It’s a Kingdom Parable about Sheep (Psalm 23)

The Utopian image of the 23rd Psalm is comforting.  When we read of God’s constant provision for our physical and emotional needs; we are reassured in ways that other Psalms fall short.  These words have a power that other verses and poetry will never possess.  However, there is an important contrast.  The 23rd Psalm presents an idealized view of humanity’s relationship to God it seems hard to picture this level of peace and security occurring within the bounds of physical space and time.  Where but eternity could God guarantee total protection from one’s enemies, unlimited food and water, and perpetual rest? Heaven seems like a natural conclusion.

The Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.

He lets me rest in grassy meadows;

He leads me to restful waters;

He keeps me alive.

He guides me in proper paths

For the sake of his good name.

Is this the reason this Psalm is so often called upon to provide comfort to those near the end of their lives?  It could be.  Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We’ve read this Psalm in funeral services for centuries.  Here’s the irony:  Psalm 23 doesn’t offer a sign, marker, or directions pointing toward the afterlife.  Instead, it’s a simple declarative statement about the poet’s relationship with God.  He compares his nearness to God as being similar to the manner a shepherd relates to a sheep.  The agricultural metaphor is the basis for the emotional comparisons that follow.  Once the poet has made the initial declaration, “the Lord is my shepherd”, we’re no longer talking about a sheep and its shepherd.   As the first verse ends, “I lack nothing,” that’s you talking, me speaking, all of us mumbling about how God loves us.  The 23rd Psalm is one person going on the record about what God has done and is doing in this world.

If the church treats these words as a travel guide, describing the afterlife, we’ve forgotten that God is at work in the present tense, building tables in the wilderness, feeding people, and reconciling those who were once enemies.  The 23rd Psalm is happening right now in our communities and around the world.  There has never been a better time to be a people who live the 23rd Psalm on a daily basis.  Putting this Psalm on the “wait until I’m on my death bed shelf and read it at my funeral” is the equivalent of saying, “that part in the Lord’s Prayer  about thy will be done on Earth as is it Heaven is a dumb idea.”  If we ignore the 23rd Psalm and use it as solely as a comfort blanket, we’ve missed the point about bringing the kingdom of God to Earth.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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There’s Only One Loyalty

Former FBI Director James Comey’s new book, “A Higher Loyalty” frames the question of loyalty in the singular, as if there is only one loyalty.  We may live in a world of multiple (lesser) loyalties which demand our fealty but there is singular “higher” loyalty.  What is the source of such loyalty? It is clear from his early interviews and book excerpts that Comey’s idea of loyalty is hierarchical.  Loyalty to country precedes loyalty to a particular person, office of state, or political party.  While this may be true or is his version of the truth; his description of a higher loyalty should ring hollow for disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians have no other loyalty than to God.  Competing secular loyalties, those which launch cruise missile strikes and live behind the partisan double standards of fear rarely acknowledge God as a being to whom they offer loyalty.  Lip service, yes.  Loyalty, never.  Yet, despite the media driven competitions for our loyalty, even those who come bearing such anxious phrases such as “the future of the republic” and the “inevitability of impeachment” must be reminded that our loyalty remains with God, not the metaphysical idea of the United States of America.

Christians, because of their higher loyalty to God, are empowered to call into question the assumptions underlying every other loyalty struggling to be heard in the marketplace of philosophical and intellectual ideas.  These ideas are the infrastructure of modernity and like the bridges, roads, and highways that link our nation; the loyalties that once tied us together are also crumbling at the seams.  Because our loyalty lies beyond the public spectacle, we can see when something’s wrong.  This is our witness:  find common ground to preach the Gospel in the world’s wrongness, even when everyone’s singing “Happy Days are Here Again”.

The Body of Christ doesn’t simply call the world’s loyalties into question.  Antagonism isn’t our mission.  We offer alternatives to misplaced loyalties.  Our lives become witnesses to the higher loyalty.  This is accomplished through unapologetic, confessional worship and witness grounded in the historic Christian expression of loyalty to God, community, family, and neighbors.  The people around us and the word they inhabit become divine space, the yet to be immanetized kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  This is who we are and what we do.

The former director is known to be a student of the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  James Comey views himself, to paraphrase Niebuhr, as THE moral man in a immoral society.  Aren’t we all, Jim?

