Monday, August 15, 2016

Hanging with the Wrong Crowd

What is your test for deciding who you will and will not hang out with?

Don’t pretend that you don’t have one.  We all do.  It’s part of our nature.  How can I say such a thing?

Well, let me make a view observations, and let’s see if you have ever seen or done these things.

Have you ever been in a store just walking up and down the aisles and seen someone you know but don’t want to talk to, and then started looking absentmindedly at all the items on the shelf–hoping that the other person won’t notice you–or if they do see that you are obviously engrossed and not able to talk?  Ever done that one?

Have you ever purposely skipped a party, church, or social gathering because someone you know might be invited or come to that same event?

Have you refused to purchase a red and white shirt or a gold and black shirt because of the proximity to a certain town?

Here’s one that I used to do at my previous congregation.  Every month we did nursing home services, and there was one particular resident who I did not care to visit with.  Every time we went in to give her communion, she would go through a laundry list of everything that was wrong with her.  One time, she even showed me pictures they took during her colonoscopy.  After several months of this, I would approach her room on padded feet; I would crack open the door ever so slightly in hopes that she was asleep; I would do it as silently as possible because if even the slightest squeak happened, this lady would wake up and see me.  If I managed to crack the door and see that she was asleep, I would happily walk on to the next church member.  Hence a revelation of one of my tests as to whether or not I want to hang out with someone: I don’t like someone who constantly seeks attention by talking about how bad they have it.

But, as bad as that might sound, I’ve also been on the receiving end of such tests.  Years ago, when I was a senior in seminary, I preached at a little country church in Rosebud, TX.  It just so happened that one Sunday, they were having a pot luck, and my wife and I were asked to join.  We were also invited, as guests, to head to the front of the line.  We did, and we sat down at one of the tables there.  Interestingly enough, all of the other tables filled up first, and then the table at which Dawna and I sat started to fill up.  However, it filled up at the place farthest from us first, until the folks who went through the pot-luck line last ended up taking the seats closest to us.  We were definitely the outsiders there.

And the question becomes, do you ever get from being an outsider to an insider?  In some places, the answer is unequivocally no.  I remember being at Crossroads one day a couple of years ago sitting and shooting the breeze with Bonnie and some of the customers.  I was listening to a conversation behind me where one of the old timers from here made the comment about another person, “I don’t know why he thinks he has any say around here.  He’s only lived here for 25 years.”  You know, I had heard that such things were said in some places, but that was actually the first time I had ever heard it.

What is normally behind such comments is–you are not like me.  Between you and me are certain social norms, and unless those norms are removed–in other words, unless you become like me, then we cannot be considered on an equal plane.  At the extreme, these divisions can cause all kinds of conflict.  The media highlights those extremes: Republicans versus Democrats; male versus female; black versus white; homosexual versus heterosexual; liberal versus conservative; rich versus poor.  And in the extremes of these movements, you are not welcome if you share another view.  In fact, oftentimes you are escorted out of the room; out of the venue; shouted down; even threatened with violence.

The question fast becomes: can we ever achieve some semblance of a peaceful and respectful society if we hold onto such divisions?  Can we make place for the other if we become so entrenched in our own positions that we avoid people because they do not live up to our standards?

Let’s see what the Gospel has to say to this as we look at this next story from the book of Mark chapter 2.

This text begins with Jesus moving out from the house in Capernaum where he had just established that He had the power to forgive sins, and teaching crowds by the Sea of Galilee.  As Jesus travels, He comes across Levi sitting in his tax booth–now, the actual word in Greek is toll booth.  While traveling from one part of the country into another, there were certain tolls that needed to be paid much like the tolls we pay on toll roads today.  There were no electronic passes that you put on your car to drive back then, and the toll system was set up in quite a different way.  You see, to get a job monitoring a toll booth, you told the government how much revenue you would provide for them.  The government granted you the job based upon how much you said you could make for them.  Then, not only would you charge enough to pay the government back, you would also tack on your own fees to pad your own bank account.  This led to a system which was ripe with fraud, and toll collectors were absolutely despised.

How much were they despised?  Let me quote to you Mark Edwards in his commentary.  I personally think this is priceless, “The Mishna and Talmud [Two commentaries on the first five books of the Bible–...register scathing judgements of tax collectors, lumping them together with thieves and murderers.  A Jew who collected taxes was disqualified as a judge or witness in court, expelled from the synagogue, and a cause of disgrace to his family.  The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean.  Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery.”

How would you like that job?  Most of us might not appreciate the social stigma associated with such a job, but these jobs were actually in high demand because it was a quick and easy way to get rich.  Levi had such a job, and was probably doing quite well.  Though despised by many in society, he was well off, so it is actually quite surprising that when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Levi simply got up and went.

What makes this so surprising is the fact that Levi has a government job.  You see, Simon, Andrew, James and John could always go back to fishing if following Jesus doesn’t work out.  Levi will not be able to return to his.  Someone else will take the position, so Levi is giving up quite a bit to follow Jesus.  But he is going to go out with a bang.

The scene quickly shifts to a dinner celebration where Levi and his associates have joined Jesus and the disciples.  As they feast together, the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’

The scribes of the Pharisees are very much put off by what they see.  Jesus has made a name for himself proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God; He has healed the sick; and He has shown authority to forgive sins.  Why in the world would he associate with toll collectors and others who were considered sinners?

Robert Guelich says it very well when he writes:

From the standpoint of the Pharisees, Jesus was doing that which was ritually defiling through disregard for the laws concerning table fellowship and clean and unclean foods.  Neusner has pointed out the importance of those concerns among the Pharisees before A.D. 70.  Part of the concern grows out of fear that one not only will be ritually defiled but also be morally contaminated by such company.  Eating with someone had special connotations.  “It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life.”  Eating together created a special bond or fellowship through the eating of the broken bread over which the host had spoken the blessing.  Therefore, guests were selected very carefully.

In the scribes’ eyes, Jesus was not being selective enough about who he kept company with.  Jesus was defiling Himself by being around those who were corrupt, deceitful, sinful.  They were scandalized by what they saw Jesus doing.

Jesus retorts with a common saying nearly everyone agreed upon, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  This is actually a profound statement of Jesus’ purpose as the Messiah.  It’s a profound statement about the Kingdom of God.

First, let me quote William Lane as he adds an important detail about what Jesus was doing, “The expression used in Ch. 2:15, “they reclined at table together with Jesus,” suggests that Jesus–the Messiah–and not Levi, was the host at this festive meal.  When this is understood, the interest of the entire pericope centers on the significance of Messiah eating with sinners.  The specific reference in verse 17 to Jesus’ call of sinners to the Kingdom suggests that the basis of table-fellowship was messianic forgiveness, and the meal itself was an anticipation of the messianic banquet.  When Jesus broke bread with the outcasts, Messiah ate with them at his table and extended to them fellowship with God.”

The Messiah was extending fellowship with God toward tax collectors and sinners.  However, this in and of itself wasn’t a huge deal.  Most Jews agreed that God wanted fellowship with sinners.  God wanted sinners to follow Him.  That wasn’t an issue, but something else really was.  And what was that something else?

We return to what Mark Edwards says in this extended quote:

But what exactly was it about Jesus’ association with such people that offended them?... Their opposition is the more explainable on the ground that reform was not the fundamental assumption of Jesus’ ministry, as it had been for John the Baptizer, for instance.  There is no word in the call to Levi and in the dinner with sinners about repentance.  Repentance, in fact, is curiously absent from Jesus’ proclamation in Mark.  The scandal of this story is that Jesus does not make moral repentance a precondition of his love and acceptance.  Rather, Jesus loves and accepts tax collectors and sinners as they are.  If they forsake their evil and amend their lives, they do so...not in order to gain Jesus’ favor but because Jesus has loved them as sinners...The fact that Jesus can be found in the company of people such as Levi reminds us of the difference between his mission and that of the scribes.  They come to enlighten; he comes to redeem.  Given that mission, it is as senseless for Jesus to shun tax collectors and sinners as for a doctor to shun the sick.  The grace of God extends to and overcomes the worst forms of human depravity.

Do you see the radical nature of God’s grace here?  Do you see the radical nature of what Jesus does here?  Do you see how this flies in the face of what we normally practice when it comes to our associations with others?  The scribes and the Pharisees would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act.  It was assumed that God would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act.  It is assumed by many of us that we will not associate with another until they agree with us.  But Jesus does the exact opposite.  He sits down in fellowship with unrepentant sinners; calls them into a relationship with Him; and then watches the transformation occur.  It’s completely and totally backwards according to the world’s standards.

