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Saturday, February 27, 2010

True Gospel Scandals: The City That Kills

Luke 13:31-35

Have you ever looked at something you loved with every fiber of your being, and realized that thing – or maybe that person – was not only its own worst enemy, but also yours? Jesus had been teaching in the synagogues, and out on the plains, of Galilee. He was slowly heading south, towards Jerusalem, the capital. While he was in Galilee, Jesus was under the authority of the vassal ruler Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had been ruler when Jesus was born. Antipas had killed Jesus’ cousin, John Baptizer, and had also killed some worshipers in the Jerusalem Temple. This was a bad, bad man. Some Pharisees – who were not the bad people we Christians sometimes make them out to be – came to warn Jesus that Herod was on the hunt for him, to kill him. Jesus blew off their warning: You go tell that fox I’m busy. I’ll be in Jerusalem before long, because that’s where prophets get killed. And then Jesus issued a heart-rending lament over the capital of his world: Jerusalem, Jerusalem: the city that kills prophets and stones the ones sent to it! I wish I could shelter your children like a mother hen spreads her wings over her chicks, but you were not willing. Well, your future is in your own hands. The next time you see me, you’ll be saying ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ If that last sentence sounds familiar, it’s the cry of the crowds on Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem.

Jerusalem: the city that kills. It was the place where reformers and prophets, messengers of God, were brought for public execution. The very place that should have been the champion of God’s cause was in fact its worst enemy.

Most of my adult life and ministry has been spent in small towns and rural areas. Since moving to the suburbs nine years ago, Vicki and I have rediscovered our suburban roots. I‘ve especially enjoyed the life of the city: the arts, the food, the energy and vitality of city life. Isn’t it interesting, though, that urban violent crime rates are four to five times higher than in rural areas? People live in the city because they want to be close to each other, but somehow that closeness breeds violence. The very symbol of community is the worst enemy of community.

Sometimes the church, which is supposed to be the place where we encounter God, insulates us from God by allowing us to substitute activity or mere presence for spiritual intimacy. Instead of helping people lose themselves, the church becomes the place where petty jealousies and preferences rule. The very symbol of faith becomes the worst enemy of faith.

Schools are supposed to inculcate a love for learning and a thirst for the truth. But sometimes schools, especially in their need to meet the requirements, teach us to hate reading, writing, and arithmetic. The symbol of learning becomes the enemy.

Marriage is meant to teach us community, nurture, and affection. But some children grow up seeing two unhappy people take out their frustrations on each other and on everyone around them. The symbol of love becomes its enemy.

That’s the love-hate relationship we have with everything that’s important. I have tickets to Orioles' Opening Day in Baltimore. No matter what happens on April 9th, I know what’s going to happen by October: Bart Giamatti said baseball is designed to break our hearts. We give birth to children, knowing they’re going to break our hearts. We adopt pets and love them, knowing they’re going to break our hearts. God loves us, knowing that we’re going to break God’s heart.

Off in the distance, Jesus saw Jerusalem. Jerusalem, city of God, seat of the Temple. David’s City. Mount Zion, dwelling place of the Lord. Countless thousands had died to win, build, protect, and rebuild that city. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, sang the exiles in Babylon, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not set you above my highest joy![1] But this city, symbol of everything that was holy, killed prophets. It would, Jesus knew, kill him.

But Jesus went to Jerusalem. He could have formed a Jewish Tea Party and said, “Jerusalem isn’t the answer, it’s the problem. Stay away from Jerusalem. Stop sending your taxes and temple tithes. Let’s keep ourselves pure, and keep our distance.” Jesus goes to Jerusalem, knowing exactly what’s going to happen there: it’s going to kill him.

At the end of Men In Black, K and J are fighting a giant alien cockroach. The cockroach grabs K’s gun and swallows it. After giving J instructions, K dives down the monster’s throat. Everyone assumes K is dead, and J fights the bug with no success. Suddenly, the bug explodes: K has found his gun and killed the monster from within. That’s always the way monsters are killed: King Kong dies of love; the Martians in War of the Worlds die from bacterial infections; in Independence Day the aliens are killed by a computer virus and a suicide bomb from within.

Jesus has to go to Jerusalem, because he has to confront his enemy. He has to let his enemy kill him, so he can defeat his enemy.

