Friday, January 22, 2016

Would Jesus Love the IRS?

To answer the question posed in the title of this post, of course Jesus would not love the IRS. But he would have a special regard for IRS agents. We can know this to be true because Jesus seemed to attract many of them to his cause.

The tax collector in the Roman Empire came under the protection of the Legions. His job was to collect a stipulated amount of revenue for the Emperor, and anything above that he could keep for himself. This mechanism that invited corruption did nothing to endear the profession to the population, and even less so given that those hired for such duties were often from the native population. These willing and often greedy collaborators with the occupying forces were not in the business of making friends but of becoming rich off their brethren.

Yet when tax collectors came to John the Baptist and asked them what they should do, he did not tell them to get out of the business. Instead he told them to "exact no more than that which was appointed to you." (Luke 3:12 - 13) John even baptized many of them (Luke 7:29).

Jesus even made a tax collector the hero in one of his parables (Luke 18:9), and his three famous "Lost and Found" parables (Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son) were spoken in response to grumbling over his receiving kindly the presence of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15).

Is it any wonder that one of his apostles was previously a tax collector (Matthew 9:9)? And is it even less of a wonder that a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus would inconvenience himself greatly for a chance to glimpse this Rabbi reputed to be the Messiah as he passed through town (Luke 19)?

Tax collecting was a lucrative but lonely life. This new religious movement that was first signaled through John the Baptist and later fulfilled in Jesus offered hope even to tax collectors and sinners, so much so that Jesus himself seemed to intentionally seek out the notorious Zacchaeus and offer him the words of life.  This tax collector accepted the invitation and pledged to change his life and business practices. We are not told what happened to Zacchaeus after this life-changing encounter, but what he committed his life to could have cost him his business.

If there is a lesson or two we can glean from this, it might be both a warning and an encouragement. The warning is to never write anybody off, no matter how despicable we might find them. God is in the life-changing business, after all, especially the life-changing business of saving sinners. The encouraging lesson is we are all sinners whose lives can be changed.  Jesus sees people for what they can become, not for the tax collectors that they are.

Jesus offers hope to IRS agents. And to you.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

In Memory of Mom

Note:  On January 1, 2016 my mother, Antoinette C. Cacchio, passed away after a long struggle with dementia. What follows are my thoughts as I prepare to present the eulogy.

The walls of the old parish church have seen thousands of baptisms, thousands of weddings, and thousands of funerals. The cycle of life's events have echoed around its sanctuary for as long as anyone in the city can remember.

It's the church where my grandparents were married. It's where their children and grandchildren were baptized. It has hosted family weddings, first communions, and funerals. It's the church where my mother was baptized and where she took her First Communion. She was confirmed there and married there. 

In the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon tells us that the house of mourning is better than the house of feasting, for that is the end of us all, and in our mourning we all take that to heart. 

This house of worship has seen its share of both mourning and celebration, and today the cycle of life has completed another course as my mother lies resting peacefully at last near this same church's altar.

This all brings me back to the greatest gift my mother gave me. It's the greatest gift any parent can give a child.

When I came back to Niagara Falls for a visit last August, I made sure to thank her for that gift. She suffered the last years of her life from a disease that some have called The Long Goodbye. That is an apt name for the illness she bore. That disease robbed her of all she was, and because of that I don't know if she understood a word of what I was saying.

I told her that the best gift that she gave me was her teaching about God -- that there is a God, that God is good, and that Jesus is his son. She taught me that Jesus died for me to save me from my sins, and that God raised him from the dead so that I could someday live forever.  She taught me that God has expectations of us for how we live our lives, that we should love God with all our heart, souls, and minds, and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Except for a brief period where I rationally questioned that teaching, only to quickly prove her right, that teaching is with me to this day.

I don't know if she understood what I said when I thanked her for that, but it was something I had to tell her.

Douglas C. Gresham in his foreword to C. S. Lewis' book A Grief Observed said that "all human relationships end in pain. It is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love."

Gresham's statement is profound because whenever we love someone, whenever we care about someone, it will always in one way or another end in pain. It is the way of the world, and it has ever been so since the early days in Genesis.

But from the beginning that was not God's plan. It is the way the human race has chosen for itself. The great contemporary British theologian N. T. Wright in his book Surprised by Hope reminds us that God's great, sweeping plan is to set the world to rights. By that he means that God will fix what's wrong with this world, echoing what the Apostle Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope, because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. (Romans 8: 20 - 22 NKJV)

As Genesis begins the story, Revelation ends it, bringing us the full cycle back to our Creator. John in his vision tells us:

I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain for the former things have passed away." (Revelation 21: 1 - 4 NKJV)

The pain, the suffering, the horrible illness my mother had -- the suffering all the creation has -- will one day be set to rights. The cycle will be complete. The original intent of the Garden in Genesis will be recaptured. The Long Goodbye will be no more. The Adversary will no longer extract his pound of pain as the price for love. The cycle will be complete.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Rare artifact from biblical king's seal found in Jerusalem

Story:  Israeli archaeologists have discovered a mark from the seal of biblical King Hezekiah, who helped build Jerusalem into an ancient metropolis.

