Archive for August, 2006

Courage in a Time of Fear, or This is no Time for Wimps!

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

Many of you are familiar with our five-year old Brittany named Irie. She is a hunting dog who loves to frequent Tappan Square. On a good day, Irie might have the opportunity to point at several squirrels, sniff the usual bushes, and gallop through the grass. When spotting a squirrel, obliviously feasting on a nut, Irie crouches down and stalks the animal very slowly—all the while restrained by a carefully controlled extending leash.

As the squirrel looks up and notices the dog, their eyes lock, sometimes for several seconds. The tension between them mounts, and the squirrel makes a hasty exit by dashing up the nearest tree. A safe distance from Irie, the squirrel rhythmically pounds his tail up and down, as if to warn the others that danger is lurking.

One day recently, this scenario dramatically changed. As Irie approached, three squirrels happily nibbled on nuts. On seeing the dog, they all scampered up the nearest tree in no time flat. But then, one of the squirrels–a small one, maybe even a baby–came back down and stubbornly finished her nut. I’ve honestly never seen this before. Irie was crouching down–the whole time breathing rhythmically, her heart pounding, her mouth opening and shutting as it does when she is fully alert–poised for the hunt, not three feet away.

A minute passed; then two, then three…perhaps even five.

That squirrel wasn’t going anywhere. The longer I waited and watched, the more I realized that I was witnessing a parable akin to the nature parables Jesus told about seeds and soil, or wheat and tares. The ancient biblical stories of the giant Goliath and the young boy David entered my mind. I imagined a 12-year old Jesus, sitting in the Temple, stumping his elders with his wisdom. I remembered the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who outsmarted Pharaoh, thwarting his decrees by rescuing Hebrew babies. All the while, that little squirrel sat and ate a nut, with a hunting dog in spitting distance.

Another story came to me. The cast of characters this time included two siblings, one older and the other younger. In their youth, the older one had a fierce temper and was often given to screaming and slamming doors. Time after time, the younger cowered in the face of such behavior, until one day when the child snapped. Now, by “snapped” you might imagine an imitation of the older sibling’s behavior–yelling back and slamming more doors. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the younger child looked the older sibling in the eye and boldly declared, “I’m not afraid of you!” The dynamics between them changed that very moment.

What are you afraid of? What would it be like for each one of us to name our greatest fears and, like the younger sibling, or that little squirrel, stand up to that fear and proclaim, “I’m not afraid of you!”?
Our two scripture stories today illustrate both courage and a lack of courage. The bleeding woman takes a huge risk in coming to Jesus. For years, no matter what expert she consulted, none could tell her what to do to alleviate her medical condition. Further, the condition renders her perpetually unclean in her religious community. In such a situation, it’s an enormous temptation to just adapt to the ostracism and the routine of endless searching. To get “unstuck,” she has to make up her mind to leave her house, leave her difficult but familiar routines, and bank everything on Jesus. And, if that isn’t enough, she actually has to get up and go, instead of just thinking about going.

Don’t we all have situations we think about changing, ways we want to adjust our own behavior, and we, too, get stuck? Once the woman leaves her house, she has to figure out how to actually get near Jesus with the crowds all around him. She has to decide whether to risk defiling him by touching him. Maybe just quietly touching his garment from behind will be enough to heal her. Finally, she has to risk having her anonymity shattered. And maybe that’s the hardest part–going intensely public with her vulnerability.

While the unnamed woman’s courage may have begun tentatively, it ends decisively. That gives me hope, because so often my first reaction is not my best reaction. In this story, the woman is healed and blessed because of her risk-taking and faith.

While courage sometimes has a happy ending, we also have to take the risk that it may lead to division. Such was the case in the story about Peter, Paul, and the Gentile converts to Christianity. Peter, a circumcised Jewish male by birth, had grown up believing that circumcision was necessary for full participation and acceptance in the faith. However, he slowly came to understand that faith in Christ was open to Jew and Gentile alike, with no requirement for Gentile circumcision. Mind you, women weren’t exactly included in this debate!

Peter finds himself in a situation that tests his new awareness. Like many of us, Peter fails this test. Instead of standing up for a Gospel that freely welcomes Gentiles as well as Jews, Peter caves in to his past beliefs and prejudices and refuses to eat with the Gentile believers. Sadly enough, the others follow Peter’s example—until Paul comes on the scene and lays bare the contradictions in Peter’s behavior.

