Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Have you ever wondered what in the world Jesus meant by this enigmatic phrase? Dead people can't bury dead people! What in the world did Jesus mean when he responded to a man's request to follow him AFTER he buried his Father with such a confusing message?
Here is the Gospel reading for Sunday, July 1st. Read it and see if you get any ideas about what Jesus means.
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Jesus does not end his response to this man with "Let the dead bury the dead..." He continues: "but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Jesus does not say that this man should not bury his Father, he says that instead of focusing on death as the ultimate reality, he should embrace and live in the Kingdom of God where death is not the final word. Death as a punishment from God or as the set up for a final judgment is not what the Kingdom of God is about. God's love, forgiveness and our total response to such love is what the Kingdom of God is about.
It makes me wonder what this man's father died of. Did he die poor? Did he live an unremarkable life as the world judges us? Did his family and friends speculate about the cause of his death as if God punched his ticket in retaliation for a life of sin? From my perspective, this is how the dead bury the dead. The sort of death that is worship at burial services include either sorrow and regret over the peerson's death or an attempt to justify the person post mortem.
Sometimes you hear people say: "Good old Joe. He was a mean guy, but little kids really loved him and he could hit a one wood a mile." Perhaps such eulogies are part of the dead burying the dead that is not always obvious to us.
So, how can we bury our dead and proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God? It is a real gift to grieve the loss of a loved one without blaming, shaming, or having to justify their lives. The Good News of the Kingdom of God is love and forgiveness even before we have a clue that we need such love and forgiveness.
A few weeks back we heard the story of the woman who Simon called a sinner offer acts of love and devotion to Jesus, while his host, Simon, did not even offer him the basic level of hospitality. I would like to suggest that Simon must have been eulogized as a champion of his faith when he died. I also suspect that the woman was the person in the story Jesus told who really needed very little forgiveness, but whose response was a total outpouring of love.
Simon, on the other hand, was probably the character who while owing a great debt considered his debt so small that his response was almost non-existent. Instead of showing love and thankfulness to God, Simon spent his life trying to justify himself. This is the tragedy of the dead burying the dead: a life so full of fear and self-centeredness and jugdment of others that the person is dead even before he physically dies.
Imagine your life lived without judgment of others and therefore without judgment of yourself? This does not mean that we are not accountable for how we treat others. In fact, to live in the Kingdom of God creates a sense of freedom that allows us to live and change; to love and be loved; to forgive and to be forgiven.
Jesus said: "The judgment with which we judge others will be the judgment with which we are judged." The resurrection is God's response to a culture of death. The promise of hope, life, and relationships of love is what the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of love and life is all about.
Monday, June 18, 2007
The Demon Possessed Anonymous: A Different Look at the Gerascene Demoniac
In Alcoholic’s Anonymous, there are 12 suggested steps for recovering from the disease of Alcoholism. Here are the first three:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol---that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Among people who seek to follow these suggested steps, there are insights provided into the nature of the disease whose symptom is alcoholism. One such insight is expressed as “the committee inside my head.” This expression suggests a deep truth about the way all of us are “constituted.” By constituted I mean how the unconscious internalized voices seek to govern us. These are cultural voices that speak on behalf of family, local community, the nation, and the world. These voices are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our internal life, which govern and coordinate our thoughts, behaviors, and values as individuals and as communities.
When Jesus goes to the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee, the first person that comes out to greet him is the community scapegoat. He is called “a man of the city who had demons.” He is demon possessed, not by one demon but by a mob of demons. It appears he carries the demons of the community (he is a man of the city). As such, he is the most important part of their constituted and unquestioned way of being a community. They need him.
Like the designated scapegoat in a family, this man’s role is to give his community a place to dump their unwanted demons. He allows members of the community to point to him as being the only person that is not accepted in the community. He is the accumulated sin-bearer of the Gerasenes community and therefore is “kept” just far enough away from the community to avoid contamination, but close enough to remind the community of how good and tolerant they are in comparison.
