Archive for October, 2008

Dreaming a Future That We Will Not See

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

It seems wildly unfair. If anyone had ever served God well it was Moses who gave his whole life to help the people of Israel get to the Promised Land. Moses sacrificed so much. The hours were long and hard. The opposition from without the community, and far too often, within the community was intense. Here is the guy who stood toe to toe with Pharaoh, and toe to toe with those who spent most of that forty years in the wilderness blaming him that they hadn’t gotten there yet.

But now they were there, or about there. And Moses wasn’t going to go with them. God told Moses to go to the top of the mountain, and look out and see the future that wouldn’t be his, the promise that would be fulfilled for others, not him.

It goes back to the story where the children of Israel were complaining, once again, about their travails in the wilderness. “There was no water there for the community, so they ganged up on Moses and Aaron: ‘We wish we’d died when the rest of our brothers died before God. Why did you haul this congregation of God out here into this wilderness to die, people and cattle alike? And why did you take us out of Egypt in the first place, dragging us into this miserable country? No grain, no figs, no grapevines, no pomegranates—and now not even any water!’” (Numbers 20:2-5)

So Moses and Aaron, after asking God for help, are told by God that Moses should strike a rock in front of the people of Israel and water would gush from it, which happened. But God was displeased by the whole incident, including feeling like Moses and Aaron hadn’t trusted God during that crisis. So God said that neither of them would get to go with the People of Israel into the Promised Land.

Aaron died along the way. And now Moses was looking across the expanse of the Promised Land which the others would enter, but not himself. And it seems like he was okay with that. Whatever that was with the rock and the water was something long past. On top of that mountain, looking out across the land, he saw a future that he had helped create, but a future that was not his.

This story of Moses and dreaming a future that he will not see, may be a pretty good metaphor for what it means to follow Jesus. We live in a time and place in the history of the world where instant gratification has become and inalienable right and the next quarterly financial report, or maybe who will be playing in the next Super Bowl, is about as much future as we can imagine. And the worst part about it is that we are content with that. 

Jesus came along though, and with the help of people like Moses, pointed us to something else. Following Jesus is about creating a future for others so they can create a future for others, as well.
I think Moses realized if all he had gone through was just about getting into the Promised Land himself then he had wasted the last forty years or so of his life. As he stood on that mountain top and looked at the land, he realized the land wasn’t the promise, setting foot in it wouldn’t mean much. But the possibilities of what could happen in that land in the years and decades and centuries to come was the real promise. It was a promise, though, a dream that would never be fulfilled if the people were simply trying to create a future for themselves.

In one of his famous war time speeches when it appeared England had survived the beginning onslaught of World War II, Winston Churchill told the people, that this was not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. I think that is what Moses realized on that mountain top. The forty years in the desert and the four centuries the people of Israel spent in Egypt were just the forward, now the story was about to start. And countless others would write it. Moses had done his part so others could see the future he dreamed.

In the gospels Jesus lays out a wonderful vision of the future. “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” Welcome the stranger. Take care of those in need. Live in peace, make enemies into friends. Open yourselves to God’s grace, and be graceful to each other. Appreciate gentleness and mercy, not power and revenge. Get rid of the borders and boundaries that separate us from each other.

Jesus was able to dream a future not simply for himself but for this world, for all of us. He set us on the path. And as his followers our call is to help others see that future that Jesus dreamed. Like Moses in the wilderness, Jesus calls us to live toward the dream, to start creating now the possibilities for the future that Jesus has laid out for us. We may not get there, but Jesus has surely shown us the Promised Land. But we are the church, the Body of Christ, the guides to the future, showing people the way by the way we live, by letting that future shape our present.

Moses, as he stood on the mountain top, may also well have realized that the future doesn’t come easily, and may have been ready for others to do their part. Rather than Moses not getting to go into the Promised Land, the real tragedy would have been nobody going into the Promised Land, the dream having died somewhere in the desert. But Moses kept it alive, and now the dream for the future was for others to see.

The challenge for the church is keeping the dream alive in the desert of its structures, its surrounding culture, its fear of a journey that takes us, sometimes, through harsh places. I remember reading a story about a man who lived in the horrors that overwhelmed so many in Central America in the 1980’s. In all the death and destruction, which had impacted his own family, he was asked how he could have any hope for the future, since things were getting worse rather than better. His response was that he trusted God’s promise and that maybe what God wanted for his country would not happen in his lifetime, or in his children’s lifetime, but maybe in his grandchildren’s lifetime. And that was enough vision for him to keep going, to keep working for peace amidst all the war and violence. He could see a future that would not be his, but he still wanted to keep moving toward it.

