Archive for November, 2007

A King I Can Live With

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

On the church calendar, the last Sunday of the church year is Christ the King Sunday. It’s always a difficult thing for me, because I’ve never been overly impressed by kings or most other authority figures. But I’m starting to come around a bit, when it comes to Jesus anyway.

We have talked about this before. In addition to my problems with authority, there is also the fact that in the 21st century, in the United States of America, of all places, the idea of kings and queens has little or no relevance to our lives. Don’t forget that the history of this nation is built on the premise that we don’t have any real use for kings, thank you.

There is also the fact that in most other places in this world the notion of kings isn’t all that popular either. Name a king for me. If we can name any kings, we tend to think of them as either despots or figureheads. I don’t think that is the way we want to be looking at Jesus.

The kings we probably know best are characters in Disney movies who are usually portrayed as gruff but lovable buffoons who are easily manipulated by their precocious children. And everyone knows that they are incapable of ruling a kingdom, so staff and family have to do it behind the scenes. Again, I’m not sure that’s the image we want of Christ as King.

In the gospels there are also the stories where Jesus rejected the idea of being a king. In John 6 Jesus takes off when he realizes, as the text reads, “they were about the grab him and make him king.”

There is also the encounter with Pilate that we read earlier this morning (Luke 23 and John 18) where Jesus leaves Pilate nothing but confused when it comes to Jesus being a king.

So even though there is, in my opinion, ample reason to negate any idea of a Christ the King Sunday, we still have one. And, the more I think about it, the more I can live with it. Those church calendar guys might be smarter than I think.

When the new church year begins next Sunday with Advent, there is going to be lots of talk about this tiny baby, born to be a king. Maybe, in what may be a bit of a clumsy way, the church calendar is reminding us on Christ the King Sunday to not miss the point of the story, which can so often get lost in our overly sentimentalized view of Christmas. What authority are we going to grant this new born babe in our lives? It’s great to sing the carols, to recall our happy Christmases past, to get out all the decorations, to gather with family and friends, to attend the Christmas pageants, to take a couple of weeks or so and live in the Christmas mode. But come the end of the year, what will this baby make of us? Is there any rule we are going to allow him to exert over us?

Christ the King Sunday encourages us to go into Christmas with our eyes and hearts a bit more open to the implications of the story, implications that go far beyond a manger and shepherds in Bethlehem, to soldiers and a bloody execution ground on a hill outside of Jerusalem. It wasn’t some weird turn of events that caused the baby to grow up and die on a cross. The way he lived set him on that course, and it’s a way he has called us to follow.

That course Jesus walked to the cross is one that has caused him to earn authority in my life. One of my problems with authority is that people in authority tend to think that it is something we grant them by virtue of their office or position. I’m not going to do that. But if somebody, like Jesus, has done something to earn authority that’s a different matter. And it does demand a response.

I’m always one who questions authority. And I don’t mind questioning the authority of Jesus. But he always comes back with a pretty good answer.

In that story where Pilate asked Jesus if he were a king, Jesus says, not the kind of king you’re thinking of, anyway. When Jesus says this kingdom is not of this world, he’s not saying that his concern is only about heaven and he has to do with earth. He’s saying it’s a different kind of kingdom than this world is used to, one that is little interested in the way we normally think of kings or power or wealth or status. And he very much wants that kingdom to be a part of this world. But it won’t happen if he has little or no real authority in our lives, if we never get beyond the babe in the manger.

We don’t have a real good word for that place Jesus holds in our lives, or means to hold. The idea of a king is not only discredited in our day, but it was in his, too. He surely didn’t want to be what kings were in his day. The word boss doesn’t work. Jesus is not the boss of our lives.

We use the word Lord, but again, we have no reference point. I doubt we are meaning to uphold the feudal system when we say it, and I doubt Jesus wants us to do that either. The Message Bible uses the word Master, but that gets into the whole slave/master dichotomy and I think we can all agree that Jesus wasn’t into the slavery system.

The best word I can think of is Servant, because that’s what ultimately has won Jesus authority in my life. He came to serve and show us how to serve, to realize our lives are connected with every other life and we are here for the service and benefit of each other, here for the service of the creation, here to serve God.

