Archive for August, 2010

When Jesus Stopped Going To Church

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Luke 13:10-17
August 22, 2010
Steve Hammond

Was Jesus dechurched? In Luke’s gospel there are five stories about Jesus going to the synagogue for worship. This is the last of those stories. We don’t know if that means Luke never bothered to record any of the other times Jesus went to the synagogue for worship, or if Jesus never bothered to go to services again.

Going to church was never really easy for Jesus. The first time he went, they tried to throw him over a cliff. Talk about not feeling welcomed. Jesus was used to getting pretty shabby treatment from the religious authorities. But was there something about what happened this time, that put Jesus over the edge? Not the edge of the cliff, but the edge of not going to church?

This is a pretty familiar story. Mary Meadows occasionally sings that song about the bent over woman that Ken Medema wrote. And Ken gets it right. There is a lot more going on in this story than simply about one woman being healed and able to stand up straight. It’s about all women who have been oppressed by a patriarchal system standing up straight, and about all people who have been oppressed by whoever or whatever finding the chance to stand up tall and look Jesus eye to eye.

Is the reason Jesus walked out of church that day never to return if, indeed, he never did go back because he was sick and tired of the religious folk not getting it?

Why should there be such an uproar from the synagogue officials when Jesus healed that women who had been bent over for 18 years? You would think they would join the woman and those who were rejoicing with her in proclaiming the mighty thing that God had just done. In fact, since they were the religious leaders, the one’s who said the knew most about God, they should be leading the celebration.

But they weren’t rejoicing over the great thing that had happened for the woman. They were mad because Jesus had violated the church rules and healed this woman on the Sabbath.

The madder they got, the madder Jesus got. How on earth had it come to this that the rules and regulations meant more than peoples’ lives? What kind of religion is that?

What do we read Jesus saying to the religious leaders in Matthew 23? “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned.” And “You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing story that’s wrong from start to finish, but nitpicking over commas and semicolons?”

Maybe Jesus had just had it with those people and now he was going to go to the synagogue in the streets, where everyone was bent over and trying to catch a glimpse of God. He wouldn’t be the last one to give up on the church.

You know those bracelets people used to wear? WWJD, what would Jesus do? It’s a good question. I’m thinking about this story of the bent over woman and wondering if another question we might want to ask is Would Jesus Go to our Church? That’s WJGTOC. Would he walk in here and see bent over people helping each other to stand up straight? Would he see people who believe that the love of God is at hand, a love that transcends all our rules and regulations for the sake, not of the institution, but the people? Not only the people who are a part of our church but all people. Would he say, “Hey, these people are catching on to the Realm of God. They may not be very good at it, but they are trying.”

WJGTOC. What a great challenge for us. I think there are lots of churches Jesus would attend, and lots he wouldn’t. So I’m not suggesting that church has to be done any one way for Jesus to feel comfortable there. But there are surely some things Jesus would be looking for. You kind of get hints of some of that in the gospel stories when he went to synagogue. He was looking for a faith community where the people were more important than the rules. That stuff he said about loving God with all our hearts and souls and minds and selves, and loving our neighbors as ourselves probably would come into play if he were looking for a church. The last being first. The peacemakers being the children of God. People willing to take risks with each other and God. It seems to me these are the kind of things Jesus would have in mind if he were to become a member of our or any congregation.

The question isn’t would Jesus go to someone else’s church, but would he go to our church? We have all kinds of experiences with all kinds of churches. Some of us have had our own experiences of walking out of church, vowing to never go back, only to find ourselves back at it here with one another.

And we have to be careful to not make it enough that we are not like them. We can’t determine what happens in other churches. This is the church we’ve got to work with. The church we have the privilege and the grace to work with. I think, I hope, we have realized that God is calling us to help bent over people stand up. It’s more important what we are doing than what others aren’t doing.

We get bent over in all kinds of ways. Sometimes it’s the weight that others put on us because of our race, gender, income, nationality, abilities, sexual orientation, or psychological or social inadequacies. Sometimes it’s the weight our families put on us.

And sometimes it’s the weight we put on ourselves because we believe stupid things about ourselves, others, and God. We get bent over by the sin of others and ourselves.

Happily, Jesus is in the sin freeing game. He wouldn’t have walked out of that synagogue if the leaders understood God was calling them to help people stand up straight, rather than piling more burdens on others.

And it wasn’t that the leaders were totally awful. Remember the guy said it would have been okay to heal the woman, to help her stand up straight on any other day. But that just seemed to make it worse for Jesus. It’s like the guy knew what was right, but felt there was a greater principle at stake than helping that poor woman. How could that man imagine that upholding the crazy Sabbath regulations they had come up with was something more holy than helping bent over people stand up? Was it enough to make Jesus walk out of church and vow to never come back.

Lots of people in that synagogue applauded what Jesus did that day and they walked out of church with him. And people have been doing the same thing ever since.

How do we get Jesus and all the rest back in our churches? WJGTOC. Would Jesus Go To Our Church? If we are making a church that Jesus would feel good about then we are on the right track. And some of those folk, like so many of us, just might give church another chance.

Family Ties?

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Luke 12:49-56
August 15, 2010
Steve Hammond

Three against two,
and two against three;
Father against son,
and son against father;
Mother against daughter,
and daughter against mother;
Mother-in-law against bride,
and bride against mother-in-law.”

Raise your hand if this story we read from Luke’s gospel today is your favorite passage of scripture.

This is one of those Jesus stories that really makes people uncomfortable. He was not the one everyone was excited to see at the family reunion.