As Mr. Comey knows, there’s more to Niebuhr than rational critiques of society, social order, economics, and power.  I’m reminded of one of Niebuhr’s sermons on Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew’s gospel.  In it Niebuhr says, “Because we are both small and great, we have discerned a mystery and a meaning beyond our smallness and our greatness, and a justice and a love which completes our incompletion, which corrects our judgments, and which brings the whole story to a fulfillment beyond our power to fulfill any story.”  Mr. Comey, there’s only one loyalty tying everything together.  Everything else is just fancy rhetoric.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Your Piety Ain’t Worth A Hill of Beans (Acts 3:12-19)

There are always two sides to every story.  It’s a dictum as old as time itself.  As we’re learning in on our era, there are actually multiple versions to every event.  There’s the truth, versions of the truth, fiction, multiple fictions, what we’re told is fake news, that what we want to believe is true, and that which we’re convinced is false.  Does any of this sound familiar?  I long for the quaint era of a two sided debate when persuasion, facts, and reason might convince someone of a particular position or idea.  However, here’s my observation.  I’m not certain such a time ever existed.  I know American history has always been marked by a diffuse brand of debate.  Then, when I read the stories of the disciples, especially in the contentious days and weeks after the resurrection, I see the same patterns.

No one expected Jesus to die.  Even fewer people believed he’d live.  As such, the common ground the community shared following the resurrection was contested in every imaginable way.  Going into the crucifixion, life was fraught and unsettled.  Now, after it was all over, the disciples were still faced with the unresolved religious and social tensions that remained from prior to Jesus’ death.  Their message of Jesus’ resurrection was going to exacerbate the threats that hadn’t gone away (and quite possibly continued to endanger their lives).  Surely, the best approach wouldn’t be to stride right back into the temple with Jesus proclaiming, “See, we told you so!”  Guilt is a wonderful to build a healthy relationship with God.

Some people wouldn’t believe that Jesus was back no matter what they said or showed them.  Others would be too fearful to listen.  So you see, just from this overview, how we think preaching, teaching, and establishing the church would have become much simpler following the resurrection.  That’s not true.  If anything, it became harder.  In a conflicted world, a culture that’s got a snappy comeback for everything, reasons not to believe in anything, and will doubt the blue sky right over the head; the disciples have their work cut out for them.  Nothing simply fell into their laps.

What was the best way to be church in such a convoluted world?  The disciples had to tell their story (our story) in relation to the most indisputable facts anyone else might muster.  In other words, how could we respond to and tell the Christian story around the points of the story that everyone agreed to, witnessed, and saw over that long, horrific weekend.  If someone was in the crowd (and many people were) at Jesus’ trial before Pilate and then they’d witnessed the crucifixion, how would you put that in a larger, more meaningful context?  How can they give that common experience of sharing in collective brutality meaning?

Remember, the two disciples are preaching within the gates of the Temple.  So the scenery and the grounds are familiar as a backdrop to where the events Peter is describing.  Peter’s not talking about ancient history.  This is yesterday, last week, fresh gossip, and tension still lingering in the air.  As any good storyteller knows, with the right words, you can take the audience back in time, even to yesterday.  They have the gift of a backdrop.  When combined with their word pictures, their congregation can see the contrasts they want them to begin to notice.

Peter, speaking from a place called “Solomon’s Portico”, was in a spot he’d been known to frequent before.  I like to imagine it was one of Jesus’ favorite hangouts.  Teachers and rabbis had their places.  People would know where to go to find the teacher they like to explicate on the scriptures.  Jesus was probably found over by the “Solomon Portico”.  Jesus wasn’t available this morning.  So he and John went instead.  Like clockwork the people who came to hear and see Jesus came to see them.  They started to spread the news.  “You’re not going to believe this but he’s alive.”  People were being healed, they were jumping up and down; it was just like the good old days.

Some people outside the portico heard the rumors and they certainly didn’t like to see the Jesus of people having fun.  They were loud, rowdy, and generally disruptive to the public order.  Luke doesn’t come right out and say it but somewhere between verse 10 and 11, a message got back to the goody two shoes higher ups that ran the place.  “The dead guys followers are back and they are creating a disturbance over in Solomon’s Portico.  What are we going to have to do get rid of these people, kill them all?  Send someone down there to see what’s going on.”

