Saturday, June 25, 2016

“What You Might Be Getting Into” - June 26, 2016

Luke 9:51-62

            The end of May and the start of June are good times for preachers, because that is when the media are flooded with quotations from graduation speeches that may be handy throughout the following months.  For instance, The Huffington Post cited a commencement speech given at Kenyon College in Ohio.

“Author John Green admitted to Kenyon College graduates that he’s supposed to tell them adulthood isn’t so bad. He refused. 

‘It is so bad,’ Green said in a commencement speech on May 21, in Gambier, Ohio. ‘If anything, it is far worse than I could even have imagined. I mean, have you ever been to a homeowners’ association meeting? Each of you in the Class of 2016 is wondrous and precious and rare life in a vast and almost entirely dead universe — imagine devoting two hours of your bright but brief flicker of consciousness to a debate over whether the maximum allowable length of grass in your neighborhood’s front lawns should be 4 inches or 6.’” 

He did qualify his observation, though.

“And if you can remember that conversations about grass length and the weather are really conversations about how we are going to get through, and how we are going to get through together, they become not just bearable but almost kind of transcendent.”[1]

I actually tried to keep this in mind two weeks ago as I sat through a 2 ½ hour HOA meeting myself, of which at least an hour was devoted to snow removal issues.  It wasn’t easy.

            That’s one reason I appreciate what Jesus told his disciples about being disciples.  It is worthwhile but it is not always easy, and one of the main difficulties is that the people who are close to you may not always get what you’re doing or why.  If you listen to what he says to people who either offer to follow him or whom he calls to follow him (both show up in this passage), he tells them that following will prevent them from having what we might call a normal life.

            The first one is told that he may never have a chance to settle down and attend HOA meetings.

“Someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” [Luke 9:58]

The next encounters seem harsher yet, even abrasive.

“To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” [Luke 9:59-62]

I sort of want to explain this away, to say Jesus must not have meant it quite the way it sounds.  After all, isn’t loyalty to family a key part of simple human decency?  I’m just talking loyalty here, not even mentioning the real and deep love that should be part of the relationship beyond that.

            The reason I can’t do that is that Jesus himself displayed a different kind of family values from the very start, where the awareness of belonging to God is greater than any other.

“Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.  Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.” [Luke 2:41-50]

 When he was older, he did something similar.  Again, Luke tells us,

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” [Luke 8:19-21]

So, no, I cannot say that when Jesus told his followers or potential followers that they should put the demands of family further down the list that he didn’t mean it.

            If others say the same thing, we don’t really question it.  One of my cousins wrote this on Facebook this week:

I just got 4 letters in the mail from my son who's at basic training. Weird I can't just call him or text him to see if he's ok. Now I have his address I can at least write to him. Family if you'd like his address just send me a personal message & I'll get it to you!

We accept that military training is going to involve practices that are designed to create group cohesion and to develop focus that may mean putting the people back home out of mind for awhile in some situations.  The same may be true of Christian service in some circumstances.

            If you are visiting people in prison, you need to be aware of your surroundings.  One time I was leading a Bible study at a correctional facility in Philadelphia when one of the inmates jumped up and lunged at another, grabbing his shirt pocket.  With his other hand, he reached into it and a puff of smoke rose up as he pulled out a lit cigarette, which he stubbed out on the floor.  What if it had turned out to have been, as I thought at first, the beginning of a prison fight?

            If you are tending the sick, you probably cannot function well if the only thing on your mind is, “I hope I don’t catch something and take it home.”  Years ago, before we understood that HIV is not transmitted by casual contact, I saw someone try to minister to a man with AIDS by standing in the doorway of his room and praying for him from there, afraid even to stand by his bedside.  The grace of God did not carry across to him very well.

            If you are going to speak about the difficult work of rectifying historical injustices, you cannot become defensive about admitting that your own ancestors benefited directly from wrongdoing, and that the advantages they accrued have carried along through the years in the various forms of privilege that folks like me (and maybe you) take for granted.  That is letting the dead bury the dead.

