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

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Fallen Into the Hands of Robbers."

Luke 10:25-37.

            The lawyer who approaches Jesus wants to know what he has to “do to inherit eternal life.”  He makes the assumption that eternal life is a reward for what he does.
            Jesus doesn’t argue with him on this.  In fact, he agrees with him.  But he doesn’t answer the question directly.  He says, in effect, “You’re a lawyer, you tell me.”  In other words, the answer is in the Scriptures.  “You are a professional biblical scholar” – which is what a “lawyer” was in that culture – “you can answer your own question.”
            The lawyer then quotes the most important and basic text in the whole Old Testament, the famous Shema in Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”  What we have to do, then, is to love God with our whole being.
            The lawyer is to be credited, I think, because on his own initiative he adds another verse, this one from Leviticus: “and your neighbor as yourself.”  In the other gospels it is Jesus who puts these two commandments together.  We call his pairing “the Great Commandment.”  We don’t know if the lawyer made this connection himself, or heard Jesus talk about it another time, or if it was a common teaching at the time, to put these two commandments together.
            Jesus does not seem surprised.  He affirms the man and his answer, and says, “There you go.  Do this and you will live.”  In other words, there is something we can do to inherit eternal life, it is about our actions and behavior, not just our opinions or thoughts.  What we have to do to inherit eternal life is to love God with our whole being, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  So go do it.
            But this does not satisfy the lawyer, who actually has a deeper agenda that he is now getting to.  He says, “Yeah, but who is my ‘neighbor’?” 
            Who is my neighbor?  It is kind of a trick question because, if you read Leviticus, it appears from the context that the text is referring only to other Israelites.  The lawyer wants Jesus to admit that this neighbor thing is just about helping your own kind.  Gentiles, including Samaritans, were not “neighbors” in a strict sense.
            The lawyer is looking for Jesus to either give the traditional answer, which says that only other Jews are your neighbors.  Or he wants Jesus to get himself in trouble with the Jewish authorities by claiming that neighbor is a category that includes everybody.  Such open universalism could not be tolerated.  Everybody knows, they would say, that the Torah and eternal life are just for us, not for them.

            Jesus’ ministry, and that of the early church, was radical and dangerous because of its openness and inclusiveness.  Jesus would infamously heal, eat with, and befriend anybody: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, women, Samaritans and other Gentiles, even Roman soldiers were not exempt from Jesus’ embrace. 
            He expresses this mainly through his actions and his parables.  Jesus here doesn’t come out and say, “Everybody, even Gentiles, are our neighbors whom we are instructed to love as ourselves.”  No.  He tells a story.  And by telling a story he makes a much more powerful point, while, as we will see, getting the lawyer to admit the answer himself.
            The story starts off with a man making a journey along the steeply descending, winding road through the wilderness from Jerusalem to the town of Jericho.  It was a notoriously dangerous road, noted for the activity of robbers.  We assume the man is a Jew, though Jesus doesn’t say so.
            On the way the man is mugged, and beaten rather severely.  His clothes are taken, because textiles themselves had a certain value, and he is left for dead on the side of the road.  The way Jesus talks about this is to say he has “fallen into the hands of robbers.”
            The people listening to this story would have identified with the man who was attacked.  Not just because he was a Jew like them, and they knew that road and how bad it was.  But the observation that he had “fallen into the hands of robbers” was actually a description of their whole lives.
            They knew themselves to have “fallen into the hands of robbers” as a whole society.  Their entire lives were spent responding to the powerful forces who were systematically robbing them of their livelihood through crushing taxes, high prices and fees, high interest rates, even high exchange rates when you went to the Temple to worship God.  There was no way to get ahead.  You entire life was spent working to basically make the people at the top wealthy, healthy, and happy.  There was an enormous gap between the few rich and everybody else, who actually did the work, but who had little to show for it, except debts and bills.
            When Jesus tells this story, his hearers would have understood: “We’re that guy.  We’re the man walking a dangerous road who has ‘fallen into the hands of robbers.’  He represents us.”

