Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Way Of The Cross Leads Home

Thanks to Dr. Bruce Epperly, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, and the Rev. Ryan Kemp-Pappan, whose writings inspired much that follows.

Housekeeping note: I added three verses to the end of the Gospel Lectionary reading, because the reaction of Jesus' Jewish hearers shows that their expectations were for an earthly kingdom, mere replacement of empire.

Here is the audio of the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Hebrews 5:5-10
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

John 12:20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jerusalem is jam-packed for the Passover when the news gets out that Jesus, the man who raised Lazarus from the dead, is headed into town. A crowd hurries out of the city and lines the road, and, sure enough, before long, Jesus appears, headed into town, riding a donkey.

Now, we’ll likely talk about his entry into Jerusalem next week for Palm Sunday, but I wanted to mention that as background for where our Gospel reading picks up this morning. It seems that, more than anything else Jesus has done – the healings, the feeding of thousands, the words he’s preached to multitudes of people all over the Judean province – it is the raising of Lazarus from the dead which has captured the people’s attention, sparked their imagination, and gotten them talking. Perhaps this really is the Messiah, the Promised One of God!

Jesus may or may not have gotten off of the donkey by the time the Greeks approached Philip. Either way, it’s kind of an odd interlude, isn’t it? Jesus is right there, after all, everyone can see him. Kinda hard to miss a guy who’s getting palm branches waved at him and cloaks thrown in his path, you know. I always wondered why, when these Greeks said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” Philip didn’t just throw his thumb over his shoulder toward the crowd and say, “He’s right there, bud. Can’t miss him, the guy on a donkey.”

Dr. Bruce Epperly points out that “seeing” Jesus can mean more than one thing, though. If they wanted to merely have an audience with Jesus, well, that was one thing. Walk up and say “hi,” right? Or, if you want to be creative, wait ‘til after dark and come calling like Nicodemus did.

But “seeing” also carries a deeper connotation. Perhaps what the Greeks are saying is not that they’d like his autograph, maybe a picture for their FaceBook page, but that they really want to see Jesus – they want to get to know who he is, they want to come to understand him.

If this is the case, what Jesus says in reply makes a lot more sense. Right now, in the entire city of Jerusalem, exactly one person knows how this week is going to end. At the same time Jesus is entering the city gates, in some corner of the barracks where the Roman legions are stationed, there’s a cross and a bag of nails. This crowd, so full of Hosannahs, so ready to hail Jesus as their King? They’ll be turning on Jesus like a cornered raccoon before long. Those disciples? Most of them will be running for the hills. That’s how the week ends for Jesus.

There is precious little information in our reading today about these Greeks who came to see Jesus. Some commentators suggest they were what’s called “Hellenized Jews;” that is, Jewish people who had adopted Greek dress, thought, and mannerisms. And while that’s possible, it is just as possible that these were Greeks who were interested in, but not committed to, Judaism. Perhaps they were in Jerusalem that week to see what Passover was all about. Perhaps they were attached to the court of Herod in some way, or worked in some capacity with the Roman governor.

I imagine that these were likely men with some measure of power, some sense of privilege. If they’d been just a few guys with funny accents, why would Philip not have just taken them to Jesus? Why go get Andrew? It’s as if a certain level of protocol is called for, and being followed.

What’s more, I imagine that their interest in Judaism in general, and Jesus in particular, was filtered through their specifically Greco-Roman understanding of religion. They may have understood that the Jewish people were expecting a Messiah, and saw that the Jewish people in the crowd that day fully expected Jesus to be that Messiah. In “seeing” Jesus, perhaps what they intended to do was, after getting to know who he was and what he was about, acknowledge him as a living god, add him to their pantheon, and go about their business.

Make no mistake, the Greeks, as well as the Romans, were carefully, superstitiously religious, for the most part. The list of gods was almost endless. There was a god for nearly every facet of life: a god who supervised the opening of doors (and another who supervised the closing of doors), gods who protected crossroads, gods responsible for success in battle and at harvest time, and on and on. When Rome conquered a new territory, as often as not they’d adopt the gods those people worshiped, just to make sure they weren’t missing anything. And ever since Julius Caesar, the Romans had been in the habit of declaring their dead emperors gods, as well.

