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

Monday, January 23, 2012


Jonah 3:1-5, 10

            To recap: The basic story of Jonah is that God calls him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh.  But he attempts to escape from God’s call by getting on a ship headed for Tarshish, which is in Spain.  But God sends a terrific storm from which Jonah saves the ship’s crew by volunteering to be thrown overboard.  As soon as he is in the water the storm stops.  Then he is swallowed by a big fish and lives in the fish’s belly for three days until the fish vomits him out onto the beach, back in Israel.  That’s where we pick up the story this morning.  Jonah is laid out on the beach, covered in whatever extremely aromatic slime was in the guts of that fish.
            Then God, in effect says, “Alrighty then, let’s try this again.”  And we read that, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’”  This time, Jonah picks his sorry butt off the sand and starts on his way to Nineveh.  (Presumably he takes a bath at some point.)
        Now, Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh.  The Ninevites were not nice people.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that attacked, conquered, and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, dispersing 10 of the 12 Israelite tribes, which are basically never heard from again (unless you’re a Mormon).  The Assyrian army was infamous for its excessive brutality.  They practically set the standard for barbaric atrocity that was imitated by subsequent empires.  Violence like that perpetrated by the Assyrians had really never been seen before.  They all but invented genocide and gratuitous mass slaughter. 
            Jonah probably hated them, with justification.  Later he says that the reason he does not want to go to Nineveh is that he is afraid God would be merciful and not punish them.  But at this point he has learned through bitter experience that he cannot escape from God’s call.  Either you will do what God wants, or God will make your life miserable until you do.
            We too board “ships to Tarshish,” as it were.  We too try to escape from the demands of God in our life.  And if we’re blessed we find ourselves puked onto a beach with another chance.
            One of those ways we run away from God is addiction.  In Twelve-Step groups for people recovering from addiction, many do not realize their need for healing until they “hit bottom,” as they say.  Until you regain consciousness on a deserted beach, or literally in the gutter, having spent the last three days in the belly of a giant fish, or you might say, in the depths of depravity, debasement, destitution, and debilitation, can you really affirm the words of those first three steps: “We admitted we were powerless… [and] - that our lives had become unmanageable.  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us.  We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”
            Jonah, had to admit something like this.  He was powerless.  His life had become unmanageable.  He has no choice but to turn his life over to God in obedience.

            Jonah hikes to Nineveh, which is in present day Iraq.  It is such a large city that it takes three days to walk from one side to the other.  He gets a third of the way inside this metropolis and announces a very simple and direct message: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 
            The message is one of destruction, retribution, punishment, disaster, and defeat.  Nineveh is in for it, says Jonah.  He communicates no hope, no way out, no opportunity for repentance, no possibility of reprieve.  He just flatly states that Nineveh will be destroyed, or perhaps conquered by come other power, in 40 days.  He probably feels pretty good about it, too.
            He doesn’t say why this is going to happen.  He doesn’t list their many grievous sins, war crimes, economic injustices.  He doesn’t list all the people they have killed, raped, or stolen from, or the whole nations they have destroyed forever.  He just goes into the city and announces, “God says you’re all toast!  Deal with it.”
            Then comes the miracle.  The people repent.  We expect something to happen between verse four and verse five.  But, with classic biblical understatement, the story gives us nothing.  We are simply told, “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”  Word apparently spread like wildfire through the city.  We are about to be destroyed!  Quick, proclaim a fast!
            Fasting, that is, not eating anything, and wearing the very coarse, itchy, ugly cloth that sacks were made of, basically burlap, was a way of visibly and tactilely demonstrating remorse, sorrow, grief, and repentance.  The Ninevites express abject sadness and guilt for what they have done.  They believe God.  They realize that what Jonah said is true, that the city will be overthrown – either by natural disaster or invading enemy – and they understand that they deserve it.
            In the verses we didn’t read (6-9), we hear about the reaction of the King of Nineveh.  He also proclaims a comprehensive, even ridiculously thorough fast that includes animals!  And he proclaims, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”  He identifies the issue as violence.  Then he adds sitting in dry dusty ashes to the regime of fasting and wearing sackcloth.
            Violence was Nineveh’s addiction.  They were masters at extreme violence.  This is precisely what the King has the people renounce.  And it was like renouncing their very identity, giving up the very approach that created and preserved their empire.  Assyria was synonymous with violence and mayhem.