            Jesus is honest with us.  Discipleship has its costs, and they may be more than we are aware of until the moment is upon us.  I like to think of it, in some ways, like getting onto a roller coaster.  You get into the car, knowing that it is, after all, a roller coaster.  It’s only as you get toward the top of that first drop, however, that you have that unmistakable awareness that this may have been more than you bargained for.  A second later you are plunging down the other side, held in only by the safety bar, and thinking about what a mistake you have made.  Then you begin to whip around and bounce and you are screaming, but the screams turn from “Oh, no!” into “Whoo-hoo!” and when you glide into the final curve and then get out with shaky legs you start wondering if the line is too long to give it another go.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

“The End of the Zeitgeist” - June 19, 2016

Luke 8:26-39

The Germans have a way with words.  They string two or three or sometimes more words together to make one new word that can carry complex meaning.  One of those words that we have taken over is zeitgeist.  Literally, it means “time ghost”.  Sometimes it would be translated as “the spirit of the age” but it has the added dimension of meaning the general atmosphere or prevailing mood or overarching attitude of a historical period.

The zeitgeist that Jesus faced was one that has its own name, a Latin one.  It’s Latin because it was the zeitgeist that was imposed by the Roman legions everywhere they went.  It was called the Pax Romana.  In English that’s “the Roman Peace”.  It wasn’t exactly what we think of as peace, though.  It was the lack of fighting, at least of fighting back on the part of the subject peoples because they had been beaten into submission.  A Roman historian named Tacitus wrote, “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.”[1]

The Romans liked it that way.  They encouraged and sometimes required the worship of the emperor.  Behind that was the worship of power and a total acceptance of brutality.    Massacres were normal, as was torture.  The effects rippled out through the population, and created the sort of pervasive fear that they wanted.  It was enough to drive someone over the edge.  Neglect and abuse of the subject population had as one effect the creation of the kind of suffering that can break someone’s mind, or send their very soul into jeopardy.  What does it do to a woman who is turned into a slave by ISIS and given to one of their soldiers as the spoils of war?  What does it do to a twelve-year-old boy in Africa who is made into a child soldier by being forced to burn his family’s home to the ground? 

When you read the Bible, keep in mind that its message is good news, and good news first announced to people who were living in the real and dangerous world.  At the end of the gospel of John [21:25], we read that

“there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

That these stories and these episodes and not others are recorded is because someone like Luke made a choice and said, this event is one to highlight because it will be good news that somebody needs to hear.

            Luke then tells people living under the Pax Romana the story of a man who was suffering terribly from demons that had made a home in his life.[2]  Jesus would confront and conquer them, and that was good news for him, but they were not unique to that man, and their conquest would be good news for others.  What those demons did was what the Romans were doing to the land and his life had become was an expression of the suffering that came with occupation. 

Consider: he had been stripped of everything and lived with the dead.

“For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” [Luke 8:27]

He was kept a prisoner, and probably told it was for his own protection, but he didn’t accept it.

“He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.” [Luke 8:29]

Jesus saw this and right away said it had to stop.  He confronted the forces that were ripping this man apart and got their name, which was more than mental illness.  It was connected to the illness of the ways of the world in the deepest sense, a world fallen into sin and captive to evil. 

Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.”  [Luke 8:30-31]

“Legion?  Okay, then, Legion.  You oppress the Jews (along with others), so you can go where you know they won’t follow.”  And off the demons go into a herd of pigs, which then jump into the sea and are destroyed like the chariots and armies of the Pharaoh long before the Romans were even on the map.

Again, this is good news.  The zeitgeist itself cannot stand up to Jesus.  Jesus brings healing to those who are harmed the worst by the ways of the world and the spirit of their age.  So why wasn’t the aftermath just great rejoicing?  The people’s reaction, at least for some of them, was negative.