The aim of all this god-collecting was to protect the wealth, power, and privilege of the Greco-Roman way of life. It was, in many ways, a contractual agreement: we make the proper prayers and offerings and sacrifices to you, you keep us safe from invasion, successful in battle, bountiful in harvest, and profitable in business.

And as far as those Jewish crowds surrounding Jesus? If he was the Messiah, they fully expected him to claim the throne of David, destroy the enemies of Israel, and usher in an eternal, peaceful reign that would make Judea the seat of wealth, power, and privilege for eternity.

But Jesus did not come to protect the status quo. Nor did Jesus come to replace one earthly empire with another. Wealth and privilege were, at best, an illusion. Political and military might were, at best, temporary. Where Jesus was headed, these things were not simply irrelevant; they were at enmity with his primary purpose.

Centuries ago, the prophet Jeremiah had spoken the words of a God who had seen his beloved children of Israel weeping for their lost homeland as they languished in Babylon. Perhaps it is true that they’d never really tried to uphold their end of the covenant they’d made with God at Mount Sinai. They had strayed from God, worshiping false idols, ignoring the Law, coming back to God only long enough to be saved from some invading force or another, then falling right back in to the same old habits. But in the same way that a parent still loves a rebellious child, these people were precious to God. So God promised a new way of life – a new covenant, one not made of laws on tablets, but encompassing the heart and mind and spirit, composed not of rules and regulations, but of relationship: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people… they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Jesus was the seed from which this new covenant would burst forth, but seeds do not germinate on thrones of power or pedestals of worship, do they? In fact, for a seed to do its work, it ceases to exist as a seed. The seed dies, and becomes something wholly different.

The seed dies. The path to that garden of relationship in Jesus Christ runs straight through the cross. That is true for Jesus as he speaks to the crowd that day, and it is true for each person in that crowd, and it is true for you and me today.

Like the Greeks, we too often see Christianity as a means to our own ends of social acceptability, prosperity, comfort, and safety. But the Gospel is not about ways to make our life, our marriage, our career, our bank account, our children or anything else work out in a way pleasing to ourselves.

Like the Jewish people in that crowd, we too often use God to justify our racial, political, and national biases and identities. But the Gospel calls us to look beyond these artificial barriers, compels us to build communities where one’s green card or voting record or what football team they root for is irrelevant in the light of the deep and abiding love of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” The Gospel is the call to follow Jesus to the cross and beyond.

Where we may idolize fame, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in serving the poor and needy.

Where we place a premium on popularity, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in reaching out to the despised and rejected.

Where we place a premium on privilege and power, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in standing up for those who are oppressed and ill-served by the world.

Where we may see our good health, full pantries, and gated communities as evidence of God’s favor, the Gospel is the call to follow Jesus in fighting against illness and evil wherever they may be found.

Where we all too often find reassurance and comfort in the things we own, that which we can hold in our hands, the Gospel calls us to forsake the god in our hands, so that the God whose law is written on our hearts can awaken us to a new passion, finding our identity not in where we were born or what we do for a living, but in being a servant of Christ, who said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And sometimes following Jesus to the cross means we will suffer for our commitments, that we too will be rejected and scorned as much as those with whom we take our stand.

Christ calls us to follow him. It is not an easy nor painless path, and we cannot ever count on smooth sailing. The promise of the gospel is that where God calls us to go, Jesus has already been, and as we go, Jesus is going with us.

It is the Way of the Cross. And like the hymn says, the Way of the Cross does indeed lead home.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt?

The title's a nod to the late Keith Green, whose music and ministry helped shape my early days in the faith. His song of that name was playing in my head the entire time I was writing this sermon.

I appreciate the writing of David Kalas, and the joke I "borrowed" from the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, in helping me write this week's sermon. And yes, I "borrowed" "bamanna bread" from Keith Green.

The very idea that I could hope to unpack the depth of Jesus comparing his crucifixion to Moses' lifting of the bronze serpent in the wilderness is sheer folly at best, and deadly hubris at worst. I barely scratched the surface, and likely bungled some bits even at that. Happily, the congregation is good at forgiving me when I do that. They've had a lot of practice, y'see...

