This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Talk Is Cheap.

Matthew 21:23-32

The day after Jesus causes a riot in the Temple, he goes back.  And as soon as he gets there he is accosted by some chief priests and elders of the people.  They demand to know by what authority he does such things.  Who said you could do this?  Who said you could drive the merchants and money-changers out of the Temple.  Who said you could disrupt the system like this?
Jesus does not answer the question.  Instead he says he will answer them if they will answer first a question from him.  And he asks them about John the Baptizer.  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”  In other words, was John sent by God, or was he just some lunatic?  Was he an authentic prophet, or did he just make some stuff up out of his imagination?
His interlocutors have to think about this.  And they can’t answer honestly, as we will see.  So they have to think about which will be the most politically acceptable answer.
If they say that John’s baptism was from God, then they will have to answer for why they did not support him.  Why did they not follow him?  Why did they discourage people from going out to him?  Why did they send delegations out to question his authority and criticize his practices?
And if they say that John’s baptism was bogus, false, and heretical, something he made up himself and not from God, they know that they will have to answer to the people.  The people felt that John was a God-inspired prophet.  If these officials were to blaspheme his memory they could be looking at another riot.
[It reminds me of what Ronald Reagan said when he was asked what he felt about Martin Luther King.  It was around the time that King’s birthday became a national holiday.  Now, Reagan certainly couldn’t pretend to admire someone whom he worked and spoke against his whole life, whose beliefs and principles — nonviolence, social justice, peace — he spent his whole career rejecting and denigrating.  But neither could he criticize him, as by this time practically the whole country had accepted King as a hero.  So he basically refused to answer.] 
So these chief priests and elders also refuse to answer Jesus.  But we know what their answer is... and so do the people.  We know this because it has already been demonstrated by their actions.  When John was active in his ministry these people were his opponents.  They did not support him or follow his message.  When they had the chance they did not go out and join John.
But they can’t say that out loud, even though everyone knows it.  It would enrage the people, and apparently they still need some measure of tolerance from the people for their own legitimacy.
Since they do not answer, neither does Jesus choose to answer their question.

But then he does respond by telling a short parable, which is one of my favorites.  There is the father who had two sons.  He asks each of them in turn to go work in his vineyard.  One says he will go, but doesn’t.  The other at first refuses to go, but then changes his mind and actually goes out to work in the vineyard.  The question Jesus asks is: Which son did the will of the father?  The one who went or the one who just talked about going?  I think Jesus is using this parable to answer the question about authority.
The first son is like the tax-collectors and prostitutes, these being two classes of people Jesus is infamous for hanging around with.  Jesus attracted sinners, people who were outcast and rejected by the establishment religion of his day.  He was known for bringing these people to changed lives, where they renounce their sin and live in forgiveness and blessing.
These are the ones who, when the father approaches them, refuse to go to work in the vineyard.  Why?  Maybe they feel unworthy.  Maybe because if they work in the vineyard they might have to interact with their pompous and self-righteous older siblings.  Maybe they feel guilty, excluded, out-of-place, and harassed in that vineyard.
We might know what this is like.  It has been said that the worst thing about Christianity is... the Christians!  We have a reputation for being judgmental, cruel, exclusionary, demanding, bigoted, and hypocritical.  Who wants to work in the vineyard if people like that are going to be there?  Especially if you’re not a member of the upright, church-going, law-abiding, privileged class.
So when the father asks them to go work in the vineyard, they say, “Dad, stop bugging me about the stupid vineyard.  I had enough of that vineyard when I was a kid.  Let my big brother, Mr. Perfect, work there, but I’m done with that place.  So stop asking.”
But this brother finally changes his mind and repents.  He goes to work in the vineyard.  Maybe he just loves the father and feels bad about saying no to him.  Maybe he has a change of heart and realizes how important it would be to the father.  Maybe, like the lost son in another parable, he comes to himself and realizes his true identity is to do the father’s will.
The second son is like the priests and elders.  They know what to tell the father to get him off their case.  “Yeah, sure, Dad, I’ll go work in the vineyard... (as soon as I have time).”  They know the right words.  But they don’t want to have to do any actual work, at least not the work the father wants them to do.  So they hang around the Temple, wasting time.  They look like they’re doing the father’s will.  They talk like they love and obey the father.  But they don’t actually go to the vineyard.  Maybe they have convinced themselves that doing busy-work in the Temple is “working in the vineyard,” so to speak.

