Write Us A Memo (Matthew 21:23-32)

Of the many heart wrenching images emerging from Puerto Rico over the past week, the one which has bothered me most I saw the night before last.  It wasn’t scenes of a flood devastated community, a hospital running out of medicine, or people in need of food and water.

Instead, it was the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, giving an interview to CBS News.  Seven days after Hurricane Maria slammed in Puerto Rico, cutting off the island’s ability to communicate with the world, as she worked to save the lives of dying people, get food to the hungry, meet with officials flying in from Washington, and plead for help on the international media; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked her to write memos detailing what she and the citizens of Puerto Rico needed.  Yes, you read that right: “write a memo”.     She replied, as any person would, “She didn’t have freaking time to write memos in this situation”.  FEMA, she insisted, should come to Puerto Rico do their assessments and get to work before more lives were lost.  There was no time for memos.

Do you know who also loved memos?  This crowd really loved memos and the overall intricate glory of the bureaucratic process.   The Temple Emergency Management Administration (TEMA) in Jerusalem in the first few years of the third decade of the Common Era.  No one was bigger on having the proper channels, authority, memos, and permissions granted than the Chief Priests, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law.  It was their job to make sure everything was done by the book in every situation.  It didn’t matter if there was a famine in Judea or a revolution in Galilee.

If we didn’t have the law, if we didn’t keep to the Law of Moses; who were we?  The Law of Moses, the Torah, and those 613 commandments set down by our forefathers when they landed on Jerusalem Rock made us who we are today.  Were prophets, teachers, and religious upstarts to come along and urge people to ignore the Law of Moses; who knows what God might do to us?  God might punish us with a Roman occupation that taxes our people to death and kills innocent Jews.  Oops, scratch that.  Who knows what God might do to us?  God might punish us by putting a corrupt Jewish king over his people who puts his sons in charge of every province, is a noted womanizer, and is more in love the Roman Gods than Yahweh.  Oops, scratch that.

You get the Chief Priests, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law point:  you can’t go messing with a perfect system.  There are to be no amendments to God’s constitution.  God talked to Moses.  Moses, though he was long dead, was effectively speaking through them.  If someone wanted to do anything different, they needed to put it in writing and come through them.  And to be honest, that was not going to happen.  It’s like one of those stupid “if the boss is wrong see rule 1 jokes”.  They were never wrong.

It was their sacred job to be intermediaries between God and humanity.  God was too big for people to approach one on one.  That’s why the Torah, with laws upon laws about purity, sacrifices, and rituals were kept by a priesthood who knew and understood God’s intentions for humanity.

While God didn’t make this assumption, those working on God’s behalf (including the sacrifice subcontractors) believed most of God’s followers were morons.  What did they know?  The believers who poured into the temple were rubes, hicks, country hillbillies from the mountains of Galilee who couldn’t read or write a word of Hebrew or Aramaic.  These people would do whatever they told them to do.  Most of them hadn’t seen Leviticus or Deuteronomy.  Make no doubt about it, their job was to ensure God was a color between the lines project.  They drew the lines, handed out the crayons, and then told people where to color, how dark to shade, and where on the refrigerator their drawing might be displayed.

Nothing was left to chance.  Following God meant ordering the right number of doves at the beginning of the week:  another memo.  Following God meant assigning tables and locations for the money changers:  another memo.  Following God meant setting up the rotation of priests for the sacrifices in the holy of holies:  another memo.  Following God meant assigning a priest to go through the offering to pick the choicest fruits and grains for their meals:  another memo.  The Pharisees were memo people.  They loved their memos.

One day, a guy shows up at the temple and he colored outside of the lines.  In fact, he brought his own crayons, drew funny pictures of God, and encouraged people to see God existing beyond the limits set by the Law of Moses.  His name was Jesus.  Jesus said that God was bigger than the rules Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.  The Pharisees, Chief Priests, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law didn’t know what to think.  They looked at each other and asked, “Did you send me a memo on this?”  “I didn’t get a memo about this change?”  “Who sent the memo about Jesus?”

One of them asked Jesus, “We didn’t get a memo about you.  Did you bring a memo with you?  We can’t do anything without a memo giving us authority and permission to act.  Where is your memo?”