This story reminds us that our courage–or lack of it–affects not only ourselves but also others. Had Peter openly stood on the side of the Gentiles, he would have offended those who insisted that Gentiles needed to be circumcised. However, he would also have demonstrated God’s grace by supporting the Gentiles whom God had freely welcomed in.

While courage or fear have deeply personal implications, it would be a mistake to avoid the bigger picture of courage and fear at this time in the life of our nation and world. Last week Steve preached about fascism, in light of the President’s recent warning about the dangers of what he called “Islamo-fascism.” Steve reminded us that we need to be just as vigilant about Christian fascism as Islamic fascism.

One of the many aspects of fascism in any society is creating and sustaining a culture of fear. If we watch the news on TV, or listen to it on the radio—if we have any awareness at all about what is happening around us and outside our nation–there is plenty to cause fear. In fact, if we do not fear for our nation and world at all, we might be in denial or not paying attention to the cataclysms around us.

There is a difference between a fear that is aware of the dangers we face and a fear that paralyzes us, leading us to complacency or conformity. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I’m trying to use my fear not only as a motivation to overcome evil with good wherever I can, but also to humble myself and remember that we in the U.S. are not immune to the global spasms of war, violence, and hatred. If we reap what we sow, we will be on dangerous ground, indeed. Our task is to follow Jesus, wherever that takes us.

Let’s return to the little squirrel on Tappan Square for a moment. Scampering up the tree, she first reacted like every other squirrel. But after following her squirrel instinct, she changed her mind. No hunting dog was going to keep her from eating her nut! Right in the middle of responding the way squirrels naturally respond to danger, she changed direction. It’s possible to change course! It’s possible to make midstream corrections! Sure enough, the little squirrel persevered, even as the other squirrels in the tree looked on, pounding their tails in warning.

As we close, I’d invite you to take some time and quietly meditate on your own fears, whether they are intensely personal, deeply global, or both. Think about the ways that you can “be strong and of good courage,” as the Hebrew scriptures so frequently enjoin us to be. Let us take our fears, needs, and resolve to the throne of grace, and see what God will do with us. Join me in praying for the courage we need to sustain us through the days and years ahead. Let us pray…

You don’t have to choose between Islamic fascism or Christian fascism. There are other choices.

Sunday, August 20th, 2006

Many of you may have heard or heard about the comment President Bush made in light of the terrorist plot that was foiled a couple of weeks ago in London. He said that the struggle against Islamic fascism continues. I took that as an invitation to ponder fascism in our world, and I doubt President Bush would appreciate where those wanderings have taken me.

Fascism is hard to talk about because it has become such a pejorative term. Everybody uses it against everyone else. And my real fear is that the people who really are fascists have made sure that using the term against them gets dismissed as something like left wing reactionary nonsense while they continue unimpeded with their right wing reactionary nonsense.

Since the President did bring it up, I decided to look it up. This is the description I culled from a discussion about the meaning of the word fascism. “Fascism exalts the nation, state, or race as superior to the individuals, institutions, or groups composing it. Fascism uses explicit populist rhetoric; calls for a heroic mass effort to restore past greatness; and demands loyalty to a single leader, often to the point of a cult of personality. Fascism is also typified by totalitarian attempts to impose state control over all aspects of life: political, social, cultural, and economic. Fascism dismissed the concept of class conflict, replacing it instead with the struggle between races, and the struggle of the youth versus their elders. This meant embracing nationalism and mysticism, and advancing ideals of strength and power as means of legitimacy, glorifying war as an end in itself and victory as the determinant of truth and worthiness.”

Since this was from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can post to, I figured I ought to try something a little more mainstream. So here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of fascism. “A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Given these definitions, I would say there is Islamic fascism to worry about, though far from all Muslims are fascists. But it also gets me thinking about things closer to home. I look at the current state of affairs in our own nation and I think homegrown fascism is something we ought to be growing more concerned about. And we especially ought to be concerned about the possibility of Christian fascism at work in this country.

To be honest, the Islamic fascists who uphold the superiority of Islam and Islamic culture, and their desire to impose state control over all aspects of life: political, social, cultural, and economic, by setting up an Islamic state sound no different to me than the voices I hear clamoring for a Christian America. Both Islamic and Christian fascists claim their religious and racial superiority as God ordained. And they both are seduced by the possibilities of gaining power through violence and proclaiming the seizing of that power as proof of that God is on their side. Both end up betraying their religions and their nations.