“When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” [Luke 8:34-37]

They may not have wanted the Romans around, but Jesus’ actions threatened their deep-seated comfortability with the system, even knowing that it was wrong.  They had made their peace with the zeitgeist (and someone was making money off those pigs, or they wouldn’t have been there).  Get rid of the demons and others also stand to lose.

            The spirit of the age finds its way into all corners of all people, and it isn’t only in the obvious places and the most extreme of its victims.  Sometimes it looks attractive.  There’s part of a song by Billy Joel from the 1970’s that paints an interesting picture of a glitzy life that is at the same time attractive and destructive.

“Now as we indulge
In things refined
We hide our hearts
From harder times
A string of pearls
A foreign car
Oh, we can only go so far
On caviar and cabernet.

We drown our doubts
In dry champagne
And soothe our souls
With fine cocaine
I don’t know why I even care
We’ll get so high
And get nowhere
We’ll have to change our jaded ways,
But I’ve loved these days.”[3]

            Where’s the good news?  It depends.  Where are you in this situation?  Are you being harmed by the ways of the world, like the man living among the tombs?  Are you among those, like the Romans, who benefits from the way things are done?  Is your own name Legion?  Or are you one of those who is troubled by your own involvement but unsure what life would be without the security of at least knowing what you are dealing with, even if it’s bad?

            Jesus didn’t let the newly-healed man, restored to himself, go with him when he left.  He sent him back to live a normal life, but with this one major change: he was to tell people what God had done for him. [Luke 8:39]  Maybe that is the key to finding the good news: living the good news.  Live as one who is not constrained by the usual rules of the zeitgeist, whether it’s the Pax Romana or apartheid or the drug wars or keeping up with the Kardashians.  Live as one who is free from all the demons that would impose any rule and live only under the ruling grace of God.  Live as one who once was lost but now is found, was blind but who now sees.  Live as someone who knows the power of Jesus to tell off the demons of our day and send them on their way.  Live as someone who has been given a chance to live, and not among the graves of the dead, but in the midst of a place you can really call home, fully clothed and in your right mind.

[1] Tacitus, De Vita et Moribus Iulii Agricolae.
[2] Much of this line of thought is drawn from the work of John Dominic Crossan.
[3] from “I’ve Loved These Days” on Turnstiles (1976).

Saturday, June 11, 2016

“Friends in Low Places”- June 12, 2016

Luke 7:36-8:3

            Simon the Pharisee may have thought he was pulling off some sort of social triumph by having Jesus to dinner at his house.  There are always people who enjoy being surrounded by celebrities, as if some of their fame will rub off.  It also gives an opportunity to namedrop.  As I said to Oprah the other day, “I get so tired of the paparazzi breaking down the rhododendrons…”  Or maybe Simon was genuinely offering hospitality to a traveling rabbi and his disciples; Jesus and the Pharisees had a lot more in common than we sometimes would think from the gospels.  The problem, either way, was that Jesus traveled with an entourage, and Simon wasn’t quite sure how to handle some of his followers. 

            Some of them were an embarrassment.  That hasn’t changed.  There are some religious people who are considered socially acceptable and some who aren’t, even apart from their beliefs.  It would be a major life experience if the Dalai Lama dropped in for a visit, or if Desmond Tutu stuck his head in.  I disagree with a lot of what Jerry Falwell said, but I will long remember introducing him when he gave a speech.  But there are a lot more folks who will never achieve that kind of status.  There are the ones whose trunks are completely plastered with bumperstickers.  There are the ones who answer the phone, “Praise the Lord!”  There are those that are going to offer to pray for you when you have a headache instead of offering to get you an aspirin.  Put people like that into some kind of social event and who knows what might happen?

            In the old Marx Brothers movies, there’s the society hostess, Margaret Dumont, that Groucho loves to embarrass.  He walks up to her and starts to comment on everything and everyone around them and she stands there twisting her necklace and looking scared, like she’s trying to find the most polite way to tell him to leave.

