Monday, March 26, 2018

This is Our Story


Mark 11:1-11
Palm Sunday
March 25, 2018

Some people see the story of Jesus as absolute truth.
Some people see the story of Jesus as pure fiction.
Some see the story of Jesus as the story of
one poor unfortunate soul who gets himself in a bad situation.
But if we look closely at the story of Jesus –
especially the part of the story that we read today
and every Holy Week – we see that it’s not just the story of
one person and one event in history, but it is our story.

The disciples who fall asleep
when Jesus needs them most.

Peter, who brags that he will follow
Jesus even to death, but then denies him
when approached by a servant girl.

Judas who used his position of
Palm Sunday
Evans Yegone

privilege to betray his friend.

The religious leaders who can’t see God in front of them,
and  actually insist that he be stopped and silenced.

The government authorities who use their
position to intimidate and control.

The public’s indifference and even 
embrace of the violence used by those in power.
  
And the crowds who meet Jesus at the
gate to Jerusalem, and greet him as a hero,
waving and laying down palm branches and coats.
But who turn their back on him,
and scatter when public opinion changes.

This story is our story.
The story of humanity’s various sins.
This is us at our worst.
This is the story of  how humans
have so often turned love into hate.

But this is also our story in another way.
This is a story of a God who knows our sin
and still wanted us to join him anyway.
This is a story about our forgiveness.
This is a story about a savior who
gave everything to us, who was all-in for us.
Who gave his own blood when we demanded it.
Who loves us so much that he would
turn our hate back into love.

Here today are both stories.
Let us always be aware of the first story
and let us always embrace the second one.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Hate Your Life


John 12: 20-33
Lent 5
March 22, 2015

Some Greeks ask to see Jesus.
That’s all it says, not much else,
just that they were Greeks in town for the festival of the Passover.
In other words, they were Gentiles by birth, non-Jewish people
But they’re in town for the Jewish festival.
And they want to see Jesus.

So maybe they’ve converted to the Jewish faith.
Not unheard of, even in that time.
Or maybe they haven’t converted, but they’re spiritually curious,
like people today they’re trying out different things,
hoping to find the one that fits.
Or maybe they are just religious tourists
fascinated with other people’s spiritual practices.

For whatever reason they’re there,
now they want to see Jesus.
Maybe it’s just another part of their religious experience.
Maybe just another facet of the Jewish religion.
Or maybe Jesus’ reputation has preceded him
and they want to see the man who feeds five thousand,
and heals people, and has done so many impressive things.
They’re not followers yet, they’re seekers.
They just want to see Jesus. See what he’s all about. Observe.

So , I don’t think they were prepared for the speech that they got.
Somehow their arrival prompts Jesus to tell
them and the crowds around him that this is it.
Now is the time for Jesus to be glorified.
And for that to happen, he was going to die.

Uh, we just wanted to see Jesus.

Jesus talks about his death, he compares himself to wheat,
saying if a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies,
it spreads it’s seeds around so that more can grow.
In other words, Jesus death isn’t just a death
it’s for the benefit of all people, so that others can live.
  
Now, we believe that in Jesus death there’s life,
that somehow because Jesus died and rose,
that  gives us eternal life.

But there’s more to it than that,
because Jesus also says this life and death cycle applies to us:
He says, “Those who love their life lose it and those who
hate their lives will keep it for eternal life.”
The Greeks are getting more than they bargained for here.

Hate our lives?
Now I don’t think Jesus really want us actively to hate our lives.
Like to curse it, to be negative and  distrust everything
about the things of this world. Just focus on spiritual things.
Some people have taken this that way.

That actually sounds ungrateful  and unhealthy.
I actually think cherishing our life, being thankful
for the world around us, and being joyful in the face of adversity
is part of being  a practicing Christian.
I don’t think that Jesus wants us to hate our lives in that way.
I think this is another instance of Jesus using hyperbole.
Exaggeration.

Here’s what I think Jesus means:
Those who love their life lose it.
Those who cling to the things of this life: power, money,
comforts , achievements, status, reputation -- 
all the things that we often cherish -- will find that
those things are just fleeting and temporary.

Don’t cling to the things of this world so much that
you imagine yourself incomplete without them.
Don’t cling to things of this world that you’re not
willing to give them away for the good of the world
or for the sake of someone else.
  
And those who hate their life: Hate your life --
Know that this that we see is not the best there is, 
long for something better. 
Long for God’s kingdom, God’s ways, God’s will.
Even if gaining the kingdom means losing something that you
have grown fond of  and even love.
Hate your life. Don’t love all the things of this world so much
that you trade the gospel for them.

Were they to take our house, goods, honor,
child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away,
they cannot win the day, the kingdom’s ours forever.

Those who love their life will lose it,
and those who hate their life will have it eternally.

And all those Greeks wanted to do was see Jesus.

So this week, we saw what I think is an amazing thing:
High school kids around the country walked out of their
classes to protest gun violence and demand that things change.
This generation that we’ve insulted and called entitled,
and spoiled brats, and sensitive snowflakes,
have taken the initiative and proven themselves
to be strong, capable, and brave for their sake and for the sake of others.


They are willing to risk themselves, 
threats on their lives,
some even have faced punishment from their schools
for putting themselves out there for
one another  and for future generations.
They hate their lives in that they  can visualize something better
they long for it, and will work for it.

I for one am pleased at this, 
and a little embarrassed too.
Because we - people older than them - haven’t been doing a good job
We haven’t been creating a world that’s better for future generations.
Maybe we were scared, maybe we were lazy,
maybe we were too comfortable with the way things have been.

Maybe we love this life too much to risk change,
to risk losing something in order to make
life better for the generation coming up.
Those who only know a life with active-shooter drills in their schools.
  
And this week lots of older people have shown that they love their lives
and their power, and positions, and we have seen them
try to cling to it very hard in response.
We’ve seen people, adults, parents, politicians
call these kids names, threatening them, telling them to shut up,
saying that it doesn’t matter what they think.

Even if we don’t agree with what they want,
or we don’t think they should be doing this
or that this Is the most pressing thing they should be working for.
These are our children, our hope for the future, they’re all we have.

At some point, every generation needs to put down their lives
and their power, and ambition, and desires, and hand it over to the next.
It is our responsibility to guide and nurture younger people--
at the minimum, protect their lives -- and when we can’t or won’t,
then maybe we need to step aside.  At least listen hard.
Die to ourselves and let the next generation live and flourish.

Jesus did that.
He nurtured and cared for us and saved our lives,
and then he stepped aside and his followers take over.

I mean Jesus was God, and I’m guessing he had the ability
to live eternally on earth and rule forever. But Jesus didn’t do that.
Maybe it would have been nice to have him
around to clear things up and answer a few questions along the way.
But he didn’t want to be about him, he wanted it to be about us.
Jesus became the seed that bore much fruit.
Generations and generations of fruit.

Like those Greeks at that festival. We want to see Jesus.
And certainly we certainly have. We have seen the light in the world
that scatters the darkness, and we can testify to that.

But Jesus doesn’t just want us to see him. 
Jesus wants us to be him.
Jesus saved us, so we could be him.
Be his hands and feet , and do his work.
And also when the time comes, hate our lives
to let go of what we have, and let the seeds fall,
so that others can live.

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.