            Two people pass by on the road.  They see the wounded and perhaps dead man, and they don’t stop to help.  Instead they hurry by.  The person who has “fallen into the hands of robbers” is of no concern to them.  And remember, if you identify with the mugged man, you realize that these people are not there to help you either.
            The first passer-by is a priest, and the second is a Levite, kind of an assistant or associate priest.  Jesus does not introduce these two characters by accident.  He is saying to the people that, basically, your own religious establishment and institutions do not care about you.  They are more concerned with the biblical regulations about purity, and the inconvenience and consequence of having touched a dead body.  They don’t even bother to get close enough to see if the man is actually dead or not.  Better not to take the chance.
            “Your religion is part of the problem,” says Jesus.  “These people have power, they have authority, they have status.  They have something to lose.  They are part of the upper-class that is living off of you.  They are not going to compromise any of that to help you.  They will find an excuse, no doubt an airtight biblical excuse, to walk by and let you die.”
            So by now Jesus’ hearers understand that they “have fallen into the hands of robbers” and their own religious officials are not going to lift a finger to help them.  Indeed, they don’t even believe it is their job.  Jesus says, “Do not depend on them.”
            Now the audience would have been wondering who, if anyone, is going to help the man bleeding in the gutter.  At which point Jesus says, “But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near him.”
            Samaritans were considered an impure race of semi-Gentiles.  They descended from foreigners who intermarried with Jews centuries before, and adopted a kind of un-official version of Judaism.  They were second-class citizens, and the two groups couldn’t stand each other.  Samaritans mostly lived in an area north of Jerusalem, so this one was a foreigner, traveling in Judea.
            At the mention of a Samaritan, I imagine some of Jesus’ hearers scoffing: “Right, a Samaritan, like he’s going to do anything.”
            But, of course, it is the Samaritan who is “moved with pity” and actually helps the man.  Indeed, the assistance he gives is so wildly over-the-top that the point is unmistakable.
            The man whom everyone would have despised, and who would have despised them, is the one who actually turns out to be the good guy.  The Good Samaritan, as we say.  I suspect people would have started turning Jesus off at this point, because his story just became unbelievable. 
            You can plug all kinds of different categories of people into this story if you want to give it an impact today like it had then.  For the priest and Levite we could substitute religious and/or political authorities of our day.  People we’re supposed to depend on to help us, who, in the end, don’t.  They are more concerned with their own status, connections, position, their own purity and political viability, than with helping one poor slob who got mugged.  Which is to say, us, the ones who have “fallen into the hands of robbers.”
            And for the Samaritan we would have to substitute some class of people we do not like or trust.  The Samaritan is a Muslim, an undocumented alien, a Tea Party activist or Occupy Wall Streeter, a gay or lesbian person, someone HIV-positive, a registered sex offender, an ex-convict.  Whomever you fear and even hate the most, that’s your Samaritan.  That’s the only person you’re going to be able to depend on when all the official helpers have decided to ignore your plight.
            This is what Jesus is saying.  Your leaders have failed.  Help will come from God… through the most rejected kind of person in your life. 
            After the story, Jesus asks the lawyer a pointed question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  Jesus thus turns the original question, “Who is my neighbor?” on its head.  He reverses it, and answers the question, “Whom am I supposed to be a neighbor to?” 
            I think Jesus thinks these are basically the same question.  If you ask, “Who is my neighbor?” that is like asking, “Whom am I supposed to love?”  We are neighbors to each other.  If one is in need, the other has to help… and vice-versa.  Being a neighbor is a mutual, reciprocal, shared relationship.  It takes two, at least.  If I have little, my neighbor is the one with more who is therefore able to share.  If I have much, my neighbor is the one with little with whom I am able to share. 
            Jesus’ point, as always, is that the outward characteristics of a person – their race, religion, ethnicity, family, political views, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, even what they have done in their past – none of that matters.  When it comes to a neighbor it is merely the raw and immediate question of suffering.  If a neighbor is suffering, you help them.  Period.  End of story.
            Everyone is our neighbor, and everyone is a neighbor to us, because we all share in this basic human, mortality.  We all have the same flesh and blood.