Here's the audio of the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Ephesians 2:1-10
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

John 3:14-21
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It’s a pretty safe bet that, if you open up the book of Numbers at random and put your finger down on a page, you’ll be pointing to a passage where the children of Israel are worrying, doubting, and/ or complaining. Honestly, I don’t know how Moses put up with it all those years.

Especially in this instance! They complain about having no food… and in the same sentence say they hate the food. Um, what?

Well, yeah, there was food, enough to go around. Manna. Every day.

For breakfast, manna waffles, with a side of manna eggs and manna sausage, washed down with a nice hot cup of manna coffee. For lunch they had manna sandwiches: manna between two slices of manna. Or you could get real adventurous and have a manna club sandwich – three slices of manna! For dinner, manna pot roast. Maybe for dessert, manna pound cake or bamanna bread…

Yeah, manna. Lots and lots of the same old thing every day.

And instead of the monotony pushing the people to look forward with hungry anticipation to where they were headed, the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, they grumbled about what they’d left behind, back in Egypt.

Sure, they’d been slaves. Yeah, they’d had to work constantly on the Pharaoh’s building projects, backbreaking labor that drove them to an early grave. But man, remember the food? Olives as big as your fist! And the bread! So soft you could use it as a pillow. Oh, how we miss the food…

Imagine: God had brought them from slavery in a foreign land, through the Red Sea, had provided for their needs, protected them in battle, and was sending them (or, well, their children, anyway) to a glorious new land of abundance, full of fields they had not plowed, homes they had not built, orchards they had not planted…

It reminds me of the story about this company that had fallen on hard times. There wasn’t enough work to keep the people busy, but rather than lay everyone off, the owner told the employees, “I am sure things will improve soon. In fact, I’m going to keep everyone on full salary; just come in on Wednesdays to maintain the machinery and keep the place clean.”

From the back of the group, someone said, “Do we have to come in every Wednesday?”

The children of Israel wished they could go back to Egypt, undo all that God had done for them, even if it meant being captive again. So the Lord sent serpents. Poisonous snakes.

Now, I’ve read a lot of preachers and bloggers and commentators who are very uncomfortable about this passage. It brings up a lot of questions about the nature of God, and causes people to struggle to reconcile our idea of a loving, New Testament God with an angry, vengeful and capricious Old Testament God.

And what does it say about a God who would send snakes? Real, live, poisonous snakes, the kind that like to kill people? After all, they were just doing some whining, for crying out loud! Isn’t that like burning down a house to kill a mosquito?

I want to suggest to you that if God’s intention had been to kill the children of Israel for their doubt and complaining and unbelief, for wanting to go back to familiar slavery, comfortable servitude, the soothing routine of the crushing burden and the cracking whip to their backs, then God could have – would have – simply killed them. All of them. Instantly. Or, if God’s plan was for the children of Israel to die slowly, in terror and agony, God could have simply offered no remedy, ignoring Moses when he came to plead on the people’s behalf.

So, was God simply looking for an apology? For repentance? Well, if that was all there was to the story, then the serpents would have disappeared the moment they all ran to Moses, admitting they’d been boneheads and begging him to intercede. Asking, in fact, that God take the snakes away.

No, the snakes don’t leave, and people didn’t stop being bitten, but God does provide a cure. A strange, counterintuitive cure.

The cure had nothing to do with raining antivenin down on the encampment, or teaching the people how to extract the venom from the bite, the way the old Boy Scout’s first aid manual did.

The cure was another snake. A metal one. On a pole. When someone got bitten, they had simply to look at the metal snake on the pole, look at the image of the thing that was causing them to die… and they would live.

God did not want the people to die, you see. God wanted the people to trust.

In the dark of night, something like eight hundred years later, a figure emerges from the shadows in the narrow streets of Jerusalem and knocks on a door. A young man answers, wiping sleep from his eyes, and a few minutes later the shadowy figure steps into the courtyard of the house, and settles next to the fire to speak with Jesus.

