Saturday, February 28, 2015

"The Suffering Servant" - March 1, 2015

Mark 8:31-38

In pretty much any traditional church of any theological background at all, the cross is right there, front and center.  It might be a crucifix, with a figure of Jesus.  It might be the empty cross, reminding us that he is not dead, but risen.  It might be embedded in a window or hanging from the wall or sitting on a table, but it is there.  You cannot miss it.  That is because the suffering and death of Jesus, followed by God’s raising him from death into life, are at the heart of Christian proclamation.  Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

A lot of times that is interpreted as meaning that our sins have so offended God that the divine anger has been provoked beyond our comprehension.  In 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that is famous for laying that out. 

“The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment.”[1]
The result of that sermon, by the way, was mixed.  Some people became very much aware of the reality of their sins and in humility turned to God for mercy.  Others became convinced that they were utterly worthless and went into despair from which some never emerged.

            I much prefer a view (that is closer to what I understand the Bible to say about God) which is expressed this way by Bishop Will Willimon:

“Jesus died on a cross not to appease the anger and blood lust of God the Father (as the Church has sometimes implied) but rather because of the anger and blood lust that the Father’s love received from a humanity who wanted nothing so much as to be gods unto ourselves.  The cross, which the world erected to silence another uppity Jew, became, in the hands of God, the means whereby God got to us.”[2]
It isn’t so much that we offend God.  Offense is the least of it.  It’s that when God opens his heart to us, we are not only uninterested, but we laugh at him and mock him. Lastly, we silence him, or try to.

            There is a passage in Isaiah [53:1-5] that has traditionally been used as an expression of the sufferings that it would take to redeem us, of how much the Messiah would go through to bring about God’s will.  It begins with the Suffering Servant, as he is called sometimes, being first ignored, then mocked, then finally killed.

“Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

            How is it that any of this does anybody any good?  How can the death of an innocent man -- and let’s be clear that Jesus was the only totally innocent human being in all of earth’s history – lead to pardon and peace for anyone else?

            It’s because in that moment, God took every human understanding of how the world works and turned it upside-down and inside-out.  We think that eventually you get what is coming to you (in one theory); or that it’s all the luck of the draw (in another theory); or that it’s all about the money and the power (in another theory); or that you may as well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you shall die (in another theory).  When Jesus accepted the suffering that is so much a part of human experience, he showed that God doesn’t play our little games.

            That’s why, when Jesus tried to explain himself to his disciples, they found his ways unacceptable.  They did.  Peter pulled him aside and, we are told, “rebuked him”.  That’s pretty strong language.  Jesus answered in strong terms, too.

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” [Mark 8:31-33]

In his teaching, but even more in his life and death, Jesus showed that we don’t always get what we deserve and that life is not all about rewards and punishment.  God has nothing to prove, and can forgive freely.  So can we.  Jesus showed that what matters is not what you get out of the world.  What matters is what you put into it.  The same is true for us.  Jesus’ death and resurrection shows that God alone makes the final decisions about anyone’s life.  That was how it was for him, and that is how it is for us, too.

The first letter of John [1:8-2:2] says,

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

That’s really what it comes down to.  He is the one who speaks to us for God, and who speaks to God for us.  Don’t you think that the pull in both directions wouldn’t tear his life apart?  But when all is said and done, in the process he pulls our lives together.

[1] from Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, first preached at Northampton, Mass., and again at Enfield, Conn., on July 18, 1741.  For the full text, see
[2] Will Willimon, Why Jesus? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), p. 109. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"The Wall Comes A-Tumbling Down" - February 22, 2015

Matthew 16:13-20

            I generally try to make sure that all the different parts of a worship service fit together.  I try to make sure that if the gospel reading is about, say, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, that the music we sing or hear has to do with that in some way.  At times, though, it doesn’t always work out.  Earlier this week I learned that the piece that the Jubilation Ringers would be playing this morning was “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and I asked myself how on earth that had anything to do with the sermon that I had started to block out in the back of my head.  I want to thank Karen Bretzius for the choice, though, because it pointed me in a direction that I needed to go.  Let’s back up a minute.  Let’s review the story of Joshua and Jericho.

