Archive for November, 2006

Heard of any good kings lately?

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

If you look on the church calendar, today is Christ the King Sunday, which is, hands down, my least favorite day in the Church Year. One reason for that, I suppose, is that I don’t readily acknowledge authority. I’ve never been a rule follower and kings, of course, make a lot of rules. That’s why the call them rulers.

I must say, though, that this personal reluctance to acknowledge authority does not extend to Jesus. I am more than glad to acknowledge his authority in my life. But I still am uncomfortable claiming him a king. I actually believe that doing so diminishes his authority instead of enhancing it.

Name a current ruling king. There aren’t many kings these days. Even if we can name a couple we don’t know anything about them. And most of those that fill that role are either ceremonial, having no real authority, or they are bloody despots who ill serve their subjects. Most of this latter kind of kings are found in the Middle East clinging to their power at all costs, or in Africa where they are seeing if they can out genocide each other.

Now we can go into history and start naming kings, but it doesn’t do anything to promote the Jesus for King movement. The most famous king in American history is, of course, King George III, who we fought a revolution against.

Some of us here may remember the name of the father of the current Queen of England, I don’t. And others of us may be able to rattle off a few kings from Europe’s past, thanks particularly to William Shakespeare. Those kings don’t come off very well, but not as bad at the overwhelming number of awful kings we read about in the Old Testament.

To be truthful, the first image that comes to my mind when I think the word king, is those loveable, buffoonish characters in the Disney movies. They are clueless and easily manipulated by children, wives, servants, etc.

So I believe it is fair to say that when we think about kings we are thinking about buffoons, irrelevant figureheads, or tyrants. It’s also true that when we acknowledge Jesus as King, we have to deny the reality of what we understand kings to be and imagine Jesus as the ideal king, even if we really believe there is no such thing as an ideal king. Some people would call that intellectual dishonesty. Kings are buffoons, irrelevant, or tyrants, except, of course, for Jesus. So we will go ahead and call him king even though it really makes no sense.

Now my grandmother might have suggested that I am making a mountain out of a molehill here. My grandmother had one of the best perspectives on life that I have ever come across, and she noticed a lot of molehill sized mountains in her day. So I will try to keep that in mind.

The problem is, though, that when I hear people talking about Jesus as king I do notice a tendency by some to make him into a buffoon, an irrelevant figurehead, or a tyrant.

If you were to ask your average nine year old to think about Jesus as king, I can’t help but believe that those Disney images would pretty quickly come to her mind. And it seems to me that there are those who, though they wouldn’t think of Jesus as a loveable buffoon, do see Jesus as the king of the universe who can be easily manipulated. Just ask him nicely, and he will give you what you want. The preachers who insist that Jesus wants us all to be prosperous are basically suggesting ways we can manipulate the king of the universe to fill our bank accounts.

According to the many end times books we find in Christian Bookstores, Jesus will return as a king in full regal glory, and reek his terrifying revenge on his enemies. He will slaughter millions upon millions who refuse to acknowledge his eternal reign, while his loyal subjects will be rewarded with his bountiful beneficence. In any other context we would be putting such a king on trial for crimes against humanity.

Perhaps the most popular understanding of the kingship of Jesus though is the one that sidelines him as ceremonial and irrelevant to what really happens in this world. Many Christians are glad to sing about a Jesus who sits on his throne, one whom we adore and worship, one who establishes his reign in our hearts. But this is not a Jesus who has much to do with the world we all live in. He is tending to things in his heavenly palace, in whose courts we long to find ourselves. But he doesn’t have really anything to do with the stuff in this world that needs the attention of somebody in power, issues like war, hunger, injustice, global warming, or human rights.

It’s obvious that in the New Testament there are references to Jesus as king. We have read a couple of them this morning. But I do think if we take a look at them a bit more closely, we will see they raise some important issues about the kingship of Jesus.

The first one came up in that conversation when Jesus stood in judgment before Pilate. Pilate, of course, had a lot invested in this idea of kings since he served at the pleasure of Caesar. And he was more than a little bit interested in what Jesus was up to. Was Jesus, as his accusers charged, claiming he was the true king of Israel, rather than the conquering Caesar. Was there something seditious here he had to squash, or another crackpot on some kind of religious mission.

Jesus left Pilate totally confused. Jesus refused to acknowledge himself as a king, but he talked about his kingdom. What kind of subterfuge was going on here?
What Pilate never understood was that Jesus was thinking in completely different categories than Pilate could imagine. Pilate didn’t understand how subversive Jesus really was. Jesus was here to not claim kingship, but to totally subvert our understanding of kings and nations and how we live in this world.

The only Kingdom Jesus was interested in was the one he taught about all during his ministry; the Kingdom of God. There’s no place for palaces and armies and lords and ladies in that kingdom. They truly are irrelevant to the kingdom where the powers that reign are love, mercy, humility, forgiveness, peace, compassion, inclusion, and faithfulness to God’s vision for this world. Pilate could have never understood that, save a commitment to become a follower of Jesus himself.