For Christians flirting with the possibilities of fascism, I would suggest they take a good look at Ephesians 3 and the Apostle Paul’s rejection of fascism, which landed him in jail. But he didn’t care because he had discovered something that no jailer could ever take away from him, the mystery of the ages. And what was that mystery? There were no insiders and outsiders in God’s eyes.

All his life Paul had believed that his race, his religion, his culture, his gender, and his customs were superior to all others. Like so many others he was waiting for that all to be proven right by this fantastic and bloody military victory that would drive Rome into the sea and establish Israel as the new power, an eternal theocratic empire. But then he bumped into the Risen Jesus one day, and everything began to change. This Jewish supremacist, the ultimate insider, was given the mission of going to those people he had always thought of outsiders, of no concern to God at all, and inviting them to find with him this new way of God that Jesus was opening.

This new way, this great mystery, was that God loves us all. We don’t have to live any longer behind our walls of superiority. The divisions can give way to the unity we find in the grace of Jesus Christ that is offered to us all.

Paul understood the proving ground of this new world Jesus was calling us to build was the Church. In this chapter we read his near ecstacy at the possibilities of the Church, of what we could become as we tore down the walls that divide us, walls that Jesus destroyed on his cross.

Paul languished in prison, but reveled in the hope that God would be glorified in the Church and in Christ Jesus. There is no place for fascism in the Church that Paul knew Jesus is calling us to build. In fact, the mystery was that the Church had come into being to put an end to our notions of superiority. Our allegiance isn’t to nation or race but the commonwealth of God that Jesus revealed.

In that commonwealth there is no place for violence. Violence is what we challenge rather than to prove our superiority. If the only way you can win the battle of ideas is with guns and smart weapons, then your ideas aren’t very good. But Jesus had some pretty good ideas like loving our friends and our enemies. Like taking care of each other, particularly the vulnerable ones. Like giving up on our distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Like living in this world the way God wants us to live. Jesus is a threat to the fascist state and the fascists know it. The Church should be too, but the fascists, except for pockets here and there, aren’t seeing much to worry them.

Whenever you are talking about Paul, of course, there are issues you have to confront. This amazing statement he makes in the third chapter of Ephesians about giving up on our insider and outsider notions, is overwhelmed in many minds by what we read a couple of chapters later where he maintains the insider/outsider dichotomy between men and women.

Paul, though, was a person in process. It takes more than getting knocked off your horse to bring about the kinds of changes Paul was going to experience. It takes a while to outgrow a life built on fascism. And like it or not, most of us grow up with fascism. Who doesn’t want to be told their people are superior to all other people? Who doesn’t want to be told that our government will make sure we have a strong enough military to protects us? Who doesn’t want to be told that our power is the testimony that God likes us best? And if you are a man, who doesn’t want to be told that you are better than women?

What Paul says about women being submissive to men in Ephesians 5, though, is not all Paul has to say about the subject. That tortured passage we read at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 11 where he talks about men and women show that he is struggling with this mystery that is in Christ, trying to piece together how you live in this world with the walls torn down. It was not easy for Paul, it’s not easy for any of us. Fascism has its hold on us.

Paul, though, as he struggled, kept his hope in Jesus who was making him into a new person. Paul was unashamedly a Jesus follower, and was more than eager to invite others to follow Jesus with him. He had encountered Jesus and his life was changing to something a whole lot better than it had been. And he saw in Jesus the possibility to build a much better world than the one we have now.

This, of course, opens up another front in the Pauline battles. It makes a lot of people very uncomfortable that Paul was so centered on Jesus. But here’s the thing, he had found life in Jesus and believed that all the rest of us could too. And he believed we could bring that life into this very world, that God could be glorified, rightly known, by the followers of Jesus, by his Church. The possibilities were too far reaching for Paul not to encourage others to make it happen by giving their lives over to Jesus and following him. Paul calls that salvation.

Now it might seem a bit over the top to suggest we be on the alert for a Christian fascism. But remember that plenty of people in Germany were enthralled by the possibilities of a Christian Germany. And once that ball got rolling it was hard to stop.

Just yesterday, I saw a bumper sticker. It was an American flag, except in the corner instead of 50 stars on the field of blue, there was a fish, the Christian symbol. There are folk out there looking for a Christian America with the awareness that it will have to be enforced to happen. That’s what we call fascism.