            The neighbor is the one who takes a detour in the rat-race of daily existence because of the need and suffering of another.  The neighbor is the one who sets aside their own agenda and schedule, even some of their own values and morals and beliefs, because of the cry of someone else’s mortality to theirs.  The neighbor is the one who realizes that, one way or another, we have “fallen into the hands of robbers” and there are many who are left bleeding in their wake.
            Jesus would have us open our eyes to the need and suffering around us.  And he would have us go out of our way to rather extravagantly take care of others… especially those who are not particularly liked or cared for in general.
            I think the gathering of disciples is called to take special care for the people in a society whom nearly everybody rejects.  The unpopular and the universally reviled.  The people it is hard to raise money to help.  The people whom some would say deserved what they got, or who brought it on themselves, or who wouldn’t be in their predicament had they exercised some personal responsibility.  The people whom, we are told, we should not help because it would only encourage them to make the same bad decisions again.  After all, the Samaritan in the story went out of his way to help someone who was, in effect, an enemy.
            Following Jesus means, well, following Jesus.  It means doing what he did, in so far as that is possible for us.  It means being instructed by his example of love, service, healing, liberation, and blessing.
            Our church is going to experiment with following Jesus in a significant way on May 20.  That’s what we are calling “be-the-church Sunday.”  On that day, we will not be worshiping in the morning, but we will be sent out on three different missions o f service to people in need. 
            Now, it’s not like worshiping isn’t also a way of being the church.  God also calls us to worship, praise, prayer, and hearing the Word.  But on this day we’re going to concentrate on how an essential element of the church’s work is to be sent out.  I guess, the point is to avoid looking like the priest or the Levite, passing by human suffering while trying to serve God.  On that day we’re going to take a detour.  Instead of gathering we will be sent into the community.
            This is a very exciting project and one in which I hope you will all participate.  I am sure that after we have been sent, our times of gathering for worship will be that much more powerful and significant.


Monday, April 16, 2012

One Heart and Soul: No Private Ownership.

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1–2:2; John 20:19-31

            One way of looking at the New Testament, and indeed the entire Bible, is as a manual for community organizing.  It is all about organizing, first the community of Israel, and then the community of the New Israel, the church.  First, it has to do with knitting together a disparate group of people – originally the band of slaves escaping from Egypt – into a coherent, integrated, interactive, functional whole.  It is about making one out of many.  It is about moving from being an ad hoc collection of individuals to being a united group.
            Jesus’ entire ministry is rescuing people from a corrupt, oppressive society, and delivering them into a new community of his followers, whose life together was characterized by love.  They were to love each other just as he loved them, which is to say, with generous, sacrificial, healing, accepting, and forgiving love.  Jesus is a healer and he gathers a healing community.  
            The diseases Jesus heals in his ministry are not accidental.  They are first of all maladies that the Old Testament predicted the Messiah would master, and secondly, they stand for wider and deeper conditions in people.  These are diseases people contract because they live in a sick society.  They are ailments rooted in depression, exclusion, powerlessness, and stress.
            When Jesus heals someone it is not like he then sends them back into the rat-race that made them sick in the first place, or at least ignored and profited from their illness.  Jesus is not patching people up so they can be thrown back into the battle, which was the perpetual frustration of the doctors on M*A*S*H.  Jesus forms small communities of disciples wherever he goes.  These communities exhibit and practice his healing values.  And it is these pre-existing communities that create the environment for the rapid spread of the good news after his resurrection.
            We get a vivid picture of the character of the kind of community that Jesus established in the early chapters of Acts.  Luke portrays the gathering in Jerusalem as demonstrating a remarkable unity.  “They were of one heart and soul.”  This oneness has a healing effect because one of the most crippling things about a crippled community is its divisions. 
            Just as a body can’t function when it is working against itself, neither can a community be healthy if its members are functioning in competition, at cross-purposes, and even conspiring against each other.  When there is mistrust and backstabbing in a group, when there are class divisions and unequal distributions of wealth and power… these things undermine a community and turn it against itself.

