Monday, August 31, 2015

The Tribal Brain Undone

    This morning we have the second feeding of a multitude found in the book of Mark.  Yes, you heard me correctly, this is the second time Jesus feeds a large group of people.  Mark records two feedings.  If you don’t believe me, you can look in your Bible at Mark chapter six.  That’s the feeding of the 5000.  This is the feeding of the 4000.  Some scholars, while looking at these two accounts think that Mark is simply telling a story twice–a doublet is what they call it.  They discount the historical accuracy of this second event.  Other scholars are quick to say that there are very different circumstances here–circumstances that say this is indeed another historical feeding with a very important point.  What might that point be?  Let’s begin our journey this morning together.

    In the July/August edition of "The Reader’s Digest", Chris Mooney writes an article titled, “Are We Naturally Born Racists?” It is a fascinating read about the nature of the human brain.  The writer, Chris, takes the IAT test, which is a test that seeks to measure your initial reactions to people of color.  Chris considered himself color blind, but the test revealed that he had an innate prejudice.  He was not happy about this.  But he asked numerous questions about this research, and it led him to write the following:

    Humans are tribal creatures, showing strong bias against those we perceive as different from us and favoritism toward those we perceive as similar.  In fact, we humans will divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups even when the perceived differences between specific groups are completely arbitrary.

    Let that sink in just a moment before hearing the next one.

    In other words, if you give people the slightest push toward behaving tribally, they'll happily comply.  So if race is the basis on which tribes are identified, expect serious problems.

    What kind of problems?

    Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf says this in his 1996 book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong:

    People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack. And sometimes, when a person doesn’t have the strength to defend that allegiance, he hides it. Then it remains buried deep down in the dark, awaiting its revenge. But whether he accepts or conceals it, proclaims it discreetly or flaunts it, it is with that allegiance that the person concerned identifies. And then, whether it relates to color, religion, language or class, it invades the person’s whole identity. Other people who share the same allegiance sympathize; they all gather together, join forces, encourage one another, challenge “the other side.” For them, “asserting their identity” inevitably becomes an act of courage, of liberation.
    In the midst of any community that has been wounded agitators naturally arise… The scene is now set and the war can begin. Whatever happens “the others” will have deserved it.

    Think about such things deeply for a moment as you think about the culture that surrounds us.  Think about such things as you reflect on what took place and is taking place just down the road in Waller County surrounding Sara Bland.  Think about such things as you contemplate the shooting of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. Think about this as you ponder the execution of Houston Sheriff's Deputy Darren Goforth.  Think about such matters as you remember the cold blooded killing of nine church people in Charleston, S.C.

    In each of these situations, there is an us/them mentality.  There is the idea that a particular group is persecuted and then justified in its actions.  There is a great divide as tribal lines are drawn around the color of skin.  Ah, but if Mooney and the researchers at Harvard are correct, such tribalism doesn’t just take place around skin color, our brain naturally draws distinctions between male and female, German and Czech, black and white, young and old, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, and so on and so forth.  Lines get drawn, sides get taken, and fights eventually erupt.  And sometimes we scratch our heads in bewilderment wondering why.

    And some of you might be wondering why I am even going down this train of thought when it looks like it has nothing to do with the feeding of the 4000.  Such matters seem to be completely absent from this text from Mark chapter 8.  And you would be right if you just look at this text at face value, but I don’t want to look at it on the surface. I want to dig into it and place it into context.  I also want to compare it to the previous feeding found in chapter 6 because there are some very important differences.

    First off, the location is important.  Mark begins this little segment with the words, “In those days...” which connect this story to the one immediately preceding it–the healing of a deaf, tongue tied, Gentile man.  This is important because Jesus is traveling through Gentile territory.  You might say He was in hostile territory given the Jew’s animosity toward Gentiles.  However, something very strange seems to be going on.  The Gentiles are very receptive to Jesus’ message.  A large crowd has gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach. 

