Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Is God crazy? If we believe what the Gospels report about Jesus’ behavior and the world’s response to his behavior, I would suggest that the world may judge that the God whom Jesus called Father is crazy and so are those who follow God’s path.
Justin Martyr once wrote about the perception the world had of Christians in his day, a generation after St. Paul: "They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in the second place after the unchangeable and eternal God."
Does the world still see the Christian Gospel as a bit mad and those who profess it as simply, mildly, and harmlessly crazy or deluded? One of my Facebook friends, Karen Wojahn, suggested: “I don’t think they see many of us as ‘harmlessly’ crazy.” I think they see some of us as criminally insane.” I ask you to consider what we really believe about Jesus, about the many attempts to dismiss him or tone him down to be a manageable cultural icon, or to make him into an image of a god that fits our particular desires.
We will gather together as a community of faith on this Sunday called Palm or Passion Sunday to act out the last days and hours of Jesus of Nazareth. The message of the earliest church was characterized and ridiculed by Pliny, a Roman historian and statesman. He wrote: “the perverse and extravagant superstition” of Christians is “that a man honored as God would be nailed to a cross as a common enemy of the state.”
Pliny got his facts right, but the meaning of those facts resulted in his harsh judgment of the Christian movement. The central plot of the Christian Gospel is that God became one of us and offered us God’s love and forgiving power as the only way we can avert violence and destruction and that the people of his day deemed him to be a sinner, a traitor to the state, a blasphemer, and a vile and wretched creature who deserved to die on a Roman cross. This may seem shocking to us because we have grown up in a world in which Jesus’ deity and the Christian story has held sway and been unchallenged by the majority of Christians and even secularists.
Today the challenge to Jesus’ identity and even his historical existence is often the subject of magazines and news articles during the Christmas and Easter seasons. I try to read most of what gets published or view such studies that get turned into documentaries. These offerings seek to take research and presented with enticing titles such as “The Secret of Christianity Revealed.”
As I said, Pliny the Roman historian and all of the critics of Christianity actually got it right. There were no secrets of Christianity. It was plainly presented by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul in Gospel and epistles. When God draws close to human beings bringing life, love, forgiveness, and a new way of being human, we judge God as the problem and God’s death as the solution to the problem. That is our way here on planet earth. Those who challenge this basic foundation of our world order will end up like Jesus or be simply and completely ignored as utopians.
I believe that Jesus is the Only Son of God as the creeds affirm and that he was declared to be God’s son before his birth, life, death and resurrection so that our judgment and condemnation of him would be understood as our judgment and condemnation of God, our creator and so reveal our own fatally flawed ability to judge one another.
And Luke actually makes it possible for us to come to this conclusion about our own judging and condemning by having two of the characters present as Jesus’ death declare him innocent. We will hear this truth spoken on Passion Sunday, Jesus’ death will be acted out by us all. We will hear the thief on the cross say of Jesus: “…this man has done nothing (deserving of death)” and a Roman centurion say: “certainly this man was innocent.” At the very least, the Gospel proclaims that Jesus was innocent and that our human judgment is flawed to such a degree that we execute an innocent person for the good of society. And, if Jesus is truly who we profess him to be, he is not just an innocent man, but the very child of God whom we failed to recognize and whom we judged worthy of death.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about saving random sinners within a culture and society that is innocent and capable of judging and condemning the sinners of society and giving power and influence to the good. Rather the Gospel reveals the dirty little secret of our basic operating system as humans that uses labels like sinner, saint, democrat, republican, conservative, libertarian, Marxist, socialist, capitalist, tea partiers, Black, White, male, female, gay, straight to identify such folks as the problem the solution to which is death or exclusion. That is not a secret of Christianity that is the secret of our fallen human nature.
The Good News is that God enters our world to reveal this secret to us and through his death at our hands God begins to change how we do business by no longer allowing us the ignorance of our secret sin. As time rolls on, the Gospel has liberated more and more people from the labels attached to them by a world in need of scapegoats and set them free to live without fear. To be free from the power of sin and death is to live into the full revelation of the cross and of the One who died and is risen.