How does Jesus’ parable answer the question put to him about authority?  The one who is our authority is the one we listen to and actually obey.  We demonstrate who our authority is by our obedience.  If I do something on my own authority, that means I claim the moral and legal weight or license to do it.  If I do something on someone else’s authority, that means I am undertaking to carry out the will of this other power.  It means I have their weight behind me, backing me up.
John’s baptism was from God not because he talked about God but because through this ritual he brought people to repentance and closer to God.  He liberated people from their destructive and violent lives.  People experienced change and transformation because of their encounter with him.  This change, from a bad, sinful, unjust, and degraded life to a life of justice and peace, is what God does in the world.  John’s authority was from God because he did the things God does.  He was able to act in the name of God.  On his own authority he had no such power; he was just a crazy guy in the desert.  But because he was following God’s will he was able to do what he said.
The people recognize that authority and follow John.  The people also recognize the authority of Jesus and follow him.
My point is that merely talking about something gives you no authority at all.  Who has more authority, the musicologist, or the musician?  The sportswriter or the athlete?  The correspondent or the soldier?  The theology professor or the pastor?  The one who observes and talks about something, or the one who actually does something?
Earlier in this chapter, when Jesus cleanses the Temple, he does not do it on his own authority as a human being.  You’ll notice if you read that section that immediately after the incident Jesus heals some blind and lame people in the Temple.  These were all things that the Messiah was supposed to do.  In these actions he reveals that his authority comes from God.
The priests and the elders do not accomplish these things.  They maintain an institution.  They write and expound on the rules that actually increase people’s guilt and powerlessness.  They make people figuratively lame by preventing them from walking in a closer relationship with God.  They make people blind by obstructing their vision of the true God of love we know in scripture.  And they prop up and benefit from this bureaucratic institution — the Temple — which was now perverted into a tool of the economy, a tourist trap, a revenue and profit generator.  They rule by violence and fear, and they maintain the status quo.  This reveals that their true authority is their own power, their own wealth, their own standing in society.
Thus, like the second brother, they talk, but they don’t go and work.  And the ones who get into the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of them, according to Jesus, are the sinners who repent, the tax-collectors and prostitutes whose lives are transformed by Jesus’ ministry.    
Jesus concludes: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

So where does real authority come from?  Does it come even from the Bible, which the priests and elders knew inside and out, and which the tax-collectors and prostitutes probably knew not at all?  Does it come, as Mao Zedong said, out of the barrel of a gun; that is, is authority based on raw force and coercion?  Is it based on personal charisma, the ability to gain a following?  Is it based on your standing in an institution or hierarchy?  Does it come from your pedigree, your family status, name, and genealogy?
No.  Real authority comes from the “author” of all things, God.  And we demonstrate that authority when we have the effect in the world that God wills God’s people to have.  When we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God”, to quote the prophet Micah, then we are acting on God’s authority.  When we heal the lame and give sight to the blind... that is, when we empower powerless people and when we reveal to them the truth so they can move and see with integrity, then we are acting on God’s authority.  When we are able to get the market out of our heads and purify our souls as true temples of God’s Spirit, then we are acting on God’s authority.  When the blessings of Jesus’ sermon — poverty of spirit, purity of heart, gentleness, peacemaking, grieving, and desiring righteousness — when these characteristics pervade and permeate our actions, then we are acting on God’s authority.
In other words, authority is shown in the quality of our lives, our transformed, changed, renewed, liberated and liberating, lives.  It is shown in our ministry and our mission in Jesus’ name.
Let’s remember that.  Our authority — all authority — comes from God.  And it is granted to us when we are in tune with God’s will, which is always to save, heal, deliver, redeem, and love.  There is no true authority for any other action.  And our words only matter when they are backed up by real actions, actually changed lives — our own or others’.  We have authority… to live as Jesus Christ lived; we are called to this kind of life.  He gives us the power to do it, which is the Holy Spirit.
He calls each one of us into the vineyard, which is the way Jesus sometimes talks about the mission of his disciples.  Hearing that call, may we drop everything and go into service in his name, bringing to all people the good news of God’s love, revealed in Jesus.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Money Changes Everything.

Cleansing the Temple.