Never forget that Hitler was elected to office and had great support in the Church. And given what happened to the German fascist movement, the fascist of our day are probably going to be a bit more subtle. I doubt it will be Brown Shirts marching down the streets. I think they are learning how to better market fascism. But it will always play on our fear.

I think in these days, it would be a dereliction of Christian duty to not pay attention to fascist tendencies in ourselves, our nation, and, worst of all, in the church.

The antidote to Islamic fascism is not Christian fascism. That cure is, at least, as bad as the disease. The antidote, as Paul joyfully acknowledges, is Jesus. We meet Islamic or Christian or any other kind of fascism with the mystery that has been hidden from the ages. There are no outsiders, nobody who is inferior to us. God loves us. God loves everybody. Jesus has torn down the walls and thrown open the possibility of a world built on love, compassion, and trust. Trust that is not placed in nation or race, but trust placed in God who calls us to build a new world where the false promises of the fascists are overwhelmed by the promises of God.

We are living in dangerous times in this country. But the worst danger is not from the Islamic fascists. What is worse is the notion that we become fascists ourselves, enforcing social, political, cultural, and economic conformity. At that point we have become our enemy, and the other side has won.

So we have to keep our eyes open for fascism. But more importantly we need to keep our eyes open for the mystery of God that is in Jesus Christ, the salvation that is there. Paul saw it. This is why the Church is here; to glorify God by making God’s ways known to the fascists and everyone else.

So you looking for a little scandal in your life? Follow Jesus. That will do it.

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

It was a scandal. One of Israel’s juiciest. King David was out on the roof of the palace one day and noticed this naked woman taking a bath on a near by roof top. He was struck with her beauty and invited her to the palace. She just happened to be the wife of one of his top army officers.

Bathsheba came by the palace all right and it wasn’t long until she sent word to King David that she was pregnant. And it was going to be hard to cover things up since her husband had been gone for some time fighting one of David’s battles.

So David sent word to the front that it was time for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to come home for a little rest and relaxation, not to mention some conjugal delight that might mask the fact that someone else was the father of Bathsheba’s baby.

It was rather unusual for the King to order one of his top officers home during battle, but Uriah did come home. But he was too guilt stricken about leaving his unit behind on the battle field to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh while they were still risking their lives. So instead of climbing into Bathsheba’s bed, he went back to the battle.

David, growing ever more panicky about the possibility of being found out as an adulterer, went to plan B. And it was awful. He sent word to one of the generals that at the height of one of their skirmishes, Uriah should be sent to the front of the battle and the rest of the troops pulled back. David’s hope was that Uriah would be killed, and he could quickly marry the grieving widow and thus not get caught. And it almost worked. Uriah was killed, along with 18 other soldiers who were with him. Bathsheba became David’s wife. Or she became one of the sister wives since David already had several wives and more concubines.

Somehow Nathan the prophet found out what had happened. My suspicion is that someone in the army tipped him off, possibly the general who was asked by David to send Uriah up to the front of the battle, or perhaps someone who knew about the orders the general had received. It wouldn’t have taken much to put two and two together on that one.

It’s interesting that many Christian commentators on this story try to divert attention from David on this to Bathsheba. They speculate that she wanted to be seen by David on that roof top and all that happened was because of her desire to be the king’s wife.

That’s not, however, the way the text deals with the story. Though David is the most significant figure in Jewish tradition, there is no effort to cover up this scandal in that tradition. They don’t try to push it off to Bathsheba like in Genesis, when Adam puts all the blame on Eve. David’s scandalous behavior lives today in the Bible as it did in first century Israel.

They loved David in first century Israel and were more than willing to look past a scandal or two. They were looking for a Messiah who would be in the line of King David, a Messiah who would restore Israel to even greater prominence than it had when David was king.

It didn’t take long for people to start wondering about Jesus. Was he claiming to be that Anointed One, the one from David’s line? Would he have the audacity to proclaim himself Israel’s new King who, like David, would destroy her enemies and rule as the successor to King David for eternity?

It was a wonderful thought. And we see how that thought, that hope, influenced the people in the story we read from John 6. The people have followed Jesus into the wilderness wondering about him. There’s no food out there and somehow he miraculously feeds them all. This is the king they are looking for. Surely he is of the House of David. Things are about to get dramatically better for the people of Israel and a whole lot worse for her Roman occupiers. There is such a thing as a free lunch, and Jesus, King Jesus, no King David II will punch their meal ticket every day. It doesn’t get any better than this. The milk and honey are about the flow and all they have to do is gather it up. It would be like manna in the wilderness just waiting for them every day. But it would be better food. It was time this guy became King emptying the Roman garrisons and filling their stomachs.

