Archive for October, 2011

Where’s the Trap?

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Matthew 22:15-22
October 16, 2011
Steve Hammond

Those people were always trying to find ways to trap Jesus, and the one we read about this morning was pretty serious. If Jesus said they should pay their taxes to the Roman occupiers he was going to lose a lot of credibility with his followers. If he said they shouldn’t pay their taxes, they had the charge against him they needed to get Rome to arrest and kill him. That’s why the Pharisees brought some Herodians, or supporters of Herod along with them, in case Jesus said something they could report back to Herod.

The trap, though, never sprung. Jesus managed to grab their bait and walk away unscathed. The Pharisees and Herodians left shaking their heads and more determined than ever to find a way to get Jesus, which they finally did a few days later, sort of.

It would be easy to turn this confrontation into some kind of contest, with Jesus as the winner. Ralph Milton on the blog Rumors writes, though, “I’m always a little uncomfortable with these stories of how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus, and he turns the tables and makes them look silly. “Look! See how our guy beat your guys!” One-up-man-ship. It seems inconsistent with the personality of Jesus I find in the rest of the gospel stories. You don’t show God’s love and justice by putting other people down, even (especially) when they deserve it.”

I agree with him. I don’t think Jesus was trying to demonstrate how clever he was in getting out of their traps. Rather, he seems to be trying to show them the trap they were already in. So he asked them to pull out that now famous coin with Caesar’s image on it. And they did. And that’s the trap they were already in before they tried to spring theirs on Jesus. They confronted Jesus in the Temple. Remember? But they weren’t supposed to have such coins with them. That’s the whole reason behind the money changers that you read so much about in the Gospels. They were there to exchange the coins with Caesar’s image on them, and thus regarded as an idol, for coins that were acceptable for the Temple’s treasury.

So it could be that Jesus was simply pointing out their hypocrisy. But it could also be he was trying to show them, and us, how pervasive the empire was. You couldn’t get away from Rome even on Temple grounds. It’s influence was everywhere, even when you were trying your best to avoid it. And besides, even if no Roman coins managed to get onto Temple grounds, they would still be spending them once they left.

Jesus tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. That is one of Jesus’ tougher statements. Love your enemies may be hard, but it’s pretty straight forward. This statement leaves you with all kinds of questions like what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. Should I pay taxes as a Christian, or should I not pay taxes as a Christian? Where does civil disobedience fit in? Can a Christian fight in Ceasar’s wars?

You hope that we will, at least, be trying to figure out what is Caesar’s, if anything, after we have figured out what’s God’s, and not the other was around. But as William Willimon writes, “Un- comfortability, a sense of dis-ease engendered in us when it comes to conflicting allegiances, is not a bad place to begin any Christian reflection about relations between God and government.”

That seems true to me. But I’ve also been thinking there is an additional empire we could be thinking about as we read what Jesus said. And it overlaps, it appears, quite easily with the more traditional notion of a political empire.

Anybody here have a credit card with them? Whose image is on it? Or whose logo? MasterCard? Visa? American Express? Discover? Those are really the gold coins of our day. And they may well point us to what the real empire is. Give to Caesar’s what’s Caesar’s and God’s what’s God’s. But what about Wall Street? What are they expecting from us. The American Empire may expect a lot of us, but the economic empire even more, not only from individuals like us, but the political empires of this world.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to make some noise. People are finally asking why the economic imperatives of Wall Street have become the focus of our legislative bodies rather than the needs of people. And it would be to the church’s shame if we sat this one out, not to mention if the Church sided with Wall Street.

Most of you have probably seen that iconic statue of a bull on Wall Street. As the Occupy Wall Street movement has spent more time on Wall Street, people are beginning to remember their Bible stories. Do you remember the story of what happened when Moses went to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the ten commandments and didn’t come down for a long time? The people gathered all their gold, melted it down, and made it into an idol. Do you remember what that idol looked like? A bull. Hmm…

I’m not suggesting the children of Israel picked a golden calf because there was going to be one on Wall Street someday. But to me, it is a vivid reminder of how linked idolatry and empire are.