            The story occurs in all four gospels.  Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem, sees the way commercial interests had taken over the place, and reacts with, anger and, even violence.   It is one of the few places where Jesus expresses rage, and the only place where he uses physical force.  He drives the money-changers out of the Temple.  He overturns tables.  He makes a whip and flails it around.  He says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16).  This incident may have been the final piece of evidence used against him to bring about his death, which in three of the gospels happens five days later.
            It is a story that refers beyond its historicality.  In Scripture, “Temple” has broader meanings.  For instance, “temple” refers to Jesus’ own body (John 2:21), and to the human body, as the dwelling place of the spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19).   If we consider other places where the Spirit dwells, we also have to include the Earth.  Scripture talks about the creation itself as a place infused with God’s presence and power, and gifted with a voice giving praise to God.   (See Psalm 19:4; 24:1; 33:5; 46:10; 47:2, 7; 48:10; 57:5, 11; 66:1, 4; 69:34; 72:19; 78:69 (earth as temple); 89:11; 96:1, 9, 11; 98:4; 100:1; 104:5; 105:7; 108:5; and 119:64). 
            Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker makes the point that the Tabernacle/Temple was designed to represent the creation.  Earth and Temple are intimately related in the Scriptures.  Indeed, we might even say that God’s dwelling in human bodies is an aspect of God’s dwelling in all creation/matter, which is symbolized in the design and function of the Tabernacle/Temple.
            When Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the Temple, he gives us an example.  It means resisting and removing all mercenary impulses from one’s self (Psalm 119:36, 127), from the human community, and from the Earth.  In order to participate in what Jesus is about here, we have to realize that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 3:3, 8; 6:10; 2 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 13:5), and purge this obsession from our personal and common life.  Money corrupts and defiles.
            At least in this case, money is what the Bible has in mind when identifying impurity. This story is traditionally called “the cleansing of the Temple,” even though words meaning cleansing and purity do not explicitly appear in the text.  What Jesus is doing is clearly a matter of purification.  He is removing a defiling element from the Temple.  He is restoring the Temple to its original purpose as a house of prayer.  The financial transactions going on there were debasing the Temple, corrupting what went on there.  
            We have been conditioned to think of “impurity” as a mainly sexual category.  But even when Scripture does talk about sexual sin, it is often in the context of prostitution, which brings us back to… money.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians 6:13-20, we see Paul railing against “fornication” which he explicitly identifies with prostitution (v. 16).  We think fornication means “sex outside of marriage.”  But here we see that for Paul, it is not the institution of marriage that makes the difference between fornication and licit sex, but the degree to which the sex is prostitution, that is, associated with an exchange of money.  Sex becomes fornication when money is introduced into the equation.  According to Scripture, purification does not mean getting rid of the sex; it means getting rid of the connection to money.
            All this might lead us to ask, “What’s so bad about money?”  Isn’t money just an amoral, neutral tool, an economic convenience, something that makes commerce easier and therefore something which benefits everyone?
            Money is an abstraction.  This was true in Jesus’ time, when money was still mainly coins made of precious metals with some value.  Today, however, money is not just paper, but electrons, stored and exchanged by computers.  Its separation from anything of real value is practically complete. 
            Jesus lived in an agricultural society.  Farmers inherently distrust money and financiers, for good reason.  People who work the land understand real value.  They know hard work.  They know the costs of producing a harvest.  They also know that this effort has no bearing on the price they get in the market for their produce.  That price is set by people who don’t do the work, but who sit in offices far away from any actual field, trading and speculating in commodities. 
            The people would have seen immediately that this abstraction – money, and their manipulation of it – was being used by unscrupulous traders to exploit people coming to the Temple to worship.  Jesus saw this too.  The traders were playing with the exchange rates and the prices of sacrificial animals.  It defiled the Temple, which God intended to be a house of prayer for all peoples, by injecting a strong element of injustice into people’s worship.
            Money is not neutral.  It is inherently unjust.  It privileges those who know how to play with the system for their own benefit.  It gives way more power to people who already have it, when compared with people who don’t.  And it reduces those who do real work to subservient status.
            Money was a defilement of the Temple because by its very nature it contradicted and militated against God’s Law, which promotes justice and equality.  Money essentially transgresses the commandment against stealing.  It is bad enough that society is corrupted by money and moneyed interests; Jesus would not have the people’s worship and prayer corrupted by it as well.
            The two groups of people that Jesus was most famous/infamous for accepting into his circle are prostitutes and tax collectors.  Both of these have a problematic relationship with money. 
            The first group is exclusively women whom society and the economy force to sell their own bodies in exchange for the money they need to survive.   Who decided that one needs money to survive?  The people with the money, of course.   If prostitution may be more broadly defined as selling yourself for money, then we are all prostitutes.  Prostitution is the foundation of our economy.  We’re all selling our minds, bodies, time, etc., to people with money so that we can have a little of their money.  And we don’t get anywhere near the actual value of our work.  The people with the money get to keep the surplus.
            The tax collectors were exclusively men who had money, and they bought the power to make even more money.  They were professional extortionists who sucked as much value out of people’s work as possible… and a lot was possible when you had the world’s most ruthless military at your disposal.  Of course, they worked for other even richer professional extortionists, on up the line to king and emperor.
            So these two groups whom Jesus attracted were the horribly oppressed, and the horrible oppressors.  And the way he attracted them was to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Both groups were suffering.  They were forced into a relationship of hostility by a system run by those with even more wealth and power.  And he founded a new kind of community in which tax collectors and prostitutes, like the lions and lambs of Isaiah’s prophecy, could dwell together in peace.
            It was a community of forgiveness, sharing, humility, healing, joy, and acceptance.  Jesus called it The Kingdom of God.  It anticipated and reflected the perfect community God would fulfill at the end.  But it was established and worked here and now.
            Jesus’ new Temple, his Body, the Church, was supposed to be purified of the corruption and injustice, of which money is the main indication.  Hence this description of the earliest church and its economics: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).  
          That’s what God’s Temple looks like without money.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jesus Against the Market. Again.

Matthew 20:1-16

            Where do you put yourself in this story?  With which character do you resonate most emotionally?  What does your gut say about this story?  How about your heart, or your mind?
            Suppose we hear this story from the perspective of the laborers hired early in the day.  We work all day in the man’s vineyard, picking grapes, presumably, and maybe participating in the process of turning them into wine.  The pay for this was not good.  Maybe it was what we would call minimum wage, which is enough maybe for one person to get by, but you can’t support a family on it.  Still, it was better than being unemployed for a day.  You agree to it, maybe 50 bucks.
            During the day you notice that others are hired later and start working with you.  Maybe one of them asks you what you agreed to receive as pay and you tell them. 
            When the day is over and you gather with the foreman to receive your pay, the people hired last are called up first.  Some were hired very late in the day and only worked a couple of hours.  You notice with surprise and anticipation that they get the full amount you were promised: $50.  Logically you reason that it would be fair and just, if someone who only worked two hours to get that amount, you, who worked a full day, should receive proportionately more.  You do the math in your head and you start expecting as much as $300!  This is going to be great!
            Then your name is called and you look in your envelope and you receive... $50.  The same as the guy who came at 3:30!  How is that fair?
            The landowner hears your grumbling and says, “Here’s what’s fair: I contracted you to work for a whole day for $50.  You agreed to that wage this morning and you seemed happy.  I now fulfill my part of the bargain.  Where is the unfairness?”
            “But,” you say, “He came at noon and he came at 5 o’clock, and you paid them as much as you paid us, who have been here since 6!  If this is the way you act then maybe I will choose to goof off all day tomorrow and show up for work at 3:30 or later, knowing I will receive a full day’s pay.”
            If we identify with the workers who were hired early in the day, this story makes us angry.  We might cynically reason: If only I was not so darn industrious and responsible!  This boss rewards laziness!  He rewards lateness!  I could have gone to another job for the morning, then showed up here in the afternoon and still made a full day’s pay!
            The story is designed by Jesus to press the buttons of those who think of themselves as responsible, industrious, disciplined, hard-working, conscientious, respectable, and upright.  They see themselves as getting up before dawn to go wait at the corner to be hired.  They are the ones who sacrifice to feed their families.  They put in the overtime and produce without grumbling or complaining.