Can you imagine what it would have been like if Jesus tried to explain to Pilate that if Jesus were indeed a king, he was a king who came to serve others. Pilate would not have had any way to grab hold of that save being saved, turning his life over to the authority of Jesus the Servant of Servants. But how can any of us, of royal ancestry or not, grab hold of what Jesus is about unless we surrender ourselves to the authority of the one who came to serve.

If we are as enthralled with the Christmas story as most of us claim to be how are we going to change our lives? What commitments, priorities, bank accounts, goals, are we going to change to live under the authority of Jesus? Christ the King Sunday is telling us that’s what the Christmas story we are about to recall is asking us.

We just finished this fall’s Bible Study using that audio resource we had from this summer’s Baptist Peace Fellowship peace camp. In one of those studies, Vern Ratzlaff, the leader, using language that may be inadequate, but again, we don’t have a lot of alternatives for, said that every day when we first stared into the mirror it would do us good if we reminded ourselves that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the one who has authority in our lives.

In the context of the study it was the authority of Jesus trumping the authority of the empire. But there are other authorities that try to supplant the authority of Jesus in our lives. It may be the authority we give our addictions and compulsions, the authority we give our careers, the authority we give our calendars, the authority we give our peers, the authority we give our grudges, the authority we give our prejudices, the authority we give our culture, the authority we give our bodies. But this is Christ the King Sunday. We are about to celebrate the authority of the one who came to serve, and his authority is far beyond what ever else is demanding to be authority in our lives. Bob Dylan had it right in that song of his, ‘You Got To Serve Somebody.’ Christ the King Sunday gets us asking that question of who are we going to really serve, who is really going to have authority in our lives as we tell the Christmas story again? Does it get past tinsel and wassail to authority that changes how we live?

I don’t know who I write to see if they’ll change the name to Christ The One Who Offers Us His Authority In Our Lives Sunday. I think that’s what they really mean. But, more importantly, they want us to know what we mean when we welcome our new born king into the world.

If God is the God of the living, how alive are we?

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

This past year, I have walked alongside my mother as her protracted and valiant battle with cancer finally ended. I have also walked alongside my daughter during her pregnancy, labor, and delivery (although the delivery part was reserved for Rachel and her husband, Juan Carlos!). In many ways, the dying and the birthing were very similar. Both were powerfully infused with the presence of God.

As my mom lay dying, I had the distinct feeling that she was laboring through a host of memories and internal struggles in order to lay many things to rest. Only then, could she let go of this life and embrace the next. Rachel’s labor was much shorter and less difficult than mom’s, but–as the labor pains began–it was clear that metamorphosis was on the horizon!

Birthing and dying are perhaps the starkest events that confront us with our thoughts and questions about eternal life. Every one of us was born; every one of us will die. The differences in our life experiences collapse under the weight of the universality of our humanity. Long ago, I heard a Native American speak of the places in life where the veil between this world and the next is very thin. Birthing and dying are two of those places.

Is there life after death? Do our five senses tell the whole story about what is real and what is not? There was debate about these questions among the Jewish religious parties in Jesus’ day, just as there is among many today.

While the Pharisees subscribed to both the Law of Moses and the teachings of the rabbis, the Sadducees only subscribed to the Law of Moses, the first five books of our Bible. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, convinced that it was not mentioned in the Law of Moses. The Pharisees, on the other hand, did believe in resurrection. While the Pharisees were popular among the masses, the primary following of the Sadducees was among the upper class. In interpreting the Law, the Sadducees were renown for their sharp disagreements, not only with the Pharisees but also among one another.

Both religious parties had sharp disagreements with Jesus as well. His increasing popularity was a threat to their own leadership within the Temple and among the Jewish people. The Sadducees and Pharisees frequently sought to trap Jesus with their questions about the Law. In turn, Jesus sharply criticized them for their focus on outer shows of religious piety over practical acts of justice and mercy.

