Monday, March 12, 2018

Like Moses Lifted Up the Serpent in the Wildnerness

John 3:14-21  
4 Lent 

Numbers is a book which shows
to its readers or hearers how God was with the Israelites
even during their 40 years in the wilderness.

In this time in the wilderness, God is an unpredictable
and sometimes dangerous character,
and in this early stage of their relationship between
the Israelites and the all mighty and powerful creator of the universe
the people aren’t really sure how to handle their relationship.

Some people have likened dealing with God in this time
to dealing with a nuclear reactor.
If everything goes well, things are wonderful and great power is harnessed.
But if one piece is forgotten or overlooked,
it’s disaster for everyone involved.

It’s main character in the book is Moses.
The one with the direct link to God.
God and Moses and the people had a complicated relationship.
God would talk to Moses, Moses would talk to the people.
The people would talk to Moses and Moses would talk to God.

In churches we were told to avoid triangulation as much as possible,
having a conversation with someone through another person
to try and influence their behavior is not a good idea.
But right at the beginning,
our first biblical hero is caught in the worst one.

By the time of Numbers, the Israelites
had been out in the wilderness for a few years.
The miracle of the Red Sea was a distant memory to some of them.
And the people were cranky and frustrated.
“Why did we ever leave Egypt” they said over and over.
“Oh, we should have stayed in Egypt.
Things were so much better there.”
Meaning while they were in slavery to the Egyptians.

The people turn on Moses and his brother Aaron repeatedly.
Then God would threaten to do something horrible to the people
and then Moses would beg God not to do it.
And God would usually give in.
And this would be repeated over and over.
It was not a healthy relationship.

In Chapter 21, Moses and the Israelites find themselves
again by the Red Sea.
Where God had done such amazing things for them.
But instead of remembering God’s saving acts,
the people again start whining and crying,
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to die?
We used to have food there.
We hate this manna that you’ve given us.”
In other words, we have nothing to eat . . .
and it tastes terrible.

Finally, the story goes, God had had it.
They forgot about what he had done at the Red Sea.
And they insulted food that God has made them.
The nuclear reactor was springing a leak.

So God released poisonous snakes  and the people
were bitten and many of them died.
They begged Moses to go back and tell God they were sorry
and they asked Moses to ask God to take away the serpents.

Now, did God actually send snakes to them?
Or were God’s chosen people having such a terrible time
and  they reasoned that God’s anger with them was the cause?
This is up for debate whenever we read the Hebrew Scriptures.
Regardless  --  Where the snakes came from
is not the most important part of the story.
The remedy is the most important part.

After the snakes, Moses went back to God and,
of course, God gave in.
But the remedy was unusual, a paradox really, a mystery.
The people wanted God to “take away the serpents from us”
But God did not take the serpents away.
God doesn’t even make the serpents stop biting them.
Deliverance does not come in the way that they expected.

The remedy was this:
God tells Moses to make another poisonous serpent --  
a permanent reminder of this episode with the snakes --
and set it on a pole and raise it up in front of the people.
Moses did it, he made the serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole.
Whenever those who were bitten
looked at the serpent, they would live.

God didn’t take the serpents away.
The snakes didn’t stop biting,
the remedy wasn’t to remove the evil.
The remedy was to look at the evil,
the problem, remember the pain,  and then they would live.
The only remedy was for them to look at the snake that bit them.

In the John story, Jesus tells Nicodemus
Nicodemus Visiting Jesus Henry Ossawa Taylor 1899
that he will be like that snake, 
he will be lifted up
so that we can look at him as well
and in the same way, we will live.

We have lived with Jesus death and the cross
as a symbol for so long, that some people
forget what it was:
it was an instrument of torture, capital punishment, 
a public display of the power the state
has to control and subdue silence and oppress

It’s violence that still used today to the same ends.
Like in war, when we dehumanize others in order
to feel good about killing them.
In the systemic racism that has existed in our country
since its foundation and still drives our economy and function.
In mass incarceration of large portions of our population,
In our neglect and suspicion of the poor around us.
When we turn our head and shrug our shoulders 
at the gun violence in this country as if there is nothing we can do about it.
This is the same violence that we see represented
in the cross of Jesus: violence that dominates and oppresses.

Like the Israelites blamed God for the poisonous snakes,
We have liked to say that Jesus died on the cross
to satisfy God’s anger at us.
That makes it easier for us to take,
if it was all God’s doing to atone for our petty and minor sins.

