A Short Apology

Since going back to work, I have been posting much less frequently. Far less than my post a day for the last 6 months. This certainly wasn’t my intention. It appears, even posting last Sunday’s sermon is hard to keep track of. That will change and I ask for your patience.

One reason for this is my family. Now, I am not making an excuse of them, believe me. It is just that my daughter, the beautiful soul that she is, misses having me around, and the early departures (when I hope to do most of my writing) came to a quick end when she reminded me of something:

She likes sharing breakfast with me.

Just me.

English: american breakfast

Please note: this is not representative of our daily breakfast.

And it is hard to say no to that. In fact, I refuse to. Sometimes I do have to leave before she wakes up, like today and I feel pretty guilty about it; and sometimes I allow breakfast to spill into playing and getting dressed and all of the other distractions that prevent me from getting the start I planned for my day. But considering the cost that she is paying, can’t she and I do breakfast?

This leads to the question I really don’t want to have to ask myself: does that mean I have to set my alarm even earlier? Because, I’ve got to tell you that our bed is warm and comfy at 6 in the morning. And I’m not even sure my alarm can even be set for anything earlier than that…

No Deal.

a Sermon for Lent 3B

Text: John 2:13-22

what’s the problem?

Think about all of Jesus’s public ministry for a moment. There were some big spectacles like the feeding of the five thousand. There were also public condemnations, particularly of the Jewish leadership. But this story is unique. It is bold and unsettling. It is violent and evocative. And let’s be honest: pretty mean. What is Jesus’s problem?

Let’s begin with the context. The other gospels have this story take place at the beginning of Holy Week, where a public spectacle would be seen by his disciples, the huge crowd following him, and all the people gathered at the Temple to meet him for the first time. It fits right into the charges leveled against him in the ensuing days. But John puts the story right near the beginning. Suddenly, Jesus is anonymous, a stranger, walking into the Temple and messing everything up. There is no word-of-mouth about him yet, just a strange hick from the country with a small band of merry weirdos coming to the big city and messing with the Temple—the center of worship. So, again, what is Jesus’s problem?

We know Jesus has a problem with the chief priests, who are essentially working for Rome. The Sadduccees, the Pharisees, and the Scribes who should all know better, are on the bad list, too. But why the money changers and livestock- and dove-sellers? Is it personal? Jesus seems to make it personal. He appears to attack them with a weapon and throw their merchandise on the floor.

One thing should be made plain. Jesus was a good Jew and wasn’t starting a new religion called Christianity. He understood the place of the Temple and of sacrifice in worship. He must have had something else in mind. Something consistent with his criticisms of the church leadership. I think its the deal-making.

the art of the deal

Jesus’s problem with the money changers and livestock sellers isn’t ritual purity with respect to the Temple, since he didn’t seem terribly bothered by his own frequent moments of ritual impurity, but he does have a problem with a systematized, transactional relationship with GOD. The more money you brought with you, the better the animal you could buy for sacrifice. The better the animal, the more right you were with GOD. In this system, GOD’s favor

  1. could be bought
  2. and the wealthy could curry greater favor.

Christians are no stranger to this kind of deal-making, are we? You probably hear in this a similarity to the problem of indulgences, in which wealthy patrons got to buy their way out of their sins. They put GOD’s forgiveness up for sale. But don’t just blame the Catholics for that one. Go to many Protestant churches on any given Sunday and you’ll hear deal-making for GOD. If you come forward and get born-again or close your eyes and accept Jesus as your savior or ask for forgiveness for your sins then GOD will let you in to the inner circle. Here’s GOD’s asking price: what do you have? Can we get a deal done, right here, this morning?

We love cutting deals with people. We love the hunt. I remember a scene from an old sitcom in which one friend was so obsessed with getting a good deal, he would buy things he didn’t need, just because it was a good deal. A good friend of mine had this one roommate who actually preferred the good deal to free. He wanted to pay virtually nothing rather than nothing. Free isn’t a deal. Free is a gift. It’s unbalanced. But a good deal is great for you and just happens to be lousy for the other person. We make deals out of selfishness, not just possessiveness. It doesn’t count unless someone else gets the short end of the stick. Let them pay the difference.

Jesus doesn’t deal

Of course we don’t see it that way, really. We look at the bottom line and simply ignore the effect on others. No big deal. For us. But Jesus isn’t interested in deals. He seems to be challenging the idea of the transactional relationship with GOD. He says that all of this is alien to GOD’s will. The changing of money and the sacrifice of livestock isn’t really the problem. Remember that this is how Jews worshiped for the past 2000 years, so Jesus wasn’t looking at it like a 21st Century Christian American, but a 1st Century Jewish Palestinian. In fact, as we talked about Wednesday night, the money changers and livestock sellers were providing a service that made it easier for devout Jews to worship. Their being there wasn’t intentionally motivated by selfishness or greed, but of greasing the system for the benefit of the people.