Within such a context, some Sadducees pose a question to Jesus, expanding on their own “proof text” from Deuteronomy 25:5-10. This text describes a practice known as Levirate marriage, wherein the brother of a deceased man would marry the man’s widow if two conditions were met: there couple had borne no sons, and the deceased man lived on the same property as his brother. The purpose of such an arrangement was to provide “seed” from the man’s house, seed that would perpetuate the family line and provide for the widow of the deceased husband. There is no evidence that Levirite marriage was practiced in Jesus’ day.

So the Sadducees come up with a remotely possible but primarily implausible scenario. If a woman faces this process seven times and no seed is produced from any of the unions, whose husband is she in the “supposed” resurrection?

Jesus gives different answers to different people about resurrection, depending on the spirit in which the question is asked. We can contrast this detached, analytical, hypothetical scenario about death and the afterlife with the distraught, personal, and immediate question Jesus’ dear friend Martha puts to him after her brother, Lazarus, has died. Martha runs out to meet Jesus on the road and breathlessly cries out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” (John 11:21).

Jesus and Martha talk about resurrection as well. Martha does believe in it, but she puts it off to the future when Jesus talks about it in the present tense. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he declares (John 11:25). Illustrating that fact with the sheer force of divine love, Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus and then calls the dead man out with the powerful words, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44).
How different this scenario is to that of the group of male Sadducees (they were all male) speaking with Jesus about the effect of Levirite marriage in an afterlife that they do not believe in. The Sadducees assume that, if there is a resurrection, the next world must be a simple continuation of this one. Jesus blows the lid off not only their crafty argument, but also the assumptions beneath it.

Some of us don’t like Jesus’ argument very much. We’re so set with our own assumptions on this topic that we aren’t much more open than the Sadducees were long ago. Anyone who has worked with hospice or walked alongside a dying family member or friend knows that people often begin talking with or seeing long departed family members. And if someone has been married a long time, and had a decent marriage, it seems sensible to long to be reunited with a deceased spouse.

The Sadducees, however, are missing the most important point about resurrection. The primary reunion in the resurrection is not between us and long deceased loved ones, as significant as that may be. The primary reunion is between ourselves and our Maker. “All ecstasies and intimacies will then be with God,” is the way The Message Bible puts it.

In a recent conversation with a student about her views of the afterlife, she blurted out, “I don’t want to sit around and play the harp all day long! That sounds boring!”

“God is the God of the living, not the dead,” Jesus proclaims to the Sadducees. “All are alive to [God]” (Luke 20:38). Further, Jesus uses a reference from Moses to prove his point–Moses, whose story is retold in the scriptures the Sadducees revere!

We don’t need to do a word study on “resurrection” to discover resurrection in the first five books of the Bible. God is a God of life, not death. God yearns to offer life, not death. “Choose life!” God urges the Israelites (Deut. 30:19).

I will never forget the death of Bob Thomas, one of the many saints of this church. Bob was 90 when he passed away in March 1983. If ever there was a person who longed to be reunited with his beloved wife and childhood sweetheart, Dorothea, it was Bob. As he lay dying, going in and out of consciousness, he kept asking, “What day is it? What day is it?” “It is Sunday, dad,” his daughter, Helen said.

The next day Bob roused and again asked, “What day is it?” “It is Monday, dad,” Helen replied.

As Tuesday came, the same thing happened. “What day is it?” Bob asked again. “It is Tuesday, dad.”

Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, Bob fell into a final coma and died in his sleep. As daylight broke, Helen realized that Tuesday was her parents’ wedding anniversary. Dorothea had died fourteen years before. Even though Bob had finally let her go, there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t love and miss her.

But there is another part of Bob’s story that I need to tell. All who knew him encountered a gentle, humble, loving man with a simple yet powerful faith. Bob’s heart was always bent on reconciliation between people, whether on City Council, in the community, at the church, or in the home. When Bob died, he simply crossed over. It was, truly, an unbroken passageway from life to life.

The Sadducees may have had a following among the educated rationalists, but they were missing something very crucial in their devotion to the Law. What had they missed? Jesus’ open invitation to encounter and then follow the God of Life.

Our ultimate reason for being here today is to meet that very God in the company and fellowship of one another. God is the reason we’re here. God is the reason we do what we do. God is the reason we teach, serve, preach, heal, hear, listen, study, struggle, sing, pray, rejoice, weep, love, live, dream, hope, wait…we could go on and on.