            We see unity celebrated in today’s Psalm, Psalm 133.  This is kind of a wishful-thinking hope expressed in the Psalter.  It looks ahead to a reunion of the northern and southern Kingdoms, Israel and Judah, a reunion which never actually happened in history.  The northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians and was never heard from again (unless you’re a Mormon).
            But the Psalmist is celebrating in advance a unity that is true in God’s sight, but just hasn’t been manifested in human affairs quite yet.
            In 1986 I was asked to participate in the wedding of my brother in Buffalo.  He married an Irish Catholic woman and the service would be in a Catholic church, led by a priest friend of her family.  The priest asked me to celebrate the wedding with him.  At the time I was managing a couple of bookstores in Cambridge, Mass., one of which served the local Catholic seminary.  When my manager, a seminarian, heard what I was about to do he was scandalized.  He shook his head and said, “You are witnessing to a unity that doesn’t exist.”
            I replied that I was witnessing to a unity that truly existed in Christ, but was not yet realized by our sinful institutions.  I don’t think he appreciated that I was including his church among those sinful institutions.
            But this is something to think about very seriously, especially in these days when churches are considering leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA), as is a church in my presbytery.  Our unity is in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  When these disciples gathered in Jerusalem after Pentecost, who knows what theologies they held?  There were as yet no creeds, catechisms, doctrines, or even a New Testament.  All of the earliest disciples were Jews, like Jesus.  Luke tells us they were of one heart and soul.  But does that mean they all had the exact same opinions about everything?  I doubt it.
            Their unity was in a common trust and obedience of Jesus, whose life and teachings and healings had been vindicated by his resurrection.  And if the followed Jesus with any integrity and authenticity, they continued his ministry of radical inclusion and healing.  They certainly continued to welcome both “prostitutes” and “tax-collectors,” that is the two categories of sinners representing both the moral and social transgressors who were excluded by a collaborationist establishment that was more interested in keeping order and stability than in manifesting God’s Kingdom of peace. 
            If anyone decided this was too much, that they didn’t want to have to associate with “those people,” they left the fellowship… and were never heard from again.

            This is because the communion of those who follow Jesus realizes that we are all “those people.”  We are all in need of healing, even if we may not be literally lame, blind, deaf, a leper, or dead.  You don’t come to Jesus if you have it all together.  You only come because you realize your own brokenness.  Because your life has become unmanageable.
            When you joined the community of Jesus’ disciples, you came with your corrupt and smelly baggage and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  And if you had any, this baggage included your money.  Luke tells us that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
            “Everything they owned” would have included the obvious: property, assets, cash, real estate… and it also included the more figurative: addictions, diseases, memories, experiences, habits, relationships, thoughts, and emotions.  Everybody brings both.  Rich people like tax collectors brought more material resources; poor and sick people would have brought more of the kind of baggage we mean when we say people have “baggage.”
            Whatever they brought, they dumped it in the middle of the gathering.  Whatever it was, they considered it a burden, a ball-and-chain, a crippling debilitation that was killing them by its weight.  They even thought of money in this way.  As something they needed to be rid of for the sake of their own survival.  Because, then, as now, money comes mainly from some form of stealing, however rarefied, justified, complexified, and rationalized it may be.  Sin is always a burden that binds and kills a person.
            Instead of private ownership of their sins, instead of letting their sins continue to corrode their souls and poison their relationships, these early followers of Jesus were able to give them up to the whole community.  And when these are given up to a whole community, the community of followers of Jesus, who rely upon his Word and his Spirit, then these burdens start to evaporate, dissipate, dissolve, break apart, and fade away.  The power of death that had a lethal grip on people, is shattered.  People experience liberation in the acceptance and forgiveness of the gathering of disciples.
            This is what Luke identifies when he notes in the next verse that “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”  The resurrection is not a doctrine.  It is not merely words.  It is not a fact of history we have to maintain a certain opinion about.  The resurrection is a real experience in the life of people in this community of Jesus’ disciples.  People experienced themselves brought from death and despair and illness and powerlessness, to a miraculous new life.  And this was accomplished by the power of the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus, enacted and practiced in the living community of disciples.

            The resurrection is something they know to be real because they experience it themselves.  This is what John is celebrating when he writes: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 
            He writes about his direct experience as a disciple of the Lord, and the direct experience of the community in its life together.  They have heard, and seen, and touched the reality of Jesus’ resurrection in their own lives.  In the way they were brought from death to life.  They were brought from divisions to unity.  They were brought from poverty to abundance.  From fear to hope.  From illness to healing.  From loneliness to togetherness.  From no to yes!
            They know that Jesus is raised because they are raised.
            Then come perhaps the most economically radical handful of verses in the whole Bible.  These are the most threatening words to many in Christian history, so much so that they have been systematically and categorically ignored, except in certain specialized, monastic settings.  Luke relates: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
            They do not prattle on about who “deserves” what, or who was exercising “personal responsibility.”  They do not haughtily sniff about “job creation,” or trickling down.  They do not wring their hands about “punishing the successful” or “the politics of envy.”  No.  Those who have resources cash out, terminating their participation in, and benefit from, an economy based on inequality, greed, exploitation, and fear, the main purpose of which is to make rich people richer.
            These followers of Jesus want no part of that.  They know that that is a large part of what is killing them.  They know that inequality is part of the sickness of their society, and it is sin against God to perpetuate this injustice, let alone profit from it.