Nicodemus was a man with questions. I imagine him as a fellow who had spent his life following the rules, keeping the rituals, playing the game the way it was meant to be played. But lately, he’d seen the edges of his carefully woven tapestry beginning to fray. He saw his fellow Jews who, just like him, were doing all they knew to keep the Law, make the sacrifices, pray the prayers, but things just kept getting worse. Food was scarce, all the money went to the foreign occupiers, the leaders of the very Temple of God were in collusion with the Romans, and there was no end in sight.

Perhaps Nicodemus had been in the Temple the day Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers, had heard him yelling about making the house of God into a Super Wal-Mart, and had known, deep in his heart, that this dirty, nondescript rabbi from some Podunk town in the middle of who-knows-where was right.

But there in the courtyard, warmed by the fire and the cups of wine, Nicodemus grows ever more confused by the things that Jesus says. Being born all over again? Born of water and the Spirit? What does it all mean?

I wonder if it all clicked for him when Jesus referred to Moses’ snake on a stick? After all, hadn’t Nicodemus been thinking that the world was a sick place, snakebit with corruption and greed, dying beneath the crushing force of Roman occupation?

All of Judea prayed for the Messiah to come, to re-establish the throne of David, drive out the oppressors, and institute the eternal, perfect, but earthy, Kingdom.

They’d asked for God to send the Roman snakes away, but God hadn’t, and every day it all seemed to get worse and worse, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that God really had forgotten the Jewish nation, or worse actively wanted to destroy them, kill them all.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Perhaps, Nicodemus thought, God didn’t want them to die. God wanted them to trust.

Crucifixion had been perfected by the Romans over the centuries as a way to not simply kill their prisoners, but to humiliate their enemies and terrify their subjects. Crucifixion was doubly terrifying to the Jewish people, because the book of Deuteronomy says that anyone who was hung on a pole was cursed – so not only did they endure the pain of death, those that believed in life after death knew that their afterlife would be doomed as well. All in all it was an exquisitely slow and painful way to die, and the Romans made sure and did it on a hill, on a cross big enough that everyone could see the suffocating, naked body of whatever cursed soul had crossed the Roman governor that day.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

What does this mean to you and I, today?

It doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that the world we live in is cursed, even today. While much of the world struggles to find enough food to eat, other parts of the world deal with an epidemic of obesity. While part of the world woke up this morning dealing with the after-effects of too much to drink on St. Patrick’s Day, in other parts of this same planet there isn’t enough clean water to drink. While part of the world worries that the video games our children play are too violent, in parts of Africa children are kidnapped in the night and forced to fight and kill on behalf of armies rebelling against a government not much better, in practice, than the kidnappers themselves. Power and wealth protect and enrich themselves, while the middle class disappears and the poor grow ever poorer.

Even when we don’t struggle to feed our families, even when clean water is as far away as the nearest tap, even when our children can sleep in their own beds, knowing that Joseph Kony won’t sneak in during the night and steal them for his army, there’s plenty enough curse to go around: the curse of resting our self-worth on the things we own, where we live, our race or our gender.

We are snakebit, and we die a little more from the poison of greed, affluence, and self-absorption every day.

The image of the snake saved the children of Israel from death. All they had to do was look to it. All they had to do was trust… to have confidence… to believe.

In Galatians we read that Christ became the curse, in order to redeem us from the curse of the law.

Christ became the curse, became the image of the very thing that is killing us.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

We who live under the curse must look to Jesus, who became the very image of the thing that is killing us, and far from simply keeping that poison from destroying us, looking at the Son of Man lifted up brings us the promise of the Kingdom, the assurance of eternal life.

And please understand, this is not an exclusionary event, something done to separate the “good people” from the “bad people,” to offer a way of quantifying “us” and “them.” I have said this before, there is no such thing as “us” and “them.” All of us, left to our own devices, will move immediately as far from God as possible, will wallow as deep in the poison of the curse as we can get, and do so as quickly as we can. In the language of this cursed world, we are all “them.” And, as the book of Romans reminds us, God demonstrates God’s love this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Or to use the words of Jesus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And later in the Gospel of John, Jesus states, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

So we who have looked upon Christ, lifted up, the image of the curse, we who have been brought from death into life in Christ, have a choice to make.