But the cross was not God’s invention, it was ours
Humans made this method of torture
and have made other methods too.
God did not kill his only son to satisfy God’s wrath,
God heard our wrath, our constant request for someone’s blood --  
and offered us his own blood instead.

God’s remedy for all this violence and blood lust was
not to just take it away and pretend it wasn’t there.
Instead, God lifted it up, made it the central symbol of our
religion, a constant reminder of what we are capable of.

Like that serpent in the wilderness,
the remedy to our evil is to look at it recognize it
deal with it, acknowledge it as a society,
as a country, as a whole species, and then we might live.

As Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness,
Christ has been lifted up on the cross for us.
Look at the cross, look into the snake of humanity that bites us all.
Because in the face of that snake also is the power of resurrection.
In it also lies God’s power to make life again.

Because, in spite of all we can do and have done to each other,
in spite of the violence, in spite of the hatred,
and cries for blood, and apathy, and greed
and unchecked privilege,
and our comfort with other people’s suffering,
God still so loved this world that he gave his only son
to die for us so that we might live.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Jesus the Thug

John 2:13-22
Lent 3
March 4, 2018

I think we mostly think of nice Jesus.
The Good Shepherd Jesus, the healer.
But today Jesus is not that nice Jesus.
He’s angry Jesus. I mean he was angry Jesus
just last week, when he told Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”
but we don’t like to remember that Jesus.
And this week he’s demonstratively angry Jesus.

They often call this the “cleansing of the temple”
and I’ve never liked that term.
Cleansing seems more innocuous than what Jesus was doing.
And it suggests that Jesus work was completed
and everything was changed after that day which it wasn’t.
I don’t know that what he was doing there
is completed today.

What Jesus was doing here was an angry protest.
He saw something that was wrong, that went
against God’s plan, and he was showing that with a demonstration. 
Now Jesus crossed a line that many societies draw in the sand
when he disregarded personal property
and turned over tables and drove animals out.

And he became what we would classify today as “a thug.”
And sure enough, in Mark’s Gospel it says that this
was basically the thing that made the religious
authorities look for a way to arrest and crucify him.

Now some say that he did something like this on purpose
in order that he would be arrested and killed
and follow the destiny that was set before him.
But I say he did it for the reason that so many other
people get angry and protest and disregard personal property
and come to be called thugs is that so much
is just plain wrong and things needed to change.

So what was Jesus so angry about?
Let’s start with why they were selling things
in the front of the temple in the first place.

The reason that they
were selling animals in the temple,
was so people could buy them to do sacrifices
which was the main element of Jewish worship at the time.

The original idea was that people worshipped God by giving
God back the best of what God had given them. A sacrifice.
Most people would bring their own animals,
or they would trade what they produced for an animal to sacrifice.

But when the temple was built in Jerusalem,
people would to travel there to do their worship.
They couldn’t bring one of their own animals
or a bunch of other produce, people started to
sell animals in front of the temple for money.

And because Jews couldn’t use Roman money,
there were money changers, who would exchange
Roman money for Jewish tokens for a price
so then you could use them to buy the animals.

It wasn’t outrageous. It all made perfect sense.
They weren’t selling terrible elicit things,
it was all stuff for worship.
All of these things were proscribed by religious law.
But what had developed was this:
The place that was built for everyone to worship God
had become a marketplace.

The whole purpose of the temple
and the act of sacrifice was so that people
and communities would grow closer to God.
So they could understands God’s will for humanity.
So they could live out God’s dreams, and live
in a just community, and caring for the poor,
the orphan and the widow.

But they were just “doing temple”
and they weren’t doing God’s will.
And actually the marketplace itself
was unjust like all marketplaces.
It gave the wealthy more share,
and excluded the poor.

And this is why I say Jesus work in the temple is not completed
People today who follow Jesus still
find ourselves “doing church”
doing the rituals and the practices,
and not getting down to helping out God’s dreams.

We’re “doing church” but we forget
what we were “doing church” for.

People can go through their whole lives
doing the practice of Christianity and never
have it change them, never have it affect their lives.

And many Christian Churches do Church so well,
that they’ve turned the whole process into a
market place, where it’s wealth that includes
and poverty that excludes.