            “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”  God changes his mind.  God has mercy on the Ninevites, and forgives them.  Or at least God withholds the promised catastrophe and spares their city.
            In the book of Ezekiel, God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone.”  We do not have a God who is always looking to expose our sin and punish it.  God is not about vindictiveness or retribution.  God loves us and will jump at any excuse to forgive and spare us.  If God can withhold punishment from the Ninevites, one of the most violent and murderous nations that ever lived, surely God is ready to forgive anyone.
            What God is looking for is humility, sorrow, remorse, grief, and penitence.  God is looking for people to set aside their hubris, self-righteousness, pride, violence, vindictiveness, hatred, superiority, and drive to dominate others.  God doesn’t want to hear our self-serving explanations and justifications for our bad behavior.  God doesn’t want to hear our lame, smug excuses.  These responses only indicate that we are blind and enslaved to our own sinfulness.  We are still addicts and continue to draw down upon ourselves and others the destructive consequences of our own actions.
            The Ninevites have some sense and presence of mind to realize their situation and respond with some integrity and authenticity to the news that the day of reckoning is coming.  They change their ways even though they have no hope of avoiding the punishment which God eventually does not administer.
            They do not dismiss Jonah’s message as crazy; they do not fall into denial about what was coming; they do not froth themselves up into a patriotic frenzy – Nin-e-veh!  Nin-e-veh! – drowning out the criticism of this unknown prophet from a small, conquered country.  They don’t tell him he is just envious of their success and he should go get a job. 
            Would we be so convicted and penitent, were someone to proclaim the imminent end of our systems and regimes?  If our great city faced being overthrown, would we look inward and change our ways, hoping that “God may relent and change his mind; … and turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish”?  Or would we claim to be the best and the strongest, and that nothing like that could ever happen to us?  Would we proclaim ourselves exceptions to God’s laws?

            I am a big fan of disaster movies.  Sometimes I think the role of the prophet today is sometimes taken up by disaster movies.  A lot of disaster movies have someone like Jonah, who announces that catastrophic destruction is imminent.  Usually it’s some kind of scientist.  The disaster could be anything: and asteroid hit, floods, volcanoes, super-storms, monsters, a shift in the Earth’s magnetic or gravitational field, earthquakes, disease, or alien invasion.  In the formula for these movies, the prophet is invariably ignored, dismissed, or persecuted.  I can’t think of a single disaster movie in which the people respond like the Ninevites, with immediate repentance and humility.
            Disaster movies are effective because, deep down, we know they are a faithful representation of our attitudes and likely responses.  We rarely listen to those who point out the coming disasters that we and our violence have brought upon ourselves.  We do not admit our injustices and atrocities.  We are much more concerned with sustaining and increasing economic growth – our main cultural addiction – than we are with hearing about its costs and consequences.
            What the Ninevites did in repenting in humility, sorrow, and remorse, is almost unimaginable for us.
            And yet it is the only way to avoid the coming catastrophe.  It is the only way to get out of suffering the consequences of our own violence and injustice.  It is the only way to show to God that we really have turned away from all that and chosen instead to live in peace and reconciliation.
            Is this not the life that Jesus the Messiah comes to exemplify and give to us?  Does he not live in simplicity, walk lightly upon the Earth, reject violence, and practice forgiveness, welcoming inclusion, healing, and generosity?  Is this not the life he was calling his disciples to in today’s gospel reading?  The people that live like Jesus cannot commit heinous acts of mass murder, or pump poisons into the environment, or be content to see neighbors in abject poverty, or reduce everything to commodities to be bought and sold, or foreclose on people’s homes, or leave people without health care.