We can continue living as if we are under the curse, letting the advertisers and the infomercial producers tell us what to buy and how much to spend on it so we can be better than the other people who didn’t buy this or spend that. We can continue letting the politicians and pundits and talk show hosts tell us whose fault everything is, who to hate, who to distrust, who to fight… or we can lift Jesus up, in doing the things that are true, and draw everyone – everyone – to Him.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Checklist...

Thanks to Elizabeth Webb for her direction concerning the suzerainty treaty (which I fear I will never pronounce correctly), and to the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton for helping me see the Ten Commandments in the proper light.

I confess a deep aversion to preaching about the Ten Commandments. Thanks to certain Alabama politicians, I've been afraid to bring them up for far too long.

But it's time we took the Ten Commandments back, isn't it?

Here's the audio of this sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Exodus 20:1-17
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

This is the Word of the Lord.

There have been a lot of things said about the Ten Commandments over the years. Some theologians have tried to recast them as the “Ten Suggestions,” some politicians have built a career out of making them the focus of controversy, some denominations have made that fourth one, about the Sabbath, more important than all the rest… and I could go on and on.

Because of all of this, many people have lost the focus of what this section of Scripture is all about. For them the Ten Commandments have become an object of interest, perhaps, but on the whole, irrelevant to modern life; or else a checklist by which we make ourselves feel “good enough,” all too frequently over against someone or some group of someones that just don’t measure up. Often, the Ten Commandments have been forcibly separated from their context, made ironically into something of an idol in and of themselves.

This morning, I want to try, in some way, to take the Ten Commandments back. Put them where they should be, and while we’re there, I want to find out if, and how, these words of Scripture may speak to us in the here-and-now.

Three months have passed for the Children of Israel since they walked out of Egypt, since they walked through the Red Sea on dry land, with the water rising up on each side like the walls of a canyon. They’ve eaten manna from heaven, drank deep of water from a rock, they’ve been attacked by the Amalekites, and soundly defeated them, and now they have at last entered in to Sinai. Solemn preparations are made, and the people have gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to wait on the Lord.

And with thunder and lightning and the deafening, sustained sound of a ram’s horn, God arrives in fire atop that mountain. And Moses walks up the mountain, into the clouds, and disappears from view.

And I think that it might be Hollywood’s fault that we imagine Moses coming down a few minutes later with a couple of tombstone-shaped stone tablets with the Roman numerals one through ten on them.

But these Ten Words (as they are known in Judaism) are the beginning of the Law that God spoke to Moses on Sinai. God is laying out a covenant between God and the Children of Israel, and it’s different than the covenant God made with Noah, and the one God made with Abraham. With Noah and Abraham, God’s promise was not contingent on any response from either man. God would do what God said, and that was that.

Now, God is establishing what is known as a suzerainty treaty; that is, a covenant between a suzerain – a king, a lord – and his subjects. The suzerain lays out what he’s done for his subjects, and then stipulates what is expected of them, if they plan on remaining within the suzerain’s domain and under his protection.

The Ten Commandments are the beginning. What follows are details on how to build a proper sacrificial altar, treatment of servants, adjudication of personal injuries, protection of property, stipulations regarding social responsibility and laws concerning social justice, specifications for keeping the Sabbath, the establishment of three annual festivals, a promise of angelic protection and the establishment of a nation with wide borders, and that’s all before Moses came down from the mountain the first time. There’s a lot more after that, but you get the point.

God says, in short, that if the people keep their end of the covenant, all will be well and good for them.

In one way, the Ten Commandments can be seen as the outline of all the Laws that God gives Moses on Mount Sinai. They are the broad strokes that help to paint the picture of a people wholly committed to living worshipful lives.

Now, holding on to that thought, let’s look at how people today often seem to view the Ten Commandments: as a checklist – a way to reassure ourselves that we are “good enough.”

“No other gods.” Check. I’m a Christian, and I worship God alone, so no worries there.

“No false idols.” Check. Nary a Ba’al or an Ashteroth pole in the house anywhere!

“Don’t take God’s name in vain.” Nope, I don’t say that word, anyway…

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Yep. Church on Sunday!