I have an interesting personal story related to this find. In the summer of 1982 I spent most of the summer -- maybe my most perfect summer -- in Israel working on the City of David excavations in Jerusalem. Our group actually worked along side Eilat Mazar, who is featured in this video. She now heads the entire project. (Her father was Benyamin Mazar, a celebrated archaeologist in his own right).

In those days we were working our way down through the Byzantine era in our particular area (or so we were told, though I believe from some of the finds we were well below that). It appears they have now made it down to the pre-exile era, which would be very exciting to excavate.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Irena Sendler Project: Kansans at Their Best

In 2004 author Thomas Frank penned a book using a query as a title: What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Note: You can purchase a used copy of this book for one copper penny on Amazon.) As a resident of Missouri, I could gladly give Mr. Frank a boatload of snarky ammo in answer to his question, but having just returned from a long weekend in a little-known corner of Kansas, I will refrain from doing so.
Let me explain.
The story begins in 1999 in the high school at Uniontown, KS, population 272. Four teenage girls while working on a history project discover a yellowed newspaper clipping in a teacher’s file. The clipping mentions one Irena Sendler, a woman from Warsaw, Poland who, during the Nazi occupation, smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She saves the lives of 2,500 kids, yet the only evidence of this is a newspaper clipping and a mention in a holocaust memorial in New York City.
Thus the quest began for the story of Irena Sendler. And these fourteen-year-old girls from little Uniontown found her, their efforts catapulting Irena into international recognition. Let’s let a few of the main players tell this perhaps miraculous story in their own words:

Diane and I took our little trip to the part of Kansas where the teenagers’ journey began and visited the Lowell Milliken Center, which is situated in the cobblestoned downtown of the county seat, Ft. Scott, KS. We were honored to meet Megan Felt and speak with her firsthand about how that little scrap of newspaper changed her life and the life of so many others. Two words – inspiring and humble – come to mind, but I am sure many more would suffice.
Four teenage girls from little Uniontown, KS took a forgotten little Polish woman and transformed her story from obscurity to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. This is the heartwarming story, as Megan would say, of four Protestant girls from rural Kansas honoring a Catholic woman from Poland who saved 2,500 Jewish children. I think God would be pleased with that. So to Thomas Frank, who asks, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” let me tell you: Not very much.
For more on the Irena Sendler “Life in a Jar” Project and the Lowell Milliken Center for Unsung Heroes, visit:
Facebook: Life in a Jar: Irena Sendler

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Grace is not where you think

Grace is not where you think it is. Take out a concordance and look. This word at the center of Christian doctrine is surprisingly sparse in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Here are the only places where the word grace appears in the King James Version of the Gospels:

Luke 2:40, where we are told that Jesus as a child waxed strong in the spirit and that the grace of God was upon him. 
John 1:14 - 17 where John emphasizes that Jesus was filled with and came to give grace and truth. 
(Note: Some translations use the word "grace" in Luke 2:52 in place of the the King James rendering of "favour".)
One might say that grace is conspicuous in its absence from places where we might think it should be, for we never find the word grace in the red letters of your Bible. Put differently, the word never passes through Jesus' lips, and I would offer that this curious fact is by design. Jesus did not have to use this word that is so important to understanding God's nature because he didn't have to. He didn't have to because he modeled what grace is through the way he lived his life. He lived it so perfectly that we can learn what grace is by looking to his example. 

We're going to take a brief look at how Jesus lived grace by by taking a brief tour of John's Gospel. In the preamble to that Gospel (John 1:1-18) John lays out what the main themes of the book. In verses 14 - 17 he says: 

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. 
John tells us that, among the many things that John is going to address, two of his major themes will be "grace" and "truth". In virtually every chapter of John's Gospel Jesus is either addressing some important point of doctrine ("truth") or is showing some manner of grace, or he is doing both. In this piece we are going to focus on grace question and how Jesus lived it. If we are able to understand grace as Jesus lived it, we can better understand what it is and how it looks.

In John 1 Philip decides to follow Jesus, believing he might have found the Messiah. In his excitement he finds his friend Nathaniel, who promptly utters a slur about Jesus' hometown. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Jesus overhears it, but rather than reacting in corrective mode, he jokes, "Behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile!" (John 1: 43-51) That is showing grace.

In chapter 2 Jesus is attending a wedding celebration. They run out of wine. That could have been quite an embarrassment for the host of the wedding and the families of the bride and groom. Jesus could have done nothing, but instead he has some jars filled to the full with water and turns them into wine. The party continues, the guests continue to rejoice, and families are saved from public embarrassment. Grace.