So, is God crazy? One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” God just keeps forgiving and loving and showing mercy even as we reject his forgiveness and love for ourselves and others. God expects that someday his love will dawn on us like the first day of creation and we will live in the light of forgiveness and mercy. We may then look back on what we thought was the craziness of God as the everlasting love of God and give thanks for such light in those dark times. Amen.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Cain was the first son of Adam and Eve. Every good story teller seeks to capture universal truth through a story with particular characters in a particular setting and with particular problems. Such is the story told by our ancient Jewish story teller about the relationship between Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, God that follows the famous story of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. If you are looking for factual history, you will not find it in this story, but if you are looking for truth about who were are in relationship with one another, the story teller is someone worthy of a listening.
This story raises some questions for me.
1. Why is being first born always such a challenge?
2. Did God really disapprove of Cain’s offering from his crops and why?
3. What did God like so much about Abel and his offering of meat?
4. Is Cain’s reaction familiar to me? Have I had a similar experience where someone else has been given approval over me?
5. Is Cain’s reaction of anger and sulking just normal behavior when we don’t feel we are being fairly?
6. Why did God have to ask Cain about his “tantrum” and “sulking?”
7. Was God really lecturing Cain about doing better to get God’s approval or was this simply an expression of how we explain other people’s failures? Is just trying harder really the question?
8. Why is “not doing well” connected to sin? Isn’t sin, by definition, not doing well?
9. Is sin what comes upon us when we react like Cain to disappointment and rejection? Is sin like a wild beast ready to pounce on us at the moment of our furious anger?
10. Is sin somehow connected to our competition with one another for the approval and acceptance of the “powers that be?”
11. Is this story about God or about us?
12. God says that Cain can master sin, but the story says that Cain was mastered or enslaved by sin. In the light of this story, what does it mean to be mastered or enslaved by sin?
13. If God is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful why would he ask Cain for the whereabouts of his brother Abel?
14. Cain’s response to God offers a basic stance towards God and towards his brother Abel or presumably anyone else who bested him. How is this basic stance seen in our contemporary culture?
15. The story teller says that God responded to Cain’s basic stance with what seems to be anger. What does the story teller trying to say about God and God’s basic stance towards us?
16. Where is No Man’s Land?
17. Does Cain’s punishment describe our relationship with the earth?
18. Farmers were not nomads and yet Cain is sent off to wander. How does this wandering further describe the loss of Cain’s close connection to the earth he had worked? The experience of many Americans during the Dust Bowl included becoming wanders. During that period of time many farmers headed west and were met by law enforcement at the California state line. The farmers were displaced and not welcomed very well in the Golden State.
19. For Cain, alienation from the land was also alienation from God. His relationship with God was tied to the soil and his working of the soil. How closely tied is our sense of self and God related to what we do to live? Are we what we do for a living? Is our relationship with God based upon our relationship to where we work and live? Are there rituals and offerings that are part of that relationship to our work and God? What are the rewards of work that sustain us?
20. What does Cain fear as he leaves his homeland?
21. What is the story teller’s way of describing how God provides for Cain in his exile?
22. How is Cain’s future related to violence?
Do you have questions as you read this story that are different from the ones I posed? Great! That is how Scripture is best read. Allow your questions to lead your through the text to the truth that the text is trying to communicate. Of course, the Holy Spirit will be with you as you read and meditate. Here now is the brief story about Cain and Abel as translated by Eugene Petersen in a translation called, The Message:
1 Adam slept with Eve his wife. She conceived and had Cain. She said, "I've gotten a man, with GOD's help!"
2 Then she had another baby, Abel. Abel was a herdsman and Cain a farmer. 3-5 Time passed. Cain brought an offering to GOD from the produce of his farm. Abel also brought an offering, but from the firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat. GOD liked Abel and his offering, but Cain and his offering didn't get his approval. Cain lost his temper and went into a sulk.
6-7 GOD spoke to Cain: "Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won't you be accepted? And if you don't do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it."
8 Cain had words with his brother. They were out in the field; Cain came at Abel his brother and killed him.
9 GOD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?"
He said, "How should I know? Am I his babysitter?"
10-12 GOD said, "What have you done! The voice of your brother's blood is calling to me from the ground. From now on you'll get nothing but curses from this ground; you'll be driven from this ground that has opened its arms to receive the blood of your murdered brother. You'll farm this ground, but it will no longer give you its best. You'll be a homeless wanderer on Earth."