They would have proclaimed Jesus as King David II that day. Jesus had them on his side. But he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He looked at them and said all you are looking for out of me is to keep your stomachs filled, but that’s not why I came. I am here to offer you something that is much more filling than bread, something that will feed your very souls. I’m not here to deliver a couple of loaves of bread every day, but to give you the bread of life.

Here’s where Jesus and King David’s story collide. What Jesus was asking of them was more scandalous to them than anything King David ever did. They could live with David’s adultery and murder. They could ignore it. What Jesus was asking of them was much worse and they abhorred it. And it demanded their total attention and commitment.

All they wanted was Rome off their backs and their stomachs filled. He was asking them to give up on the dream of a militant new Israel that would slaughter her enemies and become the new imperial power in the world. He was saying they had to give up their belief that all it took to get what you wanted in this world was more weapons than the other guy.

He didn’t offer them the fulfillment of their nationalist dreams. He didn’t endorse their idea of cultural and religious superiority. He refused to let their prejudices go unchallenged. He confronted them at the deepest levels of their understanding, of what they had been taught, about how we live in this world and what God calls us to do and be. It was scandalous. And so instead of gathering an army of thousands and thousands along the way as they went to Jerusalem to proclaim him King David II, they walked away in disgust. They weren’t looking for the Bread of Life, they just wanted the buffet line to be well stocked every day.

Even though they walked away, Jesus did not walk away from his mission or his scandalous behavior. Our response has too often been, at best, to ignore that scandalous behavior by not talking about it and pretending none of it ever happened. At our worst, we try to cover it up. So we deal with Jesus’ call to make peace and give up on violence by turning him into a warrior. His scandalous message of love and inclusion becomes hate and exclusion in the name of God. We ignore the scandal of his concern for the poor by turning our backs on them to make sure the haves, as our President likes to say, have more.

We cover up Jesus’ scandalous outrage over the carnage being inflicted on Baghdad and Beirut by claiming it is all the will of God and a part of God’s plan.

When all those folk who wanted to make Jesus King David the Second began to walk away from him in disgust, Jesus turned to that little group of men and women who had been following him and asked if they were so scandalized by him that they were going to leave too. It was Peter who responded for the group by saying even if they wanted to they couldn’t leave because they had found life in him. All Peter could say was “even if we don’t understand all of this, even if it associates us with your scandalous behavior, we know it’s life and that, somehow, you really are the bread of life.”

And that claim may be the greatest scandal of all. Somehow Jesus really is the bread of life. How many people do we know who are scandalized by our belief that there is something totally unique about Jesus? How many people are scandalized by the confession that there was something about his cross that saved us, and that his resurrection brought us life?

Following Jesus always has been, and always should be, a scandalous thing. It is offensive to those non religious folk who think it’s crazy to really believe in Jesus. It offends them that we would take seriously Jesus’s claim to be the Bread of Life. But it also offends the religious folk who think it is scandalous to take Jesus so seriously that we refuse to endorse our nation’s wars, to support the oppression of the poor, and to close our churches to gay and lesbian people and all the others we are supposed to exclude.

People may regard it as scandalous, but Jesus is the Bread of Life who brings hope and healing and forgiveness. Jesus is the Bread of Life who loves us even when we can’t love ourselves, who knows us at our worst and loves us anyway. Jesus is the Bread of Life who leads us from war to peace, from the rich to the poor, from the insiders to the outcasts. Jesus is the one who, without wavering, calls us to follow him and find life in him. It is all so scandalous.

The writers of the Hebrew Bible didn’t try to cover up King David’s scandalous behavior. The writers of the Gospels didn’t try to cover up the scandalous behavior of Jesus whether he was calling for peace or claiming to be the Bread of Life. It’s all the rest of us who have tried to make the cover up work.

You can’t keep the cover up forever, though. Things happen. We go to church. We look to Jesus for help and find ourselves deepening our commitment to him, trusting more and more that he will reveal God’s ways. We do things like share together at the Lord’s Table and proclaim that our allegiance to Jesus is beyond all other allegiances whether they are to nation, family, race, or class. It’s all so scandalous and we are found out as Jesus followers and confronted like David was. Do we try to keep the cover up in tact? Or do we admit to our scandalous behavior and let the chips fall where they may?

Are we ready for a good scandal?