Jesus doesn’t do memos.  Jesus is not a United Methodist who needs approval of a charge conference or an annual conference.  Jesus is not the Mayor of San Juan trying to save lives in her hurricane ravaged city.  Jesus is not a priest working of the Pharisees in the temple.  Jesus doesn’t do memos and chains of authority.  If Jesus sees a need he meets it.  Jesus gathers the resources, he equips and empowers his disciples, and he goes to where people are hurting.  That’s the essence of the Good News.  Jesus never waits to be asked.  Jesus goes.

When Jesus goes to those in need, the memo requesters lose their ability to control access to God and God’s words.  Everyone can come to God, even the hillbillies from Galilee and an educated redneck from Trinity, North Carolina like me.  You can come close to God without paying a man to kill a pigeon on your behalf.  Where’s the memo?  There is no memo.  No official request is required.  Jesus says so.  His word, our relationship, is good enough.

Memos are like hoops.  The more we create or ask people to jump through them; we run people off.  Those who stay, that is write the memos and decide to jump through our hoops, I’m not sure I want hang out with them.  They remind me of the Pharisees, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law.  After a while, they take the memo thing too far. You remember the memo they sent to Pilate about killing Jesus, don’t you?

Richard Lowell Bryant

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When I Think of Taking a Knee

I think of prayer.  I think of active resistance to the principalities and powers, those of which the Apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Ephesians.  I think of the place I go when I have nowhere else to turn.  I think of looking up when I have been made to bow down.  I think of the foot of the Cross.  I think of emptying my words, heart, dreams, and hopes, on the ground before me.  I think of the worn carpet before the altar.  I think of the old wood floor beside my desk, I think of the gravel in the driveway.  I think of the grass by the side of the road.  I think of everything and nothing.  I think of the words I want Jesus to hear and those I am afraid to say.  I think I can withhold nothing from Jesus .  I think of what must be brought to light.  I think I am not alone.  I think of the prayers before me,  around me, and waiting for my knee to bend.  I think.  I speak.  I weep.  I mumble. I give thanks.  I listen for God.  I listen to God.  I feel God’s creation beneath my knee as touch the Earth.   I bend my knee in love.  I pray in peace so I may serve others as the disciple Jesus called me to be.  I take a knee because Jesus taught me to pray from my knee so I might minister with my hands, arms, feet, and legs.  I think of prayer.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

A Niemoller Moment circa 2017 (First They Came)

First they came for athletes calling attention to police brutality and racism. I did not speak out.
Because I was never brutalized for being white.
Then they came for the dreamers, bi-lingual achievers, and immigrant families. I did not speak out.
Because I was handed the American dream.
Then they came for anyone who disagreed with their version of reality, religion, and life. I did not speak out.
Because I could not find something to Tweet.
Then one Sunday morning, they came for me.
The church was empty, the streets were bare,
And there was no one left to speak for me.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

Richard’s Quick Guide to Mindful Prayer (An Exercise)

1. Find a comfortable, easy, or favorite place to sit.  It shouldn’t be so comfortable you’ll fall asleep.
2. Turn your phone off and place it beyond your reach.
3. Look around. Notice what you see going on around you.  Look for the nouns (people, places, and things) and the verbs (what are the nouns doing).
4. Close your eyes.
5. Take a deep breath and exhale. Do this slowly.
6. Count to five. (1 1000, 2 1000, 3 1000 and so on)
7. Do this two more times.
8. Your eyes are still closed.
9. To this point you’ve been focused on your breathing.
10. Your eyes are still closed. Do you hear what you saw a few moments ago?
11. What do you feel? (Pay close attention to the breeze, sunshine, and where you’re sitting.)
12. Is there one word, feeling, or emotion that keeps popping up in your mind? (Eyes still closed.)  What is this word or feeling?
13. If you could think of one word to describe what you’re feeling, at this moment, to tell God something, what would that word be?
14. Remember, you are still breathing nice, easy, and, slow.
15. After you’ve thought of your two words, (a word of description and a word of communication to God) say “Amen”. Suggested time for this exercise is 5-8 minutes.  When finished, stretch your legs and grab some water.

A Birthday Poem for My Wife

In this cerulean desert,
Surrounded by wind and wave,
Awaiting the tropical swell,
Settled on this unwound isle,
We find a time, a way, a moment,
To claim the indefinite future called now,
There is a place for candle and cake,
A time to mourn the dying beauty of the sun,
While I seek divine counsel for a gift unfound,
For if I could, I certainly would,
Return your sister,
As my present to you,
Because you are my wife,
And I love you.

