Sunday, June 20, 2010

Being One...

Being different isn't a bad thing, nor is being like someone else, but surrounding ourselves only with people we agree with, look like, sound like, and think like robs us of an amazing tapestry of joy and experience.

1 Kings 19:1-15a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow." Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."
He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." Then the LORD said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me"-for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.
(For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Galatians 3:23-29
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Paul had a problem. He’d brought the Gospel to Galatia, seen the Galatians receive it with joy, then (it seemed) the moment his back was turned, others came in and started tacking on rules and regulations to the pure message of the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Most scholars seem to agree that these interlopers were Jewish Christians who required the Galatians (who were probably of Celtic descent) to follow some or all of the Mosaic Law – most likely circumcision and the dietary laws. In Paul’s eyes, adding these requirements to the Good News transformed it into something no longer the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, it was another, inferior and malevolent, gospel.

Paul’s argument was not simply that the Law was unnecessary, but that it was deadly to faith in Christ: In the second chapter, Paul exclaims, “…if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” The Law, though necessary for the times and purposes of God preceding Christ, had been at best a temporary measure; it was now fulfilled: completed, finished, and laid aside.

Paul's passionate argument throughout the Letter to the Galatians, as well as in other of his Epistles, is that while the Law had its place, the Law had never been perfect. The Law could expose sin, but not forgive it. The Law could prevent error, but not redeem the soul.

Yet in the minds of those who had come in to the Galatian church after Paul, the Law served a further purpose: it was their identity; the Law had, for untold generations, set them apart as a race of human beings who alone served the one true and living God. They alone had known God; they alone had served God; the Law had come from God and the law made them unique!

If God was now moving in the lives of men and women who were not Jewish, that's all very well and good; however, they'd need some instruction in worshiping God in the correct manner.
A bit of minor surgery for all the men, and attention to the kinds of food everyone could and could not eat would be a nice start, thank you very much. These new converts needed to look like, act like, speak like the rest of us. Those actions, their adherence to the Law, will prove their dedication to God. Make them Jewish, and then we can call them believers.

In response to this idea, Paul writes one of my favorite verses: “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.”

For a long time I took that verse to mean that all labels, all descriptive identifiers which serve to separate, categorize, and perhaps even limit, people were to be eradicated. We must all approach the table of the lord not as this kind of person or that kind of person, we should not recognize even the most obvious differentiations, we must practice absolute color and cultural and denominational blindness. What I've come to find out, though, is that not all labels are bad labels. There are, for example, some labels I like: husband, father, son, brother, uncle, preacher, writer, musician, friend...

We need labels, and to one degree or another labels are unavoidable. In one sense there is, in fact, Jew and Greek, there is black and white and Hispanic and Asian and Middle Eastern, there is American and European and Australian and Brazilian, there is Alabama and Auburn and Georgia and Georgia Tech and Tennessee and Kentucky, there is Christian and Hindu and Muslim, there is Republican and Democrat and Libertarian and Green Party, there is Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox, there is male and female. We are who we are, and to deny that is to deny sociological reality, and in some large sense to deprive someone of their label is to deny them their personal identity.

What Paul is addressing is a specific area where labeling is equivalent to causing harm: the people who were influencing the Galatian church to embrace the Law were saying that, without the identifying marks which adherence to the Law brought, you could not be included in those who follow Christ. The same thing goes on today; there are many, both individuals and organized denominations, whose doctrine includes a conviction that, unless you follow the rules and regulations they've laid out, you cannot be included in the Kingdom of God. You must be baptized in this way and not in that way, you must believe this thing about the Lord's Supper and not that thing, you must read this translation of the Scriptures and not that translation, you must worship on this day of the week and not that day of the week, and the list goes on and on.

When labels serve to exclude people from even the possibility of inclusion, when our categorizations bar another human being from access to the Good News of God restoring humankind to loving relationship with the Creator, those labels must be destroyed.

As just one example, it has long been my contention that one of the factors which most hinders the Gospel today is the fact that there are well over thirty thousand different denominations within Protestant Christianity, and all too often these denominations choose to war with one another over whose doctrine is most pure, rather than joining together to address the needs of a lost and dying world. Christ's prayer in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of John, that we would be one in the same way as Jesus and His Father are one, has never been further from being realized than it is today.

Let me correct myself: In one sense, Christ's prayer n John 17 has never been further from being realized... but in another way, it is being realized, and is being realized to a greater and greater degree every day. People of different denominations, different races, different nationalities and experiences are talking, are fellowshipping, are enriching one another's lives and the lives of others simply because they are not letting denominational structures or cultural preconceptions limit the scope of Christ's love.

I say the following as someone who is a Presbyterian by choice; I believe that what Paul is saying to us in the 21st century in the United States of America is this : We best personify Christian community when we do not care whether another person is Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or Pentecostal. We best personify Christian community when we do not care whether another person is African-American or White, Hispanic or Filipino, Native American or Middle Eastern. We best personify Christian community when we do not care whether another person is male or female, believes in predestination or paedobaptism, votes along the same party lines as we do, or votes at all.

Here at Fairfield Highlands, when we gather around the Lord's Table, you may find yourself standing next to someone you've only just met. You might be passing the bread to someone you had an argument with, or accepting the cup from someone who has a political yard sign that you disagree with. Yet we pass the bread, we accept the cup because these differences are not as important as sharing in the sacrament.