            In today’s gospel reading, Jesus himself takes it to another level.  Just in case people think that that this divestment of wealth is somehow “payment” for the healing he gives, he blesses those who exhibit trust in him before they perceive and experience any evidence of it.
            It is like the blessing of Psalm 133.  “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when kindred live together in unity!”  And we sing that Psalm even when the kindred are not yet living together in unity!  Which, at the time the Psalmist wrote them, they weren’t.  We proclaim the resurrection even before we experience this liberation in our own lives.  We practice the principles of love and justice, before we actually hear with our ears, see with our eyes, and touch with our hands the Word of Life.
            When we come to the Lord, we have to come before we experience who he is and what he has.  We have to come on the basis of hearsay, rumor, someone else’s testimony.  And in coming to him in this way we demonstrate an initial trust that Jesus blesses. 
            Inspiring this initial trust in people is a large part of what evangelism is about.  And there is nothing that inspires that initial trust than when someone can see something good happening in someone else’s life.  The person in recovery, the person whose notoriously bad relationships have been healed, the person who has been accepted and forgiven… when people see lives turned around, that is when they start to consider trusting in this Jesus and his healing themselves.
            We are never going to convince someone about the resurrection of Jesus by setting out cogent theological, philosophical, historical, archaeological, scriptural arguments.  People become convinced because of their experience. 
            We are the evidence, we are the argument, we are the truth of the resurrection.  When people want to come to Jesus they have to come to us.  They will examine the quality of our lives and our life together.  Do these people look healed?  Do these people have joy?  Do they accept and forgive each other?  Do they love each other?  Can I trust these people with my burdens, my sins, my shame, my fear?  Can I admit to them what I can’t even admit to myself?
            Can I trust them with my gifts, my talents, my wealth, my children, my story?
            With how much power do we give our testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus?  Not just in words, but in the character and quality of our relationships?  Our practices and lifestyle?
            May we in our own life together embody the words of John:
“This is the message we have heard from [Christ] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we… walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Monday, April 9, 2012

Practice Resurrection.

Isaiah 25:6-9

            The resurrection of Jesus gives us the summary of the message of the Bible.  Just as the Biblical story was set in motion and determined by the event of Passover, when the Israelites were liberated by God from slavery in Egypt, now, in Jesus’ resurrection, that liberation is extended and applied to the whole creation and all people.  Beyond being freed from bondage, now it is release from death itself, the ultimate bondage and slavery in human existence.  Indeed the resurrection reveals to us the meaning and destiny of human life, and all life, and creation generally.
            In other words, the deliverance of God’s people from Pharaoh’s tyranny in Egypt is a sign, a symbol, an image, a foretaste, and a representation of this even bigger and more inclusive and comprehensive deliverance in which all people are freed in the end from all tyranny.  All inequality, all bondage, all disease, all oppression, and even death itself, is swallowed up, overcome, defeated by the unstoppable, inevitable goodness and love of God. 
            Throughout the Scriptures we are occasionally regrounded in this fundamental heart of the story, that it is all about life, deliverance, healing, redemption, and joy.  No matter how grim and destructive the imagery gets – or our lives get – there is no question about the deepest truth on which we are to rely.  And that is the ultimate blessing and goodness at the core of everything.
            If a story begins well and ends well, it completely reframes whatever else might happen in the middle.  Human beings will repeatedly, out of ignorance and fear, do things and develop systems that are so out of synch with God’s love that they collapse in disaster.  Human history could be seen as the succession of these catastrophes.  And after each one, God emerges again, coming to restore and deliver us, and call human beings back to this vision of reality of freedom, plenty, and justice. 

            This great banquet, this “feast of rich food,” that Isaiah prophesies, will take place “on this mountain.”  He means
Jerusalem and the hill upon which the Temple was built.  It is to this place that Isaiah says “all peoples” will come.  This banquet is for everyone, people of every nation.  
            Of course, the first thing we notice is that the people who are welcomed by God extend beyond just the chosen Jewish nation.  As far back as Abraham, and even to Noah, the Bible recognizes that God is intending to bless and gather together all the families of the Earth.  No nationality or ethnicity is excluded.  God chooses one family to be the conveyer of this blessing, but it is the whole planet and everyone on it that will receive and participate in it. 
            When Isaiah says “all,” he means all.  The banquet recognizes no divisions or hierarchies among people.  It is not just for rich, privileged, powerful people.  It is not just for healthy, beautiful, and popular people.  Neither is it just for the poor and the infirm and the outcast.  It is not just for religious people, or people who call themselves “Christians.” 
            You know, Isaiah’s vision is not about heaven or the end-times.  He expects this to happen in real time.  That’s why he mentions a particular, solid, physical, temporal mountain.  He expects God’s people to live now in light of this vision and create a community that reflects these conditions.  This is in fact what Jesus comes to do; and we who follow him are to continue his work, by the power of the Spirit he gives us.
            So if we are going to be faithful to this vision, it means we will have to learn how to be a wildly inclusive community, without superiors and subordinates, without haves and have-nots, without these categories of difference we impose on people.  At this banquet we are all equal before God.