But in reality it is the only way God can have fellowship with us. For there is no way we can completely clean up our act.  The scribes and the Pharisees show this in their own self-righteousness.  They believe that people can cure themselves.  They believe that people can become righteous before God on their own.  And because righteousness–to them–is a self-help project, they hold others in contempt.  And when you hold someone else in contempt, are you practicing genuine love and compassion?

If our relationship with God is up to us, then we will inevitably become self-righteous.  But if our relationship is dependent solely upon God’s grace, then no one is allowed to boast.  No one has the right to be contemptuous.  No one has the right to shun another because that other fails to live up to certain expectations.  You don’t live up to those expectations either!!  The scribes need Jesus just as much as those toll collectors and sinners need Jesus!!  Oh, and we know that Jesus will also dine with those scribes and Pharisees in His ministry.  Jesus will fellowship with them as He held fellowship with Levi and the other toll collectors and sinners.  God’s grace is to be extended to all.  And our sinfulness will indeed rub off on Jesus.  He will become tainted with our hatred, our self-righteousness, our discontent, our desire to draw lines and avoid people who do not agree with us.  He will take all of these things upon Himself and put them to death with Him on the cross.  He will become sin who knew no sin so that we can be forgiven.  It is He who hosts the heavenly banquet; who welcomes all not based upon what we do but based upon what He has done.

And when you realize that you are at the banquet not because of who you are but in spite of who you are...

When you realize that your place at the table was not earned by you but given to you...

When you realize that Jesus has invited others who are not like you; who desperately need His love just like you need His love...

You realize that the heavenly banquet is made up of people who are not like you, and you have the opportunity to show a different reality “on earth as it is in heaven.”  You realize that the love of God in Jesus Christ provides a tremendous basis and foundation to overcome differences that arise.  You and the other are both sinners; Jesus has sought both of you out; and Jesus has redeemed you both through His death on the cross which revealed the nature of the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

If you focus on what God has done for you and for those who are not like you, then you will not shun the other; you will have compassion and understanding, and you will work toward peace.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The ELCA Sexism Study

This weekend, my bishop invited those of us on our synod's leadership Facebook page to consider studying the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's proposed social statement Faith, Sexism, Justice.  I confess that in the past, I haven't given these statements much time, energy, or effort.  They tend to be rather bland, written in such a broad fashion that produces as little controversy as possible, and passed despite any particular criticism which may or may not surface.

But this one was a bit different for me.

Recently, I was introduced to the "Factual Feminist": Christina Hoff Sommers.  After watching more than a few of her YouTube videos and reading two of her books: Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys, I felt myself overwhelmed and astounded at discovering the root of much of the ideology driving those in power in my denomination.  I also discovered much factual information that I had never been exposed to in all my years of study.  To say I was disappointed in the current state of affairs in my denomination would be an understatement--the release of the Faith, Sexism, Justice draft only added to that disappointment.

I took time to read through the entire document, and I would encourage readers to do the same.  Module one lays out some of the governing assumptions in this draft including the idea of systemic sexism.  To quote:
It can be difficult to talk about, let alone grasp that there is a system or set of powerful invisible “forces” that connect to or set in motion individual incidents. It can be quite a challenge to accept that individual incidents involve multiple causes of: a) personal responsibility and b) social and religious beliefs and c) policy, laws, rules or common practices. Yet, if you step back, it becomes clear that something more than individual choices is needed to explain what’s going on in our society.
And further:
This is what the task force has come to realize; that is, the members believe there are systemic connections in U.S. culture that harm women in many ways. It is only when these many connections are recognized that one can explain the whole story adequately. Some of the concepts used in this study to describe these forces or systems include SEXISM, PATRIARCHY, and sexual and gender harassment. (Throughout this study, terms identified in capitalized bold will be found in the glossary.)  It is important to stress that everyone, men and women, participates in and is affected by these and can contribute to them.
So, what examples of sexism, patriarchy, and gender harassment are used throughout the study?  Personal illustrations include: feeling singled out because of unfairness in enforcing dress codes at school; comments about giving birth and assumed gender roles; being questioned about one's sexuality; a congregation's vote to call a pastor being undermined by those questioning her ability to hold the pastoral office and be a mother.  Other examples of sexism include: gender stereotypes; objectification of women's bodies, particularly in the media; the majority of eating disorders affecting women; politicizing reproductive rights; the wage gap; expectations of care giving; gender-based violence including sexual harassment, rape, and assault.

Add everything up, and you have a patriarchy which seeks to oppress women:
A patriarchal SOCIAL SYSTEM is dominated largely by the voice and authority of men. A patriarchal social system is centered on males; the world is portrayed with men as the main actors in life and reflects their ideas and values. Patriarchy is supported through means of power and control, such as sexual discrimination and gender inequality.

Now, it might be entertaining to address each of these issues one by one, but others have already done this.  What I want to call into question is the worldview of those who have perpetuated this one-sided Sexism study on the larger church.  For I believe their worldview is absolutely warped beyond imagination and does not reflect the reality of the current U.S. society.

I am of the opinion that any study or statement should describe reality as it is. Any study or statement of sexism should be a balanced ordeal reflecting the reality of the world in which it addresses. This study's one sided reflection of reality is very troubling especially since it leaves out some important evidence regarding men.  How well do men fare under this so-called patriarchal system intended to keep them in power and control?

Undisputed facts:

95% of those in prison are men.
90% of work related deaths are men.
75% of suicides are men.
60%-70% of homeless are men.
Only 40% of bachelor degrees go to men.
Only 40% of masters degrees go to men.
48% of doctorate degrees go to men.
Young girls do far better in school than young boys.
Women live five years longer than men.
Women pay less for auto insurance.
Women pay less for life insurance. (Balanced by the fact they pay more for health insurance.)

Women are better educated, less likely to be injured or killed on a job, less likely to kill themselves, less likely to end up in jail, and live longer than men. (Hardly a pinnacle of male dominance in this "patriarchy.") Women have gender studies and all manner of organizations specifically geared to their issues (with hardly any for men). Media coverage for women's health issues soars with even the NFL devoting a month to breast cancer awareness--there is nothing comparable to men's health issues.  Luckily, we have plenty of commercials for ED, though.  (Okay, perhaps that was a bit over the top...)

These facts are hardly representative of a patriarchy.  They are hardly representative of oppression of women.  In fact, if these numbers represented women, there would be alarm bells ringing all over the place!!!  But there are not.  Not even close, and the question of, "Why?" must be asked.

I am sure that there are many factors, but I will focus on just one: the ideology introduced by Marxism of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic.  This worldview permeates much of the leadership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and it has a blinding effect.  It virtuizes the "oppressed" and demonizes the "oppressor."  It leads to confirmation bias and a willingness to seek out any example to confirm one's position including warping the facts on studies and using dubious methodology to enhance one's position.  Truth is thrust aside so that the worldview is not damaged.

Take for instance sexual assault.  Please watch the following two videos:

Sexual assault on campus is a reality, but it is not a culture.  The statistics used to bolster this assertion are false, but you would never know that if you didn't take the time to actually dig into the studies as Dr. Sommers has.  It is a willful distortion of reality.

The reality of our world is that there indeed is sexism, but sexism isn't a one way street.  The facts provided above show unequivocally that men face some truly oppressive issues in the current system--as do women. 

There is a rich irony that Faith, Sexism, Justice quotes Martin Luther's famous statement about a theology of the cross versus a theology of glory, "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is."  While the study in no way calls the evils perpetuated against women good, it does not call reality what it actually is.  It falsely asserts that there is a patriarchy and then omits evidence which shatters that claim.

If the ELCA wishes to do a study on sexism that includes the realities faced by men and women in this society, then I will gladly jump in with both feet with my congregation; however, if the ELCA wishes to perpetuate myth, then I will say to it as I said to my bishop, "Until the ELCA decides to describe reality better and gets away from wonky statistics, I won't be using this study any time soon in my congregation."