            Joshua took over the leadership of the Israelites when Moses died.  It was he, not Moses, who would lead them into the Promised Land.  The way there, however, was blocked by the ancient, walled city of Jericho.  He sent out spies to gather information and they entered the town and stayed at the house of a prostitute who lived in a house that was built into the wall and had a window overlooking the outside.  When the king of Jericho sent soldiers to find the spies, she hid them under a pile of flax and said that they had left already.  Then when night came and the city gates were locked, she let them down to the ground through the window so that they could escape back to Joshua.  Before that, though, she extracted a promise from them that she and her family would be protected when the Israelites attacked.  They gave their word and left.  [Joshua 2]

            Fast forward a few weeks.  Joshua and the Israelites had crossed the Jordan and laid siege to Jericho.  Six days in a row, their army marched around the walls with seven priests carrying seven rams’ horns in front of the Ark of the Covenant.  That’s all they did.  The seventh day, they kept going: once, twice, three times, …seven times around the city walls.  At the end, the seven priests blew the seven rams’ horns and all the warriors and all the people shouted at the top of their lungs, and the walls of the city crashed to the ground.  The warriors swarmed over the rubble, and captured the town.  There was terrible carnage that day, and it was a massacre.

This is one of those passages from the Bible that cannot be explained away.  It is one of those times when a people unified in their belief in God acted with what they thought to be God’s blessing in a way that we would call barbaric.  In a day when ISIS is turning Christians into martyrs, beheading the innocent, torturing their own people, and calling it the work of God, instead of denying that it has ever been done by our own predecessors in our own faith, perhaps we should point to scenes like this and say, “We know what that bloodthirstiness is.  We know what it does.  We own that it is a part of us and our history, and we renounce it.  It is real and it is shameful, and we want no part of it.  May God have mercy on us that it would ever cross our minds to call this holy in any way.”  And we should also recall that in the midst of it there was one small spot of mercy.

“Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house, and bring the woman out of it and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.” So the young men who had been spies went in and brought Rahab out, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her—they brought all her kindred out—and set them outside the camp of Israel. They burned down the city, and everything in it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord. But Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family has lived in Israel ever since. For she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.”  [Joshua 6:22-25]

            Over a thousand years later, a man named Matthew wrote about someone we call Jesus, who lived in that land and who shared that history.  He started out the book he wrote with an account of Jesus’ genealogy.  Listen closely.  (I practiced these names.)

“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.”  [Matthew 1:2-6]

Did you hear the name Rahab?  She, of all people, was an ancestor of Jesus?  (The name Jesus, by the way, is a version of the Hebrew Yeshua, or Joshua – another connection to that family story.)  So Jesus’ own birth came about, in part, because of one small moment of mercy in the midst of terror.

            Move forward again in the story as Matthew tells it.  Jesus has gathered about himself a small band of disciples and has begun to make a name for himself.

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’” [Matthew 16:13-17]

Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah.  He is the leader that the Jews of his day were awaiting to lead them out of the tyranny of the Romans and the religious oligarchy that collaborated with them.  He is the one who would establish a kingdom of righteousness and justice that would exclude the powers that were holding them down and taxing them until they starved and living in luxury at their expense.  To borrow language from a different source, the Messiah would set up a sort of Caliphate where God’s rule would be enforced and God’s law would be the law of the land, and woe betide the sinner!

            Ah, but Jesus knew what that would lead to.  It is his family story, preserved in holy scripture for all to read.  He presented an alternative version of leadership that excluded the raw brutality of power, one that actually flew in its face.  It was hard for the disciples to swallow.  It still is.

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples 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.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”  [Matthew 16:21-23]

It was and is hard to take, because if that can happen to the Messiah, the Chosen One, that can happen to his followers.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” [Matthew 16:24]

The question we might ask is not why innocent Christians are killed, but why so few meet martyrdom, when the forces of injustice and greed and corruption and all the –isms that they produce are no less active today than in Jesus’ time, and not just in the Middle East.  Mark Trotter, former pastor of First United Methodist Church in San Diego, said this:

“All of us need a purpose that is large enough to include God and long enough to include eternity.  We need a purpose that makes life worth living and gives meaning to our dying.  We need a purpose that calls forth our true stature and elicits the hidden fire within us.  As Christians, we are called to live with imagination and courage because we have a purpose that endures past sunset.”[1]
Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, is the one who brings that purpose to his people, to you and to me and to all who will be a part of his kingdom, one that is not like any on earth, one where the walls have all come a-tumbling down, where, as he said,

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  [Matthew 16:25]


[1] quoted in Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2011), 159.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"The Image of God" - February 15, 2015