It must be precisely the same way on a larger scale: To say, with Paul, that “...[we] are one in Christ Jesus” is to say that we recognize our differences, but that rather than allowing those differences to separate us, we are striving to embracing the differences – not perfectly, and with fits and starts and mistakes along the way.

Despite our labels, we are indeed one body, united in Christ Jesus, who loves us, and gave himself for us. To paraphrase the Apostle John, we join as one in love not because we agree, but because God first loved us.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

At the Feet of Christ

A very short one; I think sometimes the Scriptures need very little commentary. The contrasts between the folks we meet in our readings today kind of speak for themselves in many ways.

1 Kings 21:1-21a
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, "Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money." But Naboth said to Ahab, "The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance." Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, "I will not give you my ancestral inheritance." He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, "Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?" He said to her, "Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, 'Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it'; but he answered, 'I will not give you my vineyard.'" His wife Jezebel said to him, "Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."
So she wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city.

She wrote in the letters, "Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, 'You have cursed God and the king.' Then take him out, and stone him to death." The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, "Naboth cursed God and the king." So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, "Naboth has been stoned; he is dead."

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, "Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead." As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?" You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood."

Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" He answered, "I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;

Galatians 2:15-21

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Luke 7:36-8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.

Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation in the Gospels. Honestly, it’s a reputation they come by honestly for the way they work against Jesus at every turn. Yet however badly they turned out, the origin of the movement was sincere: to be as faithful as possible to the Law of God, as handed down to them in the Scriptures.
Pharisees like Simon strove to be as faithful as they could be, carefully, one might say obsessively, working to observe the smallest detail of those dietary and ceremonial laws passed down from Moses, keeping themselves separated from anyone and anything that might bring uncleanness upon them.

Compare this carefully pious man with the woman who came into the dining room just moments after they had reclined on their couches to eat: it was customary, by the way, for guests to lay on their left side, knees bent so their feet hung off the couch behind them. This woman, who in Luke’s account has no name, never says a word. She had her own reputation – Luke calls her merely “a sinner,” but one with means enough to buy expensive ointment in a costly box.

Simon may have heard about Jesus raising the widow’s son, or may have overheard him preaching in the town’s marketplace, we don’t know. Whatever the case, he took it upon himself to have Jesus over for dinner, so he could get a closer look at the fellow. Was he a prophet, a man of God, or just another in a long line of rabble-rousers, intent on overthrowing Roman rule and “restoring” David’s throne, with he himself sitting in it?

Interesting, isn’t it, knowing as we do who Jesus was and is, that a Pharisee would have been checking Jesus out, making sure he measured up to expectations. One could make the argument that Simon was looking for reasons to discount Jesus as a prophet or potential Messiah; after all, isn’t it the case that when we claim to be making sure someone else measures up, what we’re really doing is looking for the ways in which someone else does not measure up?

This woman, who is washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, might have heard Jesus at the same time as Simon. She may have seen Jesus at a different time, though, speaking with her friends, eating with sinners like her; perhaps she had seen sight restored to the blind or a sick person healed by a touch from Jesus. Whatever the case, this woman knew that it wasn’t a question of Jesus measuring up to her expectations – the fact was that, deep down, she knew she had no hope of measuring up to such hope and love as Jesus personified.

And the nerve of this Jesus fellow, to allow such an unseemly display! Why, if he were really a prophet, he’d know the kind of woman he’s allowing to act that way, and he would certainly not allow the likes of her to touch him! Horrifying!

What Jesus says in response describes the contrast between the Pharisee and the woman perfectly: “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Think about it: by their very nature, the Pharisees depended on their superior knowledge of the Law, their careful habits and attention to minute detail, to keep them in a place of acceptability toward God. Since they were, in effect, doing everything themselves, there was, in effect, not much need for God to help them. They had things under control just fine, thanks. Whereas they had originally sought to please God by their piety, their efforts had in fact become a replacement for God – they could be good enough without forgiveness… they had works, so who needed faith?

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we are good enough – that because of where we’re born, or how often we attend church, or the sins we do not commit, we are somehow acceptable to God. We find ourselves thinking, like Simon, that we measure up when, in fact, we should be sharing the floor with the weeping woman, sure of nothing except the fact that we need forgiveness.

One of the most fascinating things about Scripture is how readily we can find the sharp divide between our expectations – be they theological, cultural, or political – and the reality of life in Jesus Christ. For example, our readings today bring us in contact with another Pharisee, one who had, at the outset, sought the destruction of the men and women who followed this itinerant Rabbi whose feet had been anointed with the contents of the woman’s alabaster box. Paul had dedicated his life to being the most observant, most holy, most dedicated of all the Pharisees, had sought the instruction of the most famous of teachers, had been above reproach in his knowledge of and adherence to the Law.

Yet as we read this passage in Galatians, we do not meet a man who has reached perfection by his own actions, do we? Rather, we see a man who has looked at himself not in comparison to stringent rules and regulations, but in comparison to the holiness and perfection of God-made-flesh: and just like the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, he has found himself in need of forgiveness. And like that weeping woman, he has found forgiveness, justification, and new life in Christ.

You see, no matter where we start from, Jesus meets us, and always at the place where we lay down our right to claim social status, or religious purity, or birthright. Kneeling at the feet of Christ, crucified with Him, and yet alive in Him.