“Honor your father and your mother.” Got that covered. Mother’s Day card, the whole nine yards.

“You shall not murder.” Well, of course not!

“You shall not commit adultery.” Not a chance!

“You shall not steal.” Nope, my hands are clean, thanks.

“You shall not bear false witness.” I’m a firm believer in telling the truth, because it’s easier to keep track of what I’ve said to folks that way…

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Yeah, we’re good. I like my house better, I think the wife thing got covered back in “don’t commit adultery,” and I never wanted an ox or a donkey from anywhere, much less from my neighbor. What would I do with an ox or a donkey anyway? Besides, I don’t think the city ordinances allow that sort of thing. No worries there.

I’m probably oversimplifying it, but that’s because this view is in and of itself an oversimplification, a loss of focus, a doctoral-thesis-level study in missing the point completely.

What was it Jesus said, when the expert in the Law asked him which was the greatest of all the commandments? “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

When we use those words as the lens, it brings the focus back to the Ten Words being the broad strokes in a picture of a people wholly committed to living worshipful lives. Rather than a checklist, the Ten Commandments becomes a magnifying glass.

“No other gods.” Is God really first, or do other things get more of my attention, and even more of my loyalty, than God?

“No false idols.” How important are the things I own? Do I, like so many people around me, garner a significant portion of my self-esteem from the value and amount of possessions I have? If my house was on fire, is there an item that I would consider running back in to save?

“Don’t take God’s name in vain.” Do I use religion as a hammer to beat other people down, rather than as a ladder to lift them up? Do I pass judgment in the name of God against those who should instead be hearing the Good News of how much, how deeply, how completely God loves them?

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Am I creating space in my life for silence, for study, for meditation, for God to lead, nurture, and refresh? Or am I too busy, and an hour on Sunday will have to suffice, thank you very much?

“Honor your father and your mother.” How do I treat people who take on leadership roles in areas that directly impact my life? Am I cooperative, responsive, and when I disagree do I do so constructively?

“You shall not murder.” What of the violence that we do not speak against, the killings we don’t protest? To hearken back to what I spoke about last week, what about the damage done to others in the name of Christianity? Our own actions may not kill, but does our silence?

“You shall not commit adultery.” Apart from what Jesus said about “lusting in your heart,” which is a whole (very uncomfortable) sermon unto itself, I have to ask myself this: Do I love my spouse as Christ loved the church?

“You shall not steal.” Saint Augustine said that anything we have, more than we need, is stolen from the poor.

“You shall not bear false witness.” Is the truth always the truth, or, in supporting my own positions and self-interests, am I willing to spin the truth, to state the facts selectively, to ignore and even suppress evidence to the contrary?

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Am I truly content with what I have? Or am I allowing myself to be drawn by the siren song of advertising culture, to be jealous of what others have, into always wanting bigger, better, faster, shinier, more, and more, and more…

In this season of Lent, we are called upon to examine our lives. Under the magnifying glass of Scripture, we see ourselves as we really are, and sometimes it isn’t a pretty picture, but we cannot, we must never, stop there, thinking, “oh, I’m hopeless, I’ll never measure up.”

Like Jesus did with the moneychangers in the Temple, Lent calls us to drive out the misdirection and evil-doing, and this is a continual, lifelong process, make no mistake. Yet rather than driving ourselves mad with the relentlessness, we are reminded to rest at last in what Paul called, in our Epistle reading today, the “foolishness of the cross.”

Lent calls us to lay aside our checklists, to let go of the forever-losing proposition of trying to account ourselves “good enough,” and reminds us that, in Christ, grace is freely, abundantly, exuberantly given, and we who call on Christ’s name live in that grace, and just as freely, just as abundantly, just as exuberantly share that grace with others.

Amen, and amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Whose values?

Thanks this week to the writing of Marilyn Salmon, who pointed out the values clash in this week's Gospel reading. The closing prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. 

You know, Christianity is meant to be the solution. Too often, I think, we've made ourselves the problem. Either this needs to change... or we need to change our name.

Audio of the sermon:

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Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Romans 4:13-25
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Mark 8:31-38
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

This is the World of the Lord.