Mark 9:2-9

            There was one Halloween when the weather was unusually warm and I was sitting outside with a group of neighbors.  We each had our bowl of candy and we were enjoying hanging out in between clumps of trick-or-treaters.  Since it was a reasonably close-knit neighborhood, we were able to do the bit where, as the kids came along, somebody would ask, “Do we know you?” and if the answer was, “Yes,” to try to guess who was behind the mask.  About halfway through the evening, someone came along dressed as an old lady, and someone said, “Do we know you?” to which she nodded, and we began running through a list of all the teenagers on the block.  No luck.  Then somebody had an idea and began naming people’s grandchildren.  Still no luck.  We were stumped, so we just handed over the candy and shrugged.  The trick-or-treater turned away and started down the sidewalk, then saw a candy wrapper on the pavement and leaned over to pick it up.  All of a sudden, everyone sitting there shouted at the same time, “It’s Tom!” then started laughing.

            All he had to do was pick up a piece of litter, and it didn’t matter how he was dressed or the scarf on his head or how he tried to walk all bent over or the rubber mask on his face.  It could only have been him.  It was my next door neighbor, who was about seventy years old at the time, and whose wife referred to him as “Mr. Clean”.  We had a three-foot snowstorm that year and he not only shoveled off his sidewalk, but he also shoveled off every inch of his front yard (right onto mine and the people’s on the other side).  That’s all it takes, sometimes.  One small gesture or act can tell a great deal about who’s in there.

            There was a moment like that during Jesus’ earthly life, a moment we call the Transfiguration, when his most inner self became undeniably clear and obvious.  Mark tells of that moment this way:

“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. …Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” [Mark 9:2-4, 7-8]

It’s almost as if there were that moment when Jesus lets his friends into some sort of big secret, taking them up the mountain and letting them meet some of his other friends, and letting them see him as he is.  He is a figure of glory.  He is one whom the holiest and most faithful people, Moses and Elijah, respect. Somehow, he is able to cross the line freely between heaven and earth, time and eternity, and to help others do the same.  He is the one whom the voice of God claims as God’s own.  All of that became apparent up there on the mountain. 

Then when the moment cleared, James and John and Peter were confused and scared because,

“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” [Mark 9:8]

Only Jesus.  Don’t you think that might have left them with the question, “Who is this guy?”  Over the next few weeks, the weeks of Lent, I’m going to be offering a series of sermons on some of the answers that they and many people since then have come up with: “The Suffering Servant”, “A Religious Reformer”, “The Source of Life”, “A Martyr”, “The King Who Is Coming”.  Those are only a few options.  Jesus spoke of himself as “Bread from Heaven”, “The Good Shepherd”, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life”, and we could go on and on because that question comes up over and over and over again. 

At the transfiguration, however, it wasn’t just a matter of explanation.  It was a moment of seeing, of revelation, of glimpsing what would underlie every role that he would ever fill and every title that he would ever be given.  In Jesus, we see God.  As the letter to the Colossians puts it,

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. [Colossians 1:15-16]

That is an extravagant claim.  That is one of those claims that goes beyond what we say when we describe seeing the love of God in someone’s life, or even of seeing God in them.  This is a claim not just about what he was like.  This is a claim about who he was.

            I’ve noticed that when people talk about God, it’s often in a distant, detached, clinical kind of way.  “If there is a God,” they’ll say, using God as a hypothesis or an explanation for their observations.  Or maybe they’ll set God up in opposition to something they already believe so that they think they disprove his existence.  “Since there is good evidence for evolution,” they might say, “the idea of a Creator must be a human invention and therefore false,” as if God were somehow necessarily opposed to science or faith opposed to reason.

            Then along come the gospel writers with their tales of God becoming human and the New Testament with its talk about Jesus having been God on earth, among us, even one of us.  The possibility of using God as merely an explanation or a philosophical framework disappears. 

            We live, we humans live, in a world of particulars.  If there is to be an understanding of love, it will come to us through the people who love us and the people whom we love.  If there is to be an understanding of compassion, it begins that moment when we first recognize another person’s sorrow or suffering and our hearts break in a way that they should.  If we are to know hope it will come because we have seen that the worst that can ever happen to anybody is not what it seems, and that God intervenes on behalf of life even if it means rolling away the stone set across the mouth of the grave.  (And the good news is that he does.  We know it because we’ve seen it.)

If you want to talk about God at all in any meaningful way, the gospels tell us, you cannot talk in theoretical terms.  You have to talk about this person: this first-century, Aramaic-speaking, woodworking, tax-paying, fish-eating, joke-telling, friend-making, occasionally homeless, occasionally angry, sometimes impatient, constantly loving, Palestinian Jew named Jesus.