    I pointed out last time with the feeding of the 5000 that you should be thankful that I don’t preach like Jesus.  I will reinforce this once more as I point you toward Jesus’ statement, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for...” how many days?   Yes.  Three days.  How many complaints do you think Jesus got about that sermon? 

    But let’s return more to the point.  I want you to take a moment to turn to the feeding of the 5000 that you find in Mark chapter 6, and I want you to look at something carefully.  I want you to look at the role of the disciples.  Who initiates care and compassion for the crowd in Mark chapter 6? 

    It’s the disciples.  The crowd has been there all day.  The crowd is getting hungry.  The disciples know they need to eat, and, knowing they could not provide for the crowd, they asked Jesus to send them away to get something to eat.  As we look at the feeding of the 4000, the crowd has been with Jesus for three days–three days!!!  How come the disciples didn’t say anything to Jesus about the people getting hungry?  How come the disciples didn’t ask Jesus to send them away to get their own food?  How come the disciples don’t show the same kind of concern?  I think there is a reason.

    Jesus is the one who begins the conversation and who has compassion.  He, again says, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.”

    Verse 4 reads: His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’

    Now, there are a couple of ways of looking at this.  First, we can wonder: are the disciples dense?  Don’t they remember Jesus feeding the 5000?  Don’t they remember His amazing miracle?  Don’t they realize that Jesus could do once again what He did before?  Do they truly lack faith in the one who fed the multitude before, walked on water, cast out demons, and then healed a man who was deaf and tongue tied? 

    I think the answer is no, and I base it on what I read in one of my commentaries.  It was a very intriguing quote, and I would like to share it with you now.  William Lane writes in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, “There is an indirectness in the response of Ch. 8:4 which is different in tone and function.  It serves to refer the question of procuring bread back to Jesus and is tantamount to asking, What do you intend to do?”

    What do YOU intend to do, Jesus?  Not, how can we help.  Not, should we spend a lot of money to provide food.  It’s all up to you Jesus.  Now, this could be seen as a statement of tremendous faith.  It could be seen as a statement of trust in the Lord, but it doesn’t fit the context.  It certainly doesn’t fit what will be happening in the next couple of texts.  In fact–here is a bit of a foreshadowing for you–as we look at the next couple of snippets in the coming weeks, we will see that the disciples don’t get it.  They don’t understand Jesus’ mission.  They are starting to understand that He is the Messiah, but they don’t yet realize, Jesus is here to save, not simply the Jews, but is here to save the WHOLE WORLD.  This means, I think, in the context of what is going on in this segment of the book of Mark, the disciples don’t want to feed this crowd.  They don’t want to have compassion on them.  They don’t like this crowd because this crowd is a Gentile crowd.  This crowd isn’t like them.  The disciples are being tribal.

    But Jesus won’t let them get away with this.  Jesus won’t let them keep those boundaries drawn.  Jesus asks them how much bread they have.  Seven loaves this time.  Jesus takes them and begins breaking them, and He makes the disciples distribute the bread.  Jesus finds that they have a few fish.  He blesses them and starts distributing them through the disciples.  Once again, the entire crowd is satisfied, and when all is said and done, seven baskets are filled.  This time, it’s not seven lunch boxes-the Greek word here connotes large baskets constructed out of rope.  Jesus dismisses the crowd, and everyone gets back into the boat and leaves.

    Again, as we shall see in the next Sunday or so as we continue our journey through Mark, the disciples don’t get what Jesus is doing.  They don’t understand this foray into Gentile territory.  They don’t understand the nature and reality of what it means that Jesus is God incarnate.  They don’t understand fully the nature of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.  They are still caught up in the idea that Jesus is here for the Jews.  They are still caught up in the idea that this man who is full of power will restore the kingdom of Israel.  The other nations of the world–the Gentiles are to be subjects to rule over. They are outsiders.  They are those people over there.  It is all too easy to look at the world and think such thoughts.  The brain is hard wired to draw distinctions, and we are quick to act tribally.   Do you see now why I started as I did?  Do you see now how this ties to our present reality is a very real way?  Do you see how we still struggle with the same issues the disciples struggled with? 