That’s the goal of most psychoanalysis: we spend our lives running away from the scary things inside us. That running consumes more and more of our life. The path to healing lies in turning around – Jesus said repent – going into those dark and terrifying places and facing whatever’s there. Take your best shot, and let’s see what happens. When we do that, we discover that the terrifying thing deep inside isn’t all that powerful after all. But we can’t ever defeat that enemy without going there.

What darkness lives in you, or in your life, that you’re afraid will kill you? A fear, a hope, a dream, a relationship that you want to run as far from and as quickly as possible, but you can’t? What is on the verge of breaking your heart?

That’s what life does, you know. It breaks our hearts. It kills us: no one gets out alive. But the Son of God, knowing all this, forsakes his glory and becomes human, so that his heart and his life can be broken for us. And when he is broken and cold and dead and buried, the love of God proves stronger than the worst that the world can throw at it. So it is for us when we turn from our running and face that which threatens to kill us. Just as Jesus went to Jerusalem, we have to face that illness, face that relationship, face that school or job, face that fear, even face that death, because no one gets around life: we only get through it, carrying one flickering candle of hope.

As the Civil War drew to a close and it was clear that the North was going to win, Abraham Lincoln’s advisors wanted to punish the South brutally for having started the war. Lincoln wanted to reunite the Union. One of his advisors said, “Mr. President, I believe we should destroy our enemies!” Lincoln responded, “When I befriend my enemy, do I not destroy him?”

Jesus neither runs from Jerusalem nor calls down fire upon it. He enters the city, which kills him. We have to do the same with that which threatens to destroy us. The only way to destroy evil is to light a candle deep in its belly.

[1] Ps. 137

Friday, February 19, 2010

True Gospel Scandals: Jesus says NO!

Luke 4:1-13

On the eve of his wedding, a friend of mine was talking to a group of us about the difference marriage was going to make in his life. My friend had made the rounds of the dating world -- he had dated many women. "You know what's wonderful about marriage?" he asked. "It means that I've made a choice -- I don't have to ever wonder about which person is going to love me, which person I'm going to spend the rest of my life with. I've said no to all those other choices, so I can say yes to my wife. It's such a relief!"

Before we can truly say yes to something important, we have to say no to other possibilities. It begins early: do you want chocolate or vanilla; cake or pie; this program or that? As we progress, the choices get more complex: French or Spanish; band or chorus; basketball or gymnastics. Then come choices that mark us forever: which college, which major, which career, which friends, which job, which life partner, which place to live. Every yes, no matter how trivial, requires saying no to something else, at least for that place and time.

Does it feel to you as though we live in a world that doesn't want to make choices? We want good schools, good roads, and safety in our homes, but we also want lower taxes. We want the best health care possible, but don't want to pay much for it. We want to have clean skies, water, and soil, but we also want convenient food, the ability to drive huge cars, and disposable packaging. We want to be slim and trim, but also to spend our days munching nachos in front of a TV. We want our children to raise themselves or be raised by others, but we want them to respect us. We want women to work at lower wages all day, then come home and cook and do laundry and clean the house. We want to be disciples of Jesus, but on our own terms.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says NO to others at least sixteen times: he turns away would-be disciples, refuses to come when asked to heal, refuses to give signs when asked, is unable to do great works because of peoples' unbelief, and even turns away his mother and brothers when they ask to see him. Today's gospel reading is the first and most glaring example of Jesus saying no. But, you say, he is saying no to Satan. That's right -- but you never know when the powers of evil are at work asking us to do their bidding, whether it be a snake in the Garden encouraging consumption of fruit, a boss asking us to work longer hours, or a politician promising the moon with no sacrifice required.

Just before entering the wilderness for prayer, Jesus has been baptized at the Jordan by his cousin, John. Luke says the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon (Jesus) in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."[1]

Assault by Satan follows immediately. The most dangerous moments come when we have been lifted the highest. How many public persons like Tiger Woods have we seen raised up only to fall catastrophically? That's the brilliance of the story in Genesis: everything is perfect for Adam and Eve, and that's when they're most susceptible to disaster.

Jesus fasts in the wilderness for forty days. Luke is graphic in his description of this flesh-and-blood Messiah: he was famished. Satan whispers in Jesus' ear: if you really are the Son of God, as you think, you can do anything. See that rock over there that looks like a loaf of bread? Use your powers: turn it into bread. Take care of yourself. You can do this!