In John’s Gospel, we may have Jesus dancing around the idea of being a king, but even if he is willing to make that claim for himself it has nothing to do with our understanding of kings. Do you imagine that the Jesus who wandered Israel as a peasant wants to spend eternity on a throne?

Many of the end times preachers see the opening words of the Revelation that we read earlier as confirmation of their hope that Jesus will return as a warrior king who will not maim, not wound, but annihilate every non Christian on the face of the earth. Now there’s a king, for you. “Riding in the clouds, he’ll be seen by every eye, those who mocked and killed him will see him, people from all nations and all times will tear their clothes in lament. Amen.”

What if the seer in the Revelation, though, is telling us that what’s going on here is not lament because Jesus is coming back to exact revenge, to claim his divine kingship at the safe end of the sword but, rather, the lament is because we have been missing what his kingdom is about?

We live in a pretty brutal world. We don’t need Jesus to come punish us for missing God’s ways, we are doing a good job of it ourselves. We are punishing ourselves with our wars and violence. We are punishing ourselves with our neglect of the poor and the abuse of the creation. We are punishing ourselves for loving money more than we love God or each other. We are punishing ourselves with our prejudices.

The seer of the Revelation was writing to a group of Jesus followers who were seen as a threat to the empire because of their refusal to pledge their allegiance to Caesar. But the Seer wanted to reassure them they had it right. The lamentation would come when folk finally realized they had let Caesars and kings and presidents and prime ministers set the course of this world rather than the ways of God, and had paid an awful price for doing so.

So this is Christ the King Day whose legitimacy I have dismissed. Next week we start Advent and we’ll sing those carols and read those scriptures that talk about the king of kings who salvation brings, this king of kings and lord of lords who shall reign forever and ever, alleluia, alleluia.

Nevertheless, my thoughts will not be about Jesus as king, but Jesus who points us to a kingdom that is beyond any human understanding. That this king of kings was born to a poor peasant girl in the back of a barn is our first hint that we have to rearrange our thinking because this is no buffoon, no irrelevant figurehead, no tyrant. His mother did say after all that the birth of Jesus was the sign that God was going to bring down the powerful from their thrones.

We may try to think of Jesus as a king, but it’s never really going to work. And I guess Christmas is about trying something new.

Why would that poor woman support an institution that oppresses her? Maybe someone should talk some sense into her.

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Most Biblical scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the gospels. And don’t forget that the gospels were probably written anywhere from 30-60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The more I read the Gospel of Mark, the more it seems to me that whoever wrote it had a real healthy scepticism of what was happening in the early days of the Church.

By the time this gospel was written, Peter and John and Matthew and all the rest of the disciples had made names for themselves. The church had spread wildly. There were communities of faith all over parts of Asia, and even in Greece and Rome and other parts of Europe where the disciples were revered. And there was reason for that. They had taken Christianity from this little sect in the back country of Palestine, and at great sacrifice and risk to their lives, made it into a church.

There was good reason thirty or forty years out to admire the disciples, or as they had become known by then, the Apostles. They had taken the life and message of Jesus and made it come alive in the hearts of many, many people. They proclaimed the power of forgiveness and the hope of the resurrection. They set up churches everywhere.

The writer of the Gospel of Mark, however, seems to want to offer a caution, letting people know that the Apostles of 60 or 70 a.d. were not the disciples of 30 or 40 years earlier.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel we get stories that highlight the ineptness, the faithlessness, the confusion, and the cowardice of the disciples. In contrast, Mark highlights stories of many people that his readers never heard of. People like the blind Bartimaeus, the man who seeks out Jesus on behalf of his mute son, and the other men and women who came asking for healing and help. There’s the Syro-Phonecian woman who displays more faith than the disciples ever did. And there’s that story about the man driving out demons when the disciples couldn’t.

The disciples don’t come off in Mark’s Gospel as particularly heroic or Apostles worthy of admiration. But the women we read about today does. The widow who gave the last couple of coins she possessed to the Temple caught the attention of Jesus. He noted that her’s was the remarkable gift, in spite of all the rich folk who letting others know they were making large donations.

This unnamed woman get’s a lot of press this time of year. Many churches are talking about stewardship in November, and this story is too good to pass up if you are trying to meet the budget. The hope is, of course, that most folk have a bit more than a couple of coins left to their name, and that this woman’s story would encourage them to increase their giving. If this woman can give all she had, we surely can give more than we think we can.

And that’s not a bad thing. Stewardship means many things. The ministry of this or any congregation can not continue without the generous and even sacrificial giving of its people. It was no different in Jesus’s day than ours, it takes money to run the place.

What was different about the widow, than all the others who were giving so much more than she could ever imagine giving, was that she realized that her money meant something. It meant something to her. It was a sign of her devotion and trust in God. God was more important to her than anything else she had.

She also knew it was important to God. This truly was an offering. She was expressing gratitude, thanksgiving, and commitment. And she knew those things; trust, devotion, gratitude, thanksgiving, commitment to God and God’s ways were the things that made her life better. So she was more than willing to throw in those two coins, and wasn’t really expecting anyone to notice other than God.