13-14 Cain said to GOD, "My punishment is too much. I can't take it! You've thrown me off the land and I can never again face you. I'm a homeless wanderer on Earth and whoever finds me will kill me."
15 GOD told him, "No. Anyone who kills Cain will pay for it seven times over." GOD put a mark on Cain to protect him so that no one who met him would kill him.
16 Cain left the presence of GOD and lived in No-Man's-Land, east of Eden.
17-18 Cain slept with his wife. She conceived and had Enoch. He then built a city and named it after his son, Enoch.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
What is the Church? This week’s Gospel reading gives a very quick and concise vision of what the church looks like that I find very helpful. See if it makes sense to you.
“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
The church is simply an amazing array of people. There is one group of people intent on hearing what Jesus says and there is another group of people who question and criticize Jesus for welcoming and sharing a common meal with sinners or other social outcasts.
That is the church then and that is the church today. I often suspect that I am in the group that stands back and wonders why Jesus would invite and welcome this person or that group of people to a common meal and then cringe at my willingness to judge those whom Jesus’ voice has called and welcomed.
My admission to this sin of judgment against those whom Christ calls to hear the Good News of God’s love, forgiveness, mercy, and abundance can only be offered in the light of God’s love. If I was unable to see my own deep need for the same love, forgiveness, and acceptance that Jesus so lavishly bestowed upon the designated sinners of his day, I believe I would continue to stand back from the Table of Grace so as to not be seen as condoning Jesus’ unfailing love and mercy for all of us.
This past week our Lectio Divina prayer group used the following passage for our prayer and meditation:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1: 8,9
As a child growing up with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, this verse was very familiar to me as it was part of the invitation to confession. It was a difficult passage to understand as a child. I lived in a world of black or white, right or wrong. I could not see myself as a sinner. Sinners were bad people. There were sinners and saints in the world and in my view they were mutually exclusive. I wanted to be a saint.
But as an adult, I have come to a fuller understanding of this passage. It, too, describes a church in which some see themselves as the saints with the God-given authority to identify and reject others as sinners. As long as such a belief about the church as a club for saints persists, the truth, as John wrote, is not in us.
Truth is discovered within community just as sure as it is rejected by a community. The story that Jesus tells of two brothers, one profligate and the other one loyal to family as a concept, but not as a flesh and blood reality is really the story of the church and the dynamic that continually plays through our life in community.
We are in search of truth together; we discover truth together; and we reject truth together. What is the truth? The truth is about God’s love for us all and God’s seeing us all as family without exception. The truth is about us and our ways of dividing up humanity into good guys and bad guys. The truth is about God calling us to celebrate our life together. The truth is about God’s welcoming becoming our welcoming; God’s Table of Grace being set by us for everyone.
Again, my early years of worshipping taught me this prayer: “We do not presume to come to this Thy table, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercy.” The Holy Spirit moves us towards Jesus, welcoming us, comforting us, loving us and feeding us from a common Table,
Do you recall our reading on the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany when Jesus was transfigured as he stood next to Moses and Elijah? I said we needed this memory of Jesus bathed in light for our journey through the darkness of the season of Lent which ends with Jesus’ death on the cross. At the end of this story of transfiguration the overwhelmed disciples heard these words spoken to them: “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.
Amazingly both the sinners and the saints were drawn to Jesus. The sinners listened and received the welcome and grace of God and a place at Jesus’ Table. The saints are gathered around Jesus too. We come because his words are words of life, but we seem to be unwilling or unable to feel our deep need for the sort of forgiveness and mercy that is not based upon our own sense of being somehow better than those others that Jesus welcomes without qualification.
There is hope for those of us who see ourselves as better than the sinners of our day. We are the ones who have labeled others as unworthy of God’s love or at least unworthy of a place at God’s Table. If we listen to the Father in the parable of the prodigal son when he is pleading with his saintly son to join the party, we may just get the point.
The saintly son refers to the prodigal as “this son of yours,” while the Father says to his stay at home son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." The Father gently reminds his elder son that he is brother to the prodigal. Within the family of God, we are brothers and sisters. Some of us are grumbling out of our own need to justify ourselves as somehow better and more deserving of our Father’s love and care.
For me such a gentle reminder did not stop me from standing at the edge of the party and questioning those who were already sitting at the Table of Grace. I was sure some were hypocrites and some were just people I found objectionable. It was Jesus’ word from the cross that I finally heard: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” that became my moment of being obedient to the command to listen to Jesus.