There is, of course, the issue that family meant something much different in Jesus’ day than ours. If you plunged some folk from first century Palestine into our day and age and introduced your family to them, they would be so confused. What we call family would make no sense to them. They wouldn’t be interested in our kids or our siblings or parents or spouse. They would want to know who the patriarch or the clan leader is and be taken to him. He (and it would be a he) would be the only one that mattered because what they understood as family would all be built around him and his wishes and desires. And his wishes and desires would be built around the expectations of the village and all its customs and ways of doing things. He would be the one who decides who lives where, who marries whom, what jobs people in this large extended family do, etc. If it were a small family with no older male still around to run things, the village elders or a distant relative would have that responsibility. They would understand family as your clan, not the people you share a home with, or grew up with.

This is why all this talk about the Bible and family values makes so little sense. Do you know about honor killings? Well honor killing is a family value in parts of this world. Family members kill other family members because of the perceived dishonor a person has brought to his or her family. What they call family loyalty, and what we would call clan loyalty, is the bedrock of how some societies are structured. In those societies people aren’t allowed to make for themselves what we would consider very personal decisions such as who they marry, who they are involved with intimately, or what religion they practice. And if they try, those violations of family and clan expectations can be severely punished, including honor killings.

Imagine killing your daughter because she eloped with someone from another village, your brother because he was dating a girl from a lower caste, or your cousin because he converted to another religion. It might be a niece or granddaughter you kill because she ran off with the person she loved rather than marry the 50 year old guy she had been contracted to.

You hear stories about honor killings all the time. If a father kills his daughter and the man she ran off with to marry, it wouldn’t occur to him that he had just done something that seems so unimaginable to us, killed his own daughter. What he would be more likely thinking is that he had done a great thing by upholding the honor of the family or the clan. He has won back the respect of his kin and neighbors. He has defended the honor of the family, and the death of his own daughter pales in comparison.

People get rightly outraged when government officials in these countries seem to turn a blind eye to such things. But the problem is that the governments are up against entrenched societal norms about what family means. That’s a whole different understanding of family than we have. But it is much closer to the understanding of family people had in Jesus’ day.

This is why people were so shocked in that story when Jesus’ brothers go looking for him to bring him home. He’s been getting a little crazy, saying and doing some pretty outlandish things, and people in the neighborhood are starting to talk. Jesus’ response seems harsh to our ears when he appears to reject his mother and family by saying “my mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.” But what stunned the people who heard Jesus say this was not that he was rejecting his mother. Nobody cared about that since it was the head of the clan and the village elders who mattered, not any women or mothers. What got their attention was that he was rejecting the clan and family and village structure that shaped their whole way of living. He was saying his allegiance was not to that system, but to God’s system, the Realm of God. Whether it’s family, or nation, or race, or class, the cry to their demands for our ultimate allegiance is, as we read at the beginning of today’s service, “No, a thousand times, No!

We like Jesus to be the Prince of Peace and don’t know what to do with this Jesus who comes along and disrupts so many things. But Jesus understood that to be his job, and the way to peace. It is so easy for us to settle into the structures we are used to without questioning them. But Jesus comes along and asks lots of questions about our priorities, our commitments, our loyalties. And he will settle for nothing less than the realm of God being our primary commitment. That’s the fire on earth he came to start. “You know how to tell a change in the weather, so don’t tell me you can’t tell a change in the season, the God-season we’re in right now.” It’s a whole new ball game. Everything is changing and being turned upside down. Fires disrupt things.

It’s never a peaceful thing for even small disruptions in our lives, much less the massive ones that Jesus brings. I don’t know if Jesus would have exactly said it this way, “You have to crack and egg to make an omelet.” But he cracked lots of eggs with the hope of what could be created. It’s a risky thing to have all of our loyalties called into question, but the payoff is to begin seeing those loyalties in light of God’s Realm and what God wants for our country, our families, our lives. It’s a hard way to peace, but it’s the right way. What did Jesus say? “Peace I give you, my peace, not as the world gives.”

Now we might get uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus bringing conflict to our families, even if he was talking about something very different than family as we know it. But it’s not like conflict is new to our families. And most of the time it has nothing to do with Jesus. And where it does, the issue is often not so much that we are followers of Jesus, but how we follow Jesus. How many of us are from families where lots of people go to church, but the last thing you want to do when the family gets together is talk about religion? Some families can do that, and others can’t. So some of what Jesus is saying here really does happen, even in our context of family.

Last week those of us who went to Peace Camp shared some of what we had learned there. Peggy and Tony Campolo were two of the resource leaders for Peace Camp. Tony considers himself to be a somewhat conservative, though hardly fundamentalist, Evangelical. Peggy calls herself a Progressive Christian. They have differences over how they understand people ought to live out their faith. But they have obviously learned a lot from each other, and there is something suspiciously like the Realm of God going on in their marriage.

So when Jesus said he was going to bring a sword, bring conflict into our families and other structures, he wasn’t saying that was necessarily an end to them, but a chance for them to be transformed. Even if we can’t forge new ways of being family, being a community, or being a nation with each other, the call to follow Jesus is going to give us new perspectives on all of those things. We can’t be responsible to what people bring to all of those family and other relationships we are in, but we can be responsible for what we bring, our understanding of what Jesus wants of us.

This may be nobody’s favorite story from the Bible. But it reminds us so clearly of how we have to make sure we don’t assume Bible times were just like our times. The art of reading the Bible is understanding how stories like this one fit their own time and ours, and how they help us see this time for what it is; the God season.