We always run the risk of being like one of those things.
We always have to struggle against that.
We could be “doing church” just right.
We could say all the right words right,
sing the right songs, have the most accurate budget,
the best classes, the nicest facility,
the best most organized ministry teams,
We can check off the
“12 most important things for a successful church.”
but still forget what God wants out of this whole thing:
justice, mercy, forgiveness, loving our neighbors,
loving our enemies, self sacrifice, faithful service and love.
And if we’re not doing it all for God’s vision for us
and for this world, what is it all for?

When I was in seminary, one summer
I went to Guatemala for a few weeks by myself.

When I was Guatemala,
the church around where I was staying
was in the center of town near the town square. 
There were always vendors there. 
But on Sunday morning, the vendors were doubled
they were selling rosaries, wooden crucifixes,
all types of religious articles.
trying to get some money from the more well-off people
who would be going to Sunday worship.
Cleansing of the Temple
Alexander Smirnov

And while I was in worship 
on Sunday every week
a boy who was paralyzed 
would come into church on
a homemade wooden cart and roll around
the church asking 
for money and especially
coming up to all the gringos in the church.
When he would come to me, I would just
shake my head at him 
and go back to focusing
on my worship, like all the other people in that church.

Now lots of people when they’re in seminary,
go through this phase where you think about
what the right and perfect way to do church,
and nothing in the real world is never good enough
None of our seminarians are like that. But I was in that phase then.

And I was put off by the whole thing.
The selling of religious trinkets in the front
and the boy asking for money right in the middle of worship.
It wasn’t “right”. The Church after all was a “sacred space”
I actually thought of this scripture,
“we shouldn’t make God’s house a marketplace.”
I felt a little self-righteous as only a seminarian can.

But what system would Jesus have wanted to change then?
Which table would Jesus have turned over?
Would Jesus have scolded the poor women
who were selling and just trying to make a living?
Would he have scolded that young paralyzed boy
rolling around church bugging the worshippers?

Honestly, I think that if Jesus was there that day
he would have left those tables alone.
I think Jesus what Jesus would have done was turn over
the table of my heart that felt entitled
to have my sacred moment and ignore someone in need.
The table that looked down on that young boy.
The table that had only the more well off in worship
who didn’t engage with the rest of the community.
The tables that put a barrier between God and others

Now, notice in the scripture today
that Jesus didn’t just talk about his anger.
He didn’t even tell a parable, or ask a clever question,
For this one, he flipped it all over.
He turned over a tradition that he had been a part of,
that his parents had been a part of,
in a religion that he loved and honored.
He turned it over. He disrupted everything.

Richard Rohr a well known Catholic theologian said,
Christianity is a lifestyle - a way of being in the world
that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving.
However, we made it into an established "religion"
(and all that goes with that) and avoided
the lifestyle change itself.
One could be warlike, greedy, racist,
selfish, and vain in most of Christian history,
and still believe that Jesus is one's "personal Lord and Savior" . . .
The world has no time for such silliness anymore.
The suffering on Earth is too great.

The suffering on Earth is too great.
And God is disrupting us now.
God isn’t being nice and gentle these days.
Things are changing quickly and the church
is struggling to keep up with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is being a thug right now.
Not having any regard for our property and our possessions,
and the things that we have valued and coveted all our lives.
We have to do this whole church thing is
different than we once did it.
The tables are being turned over on us.
And that is good news.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Talk about the Suffering

Mark 8:31-38
Lent 2
February 25, 2018

So you all know about the Messianic Secret right?
It’s how, whenever Jesus true identity as the Messiah
is revealed, he tells them not to tell anyone.
It happens a bit in other gospels,
but it’s very prevalent in the gospel of Mark.

When Jesus heals a leper, Jesus tells him
not to tell anyone, but go right to the priest
In several places, Jesus tells the unclean spirits
not to make his identity known to anyone.

After Jesus heals Jairus daughter, it says
The Fifth Station 
Isabel & Edith Piczek
he ”strictly ordered” that no one should know about this.
When he heals the man who is deaf,
he orders the people there not to say anything.
When he heals a blind man, he tells him to go straight home
and not to talk to anyone.

Later on in chapter 9, 
Jesus goes up to the mountain
he’s transfigured and he appears with Elijah and Moses,
he tells the three disciples that are there, not to tell anyone -
presumably not even the other disciples -
until after he had risen from the dead.

There are a lot of theories about it,
But there are still debates about what it means.
The Messianic Secret.

In today’s reading we have another instance.
Jesus asks the disciples “Who do you say that I am.”
And the disciples share their belief.
One of the few times they get anything right in the scriptures.
They say, “You are the Messiah.”
But again, “Jesus warns them sternly not to tell anyone about it.”