-Richard Bryant

*My wife’s sister died in a tragic car accident this past May. Her sister’s birthday was last week. My wife’s birthday is today.

What Changed My Life

What changed my life?  How was my soul saved?  When did Christianity start to click? Here’s my story:  I wasn’t on drugs, broke, and homeless.  I didn’t stumble into an AA meeting.  Nor did I walk by a man holding a sign reading “Hellfire or Jesus” and feel compelled by my own fear of death to repent on a downtown sidewalk.  I’m not discounting dramatic conversions.  It wasn’t what I knew.  Dramatic conversions get more attention in church.  However, my experience tells me they are the minority.  It’s the gradual, under the radar, one step at a time, journeys toward a deeper faith, which are more common.

I attended church whenever the doors were open.  I joined the youth group.  In the most general way, these activities made sense.  I went on mission trips.  We visited to the homeless shelter to serve meals.  I played the piano in church.  All the Christian dots were in place yet none of them really connected.  That connection came later.  The weekly religious repetition bred familiarity.  In my case, the familiarity didn’t bring contempt.  If anything, I was bored.

The things we did were good.  We talked about issues that seemed holy and historic.  Yet nothing connected my faith to the wider world.  How was what I learned in church supposed to shape my life beyond the church?  I didn’t feel that link was made.  These stories Jesus told, what did they mean for Christians today?  I thought I understood the Good Samaritan story but there were countless other parables I didn’t grasp.  Even in the Samaritan story, there seemed to be more happening beneath the surface.  Then Jesus kept speaking about the “kingdom of God”, what was this kingdom?  The kingdom looked nothing at all like the world I knew or wanted to join.  Jesus’ vision of reality and my idea of right and wrong were not the same.  Here’s where the first test came.  Would I try to find a way to make Jesus’ teachings fit my conceptions of what I had been taught it meant to be a Christian?  Or, would I allow Jesus to reshape my understanding of what it means to be his disciple, from scratch?  If that meant I was called a Methodist or Marxist, I didn’t care.  I wanted, most importantly, to be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ.

To let Jesus work on me, I needed to meet Jesus again for the first time.  There is no better place to encounter Jesus than in his stories.  In scripture, these are the records of Jesus’ encounters with crowds both large and small.  In his parables, Jesus describes his ideal conception of reality.  He called it “the kingdom of God”.  The kingdom is here, embodied in Christ’s mission and ministry.  In another way, it’s still on the way, an unrealized expectation for the future.  Jesus’ stories describe, by way of parabolic illustration, what’s important to Jesus and how his priorities must become ours.  It’s in listening and then acting on what we hear that the kingdom of God becomes a three dimensional reality.

These stories aren’t Jesus’ suggestions for better living.  They are handbooks for a way forward.  For too long, I heard them preached (and saw people treat them) as morality tales.  “Oh wouldn’t be nice if we could all live this way,” I’d hear someone say after church.  “Too bad Jesus doesn’t live in the real world.”

Eventually I realized a couple of important ideas.  Jesus does live in the real world and his words carry weight and value.  Many of the United Methodists I knew were willing to write Jesus off as a Christian version Aesop but took parts of the Old Testament literally.  While Jesus could be easily ignored, they were willing to consider Moses’ word as law.  I saw an even greater disconnect between how the church sees Jesus, God, the role of scripture, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

There’s one parable running perpendicular across the grain of American society.  This story, Matthew 20:1-6, stands in stark opposition to the Protestant work ethic, free market economics, Capitalism, and good old fashioned American ideas about hard work.   If we’re not uncomfortable with the telling of this story, we’re not listening.  It makes me squirm and I credit it with bringing me to salvation.  Jesus is reordering the world and redefining our sense of fairness.  Equality will no longer be measured by the terms we’ve grown accustomed.

This is the parable that saved my soul.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who wanted to hire some help for the day.  So early in the morning, he went to that spot, you know the one, where everybody who wants to be a day laborer hangs out, and picks up some guys.  He says, “I’ll pay one denarii for working in my vineyard for the day.”  They agree.  Into the vineyard they go.