You can take care of yourself. You don't need anyone else. That is one of the biggest, and most evil, lies in the universe. Jesus, you don't need the farmer to grow, cultivate, and harvest the grain. You don't need the miller to grind it into flour, and the baker to mix the dough and bake it. You don't need the trucker to carry it to Ukrops and the stockers to put it on the shelves and the attendants to sell it to you and the little old men to bag it for you. You don't need anyone, Jesus: turn this rock into bread.

It's tempting. Jesus is starving. Why not take a short-cut? What's it going to hurt? But Jesus answers the tempter with Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses is talking to the Hebrews about their journey, like Jesus, through the wilderness. He says that God led the Hebrews by the long way, not taking any short-cuts, to humble them. God humbled them with hunger, then fed them with manna, in order to make (them) understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. It is God who makes the sun shine and the rain fall so the wheat can grow. It is God who gives life to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the trucker, and the bagger at Ukrops. It is God who gives you the work for the income to buy bread. It is God who gives you that rumbling stomach. You are in absolutely no way independent: you are dependent upon God, and upon others, for every inch of your life.

Jesus says no to the lie of self-sufficiency, so he can say yes to dependence on God. We have to choose: we cannot be both independent and humble before God. That's precisely what got Adam and Eve in trouble -- the illusion of independence.

Well then, Satan proposes, if not independence, what about power? Let's test your real humility. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, to you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it to you, if you will just worship and honor me. Here is the one place in the Bible where there is the opportunity to win the entire world to Christ. This is every evangelist's dream.

When I look at some religious leaders with colossal followings, this verse comes to mind. To win the whole world, you have to worship evil. What do you need to show on screen to attract the multitudes? What do you need to sell to bring the hordes? What do you need to promise to get the votes? How do you get yourself on the Forbes list of the rich? All you have to do is sell your soul. I worry that the church, in its paranoia about shrinking membership rolls, will win the world by taking Satan up on his offer. It does work, you know.

Jesus says no to success, so he can say yes to servanthood. Jesus doesn't win the whole world: he dies for it. He rebukes Satan with another Bible verse, Deuteronomy 6:13: You shall fear the Lord your God; him you shall serve, and him alone. The ends -- winning the world -- do not justify the means -- serving Satan.

If you're going to quote Scripture, Satan answers, I can do the same. He takes Jesus to the tallest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. I think it's safe to infer this, like the previous temptation, is a vision. To say that it is a vision doesn't mean it's not real -- some visions are far more factual that the reality we believe we inhabit. Well, the tempter says, how about Psalm 91? "Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone." Take a flying leap, Jesus, and see if the angels save you.

Salvation. Isn't that what faith is all about? God will save you. Ask God to spare your life, Jesus. Ask God to spare you the consequences of your selfishness. Jump off the temple. Live in disregard of others around you. Ignore the poor and the young and the aged. Squander your resources. Use people and then throw them away. Spend your days chasing pleasure and leisure. And then ask God to save you, lest you stub your toe.

Don't put the Lord your God to the test, as you did at Massah, Jesus answers. Massah was the place in the wilderness where the Hebrews were thirsty, and accused Moses of having brought them out of Egypt just to kill them. We're thirsty. Save us, or we won't believe in you.

Why believe in God? Because it's good for you? Because God will save you if you believe? That's the third temptation. To love God for our sake, rather than for God's sake, is a faith that produces self-affirming actions. When we're called to sacrifice our interests, our time, our money, or maybe even our lives, well, that's not what we signed up for. We love those "no evil shall befall you" scriptures. It's the "deny yourself, take up your cross, and die" scriptures we don't want to hear. This is Quaker Oats faith: "Nothing is better for thee than me." Rebuked, Satan leaves Jesus alone -- until an opportune time, says Luke. When the chips really fall and Jesus' life is literally on the line, we'll see whether Jesus asks to be saved. Remember this text for the next five weeks: look for the next time when Satan enters the gospel story, to test Jesus with rescue. I'll give you a hint: Judas.

At the deepest, darkest levels of faith, said St. John of the Cross, we love God not because it's good for us. In fact, loving God may get us killed. We love God for God, no matter the consequences.

Jesus says no to his own rescue, so he can say yes to giving himself away. He -- and we -- can't have it both ways.