(I highly doubt that any criticism I give to this study will have any impact what-so-ever.  Whenever you challenge such things, as I did, you receive quite the backlash as facts are not engaged, and you are simply labeled misogynist, ignorant, or privileged.  No matter.  The truth is the truth.  The facts are the facts.  My denomination continues its rapid decline, and one can argue it is deserved as it carries a particular agenda which is not rooted and grounded in the Gospel--a Gospel which says yes, we live in a world where all are fallen; all are oppressed; all are oppressors; all face sexism, racism, hatred, and the like.  And the answer is the cross: Jesus who died for sinners in whom we find our identity.  Through Him WE GIVE UP our gender, our sexuality, our ethnicity and become clothed with Him.  This is not what the pundits within the ELCA preach.  Instead they proclaim: hold onto your identity; hold onto your sexuality; hold onto your gender; hold onto your ethnicity because this makes you authentic.  God loves you just the way you are.  In reality, God loves you in spite of who you are.  This was the radical nature of the Gospel.)

Monday, August 8, 2016

From the Head to the Heart

 It is an undisputed fact that the majority of people in the United States believe in God or a higher power of some sorts.  I believe the last figures I saw were roughly in the area of 87-90 percent.  It’s really quite an astounding figure given the rapid advances in science and technology, and it is also quite interesting given that many scholars and pundits once believed that religious belief would eventually go the way of the dinosaur as science exerted itself as the true path to knowledge.  But belief in God hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaur partially because science has run into its own limitations and partially because, I think, there is a deep seeded desire in humanity to long for our creator.  One of these is provable; the other, not so much, but I will say that I am not the only person who thinks we have an innate longing for God.  Folks who are much smarter than I have said as much.

 But regardless of the why, there is the definite fact that most people believe in God; however, not everyone adheres to a religious belief.  Not everyone belongs to a particular religion.  Not everyone attends worship.  Oftentimes a person’s faith remains highly individualistic and very private.  Face it, when we walk around society, for the most part you cannot tell the difference between someone who believes and someone who doesn’t believe.

 The reason for this, I think, is that we have defined faith as something we simply believe.  It is a certain type of knowledge.  I can intellectually come to the understanding that there is a God, but if that thought simply stays in my head, then it oftentimes doesn’t make much of a difference in my life.  Recently, I have had several talks with a man who has struggled with whether or not God exists.  After a couple of talks and presenting him with a book that I have found helpful, he agreed that the preponderance of the evidence points toward the existence of God.  However, he told me bluntly, “It hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference in my life.” 

 I responded, “That’s because it’s all up in your head.  It hasn’t gotten down into your heart yet.”
 He then asked, “How does that happen?”

 And that, my friends, is the ultimate question, isn’t it?  That, my friends, is the difference between people who simply believe in God and people who actively worship God and live for God.  For the two of these are not the same.  One sees faith as an intellectual assertion and the other sees faith as a lived out relationship, and one of these is much, much more prevalent than the other.  One of these is intellectual, and the other is transformational.  So, how does one move from intellect to true transformation?  I think our lesson from the book of Mark this morning gives us some insight.

 This short snippet is actually jam packed with lessons of who Jesus is; what He is here to do; and the nature of what truly is transformative.  It begins with the gospel writer telling us that Jesus has returned home to Capernaum.  He is in a house, and the majority of the commentators I consulted believe this is Peter or Andrew’s house.  Jesus has been preaching around the countryside, and is looking to rest.  However, his message has proved popular, and soon a large crowd gathers around the house to hear Jesus proclaim the Word.

 While most of us might think it impressive that Jesus draws such a large number of people, the crowd actually becomes a hindrance in this case.  In fact, throughout the book of Mark, the crowd almost universally is a barrier to people trying to find healing from the Master.  Mark Edwards picks up on this in his commentary with these brilliant words, “Being part of the crowd around Jesus is not the same as being a disciple of Jesus.  The crowd stands and observes; disciples must commit themselves to action...”  In this particular instance, the four men carrying their friend are acting as disciples, for they take drastic action to get their friend to Jesus.  They climb up on the roof of the house and dig a hole through the roof.

 Walter Wessel describes the house in this way, “In order to understand the action these verses describe, it is necessary to visualize the layout of a typical Palestinian peasant’s house.  It was usually a small one-room structure with a flat roof.  Access to the roof was by means of an outside stairway.  The roof itself was usually made of wooden beams with thatch and compacted earth in order to shed the rain.  Sometimes tiles were laid between the beams and the thatch and earth placed over them.”

 So, these four men, carry their friend to the roof, remove the tiles, dig through the thatch and dirt, and make a way for their friend.  They will stop at nothing to get their friend to Jesus.  And there is no way possible that Jesus didn’t notice this.  It is highly probable that dirt rained down upon His head as these men tore through the roof.  He was showered with dirt and debris, and then the paralytic is lowered down and laid at his feet.  Mark tells us that Jesus first observed the faith of these men. 

Now, before we get into what Jesus does next, let me make the clear distinction of what faith means here.  Faith is not an intellectual belief.  It is much more than that.  Faith here is something that compels action.  It is something down deep within these men.  It is something which leads them to place their ultimate trust, not in themselves; not in the scribes or the chief priests; not in doctors or healers; but in Jesus.

 Again, Mark Edwards cuts through our feeble notions of intellectual faith when he writes the following, “If an opening to Jesus cannot be found, one must be made.  That is a description of faith: it will remove any obstacle–even a roof if necessary–to get to Jesus.  The first mention of faith in (the book of) Mark significantly links it with acting rather than with knowing or feeling.  We know nothing of the beliefs of the four friends of the paralytic except that they take action, including circumventing crowds and removing roofs to ensure their charge is brought to Jesus.  Faith is first and foremost not knowledge about Jesus but active trust that Jesus is sufficient for one’s deepest and most heartfelt needs.”

 Faith is first and foremost not knowledge about Jesus but active trust that Jesus is sufficient for one’s deepest and most heartfelt needs.

 Again, this ties directly to the remarks I made at the beginning of this sermon–this marks the difference between someone who believes there is a God and those who deeply trust God and walk with a true transformation in their lives.  For oftentimes, those who believe in God do not put their trust in Him.  It is human nature to trust in things that we can see and control.  It is human nature to trust ourselves to achieve what we want and desire.  We trust our knowledge, our checkbooks, our ability to work, our looks, our government, our doctors, our lawyers, our gender, our sexuality, our ethnicity, our heritage, in money, in possessions, in the church, in people, in science, in technology, and in a whole host of other things.  But true faith recognizes these things as barriers.  They actually prevent us from living our lives in radical trust in God.  And the reason we seem to lack peace and assurance in our lives is that all of these other things we put our trust into will let us down.  None of these things can fully satisfy us.  None of these things is perfect.  None of these things can ultimately be sufficient for our deepest and most heartfelt needs.  So, again that begs the question: how can we move from depending upon ourselves; from depending on all those other things to a radical dependence upon God?  Let’s continue with the story.

 When Jesus sees the paralytic laying at His feet, He does something rather odd.  He does NOT say, “Friend, I have compassion for you.  Get up and walk.”  No.  Those aren’t the first words out of Jesus’ mouth.  Instead, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Why would Jesus say this?  It doesn’t seem like the man needs forgiveness.  It seems like he needs healing.  Why not jump straight to the healing? 

 I think it has something to do with the reaction of the scribes.  Immediately after Jesus pronounces forgiveness, the scribes get angry.  They say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?  This is blasphemy.”

 The reason the scribes say this is because of the thread that runs strongly through the Old Testament; a thread that said: the reason a person becomes sick, paralyzed, or has anything bad happen to them is a result of that person’s sin.  So, if a person did something wrong–broke a commandment, failed to offer a sacrifice, or what have you–then God would strike them with a malady.  God would put that person under His curse.  Because of this view, the scribes believed that the paralyzed man was under God’s curse.  They believed he was suffering as a consequence of his sin.  No man could remove that curse.  No man could bring that kind of forgiveness.  Only God could.  Jesus is putting Himself as God’s spoke’s person, and that was completely and utterly disrespectful for a man to do.

 But Jesus knew the hearts of the scribes, and He knew this was a teachable moment.  Jesus turns to the scribes and asks, “Which is easier: to say your sins are forgiven or rise, take up your mat and walk?”  In reality the easiest thing to say was, “Your sins are forgiven.”  This actually could not be verified immediately.  No one could tell if God had indeed forgiven a person’s sin, so it was easy to say but hard to verify.  On the other hand, to say, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk,” was to take a troublesome risk.  If you were to say this, it could not easily be verified.  If you were to say this and the person were not able to walk, then you would revealed as a fraud.  You would be shown to have no blessing or authorization of God.  And in reality, neither of these things are easy at all.  Both of these things are impossible for humans.  But both are quite easy for God.