            The Ninevites would not have fasted or worn sackcloth or sat in ashes forever.  Eventually they would have had to resume something like daily life.  One hopes that this daily life for them would have been newly informed by their preservation and forgiveness, that they would have gone forward deeply conscious of their responsibility to live very differently from the way they lived before, in violence and injustice.  One hopes they would have learned to live more like Jesus.
            And I have that hope for us as well.  That all may “turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.  Who knows?  God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
            That is the urgency of evangelism today.  Not so much that people might go to hell, but that we have to stop making the world a hell for so many people.  We must turn away from violence and live more like Jesus.  If we do not we will perish.  But if we do, we will have realized Jesus’ inaugural proclamation: “The time is fulfilled.  The Kingdom of God is at hand!  Repent, and believe the good news.”


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Junk History.

            I recently read an excellent book of poems by Susan Ludvigson, called Trinity.  She addresses spiritual themes, mainly through the eyes of Mary Magdalene and Emily Dickinson.  I enjoyed it.  She even tells the wildly apocryphal story that suggests that Jesus did not die on the cross but faked his death, and survived to go to France with Mary and raise a family.  That obviously isn’t part of the story as I know it.  But even if I have a different viewpoint, her excursus is not threatening to me and raises interesting possibilities and perspectives.  I know folks whom this would mortally offend.  But as an English major from way back, and an emergent – which is to say, open source – Christian today, I am able to listen to different stories and embellishments and sometimes glean something valuable from them.
            That being said, Ludvigson includes a “Note” at the end of her book, in which she briefly tells the Mary-Magdalene-and-Jesus-go-to-France-and-raise-a-family legend, I guess so we don’t think she just made all that up.  Then she adds a final sentence: “Some recent studies by scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to bear out the essential elements in the legend.”
            Now, the vast consensus of legitimate scholars date the Dead Sea Scrolls a couple of centuries before the common era.  Therefore, it is impossible for them to have anything to say about events that happened after that, like in the first century.  However, there are a few writers -- Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Robert Eisenman and others -- who have concocted a bizarre reading of the scrolls in which they are made refer to events around the time of Jesus and Paul.  In order to do this they have to attach secret meanings to the words (like: when it says “Damascus” it really means Qumran; that sort of thing) and hype up a lot of circumstantial and coincidental material.  (Baigent and Leigh are the guys who wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the book upon which The DaVinci Code is largely based.)
            They also attach dark conspiracies to the fact that the Scrolls were mostly suppressed and kept secret for decades, alleging that it was the Vatican preventing their subversive story from getting out.  Many of the Scrolls were in fact kept locked up for years, but this was a matter of disgraceful scholarly laziness, hubris, control-freakiness, and maybe greed, more than anything else.  It was reprehensible and quite un-scholarly, but not a vast conspiracy to suppress a “truth” that threatened the Catholic Church.  We can see this from the fact that anyone can now purchase a copy of the complete Scrolls and read them for themselves.  Yet still, only this bunch of writers, who approached the texts with a preconceived agenda, come up with their eccentric readings.  Presumably only they have the secret wisdom necessary to interpret these ancient writings correctly.  Right.
            Those readings would not bother me were they admittedly fiction or poetry.  But this group of writers apparently wants us to believe that they have exposed the actual historical truth.  And this claim is ridiculous.
            Why otherwise smart and intellectually responsible people get sucked into this kind of nonsense is beyond me.  Would Ms. Ludvigson tolerate someone who wrote a book claiming to “prove” that “Emily Dickinson” is really a secret code for Robert Frost?  I don’t think so.  It might be an interesting poem or novel.  But to claim it as historically true would be idiotic.  
           By allowing herself to succumb to this ideology she denigrates her otherwise fine work.  It may be wonderful and meaningful as poetry; but it’s not history, and to reduce it to history is to drain it of most of its value.  Her work rings far truer as poetry than when she tries to add value by pretending that it has some historical basis, especially when she relies upon dubious and second-rate scholarship.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