I think a big part of the Bible, including the overarching theme of the Book of Revelation is that question of how do you live as God’s people in the empire. How do we follow Jesus when we live in the American and Wall Street empires?

This is not easy stuff, that thing about exchanging Caesar’s coins for coins acceptable to the Temple treasury. Once those coins without Caesar’s image on them had been procured and placed in the offering, they would have to be taken from the Temple and re-exchanged for more coins with Caesar’s image. That’s how hard this stuff gets. And in cleansing the Temple, which one person noted on Facebook this week was the original Wall Street Occupation, Jesus reminded us quite vividly that it’s usually the poor who suffer the most from empire’s machinations.
How do we get out of this trap of empire ourselves, both political and economic empires and their unholy alliances? First of all, we need to realize we are trapped. It’s so easy to make this whole thing about following Jesus simply about heaven. But Jesus was so much about earth and empire. That’s why he taught us to pray about God’s realm, God’s empire coming to this earth. It was a challenge to the Caesar’s of this world.

Another thing we need to remember is that we don’t get out of this trap alone. This is what the Church is to be about, helping each other follow Jesus while we live in the Empire. Look at the empire he lived in. All churches are called to be alternative Christian communities, people who are learning the alternative of the realm of God to the realms of this world.

I got a call from John Bergen, our Peace and Justice Intern, on Friday morning. He said that he couldn’t meet with Mary that afternoon because there was “kind of an emergency.” His cell phone was breaking up and he said he would call later or we could call him. So I began to speculate on exactly what “kind of an emergency” exactly is. It’s obviously not an emergency. My first thought was he forgot about a paper that was due on
Friday afternoon. But there was this brief thought that went through my head wondering if he was on his way to New York City. That’s kind of an emergency.

He did call back a little later and, indeed, he was in New York. After the Occupy Wall Street Gathering Mary organized in town on Thursday, John and some of his friends took off on an all night drive to Wall Street. Mayor Bloomberg had announced that the Wall Street Occupiers were going to have to vacate the park they were in by 7:00 on Friday morning. So it was kind of an emergency. Fortunately before John and his friends got there, the Mayor backed off.

I think that was what Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees and all of us. This is kind of an emergency. There is so much that comes into our lives everyday that we don’t take the time to notice what a grip empire has on us. But we have those coins and credit cards in our pockets. These empires demand our allegiance at every turn, but our allegiance is to God’s realm. How do we do that?

Give to the empire what’s the Empire’s. Give to God what’s God’s. Again, if I read the Book of Revelation correctly, that’s always been a primary challenge to the church and will be until the end of all things, or new beginning of all things, when the Empires are gone, the nations are healed and the Lamb sits on the Throne. But in the meantime, we are in this struggle together and we get to follow Jesus, seek God’s realm, in this empire.

Reflections from the Silence

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Matthew 26:6-13
October 9, 2011
Mary Hammond

It may seem counter-intuitive to take an extended Silent Retreat during the busiest month of the year. One voice complains, “What a waste! Look at everything you are going to miss! You’ve got to be crazy!” But another voice replies, “Why do you call this a waste? She is doing a beautiful thing for me.”

People often ask me if it is hard to be in silence for many days. There are always difficult, lonely, and slow moments. But there are also amazing, insightful, and life-altering experiences. The whole package is the gift and discipline of silence. A quiet directed retreat is not 100% silence, because I see a Spiritual Director once a day and I also sing and pray out loud when alone at times.

The work of the first 24 hours of a long retreat is to release all that I bring with me: the events of the day and previous days, as well as the tasks that await me on my return. I also need to let go of familiar routines: pre-bedtime rituals at home, talking to Steve daily, checking e-mail, walking the dog, seeing people I know, attending meetings. When life has been moving 150 miles per hour in Oberlin, Silent Retreat abruptly disrupts that rhythm. External life slows down to 0 miles per hour as soon as I turn right into the driveway of River’s Edge in Lakewood. It takes a lot longer than the turn of a car to put the brakes on my thoughts, cares, concerns, and relationships.