 Jesus brings this straight forward to the crowd when He then says, “But so that you will know that the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins on earth,” turning toward the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, take up your mat and go home.”  And the man did.  Jesus shows that He indeed has both the power of forgiveness and the power to heal.  And everyone went away praising God and saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”

 Now, what hadn’t the crowd seen before?  What cause them to rejoice so much?  From their perspective, they had never seen a man remove God’s curse from one who was afflicted.  They had never seen a man remove God’s punishment from someone who had sinned.  Such a thing was unheard of.  Jesus became the one who forgave, cured, and restored to wholeness.

 Let me quote William Lane here, “It was not [and is not] God’s intention that man should live with the pressure of death upon him.  Sickness, disease and death are the consequence of the sinful condition of all men.  Consequently every healing is a driving back of death and an invasion of the providence of sin.  That is why it is appropriate for Jesus to proclaim the remission of sins....Jesus’ pronouncement of pardon is the recognition that man can be genuinely whole only when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.”

 Only can we be truly whole when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.  We will not find wholeness; we will not find peace; we will not find fulfillment until we understand how we have been forgiven of our sins.  Our trust of God will not become a heart thing until we understand what Christ has done in removing the curse of sin through the cross.  And this is not something we can accomplish on our own.

 The paralytic could not come to Jesus on his own.  His friends had to take him, but his friends could only get him so far.  They could not heal his paralyzed legs.  They could not forgive his sins.  They could not restore his relationship with God or with his body.  Only Jesus could.  Only Jesus could make that happen, and they trusted Jesus to accomplish that.  They did not trust themselves.  And Jesus made it happen.  Jesus removed the curse of sin and restored the paralytic to wholeness–body and soul.  It was an act of sheer grace.  What could not be accomplished by themselves; what could not be accomplished by any human being was accomplished by God and God alone. 

 Faith moves from being a head thing–an intellectual process–to a heart thing, to transformation when we put our trust in what Jesus has done and not what we do.  It’s when we drive through anything and everything that seeks to keep us from Him.  It’s when we acknowledge our sinfulness, our need for forgiveness, our need to be made whole that God will move us from our head into our heart–will show us the true level of His mercy–the true level of His love.  When in our brokenness, we are laid at the feet of Jesus; when we hear Him say, “Your sins are forgiven.”; when we hear Him say, “Be made whole”; when we experience this sheer grace even before uttering a single word, this changes the way we look at the world; it changes our hearts; it changes our minds; it changes our actions. 

 Christianity says: your life will not be changed until you can begin to grasp the mystery of grace–the mystery of being loved while broken–the mystery of being loved when you don’t deserve it–the mystery of being forgiven by the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the son into the world not to condemn you but to save you.  Amen.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Follow Him

(A word of note: This was not the final form of the sermon delivered this past Sunday.  The gist of the final product is included below, but there were some significant changes as I was led to deliver the sermon quite differently.)

 For the majority of our lives, we are constantly having to prove ourselves, and we have developed a system that uses rewards to ensure that we work hard at proving ourselves.  What do I mean by that?

 Well, think about how our lives generally operate, especially when we enter into school.  There are certain things society deems important for us to know, so we develop a grading system.  If you study and work hard, you get higher rewards–higher grades.  To prove that you are ready to advance in learning, you must reach a certain standard, and if you do not, then you are required to repeat a class or a grade.  Once you manage to prove yourself in the advancement of basic knowledge, you move into specialized knowledge.  Once again, you have to prove that you can master a set of knowledge and its application.  You either head to a trade school or to college.  Once again, the same set of rules apply.  Master the knowledge and you will be rewarded with grades according to how well you have learned.  If you prove yourself capable in these areas, then it is usually time to apply for a job.

 The job process is once again where you must prove yourself to your employer.  You must convince a person or a group of people that you have the personality and capability of handling a job.  You produce a resume.  You show your knowledge of a given subject.  You call in others who can vouch for you.  If you do a good job of proving yourself to an employer, you are hired.  But the process of proving yourself does not stop there.  You must then prove yourself as you work.  You must be able to accomplish the tasks of your job. The reward is your paycheck.  For if you do not prove yourself and produce, you can easily be fired.  And, if you are at a company where you are reviewed on a yearly basis, you know that this is again, you having to prove yourself that you are worthy of a raise or worthy to stay on for another year.

 Sometimes, this process even trickles its way into our families.  Oftentimes we are unconsciously proving to our family members that we still love them.  We strive to receive affirmation from our parents, grand-parents, children, and grand-children.  The reward is the affection they give to us; the respect they give to us; perhaps as we grow older, the time they share with us when they are not working.  What I am saying now, is that even when you might retire from working, there are still places where you must prove yourself.

 You must prove that you can still see well enough to drive a car.  You must prove that you have insurance to have your car inspected.  You must prove that you have enough finances to obtain a loan.  If you move into some areas of our state and nation, you must prove that you care for the land and the community in order to be accepted by the “locals.”  And even then, you will not necessarily be accepted even if you have lived in that place and cared for it for 20 years or more.  Over and over you must prove yourself in order to receive rewards.  This is the world we live in, and it is costly.

 Over and over, we have to invest ourselves: our time, our talent, and money to prove ourselves.  We have to pay registration fees.  We have to pay for our education.  We have to use up time that we could have spent with family and friends to earn our way and further our knowledge.  We have to constantly sacrifice ourselves to hopefully earn that reward at the end of the day.  And if something happens that we don’t achieve the reward; if we are somehow unable to prove ourselves; the effects on our psyche’s can be devastating.  We see this over and over again particularly in sports when an athlete’s body begins to age and fade and no matter what they have done in the past; not matter how big of a star they have been; no matter how many championships they have won; they are summarily cut, benched, or excluded from the team.  No longer able to prove themselves, they sometimes spiral into depression because they sense that they no longer have value.

 I took a little bit of time to set this up because I want to starkly contrast the way the world works with the way that Christianity works.  The two are vastly different, and this becomes blatantly apparent in our Gospel lesson today from the book of Mark.

 This is a very short text about Jesus calling the first disciples, and without understanding the historical situation, one is left with the idea that this is really no big deal.  Jesus walks up to some fishermen, says, “Follow me,” and they follow Jesus.  It’s over and done with in a matter of moments.  But this is just what we see on the surface.  There is much, much more going on.

 For you see, Jesus is unlike any other Rabbi of his day.  In almost every instance that we know of, in order to follow a Rabbi, you had to undergo a rigorous application process.  You had to prove yourself.  You had to approach a Rabbi and inquire as to whether he was accepting student.  You had to pass that Rabbi’s entrance exam which would be to see whether or not you knew the Jewish Bible backwards and forwards.  For instance, the Rabbi might begin a sentence from Leviticus 20, and you were expected to finish that sentence.  Then, you might be asked what it meant.  If you passed the Rabbi’s examination and proved that you were capable of learning from him, then he may accept you as a student.

 We see no such examination from Jesus.  The first disciples do not approach Jesus; rather Jesus approaches them!  This was unheard of!  And it could be one of the reasons Peter, Andrew, James and John leave their nets immediately and follow Jesus.  This was something new.  This was something extraordinary–a rabbi calling his students and not vice versa!  A rabbi calling students without having them prove themselves!  And rabbis usually took only the best of the best of the best to be their students.  They certainly didn’t take fishermen.  This was a huge honor being bestowed upon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

 But the honor did not come without cost.  Let me first quote renowned scholar N.T. Wright:

 We have no idea how many generations the Zebedee family had been fishing on the sea of Galilee, but it was quite likely a lot more than four.  In that country and culture, as in many countries and cultures to this day, a small family business can be handed on not only through generations but through centuries.

 Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into, do you understand just how earth shattering this little story was and is.  Leave everything you’ve known, all your security, your family (and family solidarity was hugely important in that culture), and follow Jesus.

 So, following Jesus would be to walk away from your family and your job security.  But that’s not it.

 According to the New Interpreter’s Bible:

 To the ancient reader, the summons to follow Jesus–i.e. to become a disciple–was an extraordinary disruption in a person’s life.  It might even have seemed offensive.  If the labor of the sons was critical to the fishing enterprise in which the two families were engaged, then such a departure might appear to put the welfare of the whole family at risk. 

 So, following Jesus might cause quite a bit of anger to be produced within one’s family.  And it would certainly impact Peter, Andrew, James, and John’s pocket books.  I mean, these individuals weren’t poverty stricken.  There is every indication these folks were pretty well off.  Peter could afford a house where he took care of his mother-in-law.  James and John had servants working with them–poor people did not have servants.  When these disciples left their nets, it was a costly decision.  What could make them walk away in this fashion?  What could make them walk away from lives which were labor intensive but at least provided a pretty good income and manner of living?