Simon Peter’s head was reeling. There they were, traveling as usual, right now between villages in the region of Caesarea Phillipi when, out of the blue, Jesus had asked them what folks were saying about him. “Who do people say I am?”

They had covered the usual stuff, John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. They heard it all the time. But Peter’s heart began to race when Jesus asked them, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

He knew the answer. They all did; the word had been whispered between them countless times. They’d all heard his words, seen his miracles… Peter took a deep breath and dove in: “You are the Messiah.”

And when Jesus didn’t deny it, didn’t correct Peter’s statement, but told them all to keep quiet about it, Peter knew that the cat was out of the bag. At last, it was time to get things moving! Surely now, they’d start making plans for the overthrow of the Roman government, the purging of the idolaters from the Promised Land, setting the priesthood back where it should be, out of the hands of the collaborators and the power-hungry, and get Jesus where he was supposed to be, on the eternal Throne of David.

The amount of work ahead of them was staggering. With Jubilee already declared, there was the business of getting landholdings back into the right families, cancelling debts, maybe some program to bring back Jewish folks who were living in other parts of the Empire…

Instead, Jesus started talking about suffering and rejection. Instead of planning to set the elders, priests and scribes right, Jesus instead said these priests and elders and scribes would refuse him, kill him, and as far as Peter was concerned, the fact that he’d rise from the dead three days later was frankly beside the point!

Nobody had ever accused Peter of being the smartest man they’d ever met, but it didn’t take King Solomon to see that defeat and death was the way kingdoms were destroyed, not established. The crowds knew it too, Peter thought. They were getting understandably restless; no one liked all this negative talk. People wanted to side with winners, not losers, especially when losing meant getting nailed to a cross!

Well, since Peter had been the one to say the word “Messiah,” he guessed it was up to him to take Jesus aside and give him a quick lesson in marketing. I imagine it sounded something like this:

“Hey, Jesus, got a minute? Can I talk to you for a minute over here? Thanks. Hey, listen, um, me and the boys been talking, you know, and what with you being the Messiah and all, well, you know, you’ve got a reputation you gotta live up to, see, and, um, like, an image thing, right? And anyway, all this getting rejected and killed stuff, man, it’s, like, never going to work. How are we going to get enough people behind us to do this thing if all you ever talk about is defeat, man? We need to be planning our victory, you know? Just, you know, lighten up some, anyway, OK?”

It all made perfect sense to Peter, and from the relief he could see in the other disciples’ faces, he could tell it was the right move.

But Jesus had other ideas.

When we hear Jesus saying things like “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” and “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” I wonder – how easily do we miss the naked, crushing gravity of what’s being said? It’s a spiritual truth played out in a spoken paradox, yes, but can we see, in this day and age, the utter outrageousness of what Jesus is saying?

I know we Christians talk a lot about “dying to self.” Lofty words, and it’s a phrase that gets preached on a lot, but as Inigo Montoya said in “The Princess Bride,” “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Often, for today’s Christians, at least here in the West, the idea of “dying to self” means choosing not to listen to a particular kind of music or watch a particular television show. It means making moral choices in who we vote for, and perhaps in the kinds of friends we have. Perhaps it means giving up M&Ms for Lent. We often will say, of any hardship, real or imagined, that “it’s our cross to bear,” which isn’t what Jesus was talking about at all. But then, the cross itself has lost the meaning it had for Jesus and his contemporaries, hasn’t it? In our culture, crosses are jewelry, wall decorations. Crucifixes have become artistic expressions.

But in the first-century Roman province of Judea, the cross meant something quite different.

The cross was a reminder that whatever measure of freedom you felt you possessed was a lie. The cross symbolized the absolute power of foreign men in togas over your every thought, your every action. The cross meant that what you owned was not yours if the foreign men in the togas decided it was not. The cross was the ultimate terror, and the idea of “taking up your cross” made even the strongest quake in fear.

For all of their faults, you see, the Roman Empire was very good at many things, among them making war and (for a while, at least) keeping the conquered, conquered. One of their tools for accomplishing the latter was to instill mortal fear in the populace by developing, over the centuries, the single most inhuman, barbaric, monstrous, sadistic, vulgar form of torture and death ever conceived: the cross.