Why would anybody ever sign up to be the sin-bearer of a family, community, nation, or world? Since such a person is also constituted by other people who have a need for him or her to fulfill this role, there is an unconscious acceptance of this way of being. Tormented, naked, dwelling among the tombs, uncontrollable, this man is the very worst shame and fear of the community.
Ask any child who is the identified problem in their family why they are acting this way or that and you will not hear a sympathetic response that he or she is doing this role for the benefit of their family. Such sin bearers carry the sins of others with anger and rage such that the other members of the family consider psychiatric treatment the appropriate response. Such children sometimes leave their homes emotionally and spiritually before they are either physically thrown out or leave on their own.
When Jesus comes towards this man, the demons within the demon-possessed man express their collective fear of being cast out into the abyss. The abyss may represent the chaos that such demons would cause if they were to be set loose to return to their rightful owners, the citizens of the city. Imagine if we all acted out our own demons in a community without any controls on us? The laws that govern us would be as ineffective as the chains that were used to bind the sin bearer were at controlling his demons.
The demons literally speak on behalf of the residents of the city whose behavior is controlled by a way of being that requires a scapegoat like this man among the tombs. Can you imagine the scene of Jesus, who is the world’s sin bearer and scapegoat, coming face to face with this scapegoated man?
Legion, the man’s name and function, means mob. The mob asks Jesus: “What have you to do with me?” The mob identifies Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” The man who bears the mob inside of him falls down at Jesus’ feet. The power of the mob was only as powerful as the human beings who had constituted it and cast it into this man. The mob when it could not be controlled and constrained was the power that sent the man into the wilderness so he would not bother the citizens of the city. But Jesus is the Power of God in human flesh to whom this man and the mob bow down.
Rather than send the mob of demons back into the city, Jesus grants their request to be cast into a herd of pigs on the hillside. The pigs, which were not part of the human power grid that creates demons and lays them on one person, act out the destructive and ultimately self-destructive behavior of the mob. They charge off of a cliff and are drowned in the sea.
Normally one of the actions of a mob is to throw the designated sin bearer off of a cliff. You may recall that Jesus was almost thrown off of a cliff in his hometown for reminding the hometown folks of his own city that God had acted to heal and feed non-Jews even when there Jews with similar needs. Throwing someone off of a cliff is symbolic of the way communities rid themselves of their own demons and maintain an appearance of tolerance of others. You had to be way beyond salvation to deserve such a fate. Your final act on earth would be in service to the community.
Jesus acts to save the man and the community from the demons when he sends them into the pigs. The pigs act out the work of the mob and drive the pigs off of the cliff and into the sea. The response to Jesus’ action is fascinating. The local population, once they saw the formerly demon-possessed man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind,” beg Jesus to leave their community. “They were seized with great fear.”
What were they afraid of? Although their demons had been drowned in the sea, their basic understanding of how life had to be lived had not changed. Their fear required rules and scapegoats who bore their demons. Perhaps part of their fear came from their unconscious sense that someone else would now have to bear their demons and that someone else might just be one of them.
The final scene of this story has the now freed man asking Jesus to allow him to be with him. He had sat next to Jesus, now sane, clothed, and in his right mind. He wanted to be near the one who set him free. Jesus gave him a way to maintain that freedom. He said to him: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
As Christians, we hope to be constituted by God and not by the committee that rules the world. We hope for sanity, wholeness of mind, body, and spirit that only God can create in us. To be saved from a life that is constituted by the demons that we cast into others and that are cast into us, is to know the freedom spoken of by St. Paul in our Epistle reading this coming Sunday:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Salvation begins when we acknowledge our helplessness in how we were constituted (what makes us tick, the guardian that runs our lives) and how this helplessness is seen in the unmanageability of our individual and corporate lives.
Salvation is anticipated when we dare to hope and believe that there is a Power in the universe that can restore us to sanity.