    And what does Jesus lead us to?  What place does Jesus want us to arrive at?

    Let me read to you a snippet from the book of Ephesians chapter 2:

    3But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

    Did you catch that phrase in there?  Did you catch the fact that you were once “far off?”  Did you catch that through the blood of Jesus, a new humanity has now been created?  Did you catch that the world has been reconciled to God through Jesus’ body on the cross?  

    You see, Jesus is showing in the feeding of this Gentile crowd that He is the Messiah for the world.  He is not simply the Messiah for the Jews.  All are far off from God.  The Jews are far off because they do not follow the commands given to them by Moses.  The Gentiles are far off because the Jews have not taken the blessings of God and then sought to be a blessing to others.  All are separated from God. All.

    And we don’t like to hear that.  No.  We don’t like to hear that at all.  We like to think that God and we are like this (hold intertwined fingers up).  We like to think that God and we are on good terms.  We like to think that we have it all figured out and God is walking with us affirming us every step of the way, and the people with all the problems are those people out there.  If those people would just get their acts together then everything will work out.  And I will surround myself with people who think like me and act like me and look like me.  We will affirm each other and make ourselves feel good, and we can look down our collective nose at everyone else.

    But Jesus says, “I don’t think so.  You are not as good as you think you are.  In fact, because of your sin–you are apart from God.  You are out there.  And so is everyone else in the world.”  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And there is nothing you can do to make it better.  Your brain won’t allow it.  You will always become tribal.  You will always try to think in terms of us versus them.  That’s how you are wired because of your sin.

    But even though we can’t do anything about this, there is one who can.  There is one who did.  For when Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross, He brought you close to God.  He brought me close to God.  He brought the world close to God.  “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 save through Him.”

    All who were once far off have been brought near.  All who have sinned receive forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  And even if a person does not follow Jesus, do we see them as less than ourselves?  Do we see them as unworthy of love and compassion and trust?  Of course not.  We see others as God sees them: as precious people who are in need of a Savior.  And how do we bring them to the saving knowledge of Jesus?  Do we do so with hatred, animosity, anger, frustration, and the like?  Of course not.  No.  We lead with the same things Jesus gave to us when we least deserved it: compassion, kindness, grace, and love.  Yes, there are differences.  Yes, there are divisions, but when we place our trust in Christ, we do not lead with blame, or hatred or animosity or drawing lines.  We lead with compassion, love, and reconciliation.  Amen.

Monday, August 24, 2015

This is Most Certainly True

    We do not know how to wrestle with Truth.
Why would I say such a thing?
I am going to go back a few years to 9/11 when radical Islamists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentegon, and intended to crash into the capitol building.  Initially, we came together as a nation to recognize this attack against us, but then we began disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, on how to respond.  There was a particular struggle in how to handle religious ideology –especially in trying to deal with a religious sect that believed it had the absolute Truth and used that belief to justify the killing of innocent people.

    There were two basic responses to this.  Fortunately, most people know that both responses in and of themselves are inadequate, but we have yet to find a happy medium–if such a thing is even possible.  Why would I say that?  Let me begin to define the problem as I see it.

    As we began to delve into the psyche of those who hijacked the planes, we began to focus on their absolute certainty in their beliefs about God.  We reasoned, “If they wouldn’t have been so absolutely certain, they would have been more humble.  They would have known that flying those planes into those buildings was wrong.  All those people would not have been killed if religious nuts wouldn’t be so certain of their beliefs and try to force them on everyone else.” 