It is to this – the utter surrender, the conscious abdication and active destruction of human values in favor of God’s values – that Jesus was called, and that Jesus in turned called the crowd, the disciples, and each of us.

Think of it. In that light, when Jesus talks about losing your life to find it, he’s not talking about an allegorical death.

As much as I make light of how we view taking up your cross, dying to self, and wearing crucifixes as jewelry these days, we have an advantage that those first-century crowds, those faithful disciples did not have.

Because of Jesus Christ, we see the cross not as the end of the story, not as the death of hope and the destruction of freedom and the symbol of the absolute power of earthly kings over their subjects, but as the ultimate symbol of the triumph of hope, of the power of life, of the pervasiveness true freedom, of God’s bountiful and boundless love, of the eternal truth of the resurrection.

In the cross we know, we know that God is for us.

The Gospels make a point to tell us that, even though Jesus spoke about his death and resurrection repeatedly, the disciples never understood. They never got it. And from this side of the cross, it’s easy for us to smirk at them for being thick-headed, for not seeing the obvious outcome, for not comprehending everything that their Lord was telling them.

I want to suggest to you this morning that we should not laugh at those “poor, dumb” disciples. Rather, we should be in awe of them. Imagine listening to Jesus that day, and not knowing that in him the cross would become a symbol of ultimate, eternal victory. Imagine hearing those words and feeling your guts burn in fear at the thought of such a lingering, torturous death. Imagine listening to Jesus and seeing only the ultimate triumph of those brutish foreigners with their togas and their legions.

And imagine continuing to follow Jesus anyway.

Despite their lack of understanding, in direct opposition to their continuing need to know what was in it for them, and the continuous assurance that their return on investment for giving up everything they had and knew to follow Christ would be persecution, torture and death, these disciples, almost to a man, continued to follow Jesus.

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In the Epistle to the Colossians, Paul wrote, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Do we really believe that today?

Christians today are identified more by the people and the things they hate than by the thing that Jesus himself said we would be known by: our love. More and more people who follow the risen Savior of all creation have to say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like that,” because Christianity has come to be identified not as a group of individuals united by a common belief in an eternal and loving Savior, but as a political party with certain intransigent standards, often angrily – and sometimes violently – promoted within the status quo, the existing cultural structure. Far too many Christians practice, consciously or unconsciously, Dominionism, seeking influence or control over secular civil government through political action, with the express goal of either a nation governed by Christians, or a nation governed exclusively by a particular interpretation of Biblical law.

The clear problem with such a view is that it is founded on human values – who has the power, who wields ultimate authority, who is in control.

By contrast, Jesus repeatedly rejected the idea of establishing any kind of earthly empire, in favor of an eternal Kingdom of God. This Kingdom flies in the face of what we are used to. Rather than power being the reward for aggression or consensus-building, the most powerful in the Kingdom of God are the least. The mark of citizenship in God’s Kingdom is first, foremost, and exclusively love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Jesus represents God's values, best summed up by the willingness to risk one's own life for the sake of others. Jesus does not encourage suffering for the sake of suffering, nor does he recommend acceptance of forced servitude. When Jesus talks about saving your life by losing it, he specifies losing it for the cause of Christ and “for the sake of the gospel” and in this Jesus is the exemplary model. Jesus invites his disciples, and us, to follow his example, to be willing to risk our lives for the sake of others.

With all of this in mind, the challenge facing Christianity today is this: can we take back our name? Can Christians become known not for who and what we hate, who we oppress and marginalize, what political team we root for… but for our unconditional, Christlike, ebullient and egregious love? Can we shift the paradigm from a quest for dominion to a quest for relationship? Can we lay down our lives to the point that what we own and where we live, what we drive and who our friends are, are less important than who and how we help, the ways we strive to offer support, the lengths we will go to in order to provide encouragement, how quickly we bring relief, how deeply we personify love?

In the earliest days of the Church, believers earned the name “Christian” from those outside the faith, who intended to make fun of them for running around, acting like “little Christs.” That’s what that word, “Christian,” means. “Little Christ.”

My prayer is that we who follow Christ find a way to earn that name again.

Let us pray.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.