 “Come with me and I will begin to make you fishers of men.”

   What was it about this statement that caused Peter, Andrew, James and John to walk away from everything they had ever known; ever trusted; ever invested in?  Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says about this.

 ...Jesus is the unqualified subject of the call.  As he passes along the shore and sees two pairs of brothers, he issues a summons, “Come, follow me.”  On this particular point, Jesus was a very different leader from the rabbis and scribes of Judaism.  There are no rabbinical stories analogous to the calling of disciples, for rabbis did not consummate the teacher-student relationship by the summons, “Follow me.”  Unlike the decisive call that comes from Jesus, entry into rabbinical school depended on the initiative of the aspiring student, not the call of the rabbi.  The personal prominence that Jesus assumes in the call of the four fishermen is highly unusual in Jewish tradition as a whole.  The chief allegiance of rabbinic students was to the Torah rather than to a particular rabbi.

 Let me repeat that last sentence again.  The chief allegiance of rabbinic students was to the Torah–the Jewish Bible–rather than to a particular rabbi.  Jesus wasn’t inviting the disciples to follow the Law.  He was inviting the disciples to follow Him–trust Him–trust that God was doing something through Him.  Little did they know exactly what was happening.  They certainly didn’t know that Jesus was the Son of God at this point, so there must have been something that absolutely grasped them and compelled them to follow Jesus. There must have been something in His demeanor; His call that grasped their hearts and inspired them to take such a risk.  We may never know what it was exactly that grasped them, but we can know the power that grasps us.

 For you see, Jesus still calls to you and I and says, “Follow me.”  He still asks us to become His disciples, and to this day, there is still no qualifying exam.  There is still no need to prove ourselves.  There is no series of hoops to jump through to make ourselves worthy to be a disciple.  The price of our proving has already been paid, but it was not paid by us.  It was paid by Jesus.

 Christianity unequivocally says that we could never prove ourselves worthy enough to be a disciple.  Christianity unequivocally says we cannot know the Bible well enough.  We cannot follow God’s commands perfectly enough.  We would fail miserably if it were up to us.  One example I hope will suffice although I could offer many.  Let’s say you want to be a disciple of Jesus.  Let’s say you want this position tremendously.  Let’s say you are willing to do whatever it takes to be a disciple.  You will put in countless hours of Bible study.  You will attend college and seminary.  You will devote yourself to doing good works and acts of kindness.  You will never cuss; never get angry; never get drunk.  You will promote justice and peace.  You will seek harmony within the church and pray without ceasing.  And here is the kicker; you actually accomplish it.  You actually manage to do these things.  Surely you are qualified to be a disciple.  Surely you have proven yourself worthy of a position as a disciple.  You have dedicated your life to achieving this position.  You are good, right? 

Wrong.  You may wonder how.  Here’s how.  You are striving to achieve the position of a disciple.  You are doing all of these things to become a disciple.  You are therefore doing them because it is something you want.  You are doing it for yourself.  You are not doing it for God and His glory.  You are acting selfishly.  This is not in accord with God’s will.  Selfishness is so dominant a force in our hearts that it often goes unnoticed by us.

 But it does not go unnoticed by God.  He knows we need a change of heart in order to be effective disciples.  He knows that deep down we must have our hearts turned to him instead of toward ourselves.  And how does a heart change?  How does a heart aspire for something other than its own self interest?

 The answer is when it is filled with love for another.  The answer is when it is filled with love for God.  And God knows He cannot force you to love Him.  God knows He cannot legislate your love.  He has to effectually earn it, and so he does this by dying for you.  He does this by loving you when you don’t deserve it.  He does it by dying for you while you are caught up in your self-interest.  He does it on the cross.

 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

 The cross is God’s call to the world, “Follow me.”  It is His invitation to you and me to leave behind all that we once trusted and to put our trust in Him.  And it will be costly–leave no doubt about that.  It will change the way you live, but you will find yourself experiencing freedom.  You will sense deep down that your self worth is no longer governed by the rewards society promises.  You will sense deep down that you no longer have to prove yourself to anyone and everyone.  You will know that you are deeply loved and accepted by the author and Creator of the universe.  Your trust will be in Him and Him alone.  This is the reality of discipleship.  This is the reality of following Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, July 25, 2016

An Embarrasing Ending

 This week at church camp was tremendous.  Our young folks accounted themselves well as they learned and grew with others–learning about Superhero faith.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will share with you this morning one fascinating thing I observed.  One of the Bible readings on the Wednesday of camp was our Gospel reading from the book of Mark–the resurrection story of Jesus.  It was read no less than three times that day: at morning worship; during Bible study; and at evening worship.  And every time the lesson was read, verse eight was omitted.  I can’t say that I necessarily blame them for omitting it.  It’s rather embarrassing.

 “8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

 What in the world is wrong with the gospel writer?  I mean, who in their right mind would stop right here at the end of this story?  Who in their right mind would quit with the women hiding in terror after what they had seen and heard?  Who in their right mind would stop without having Jesus appear and talk to the disciples; let them know that He is indeed risen; and send them out to proclaim the news?  Who in their right mind would stop right here?  It’s embarrassing.

 Indeed, several commentaries I consulted this week said that Mark must have had a longer ending.  They believe that the early manuscripts were either mutilated or had pages lost.  Mark could not have ended right here.  In fact, later scribes even took it upon themselves to add endings to the book of Mark.  If you want to have a little bit of fun, you can check out a good study Bible, and they will have two separate endings for the book of Mark available for you to see. 

 Some of you might ask, “How do you know that someone else added them?  When I took Greek, we translated a huge portion of the book of Mark.  When you get a chance to study someone’s writing style, you get a chance to see how they write, and you can definitely tell when someone else is being quoted or is writing.  In the Greek text, it is blatantly obvious that whoever wrote the two endings attributed to Mark is not Mark.  The earliest texts that we have end at verse eight.  They told no one because they were afraid.

 This is not the Easter message that we are accustomed to.  This is not where we like to end up.  The Christian faith has a huge mandate to tell the good news that Christ is risen not to cower in fear.  I mean, without the resurrection, Jesus would probably have been less than a footnote in the pages of history.

 William Lane says this in his commentary, “Were it not for the resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth might have appeared as no more than a line in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, if he were mentioned at all.  The witness of the four Gospels is unequivocal that following the crucifixion Jesus’ disciples were scattered, their hopes shattered by the course of events.  What halted the dissolution of the messianic movement centered in Jesus was the resurrection.  It is the resurrection which creates, ‘the good news concerning Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’”

 It would seem that Mark would have known this and would have written accordingly.  But maybe, just maybe he did.  For you see, as I have preached through this book, I have come to see Mark as a literary genius.  Each story has built upon the previous one.  Each story is deeply rooted and grounded in the Old Testament understanding of the Messiah.  Throughout the Gospel stories and words are chosen to bring things together into a brilliant message of the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah who has given His life as a ransom for many.  There is a method to Mark’s madness that culminates in a brilliant ending.  Let’s look at that ending now.

 First, Mark tells us about the women who come to the tomb early in the morning, just after sunrise to bring spices to anoint Jesus’ body.  It was customary for Jews to bury their dead and put a lot of spices and fragrant oils around the body as the body decomposed.  After a year, relatives or friends would enter the tomb and collect the bones and put them into an ossuary or bone box.  The spices and oils helped mask the smell of the decomposing body.  Because Jesus’ body was buried with haste these spices and oils were not put upon him.  The women came to give Him one last dignity.

 But they were presented with a problem: a large stone had been rolled into place to cover the opening of the tomb.  Presumably it was so large and difficult to move that these women would not be able to do that by themselves.  They were going to need some help, and it is highly probable they were expecting a gardener or someone of the same sort to be there to help them.

 What they discovered, however, was completely unexpected.  The stone was rolled away.  This caused them no small amount of consternation.  They entered the tomb unsure of what they might find.

 Much to their surprise, they find a young man seated on the right hand side in the tomb.  Now, several weeks ago, when I preached on the betrayal scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, we also saw Mark tell us about a young man who was in the garden.  This was a “neoniskus.”  The Greek word connoted someone who was strong, handsome, vital, and brave.  Mark also informed us that this young man was wealthy as he wore a linen robe.  This “neoniskus” was last seen fleeing from the Garden of Gesthemane naked; his robe in the hands of those who were sent to arrest Jesus.  All of the young man’s courage, wealth, looks, vitality, and strength were nothing.  All of these things failed him as he raced away naked, alone, and embarrassed.