They buried Moses in an unmarked grave, just this side of the Promised Land. What a shame it would have been if they had erected a monument there. If they had, people would have been too easily tempted to live toward the past, keep visiting that grave, rather than live toward the future. And we are still too far from a future where people don’t fight and kill over the grounds they hallow, where they bury their heroes, including in the Promised Land.

And it never occurred to the gospel writers to place a historical marker on the tomb that Jesus exited, because that would have been about a dream of the past instead of a vision for the future.

Jesus wants people to know that God has a future for us not because they can make a pilgrimage to an empty tomb, but they can see people who have come alive in Jesus, who are rooted in his resurrection, and are dreaming of and working toward a future that is always ahead of them.

Maybe Moses did have some regrets that he never got to go into the Promised Land. But look what happened in his life along the way. He got to see the power of God at work. He got to see, as flawed as it was, a community come together for the purpose of making God’s ways known in this world. He may have dreamed of a future he never got to see, but there were glimpses along the way, signs of hope that kept him going. And at the end of his life he knew there was a future still to dream. And I call that a happy ending.

What you got in your pocket?

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

They kept trying, but it never worked. This time the Pharisees and the others sent the young ones, the first years, thinking somehow they would catch Jesus off guard. To help their case, they started by telling Jesus what a great teacher he was, how they appreciated his integrity, his insight into the ways of God, how he didn’t pander to his own disciples.

Maybe they got carried away and said something like, “You are so much better than our teachers. Your disciples are lucky to have a guy like you when you consider what we are stuck with.” Their teachers were, of course, listening and hoping they were going to get on with the point of this whole exercise, setting the trap.

And they did. “Oh Jesus, you really know so much about all of this stuff, so much more than our teachers. So what do you think about this tax thing. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?”

Those old guys standing just within earshot thought they had Jesus now. If he said, “No, it’s not right to pay taxes to Caesar,” all they had to do was go over and get one of the guards and say there is a seditionist right here. “We think he is some kind of revolutionary, maybe even one of the Zealots.”

If Jesus said, “Yes, it is right to pay taxes to Caesar,” he would have lost his growing base of supporters who would have then dismissed him as another religious charlatan, at best, and torn him apart, at worst, as just another collaborator with the Roman occupiers.

So they were all on tip toes waiting to see which way the trap was going to close; the Nazarene hauled off to the dungeons where he could get in the crucifixion line, or watching as the crowds turned on him right then and there. Maybe they would even rip him apart. Whatever happened, somebody was going do their dirty work for them. None of his blood would be on their righteous hands.

Things, though, didn’t turn out exactly as planned. This is a pretty famous story, but most of us miss some very important details. You’ve heard of the Ten Commandments? What are the first two? Thou shall not have any gods before me, and thou shall not make graven images. The folk in Jesus’ day took the commandments very, very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it was against the laws and precepts of their religion to carry something like, for example, a coin with Caesar’s image on it. Caesar was proclaimed to be a god, so to carry a coin with his image on it was, in the mind set of the day, to directly violate the first two commandments, no other gods, no graven images.

Don’t forget they were in the Temple of all places. And these guys had coins with them that depicted a graven image of another god. So when Jesus, instead of answering their question about paying taxes to Caesar with a yes or no, asks them to pull out a coin with Caesar’s image on it, he had them right there. They knew it. Jesus knew it. The crowd knew it. There might have even been an audible gasp when they pulled that coin out of one of their pockets without thinking about the implications of doing such a thing.

That could very well have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Jesus still had another point to make along with the one already made when Israel’s bright, young religious leaders pulled that coin out of one of their pockets. Carrying coins with Caesar’s image on it might have been something everyone did, since it was the coin of the realm. But, they couldn’t admit they were doing it, especially if you were a part of the religious establishment. But Jesus was always finding ways to point out the hypocrisy of the religious class that was always calling his faithfulness into question.

But Jesus kept going. Since it was too late to stick the coin back in the pocket, he said they might as well take a good look at the image on the coin. “Whose image is it?”

“Caesar’s.” “Well, give Caesar what is his, and give God what is God’s.”

Much of the history of the interpretation of this passage has been the absolutely backwards attempt to figure out what belongs to Caesar. Actually, the point is to figure out what belongs to God. And it turns out there is not much left over for Caesar.

One of the things driving that, of course, is because a lot of would be Caesar’s and others in the ruling class over the ages have wanted us to think in these backward terms. “Figure out what you owe us, it’s right there in the Bible.”