            Or we could make the mental effort it would take to put ourselves in the other position, that of the latecomers.  Jesus does not intimate to us what these workers were doing earlier in the day.  Did they have other part-time jobs?  We don’t know.  Were they really just lazy and decided to sleep in and hang out at Dunkin’ Donuts all morning?  We don’t know.  Did they have sick children at home?  Did they have to take their grandmother to the doctor?  Were they on line at the DMV?  Was there an accident on the highway?  In other words, did they have what we might consider an acceptable excuse?  We don’t know this either.  All we know is that when the foreman arrives to hire them they are “standing idle in the marketplace.”  Whatever they were doing they were stuck in the market.
            But for whatever reason, as a member of this group, you show up at the corner later in the afternoon and, standing there a while, you are surprised to discover the foreman from the vineyard coming, looking for more workers.  So you go.  As far as how much you will be paid, all you get is this vague response that you will receive “Whatever is right.”  You need the money so this will have to do.  You have no reason to expect a full day’s pay, but it’s something, anyway.
            You work in the vineyard for a couple of hours.  While there you ask one of the workers who has been there all day how much he’s getting.  When he says he was promised $50, you figure you’ll be lucky to receive $20.  More likely $10 or $15.  Enough to feed the kids dinner tonight and maybe save a few dollars towards the rent.  And you hope for better luck tomorrow.
            The day ends and you all assemble to receive your pay.  The latecomers like yourself are all called up first.  You get your envelope from the foreman and you look into it without much hope.  And then you are shocked!  Fifty dollars!  Is it a mistake?  Should you tell someone or just be quiet about it?  A whole day’s pay for a few hours’ work?  This can’t be right.
            The workers who had been there all day notice you counting out your tens and you see them raise their heads in anticipation.  You smile sheepishly and shrug. 
            Then they receive their envelopes, look in them, register disappointment and anger.  They then look at you with their eyes narrowed, as if you were the one who swindled them!  You overhear the argument between them and the owner.  You might actually sympathize with them!
            But you are also very grateful, feeling like a person who has just found a couple of twenties in the grass, with no one around to even imagine to ask if they had lost them.  It’s just a gift.  You go home amazed, humbled, and thankful, to celebrate with your family.

            Both workers received the same pay: $50.  One is grateful, the other is angry.  One received much more than he deserved and knows it, feels blessed by it, rejoices in it.  The other received exactly what he deserved and agreed to, and yet he is bitterly resentful about it.
            Jesus tells the story to remind us that we are really more like the later workers.  He wants us to approach life with the mind of the workers who come later and receive a full day’s pay, and to lose the attitude of those who are resentful and angry. 
            We must not flatter ourselves that we have been working hard in God’s vineyard all day.  On the contrary, I think Jesus would have us realize that in reality we were “standing idle in the marketplace,” which is to say, we were consumed with the tedious tap-dances, sour swindles, and empty exchanges that happen in the marketplace.
            The market is all about the relationship between work and money.  The early worker is resentful because in the first place he thinks his reward should be in proportion to his work; and secondly because he is comparing himself with someone else who worked less.  In his mind, the more work you do, the more pay you should receive; the less work, the less pay.
            This, at any rate, is the propaganda of the market.  It is what the market would like us to believe.  But we know that this is not true.  We know who does the important work in society, and we know who makes the most money, and we know these have never been the same people. 
            So his reasoning is wrong.  He is working in the vineyard, but the market remains firmly entrenched in his head. He continues to connect work to reward, but we know that this is not the case.
            Jesus tells us that the reward is not related to our work; it is based on the owner’s promise.  It is based on the contract, the covenant, the original agreement the owner made with us. 
            In the market, we think we are working hard but in a spiritual sense we are merely marking time, circling in a holding pattern, “standing idle.”  We are making no progress or headway.  We are mired in the useless theater of the market. 
            The market is probably our greatest, most powerful and consuming idol.  We consume ourselves to serve it, dedicating our time, life, and energy to it.  But all this work gets us no closer to what is really and ultimately important: God.  From the perspective of God when we are in the market we appear to be standing still in idleness. 
            It is we, when we wake up and come to God, when we hear the call of the foreman and climb in the back of the pick-up truck to go work in the vineyard, when we realize our idleness and the utter futility of what we have devoted our lives to and finally show up in the vineyard, it is we who are the newcomers.  We are the ones who arrive at 5 o’clock to see others who have been on this journey working in this vineyard for generations.  We are the recipients of a magnificent grace beyond all we could earn or deserve or work for.   

