wonder I wonder what might happen if we looked, listened, listened hoped, and acted as if that were so. We might just experience – or even become “a manifestation of the Divine.” We might just have an Epiphany.



A Good Fit

I was once visiting with good friend of mine (a colleague in ministry) and we were discussing the theme of evangelism – exploring some of the finer points of seeking to share the good news of the gospel with others. We were talking about the vague and nebulous parameters of trying to help others. Where do you draw the lines? If someone is a Christian but has different (and in one’s view, lesser or inadequate understandings), do we try and further convert them, or trust in God to work it out? Do we have the right and responsibility to (in our view) straighten them out, or do we consider the main objective – faith in Christ – to have already been addressed?

I do not recall where our discussion wound up that day, but I do recall one simple phrase he offered that has stuck with me through all these years. He said, “Well, I think there is something inherently evangelistic in the gospel.”

In the same way that the good news of what God has offered in Christ is something that inherently and naturally fits with telling, sharing and spreading, I think there is also something very close to the gospel that fits with the idea of a new year. There is something inherently “gospel” in the themes we think of when celebrating New Years.

Think about it: the past is gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). There is hope, there is optimism, there is a resolve to change. (Joshua 1:9, Jeremiah 29:11). Who and how we have been is not how and who we need to be, and we need not be held captive by our mess-ups, sins, failures, or even by the opinion of others who may harbor such recollections about us (John 8:1-11).

I made it to almost 10 o’clock pm on December 31st. (It’s been several years since I made it to midnight… but then again, I was up at 4:30 am on January 1!) I don’t drink alcohol, so there was none of that. Georgia and I did not party wildly, but I do continue to revel in my new years’ celebrating. It gives me a glimpse of a wonderful truth that is liberating  and energizing. It’s the gospel.

Peace and Restlessness

Georgia and I own several nativity sets. But when the children were young, we had just one. It was and still is treasured.  My dad brought it back as a gift to us when he went to Israel, almost 40 years ago. It’s made of olive wood from the Holy Land. In those early days of our marriage, when we got the Christmas stuff out we would set it up and when the children were young – between about 3 and 7 years old – they loved to play with it. Because it was made of wood and not some delicate material like china or glass, we would put it down on the floor for them and we enjoyed hearing them moving the characters around, pretending they were having conversations with one another.

And every one of them, on their own… in different years, because they were different ages… every one of them did an interesting thing that neither I nor Georgia instructed. They all did it quite naturally; did it on their own. They brought other characters to the stable.

Our daughter Paige brought her stuffed animals, placed them around then manger and the holy family… our sons brought their action figures and teenage mutant ninja turtles to stand and join with the wise men and shepherds… and to my recollection (which, by the way is always better than what actually happened), each of them explained by saying, “they wanted to come see Jesus, too.”

So, here’s a question: Have you ever thought about how that sort of attitude is really a very important part of what Christmas is all about?

Think about it: the gospels say that angels appeared to shepherds. And the shepherds, after hearing about this thing said, “let’s go see.” Not “I’m going to go see, you guys can stay here.” Not, “a few of us are going, we don’t want the rest of you going with us”. There may have been a teenage shepherd who said, “I’m tired, I don’t want to go.” We aren’t told about this. What we’re told is that they sort of encouraged one another, and said, “let’s all go see.” And when they arrived, they told Mary and Joseph what the angels had said. My guess is that they continued to tell others about that night for as long as they lived.

Who is Christmas for? Well, we who believe in Jesus and follow him as his disciples all anticipate it and enjoy it.  In a very real way, we sort of help sponsor it, in the sense of opening our churches and having special services and remembering together what it’s all about. Hopefully, there is a sense of renewal in our hearts, and re-commitment in our living. There is a peace that comes upon us when we believe that God does care, and that God is willing to help. We may not know exactly how things are going to turn out, or how God will help, but knowing God will somehow help can transform our lives. So the gift of Christmas – of God, sending a Savior – is for us.

But theologically speaking, Christmas is especially for those who haven’t yet seen. Who haven’t yet heard. It’s for anyone who is willing to come close enough to discover the wonderful news of a God who reached down to humanity in the form of a baby, who grew up to become our Savior.

Because apparently God is very interested in inviting new people into relationship with him. What was it that Jesus left his disciples with? What were his parting words? “Go into all the world… teaching others what I’ve commanded you…”

If you know about the Wise Men in the Bible, then you know they were gentiles. Not even Jewish. If you know about shepherds, then you know that they were rough, uncouth. Phillip Yancy point out that shepherds had such a reputation that proper Jews lumped them together with the “godless,” restricting them to the outer courtyards of the temple.

Who would we compare them to? Oilfield workers? Roughnecks? Bartenders at some rough-and-tumble biker bar? You think they didn’t tell dirty jokes or share crude humor? And yet it was they whom God selected to help celebrate the birth of one who would be known as the friend of sinners. Does this tell us something?

And when we receive that message, there’s both peace and restlessness. There’s a peace that comes in knowing we have been loved with an everlasting love. That no matter what happens, we belong to God. But there is also a kind of restlessness, because we want others to find it, too.

So hold on to the peace you have, the peace you have come to know through Christ. Hold onto the relationship with God that you have been granted. But want it for others, as well. Want peace in their lives, too. Invite them to come see and meet the savior, because that’s how peace spreads and grows.

Want Some Joy?

There are some religious traditions that eschew symbols. Part of this dates from anti-Catholic movements and sentiments at various times in European and American history. But even among those groups, who would deny the power of a symbol such as the cross? Not only does it speak to us (inexhaustibly!) of what has happened, but also draws forth from us direction for the future. Even those who prefer the plainest of worship styles or who think symbols have little value have surely experienced the powerful effect of a symbol such as our nation’s flag, with all it represents.

In Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, candles are lighted during the season of Advent. There are readings selected to focus attention on the story being told. Three candles in the Advent wreath are purple (a color associated with both royalty and penance). The third candle is different. It’s the candle of joy. What’s up with that?

The readings for the third Sunday of Advent are always a little bit different than the readings on the other three Sundays. The first two Sundays usually reflect themes of longing, of knowing our need; old Hebrew prophecies and visions about God’s promise to redeem us, buy us back out of bondage as it were, despite our sin. Sometimes those readings bring with them stern warnings about the way that the coming of the Messiah is going to be world-shaking, in terms of how we see things. Mountains leveled, valleys raised. Those we thought were rich we find out are poor. Those we thought poor are revealed as rich. And the idea of who’s in and who’s out?… who God welcomes and uses? The Messiah is going to shake that up, too.

Most years, John the Baptist shows up the second Sunday of Advent, with his fiery warnings about the way that the Messiah’s coming means the end of business as usual. The very presence of Jesus’ words and teaching demand some sort of response. You can refuse him or you can follow him, but you can’t ignore him. And if you’re going to follow him repentance is required. Things have got to change. You and I have got to change and turn from sin.

But the third Sunday? The third Sunday, things change… to joy.

Often, the readings have to do with Mary, and the joy she felt at being chosen by God. Sometimes, it’s the joy of the shepherds, going to see the baby and being told by angels of a joy that would be for all people. In both cases, the joy comes not from something that they have done or accomplished, but something that was given to them. Something that God decided to do.

“Who, me?”

“Yes, you.”

“A baby, born to lead us out of darkness and sin? You’re giving him to us?”

“Yes, to you.”

William Willimon reminds us that joy is a reflex. It’s a response to something that has happened.  It’s not something we ourselves create; it’s something given. “You’ll never hear anyone say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get together and do a little joy… wanna come?’” Joy may happen while you’re together, but it’s not because you manufacture it. It’s a gift.

Theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” Thus, joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.

Because like it or not, God cares about you. Deserving on not, God has reached down to us through Jesus to show us a better way. Jesus said, “do not fear, little flock – it’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

“Who, us? You’re giving that to us?”

Bishop William Boyd Grove said there are certain words that deserve to interrupt all other words and conversation. Words like “The house is on fire!” or “The war is over!” or “Your hostage brother has been released!” These are, he says startling, interrupting proclamations that change everything. If the house is on fire, you run! If the war is over, you dance! If your hostage brother is released, you leave everything and go to meet him![1]

And what shall we do, how shall we feel when I tell you, “A Savior has been born!”?

Joy. Thanks be to God.



[1] from The West Virginia United Methodist, April 1992, 11.

Thank you, President Bush and Family

Yesterday, the citizens of the United States were given a wonderful gift by President George H.W. Bush, his family, and the media outlets that carried his state funeral live from the National Cathedral in Washington. We were given church.

As I watched the funeral (on two different and usually antagonistic news channels) at the local YMCA along with ten or so other exercisers who were watching while working out on various machines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many millions of other people were also doing so. I realized that this may have been one of the largest audiences of worshipers (I hope they had that experience, even if they thought of themselves as merely spectators) ever to simultaneously hear song, scripture, sermon, and eulogies, and to be given the opportunity to reflect upon the values that President Bush held dear, and by which he lived.

Some may have found the Episcopalian worship traditions formal and stilted (our Anglican brothers and sisters would say “dignified and beautiful”), but there was a sense of the Divine, and the opportunity to be moved. Thank you to all who made this possible for us.

Regardless of political party, one could not help but be reminded of some important things – things we who are Christian know to be important, and which we hope guide our lives, as well. And what a wonderful time of year to be reminded of these things, as people around the world prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in whom salvation is found.

Thank you, President Bush, for living a life of faith. Thank you, Bush family, for helping us to see and remember the importance of faith, love, devotion, humility, courage, and hope. We went to church with you yesterday, and I’m happy we did.

That’s Heavy

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)

Yes, but.

Sometimes those two words are nothing more than the beginning of an excuse, but they are also powerful words that people of faith may feel or speak when seeking to live according to the teachings of Jesus.

Deuteronomy 21 says that a stubborn and rebellious son should be stoned to death by the elders of the city. Yes, but… Jesus told a story about a prodigal son who was forgiven and welcomed home.

“Thou shall not commit adultery…” seems pretty clear. Again, Deuteronomy says that both the man and the woman who engage in this sin should be stoned to death. Yes, but Jesus forgave a woman caught in adultery, encouraging her to change her ways.

Jesus introduced an interesting word into the conversation in Matthew 23: “weightier”. In other words, some things seem to weigh more in God’s mind. Isn’t that what is indicated in Micah 6:8,

“ He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Wait a minute! What about the right way to baptize people? What about drinking alcohol versus abstinence? What about proper gender roles, especially keeping women in their “biblically-instructed place”? What about all those things that churches have historically split over, and Christians have argued with one another about as if their very salvation depended upon it?

There are many friends of mine who have different (sometimes slightly, sometimes vastly) opinions on finer points of theologically intricate matters. It’s been my experience that these differences need not keep me from doing justice, loving kindness, or walking humbly with God. Nor do these differences weigh enough to keep me from liking them, associating with them, learning from them, or worshiping with them.

Do I believe they’re mistaken? Yes, in many instance…but: I think I’ll stick with the heavy stuff, believing that Jesus would want me to direct my time, energy, and attention toward the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith.