HEBREWS 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
    subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

The author of Hebrews acknowledges yet another discrepancy, this time between a statement made in scripture (see Psalm 8:4-6) about the dignity and glory of the human being on the one hand, and his own observations of human beings as “not all that,” on the other.

The mythic vision of how things are is not intended to match up to the way things appear; in fact, this discrepancy is what gives the myths of religion their inspirational power. If everything were now as it ought to be, then there would be no impetus for change, no forward movement, no progress towards salvation. God created the human to have glory and honor, and the fact that we are lacking these to whatever degree only serves to empower us in the direction of our true potential and intended destiny.

After the so-called Restoration period in Christology (the view or theory of Christ), after the earliest Christians had tried largely in vain to place Jesus within the inherited templates of traditional Jewish messianic expectation, new and highly creative Radical Christologies emerged. Paul’s New Adam was one of these breakthrough views, as were Mark’s Son of Man and John’s Word Incarnate. A fourth Radical Christology, often sprinkled among these others, was what can be called the view of Christ as the exemplar of a Fulfilled Humanity.

Whether the present generation sees itself as fallen from an original perfection or as evolving towards a future realization, Jesus represents what we are essentially and what we are even now in the process of becoming, as we enter into our full salvation (making whole) as human beings. Having stepped through the veil of death Jesus showed us that what we are, most deeply, needs not be disturbed by mortal anxiety, but can find true life on the “other side” of our greatest of fears.

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PSALM 26

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
    and I walk in faithfulness to you.

I do not sit with the worthless,
    nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
    and will not sit with the wicked.

I wash my hands in innocence,
    and go around your altar, O Lord,
singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
    and telling all your wondrous deeds.

Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
    and the place where your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners,
    nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
10 those in whose hands are evil devices,
    and whose right hands are full of bribes.

11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity;
    redeem me, and be gracious to me.
12 My foot stands on level ground;
    in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.

This poem may reflect the somewhat naive morality of youth which believes (and perhaps must believe) that living rightly is the key to happiness and longevity. The psalmist sees himself as standing across from the company of “the hypocrites, the worthless, and the wicked,” having kept himself blameless and clean. As the rabble get swept away in the deluge of life’s troubles – as they must, if this is a just world and everyone gets what they deserve – he counts on God’s pleasure in his integrity and good reputation to save him and to establish him “on level ground.”

We know that David himself, if he is the author of this poem, later learned what we all must discover in our maturity, which is that life doesn’t work this way. To make up for the discrepancy, the classical religions developed notions of a heaven and hell where final retribution will be made, and thus preserved and justified our human need to believe in a just universe.

But still, it is little comfort, and possibly too late in the day to really help us significantly. Despite all the rich color paintings and passionate rhetoric, the doctrines of heaven and hell (somewhat like the Prologue to the Book of Job) are not intended to resolve the fundamental problem, only help us focus on the present ambiguity with sufficient light to find our way through.

JOB 1:1; 2:1-10

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordThe Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Our conclusion in a previous Dispatch may have sounded fatalistic and inherently hopeless, but there is real wisdom in the principle of accepting life as it comes. This doesn’t mean that we must simply resign ourselves to the negative experiences of adversity, hardship, loss, and mortality as they come upon us.

If we should look more closely at our own tendencies and habits when suffering visits us, we might notice how often we fall alternately into denial (“It’s really nothing”) or inflation (“There’s no use going on”), without truly engaging the struggle that is uniquely ours. To accept life as it comes is to take the mixture of good and evil with full responsibility – not for having caused it, perhaps, but responsible for what we will do with it.

Job didn’t do anything to deserve his misfortune (the premise of the story), and yet he refused to either dismiss it as unreal or resist it as unfair. The great climax towards the end of the book, when God addresses Job directly out of the whirlwind of his disorienting experience, is prepared for already here at the beginning, where Job accepts his suffering as his own.

JOB 1:1; 2:1-10

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordThe Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The Book of Job was originally composed as a radical challenge to then-current explanations for why people suffer adversity in life. Most popular and widely held of these explanations was the one that attributed human suffering to previous sins, as retribution or ‘payback’ for disobedience to God. In his attack on this view, the author depicts a perfectly innocent man, Job, who nevertheless experiences profound loss and physical pain.