Salvation is invited when we make a decision “to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” as we understand God.
Salvation is experienced in lives that no longer need to justify themselves based upon the limited human understandings and prejudices of our closed religious, political, social, and economic systems.
Jesus, like the pigs into which the sins and demons of that Gentile city were cast, invited our demons into himself. In his death, the human system that depends upon scapegoats was judged. In his resurrection, the promise of new life is offered to all of us who are still living under the guardianship of the law. Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the path to the salvation that truly sets us free. AMEN.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Murder sells tickets and soap. We really want to know “who did it.” Can you imagine a mystery that begins like a CSI episode, with a dead man's bloodied and battered body sprawled on the ground? Stones large enough to do serious harm to a human being, but small enough to be thrown by the average man, surrounded the body. Wild dogs from the surrounding wilderness were licking the blood from the pooling blood around him.
Detective Iam Elijah stands off to the side of the crime scene surveying the grim sight and trying to piece together the cause of death and the person or persons responsible. Elijah spoke to a young shepherd boy who was hiding behind a large bolder. The boy described what had happened. A group of angry men had dragged the man they called Mr. Naboth to this spot where they stoned him to death for cursing God by favoring a god named Molech.
Molech was one of those strange, bloodthirsty gods who were worshipped and served by some of the local inhabitants. There was a strong rumor that Queen Jezebel was secretly following the ways of Molech. It was said that Molech demanded the sacrifice of children and that King Ahab had allowed this practice to take place contrary to the Law of Moses by which he claimed to live.
The boy gave a physical description of one of the men who had thrown stones at Mr. Naboth and Elijah immediately went to the man's home to question him. When Elijah arrived at Mr. Stone's home, he was washing blood off of his face. Elijah didn't need much more evidence to connect Mr. Stone to this heinous crime.
Stone was placed under arrest, but he protested his innocence. Elijah listened as Stone talked about a meeting of the good citizens of Naboth's town. The meeting was to be a time of fasting and prayer. Naboth was invited to lead the meeting and sat in front. Stone then described a strange turn of affairs. It seemed that two men in the meeting accused Naboth of cursing God and disrespecting King Ahab.
To curse God was a capital offense and so the whole assembly of men rose up as one and fell upon Naboth. He was accused and convicted by the meeting and then he was executed by the prescribed method of stoning. Elijah found this turn of events very strange. King Ahab who sought to kill him when he tried to correct the King over his behavior, himself, had falsely accused him.
Detective Elijah investigated Naboth to see if he really was the kind of man who would curse God in favor of the bloodthirsty god Molech. He discovered that Naboth was a real family man. He had a vineyard that was adjacent to the King's palace that was given to him by his father and his father's fathers down through the ages. He honored his fathers by maintaining the vineyard. He would turn the vineyard over to his sons when he died.
The God of Israel seemed to want everyone to have a share of the land and to pass it on to the next generation. In interviewing Naboth's neighbors, Elijah discovered that Naboth regularly attended worship services during which Yahweh was praised and thanked and was a very grateful person. Elijah also discovered that King Ahab had tried to buy or trade for Naboth's inheritance in clear violation of the Torah law.
Naboth came home from his meeting with King Ahab shaken, but resolute. He would not give up his inheritance to anyone, including the king. Elijah knew that Ahab's attempt to buy or trade for Naboth's vineyard was a major violation of the laws that helped maintain a just community. Could Ahab have engineered this killing in order to take over Naboth's land?
Elijah visited the Naboth vineyard, only to discover that the very people who had killed Naboth, had also killed everyone in his family. There was no one left of Naboth's family to receive their father's inheritance.
Elijah had some informants in Ahab's palace and was soon interviewing them to determine Ahab's involvement in Naboth's death. One of the Queen's servants revealed that Ahab had, indeed, asked for Naboth's land, but had failed to convince his unwilling neighbor to make a deal. Ahab was depressed, resentful, and went to his room where he could be alone.