            Isaiah describes this banquet as characterized by “rich food” and “well-matured wines.”  He says that twice.  So Isaiah talks about this vision as one of spectacular abundance.  There will be no scarcity.  There will be no limit to God’s blessings and provision.  There will be more than enough for all.
            Jesus lives this way as well.  He feeds thousands from just a few loaves and fish.  He never tells someone coming for healing that he has run out of power, or that he doesn’t have enough for them.  He is ridiculously generous.
            Isaiah and Jesus witness to the astounding goodness of God in providing us with a planet which is more than able to produce plenty of food for everyone.  God created the Earth as a place where scarcity is unheard of.  Life is ridiculously, almost absurdly, abundant.  How many acorns does one oak tree produce? 
            It is not God’s fault that there is hunger in the world.  It is the fault of the systems we humans invent to grow, process, and distribute food, which invariably create scarcity and huge inequality for various economic and financial reasons.
            What we are called to do, if we want to anticipate this vision of the banquet, is to work to build a way to feed everyone, starting, of course, in our own gatherings and communities.  Then extending it into the whole world.  God wills and gives us incredible abundance.  There is more than enough for all.

            So, to this banquet everyone is invited, and there is plenty for all, and finally God “will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations; 
he will swallow up death for ever.”
            The picture of God somehow opening his mouth and devouring death is kind of weird.  But the point is that God is bigger than death and the Lord of death.  The fact that is the greatest power in our lives, death, is to God merely… lunch.  God controls and consumes death; death is not an alien power but something within God, it is now part of God’s system for goodness and blessing.  Death is no longer a source of fear or terror for us; its violence and grief and emptiness and loss is not a perpetual shadow hanging over God’s banquet, like it hangs over all our existence.  But this shadow is devoured by the light of resurrection. 
            Death was the source of the fear that caused our divisions and exclusions.  With death deactivated, we can sit with all other peoples without fear.  Death was the source of the fear that caused our hoarding and stealing, leading to scarcity of resources.  With death immobilized, we can all have abundance.
            And that is the message of resurrection.  Death is swallowed up.  Death is de-fanged and domesticated.  Instead of the yawning horror at the end of the system, the source of all fear and sin, death is now defeated and incorporated into life.  As Paul famously says in Romans 8: “Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The resurrection means that all has been gathered under God’s love and life, revealed in Jesus.

            This resurrection season, let’s remember that in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God is giving us the power to anticipate the vision of this great banquet in our own lives.  Because he has defeated death, we are free from fear, and therefore even from sin.  We are free to welcome everyone with joy to our table.  We are free to express and celebrate and provide for all the abundance that God intends.  There is no scarcity at God’s table!
            Death has been swallowed up. There will be no tears of grief, sadness, or pain.  There will be no disgrace.  And the One for whom we wait will come, and will find us sharing together in a community of love, forgiveness, discipleship, and joy.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sustaining the Weary with a Word.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