It was God’s cry of mercy from the cross that finally reached the ears of saints like me down through the ages. Notice that the sinners really did not require Jesus being killed on the cross to feel the full welcome and inclusion of God’s love at the Table of Grace. The saints made the cross a necessity.
We would not hear without Jesus showing us where our judgment and rejection of others placed God. If we reject those whom God calls and welcomes as our brothers and sisters, we reject the One whom we call Father and we reject the One who came as God’s son and our brother. Jesus says of those saints who put him on the cross that they did not know what they were doing. To experience the forgiveness that is offered from the cross is to finally join with the sinners who flocked to Jesus during his earthly ministry and who did not need any further evidence of God’s love and mercy.
The saints are usually the last ones to listen to God or to receive what has been ours always. The question is when will we hear and receive the welcome of God to the party celebrating the return of the prodigal saint?
Welcome to the Church. Welcome to the Table of Grace where saints and sinners become brothers and sisters and where the party is a celebration of our being together as children of God.
Thursday, March 04, 2010
WHO GIVES A FIG FOR US?
There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
Sunday's Gospel reading from Luke seems to deal with very different things that don't seem to be connected. Have you ever forwarded an email not really knowing if the contents were true? In Jesus' day there may not have been emails, but there surely were people who would have forwarded rumors and innuendos by word of mouth. Just so, "there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices."
Did Pilate really do such a thing? We don't have an historical record that he did, but I am sure that to the Jews who were subject to Roman rule and prone to pass along any sort of rumor true or not that painted a negative picture of Rome, they actually believed it. Have you ever passed along rumors that favored your political or other point of view without checking to see if they were true?
Jesus reaction to this tale of Roman brutality and sacrilege does not encourage such passing of tales that incite hatred towards Rome. As it is today, failure to positively endorse the views expressed in unproven, but wholeheartedly believed false witness became a litmus test to tell where a person stood. It is not a matter of truth or falsehood, but of who you are against and who you are for. Jesus not only does not respond to the rumor, but asks a question about the state of those who are rumored to have been killed by Pilate.
Since their blood was supposedly mingled with the sacrifices of the Temple, Jesus asks if the spilling of their blood was justified because they were more sinful than other Galileans and therefore sinners whose deaths would satisfy the wrath of whatever god was being appeased. Of course, those who had passed this rumor along to Jesus were not expecting such an answer. They, no doubt, expected Jesus to rise up in righteous indignation against Pilate and Rome. Jesus uses this opportunity to unveil the human mechanism that makes sacrifice of others the foundation for how human beings organize themselves.
Jesus tells these pre-Internet false witnesses that they had better repent themselves and stop focusing on the sins of others. Jesus does not condone Roman occupation of the Holy Lands or their economic, social, and political domination of Israel and the world nor does he encourage a hatred of Rome. There is a sense that he does not see either way of being human as consistent with God's kingdom.
Jesus is clear that to continue to treat Rome as the enemy and to hate them is to be complicit with the very sin that brings death into the world. Have we participated in such sin? Do we tell tales about others which we do not know to be true because we do not like the person against whom the tale is told and so pass it along? Jesus says to those who asked him this question, repent. Turn away from turning the world into a polarized place of hatred, discontent, and mistrust.
Jesus then asks his own question about an natural disaster that probably was well known in his day. A tower fell on 18 people and killed them all. Did they die because they were terrible sinners? Jesus does not answer this question, he simply calls upon his listeners to repent of the sin that would see the death of anyone as a penalty levied by God for sins they have committed. To believe in a god who can only be satisfied by death creates in the believer a world that is lost and hopeless. To repent from such a belief about God is to be embrace God as a loving and merciful father or as a protective mother hen. What we believe about God does matter.
Jesus then tells a strange tale about a fig tree that was barren after three years of life. The man in the story orders the gardeners to rip it out of the ground because it is wasting space. The gardener pleads with the man to allow him to take the tree under his special care and to give the gardener a year to bring the tree to fruition. The story ends there. We really never hear if the man gave the gardener the extra year to care for the fig tree in hopes of it producing fruit.
This is another opportunity for us to see what we believe about God. In this parable, who does the man who wants to rip out the fig tree represent?
Who really gives a fig?