So that great news is supposed to remain a secret,
but then we get to the rest of the story.
Jesus tells everyone about how he will be rejected
by the religious leaders and suffer and die
(and then rise again, but no one paid attention to that)
and  the gospel makes the point to say,
“All this he said quite openly.”

So the miracles, healings, casting out demons,
the sky opening up, the glory of the transfiguration,
all that is a secret that we can’t tell anyone.

But the rejection by the powers that be,
the suffering and the death,
all that is shouted out to everyone.
That we can talk about.

Jesus is a PR disaster.
No wonder Peter rebukes him.
What are you doing, Jesus?
It’s like a commercial that gives a drug’s side effects,
but never tells about  the benefit of the drug.
Jesus is all secretive about the good stuff,
and the bad part he shares openly.
It’s the opposite of what you’d expect,

And I think it’s very important.

And what I think what Mark’s gospel is showing us
is that we will not understand the glory of Jesus
without first understanding the suffering of Jesus.
And the best way to understand Jesus suffering
is to experience it for ourselves.
Take up your cross and follow.

Jesus knew that people would naturally gravitate
towards someone who could perform miracles,
who was special, divine.
And he did get crowds of people
who were impressed with him gathered around him
as long as he was doing these special things.

But that’s not what Jesus wanted,
Jesus didn’t just want people who would admire him,
Jesus wanted people who would follow him
And Jesus always wanted the great and glorious things about him
to be put in the context of the cross.

Peter thought that the glory would be found in
getting more power, in impressing people,
or in forcibly taking power for themselves.
Christians have made that mistake repeatedly.
Christians try to use politics to get more power
for our religion and members.
We try to impress with flashy worship performances.
We promise people wealth, health, and safety.

But Jesus glory  is not in his ability to do miracles.
Jesus glory was not in taking power and giving it to his friends.
Jesus glory is found in him giving his life away.
Suffering for the sake of others
and this is where we find God’s glory too.

This is the way of Jesus.
Death to life.
Self-sacrifice to resurrection.
But  it’s not just  Jesus story,
Jesus means to take us with him too:
“Those who want to become my followers,
should deny themselves and take up their cross.”

We are called to suffer with other people,
to have compassion, to feel their pain and suffer with them,
We share our lives with our spouses and make compromises
that we would rather not make.
We give up things that we want or need
in order to provide for our children.
These are just the beginning.
We give our lives and time to serve people who can’t repay us.
Our hearts break with compassion for people we don’t know.

As Christians,
We purposely go to places of poverty,
of loss, of sadness, grief and illness.
We pray for people halfway around the world
We spend time in hospitals and hospices,
we go to El Salvador, Haiti, Syria,
we help other people we’ve never met.
Some people run away from it, but we  seek it out.

We do this because whenever we give ourselves to another
whenever we forget about what we want
and seek what the world needs,
Whenever we open ourselves up to others
around us and act with compassion and love, we feel  God. 
We are uplifted, we experience the divine.
Take up your cross and follow.

So when you talk about Jesus,
keep the glory and the miracles a secret, at least for a while.
Talk about the cross.
Talk about how you helped another person
Talk about how Jesus led you to a place you would have never gone.
Talk about how you found your life by giving it away.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Wilderness

Mark 1:9-15
February 18, 2018
Lent 1

Jesus was coming out of the water and he saw the
heavens torn apart and the spirit came down
and a voice said, “you are my son the beloved”.
And immediately the Sprit drove him out into the wilderness.

There is no time for even a short baptism party for Jesus here.
No time for punch and sheet cake today.
Christ in the Wilderness
Briton Riviere, 1898
The nice holy Spirit who
just descended on Jesus
like a sweet dove,
and brought him and everyone
the news that he was God’s beloved,
takes him and throws him
into the wilderness.
Immediately, before he’s even had a chance to dry himself off,

Now some of us may think that
a little time in the wilderness would
not be such a bad thing.
Relaxing, communing with nature,
cooking over an open fire.
Some people even call the wilderness “God’s country”
because they can more easily feel God’s presence there.

But that’s not the way the wilderness was seen in the bible.
In the bible, the wilderness is not a place of peace and relaxation,
it’s a place of danger and unpredictability.
There were wild animals and wild people,
and no food and no water.