1 Samuel 3:1-20

            I am guessing that Samuel is about 8 or 10 years old here.  You may remember the story before this.  His mother, Hannah, prays for a child and God finally gives her Samuel.  She has promised to dedicate the boy to God, so when he is only about 2 or 3 she leaves him to live in the Shiloh temple with the old, blind priest Eli and his corrupt, irresponsible sons.
            Thus is the future of Israel somehow nurtured and reared in the belly of a system that is doomed, even though it doesn’t know it yet.  Samuel learned the priestly duties from Eli.  And he would have witnessed the mercenary, depraved, and cynical abuses of power by Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas.  They were using the temple and religion as a way to feed their own gluttony and lust.  They did not give God what was God’s due.  
            Samuel sleeps every night in the sanctuary itself.  Samuel apparently has a bed right inside the room where the very Ark of the Covenant rests.  Eli is in another room, but Samuel sleeps in hearing distance of the Ark.
            And one night he is awakened by a voice calling his name.  So he goes to find Eli, assuming that the old man is the one calling.  But Eli tells Samuel to go back to bed, probably saying that it’s only a dream.  This happens three times until Eli realizes that the boy is hearing the voice of God. 
            This is something that hasn’t happened in years, and Eli probably has to ransack his memory to recall what one is supposed to say when the voice of God calls.            This is a time, much like ours, in which the voice of God is not heard very often.  “Visions were not widespread,” it says.  That is an understatement about our time.  Meaningful, reliable visions are virtually non-existent today.
            The priest, Eli, is also almost blind.  So there is no possibility of vision there, literally.  He represents the religious and political establishment of his day.  They go through the motions, doing the rituals, saying the words, performing the sacrifices, leading the prayers, advising the people, probably organizing warriors when the nation was in danger.  But there is very little understanding of the content and meaning of what they were doing.  There is no vision of or from God.  People can’t see where they are going or what the point is.  They don’t even really know who they are anymore.
            And then there is the corruption represented by Eli’s worthless sons, who steal from the offerings to God and even sexually abuse the women who come for worship.  Israel is mired in blindness and corruption.

            But now this boy is hearing a strange voice and Eli knows very well Who it is.  So he instructs Samuel how to respond if he hears this mysterious voice again.
            The next time the voice occurs to Samuel, he says what Eli told him to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And then the Lord actually comes and stands there in the sanctuary to speak to Samuel.  And the message is that Eli’s family is through as priests of the Lord.  God is tired of their corruption and Eli’s irresponsibility in not stopping the misbehavior of his sons.  This priestly order is over.  God does not yet say that new leadership is coming to Israel, or who that new leader may be.  But we can assume that it has something to do with this child who is now receiving visions and voices from the Lord.  In other words, God is announcing through Samuel a change in leadership.
            We live in a time of change as well.  Whether we are talking about the church, or about our society, or even the entire world, we find ourselves in the midst of great, even tumultuous, transition.  The old order is finished.  Much of what we always knew and depended on is being swept away. 
            The old regime is perishing, as all old regimes perish, weighed down by its own sinfulness.  Just as Hophni and Phineas abused their power for self-enrichment, so also the leaders and classes that have been in charge among us are deflating under the pressure of their own greed.  We see it over and over again in Scripture: systems that fall into injustice are inevitably overthrown.  Eli’s sons did not give God what God wanted.  They used their place of privilege to enrich and satisfy themselves.  They thoroughly abused the people’s trust and made God look bad. 
            When the people in positions of power do this, it means the system is doomed.  And what are we to say of our own time, when clergy and coaches are using their positions to satisfy the most base lusts, and bankers and politicians seem to suck more out of the system than they contribute, and the powerful accrue an increasing percentage of our wealth?  And judges are more concerned with advancing their careers than protecting the weak?  How did Phineas and Hophni become the exemplars of leadership among us?  I’ll bet they said that questioning their behavior was the sin of envy, against God, too.
            The church is not exempt from this by any means.  What are we to say with our own obsession with the infamous 3-b’s: buildings, bucks, and butts?  These are among the crass, materialistic, and quantitative measurements of the “successful” church that we could have learned from Eli’s sons.  I am wondering if this whole regime of the church isn’t over too.
            God says he is “about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.”  And then God says that Eli’s family will be punished for their blasphemy.  What does this mean about making people’s ears “tingle”?  Some other translations talk in terms of shock or ringing. 
            I think that when people hear how the privileged and powerful house of Eli is brought low and removed from their place of authority it will make ears tingle two different ways.  If you are among the privileged and powerful yourself, your ears may tingle with fear, trepidation, anxiety, nervousness, and alarm, feeling that “if this could happen to Eli and his sons, it could also happen to me.”  That person would have the choice of either changing their ways and abandoning their abuses, or circling the proverbial wagons and arming for defense, or going on a rampage to pillage as much as possible from people before the inevitable reckoning.
            The other groups whose ears will tingle will be those who had resigned to life being corrupt and evil, who now hear that justice will assert itself.  The bad guys will actually get their comeuppance!  “There is a God!” as we like to exclaim when something beneficial happens that we did not expect.
            Our ears tingle when we hear about something anomalous happening, something that goes against our expectations and turns part of our world upside down.  I think our ears should be on a constant tingle whenever we hear the word of Scripture, because the Bible is almost exclusively about the upending of the world, the ignominious fall of mighty empires, and the lifting up of the poor, the slaves, the sick, and the grieving.
            In this case, God takes the responsibility for the religion out of the hands of the privileged men, and gives it to a boy.
            “Samuel,” it says, “lay there until morning.”  He can’t sleep.  Could you?  I suspect Eli wasn’t resting easy either.  The text says, “He opened the doors of the house of the Lord.”  No doubt he opened these doors every day.  But the text gives us this little detail here because it symbolizes the way Samuel’s whole ministry will open up what had been a closed and corrupted system.  Samuel will bring God’s word to the people; he will make God available to the people; he will open up the barriers that separated God from the people, abolishing the idea that God was confined in a certain shrine, tended to by an insider class of specialists.  The Word will now go forth.
            Now it is not about who your father is, but your experience of God’s word.  Now your lineage doesn’t matter.  All that matters is God’s call.  This call will be confirmed in the following chapters, as Samuel leads the people to victory over the encroaching Philistines.        