 I don’t think it coincidence that Mark uses the same word to describe this young man at the tomb.  Mark is not one who uses coincidence.  There is a definite reason the “neoniskus” reappears because there is a stark contrast to the time we saw him before.  Now, this “young man” is seated; fully clothed in white, calm, collected, and seated in a position of power and authority.  He is no longer running or scared.  Something has happened to transform him mightily.  What could that have been?

 You know the answer.  He has met the resurrected Jesus, and he now tells the women exactly what has happened.  “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

 The women flee.  They do not walk away in a state of euphoria.  They do not marvel at this news in some sort of holy stupor.  They run!!  Terror and amazement had seized them, and they told no one!!  They told no one.

 Why?   Why wouldn’t they have told anyone?  This is madness.  If Jesus truly is raised from the dead, then hope is restored.  The news that the Kingdom of God was at hand is powerfully relevant.  That proclamation did not die with Jesus upon the cross.  God is indeed on the move!  Why aren’t they sharing this?

 Scholars pose several reasons.  One is that the women believed that the end judgement was at hand.  For if Jesus had been resurrected, then this was the beginning of the immanent and promised resurrection of the dead–when God would render His final judgement.  It was a time to be dreaded and feared.  The women were cowering because they believed this event was unfolding before their very eyes.  This interpretation could be very true. 

 But now, let me share you Mark Edwards’ take on this from His commentary:

 It is an encounter with the resurrected Lord, not the empty tomb that produces faith.  The resurrection does not magically dispel fear and cowardice, transforming fallible human characters into faithful disciples.  Faithful discipleship consists of following Jesus, not contemplating doing so; acting courageously on his behalf, not standing on the sidelines and watching...Throughout the Gospel, Mark has warned that signs, miracles, and portents do not evoke faith (8:11-13).  The same note persists at the resurrection, the greatest of all signs: even the visitation of angels at the empty tomb fails to produce faith.  Faith comes rather through hearing the gospel and personal encounter with the One who was crucified and is now raised from the dead.  Even at the close of the story, the human characters fail the divine will: in his earthly ministry, Jesus commanded people to silence, and they spoke; in his resurrected state, the women are commanded to speak, and they flee in silence!

 It is the resurrected Lord, not the empty tomb that produces faith.

 It is the resurrected Lord, not the empty tomb that produces faith.

 It is the resurrected Lord, not the empty tomb that produces faith.

 The women had seen the empty tomb.  They had been told that Jesus was risen from the dead, but they had had no encounter with the risen Lord.  They had not come to faith.  They would eventually, by the way, but at this moment in time, faith was an impossibility.  It went against all rational judgement.  It went against all they had ever known.  It went against all they had ever been taught and all they had ever assumed.  If indeed Jesus was raised from the dead, everything was now different.

 Everything was already different for that “neoniskus”.  His entire life was different.  No longer naked, ashamed and embarrassed; no longer fleeing for his life while deserting Jesus; he is now clothed, sitting with power, and sharing the good news.  He has been transformed from head to toe, from inside to out.  He has encountered the risen Lord.

 Mark leaves us with a stark contrast between the young man who had encountered the risen Christ and the women who had not.  He leaves us hanging by a thread asking us to consider, “Who is going to go and tell the news?  Who is going to tell others about what Jesus has accomplished? Who is left who has seen Jesus heal the sick and make the lame to walk?  Who is left who has heard of Jesus calming the storm and feeding the multitudes?  Who is left who saw Jesus transfigured on the hill with the voice from heaven confirming that Jesus is God’s Son?  Who is left to tell of how Jesus came to give His life as a ransom to many?  Who is left to stand at the foot of the cross as the Roman centurion did and say, “This truly is God’s Son.”?  Who is left to tell of the empty tomb and the resurrection to new life?

 Who is left to tell the world that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him?  Who is left who knows these things; who has encountered the risen Christ; and who will now proclaim?

 The answer, my brothers and sisters is: you and me.  You and I have traveled through these stories.  You and I have seen and heard what Jesus has done.  You and I have witnessed these events through the eyes of Mark.  And now, we must ask ourselves: have we encountered the risen Jesus?  Have we encountered the One who died for us?  Have we encountered the one who has saved us and forgiven us from our sins?  Have we been clothed with new garments, had our shame removed, and filled with power? 

 If you profess Jesus as your Lord and Savior; if you have encountered the risen Jesus, it is now up to you and me to write the end of Mark’s Gospel.  It is now up to you and me to move into the world to tell others what Jesus has done.  It is now up to you and me to invite others into a relationship with the living Lord.  The women were amazed and terrified.  They told no one.  May we have the courage to do differently.  Amen.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Change Your Assumptions

 In a very real way, our society today has a truth problem.  I’ve said that before in a sermon or two, but it isn’t because people don’t believe that truth exists.  There are very, very few people who actually believe that what is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me.  If people actually believed that, no one would ever get upset about anything–and I mean anything.

 For instance, a person who saw a child being abused could not call such a thing wrong.  By the logic of their own reasoning, they would have to admit, “If someone abuses a child, then that person believes it is okay to do that.  That’s what they believe.  It’s not true for me, but it’s true for them.  There’s nothing I should do about it.”  Perhaps such a person exists in the world today, but I haven’t met them.

 No, this is not the truth problem we have today.  We have another type of truth problem–a problem of proclaiming truth before all the evidence is in.  Let me state that again: we have a problem of proclaiming the truth before all the evidence is in.  Why do I say this? 

 I don’t think you can't argue that the news media has been flush with stories of the deterioration of race relations in our nation.  Because of the police shootings of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling and then the subsequent retaliation killings of five officers in Dallas, the cries of “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” have gotten stronger and stronger.  The rhetoric has ratcheted up and emotions have gotten higher and higher–despite the fact that the evidence is not all in.

 Some might say at this point, “What do you mean the evidence is not all in.  We have seen the videos.”

 Yes.  The videos.  What do you see in the videos?

 I’ll tell you what you see in the videos, and I’m not trying to do this in any sort of know-it-all pompous way.  I’ll tell you what you see in the videos given your assumptions about the way things are going in this country right now.

 If you assume that African Americans are disproportionally targeted by police and are victims of police abuse, then you see police brutality and murder.

 If you assume that the majority of police officers are good people who are doing a tough job, you will see people failing to obey police orders, resisting arrest, and tragically getting shot.

 You are both looking at the same video, and you are both coming to different conclusions even before all the facts are known about those situations.  Your governing assumptions are leading you to a conclusion without all the evidence.  And if you become absolutely certain in your conclusion, you will take action and argue either for “Black Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.”  At the worst, you will begin caricaturing the other side and calling them ignorant, stupid, and the like.  And when all the evidence indeed comes in, no matter where that evidence leads, you will not believe it unless it confirms your already pre-conceived notions.

 Our assumptions; our pre-conceived notions are extremely powerful.  They are very, very hard to overcome.  They color the way we look at the world; they color the way we view evidence; they color the way we hear other people.  These assumptions are often so powerful that we will dismiss someone’s testimony without giving them a proper hearing.  Think about that for just a moment as I turn the tables a bit.  How does it feel to know that someone will dismiss your point of view simply because your perspective clashes with their assumptions?  How does it feel to know someone will simply not believe you because of their pre-conceived notions of reality?  How does it feel to be dismissed out of hand and have your experience dismissed no matter what kind of evidence you produce?

 I think most of us would be outraged with this.  Most of us would be extremely upset because we want our perspective to be granted a proper hearing.  We want our evidence to be heard.  We want to be valued and honored and heard.  And yet, oftentimes we do not afford this basic consideration to others.  Oftentimes our minds are made up because of the deep power of our basic assumptions.  There is a word for this: hypocrisy.

 I don’t know about you, but I do not like being confronted with my hypocrisy.  I don’t like being shown that I say one thing but do quite the opposite.  I like to think of myself as consistent, so is there a way that my deepest assumptions can allow for me to refrain from jumping to conclusions?  Is there a set of assumptions that I can have that will permit me to listen to both sides of a given argument; affirm the feelings and emotions of each side; and yet wait until the evidence is in and even change my mind?

 The Christian worldview, at its heart says that every person is a sinner–deeply flawed, broken and self-interested and yet because of Christ’s action on the cross, that person is also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  As Martin Luther wrote, we are both completely sinner and saint.  This means you and I are flawed, broken, and self-interested people, but we are also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  That also means that the people we disagree with are flawed, broken, and self-interested and also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  What does this mean as we seek to practically apply it?