Enter verse 11.  “While he clung (a guy they healed) to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.  When Peter saw it, he addressed the people.”  Here’s Peter’s chance to put everything into context.   You’re all having fun.  The power of Christ is great.  We’re doing some wonderful things.  How did it go all wrong and lead to his murder and execution?  Why did you kill him? How did we get here?  This is the direction Peter’s message begins to take.

Here’s what Peter says, “Why are you amazed at this?  Why are you staring at us if we walk by our own power of piety?  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-the God of our ancestors-has glorified his servant Jesus.”  I love his first line.  Why do you stare at me and look at me like I’m crazy?  I want to say that nearly every week.  Peter says, “We’re not saying or doing anything under own will.”  We’re here because of Jesus.  Jesus makes all of this possible.  The same goes for church this morning.  I know we say and do some crazy things up here. No one is up here of our own power or volition.  We do what we do, when we are here, for God.  This is an act of worship to bring glory to Jesus.  It shouldn’t be amazing, what God can do.  As the old hymn says, it is so secret, what God can do.  When miracles start to amaze us, it means we’ve lost touch with God’s amazing grace.  Peter says we should not be dumbstruck and amazed at what God can do

This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, though he had already decided to release him.  You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murder be released to you instead.”

No one likes to be confronted by the failures and mistakes.  Nonetheless, regardless of what side of the Jesus debate you called home, Jesus was handed over and denied (by the guy preaching, he’s a little culpable here).  A murder, by the name of Barabbas, was also released instead of Jesus.  This all happened.  We all play a role in the denial and share in the guilt.  As Peter goes on to say, “Brothers and Sisters, I know you acted in ignorance”.  None of us knew what we were doing.

Peter and John want us to hear the Good News despite our ignorance and unwillingness to acknowledge God’s grandeur.  Rather than alienate those who haven’t encountered the risen Lord, Peter ask us to connect to the story of the resurrection in ways that deemphasize guilt and shame.  Instead, we are called together to see who we are and where we were in relation to Jesus, the cross, and the promises of life; post-Easter.

It is frustrating when people are amazed at what God can do and stare at us and say, “who are those Christians, praying, fasting, and doing for others?”  That’s when we say, as Peter reminds us, don’t look at us.  We are not doing these things.  None of the actions any of us take are by our own power.  That last mile work (giving, caring, baking, praying, and visiting-whatever we do) is not by our power or piety.  If it were, it wouldn’t be worth a hill of beans.  We do what we do as mainline Christians and ignorant sinners; because thank God, Jesus believes in giving everyone a chance.

Richard Lowell Bryant

There Is No Attorney Client Privilege Between Us and God (Psalm 139)

For the past few hours, I’ve been thinking about Psalm 139.  In my NRSV, it’s prefaced with the heading, “The Inescapable God”.  This is a song to the God from whom it is impossible to hide.  If you were to put me on national television and ask me my favorite Psalm, I’d probably say Psalm 23.  Who wouldn’t?  But deep down inside, when the cameras are turned off and it’s just me and my Bible, I like Psalm 139.

It is here, in these 24 verses, that my life is laid bare.  I am reminded, when it comes to God, there’s no such thing as attorney/client privilege.  God doesn’t need a search warrant, a federal judge, or probable cause to enter my life.  Before I am aware of God’s presence, God is already among my papers, emails, files, and sitting at my dining room table.  Listen to the Psalmist:

“O Lord you have searched me and known me.  You know me when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.”

The data in our Facebook accounts, the emails we’ve yet to write, the goodness in our soul, or the malice in our heart; God’s seen the evidence.  Everything we thought was our own, hidden behind passwords, firewalls, and barriers of silence is compromised.  God’s got it all.  Actively searched and found, the Lord has watched patiently.  Sometimes we are seen from afar and at other times from across the room.  Psalm 139 tells we are known completely.  Yes, this should overwhelm us.  If you’re concerned about privacy issues, you will be completely unnerved. Mark Zuckerberg’s reach is nothing compared to God’s.

“Such knowledge,” writes the Psalmist, “is too wonderful for me; it so high that I cannot attain it.  Where can I go from your spirit?  Or when can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Hell, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there you right hand shall hold me.”