            Samuel reports to Eli in the morning.  He is apparently reluctant to repeat what the voice told him, because Eli has to threaten him to spill it.  And then Samuel tells Eli everything.  Eli’s family is to be stripped of the priesthood and delegitimized.  The Lord’s word is uncompromising and definite; there is no hope of appeal.
            Eli does not get angry.  He certainly does not punish the messenger.  Neither does he show a lot of grief or even surprise.  He simply says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”  So Eli shows trust in the Lord, in the end.  He knows what’s what; he knows the Lord well enough to know that he and his family were in for it.  He appears to acquiesce in the Lord’s judgment.  He submits to the word of the Lord, even though it is spoken against him. 
            Eli does stay in charge until Samuel grows up.  By then the people recognize the real prophet of the Lord, and Samuel takes over.
            The point is our need to hear, recognize, and submit to the word of God.  We see a similar dynamic at work in the gospel reading.  Nathanael does not recognize the Word of God, Jesus, when first he hears about him.  He rejects the idea that anything good can come out of that backwater town, Nazareth.  Philip has to invite him to “come and see.” 
            The Word of God must be experienced.  He must be seen and heard; we have to go to him with openness.  When Jesus and Nathanael have that conversation, it ends with Nathanael’s remarkable confession, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  He submits to the Lord.  This is the only appropriate response when confronted with the Word of the Lord.  You do it.  You participate in what God is doing.
            These stories remind us that God is way bigger than we are, and that God is in charge.  What God wills for the world will happen as inevitably as the tides or the sunrise.  You cannot stop it.  If you try, you will be ground under by God’s tectonic movement.
            And we know in Christ that God’s movement in the world is always for love and justice.  The sins of Hophni and Phineas are out of synch with God’s will; they are rejected and turned over.  Their family, which had been on top, now sinks to the bottom.  God brings a new messenger, Samuel, to convey the Word to the people. 