I usually do this with artwork. I grab a big piece of paper from the art closet and draw an enormous heart, symbolizing the heart of God. Then I start putting names and situations into that big heart until there is nothing left in my head to add. After this, I pray slowly and individually for each one. Last week, I wrote at the top of my initial drawing, “Breathe in mercy, breathe out surrender.” Doing this became part of each prayer for every person and situation.

Silent Retreat isn’t silent when Oberlin life continually crowds into my consciousness. Sometimes there are additional releasing exercises that come to me. I draw and pray them, as well. Drawing and more drawing. I ended those exercises by drawing a tree I named “Emergence,” after an art piece in the downstairs hallway that captivated my attention. I scribbled words on the trunk and branches, personal hopes for these days of silence. This was Monday’s work.

Seeing with the eyes of Jesus became the theme for this retreat, early on. I was drawn to just a few scriptures, as is often the case. Viewing the hints of autumn around me and knowing I would be spending hours outdoors each day communing with God through nature, I was drawn to the Creation Story in Genesis 1-2 and the God Monologue about Creation in Job, particularly Chapter 38. In the Gospels, I was drawn to the story we read today about the anointing of Jesus shortly before his betrayal and crucifixion.

I have loved this Gospel story for years. A woman sees Jesus’ deep need when no one else around him notices it. She ministers to him in his place of profound vulnerability. When others view her act as sheer waste, Jesus recognizes it as supreme gift. Her act is both blessing and symbol for him: she anoints Jesus for his burial.

The image of seeing and not seeing is perhaps the greatest juxtaposition of life at 0 mph verses 150 mph. At slow speed, the senses are heightened, the mind is quieted, and the heart is awakened. There are other times, though, when the heart is agitated, the mind is restless, and the senses are overtaken by preoccupation or struggle. These, too, are opportunities to face head-on the work of the heart. This is part of contemplation as well.

On Tuesday morning, I awoke with a simple prayer already on my lips, “Lord, I want to see with your eyes.”

My Spiritual Director often says that Steve and I “carry a lot of people.” Most pastors do. But we are not unique that way. All of us “carry people.” We could spend some serious congregational prayer time just naming before God and one another people we carry or have carried over the years.

While walking the grounds on Tuesday, I was thinking about those times when that load gets heavy and overwhelming. “How do you do it, Lord?” I asked as I prayed aloud. “How do you carry the whole human race and all the groanings of Creation? To carry just one tortured prisoner, or one abused child seems so overwhelming–but you, you carry the whole world! How do you bear it?”

Sometimes the questions have to just lay out there and sit. If I’m looking for an instruction manual on Silent Retreat, that won’t ever happen. But if I’m looking for metaphor, sign, and symbol, I’ll see it everywhere–in the chipmunk’s song, in the whirling leaves as they descend to the earth, in the stormy sky punctuated by a tiny patch of blue, in the golden hues of the sunlight streaming through the leafy green trees before dusk.

As I walked and prayed, I concluded, “You’ll just have to shore me up, Jesus, to see with your eyes. I can’t do it by myself.”

A song arose out of my heart. I had to go write it down, lest I forgot the tune and text. The next morning, I shared the song with my Spiritual Director. Since it was given to me spontaneously, she suggested that I “sit with” the text throughout the day and see what additional insights it might yield.

Wednesday turned out to be my hardest day of retreat. Concerns that I had released on Monday were re-surfacing, and they did not dissipate with either prayer or effort. So, I had to sit with them, too. I began doing this before sunset on the third floor porch, in the quiet. The trees are four stories high there, and it is a magnificent view.