A few hours later, he goes back to the market place and sees more people who need work.  He offers them an opportunity to go into the vineyard but doesn’t agree on a price.  He only says, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”

The vineyard owner does this two more times.  At lunch and then around mid-afternoon, he goes back into town and hires more workers for the vineyard.  Each time, they agree to go into the vineyard.  On these subsequent occasions a wage is never discussed.  The landowner only questions the men as to why they were never hired earlier in the day.  “Nobody hired us,” they say.  These men were unemployed or unemployable.  This landowner hires everybody.  In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is sending a powerful message about full employment.

When the end of the day came, he called his foreman to pay the workers.  He began with the last ones hired.  Those who showed up at five received one denarii.  The same thing happened with the people who came at three, twelve, and nine.  The morning crowd was certain they’d be paid more since they worked all day.  It didn’t happen.  Everyone was paid one denarii.  The guys who’d worked since dawn were angry.  How could he do this?   Didn’t he know they’d worked in the hot sun all day and the guys who came last did nothing?  What was this, some kind of socialist plot?  You can’t pay everyone the same thing.  Where’s your motivation for getting ahead, incentives, and advancement?

I realized something:  Jesus doesn’t have the same bottom line as Wal-Mart, Walt Disney, or the United States of America.  His priorities are rooted in meeting long term needs.  Short term visions of equality are not consistent with God’s vision of fairness.

The landowner explains, “I paid you what I agreed.  It’s my call to pay what I like and to whom.”   In Jesus’ kingdom, as the landowner explains, the least and last are as important as the first and those guaranteed to be well-paid.

If you didn’t know Jesus said these things, removed this story from the Bible, and heard an aggrieved worker call a radio talk show with this story, what would the response be? The decline of America, socialism infecting small town America, and the workers would probably be immigrants taking American jobs.  You know I’m right.

This is why this story saved my soul.  This parable is everything Jesus wants us to be and still we refuse to listen.  Jesus is hiding in plain sight.  He’s telling this parable right now.  My thoughts about healthcare and immigration are viewed through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not because I read Leviticus 19 nor had a great mission trip experience as a young adult.  My salvation became real when I read Matthew 20:1-16.  Jesus talked about life as it is lived.  I began to take Jesus seriously, at face value, and at his word.  I think Jesus cares about economics and our souls.  This parable proves it. Jesus meddles in politics and religion in ways that many Americans would despise.  I think that’s great.  We’ve taken him for granted for far too long.  He’s not our American Idol.  He’s our Savior.  There is a difference we’d do well to remember.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

A Prayer As We Boarded the Hand-basket

For this hand-basket we’ve boarded between the Mexican Earthquake and Hurricane Maria, we give thanks;

Let us pray:

Yesterday’s earthquake in Mexico was really bad. I understand it was on the anniversary of another large earthquake back in 1985. What’s with the symbolism? I’m not one to be easily spooked but that unnerved me. Did you see the elementary school that collapsed in Mexico City? Of course you did, you’re God. Twenty-five children were crushed to death. Puerto Rico is being battered by a hurricane, people are certain to die there. Who knows where Maria will go next? In the midst of so many hurricanes that I’ve lost count, twenty-five innocent children died in one of the most horrific means imaginable. Where are you God?

You are in the lives of the first responders, those digging through rubble, and others seeking to offer assistance. That’s the official line.  However, at this point, I’m no longer certain.  Are you (God) present or are the rescuers trying to clean up the mess you’ve allowed to be made? Are they instruments of your grace and mercy or are they responding to a world where God is absent, death is on the march, and we’ve been left to care for each other (because we’re all we’ve got)?  Given what the world’s been through in the past few months, I think those are fair questions.

It’s hard to keep saying, “God has a plan and God is good” when the bodies start piling up. You and I have a credibility issue. The good stuff attributed to you looks random at best and like playing favorites at worst. The bad stuff, which is vast and horrific, seems capricious and mean.  You may not intend it that way, but that’s how it feels.

My congregation asks: Why is God doing this?  Like it or not, for good or bad, people of faith see you involved in the world.  They also want to know why evil and suffering exist; especially if God is so good.  They’re not looking to blame homosexuality, crime, Trump, Clinton, or drug addiction on a natural disaster.  Instead, they want to make sense of their faith and the complex world around them.

Your people, the church, those who keep this thing running are exhausted. Their hope is faltering, their lives are in peril, and all we can do is respond.  At this rate, our response isn’t what it once was.  Miracles, grand, sweeping, proactive acts of God used to be your thing.  What happened?  Were those just stories?  I hope not.  Because the body count is already way too high.

Amen

Richard Lowell Bryant