    And so, there has been a concerted effort among some to question anyone who has certainty in his or her religious convictions.  Certainty is the enemy in no uncertain terms, and if anyone espouses certainty, then that person is close minded, arrogant, a fanatic, exclusive, or whatever derogatory term you wish to apply.  Now, there are a couple of problems with these trains of thought.

    First is the premise.  Does certainty necessarily cause people to kill others?  Does believing in God with absolute conviction necessarily lead a person to commit atrocities?  The answer, of course, is no.  As Timothy Keller once reported in his book Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, “You never hear of an Amish terrorist.”  Why?  Because the Amish believe uncompromisingly that God commands them to be non-violent.  Their firm religious conviction leads them to be passivist.  So, it’s not religious certainty that leads someone to kill others in the name of faith, there must be something else.  We will get to that in just a moment.

    The second problem with a war on certainty is that it is logically impossible.  You may wonder what I mean by that.  Just this: the next time someone comes up to you and says, “We cannot be certain about anything.”  Ask them, “Are you certain about that?”  Do you see the problem?  Even if someone wants to narrow it down and say, “We can never be certain about any claims about religion.”  Well, you have just made a truth claim about religious belief.  How can you say with certainty that we can have no certainty?  The statement is self-defeating.  Everyone believes they know something.  Everyone has to have some sort of certainty in order to simply function.  It is a requirement.

   Thirdly, can you imagine anyone preaching a sermon with no certainty?  Can you imagine what it would be like for someone to get up in front of a group of people and basically say, "Well IF God exists--now, we don't know for sure.  Maybe there is a God, maybe there isn't.--then maybe that God is good.  Again, maybe God is evil, but perhaps God is love.  And IF that God is love, then maybe, just maybe that God wants us to care for each other, but we really don't know what that God wants if God even exists.  But it might be a good idea to care for each other anyway.  I can't tell you that for certain, but it might be a good idea."  Yeah, how many of you would stick around for that kind of sermon?  Certainty is necessary. Even in religious belief.

    But if certainty is necessary, then why did religious fanatics hijack planes and kill people?  Why do some “Christians” picket funerals of military personnel and cause extra grief for families?  Why do some people of religious persuasion have a holier-than-thou demeanor and look down their noses at others?

    It’s not because of certainty.  It’s because of self-righteousness.  It’s because they believe they are better than other people.  It’s because they believe they are able to follow the tenets of a particular religion, and they believe everyone else should be able to accomplish what they accomplish.  They believe their performance makes them righteous before God, and “if I can do it, everyone else should be doing it too.”  And if they are not doing it, “then they are of less value than myself.  They are destined to hell.  They deserve punishment.”  You see, it’s not certainty that leads to the demeaning and killing of others, it is self-righteousness. 

    And so, we have these two extremes: we have those who don’t want any certainty, and they are convinced that the world would be better if no one had any convictions; and we have those who are consumed with the certainty that they are righteous and everyone else needs to get with the program.  And the reality is, there are many of us who actually jump between these two poles depending upon the circumstances.  If we don’t like something that someone tries to tell us about faith, we are happy to say, “No one can be certain.”  However, if we want others to fall into line with our own train of thought, we will gladly say, “God is (fill in the blank)...”  In some ways, we are either too open, too closed, or we gladly jump between the two extremes to suit our own agendas.

    You may be wondering just what this has to do with our Gospel lesson from the seventh chapter of the book of Mark.  Perhaps it is time to turn to that now.

    Jesus has an encounter with a man who is deaf and who has a speech impediment.  Jesus is in the midst of a journey through Gentile territory when they– bring to Jesus a man who is deaf and “mogilalon.”  Now I know that sounded strange.  I gave you the Greek word for a speech impediment, because it is an important word.  It is only used once in the entire New Testament–right here by Mark.  And there is a very important reason Mark uses this particular word. 

    It is the same word used in Isaiah chapter 35:6.  I’m going to turn to Isaiah 35 now and read verses four to six to you so that you can see what is going on here.  “4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.  He will come and save you.’  5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the “mogilalos” the speechless sing for joy.”