“Shore me up, Jesus; shore me up, Jesus. Shore me up, Jesus, to see with your eyes.” As I began singing, bible stories started popping into my head. Some people saw a bent-over woman, unfit for service and hampered in worship. Jesus saw a Daughter of Abraham, standing up straight. Some saw a thief on the cross, undeserving and reprobate. Jesus saw a man who would meet him that day in paradise. Throughout the centuries, some labeled and condemned those they branded as “Christ killers,” unleashing horrific acts of Anti-Semitism, even when it was the Romans who gave the execution orders. Praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), Jesus saw human beings acting out of ignorance. He extended mercy and forgiveness to his own murderers.

To see with the eyes of Jesus is to hold with him the sorrows, tragedies, and horrors of the world. It is also to recognize a gift where others see waste, anticipate transformation where others expect nothing, believe in possibility where others imagine a continuation of the status quo. To see with the eyes of Jesus is to hold all of this at once and together—the suffering and the beauty, the heartbreak and the promise, the darkness and the light.

I took one short Silent Retreat this past year at the start of Easter week, not a time I would recommended for a pastor. As usual, I missed Steve, so I called him the minute I got into the car to return home. Bad plan. He filled me in on a hard situation that had gotten more complicated while I was gone. In two minutes, all my inner quiet went out the window. I came home anxious and disturbed. My re-entry was by no stretch of the imagination among my finest hours. Dripping with sarcasm, that not-so-pleasant voice in my head, said, “And, you were on Silent Retreat for two days? That sure did a lot of good!”

So this time I determined to do better, to make the retreat-to-home transition centered and seamless, no matter what had transpired in my absence. I spent Thursday night organizing my “to-do” list for the following week, but also looking contemplatively at the broad view of my week to come, something I had never quite done that way before. It was illuminating, both then and in the middle of the night, as I kept waking up and grabbing my calendar to jot down new insights about our ministry here in Oberlin. The first fruits of those moments have appeared in the church Facebook page Steve began on Friday. Already, Heather KirkConnell posted from Paris, “I miss you all so much!”

Last Friday morning, I was contemplating my embarrassing re-entry to civilian life after my last retreat. I prayed, “God, these insights I’ve had here, I have to carry on home.” Out popped another song. It’s a versatile, centering song which can be tailored to any experiences. It’s a “fill-in-the-blank” prayer song! I’ve sung it many times this past week.

The disciples complained to Jesus, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” Jesus replied, “Why do you trouble this woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me.” Amen.

Grab Hold

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Philippians 3:2-14
October 2, 2011
Steve Hammond

The first we hear of the Apostle Paul, he was holding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The last we hear from him, he is in a prison cell awaiting where he is likely facing his execution for being a follower the same faith that he had one hoped would be wiped out with Stephen’s death.

It had been quite a journey for the Apostle Paul, and in that cell he had time and reason to reflect on that journey. And when he summed it up he said, “All I wanted to do was grab hold of what ever it is that Christ grabbed hold of me for in the first place. Whether I’ve done that or not, I don’t know. But I’m going to keep running the race until I get to the finish line.”

The stuff that had defined the Apostle Paul for most of his life, the things he had been so proud of, his ancestry, his religious zeal and purity as a Pharisee were, as he stood in the prison cell, no more significant to him than a pile of manure (that’s the PG way the translators have worded it).

This is tough stuff coming from the Apostle. And it has provided much fodder for any number of antisemitic movements and actions. That is a sad legacy, some of it is his fault, but much of it not. Paul really believed that Jesus was the logical outcome of Judaism and, at the beginning, never imagined he would help found another religion.

For Paul, all that the law and prophets talked about was fulfilled in Jesus. What he couldn’t deal with was a Judaism that had petrified into a religion that had substituted the power of a living God who could be known in Jesus for a reliance on customs, traditions, rites, and regulations like he had himself so devoutly observed.

And it’s not like Christianity had not had nor does not have it’s own equivalent to those knife wielding circumcisers that set Paul off. (That is a very arresting vision, for some of us, anyway). I don’t think the church can get off by criticizing another religion for not embracing Jesus when we mostly refuse to embrace him ourselves. It is plenty easy for us to make Christianity about the rules, laws, customs, traditions, rites, and regulations and completely miss the power of God at work in this world. The Apostle would be no happier with that kind of Christianity than he was with his native religion.