            In order to come to God’s service we have to be called out of the market.  We have to leave the market behind.  It can’t still persist in our heads, even.  We have to abandon its lies and start thinking differently.  We have to start thinking in terms of grace instead of work, gift instead of pay, humility instead of hubris, and generosity instead of compensation.
            Then, knowing that we have been liberated from the market’s corrosive and oppressive ways of thinking and acting, we may rejoice when still more souls are called out of it, abandon it and show up at the vineyard.  No matter how late they come we welcome folks and celebrate with them when they receive the same promise, the same salvation, we have.
            Spiritually, the point is not how hard we work or for how long.  The point is our relationship with the landowner.  We need to realize that we are truly blessed just to be here, that what we receive from God is completely undeserved and unearned, that many have been here before us.  Do we rely upon God’s promise, or do we rely upon our own energy and initiative?         
            Jesus says, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”  We, who in the global scheme of things are at the head of the pack, who invented and manage the market, who maintain its propaganda and truly believe we have what we have and got where we are because of our hard work, we are liable to have the most difficulty with Jesus’ teachings here.  We think we are the early workers. 
            Jesus says salvation comes to those with the mind of the later workers.  That is the mind we have to cultivate in ourselves.  We have to nurture in ourselves gratitude for the gifts we have received, gifts we neither earned nor deserved.  We have to nurture in ourselves humility, knowing that we have received more than we could ever merit.  And we have to cherish in ourselves a sense of joy.  Joy for those who have come to the vineyard even later than we, joy that they too have been released, joy that we are now together in a new kind of community.  A community of blessing, peace, love, and goodness, where the Spirit of God reigns.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cheering for Death.

            In the last two presidential debates, the audience, all of whom were from a particular party, erupted into spontaneous cheers on two telling occasions.
            In the first case, the governor of Texas was asked a question about the hundreds of people who were put to death by the State during his administration.  Before he could even answer, the crowd started clapping its approval.  A group of people who are supposed to be against government and its overreaching, started cheering the ultimate expression of State power: killing people.  The governor, no doubt sensing a friendly audience, then stated powerfully and without a hint of apology his belief in the State’s right to take life.  So much for “smaller government.” 
            But it’s not just the hypocrisy that is disturbing.  It is the overt, shameless enthusiasm for State-sponsored murder that chills the soul. 
            The second example was in the next debate.  One candidate was asked a question about someone who intentionally declined to purchase health insurance.  What, if anything, should be done if this person gets seriously ill?  The candidate danced around about personal responsibility for a while, until some in the crowd started helping him out: “Let him die!” they shouted.  It was the clear implication of the candidate’s “philosophy,” and he did nothing to separate himself from this sentiment.
            This enthusiasm for death – and I am waiting for the next debate when someone asks a question about war – indicates a deeply hateful, fearful, violent, and angry way of looking at the world.  It demands that we ask whether we want such people, or leaders beholden to such people, in charge of our government.
            What is even more perverse is that at the former candidate loudly proclaims his Christianity.  Jesus Christ was himself executed by the government.  Is it possible to read the New Testament in such a way as to imagine Jesus approving of the death penalty?  Jesus freely healed anyone who came to him, regardless of their politics, religion, morals, or responsibility.  Is it possible to read the gospels in such a way as to imagine Jesus letting someone, anyone, die rather than be healed of a disease?
            No.  The governor’s “Christianity” is the Christianity-without-Jesus we see all too often.  Except to reject it, Jesus does not recognize the murderous, vindictive, hateful, bigoted, violent, self-righteous, judgmental, condemnatory, unforgiving version of religion that many calling themselves “Christians” espouse and practice.  (To his credit, the other candidate as far as I can tell doesn’t even pretend to be a Christian.  He clearly and explicitly follows the godless philosophy of the novelist, Ayn Rand.)
            In both of these cases I am reminded of another crowd gathered before another leader.  That crowd also made its enthusiasm for death known.  Their cry was “Crucify him!”  We’re dealing with the same kind of people here.
            John writes that “perfect love casts out all fear.”  Today we see the opposite in the words and actions of some: that perfect fear casts out all love.  These people already control a large part of our government.  May God have mercy on us if we give them any more authority.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Everything Is Forgivable, Except Not Forgiving.