            Or what about the scene that Garth Brooks describes in his most famous song:

“Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots
And ruined your black tie affair
The last one to show, the last one to know
The last one you thought you'd see there
I saw the surprise, and the fear in his eyes
When I took his glass of champagne
Then I toasted you, said honey we may be through
But you'll never hear me complain.”

            In Simon the Pharisee’s house, the interloper was “a woman in the city, who was a sinner”.  [Luke 7:37]  Isn’t that a great euphemism?  No need to go any further than that.  We know all about her.  We don’t need to know any more, and she has found her way into the dinner party.  In contrast, over there are Jesus’ respectable friends, including

“some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” [Luke 8:2-3]

The new addition doesn’t quite fit into their category, however.  She has money enough to buy expensive items, and we won’t ask too much where it comes from, but no sense of the scene she’s making as,

“having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, [she] brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” [Luke 7:37-38]

Who does something like that?  And who takes them seriously?

Jesus had the answer to the question that Simon didn’t want to raise, but that kept going through his head: “Doesn’t Jesus know who this woman is?  Can’t he see?  How can he let her touch him, as if he were one of her clients?”  Jesus didn’t even wait to let him speak the question.  He knew what he was thinking, and he addressed it in a way that started out politely enough.

“Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’” [Luke 7:40-43]

I can imagine Simon thinking, “Okay, okay, I get it,” because he clearly did get it.  We all get it.  The major sinner will repent in a big way.   Michael Vick will stop betting on dogfights and will sponsor animal shelters.  Watergate conspirator Charles Colson will go to jail and when he gets out will start Prison Fellowship International.  That’s how these things are done.

            Jesus gets a little personal about it, though, at least with Simon. 

“Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’” [Luke 7:44-47]

Her sins were obvious, even to her.  Simon’s sins were not even obvious to himself, and that led to an even bigger flaw, which was the failure to love.  Ouch.

            When you have most things together, it’s easy to pretend you have everything together.  It’s easy to forget that there’s really no difference between a train that goes six inches off the track or one that goes six feet off the track.  Either way there is a derailment and somebody is going to get hurt.  Big sinners or little sinners – we need God’s mercy, either way.  There are sins of commission – things that we do; and there are also sins of omission – things that we should do but forget or neglect or put off.  We need God’s mercy, either way.  And either way, God offers that mercy to us.  That’s the good news.

            And either way, God asks us to be merciful to one another.  That’s the challenge that comes with it.  Give Simon the Pharisee some credit.  He didn’t have the woman thrown out, and he listened to what Jesus had to say, both about her and about himself.  And, once again, the gospel doesn’t tell us what he did after this or how he responded – which frustrates me, because I feel like I want everything wrapped up, preferably with a happy ending to the episode where they all become lifelong friends and followers of Jesus.  But the point isn’t really how Simon responded.  The point is to ask how you and I will respond when we are in similar spots.

            Do we learn how to love or don’t we?  We get to write that part ourselves – with God’s help.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

“We Interrupt This Funeral” - June 5, 2016

Luke 7:11-17

            Don’t get me started on funeral stories.  It’s not a good idea.  But if I must (and this text says I must), I will share at least one.  This happened about twelve years ago in a small town in Schuylkill County.

            I had arrived during the viewing and had gone into the office to introduce myself to the funeral director and found her leaning into a playpen.  That was a little unusual, but okay.  Maybe she was getting a head start on Take-Your-Child-to-Work Day.  She explained that her sister had just been offered a new job and hadn’t had time to arrange daycare, so she was watching her niece for an hour or two until the mother arrived.  We chatted for a little bit while the baby dozed off, and then we slipped out the door quietly and then joined the family in the main funeral parlor.  When the time came, she placed a lectern off to the side of the casket, and the service began.