            How many of us, when informed that our world is about to be turned upside down, would answer with Eli: “It is the Lord.  Let him do what seems good to him”?  How many of us recognize God in the form of an apparent nobody from nowhere? 
            But that is practically the nature of God’s Word.  It almost always comes as a surprise, with a message that challenges everything we have always accepted about the world.  In fact, it is a good rule to say that if the Bible is saying something you agree with, you’re probably not reading it right.  Eli was wise enough to realize this.  If Samuel had said, “Uh, yeah, Eli, God says everything’s cool and you’re doing a great job,” Eli would have seen through that immediately.
            Are we ready for our world to be turned upside down?  Can we interpret that as a good thing?  Because that is the good news.  And our job is to put ourselves in a position where we can receive this as good news for us as well.
            The good news is that, contrary to what we have been told to depend on, God is coming into the world for healing and justice, goodness and love, righteousness and peace, blessing and redemption.  May we have the presence of mind to say with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And may we have the trust of Eli that, when we hear what God is doing, we may say, “It is the Lord.  Let him do what seems good to him.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012


            A pastor friend of mine reports that the members of her congregation refer to themselves as “the Island of misfit toys.”  The reference is to the stop-motion animation version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (the one with Burl Ives as the snowman/narrator) that has aired on TV every December since 1964.  In the film, the Island of Misfit Toys is an arctic sanctuary for toys that are inexplicably weird and hence unwanted by most children.  The population includes King Moonracer, a winged lion who acts as the island's ruler.  Then there are the misnamed Charlie-In-The-Box, a spotted elephant, a “Dolly for Sue" (who apparently has some psychological problems), a toy bird who swims instead of flies, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a train with square wheels on its caboose, toy boat that sinks rather than floats, a squirt gun that shoots grape jelly, an airplane that cannot fly, and "a scooter for Jimmy," whose misfit issue is unidentified.
            That churches are now beginning to see themselves in this way, as a collection of misfits, rejects, losers, and inappropriately-abled people, is actually a good thing.  It means that we are more like the people Jesus himself actually attracted.  The original disciples were not successful, wealthy, powerful, beautiful, or even particularly healthy.  They were misfits: the people who met Jesus were sick, possessed, or disabled, they were prostitutes, tax-collectors, and menial laborers.  There were a handful of disciples who may have been well-off; but even these were unusual by their willingness to hang around with the rest of the motley assembly of losers who followed Jesus.
            As early as the first century, the church began attracting successful people.  But in the Letter of James we see that this demographic expansion was not necessarily seen as a positive development by the apostles.  James severely castigates rich Christians for bringing their secular values and hierarchies into the church (James 5:1-6).  But by the time Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, this battle was largely lost.  And it largely stayed lost until now.  The church did always appeal to misfits; and throughout history movements like the Franciscans repeatedly upheld what is really the “Christian wing of Christianity,” (to paraphrase Howard Dean).  Jesus always had followers among society’s losers.  But since the religion was officially wedded to the government, this became a minority, secondary movement.  The mainstream of the church preferred to fawn over, embrace, and try to become rich, powerful people.
            I’ve been in churches where the recovering alcoholic or the disabled person who visits worship is ignored, while if a successful man with the beautiful family shows up, they have people falling all over themselves to welcome them and encourage them to join.  If you called a large, growing, successful, wealthy, multi-staffed congregation “the island of misfit toys” you would offend them and invite an argument… if it were not so ridiculous.  Would Jesus recognize a large sanctuary filled with well-dressed, prosperous, healthy, well-behaved, white families be recognizable to Jesus as disciples of his?
            If the church is going to be the church it has to be able to accept the designation as an “island of misfit toys.”  In other words, a church that does not welcome and include – indeed, that is not primarily made up of – the broken, the losers, the sick, the rejected and excluded, the poor, and the marginalized, is not the church of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, the church that is true to the Lord Jesus would be a veritable archipelago of misfit toys, stretching across the whole planet.
            The church that has spent the last 30 years in serious shrinkage, trading its upper-middle-class members for a smaller number of misfits and losers, may be a church that is actually becoming more faithful.  It may be transforming from a large country-club, to a smaller gathering of faithful disciples of Jesus.  It may actually be growing small enough to grow by reaching out to even more misfits and losers.
            There are far more misfits and losers out there in the world than there are successful, well-off, healthy, winners.  The church has to apply itself to reaching out to the misfits and losers, many of whom do not already relate to the church because of centuries of knowing themselves to be unwelcome. 
            That particular church whose pastor told me that the members define themselves as “the island of misfit toys” has another interesting characteristic.  Much of the current membership was “unchurched” before they joined.  Here is a church that has had more success in bringing people to Jesus Christ, than many churches with more a lot more members and money.
            In evangelism, therefore, we need to go out and actively look for the misfits and losers around us.  That is to whom God sends us.  That is with whom we are called to identify… because that’s who we are ourselves.  The disabled and the defeated, the failures and losers, the sick and marginalized, the poor and indebted, the unemployed and uninsured, the workers and the service-providers, the disaffected young and the forgotten aged… these are the people who comprise the field ready for harvest today.  The successful are still quite welcome in the churches, of course… but increasingly they will have to learn to be comfortable with and equal to the rest of us, the broken, humbled, needy people who are hungry to hear the good news as a promise of healing and empowerment.
            In the film, all the misfit toys are gathered and distributed to appreciative, loving children.  So in real life.  The Lord Jesus gathers his people to him, and sends them out as witnesses to his healing, restoring, welcoming power.  We may be misfit toys, but in Jesus Christ God declares us worthy, and connects us with exactly those people who most need to know God’s saving love.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Full Immersion.