Until he ran into Jesus on the road to Damascus, or Jesus ran into him, Paul was known for being as religiously devout as anybody could be. But at the end of his life, being devout didn’t mean a thing to Paul.

I get this a lot from people who say they aren’t very devout Christians, or that somebody else is really devout. What do we usually mean by that? Usually we mean somebody prays a lot, reads their Bible, goes to church, knows the traditions, customs, and rites. They are people who are really pious.

The Apostle Paul would say, I think, that’s great, but not the point. The point is rather, are we spending our lives trying to grab hold of whatever it was that Jesus grabbed hold of us for, why he yanked us off the horse in the first place?

What we regard as devout, as necessary to the faith, is fine as long as we don’t confuse the ends with the means. The devout life is a means to an end, not the end itself. Maybe that’s what frustrated Paul about the Judaism he had lived, anyway. It confused the means with the ends. The law, Paul would say, is not there for itself, but it carries us somewhere. And for Paul, that was straight to Jesus. In the same way, we don’t need a Christianity that doesn’t lead us to Jesus. That belongs in the same manure pile as the other.

At the end of his life, more than anything else, Paul wanted to grab hold of whatever it was that had caused Jesus to grab hold of him. In the study group that just started meeting we are reading about what Brian McLaren calls the big questions. Why is there so much war and so little peace? Why aren’t we treasuring the environment instead of destroying it? Why are so many people alienated from God and each other? Why all the racism, sexism, and violence? If we’ve got such a great message why isn’t the church doing any better?

Jesus has grabbed hold of us because of those big questions. Then the next step is seeing what was going on in Jesus’ life that helps us address those big questions. That is what devotion is about. How you do communion and who wrote the book of Matthew are not among the big questions. But we spend so much time on all of that kind of stuff and confuse it with devotion.

At the end of his life, the Apostle Paul also wanted to know Christ and experience his resurrection. That makes a lot of sense for someone facing one of the many varieties of execution Rome offered its prisoners. Crucifixion. Beheading. Burnt at the stake. Or being tossed to the wild animals in the Coliseum.

The last time I preached, I mentioned Mary and I had seen the prison cell where Paul may well have written this letter and spent the last days of his life. That cell, and the very simple little chapel that was built on top of it were amongst my favorite sites in all the places we saw in Rome.

What was my least favorite was the Coliseum. Ugly things happened there. All kinds of people, Christians and others, were fed to the wild animals there as thousands watched like we would watch a baseball game. They would release these nearly starved lions, and bears and wild boars to feed on the men and women and children huddled in the floor of the Coliseum. Who knows, the Apostle Paul may have been one of them. And while they were dying such horrible deaths, the people in the seats would cheer and laugh and taunt Rome’s victims. The Coliseum is not a testimony to the amazing architecture of ancient Rome. It’s a testimony as to why Jesus grabbed hold of us in the first place.

Paul may or may not have ended up in the Coliseum. But when he writes about knowing the power of the resurrection of Jesus, you have to remember he expected to leave Rome alive. He knew he might meet his end there but, as you read the letter to the Phillipians, you realize he was thinking maybe not this time.

So when Paul says he wants to know the power of the resurrection of Christ, he’s not thinking solely about the other side of the grave. He wanted to know that power for the rest of the days of his life no matter how few or many. And he knew he would experience the power of the resurrection by grabbing hold of whatever it was that Jesus grabbed hold of him to do.

Paul did, indeed, have a strange journey. He went from being a devout follower of the law, to just trying to grab hold of what Jesus wanted him to reach for. And we have a journey too. It may not be exactly like Paul’s, but there will be plenty of us to leave behind on the manure pile. Some of it we know about already, some of it we don’t. And some of it will surprise us. But what’s important is that we move into the future ready to latch on to whatever Jesus grabbled hold of us to do, and find the power of his resurrection.