According to the Queen's servant, Jezebel listened to Ahab's story and told him not to worry about it. She would take care of the situation herself. She sent letters to Naboth's neighbors, the leading citizens of his own town, and put them up to the whole sordid scheme.
On a hunch, Elijah returned to Naboth's home just in time to see King Ahab coming to collect his new vineyard. Elijah was furious at Ahab for even trying to get Naboth to sell or trade his inheritance away. He yelled at Ahab that someday Ahab's blood would be licked up by dogs in the very place that Naboth had died and that his whole family would suffer as a result of the behavior of the King and his Queen.
Elijah would have arrested Ahab and Jezebel for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, theft, lying, using Yaweh's name in vain, and finally for coveting that which did not belong to him, but to God and Naboth's family, but CSI did not have such power in Samaria. The King and Queen would meet a very terrible end, but it would not be at the hand of Elijah.
Elijah turned in his badge and sword and went out into the surrounding wilderness where he sought to hear the voice of God and to follow God's ways. Some people considered Elijah a prophet and he soon had many disciples who recorded his thoughts and deeds.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Once upon a time there was a little boy whose name was Phillip. Phillip liked to take long walks in the woods near his Grandpa’s home. Phillip’s Grandpa used to take Phillip on such walks until his Grandpa got sick and didn’t have the strength to go with him anymore.
Phillip’s Grandpa taught him all about the plants, animals, and birds of the woods. He learned how important life was just by watching his Grandpa. Grandpa was always taking care of lost and sick animals and Phillip tried to be just like him. His Grandpa once found a small bird whose wing had been broken during a tornado. Grandpa tried to et the wing and to nurture the little bird back to health, but the small bird finally died. Phillip saw his Grandpa cry as he took the small bird and buried it in the ground.
One day Phillip’s Grandpa was taken to the hospital. When Phillip asked his mother what was going on, she started to cry. Phillip knew that something was wrong and so he ran out of the house and into the woods.
Phillip felt closer to his Grandpa in the woods. As he walked along the leaf-covered path, all sorts of questions whirled through his mind. “What if Grandpa dies?” he thought and then he started to cry.
As Phillip sat down on a large rock, his tears splashed down his cheeks and onto his jeans and then onto the ground where it formed a little pool. After what seemed like a very long time, he finally looked up into a tree whose branches hung over his head. Up in the highest branch, he saw a small bird’s nest.
Phillip jumped up to his feet, quickly drying his tears on the sleeve of his flannel shirt, he boosted himself up the trunk of the tree and began to climb toward that top branch.
Phillip finally arrived at the nest. Inside the nest, he saw three small eggs. He wondered where the mother bird had gone, but he soon had his question answered. At the base of the tree there lay the motionless body of a bird. “She must be the mother of these three small eggs,” thought Phillip.
Phillip knew that without the warmth and protection of the mother bird, these small eggs would not last very long. Phillip asked himself what his Grandpa would do and then carefully picked up the nest in his small hands and began to slowly climb down from the tree.
He returned to his home, but no one was there. Mom, Dad, and Grandmother were all gone. “They must be at the hospital with Grandpa,” he thought to himself. Phillip took his mother’s heating pad and placed it over the tree little eggs in the nest. Before long, the mall eggs began to crack as three baby birds started to peck their way out of their egg shell homes.
Phillip was so excited. He could hardly wait to tell Grandpa and ask his advice on how to care for these three new lives. Just then, Phillip’s Mom came through the front door. She had been crying. He ran to her and as she hugged him, she spoke to him softly. “Phillip, your Grandpa died this afternoon.” Phillip cried and cried and cried. He missed his friend, his Grandpa.
But soon the small chirps of three small and hungry birds broke through Phillip’s sobbing. He began to get up. He had to take care of these baby birds. He would cry again. Grandpa had taught him how. But for now, he would do what his Grandpa would do.