            It’s fine that you think that God is love.  He showed what that meant to people that nobody could stand to be around. 

It’s good that you believe that God is all powerful.  He did miracles.  He also refused to use his power, even at the expense of his life. 

It’s terrific that you see God as favoring justice.  Jesus knew what it was to face injustice, both on behalf of others and as a victim of injustice himself. 

It’s great that you consider God to be merciful.  Jesus knew that one of his own disciples would betray him to execution, and that the rest would deny knowing him or run away.  Now let’s talk about forgiveness.

            It’s amazing that we can talk about God at all, but let’s not just talk.  Let’s actually get to know him.  It seems to be what he wants.  In the words of the prophet Hosea,

“Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.”  [Hosea 6:3]

Saturday, February 7, 2015

"All Things to All People" - February 8, 2015

I Corinthians 9:16-23

            In preparing this sermon, I googled “All things to all people” and found that unless someone was directly quoting I Corinthians, it invariably came up as the saying, “You cannot be all things to all people.”  The apostle Paul, of course, was saying that he had done exactly that.  I think that what has happened is that the phrase has stuck in people’s heads and has been taken in an unintended way that is totally unrelated and out of context.

            When people say, “You cannot be all things to all people,” they are generally warning against the idea that you can ever meet all the expectations that everyone may put onto you.  A few years back, a friend of mine wrote a song called, “I Want a Martha Stewart Life”.  I don’t remember all the lyrics, but part of it went:

“At Christmastime my home will be
Decked out with evergreens.
I’ll design and build a tasty
Gingerbread nativity scene.

I’ll trim the tree, nog the eggs,
Bake cookies by the score.
Forget the baby Jesus –
I’m the one they’ll adore.

The lights will dim, the music swell,
My guests will drink my health
While I premier in ‘The Nutcracker’,
Dancing every role myself.” [1]

That nails it.  “I’m the one they’ll adore.”  The desire to be appreciated and applauded, the search for fame or glory, the need for attention and approval – those lie at the heart of trying, as the phrase is generally used, to be all things to all people. 

            Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest who taught theology at Yale and wrote a long list of books about spiritual growth and the inner life.  He did that against the backdrop of being in great demand because he was so effective as a writer and teacher.  A big part of his effectiveness arose from his brutal honesty about himself, and his willingness to describe the sort of temptations that come along, including the one to be (in the misunderstood sense) all things to all people.  He wrote:

“Aren't you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don't you often hope: 'May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.' But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.”[2]

Nouwen, at the peak of his academic career and literary success, and went to live near Toronto as part of a residential community where physically and mentally disabled people and those with fuller ability lived together.  It was a huge challenge that sent him briefly into a depression because he discovered that in that place his credentials and vocabulary and reputation meant nothing.

            It was also where he discovered the truth of the things he had been saying – and here is where the proper understanding of “all things to all people” comes into play.  He found that

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” [3]

That is what the apostle Paul had done, and what he was inviting other disciples of Jesus to do.  He wasn’t advising anybody to become some sort of social chameleon who blends into every setting.  He was talking about making the effort to understand who people really and truly are, so that the grace of God that we have known in our own lives can flow through us into theirs, and do that in an honest way that is the work of the Holy Spirit and not one more human effort to score some kind of points.

“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” [I Corinthians 9:19-23]

Before you or I dare to comment on someone else’s life like some talking head on Fox News or CNN, we had better understand who that person is, what their experience has been, and at least make an effort to consider what it is like to be them.  The heart of real evangelism is there.  That is where we discover and reveal that we ourselves are not so different.  Again, here’s Nouwen:

“Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories, and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free….not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”[4]

Paul learned that when he found himself, a devout Jew, living among Greek-speaking, pork-eating, Sabbath-working gentiles whom God was calling as certainly as he had been called.  Henri Nouwen learned that when he was an intellectual living and working among people who lacked the capacity to bathe themselves properly, let alone read long commentaries on the life of prayer, yet who often had a richer prayer life than his own.

            We ourselves live among people who may have no vocabulary of faith, no storehouse of Bible verses, no familiar hymns in the back of their heads, and yet they may very well have a full sense of right and wrong, hearts that can sense when love and caring are genuine, and souls that are open to the actions of the Holy Spirit.  The great secret to reaching all of them, and to connecting at that point of faith, to becoming all things to all people in the right way, is to be yourself because we all are, despite our many real and serious differences, at the point of deepest human life, pretty much the same, and all open to the grace of God in Christ.