[1] Luke 3:21-22

Sunday, February 7, 2010

February 7 on-line worship

Body Building: Your Personal Plan

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

When I was learning to swim, I did fine on the backstroke, the sidestroke, and the breaststroke, but I just couldn't get the crawl down right. My instructor, Hans (not Frans), and most of the rest of the class all took their breath on their left side. I just couldn't get the rhythm down to breathe at the right point in the stroke. I would try to turn my head to the left and breathe, but I'd suck in a big gulp of water, or I'd get completely out of rhythm with my arms. I'd try, over and over, and every time I'd mess up. My mother, who couldn't swim a stroke, said, "Why don't you try breathing on the right?" Rolling my eyes in my very best seven year old manner, I'd say, "No, Mom, you're supposed to breathe on the LEFT!" And back I'd go in the water to sputter and splash and fail.

After days of this humiliation, Hans said, "Brooke, try breathing on the right side." So, filled with doubt, I pushed off from the pool wall, took a stroke, and turned my head to the right. DUH. Suddenly it worked. I knew the basics of the stroke, but I had to adapt the details to myself.

Such is the case with following Jesus Christ. There are core beliefs and practices for everyone, and then there are adaptations at the edges that differ from person to person, according to call and to ability. This morning's lesson from 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us of both the core and of the adjustments.

I would remind you, Paul writes, of the good news I proclaimed to you, . . . through which you are being saved. Notice the language -- salvation is not an accomplished fact. It is an ongoing work. The believers are being saved. Salvation is never done; it is a process.

Moving on, in verse 3: I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received. Paul is rehearsing the core of the good news of Jesus Christ, which he had received from the original apostles. What do Christians believe, at the absolute center? Nothing about how or when to baptize, who should join the church or what to believe about sexuality or abortion or foreign policy. What is the absolute core of Christian belief? That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised in accordance with the scriptures on the third day (I have changed the order of the wording here because the Greek is unclear and the Hebrew scriptures are clearer about resurrection than about three days) and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers . . .

That's it. That's the heart of the matter. Christ's sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. Not the order of Creation, or the virgin birth, or the plenary inspiration of the Bible. The cross, the tomb, and the empty tomb. If you believe those things, you can call yourself a Christian. If you don't, then don't.

That's the core, for everyone. But Paul then talks about how it applies to him, in verse 8: Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. "Untimely born" is the translation of ektroma -- a word that means stillborn child. Paul is telling us that he is weak and helpless, in part because he had persecuted Christians before his conversion. He also saw the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, even though it was after Jesus had ascended to heaven. Therefore, Paul is made an apostle -- a witness to the resurrected Jesus -- at the wrong time.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God's grace to me has not been in vain. This is the personal adaptation of the gospel to Paul's gifts and situation. Paul holds to the core -- the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus like every other Christian who has ever lived. On the outside of that core belief shaping Paul's life, the gospel meets Paul where he is, when he is. He comes late to the resurrection. And, where the original apostles understood their call to minister to other Jews, Paul understands God's call to be to minister to non-Jews, like the people in Greek Corinth.

What's your relationship to the core of Christian faith that you share with every other believer? Then, how have you heard God's particular call to you as a unique disciple? The heart of the matter is throwing ourselves on the mercy of God, poured out in the cross, trusting that we are forgiven and reconciled to God not because of our own goodness or our own work, but because in Jesus God loves us more than life. It's only when we surrender our lives to God as completely as Jesus did that we can know the life-giving power of the resurrection and victory over sin and death and despair. The cross, the tomb, and the empty tomb. That's for each of us.

And then there's a path of discipleship that's different for each of us. Some of us are called to share great wealth. Others of us are called to feed the hungry or put roofs on poor people's houses. Some of us are called to teach the faith, others to sing about it, others to a deep life of prayer for the sake of the world. Some are called to work with neighbors, some are called to the far ends of the world to share the gospel. Some are called to the Finance Committee, some to Missions, and others to the kitchen. For all of us, the cross, the tomb, and the empty tomb are the hub around which our unique callings revolve.

How's your core? Have you been crucified -- and raised -- with Jesus, or are you still trying to buy your way into heaven? And, how is your faith being lived out through the unique combination of gifts, passions, and experience that God has given you and you alone?

If we're not faithful both to the core and to our personal calling, we can't be the Body of Christ God intends us to be.