This is a good stewardship story. It does challenge us to think about our own devotion, trust, and commitment to God’s ways. We are deeply challenged by the faith of this woman. Following Jesus, and being church together, have something to do with our money.

There are problems with this story, though. First of all, how many of us would have sat by and let that woman throw her last bit of money into the offering plate? “Keep one of those coins for yourself, at least. You don’t need to do that. There are others who have plenty of money. You need it.”

I know I would never suggest that someone empty out their bank account of the last dollars they had for the elevator fund. I would probably even question their wisdom if they did.

Yet this widow was willing to give everything she had. Maybe it was she had already learned to depend on God. That’s a good lesson for us no matter what the size of our bank account. Let’s face it. Those couple of coins could have bought her her next meal. But what about the one after that? Somewhere along the way she had learned to trust God. Maybe she had taken to heart the words of Jesus about considering the lilies. If God takes care of the flowers of the field, surely God would take care of her.

As a widow, with no pension plan or social security to take care of her, no structures in her society to look after her, she knew something about the vulnerability that comes with this world. And she knew something about the vulnerability that comes when you put your trust in God. Trusting God is always a risk, that’s why we call it faith. And this widow surely had more faith than any of the disciples had. The writer of Mark’s Gospel suggests her as a better faith model to us than the disciples.

Another problem with this story is that this widow is supporting a system that oppresses her. Those rich folk who are making far more substantial monetary offerings than she does have made their money, Jesus points out, by devouring widows. They have taken advantage of an economic and cultural system that favors them at the expense of poor people like this woman. And the Temple undergirded such an unjust system.

So my response would be to tell the woman, “No, don’t give them a dime, even if you can afford it. They don’t deserve it. They are working against your interests and the interests of all those others just like you. They are your oppressors.”

It’s not like this widow wasn’t aware of all of this. She knew how the system worked and who worked it. But she gave her last money to the Temple anyway. What’s with that?

The only thing I can figure is that she believed in what the Temple could become, not what it was. For her the Temple was going to be the place where God broke through, in spite of what people had made of it. The system as it was was oppressing her. But I think she believed it didn’t always have to be that way. And she was willing to invest her all in helping it to become what she knew it could be.

At it’s core, faith is about the break through of God, those times when the ways of God manage to get past all the barricades we throw up in God’s way. That’s what makes this woman such an important model of faith for us. She was offering all she had for a reason, she had a vision of what God could do and she wanted to do whatever she could to help that vision become reality.

All these centuries later, we work, we sacrifice, we commit our money and time and talents to the church because we believe that God can break through. We may still put plenty of things in God’s way, but the break throughs happen.

I was worried about these most recent elections. My major concern was the on going attempt by leaders in the Republican Party and members of the Religious Right to reshape that political party as a religious party. There are serious attempts in this country by people to create a theocracy here, and the Republican Party has become the conduit for those attempts for a great many of them. I was wondering if these elections were going to show that those attempts had finally reached a critical mass where that would be hard to stop.

And Ohio was ground zero in that attempt. The Ohio Restoration Project with its supporting Patriot Pastors believed these elections would fundamentally (if you will allow me to use the term) reshape the political climate of this state and spread to the rest of the nation.

And though, happily, they experienced such a stunning setback, that is not the end of the movement. They will regroup and keep trying. This is the statement the Ohio Restoration Project puts on its materials, “America Has a Mission to Share a Living Savior With a Dying World.” That’s funny, I thought it was the church that was given that mission. However, these folk don’t see a difference between the two.

How do we respond? Do we give up on the Church because it has been captured by a radical movement? I don’t think so. Instead, we remember that widow who realized that it was up to her to do what she could to clear the way for the break through of God. She really believed her money, what little of it she had, and her hopes and commitments and faith would make the difference. She didn’t want the Temple, as corrupt as it was, to crumble, she wanted it fulfill its potential and was willing to work to that end.

The writer of Mark tells us this story, I think, because he wants to warn us of the dangers facing the church. If we leave it in the hands of a few famous Apostles, or in our day, well known and well funded preachers, God will never be able to break through. But if we realize we all have something to bring to the church, that if we give our money and our commitments that the way for God can be cleared.

The Church didn’t last to this day simply because of St. Mark, or St. Luke, or any other of those first century heroes of the faith. It is still alive today, still bringing life to people like us because of the myriads of unnamed folk who followed the example of this poor widow.

And what was key to the life of the Church, was not that this widow became more like the disciples, but the Apostles became more like her. She taught them, and us, how to follow Jesus. They got the press coverage, but that woman got something much more important. She helped them clear the way for the break through of God.

And because Jesus paid more attention to her than the people who were throwing their bags full of money into the offering, her story continues to show us the possibilities of the break through God as our own commitments, faith, and hope in the ways of Jesus grow.

Mark is telling us God isn’t looking for us to become Apostles, but to become people like this widow who are willing to give their all so God can break through in their lives and in this world.