For the reader’s benefit, the author lets us in on the wager made between God and “the adversary” (Hebrew satan) whose principal task is to test the honesty, integrity, and patience of people throughout the earth by trials of various kinds. Unfortunately, though it is often interpreted as the true explanation of Job’s suffering, the real purpose of the wager scene in heaven is to make the point that Job is, in fact, innocent and undeserving of his ensuing catastrophe. He is being tested in the crucible of personal loss and disease, but he is not paying for past sins: thus the premise of the traditional explanation is disqualified from the start.

One of the enduring virtues of the Book of Job is its courageous embrace of ambiguous life. We may wish for a perfect world where good people prosper and only the bad people experience hardship, but that is not the world in which we live. Here,  innocent children are violently abused, the hardworking poor starve to death, and the elderly are forgotten in nursing homes.

The kindest people suffer horribly from random illnesses, and the generosity of the charitable is frequently exploited by greedy brokers or organized terrorists. Job’s wife urged him to “curse God and die,” or in other words to give up his hope for justice. His response was to say, in effect, that we live in a broken, mixed up, and out-of-balance world.

That’s just the way it is.

MARK 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

The “stumbling block” that Jesus has in mind here comes in three varieties: the hand kind, the foot kind, and the eye kind. We might interpret these as referring to differences within the human community that tend to foster dogmatism, bigotry, and violence between groups.

The hand is the instrument of human work and achievement. With our hands we build the monuments that carry our ideals, the homes that shelter our families, and the institutions that embody our values. We work for what reflects real worth, or at least for what can buy what we feel is worthy in life. What I “put my hand to” may be very different from what you “put your hand to,” which is to say that your appetites and aspirations may be significantly different from my own. Look at the difference between what North Americans “put their hands to” and what Arabians or Africans “put their hands to.” It would be very easy to look across the ocean and decide that our way is better, our values superior, our ideals more noble.

The foot is our natural mode of transportation, taking us down the paths of our lives. Here we are placing the accent on differences in where people see their lives going, on the various and competing life curriculums they live by. Your path or aim in life may be very different from mine, but does that make it wrong or less true?

Finally, there are differences in perspective – in how we see the world and represent reality in our minds. Tantric Buddhists see things differently from Evangelical Christians, and European capitalists see a different world from Cuban refugees. Is it right for us to claim exclusive truth for one perspective or worldview over the others?

Jesus said that if our hand causes us to stumble, we must cut if off; if our foot causes us to stumble, we must cut it off; and if our eye causes us to stumble, we must tear it out. What he means is, if your differences are getting in the way of regarding the humanity of other people and treating them with compassion as children of God, then nothing short of surgery is required!

MARK 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Jesus was drawn to others no matter their nationality, social class standing, religious affiliation, or moral character because his awareness was open to the level of his personal identification with them, sharing a common ground as living creatures and fellow human beings. For him, these cultural distinctions were little more than lines in the sand separating one part of the beach from another.

Beneath the divisions and surface distinctions, all sand is essentially the same. In the same way, whether one was Phoenician or Galilean, a Samaritan or a Jew, a man or a woman, an adult or a child, of “this” circle or “that” circle, did not finally  matter to Jesus – and was certainly, in his mind, nothing to build privilege upon. When he looked at another person of whatever color, creed, size, or disposition, he saw through all the attributes and accidents of birth and station, to the core humanity manifested there. That’s where compassion begins, and where it can lead us, if we are courageous enough to follow its inspiration.

When the disciples complained to Jesus that someone not of their circle was performing deeds of power in Jesus’ name, his reply brought judgment upon all our faith and fanaticism regarding group privilege and “true religion.” It’s not necessary to hold a confessing membership in some particular group in order to be living on the path of spiritual freedom and purpose. In fact – and here’s the rub – insisting otherwise can put a stumbling block before another who is living honestly and earnestly for God’s true cause in the world. All our concern over orthodoxy and exclusive truth will at most guarantee that we ourselves are far, far from it.

MARK 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

As certain as the sun rising tomorrow is the habit of human communities who think of themselves as holding exclusive property rights to legitimate authority and absolute truth. Despite the fact that Jesus himself cast his net of compassion so wide as to include all the world, it wasn’t long after his departure that his followers began to shorten their throw and worry more about who was right and who was wrong. Alas, if this story is more than the author’s criticism of his own community and reports back to an actual episode from the life of Jesus, then this habit of exclusionary thinking was present already then.