Matthew 18.21-35

            Peter approaches the question from the point of view of an offended person, a person who has been sinned against.  A person who understands her- or himself to be a good person, on the right track, doing good things.  A person for whom sin is mainly someone else’s problem.  Sin is what other people to do me.  I am the forgiver of sin, not its perpetrator.
            We know what this is like.  It’s not that we don’t sin.  But we do our best.  We are certainly not as bad as many people.  Sometimes we are even offended by the idea that someone forgives us, because it is based on the assumption that we did something wrong in the first place.
            No.  Forgiveness is something we are responsible to bestow on other people, people who do bad things.  From this point of view we ask reasonable questions, with Peter:   
            Exactly how many times am I expected to forgive someone?  He asks.  Isn’t there a point where forgiveness declines into merely letting people get away with bad behavior?  Don’t we eventually find ourselves getting taken advantage of, as people sin against us again and again, and we keep forgiving?  How will they ever learn their lesson?  How will they avoid learning that they can sin as much as they want and there will never be any consequences?  How does this not actually encourage sinning?  How do we avoid becoming abused doormats for every twisted person who wishes to do us harm?
            Should there not be limits to our forgiveness?  How about: Three strikes and you’re out; we’ll cut you some slack a few times, but after that we decide you’re incorrigible and we lower the boom.  What would happen to society if we just forgave wrongdoers all the time without requiring any kind of improvement of their behavior?  It would be chaos and anarchy!  We would be positively inviting people to do us harm!
            These questions come from the perspective of a person who is liable to be harmed.  They are about whom we need to forgive.  There is a certain superiority involved in seeing things this way.  We are the good people.  They are the bad people.  They do bad things to us.  We are the ones who have to wrestle with whether to forgive them or not.
            Jesus sees through this bias.
            He tells a parable to point out that forgiveness depends on our sense of having been forgiven ourselves.  Spiritual growth depends on our getting out of this superior, patronizing attitude, and realizing that we are primarily people who are ourselves forgiven.  It is only on the basis of our own forgiveness that we are able to forgive others.

            Jesus’ parable has to do with a king who has a slave who owes him 10,000 talents.  Now, this is an absurdly large amount of money.  Ten-thousand talents would be as much as $60,000,000.  Jesus obviously intends it to be an impossibly and ridiculously huge sum.  Not the kind of debt that you work off by skimping on lunch or saving your loose change or having a garage sale.  Most people don’t make that kind of money over the course their whole lives.  It is supposed to be an amount of money that is utterly beyond the possibility of repayment. 
            The solution to this is for the king to cut his losses and get whatever tiny return on the investment that he can, by selling the slave and his whole family, and all his possessions.  He gets to keep his life; the slave is no good to the king dead. 
            However, the slave pleads pathetically for forgiveness, saying, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.”  How he intends to do that is a mystery.  The king does not believe him... yet the king forgives him, out of pity.  He lets him go.  He cancels the debt.  He doesn’t say, “Okay, I’ll let you keep working off the debt.”  No.  Forgiveness means no more debt.  The slave is given a new lease on life.  He is out from under this curse whereby he and his family could have been sold off to much more harsh masters, even separated.  The king writes off the debt. $60M.
            I think that Jesus is saying that we are like the slave.  We have been given a spectacular gift: life itself, on a beautiful planet, with other people, with bodies, minds, souls, spirits.  We are transcendent miracles!  The gifts God gives us are worth considerably more than $60m.  They are gifts which we cannot reciprocate.  So we are in God’s eternal debt. 
            God has the option of selling us off to the highest bidder, giving us up, surrendering us, abandoning us to the whims of the market.  But he doesn’t do this.  That is not the kind of God we worship.  We worship the God of grace and forgiveness.  We worship the God of love revealed in Jesus.
            God has chosen to forgive us.  God cancels the debt altogether.  Which means we are allowed to live.  For free.  Our crushing debt has been forgiven.  We have been given new life.

            In other words, we are more like the forgiven slave.  We have received a new lease on life.  We are the recipients of a tremendous gift.
            (It has been forgiven, by the way, not because someone else came along and paid the debt off.  Jesus doesn’t say that anyone intervened and paid the debt for the slave.  No one satisfied the “honor” of the king.  No, the king redefined justice by issuing a decree of forgiveness.)
            The point being that we live, we all live, under this cosmic umbrella of forgiveness.  We exist by means of the forbearance, mercy, and patience of God.  We are only here at all because of an inexpressible gift.  We did not deserve it.  We did not earn it.  We did not work for it.  It is not due to our own merits or because we are such good and worthwhile people.  It is simply a free gift.
            This is the context of our life at the outset.  This is the original human condition: grace, forgiveness, gift.  The earth and everything and everyone in it belong exclusively to God.  We are blessed just to be here to enjoy it.  Our response to that ought to be gratitude, love, joy, and peace.   
            But the slave doesn’t respond in this way.  Having been freed of his own debt, he goes out to deal with someone who is indebted to him.  This other person owes him approximately $200.  It is a significant sum, but nowhere near the $60m he has just had lifted off his own head. 
            But instead of spreading the grace and forgiveness of the king to someone indebted to him, he has the person thrown in prison until someone else comes and pays the debt for him. 
            Maybe the slave is thinking that being more hard-nosed towards others would show his gratitude and loyalty to the king.  He could actually show that he wanted to repay what he owed; maybe he just can even imagine that he doesn’t owe it anymore. 
            How often to Christians do just this?  They respond to God’s forgiveness by being more strict, more judgmental, and more condemning towards others!  They attach conditions to their forgiveness: “I’ll forgive you, but only when you stop sinning!”  Maybe they don’t believe that God doesn’t attach any such conditions to their forgiveness.   They still think they owe God something, and they are still trying to earn God’s favor by their zeal, which is more often than not destructive and hateful.
            But by thinking this way the slave is rejecting and excluding himself from the king’s forgiveness.  Does he think he can gratify the king by wringing some of the money out of someone else?  Does he plan on going to the king and proudly saying, “You know that $60m I owe you, well here’s $200 of it”?   The debt is cancelled!  He doesn’t get that.
            Upon hearing of this, the king goes ballistic, as they say.  Jesus tells it: “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