And when you start from that end of things, it can all get pretty distorted. They think we owe them a lot. Not just our money, but our allegiance, and our support for their imperial cravings for war and power and blind obedience. I can’t remember who said “my country, right or wrong,” but it sure wasn’t Jesus. We don’t owe Caesar any of that.

When we start looking at it from the other direction, though, give to God what is God’s, the whole picture changes. God and Caesar are not co-equal partners in the human enterprise, you can’t serve God and country any more than you can serve God and money. “You have to make a choice,” Jesus says as he looks at that illicit coin.

That’s what Jesus was doing that morning. He was talking about choices, not setting up some kind of guideline about what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. Jesus was starting from the point where all Jews started, or said they started; everything is God’s.

The issue isn’t whether you are carrying a coin in your pocket that shouldn’t be there, but what does that coin mean in your life. You got any coins in your pockets or folding money in your purse or wallet? What does that money say on it? In God we trust. Really? Or do we trust that piece of money we hold in our hands, or the balance in our accounts that is printed out on that little slip of paper the ATM spits out?

Jesus wasn’t trying to trap anybody here. He was just trying to get them to think about what their lives are really about, he is trying to get us to think about what our lives are really about. When it comes time to render our allegiance, and that time comes all the time, where does it go? To Caesar? To our money market accounts? To our own image, graven and otherwise? To God?

“Stop trying to stop listening to me,” Jesus keeps telling them, “and maybe you will hear something from God, something that will change your lives. Stop trying to set traps for me, and work your way out of the traps you are already in.”

Jesus looks at that coin and maybe says something like “believe me, there is no bigger trap than Caesar, no bigger trap than nation, with all its idolatrous demands, some subtle, others not so much. Our Caesars, our nations, think they are gods, and demand obedience, sacrifice, and worship. They have rituals they want us to perform, holy days they want us to observe, texts they want us to venerate, symbols they want us to consecrate, and sacrifices, sometimes human, they want us to offer.”

No other gods before me, no graven images. There is so much that wants our allegiance, to be right there in our pockets, so much a part of us that we just pull it out without even thinking what we are doing.

All Jesus is doing in this story is helping us to stop and think about what we really want. It’s not so much about what God expects us to give to God or Caesar, but what we want to give to God or anyone or anything else. Do we want those things of God like love and mercy and compassion, like commitment and faith and hope in something beyond ourselves? Do we want to believe in what Jesus believed in or do we want something else? What are we carrying around in our pockets? And where’s the trap?

Heroes and Stuff

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me;

Says I, “But, Joe, you’re ten years dead.”

“I never died,” said he.

“I never died,” said he.



Be not afraid:


So Moses was up on the mountain, talking with God, without preconditions (that’s something leaders learn: you wanna talk with God, you don’t get to set any preconditions!). Moses was the Leader, the Hero of the Exodus, the designated driver for the trip through the desert, and he was up on the mountain, getting directions. 


Let’s set this in time – that helps us keep track of all these different stories we hear in church: it was 1200 years or so before Jesus was born, after Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and 400 years of slavery in Egypt, but 1200 years before last week’s story about the vineyard.


I can’t match the way Mary and Steve interpret the gospels, so I wanted to talk about Moses and the people of Israel and the Golden Calf, because it’s relevant: it tells about our elections.


Moses was up on the mountain, leading the people – who, you will notice, were not up on the mountain. Sometimes leaders get ahead of their people – it’s one of the hazards of the job – and sometimes they get away from their people, which is not a bad thing for anybody.


And the people said, “How can Moses lead if we can’t see him? We want him to come down here and lead! He’s been gone a long time, and we don’t know what’s become of him.” 

Moses’ brother, Aaron, was the First Priest of Israel, and a pretty sharp public-relations advisor and marketing expert, and Aaron, like all good priests and PR flaks, understood that people like tangibles – things they can touch and leaders they can see. So Aaron said, “Give me your ear studs and your navel rings and your bracelets and stuff, and whatever bling you liberated from Egypt when we left,” and he melted it all down and made a Golden Calf out of it. 


Or a “bull.” You can translate it either way.


It was a Bull Market. Bulls were favorite idols of the Canaanites, who were supposed to be the enemies of the Hebrew people, the people they were going to be fighting. So this is a story about abandoning your own values, following alien values.


The people of Israel bowed down and worshipped the Bull. The Bull didn’t do much, but … he was there: they could see him. He was tangible. “That’s our god,” they said, “he brought us out of Egypt.” So they had a festival, a Dance celebrating their deliverer.


Sort of like the people who think Ronald Reagan defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War: he didn’t do much, either, but he was there – you could see him, so people gave him the credit.


So what was wrong with that picture? Where did the Hebrew people go wrong in that story?