            “Dying, Christ destroyed our death.  Rising, Christ restored our life.  Christ will come again in glory.  As in baptism Charlie put on Christ, so in Christ may he be clothed with glory. …” Everyone sat there, as people do, some of them paying close attention to the words and some paying close attention to the flowers, and some paying close attention to their memories of a man they had loved and still did love.  Nobody was paying close attention to the door just off to my left, including me.  That was why nobody noticed when it swung open only a little bit, just wide enough for a little person to toddle out of the office and start moving unsteadily, but with a big smile, right in front of me and head for the fascinating, big box that stood at the center of the flowers.  But when his aunt noticed, she swooped in faster than I’ve ever seen anyone move at a funeral, and swung him up into her arms and over her shoulder and disappeared almost as quickly.

            There was some chuckling.  Then I came to the next words.  “Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.”  It became laughter.  God’s children were laughing together because that’s what children do.  They cry, and funerals are one time for that, but they also laugh and smile at the pretty flowers and the music and the people all getting together and that is right as well. 

            I doubt that when Jesus interrupted the funeral in Nain that laughter was the general response, though.  Jesus knew better.  An adult does not interrupt a funeral.  Doing so is a major violation of all human decency, or a sign that someone is not quite right.  (Okay, another funeral story.  There I am up front at another funeral home.  The deceased is the sister of a woman in the congregation and pretty much everybody at church knew her, so they were all gathered together as the service began.  The surviving sister, who was always a little odd, then stood up and turned to the congregation behind her, lifted a camera to her face, and the flash went off.  Then she turned to the people in the side alcove and pointed and the flash went off again.  Then she moved up toward the front, toward the casket, and lifted her arm… the look on her poor husband’s face!  Quickly I said, “Let us pray,” and down went the heads and closed went the eyes, and out shot her husband’s hand to grab her arm and guide her back to her chair and he kept his arm right there around her during the whole service.)  One does not do that.

            Jesus interrupted the burial procession, which must have offended everyone at first.  But then he messed with the whole process. 

“And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” [Luke 7:14]

Raising a corpse back to life is very different from waddling in where you don’t belong as a two-year-old who doesn’t know better, or showing signs of dementia.  Luke says of the people who witnessed it that “they glorified God” but that was only after their first reaction, when “Fear seized them”. [7:16]  And well it should.

            You could say, which is true, that Jesus was showing compassion on a living woman who in that time and place was likely doomed to a life of terrible poverty and abuse because she had no male protector, no husband or son.  You could say that Jesus, by raising this man, was restoring what you might consider the natural order where parents die before children rather than having to bury them.  You could say that Jesus was demonstrating his status as a prophet in Israel, echoing the way that Elijah had raised the son of a widow in Zarephath.  All of that is true.

            There is one rule in life, though, that nothing is certain but death and taxes.  People would test him another time about the taxes, but on his own here Jesus makes the point that when he is in the picture, dying is provisional.

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well 
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

Those brave words come from John Donne, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London at a time when London was a city regularly emptied out by the plague.  In 1665, thirty-four years after his death, the last great outbreak of the Black Death carried away roughly 15% of London.  People were dying at about 7,000 per week.  How could anybody in that situation say,

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”

except that they had reason to believe that there is something far stronger and a reality far more deep than what they could and did see all around them?  How can anyone today go into a refugee camp or look at conditions in a field hospital somewhere in the Middle East or look into the hollow eyes of a drug lord committed to a merciless business of terror, except that they know how Jesus first held up his hand and said, “Stop the funeral.  Don’t give death the last word.”?

            That gives courage to the nurse caring for the Ebola victim in Liberia and to the prisoner in jail for his faith in North Korea.  Lest you think that only applies in the most dramatic situations, and not to those of us who (thankfully) are spared those trials, here’s one more funeral story.  Actually, it’s sort of a pre-funeral story.  A woman who was dying of cancer handed me a piece of paper.  It was a map of a national park in Hawaii and had an ‘X’ marked on it.  She asked me to hold it until her funeral and then to give it to her grandson.  It showed where she wanted him to take her ashes and to leave them.  I asked her what the significance of the place was.  “There isn’t any.  But my grandson works hard and never takes a vacation.  This is my way of making him take time off and go someplace nice.”

            We interrupt this funeral to bring you a word from our sponsor.

“God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”