Many of you know that I began Spiritual Direction fall of 2006. If you don’t know what that is, Spiritual Direction is rich within the Catholic tradition. It basically provides another set of eyes and ears on the movement of God in one’s life.

I have been wanting to have a Spiritual Director for a long time, and last fall I found the right person for me. Carol is a little older than me, and has experienced all the parts of life that I needed a spiritual director to have experienced. Her first question to me at nearly every visit is, “Mary, how is your heart? Tell me about your heart.” The superficial, the theoretical, the external is peripheral. What matters is the deepest part of me, the place where I encounter the God of Life.

Our principle task in Spiritual Direction right now is what I one day nicknamed “the Drano process”–unclogging places of the heart that need healing and clearness so that I can more authentically follow the Living One to whom I have committed my life. Some of that is grief work over the death of my parents. Some of it is discernment over priorities and what my deepest heart is calling me to do. Some of it is discipline in trying new methods of prayer, silence, and listening to God.

“Other types of prayer are easier for me!” I protest to Carol as she insists that I continue allowing for periods of total silent openness on a regular basis. As a child, sitting still was always the hardest punishment my mother could ever offer for any childish infraction. Now, it becomes a discipline of waiting on God.

Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees poses this same question back to them. “If God is the God of the Living, and all are alive to God, are you alive in God? Is your spiritual journey a living journey with a living God?”

Are we, like the Apostle Paul, so taken by the risen Christ that we debate within ourselves which would be better–to serve God here and now, or be with God in the life to come? (II Cor. 5:6-9). That takes vision. But it also takes knowing the Risen Christ as friend and first love. This is our every day, central calling to discipleship. This is the meaning of our worship. All else flows from it. Amen.

What if Zacchaeus wanted to join your church?

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

In Luke 18 there is that story where Jesus is confronted by a rich man who asks what he can do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says, “Easy. Sell all you have and give it to the poor and find your riches in heaven.” The rich man is stunned by that answer, as are the disciples. And Jesus says, “You know, it’s easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than for rich folk to know God’s Kingdom.” So the disciples say, “how can anybody be saved?” “Well,” Jesus says, “it’s not really something you can do on your own, but God can do it.”

Well a few verses later we have a story about a rich guy who actually does the trick. He discovers for himself the Kingdom of God. The camel actually made it through the eye of the needle.

The story of Zacchaeus is familiar to most of us. One of the commentators I read this week, says it is not only a well known story, but a key story in the Gospel of Luke and, indeed, in our understanding of the ministry of Jesus. In it we see that whole theme of the upside down kingdom that courses through the gospels.

Zacchaeus is despised by the people. He is a collaborator with the occupying forces. He has made himself rich by taking as much money as he can from as many poor people as he can. He’s this short measly guy that they would love to beat to a pulp, but he always has a Roman guard with him. And that probably produces a bit of arrogance in him. You can imagine people elbowing and pushing him as much as they can get away with as he tries to cut through the crowd, and then finally makes that fateful decision to climb the sycamore tree. But, Jesus let’s the crowd know that God loves Zacchaeus and that salvation has come to his house. He even has lunch with him and treats him like a friend.

I do think this is a pivotal story in the Gospels. It raises lots of issues like who is the insider and who is the outsider. It challenges our perceptions of God and money and social and political relationships. Jesus doesn’t openly condemn and express his contempt for the likes of Zacchaeus. Rather, he saves him.

This is not new territory for us around here. So that’s why I would like to focus on something else that this story brings to mind. Zacchaeus, this tax collector, this collaborator, this man who has exploited poor people most of his life is now one of the gang. How do you think the disciples felt about that? He was now a member of the church, so to speak.

What do you think happened the first time Ananias brought Paul, or they were still calling him Saul then, to church? According to the story in Acts 9 the disciples “were caught of guard by this and, not at all sure they could trust him, they kept saying, ‘Isn’t this the man who wreaked havoc in Jerusalem among the believers? And didn’t he come here to Damascus to do the same thing–arrest us and drag us off to jail in Jerusalem for sentencing by the high priests?’”