In our attempt to make sense of this tendency within human groups (of whatever brand or type), we can bring forward some recent reflections on the inner power of intercessory prayer. We said there that, rather than assuming a separately existing deity, ‘out there’ and removed from the dynamic urgencies of human life in the world, intercession can mean something of great relevance to our day if we interpret it as somehow a function of our personal participation in the universal Spirit or life of God, present in and throughout all things.

From this perspective the common ground and interdependence of everything with everything else is the Fact of facts that we ignore to our own peril. Compassion, then, would be the natural outflow of this deeper identification: you experience the suffering of another because you and the other are deeply and essentially one.

JAMES 5:13-20

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Intercessory prayer has become problematic for many modern people, since its practice through the centuries has been dependent upon a worldview and concept of God that many today can no longer hold with intellectual integrity. The idea of God as essentially separate from and existing above the complex field of our human experience in the world is becoming less and less compatible with our growing understanding of the universe.

True, just because God is not as necessary as He once was for explaining the origin and architecture of the natural cosmos, doesn’t automatically mean that we have outgrown and moved beyond our need for Him. We have become more materialistic and less spiritually-minded as a culture, and our problem with prayer may reflect more the implicit atheism at the heart of our contemporary worldview than a genuine individual maturity on our part.

Nevertheless, and the thoughtful atheists among us notwithstanding, the “theory” and practice of intercessory prayer does bring a challenge before the modern (or postmodern) believer. Are we still to think of God as somehow outside and vertically removed from our world, so that we must call Him into a given situation of need, on behalf of someone who is sick or sin-ridden? Is it just you and that suffering other, therefore, until you invoke the presence and (hopefully) healing power of God?

If instead God is not separate from the world or external to our experience, but is rather essential to the world and already deeply present at the heart of reality, then our prayers of intercession could be relevantly understood as a kind of intuitive participation in the sufferings of another, and an urging of the Spirit towards their life, health, and hope. The one who prays and the one who suffers have common ground in the universal life of God.

JAMES 5:13-20

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

The ministry of intercession, of “going between” another person and what threatens his or her life, dignity, happiness, or hope for the future, is the primary vocation of the Christian. As our example, Jesus gave himself so completely to this task that he was remembered above all as “a man for others.” He proclaimed his gospel for the hope of those mired down by guilt. He taught on the subject of God’s reign for the sake of dispelling false conceptions and deepening true understanding. He reached out to the sick and set free the possessed, restoring them to health and wholeness. Upon his departure, Jesus commissioned his disciples to carry on in the same way, farther out into the wide world of human need.

To the degree that Christians have retreated into their churches and are preoccupied with concerns of membership and the heaven that awaits them, they have betrayed the vision of Jesus and his gospel. The truth of the matter of Jesus is that his vision, as well as the community he organized and inspired, is all about interceding for the world on behalf of its awakening, liberation, and fulfillment. Before the Church became busy over issues of orthodoxy and hierarchy it was focused on realizing this vision in Jesus’ name. And if the Church can transcend these same fixations today, it will be able to pick up where it left off.

PSALM 124

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
    —let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
    when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
    when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
    the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
    the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord,
    who has not given us
    as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
    from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
    and we have escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

The Bible gives expression in a wide variety of ways to the human experience of salvation,  not as achieved by individual effort but brought about through an outside agency. The intercession of Esther for her people is just one well-known example of this key idea.

Because salvation nearly always involves a liberation or rescue from something – an oppressor, an approaching disaster, a destructive habit, a limiting belief – that is currently preventing our progress, inhibiting our freedom or threatening our life, the Bible counter-balances our typically modern gospel of self-reliance with its witness to faith as reliance on what is beyond us.

It may at first sound weak to say that had not the Lord been on our side we would have been done in, but such an honest admission of our need is really the avenue, and not the barrier, to the experience of true strength in our life. In the story of Esther, the Jewish people would have been defenseless against Haman’s pogrom had it not been for the queen’s effort on their behalf.

In fact, it is probably true to say that many if not most of our troubles in life which develop into serious hardships are due to our ignorance or stubborn refusal to acknowledge our personal limits, inadequacies, and shortcomings. As a rule, the wisdom of the universe brings the counsel, the helper, the resource, or the sign within reach at the critical moment of need.