We cannot outrun or outwit the inescapable God.  It is not a witch hunt.  It is a you-hunt.  God is hunting us.  Me, you, and all of us are unable to flee from God’s presence.  In heaven or hell, beyond the farthest limits of our definitions of reality or fairness, God will find us and hold us.  Why?  God is biased. God has a different set of priorities, values, and interests that conflict with our own.  Here’s what we forget about Psalm 139:  you want God to break into your home, office, and soul.  God’s biases will save your life.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Please God, knock down my doors today.  O Lord, break into my life.  Take me, my phone, and whatever else you want.  Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

There’s A Reason Jesus Says “Peace Be With You”

There are “trigger” words and expressions which push the political hot buttons of partisans on the right and the left.  I allude to these phrases because they are part and parcel of our common public discourse.  Far from being the exception, we use them as a rule, to demonstrate the differences of opinion between neighbors and friends.

For example, some advocates for gun control call for the repeal of the Second Amendment while the gun lobby seeks a wider distribution of weapons to teachers and workplaces.  Both of these proposals are polarizing; they are positions which provoke fear, mistrust, and anger.   Each group becomes angry and mistrustful of each other because their opponents don’t recognize the self-evident logic within their respective arguments.  Each side views their position as the only common sense alternative to America’s gun crisis.  Here, in verbal stalemate, is where the conversation ends.  Because of the fear underlying the debate and each side’s implied inherent virtue, the dialogue dies.

It’s impossible for anyone to talk when they’re afraid.  The chances of conversing reasonably with anyone about anything are negligible; especially when you fear for your life.  Here is the truth: both sides in the gun debate are afraid.  If I have no gun, how will I protect my family from tyranny or crime?  On the other hand, if irresponsible people can obtain guns, is anyone safe?  At the most basic level, fear drives the argument.  We’re not ourselves when we’re afraid.  It’s much easier to put our faith in fear than in God. Fear is the first step toward loading a gun or cussing out your disagreeable neighbor.  Fear is first step toward alienation.  Fear kills joy.  Fear feasts on our own sense of self-righteousness.    Fear amplifies itself, builds echo chambers, and listens only to fear.

Is it any wonder when Jesus appears to the disciples, post-resurrection, he tells them to “be not afraid”?  Once the disciples have received and heard Jesus’ shalom, it’s possible to disembody their fears.  In resurrecting new life, Jesus takes apart their old fears.  Resurrection disables fear.  Resurrection brings peace.  Resurrection makes listening to Jesus possible.  We can hear Jesus in a way we’ve never encountered his message.  Those two steps make it possible for Jesus to begin a conversation with the disciples; an ongoing dialogue that’s still happening today.  When the fear is gone, Christ’s shalom precedes our practices, listening, and mission.  How do we acknowledge our fearfulness and embrace God’s shalom in our midst?  Who is most unlike us, hardest to hear, and in need of God’s peace?  May we listen without fear?

Richard Lowell Bryant

You’re Right, This Doesn’t Seem Real

I didn’t want to believe what I was witnessing.  On nearly every television channel, I saw footage of young white men chanting the words, “Jews will not replace us”.  They were marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.  Carrying torches and shouting in unison, it was reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films of the mid 1930’s.  Except this wasn’t a documentary on the History Channel.  I was watching a live broadcast from the campus of the University of Virginia.  I was in disbelief.  The images did not seem real.  My mind was unwilling to tolerate the authenticity conveyed by the words and images on screen.  Nonetheless, this was happening.

Despite my doubts and incredulity at the unfolding events, there they were, on display, for the world to see.  So they remain.  The trauma caused by that one weekend in Charlottesville still lingers.  The emotional wounds of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry have not healed.  Some people still doubt the validity of what they witnessed, the existence of the underlying issues that led to the march, or the growing threat from those who seek polarize America along racial and ethnic divisions.  Doubt is everywhere.

Yes, doubt is all around us.  And for some reason, Christians still have trouble accepting Thomas’ reluctance to believe, at first telling, the news of the resurrection.  Much like last summer’s protests in Charlottesville, the Passover festival which culminated in Jesus death and resurrection was a calamitous and violent affair.  As with those of us who watched the protests and news of violent clashes between neo-Nazis and anti-Fascists, no one wanted believe that the city of Jerusalem would turn on Jesus.  Few people thought Jesus would be arrested.  Who wanted to believe he would be arrested, tortured, or tried by the Roman authorities?   As these episodes unfolded, the reactions of the disciples show a reluctance to accept reality.  Jesus was going to die.

When a loved one dies, often the first thing we’ll say is, “it doesn’t seem real”.  That’s a form of doubt.  We’ve all done it.  Death is confusing, especially when someone dies a violent death at the hands of the state.  The unresolved anguish and fear adds further insult to the ordeal and shock.  This isn’t like someone passing away peacefully in Hospice care surrounded by a loving family.  The emotions Thomas is feeling are probably closer to those being experienced by Stephon Clark’s family.  What happened to Jesus is more like being shot eight times in the back while holding a cell phone.  Thomas wants answers.  He is angry.  Reality doesn’t seem real.  Thomas doesn’t know who to trust.  These kinds of things aren’t supposed to happen.  Doubt is all around him.

Thomas is not a convenient post-Easter whipping boy.  I am Thomas, you are Thomas, we are all Thomas.   Thomas is a human being who’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and responding like any normal person would in his situation.  Ultimately, Thomas makes the journey from “it can’t happen” to “it has happened”.  His response to the resurrection becomes a matter of trust in spite of the trauma.

If we can’t step into Thomas’ sandals, we’re going to have a hard time addressing the violent realities which Jesus’ resurrection calls into question.   We need Thomas, now more than ever.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Good Friday Meditation (John 18:1-19:42)

In the long history of the church, few issues are as controversial as the atonement theories underlying our understanding of Good Friday. Why did Jesus die? How did Jesus’ death accomplish our salvation?  How is it that one man’s death atoned for the sinfulness of humanity, even those yet to be born?

As much as I’d like to tackle these big questions, I can’t.  I’m afraid I have nothing new or meaningful to add.  However, I would like to pose a different series of queries.  Good Friday is a day about death.  We can all agree on Jesus’ demise.  As in the countless of funerals I’ve presided over; Jesus dies and is buried.  The dominant emotion of the day is grief.  His relatives mourn his passing.  My questions arise from Mary’s grief, Peter’s remorse, John’s sorrow, everyone’s misery; the universal affection to which we all relate.

I am unable to fully explain, beyond the theoretical, how Jesus’ death accomplishes the work of salvation.  Yet, I am certain of the bereavement and anguish felt by his family and friends.  I have witnessed this response on untold occasions as families gather to bid mothers, fathers, sons, sisters, and brothers goodbye.  This pain has taken up space in my soul.  The melancholy caused by death is not static.  Despair works in a continual spin cycle, reluctant to release the mind of the grieving.  Within our despondency, basic questions begin to form; “why”, “what next”, and “how”.  These, I believe, are the most important questions we can ask on Good Friday.  As we witness the death of Jesus the human being, we should not shield our humanity from the pain of the cross.

If we’ve been there since the beginning, you need to be there at the end.  Allow me to put it bluntly: you came to the manger, now go to the funeral.  Good Friday is not the time to walk away and shield your eyes.  In fact, we make too much of the Stations of the Cross, the journey from the site of Jesus’ trial to the place where he was executed.  Nobody talks about the journey from the cross to the tomb.  There are no crowds, stations, or programs to remember the walk to the grave.  Where do you think the family needed people most?  Where was their grief greatest?  As we know from our own lives, it’s after everyone’s gone home and the funeral is over.  We know from our own experience.  We’ve been there.  This is why Good Friday matters.

Good Friday is a strange day.  It’s a day where God feels absent and nonexistent.  By the end of it, even Jesus feels forsaken and abandoned.  We’re left with one of the most difficult tasks possible, keeping promises to the dead.  When you believe God broke his promise by dying, nothing seems more difficult.  We are reminded on Good Friday, as CS Lewis tells us; the consolation of religion and the truth of religion are two different things.  To the latter we will listen and to the former, no one understands.  Today, there is nothing anyone can say to make anything any better.  Jesus is dead.  The bad guys won.  There are no consolations on Good Friday.

Richard Lowell Bryant