Mark 1:4-11

            John the Baptizer appears, we are told, in the wilderness.  Wilderness was a loaded term for Jews.  The wilderness of Sinai was where most of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, takes place.  It was the place where the people met God, and where God slowly and painfully shaped them into a nation.  The wilderness is where God gave them the Laws by which to live.  The wilderness is where God sustained them with miraculous food and water.  They spent a whole generation out there until they were ready to assume possession of the Promised Land.
            The wilderness is the place where people were closest to God.  The prophet Elijah went into the wilderness to meet God.  Other prophets like Jeremiah lifted up the wilderness as well.  Jesus himself will go farther out into the wilderness and meet the devil right after his baptism.
            Wilderness was also away from civilization.  It was wild and undomesticated.  It was dangerous.  It was largely outside of the jurisdiction of the Roman/Jewish political and economic regime.
            And the wilderness was a hideout for revolutionaries and dissidents, beyond the easy reach of the Roman army.  If you’re part of an urban, imperial society, good things do not happen or come out of the wilderness.
            John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Christians have always wondered why, if Jesus is sinless, he had to go through baptism.  He had no sins to forgive.  He had nothing to repent of.  At least according to orthodox Christianity.
            But repentance means both a turning around and a change of mind.  When Jesus is baptized it also represents for him what it meant for everyone else who came out from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside.  It means a turning away from their regular lives, controlled and dominated by the rules and values of the Roman Empire.  And it means a changing of your mind so that they no longer think according to the way the Empire wanted them to think.
            And if forgiveness means “release,” it means they are to consider themselves set free from the matrix of sinfulness which characterized existence under the heel of the Empire.    
            We don’t have to enter the rather pointless and theoretical theological debate about whether Jesus personally committed any acts that would be considered sins.  The fact is that living under the Empire made sinning unavoidable.  The normal acts of daily life, no matter how innocently undertaken, involved a person in the system of oppression, exploitation, and injustice that the Romans and their allies imposed upon the Jewish people.  Buying and selling, paying taxes, working at a job, even worshiping at the Temple, was all a tacit participation in this system.  You couldn’t separate yourself from it unless you literally went to a place where you had no contact with the economy: the wilderness.
            This is why people needed to be cleansed and purified, and why it had to be out in the desert that this happened.  Just participating in the imperial system was defiling.  It involved slavery and economic inequality and supporting a brutal military regime and subtle forms of idolatry.  Just existing in this system left you symbolically soaked in the blood of oppressed people.  You went out to John to get this washed off of you.  You went out for forgiveness, that is, to be released from this bondage.   
            The little description of John tells us of his radical non-participation in the Roman economy.  He didn’t wear their clothes; he didn’t eat their food.  He lived on what God, not the emperor, provided, even out in the desert.  It was all about bugs, leather, camel-hair, and so forth.
            This would have reminded people of the prophet Elijah again, and the fact that Elijah’s career was one of steadfast resistance to the corrupting regime of King Ahab.  Ahab also worked to assimilate and accommodate the Israelite faith to the religion of the economic elite, which was based on the agricultural fertility god, Baal.
            The content of John’s actual proclamation is: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
            He says that someone stronger than he is coming.  John is only strong enough to resist the system by separation.  He can’t confront the rulers directly; when he does he gets arrested and it costs him his head.  John is able to wash people symbolically clean of their complicity in the system; but that is only temporary.  The people will eventually have to go back home and immerse themselves in the sinfulness of life under the Empire again.  What John does for them does not really last; but it does provide a preparation for what is to come.  When they go home they have this memory of this experience.  And even if they are back in the system, they are increasingly ready for something else, something new, to emerge.