This movement of Jesus followers consisted of people who regarded each other with suspicion, fear, loathing, and disgust. There were tax collectors with Jesus, people making sure the Roman occupation had the money it needed to keep Israel under Rome’s control. But there were also the freedom fighters, people who would rather slit the throats of the likes of Zacchaeus and that other tax collector Matthew, than sit in church with them.

This group of people who followed Jesus and those who became the nucleus of the very first days of the church had to cross political, theological, social, and class boundaries. Suddenly rich were together with poor, slaves with slave owners, Jews with Gentiles, men with women, the pious with the irreverent. All those folk had lived their lives separated from each other, physically, socially, and psychologically. They looked at each other through the eyes of prejudice and stereotypes.

I think it is also fair to say that some of them probably weren’t even nice, no matter how redeemed they were. I wouldn’t be surprised that Zacchaeus had a bit of an attitude even after he started giving his money away. And, of course, the Apostle Paul has his own lack of social graces. Evidently, some of the women in the first church were regarded as a bit pushy, and even the disciples didn’t get along all that well with each other.

We read about arguments in the early church over doctrine, the place of women and Gentiles, and there were personality conflicts. But, they managed to build the church with each other. How did that happen?

They had a vision that enabled them to look past what they usually saw. Salvation had come to each of their homes, and that took on more importance than the other things that had seemed so important before. Jesus was changing their lives were changing. They knew they could be better people than they were. Sometimes it was easier to give their money away, stop oppressing others than crossing the divides betwen them.

But, they were able to cross all those gulfs between them, and acknowledge each other as sister and brother in Jesus Christ. The call to follow Jesus was a call to a changed life. They got past whether they liked each other or not, and loved each other.

There was something far more important going on than personality clashes, theological differences, and social custom that divided folk by income, class, race, religion, nationality, and gender. Peoples’ feelings might get hurt. People might feel misunderstood, ignored, or slighted. They might not know how to deal with the eccentricities and irritating behavior they found in each other. There were old hurts and new wounds. But this was the community of Jesus Christ, built on forgiveness, grace and love, and the possibility of new starts. And they had a calling to change their lives and the world with each other.

It wasn’t always easy. Paul writes about the divisions in the Corinthian church and James isn’t too pleased with some of the things he had seen happening in the churches he had been in. But this was all new to everybody. Before Jesus came along no one had suggested that they cross the boundaries between themselves. Instead, they had been taught to stay behind them, had been told, in fact, that it was the religious thing to do. It wasn’t an easy thing to bring this vision of a new humanity to church with them.

At the end of Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul offers a bit on context to help the folk in Ephesus, and us, move with each other to the future. “Don’t grieve God. Don’t break God’s heart. God’s Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, in the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for God. Don’t take such a gift for granted. Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, and profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.”

There was a whole pile of forgiveness that needed to be sent Zacchaeus’ way. And given the disdain and contempt with which others looked at him, he probably had to offer some forgiveness right back at them.

I don’t think Zacchaeus was the only one saved that day. Jesus showed that crowd the new possibility for their lives and all of humanity he was offering. Those who had ears to hear and eyes to see would get a glimpse at the ways of God that day, they would see God’s kingdom coming.

In some ways it seems so impossible. It’s not surprising the disciples wondered how anyone could be saved after that encounter Jesus had with the rich man. But Jesus was always sure of the power of God to change our lives.

What shows that more than the Lord’s Table? Since the very first time Jesus had communion with those men and women he loved in that room the night before he died, his followers have been crossing all kinds of lines and boundaries and borders to get to this table with each other.

They have been gentle, abrasive, rich, poor, black, white, loud, introverted, gay, straight, mentally ill, men, women, young, old, physically disabled, caring, self-focused, full of faith, full of doubt, hungry, satisfied, eager, lazy, angry, forgiving, generous, stingy, self-confident, self-loathing, conservative, liberal, hurt, healed, rejected, accepted, hated, and loved. We’ve all come to the same table–limping, walking, running–with that vast company of saints that surrounds us, Zacchaeus and all the rest, including those in this room with us, because Jesus wants to eat with us.

Salvation has come to our house.