It’s not God’s country, it’s the opposite of God’s country,
actually, as we find in this scripture, it’s Satan’s country.
It’s the place where people were most susceptible to temptation.
Not many of us have been to that kind of wilderness
by ourselves, without food, or supplies, or protection.
But many of us have experienced the wilderness in our lives.
In our hearts, and minds ,and spirits.
Times that are dark, where we feel, unsafe and desolate,
and alone, like God was not there at all.      

Those places where we face the loss of loved ones
Where we lose our hearts, where our dreams are crushed.
Where we experience depression, anxiety
Where we face our own sins and shortcomings.
Where we don’t think we can keep going.
Most of us know exactly how that wilderness feels.
It’s dark and scary and unpleasant.

We live in a world and a time where the name of the game is to
avoid that wilderness at all costs.
We try to avoid suffering of any kind.
We fill our lives and our kids lives with distractions,
we try to change any kind of uncomfortable situation.
we turn to entertainment, possessions, and addictions
in order to stave off the wilderness that comes in every life.

Ironically Even Christianity has sometimes
become a way for people to ignore their wilderness.
We reason that we shouldn’t feel any pain or doubt
if we just have faith. We say things like,
“God’s in control, God never gives you more than you can handle.”

But that’s not the story of Jesus.
One of the main things we learn from Jesus 
is that the way to life is through death.
The path of Jesus takes us from the joy
and promise of baptism and drives us
right into the wilderness.

Jesus temptation,
is to skip the wilderness and to go right on
to the good stuff: food, wealth, security.

And our biggest temptation
may be trying to avoiding the wilderness too.
To avoid the pain and reflection and just get back to the good stuff.
The place where we feel in control.
But that is not the way to life.
We can’t skip Good Friday and go right to Easter.

This week we had another mass shooting in our country,
I can’t even remember how many times
I’ve stood up in this spot and said those
same words to you in the past 7 years.
This time it was in a school and 17 people died.
Adults and children.

Now we’ve been through this enough
that we know how everyone reacts to them.
The politicians say it’s not time to talk
about politics, even though that’s the only
reason we’d ever want to hear from them.
People get outraged and demand gun laws.
Other people get defensive and claim
that the problem is not guns at all
And the only solution is to arm everyone.
We blame people with mental illness.
And everyone throws out “thoughts and prayers”
as if that wipes the slate clean for the next time.
We are tempted to find the simple solution
To just move on and forget about it, to blame it on others.
But I think we are too far beyond one simple
solution in this country. I don’t think we
will come out the other side of this before
we enter that wilderness.
Until we, as a country, really examine how we got to this place.

Until we look at ourselves in the mirror and see how,
from the foundation of our country
we made violence and domination a way of life
and how we’ve benefitted from that.
How we allowed corporations and money
to have more weight in our country than human lives.
How we’ve let so many people become
so disenfranchised and angry that they don’t value life.
We are the only country that this happens in. Why?

It’s not just one simple answer.
We need to go into that wilderness
and really examine ourselves to find that answer.
I think it’s started to happen.
I think we are more honest about ourselves as a country.
than we were even 10 years ago and that’s something.
We can’t just drive around it and make it all go away
with one law or one program or simple solution.
We need to go through that dark and scary wilderness
Where examine ourselves, take responsibility,
Confess, repent, change, find a new way.
Die to ourselves so we can rise again.
So The wilderness in scripture is a lonely, dangerous place.
full of doubt and darkness and desolation.
But there’s also another way that scripture looks at the wilderness.
The wilderness is also a place of new beginnings:

  • Moses led his flock of sheep beyond the wilderness of Sinai
    where he found a strange burning bush that talked to him
  • The Israelites passed through the wilderness for forty years
    and after they got out, they started a nation.
  • David waited in the wilderness for the time to come
    to take his place on the throne of Israel.
  • Jacob wrestled an angel in the wilderness and stopped running.
  • Isaiah and John cried out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord”
  • Jesus 40 days in the wilderness was the beginning of his ministry.

The wildness is a place of struggle.
but it’s also a place of change, of opportunity of new beginnings.

That’s true of our lives too. 
It’s the wilderness, the hard times, the deserts,
in loss and struggle, doubt is where we find new beginnings,
change, opportunity, and new life.
I think it can be true of a nation too.

We don’t have to look for the wilderness.
When we need to go, the Spirit will drive us there.
But don’t give into the temptation to avoid it
and do not be afraid of it.
Although we might feel alone, God is there with us.