            Apparently, everything is forgivable... except not forgiving.  Jesus is saying that forgiveness may be rejected, we are able to exclude ourselves from God’s grace, we may separate ourselves from God’s infinite love, we may choose permanent condemnation.  It’s not God’s will.  It’s not God’s intention for our lives.  It’s not what God wants.  But we can still choose it.
            And the way we do it is by not forgiving.  How many of us are torturing ourselves because we can’t repay what we think we owe to God no matter how hard we try?  We think we’ll be punished if we slack off.  In reality we punish ourselves when we keep trying to earn God’s favor.
            Forgiveness is something you only receive when you give it to others.  If you hold on to the sins of others, that is itself to hold on to your own sins.  These sins become in effect a wall between you and God.  And to be separated in this way from God is to be in torment.
            The main thing about forgiveness is that it is not about that other person.  It is primarily about you.  You are the forgiven sinner, the recipient of inestimable and infinite gifts, you have had the crushing debt removed.  And in order to fully receive and keep this forgiveness you need to pass it on and forgive others, not holding on to their faults but holding only on to the grace you have received in Jesus Christ.
            Extending God’s forgiveness to others means continuing to enjoy that forgiveness, and all its benefits, ourselves.  I don’t want to dwell on the consequences of rejecting forgiveness.  Let us dwell instead on the amazing goodness we receive from God, when we pass on this forgiveness to others, in Jesus’ name.  And let us make ourselves by Jesus’ example and in his name, a community of forgiveness.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Take Up Your Blasphemy and Sedition.

110904.Matthew 16:21-28

            No sooner does Jesus declare Peter the “rock” upon which his church will be built, than Peter turns to equivocating mud, oozing the with flow of public opinion and mucked-up by the status quo.  He is confused by what he knows people expect and what he thinks will sell.
            Two weeks ago we heard Peter make his famous confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, Jesus points out more of what this means exactly: It means that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
            The Messiah, or anointed one, was related to three roles: prophet, king, and priest.  Last time we talked about what it would mean to treat Jesus as king, in terms of the leader of a new kind of community.  Here Jesus describes the priestly element of his role.  Priests were in charge of the sacrificial rituals that took place in the Temple.  Jesus will become both priest and victim, both sacrificer and sacrificed, when he gets to Jerusalem.  This is an essential and unavoidable aspect of his work. 
            But apparently Peter only understands the anointed one as a king, and a pretty conventional king at that.  Peter takes Jesus aside and starts rebuking him.  It is as if, now that he is the “rock,” Peter thinks he gets to be Jesus’ public relations manager, advising him on what will work politically.  And this talk of suffering and death is not going to be good for business.  Or maybe now he thinks he is Jesus’ personal coach and cheerleader, pumping him up when he gets down enough to say crazy and depressing things like this stuff about suffering and dying.  It is as if Peter encourages Jesus by saying: “No, Jesus, you’re not going to suffer and die.  Repeat after me: ‘I am a good person.  People like me.  I am the anointed king of Israel!  No one is going to kill me….’”
            Peter knows that nobody will want to follow a guy who is about to crash and burn.  Who wants to follow a spectacular loser?  Who wants to get on an airplane destined to crash?  Who wants to be associated with another failed Messiah?
            But Jesus knows his calling is to go to Jerusalem, and he knows what kind of a reception he will certainly receive there.  He knows he is walking right into the lair of those who hold the power who would like to see him dead.  So we might be justified in asking why he insists on going to a place where his arrest and execution would be inevitable.
            The priestly, sacrificial role of the anointed one, the Messiah, is part of his work that we 21st century people really don’t get.  We have very little experience with the way of thinking and worshiping characterized by the sacrificial religious practices of the first century.  We can understand Jesus as prophet, teacher, healer, and  preacher; we can even understand him as our Lord and King whom we obey and whose commandments we keep.  But the idea of Jesus as a high priest is a bit more remote for us. 
            What Jesus was about to do in Jerusalem was to fulfill and complete in himself the whole complex of Jewish sacrificial rituals, most of which were designed to restore and maintain a good relationship between God and God’s creation, especially humans. 
            Like so much else in the religion of Jesus’ day, these rites had become empty ceremonies, done by rote, justified by tradition, and controlled by a wealthy and powerful elite for their own benefit.  The sacrificial ceremonies had largely lost their meaning.  They became just one more way for priests and rulers to maintain their power over people.  We see an example of this in the money-exchange practice, which was a virtual racket designed to rip people off.  
            As Protestants we talk about “the priesthood of all believers.”  This is something the Reformers recognized in Scripture, indicating that, contrary to the Roman church, each believer had direct access to God.  We don’t need any intermediaries, hierarchies of bishops, saints, and angels, through whom we have to go to get to God.
            What Jesus is saying here is that the priesthood of all believers is an extension of his priesthood.  He indicates that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Then he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  He clearly intends his priesthood, that is, his sacrifice, to be something his followers participate in by making their own sacrifice.  The priesthood of all believers is expressed in the sacrificial suffering of all believers.
            But the church allowed to get out of hand the mistaken belief that because Christ suffered we don’t have to.  When according to Jesus’ own teaching just the opposite is the case: we follow him by suffering with him.  Even now we may be able to talk about what Jesus did for us, but the second part of what Jesus says here, about how all his disciples have to take up their own cross and follow him, is largely lost. 