 First off, I think it means we can and should be skeptical of what we are told.  Does that mean I am telling you to be skeptical of what I am saying right now?  Yes.  I am.  Why?  Why should you be skeptical of me preaching what I am preaching to you right now?  Because I am sinful.  I am not up here with pure motivations.  If I were up here with completely pure motivations, there would be no desire in my heart for you to believe what I am saying.  There would be no desire in my heart for you to arrive at the same conclusions that I have.  There would be no thought about whether or not my job might be in jeopardy or whether I have worded things just carefully enough for me to have an out.  I would have no agenda or thought for my self preservation.  But, alas, that is not so.  I want you to like me.  I want you to respect me. I want to present a sermon which is equally appealing to those on the left and right.  I want to keep my job.  These things affect what I say and how I say them.  Sinfulness does that–to EVERYONE!!  Healthy skepticism is important.

 But so is compassion.  This is the second thing that I think being both sinner and saint means leads us to.   We can be skeptical of claims and know that sin informs other people–like it informs us, but we can also hear the concerns, cries, and testimony of others with an open mind.  Other people have points of view.  They have evidence in their own right.  They have felt things and seen things that we have not.  They are children of God, and God has extended the same compassion and forgiveness to them that He has extended to me.  I simply cannot dismiss their points of view out of hand.  Compassion demands I give a proper hearing without having my mind closed.

 So, how do I render a proper judgement?  How do I come to any sort of conclusion given that people have sinful motivations and deserve compassion and an open ear?

 Let me now turn to our biblical text from the book of Mark. We wrap up chapter 15 today with Jesus’ burial.  This is a straight forward story about what happens after Jesus dies on the cross.  There is no heavy theology.  There are no miracles or God sightings.  There is simply an account of Joseph of Arimethia of procuring Jesus’ body; burying it; and then two women seeing where the body is laid.

 Most of us accept the validity of this story almost without question, but let me ask you this question: how would you explain to a skeptic why you believe this story to be true?  How would you defend this story to someone who might say that Mark made this up?  Hang in there, this is pertinent to the original question.

 First off, we need to ask how Mark knew about these events.  How did this story of Joseph of Arimethia find its way into the Bible?  The simplest explanation is that Joseph himself told this story to the early disciples and that it was passed to Mark.  And why should we believe Joseph’s rendition? 

 Scholar N.T. Wright helps us here:

 It was a moment of great potential risk.  To show any sympathy with someone who had just been crucified on a charge of sedition was bound to raise suspicions.  Peter had been scared out of his wits by the mere suggestion that he was associated with Jesus.  Joseph, Mark explains, had been eagerly longing for the kingdom; we must assume that this means he had been a keen, though secret, supporter of Jesus.  He must have decided that if Jesus had died he had nothing more to lose by doing what he knew to be right. It also meant, of course, that he would make himself ritually unclean, and unable to engage in some of the normal Sabbath practices that evening and the next day.  Joseph was treating Jesus as if he was a close member of the family, for whom it was his duty to see to burial before nightfall–as well as to fulfil the old biblical law not to let hanged corpses remain in place overnight.  For this he was prepared to face uncleanliness, suspicion, and possible charges as an associate of Jesus.

 You see, Joseph had everything to lose and nothing to gain.  The act of going to Pilate, procuring the body, and burying it could cost him all kinds of status within the community and could end up costing him his life if he is seen as seditious.  Most folks will not risk as much as Joseph did; therefore, it is highly probable that this story is true.

 The second thing that points to the truth of this story of Jesus’ burial is the witness of the women.  As I said in my sermon last week, in Jewish culture, women were not afforded the right to be witnesses in a trial.  They were seen as too emotional; too unobjective.  If Mark were to make up a story about Jesus’ burial, he would not have chosen women to be the witnesses.  He would have chosen men. Because this would actually damage Christianity rather than help its cause, it is highly probable this actually happened.

 In both of these cases, the cost of the actions and the reports are actually higher than the benefit.  Usually, we do not do things that do not offer us some sort of reward and satisfaction.  Usually, we do not do things that do not offer us some sort of benefit.  Usually, we do not do things that have a very high cost with little or no benefit to ourselves. 

 And this brings us to the central belief of Christianity that Jesus became the God incarnate who took on flesh and lived among us to live the life we should live and die the death we deserved.  He became sin who knew no sin and faced the fires of hell on our behalf so that we may experience the joys of heaven.  The forgiveness of our sins; eternal life; and reconciliation with God cost us nothing, and it cost Jesus everything.  Jesus paid the price and received nothing in return.  His motives were pure.  He had no self-interest.  He only had love.

 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. 

 As you look at what is going on in our society today; as you contemplate the media reporting of Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, it would be helpful to keep the Christian worldview at the front.  Be skeptical–wait for all the evidence.  Be compassionate–listen and engage others without being completely dismissive.  Look for motivations of love and self-giving without thought of reward or benefit.  Seek to offer love and self-giving without benefit.  For this is what Jesus did as He gave Himself to you, to me, and to the world.  And He promised us this, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.  You will know the truth.  And the truth will make you free.”  Hang onto Jesus.  Know the Gospel, and you will indeed come to know the truth.  Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A God Sighting

 After four days at Walt Disney World, my family and I were quite exhausted.  We left Animal Kingdom early in the afternoon and drove back to our condo.  Tired of park food, we decided to head to a nearby restaurant for a more well rounded meal.  The local Friday’s wasn’t too terribly packed, so we parked and were seated.  What happened next was quite interesting.

 Our waiter was a black homosexual.  He welcomed us cheerfully and dully noted that we were not from the area.  His observational skills were exceptional.  What I found quite interesting was how his demeanor changed when we said that we were from Texas.  He tried to hide it, but his acting skills were not on a par with his observational skills.  Perhaps he believed the stereotypes of Texans being arrogant, intolerant Republicans who are backwards in thought and hateful to anyone who is outside the norm–who are racist, misogynist, and homophobic.  Don’t you love being caricatured?  I don’t, and it was a bit concerning to see how this young man reacted to the statement of our state’s name, but he had a job to do regardless of who he was serving.

 The man took our drink and appetizer order and headed off to procure our refreshments, and here is where things took another interesting turn.  An arm appeared suddenly over my shoulder and deposited a piece of paper in front of me.  On that piece of paper were three coupons marked by bar codes: two 20% off your entire purchase codes and a one free entre code.  We were struck by this act of kindness–completely random; totally unexpected.  We thanked our benefactors profusely.

 When our food came, our oldest, Kiera, made mention of the coupon and the kindness of the total strangers sitting next to us.  She remarked, “Dad, that’s a God sighting.”

 I answered, “Yes, dear.  You are right.  That is indeed a God sighting.”

 I’m going to break from the story just a moment to say that I have since found out that Kiera learned that phrase from this year’s vacation Bible school.  Dawna and I haven’t used that phrase in our home in teaching our kids about God, so I knew it had to come from somewhere.  Kudos to our VBS teachers and leaders.  Someone learned something this year!!!

 But, let’s return now to the rest of the story.  My kids have become very concerned when we eat at restaurants these days.  They particularly have a soft spot for our waiters and waitresses–particularly those waiters and waitresses who show them some kindness during our meals.  It was not surprising when they asked us as we were paying, “Are you going to tip him?”–meaning our waiter.  Of course, I was going to tip him.  He did a very good job that evening, and I wanted to send him a message both thanking him for his work and to show that we Texans ABSOLUTELY DO NOT fit the caricature.  I asked our waiter, “How many tables have you waited tonight?”  His response was, “Only two.”  I gave him a $30 tip that he did not see until after we left.  The kids asked me how much I gave him.  I told them, and they were quite stunned.

 As we stood to leave, I looked at the coupon in my hand which still had two more discounts.  Seeing another family in the restaurant with young, energetic children, I made a snap decision.  I walked past my family and up to their table.  Depositing the coupon in front of the father, I said, “Someone showed us a great kindness tonight by giving us this coupon.  There are still two more discounts on this, and we would like to pass on the favor.”  I was thanked warmly as I left.

 Kiera then looked at me and said, “Dad, you were a God sighting.” 

 I responded, “Yes. I was.  Someone was kind to us and was a God sighting to us, and now we can be God sightings to others.”

 God sightings are those things which inspire us to be different.  They touch us deep within our hearts and souls.  They are things which inspire us to do good; to be good; to go out of our way to show kindness and compassion; to break stereotypes and do things that we would not ordinarily do; to think outside of ourselves–to lose ourselves and love lavishly.