When Jesus declares that they had made the Temple into a marketplace, I don’t think he’s talking about the selling so much as the deal-making. They made it easy to buy something, but the wealthy bought better stuff, then went in and expected more from GOD.

So when Jesus tells the people that the Temple, this gargantuan structure that is many football fields across and deep, would be destroyed (and it literally was, decades later), He was passing judgment on it, perhaps more than the people. It had become a marketplace in which deal-making enabled the wealthy to maintain advantage over the poor, rather than making all Jews equal. So it was going to be destroyed. And when it was, the Jewish people learned a new way to worship GOD, not an insignificant development.

The Scripture says: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” and then “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

Historically, we’ve melded the literal and metaphor: Jesus replaces the physical Temple. He becomes the center and destination of worship. This makes for a captivating image. But I’m more interested in why Jesus replaces the Temple than that he does. If the Temple needed to be brought down because it became a marketplace of selfishness and deal-making, then Jesus isn’t.

a free society

The grace in this prospect is that we don’t need to make deals anymore. We don’t need to make promises we may or may not be able to keep just so that GOD will find favor with us. We don’t have to bargain or beg. We are given access to grace freely.

We may not know how to deal with this reality, because we love making deals. But unlike my friend’s roommate, we want that access to be free. Free for us and for our neighbor who is having trouble with her mortgage. Or my buddy’s daughter who was having trouble at school and at church. We shouldn’t get second-tier grace or have to mop the floor to earn our way in. That isn’t GOD’s way. GOD gives it freely: we need only accept it.

And that truth opens the door to a whole new world in which we don’t need to bind others to these transactions. We need not cut deals and try to maximize our gain. It opens up a whole new world in which we really can help and protect others. A whole new world: a Kingdom of GOD.

It’s All About Winning

a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, B

Text: Mark 8:31-38

This is Winning?

“Jesus saves.” A pithy and precise statement if ever there were one. Jesus Saves. He does. But how? From what? It is a statement too simple to be accurate.

Jesus is Messiah and Liberator, Conqueror and King. But every image these words evoke is wrong. For Jesus, it is winning without a contest.

If you remember about a year ago we witnessed the public meltdown of the actor, Charlie Sheen. His falling out with the producers of Two and a Half Men didn’t just go public, they went crazy. Or should we just say that Sheen went crazy. People were so eager to put a microphone in front of his mouth to see what crazy thing he’d say next. And on cue he gave us the strangest, most Shakespearean tragic statement we’ve heard in a long time. In describing his public tantrums and divorce from the TV show and his erratic behavior, Sheen declared that he was “winning”. To even the most casual viewer, Sheen’s sense of “winning” was, at best…interesting. He didn’t look like any winners we knew. In fact, he looked more like a loser. A real, sorry loser. A depressingly talented and tortured soul who was winning nothing. Everything around him was crumbling. He was the butt of cultural jokes and was publicly humiliated.

It was so bad that even our voyeuristic culture had enough.

A Messiah or A Son of Man?

English: Charlie Sheen in March 2009.

He didn't just compare Jesus to this guy, did he?

That must be what the disciples thought of Jesus’s sense of “winning”. We’ll go to Jerusalem and this is what will happen: I’ll suffer, be humiliated, and die. Then I’ll rise again. Not a winning formula according to anyone’s vision of the world.

What happens right before this passage is the same one we’ve covered a few times already:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (vs. 27-30)

Notice that in Mark, Jesus doesn’t affirm the term Messiah but subtly replaces it with Son of Man. We get “messiah” from the Hebrew word mashiach which means “anointed one”. This was then translated into Greek as Christos from which we get Christ. But mashiach is an interesting word. In Hebrew Scripture and history, the term was applied to several people, including David and Isaiah uses it to describe King Cyrus, a foreign ruler. You can see where the confusion starts to set in because it was tied to the protection and freedom of not just the Jewish people, but the Jewish nation. So a messiah would not just be a leader, but a conqueror and ruler. Many Jews then were not on the lookout for The Messiah, but the next messiah, or anointed one who would liberate them from Roman captivity.

And yet, Jesus’s own term is quite different. Not Messiah or Son of God, as Caesar called himself, but Son of Man. Of Humanity. Human. The Human One.

Not The Mighty, but The Mortal.