            We do know that we’re supposed to mention the cross and all, but it is always only Jesus’ cross.  We don’t talk much about taking up our cross and following him.  Sometimes, if we talk about this at all, we think of it in terms of the various horrors and liabilities to which we are all subject as human beings: grief, disease, loss, pain, disappointment, unfairness.  As if these were our “crosses” Jesus is asking us to bear. 
            But we don’t have to “take up” the normal pains and difficulties of existence; we get them for free whether we want them or not.  The cross Jesus is talking about is a direct consequence of becoming a disciple.  This cross happens to you because you follow Jesus and this following has placed you at cross-purposes (so to speak) with the powers that dominate the world.
            Jesus was crucified for two crimes: blasphemy and sedition.  According to the religious and legal authorities of his day Jesus was guilty of these crimes.  And the crosses we are called upon to bear are laid upon us for the same offenses: we transgress the prevailing religious rules and standards, and we express disloyalty to the ruling economic and political order. 
            Jesus’ blasphemy and sedition grew out of his main agenda which was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God with us, and the final and complete demonstration of the love of God for the whole world.  If you live your life according to God’s love revealed in Jesus it is often going to look to the people who run things like… blasphemy and sedition.
            Jesus’ blasphemy consisted of the way he would overrule both Scripture and the religious hierarchy, especially in his claim to be in union with the God whom he referred to as his Father.  Jesus’ death warrant was signed as soon as the authorities heard his repeated formula in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said [this], but I tell you [something else].”  Not only was he contradicting the Bible, he put himself in a position to contradict the Bible.  And of course he was contradicting the official interpreters of the Bible, who conspired to have him done in.
            Jesus’ sedition was in claiming to be a king, as opposed to the reigning kings, and in calling people to a way of life that was outside of the domination of those kings.  Pilate and Herod went along with his conviction and execution because they recognized how dangerous he was to their power.

            What do blasphemy and sedition look like today?  In other words, what does taking up your cross and following Jesus look like in our own time?  What do disciples of Jesus do in the name of God’s love revealed in him, that bring accusations of blasphemy and sedition?
            As with Jesus, whenever someone suggests that God’s love and justice are more important than our religious rules, doctrines, standards, traditions, and polities, that is considered blasphemy and receives the appropriate response from the authorities.
            Blasphemy is not really about God; it is about maintaining theologies that keep people in shackled in guilt, fear, hatred, and anger.  Because we live in a religiously diverse culture, one person’s blasphemy is often another’s orthodoxy.  You offend Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian authorities in different ways.
            But the result is the same.  You get accused of blasphemy against God, but what you’ve really done is undermined the power of the powerful.
            Some of the greatest saints were accused of blasphemy and heresy because they chose to follow Jesus rather than the authorities.  Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Jan Hus, John Wycliff, Blaise Pascal, Albert Schweitzer, Leonardo Boff… the list is long.  If we truly follow Jesus, being accused of blasphemy is almost a given.           
            Sedition is easier to identify, and way more dangerous.  While blasphemy is a kind of internal argument among Christians, sedition runs afoul of the values and loyalties of the larger community.  It can get you into a lot more trouble.  That’s why, in order to get him crucified, Jesus’ persecutors had to charge him with sedition.  If he was only guilty of blasphemy they could have had stoned him to death.  But crucifixion was for political crimes.  This is what “taking up your cross” is really about.
            The primary Christian confession is “Jesus is Lord,” which tells the rulers, “and you’re not.”  Many saints throughout history have heard Jesus call them to pacifism, or to being critical of commercial interests and the military.  Many worked against imperialism, nationalism, and racism and suffered greatly for it.  They sacrificed themselves to end slavery, genocide, and the heartless reign of greed that economies so easily fall into.
            Sedition means refusing to hate those you’re supposed to hate.  It means refusing to kill those you are supposed to kill.  It means advocating for those whom society would oppress and exclude.  It means caring about the Earth, the poor, the foreigners, the sick and disabled, the imprisoned, the undocumented, minorities, women and children.  It is hard to follow Jesus with any integrity without at least being suspected of sedition in the minds of some.   

            In the end what Peter’s shortsighted reaction to Jesus reveals is that he didn’t hear the last part of what Jesus says: that “on the third day [he will] be raised”.  The promise and hope of the Resurrection is the whole point.  This is not a tragic martyrdom, a terrible defeat we can cherish our anger over for centuries.  Jesus is telling Peter about his coming victory and triumph over the power of death!  And Peter doesn’t get it because, as Jesus identifies, Satan is clouding his mind and imagination.
            We who follow Jesus Christ are not a mass suicide cult.  It’s not about the suffering.  It’s always about the resurrection.  Jesus’ defeat of death is what gives his followers the strength to stand up in the face of violence and ignorance.  “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Jesus’ message is always about finding new life.  And it is this new life that makes blasphemy and sedition and their consequences worth it.
            For at the heart of Christianity is this unspeakable joy at realizing the truth about life: that God is love, and God has entered human life in Jesus Christ to save, to heal, to redeem, and to liberate.  As our great High Priest, Jesus gives his life, he spreads his life over us so we might continue to share this life – this love and justice – with others.  As the apostle Paul writes, if we have died with him in a death like his, we will surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.