In chapter 4 Jesus approaches a Samaritan, a woman from a despised ethnic group who also happened to have a questionable lifestyle. Instead of condemning her he shares the word of life to her and offers her a way to satisfy the unquenchable thirst in her heart. Grace.

In chapter 5 Jesus singles out an ailing man who could not obtain healing from any source and heals him even though the man does not ask Jesus to heal him and does not even know who Jesus is. Grace.

In chapter 6 Jesus multiplies the fish and loaves in order to feed thousands who would otherwise go hungry. Grace.

In chapter 8 Jesus saves the life of a woman caught in adultery, but also tells her not to do it again. Grace.

In chapter 9 he sees a blind man who has been in that condition from birth. Jesus reaches out and heals him. Grace.

I could go on about how Jesus comforts Mary and Martha at the death of their brother, and of his servant's attitude that he shows when he washes his disciples feet, even the feet of Judas. I could explain how Jesus treats Pilate with respect and dignity. And I can tell you about how he maintains his own dignity in the face of unspeakable indignities, but I think I have made my point. Grace is more than just the dictionary definition of "unmerited pardon". It is that indeed, but it is so much more than just that. 

That little English word "grace", if Jesus' example is any guide, should maybe be replaced by a more encompassing word. Maybe it would be better to use the word "gracious". If we use that, we'll see it for what it is and maybe be motivated to live grace the way Jesus did. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Why did Paul call the Corinthians fools? They only asked a question.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” I Corinthians 15:35)
Answer a fool according to his folly. ... Answer not a fool according to his folly. (Proverbs 26: 4, 5) 
The Corinthians had a question for Paul: what kind of a body will we have in the resurrection?  Many have asked questions like this. Will we recognize each other? Will we have a resemblance to how we look now? (Ugh!) Or will we look like we did in our late 20s? (Better!) Will we be able to get up a game of baseball and not supernaturally crash home runs on every pitch? Odd questions, some of them, but ones we want to ask.

Paul, however, answers the question with a sharp rebuke: "Fools!" (I Corinthians 15:36)

With all due respect to Paul, those questions aren't foolish at all. We want answers. Why does he call the Corinthians fools for asking a question that any of us might ask?

Understanding Paul's response to the Corinthians' question can act as an excellent example of a cardinal rule of Bible study: get the context.

The Corinthian church was a troubled church. They were blessed with many gifts (I Corinthians 12 & 14), but along with their many gifts they carried baggage from their background. Their Classical Greek culture led them to ask a lot of questions, many of which we see Paul referring to throughout this letter (7:1, 25; 8:1; 9:1, etc.) Along with this admirable quality, they were also infused with Dualism, a carryover from Greek philosophy, which manifested itself in Christianity in the form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism in all its various forms made a sharp distinction between the physical and spiritual. Paul's epistles, the General Epistles, and many of the next generation of church leaders confronted this heresy, and it's evident from Paul's frequent references to "knowledge" (Greek: gnosis) in I Corinthians that it was an issue in this congregation.

At its core Gnosticism teaches that the physical world including our physical bodies are ultimately worthless. In some iterations of Gnosticism the physical is completely evil and the creation of an evil demiurge who was the Yahweh of the Old Testament. Therefore at death our souls would be would be released from this demon-inspired physical world and freed into the spirit realm, which is of the true God.

If that is the case, why is there any need for a resurrection of the body? Why was there a need for Jesus' physical body to disappear from the tomb? Wouldn't it make sense that being liberated from the evil physical world would eliminate any need for a "resurrection"? A resurrection to what? Wouldn't his soul already in a glorified, spiritual place?

This is exactly what Paul felt a need to address in I Corinthians 15. "Now if is preached that he rose from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?" (Verse 12). So when they ask the questions, "How are the dead raised up?" and "with what body do the come?" they likely weren't asking the question because they wanted an answer. Some of them had their minds made up and were trying to trap Paul. They wanted nothing more than to be contentious.

When you and I ask that question, I would hope we ask it because we really want an answer. Paul would have given us the answer without first calling us fools. Even then, he answered the question anyway because, as the proverb says, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Churches must do their job

It has been said, accurately in its substance, that after the attacks of September 11, 2001 church attendance skyrocketed, only to fall back to pre-9/11 levels a year later.

The conventional wisdom why this was so may be correct, that the emotional effects of the attacks wore off, and people began to revert to their previous patterns of behavior.

Maybe that's true, but here is an alternative thought. Let's posit for a moment that people sincerely felt a need for God in that time of great stress. Let's just suppose that maybe people really did begin to ask the big questions in life, that they realized that there is more to life than the daily pursuit of stuff and status.

Let's suppose they were attending church services because they were sincerely trying to find God. In that case what reason could there be that people would drift away from church? Doesn't it seem odd that churches couldn't satisfy the hunger of an eager, seeking audience?

Could it be that the failure to thrive was not the seekers' fault at all, but the failure of the churches to nurture? Could it be that this desire to know God is still there, lying latent in their hearts, awaiting only the correct fanning flame to ignite?