Not Defeat, But Victory

The rebuke of Peter is Jesus’s vehicle to describe what winning looks like. It is living and dying. Saving one’s life is the way to sorrowful death, but accepting death is the way to a fully-engaged life.

We can get mixed up by Jesus’s funhouse mirror, where thin becomes fat and fat is made thin. His description of the overturned world is painfully challenging, because it attacks deep-seeded roots. It is little wonder the disciples didn’t get it.

But Jesus’s vision of himself is central to reading this passage. He brings everyone together (Peter, disciples, and the crowd following him) and he gives a vision of winning, of conquering and vanquishing that uses no violence, no overthrowing one oppressive regime and replacing it with another. He doesn’t rally the troops with a stirring message a la Braveheart to go get slaughtered.

He seems to say that holy winning is immeasurable, but to the disciples’ culture, it will be measured as defeat.

The Winning Message

Self-sacrifice isn’t a stirring message. This isn’t a “ra ra, go team!” cheer. It is also particularly hard for a church to gather on a Sunday morning and be told that Jesus isn’t an answer man and that the righteous path is evaluated by the world and other churches, as losing. We may even be tempted to pack it in or confuse our current path for the righteous one to declare ourselves winners. To pump ourselves up about our practices.

The focus of this gospel, however, is not on losing, but winning. As crazy as it may sound. Winning is living. Really living. Living a vibrant Spirit-filled life. Living a life outside of our culture. Living, not as a loner, but a rebel—a rebel that revels in rebellious community. A community of love and inspiration. A community of safety and encouragement. A community whose very purpose is to celebrate and live.

In this way, taking up a cross isn’t heavy or burdensome, but light and joyful. It is creating art and telling stories, capturing moments and caring for others. It is bringing a community, this community to new life. Vibrant, scandalous, winning life.

Our Marks, Like Dust

a Sermon for Ash Wednesday, B

Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

We’re trained from an early age to hate red ink. Our tests and composition papers were often so riddled with red, contrasting starkly with our own black or blue markings on the white piece of paper.

Each of our teachers counted up those red marks—with each mark contributing to an ever-lowering score. The number keeps ticking down and down. Staring at the page, splattered with red, you can almost picture the teacher, at home in her study, with a notebook bearing the running tally—one line, two, three, four, cross it to make five. The smile widening as she calculates your grade. Perhaps she’s disappointed that your C- still counts as passing. Maybe going through it a second time, looking for one more mistake she can use to give you a failing grade.

Of course none of my teachers were actually that masochistic in real life, but I certainly imagined they were.

"Ash Wednesday" by Carl Spitzweg: th...

Image via Wikipedia

And for all our assurances to the contrary, we often imagine GOD to be so giddy to condemn us for all of those red marks we have given ourselves. The times we lied, we hurt people, we hurt ourselves. And let’s not forget the times that we didn’t hurt other people, but our inaction condemned them. We are often told that GOD keeps this kind of score and will reconcile the ledger in the end.

Even tonight’s gospel passage evokes the image of the divine ledger—our earthly actions leading to heavenly gold stars or red ink. GOD with access to an entire lifetime of things that you didn’t know counted against you. Is GOD so committed to a process so unfair?

Well…I don’t think so; for 2 reasons. First, we’re often told the opposite in the gospels: that GOD isn’t keeping score. Second, the passage isn’t about GOD’s fictional ledger at all! It’s about ours. It’s about our desire to “win” at this life. The showboating, the glory, the praise.

It is easy to take literally the suggestions Jesus makes, such as giving in secret and never allowing anyone to attach your generosity to you or praying, locked in a closet somewhere so that nobody can see you. Jesus seems to instruct this, but in response to doing it for the praise. Jesus says that we pray and we give for GOD, not for the reward. He gives a radical response to the severity of our selfishness.

Do good things for GOD, not your own ledger. Don’t worry what others think but what GOD thinks.

Our work in Lent, beginning this evening, is to confess our mistakes and our sins; not to seek a balanced ledger, but to clear it. Or more appropriately, to toss it in the trash. No ledger. No counting. No a-ccounting. Only repentance. Did I screw up? Yes. Do I tell GOD about it? Yes. Do I ask GOD for forgiveness? Yes. Now there’s only one thing left: reconcile with the people I have hurt. Then it’s done. No more marks. No red ink. Just the marks I’ve made. Here and now.

And this one other thing. Something so out-of-proportion and unjustifiable and precious, we can hardly stand it. We are given mercy. That’s the only part that doesn’t wipe away. GOD’s mercy sticks and the rest, like us, is dust, disappearing.