            How would the ability “to sustain the weary with a word” lead someone to have to endure suffering and persecution?  Wouldn’t sustaining the weary with a word, that is, being able to give comfort to an afflicted person by speaking to them, working as an effective counselor, wouldn’t that be something that would be valued in society?  Isn’t this at least part of the jobs of therapists and physicians and pastors and parents and teachers?  In what kind of situation would sustaining the weary with a word be an offense punishable by physical abuse?  Where is it against the law to say nice things to someone who is exhausted and downtrodden?  What kind of society could that be, I wonder?
            Well, it depends on who “the weary” are.  If the weary are people whose existence, activities, or hopes offend the powerful, or the majority, then it very well may be a crime to comfort them.             
            I used to serve on the board of the jail chaplaincy in Somerset County.  I would meet people who criticized what we were doing because they thought that to make the lives of prisoners any more comfortable would detract from the deterrence quality of their incarceration. 
            During Jim Crow in the South, making the lives of African-Americans any more comfortable was inviting them to actually start thinking of themselves as equal.  And they couldn’t have that. 
            Giving any kind of comfort to “undocumented” people is actually a crime in many States of our own country today.  This is the case even if they are women and children.  People can languish for years in secret detention centers; people who want to minister to them can hardly get in.  Families are split up by deportation. 
            My wife just got back from the Middle East where it is extremely frowned upon to bring comfort to Palestinians who are having to live under oppressive Israeli policies in their own homes and towns.  These are not terrorists, just families trying to live in peace where they have lived for generations. 
            In Nazi Germany you could have been executed for comforting Jews, or any of the other many groups the government hated. 
            Isaiah is getting into trouble for comforting the Jews in exile in Babylon.  If he is going around telling the captive Jews that Babylon is about to fall, and the people will be released to go back home, that could not have been very popular among their Babylonian overlords.
            So, “sustaining the weary with a word” is a subversive activity if the weary are oppressed, rejected, victimized, marginalized, and hated people. 
            “Sustaining the weary with a word” is an activity that invites horrible abuse like that Isaiah describes.  Insults, spitting, having your beard pulled out.  (The beards of Jewish men may have been offensive to authorities who believed men should be clean-shaven….) 
            This work of comforting the afflicted is something the prophet learned from God.  He says it is the Lord God who has taught him and made him a teacher of the downtrodden and the victims.  No doubt, his sustaining the weary with a word has to do with retelling the story of God’s faithfulness and liberation of the people.  The whole Torah is about just this: God intervening in history to save and restore the Israelites.  Usually this happens in spite of their sin and complaining.
            Even when the people’s sin is so great that it brings down disaster on them, God still shows up and pulls them out of it.  Here in the exile, we see the worst mess they ever got themselves into.  And Isaiah has the same message: God will bail you out.  God will restore you.  God is forgiving and renewing you.  You will all go home, and soon!
            This is not a message the Babylonians wanted them to hear.  Their idea is that the Jews should be learning to forget their old nation and religion and become good Babylonian subjects.  Spreading the message that God will deliver these deported Jews back to their homeland, and that this will happen because Babylon will lose a war, was sedition, and punishable as such.
            Jesus gets criticized for the same kind of thing.  “Sustaining the weary with a word,” and with even more than a word, but with actions of healing and liberation, is what he spends most of his time doing.  The pious and powerful would point out that these people – whether they were tax collectors or prostitutes – do not deserve to have sustaining words spoken to them.  The gospels seem to focus on these two groups intentionally to make a point.  One group, the tax collectors, is hated by the “left” as collaborators with Rome, the other, the prostitutes, is hated by the “right” as sexually immoral.
            The thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t go along with these judgments and prejudices.  All he cares about is the person’s suffering.  When someone comes to Jesus for healing, Jesus never asks whether they are undocumented aliens, or whether they agree with him politically, or whether they led a good moral life, or whether they got this disease through their own irresponsible behavior.  It doesn’t matter to Jesus whether they are rich or poor, male or female, young or old, good or bad, Jew or Gentile… he still heals them.  He even forgives the very people who just got done nailing his body to two pieces of wood and standing him up in the hot sun to die!
            The only thing that matters to Jesus is the fact of someone’s suffering.  The only thing that matters to Jesus is the person’s weariness, as Isaiah might put it.  Their exhaustion, frustration, depression, and sorrow.  Their pain and their grief.  That’s all he sees.
            It apparently doesn’t occur to Jesus that it could be good for society and for the economy if some people are rejected, excluded, incarcerated, sick, possessed, or oppressed.  It doesn’t occur to him that some people just deserve to suffer in this life, and that to comfort them is to undermine the whole social order.