            This new person, the One who is coming, will take the battle out of the wilderness and into the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea, and eventually to Jerusalem itself.  He will organize these people who participated in John’s movement and establish new communities based on God’s values, and this movement will blow through the nation and through the whole Empire, spreading like wildfire.  He will be the agent of God’s Holy Spirit.
            So, Jesus comes down from his home in Nazareth, which was a place nobody expected anybody important to come from.  He comes from the region of Galilee, which was not only looked down upon by sophisticated, urban Jerusalemites because it was so full of Gentiles and dominated by Greek culture, but was an infamous source of political rebels and revolutionaries.  This is where Jesus comes from.
            And he comes to John in the wilderness, at the Jordan River.  Now the Jordan River was not insignificant either.  It was the river that the Israelites had to miraculously cross when they entered the Promised Land after the exodus.  It was the boundary of the Promised Land.  That’s where John goes, to the place representing the liberation and independence of the people.                         
            It is as if he is saying, just as our ancestors made the final crossing from slavery in Egypt to liberation in Canaan here at this river, so now those who come to me here will re-experience that liberation by being immersed in the same river.  God’s redemption, God’s forgiveness and salvation, is figured in being baptized in these waters.  It is about repentance: turning away from the injustice and oppression of Egypt; it is about forgiveness, release from bondage, escape from the murderous, exploitive sins of Pharaoh, escape even from the faithlessness of the people in the wilderness.  The water of the Jordan meant all that.
            That’s why John went there; that’s why Jesus goes there.  And he chooses to participate with these people, and with us, in this water ritual of immersion.  When he goes down into the water, it reminds us of the way he has come down from heaven, to the earth, becoming flesh to dwell among us; and when he emerges from the water it is a foreshadowing of his resurrection, when he will be lifted up from death and from the earth.
            This motion of baptism, the simple movement of going down and coming up, now becomes the enduring pattern of the Christian life.  To follow Jesus means to follow him in conforming our lives to this pattern.  Just as he comes down into the world, so we follow him when we embrace humility, identifying with the needy of the world, realizing our own profound need for his healing and the release from our own habits and actions and their consequences.  This is what he means when he tells us to take up our cross; it means nothing less than following him to death.  Baptism is a symbolic dying and rising again to new life.  In baptism we die with him and we are raised with him in a resurrection like his, says Paul.
            When Jesus goes down into the water, and reemerges into the sunlight, we are told that: “He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus has come down from heaven, the Word of the Father, by whom all things were created at the beginning.  But he doesn’t start his ministry until he first performs this visible ritual.  It kind of ratifies and makes public the truth of who he is and what he has come to do.  In him and in this act of being baptized, Jesus summarizes the whole of the Scriptures and the entire story of salvation.
            If we are going to be his disciples, we are going to have to follow him.  Following him means we realize that we are in the world for a purpose.  And that purpose is to witness to the new community that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.  This new community is a rejection of the powers and systems that rule the world under sin, in its separation from God.  Jesus restores the relationship between Creator and creation, and he invites us to live together in the power of this new relationship.
            In his ministry he will plant seeds of new hope and trust in the soil cultivated and turned over by John.  He will heal, and liberate, and teach, and feed, and welcome, and bless, and proclaim God’s Kingdom.  His communities are places where those practices and values reign and flow and shine. 
            May we also remember how in our baptism we follow him into the world, choosing to live with and cherish the broken and the lost, the rejected and the outsider.  And in following him down, we also follow him up, in the new life of liberation, peace, redemption, and release.