 Today, we have before us in our Gospel text the Ultimate God Sighting.  We have before us the death of God.  That may sound a bit strange, but let’s walk through the text and see just what is happening when Jesus dies on the cross.

 Jesus has faced the ultimate rejection by humanity.  One of His disciples has betrayed Him.  The leader of His disciples has denied Him not once but three times.  All of the rest of His disciples have abandoned Him.  He has been unjustly tried by the Jewish court system where nearly all of the rules of Jewish jurisprudence have been broken.  He has faced the injustice of the Roman court system as Pontius Pilate has chosen job security and advancement over justice.  The crowds which were once supportive have turned against Jesus thinking that He is a false Messiah worthy of death.  He has been scourged and beaten within an inch of His life.  He has been mocked and spit on.  He has been hung on a cross which is symbolic of both cosmic and worldly scorn.  He has been derided by bystanders and by those crucified with Him.  There is not much more psychological, human distress that He could undergo.

 But all of that is nothing compared to what begins to happen next.  A darkness falls over the land.  Scholars are in a bit of disagreement as to what this darkness symbolizes.  Some have suggested it is a veil hiding God the Father’s face from this debacle.  Some have argued it is a cosmic event showing that something very important is happening.  Still others have said that this is the wrath of God descending upon Jesus at this very instant.  All of these suggestions have merit.  I will leave it up to you to decide.

 It is three hours into this darkness that Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This statement is troubling for some.  Ironic for others.  For we profess as Christians that Jesus is God.  How can God forsake God?  Is it even possible?  Can we even begin to make sense of this statement? 

 I think we can as we remember that Jesus was God immanent; God incarnate; the second person of the Trinity who dwells with us.  From eternity, the God incarnate has been in a relationship with His Father that has sustained Him; given Him every bit of affirmation, love, strength, and compassion that He has needed.  There has never been a moment when Jesus has felt alone or afraid or abandoned.  Until now.  At this point, Jesus has become the sin bearer for all the world.  At this moment Jesus has taken upon Himself all of the hatred that we bear toward on another.  He has taken upon Himself all the injustice we perpetrate toward each other.  Not only from the past but for the entire future.  All of humanity’s ills are piled upon Him, and He is paying the price for all of that.  He is suffering for all of that.  He is not only facing the physical pain of the cross, He is facing the spiritual pain of hell.  He is facing the wrath of God; abandonment by God; the one thing He has never had to worry about in an eternity of existence.  It is so painful; so excruciating that He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He undeservingly becomes forsaken because we deserve to be.

 There are bystanders by the cross who hear Jesus’ cry, and they use it as one more opportunity to mock Him.  Not comprehending His words, they believe that Jesus is calling for Elijah to come and rescue Him from the cross.  The Aramaic words for God and Elijah are actually pretty close, so this isn’t farfetched.  It was also common practice that people would appeal to Elijah if they believed they were suffering unjustly.  A man puts a mixture of vinegar and water on a sponge and offers it to Jesus.  This might seem like a compassionate gesture, but rest assured it is not.  A better translation of the words this man speaks are, “Permit me.  Let us see if Elijah is coming to save him.”  Essentially, this man is saying, “Let me give him something to drink.  That will prolong his life a little more.  Let’s just see if Elijah will come down and save him.”  One more opportunity to mock the man hanging on the cross.  But it is not the last word.

 Jesus cries out with a loud voice as He dies and at the exact same moment the Temple curtain is torn in two.  There is much debate regarding this tearing of the curtain.  For there were two main curtains in the temple.  I personally didn’t realize this until I was studying for my sermon this week.  There was an inner curtain dividing the most sacred part of the temple from everyone in the world–including the priests.  Behind that curtain it was believed that God dwelled.  There was also a second curtain dividing the courtyard of women from the courtyard of men.  This curtain prevented Gentiles and women from coming closest to God.  Which curtain was torn?  Speculation continues, but I appreciate what Mark Edwards says in this extended quote:

 The outer curtain (the only one described by Josephus) was the only curtain visible to all people.  It appears that schizein “to tear” at v. 38 is intended to refer to this curtain.  In Mark’s only other use of this word at the baptism, the tearing of heaven revealed Jesus to be the Son of God.  Likewise, the tearing of the curtain of the temple enables the centurion to confess Jesus as the Son of God.  Both confessions depend on the tearing in two of a veil so that something may be witnessed. The only curtain visible to a Gentile centurion was the outer curtain, not the curtain before the Holy of Holies.  Moreover, Josephus describes the outer curtain as a tapestry portraying “a panorama of the heavens”.  That is a striking parallel to the tearing of heaven in 1:10.  Thus at both uses of schizein Mark signifies the rending of the skies–to open heaven to humanity in the baptism of Jesus and to open the temple as the locus Dei to humanity at the death of Jesus.  At the baptism and death of Jesus the heavenly and earthly dwellings of God are open to humanity.

 Edwards makes me consider this veil very thoroughly as it seems to grasp the reality of Jesus’ death.  For as Jesus dies on our behalf, he opens up both heaven and earth to all who trust in Him.

 Beholding how Jesus died, a Roman centurion is moved to speak.  With what we know about crucifixion, we can be relatively sure that this centurion watched Jesus’ being beaten and mocked.  We can be relatively sure that he was in the procession as Jesus marched to Calvary.  We can be relatively sure he has watched the entire, gruesome spectacle.  We can be relatively sure he has seen many crucifixions.  And we know that in nearly every one of those instances, people died from suffocation. They ended their lives with no breath; no strength.  But here was something different.  Here was something strange.  Here a man died with a shout of power–a shout that tore a heavy curtain from top to bottom rending the heavens.

 “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”  It was a God sighting.  This centurion had come to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. 

 Mark then includes a list of eyewitnesses who passed this story onto him: several important women who were also followers of Jesus.  “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” In a culture that generally demeaned women and would not trust their testimony, it is quite heartening to see how from the earliest, Christianity trusted women’s witness with some of the most important occurrences in our history.  They too had a God sighting.

 What makes this God sighting different from those other little God sightings that we have in our daily lives?  What makes Jesus’ death on the cross markedly different from any sort of other kindness we witness in our day to day activity? 

 In my case, an act of kindness performed for my family and I by a complete stranger was enough to cause two other acts of kindness, but it was not life transforming.  It did not cause me to think about it at all hours of the day.  It did not cause me to write any hymns of thanksgiving or praise.  It did not affect my daily routine or thought process in the least.  It was a small act of kindness.

 Jesus’ death on the cross is a God sighting of cosmic proportions.  Jesus death on the cross is an act of tremendous love.  As I said earlier, on the cross He bore the weight of the world’s sin.  He bore the weight of my sin.  He bore the weight of your sin.  Now, if you do not understand your sinfulness, the cross isn’t a big deal for you.  You are probably happier with Easter than you are with Good Friday.  The cross is just a stepping stone you need to celebrate the resurrection.  The resurrection gives you hope and joy and laughter, but it is not necessarily life transforming.  There are plenty of people who focus on the resurrection who believe that this is what Christianity is about: that God bestows upon us glory and honor and joy and peace without trial and tribulation and hardship.  We can simply believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead without any transformation in our lives.  We have received the cheat death coupon, and we don’t have to worry about anything at all.  We might be thankful from time to time, maybe attend worship at Christmas and Easter, but there is relatively little that passes for anything different in our lives.  Such is what happens if I do not know the depths of my sin.

 But if I understand the depths of my sin.  If I understand that I am a failure–that I hold others to a standard that I do not even live up to; that I am selfish in many of my actions–even when I don’t think I am; that I fail to show the basic levels of kindness to those around me; that I fail to look at others in a compassionate light; that I am always ready to see the worst in people’s motivations; that I am always ready to caricature those whom I disagree with; that I am striving for people’s attention and praise; that I am more concerned with dollars and possessions than I am with loving my neighbor. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  I am sinful.  You are sinful, and Jesus hung on that cross because of our sinfulness.  He died that we might live.  He poured out undeserved love as He faced forsakenness from the Father so that we would not have to.  This is the extent of God’s love–God is willing to sacrifice Himself for us.

 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

 If you understand your sin and you understand what is happening on that cross, then you understand why this is the most tremendous God sighting you can ever see.  You understand why your heart beats in a different rhythm.  You understand why deep down you are brought to your proverbial knees.  You find yourself very much like that centurion who in awe says, “Truly, this man is God’s Son.”  May those words ever be on our lips.  Amen.