[answers from congregation]


They did worship the Golden Bull, but why did they worship the Golden Bull? … Because they didn’t have Moses. The problem with the Golden Bull was not that he was a substitute for God; the Golden Bull was a substitute for Moses. The people had made Moses their substitute for God. 


The problem here is Moses. Or, not Moses, but the fact that the people, in their excitement about getting out of slavery, getting out of Egypt, forgot the bigger picture and turned to something immediate and tangible as though it were God. And that’s our problem, too, in our perception of Presidents and candidates. We look for heroes and we treat them like gods.


The people forgot this “Exodus” thing was only part of the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham, forgot that neither slavery nor liberation was the whole story, or the end of the story, forgot that the whole story is God’s steadfast love for Israel, and that story goes on, regardless what happens to Moses. 


They lost perspective.


Years later, just before they crossed the Jordan River and took the promised land, Moses went up on a mountain again, and looked over and saw Canaan, and put it in some perspective again. He knew he wouldn’t get to go to Canaan. He told the people that, but he didn’t let them despair. “This is not the whole story,” he said, in effect. “This is not about me getting to the promised land, and it’s not even about the people who came out of Egypt getting to the promised land, it’s about starting a new chapter in the larger story of God’s steadfast love, unfailing, steadfast love.”


Martin Luther King repeated that message the night before he was killed. “I’ve been to the mountain top,” he said, “and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but that doesn’t matter,” he said – pay particular attention to that – “I may not get there with you, but that doesn’t matter.”


“It’s not about me. Your hope is not in me.”


The movement does not rise or fall only on the success of its heroes.


Think about a time slightly earlier than Martin Luther King – the time of the great labor movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America. People fought and struggled and prayed and died for even the most rudimentary hints of the beginnings of a shadow of justice in the workplace. I know them mostly from songs I heard in the 60’s on WFMT radio in Chicago. Woody Guthrie’s songs, songs about Joe Hill and the Wobblies and all those people.


Those heroes always included a message that this is not about “me,” and sometimes the message that they did not even expect to win the battle at hand. Those struggles were not about succeeding at the moment, necessarily, they were about opening a new future for another generation, and the songs always included a reminder that the book isn’t finished, even if the chapter has ended. 


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me,

says I, “but Joe, you’re ten years dead.” 

“I never died,” said he. 

“I never died,” said he.

The labor movement would have died in its tracks if people had quit when their strikes were broken or their leaders were killed. Heroes are not the movement. Moses died, but the people entered the Promised Land; Joe Hill died, but the movement went on; Martin Luther King died, but the struggle for peace, the struggle for justice and liberation and equality goes on, and expands and extends; Jesus died, but that is not the problem for the Christian movement.


Heroes have their place, but the story doesn’t begin or end with them.


The problem, back at the mountain, was that the people made Moses their hero, and treated their hero like a god; they took their eye off of God because they forgot it was God who brought them out of Egypt, not Moses; they forgot they could get along without Moses, but they couldn’t get along without God. They forgot their hero was only part of something larger. 


“So Moses is up on the mountain, and we don’t know what’s become of him. Oh, well, it doesn’t matter; we’ll just wait.” 


That’s what they should have said. But they made themselves too dependent on him and on his tangible presence, they turned him into an idol. The relationship became destructive, idolatrous. He was an extraordinary man, a leader chosen by God, but he was just a man, and if they needed another leader, God would provide one.


That’s what I’m worried about in this election. In fact, in the past two elections at least. I’m worried because I hear people say sometimes, “if we don’t win this election, it’s all over – this country is down the tubes.” “Everything depends on the success of this candidate.”


“If my candidate loses, I’m going to Canada,” that’s just as bad as, “if my candidate loses, God will surely smite the country.” That’s Idolatry, Golden Bull: “If my hero doesn’t win, it’s the end of the world.”


Well, see, Joe Hill never said anything like that. Martin Luther King never said anything like that. Jesus never said anything like that. 


A leader is not somebody who takes you to the end of the story; a leader is somebody who keeps your story from coming to an end. (Which is something Moses also did, in the story we read today.)


So as we come up to “the most important election of your life.” It matters very much how it comes out, it matters very much who wins, but either way, it’s not the end of the story. And either way it is up to us to carry on the next chapter of the unfolding revelation of God’s steadfast love, and the unfolding and unfinished story of America’s place in the quest for liberation and justice. Those things go on, either way.


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

alive as you or me; –


if we’re alive, he’s alive – in fact, he’s alive if we’re alive, because we’re alive.


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

alive as you or me;

Says I, “but Joe, you’re eight years dead;”

“I never died,” said he. 

“I never died,” said he.