            Jesus and the Sciptures always see the world from the perspective of those at the bottom.  The successful society, in Jesus’ eyes, is the one that provides for the needy, the sick, and the alien.  And he is absolutely committed to this mission.  He expresses the truth of God’s saving love for the whole world in everything he does.  He is adamant and unwavering about this.  Even when people are standing over him threatening him with arrest, he still heals whomever needs healing.
            So it is with Isaiah.  Even when the authorities in Babylon devise these ignominious torments for him, he is undeterred.  He still preaches good news.  He still proclaims the imminent collapse and defeat of Babylon.  He still reassures the people that they will be going home.
            He is able to do this because he knows that God’s truth is way bigger and deeper and higher than the ideological fantasies that the conquering empire would have the people be bamboozled by.  God’s truth is stronger than propaganda.
            He is able to remain firm because of his hope and faith in the ultimate reality of God’s Word.  He knows that God is a God who delivers, liberates, redeems, heals, and saves.  This is God’s intention for the universe God created.  Redemption and rebirth are encoded in the very structure of reality itself. 
            Empires can come along and by force and violence make people believe and act otherwise for a time.  They can and have used cruelty, theft, and murder to enforce a different version of reality on people.  They play on our fears and our anger.  But eventually God’s truth overpowers the entropy of falsehood.  God’s law, not to mention the subordinate laws of physics and biology, eventually assert themselves, and the edifice of lies constructed by wealthy and powerful people always crumbles into ruin.           
            Where is Babylon today?  Where is Assyria?  Where is Pharaoh’s Egypt?  Where is Greece?  Where is Rome?  Where is Persia?  Where indeed are the more recent empires of the British, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portugese, and the Russians?  They are all historical wreckage.  They have all fallen.  Their empires are now inhabited by other peoples.  This is inevitable and certain.  It will happen to the empire we live in as well, by the way.
            And, at the same time, where are the people of God?  We’re still here.  The Jews are still here.  The followers of Jesus are still here.  Those who obey God and live according to God’s law of nonviolence, simplicity, sharing, equality, generosity, healing, humility, forgiveness, gentleness, and love, these are the people who inherit the earth.
            The early church, following the Lord Jesus, consciously and intentionally became known for loving and serving people whom the rest of Roman society hated or feared.  They would willingly go into plague areas and assist victims.  They sent missionaries to nations that were Rome’s enemies.  They embraced foreigners, slaves, lepers, deserting soldiers, prisoners, sex workers, abandoned children….
            This is why the true church even today still follows Jesus’ example and ministers to and with those whom our society hates and ignores.  AIDS victims, undocumented workers, gang members, convicts, members of religious or ethnic minorities, the poor, the unemployed, the foreclosed on, addicts, even our own enemies… these are the people to whom the followers of Jesus Christ reach out with God’s love.       
            Look around and see who is most hated.  Think about who would be the least popular suffering people to help.  Whom would we be criticized the most for comforting?  That’s to whom Jesus calls us to go.  The weary.  The fearful.  The hurting.  The dying.  No matter who they are.  These are always the people who have made up God’s gathering of disciples.
            The church doesn’t give itself enough opportunities to identify with Isaiah here.  When do we do things for which we need God’s vindication?  When do we have to rely only on God’s approval because we’re not getting any from anybody else?  When have we had to be as steadfast as hard flint in doing what is right in God’s eyes?  When do we ever have to stand up to contentious opposition?  When do we ever have to say, “It is the Lord God who helps us.  Who can declare us guilty?”  When do we dare people to find fault with what we are doing?
            Our reading from the gospel has Jesus doing just this.  He is not sneaking in to Jerusalem, but making a big demonstration out of it.  But neither is he victorious on a white horse followed by an army.  He is obedient to God and humble, riding on a lowly donkey as did his mother when he was on his way to being born in Bethlehem.  But he is also alarmingly in the face of the authorities.  And in case you don’t get the point he immediately goes to the Temple and creates a disturbance about the commercialization and commodification of God’s House.
            Jesus obeys God and tells the truth.  The truth is God’s love for the whole world and everyone in it.  The truth is God’s deliverance, salvation, redemption, healing, and forgiveness.  The truth is that God is bringing us from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, and from death to life.  The truth is that this is the whole meaning and purpose of existence.
            This week we follow Jesus along the path that culminates in his death and resurrection.  This week he takes on the horrific consequences of our sin, our ignorance, and our bondage.  And in the end he reveals these consequences to be powerless to overcome God’s will to release us.
            This is a journey, not to the cross, but through the cross to the resurrection.  We will begin on Thursday evening with a celebration of Passover, and we will end on Sunday morning with a celebration of… Passover.  For Christians as well as for Jews, Passover is the center around which everything turns.  The truth of Passover is why Isaiah could preach good news to the exiles.  Passover is finally fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Through it we are liberated from death, and set free for life.