    Mark is unequivocally tying Jesus encounter with this mogilalon to the promised coming of God in Isaiah 35.  Mark is showing us, once again, that this Jesus is the promised One–the promised Messiah–God Himself coming to earth.  And what Jesus does here to this deaf, mogilalon, speech impediment bound man is nothing short of amazing as He offers extreme compassion.

    First, Jesus takes the man aside.  I want you to contemplate this for just a moment as we remember what it would be like for this man given the culture he was in.  For you see, they didn’t have special places to care for those who were deaf and unable to speak in those days.  They didn’t have sign language.  They didn’t see people in such conditions as contributing members of society who had worth and value.  Most folks who were suffering from disabilities were outcasts; mocked; degraded; seen as burdens to the rest of people; contemptuous.  This guy could see, but he would never have been able to hear the insults thrown his way.  He would not be able to understand people’s contempt or hatred.  If he entered Jewish territory, there was then a whole other layer to contend with: for most of the Jewish religious authorities believed that if you suffered with such a malady, then you were under the curse of God. 

    So, Jesus, God incarnate, takes this man aside–away from the crowd and gives him His full attention.  Imagine being a Jew who was hearing this story.  Here is a man who would be seen under God’s curse standing before God with a private audience.  What was God going to do with this cursed individual?  What was God going to do with this man who was an outcast; on the fringes; who was looked down upon and seen as contemptuous?

    As we read through the text, we might think that Jesus is a bit gross, but as I heard in more than one sermon this past week, Jesus is doing something quite amazing.  He is communicating with this deaf, tongue tied man in his own form of sign language.  Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears as if to say, “I know your ears do not work.”  Jesus spits on the man’s tongue. “I know your tongue is tied.”  Jesus looks us to heaven.  “God knows your bondage.”  Jesus sighs deeply.  “I am praying to God.”  Then Jesus says, “Ephphatha” which in Aramaic means, “be opened.”  I am sure the man saw Jesus’ lips move.  He had no idea what Jesus said, but he could not mistake the meaning of the word for immediately after Jesus’ lips moved, the man’s ears were opened, and the chains fell off his tongue.  That’s the imagery Mark uses.  The man’s ears were opened and the chains fell off his tongue.  Mark’s imagery here is beautiful.  Jesus reaches out to one who was shunned.  Jesus brings him into a special place alone.  Jesus communicates with the man and shows the man He understands his problems, and Jesus heals the man and restores him to community.

    Jesus’ healing causes quite the stir, but Jesus’ response is quite intriguing.  Jesus tells everyone keep things quiet.  Don’t talk about what I have done.  But the crowd, the man who was just healed kept talking.  Jesus said, “Hush!”  Everyone talked louder.  They proclaimed, “He has done everything well!!”  Jesus said, “Quiet!!” to no avail.  Why would Jesus tell them to hush?  Why would He tell everyone to keep it under wraps?

    The best answer I came across was this: Jesus didn’t want everyone focused on Him simply being a miracle worker.  Jesus didn’t want everyone to think that He was simply here to take away people’s pain and suffering.  Jesus didn’t want everyone just to see Him as the fixer upper of a person’s personal life.  No.  Jesus was much more than that.  Jesus was not here simply to fix all of our problems and make our lives perfect.  Jesus was not here to give us a comfortable position in all that we encountered.  Jesus was about restoration.  Jesus was about mending the relationship between humankind and God–a relationship broken by our hardened hearts, our self-righteous behavior, and our desire to submit ourselves to no authority but our own.  Jesus did not come to simply open ears and tongues, but open hearts to redemption.

    And so we return to the problems of self-righteousness and uncertainty.  We return to them because these are both ways of hardened hearts.  These are both ways of selfish behavior.  I become self-righteous when I think I can follow all of the commands of God–particularly the one’s I like.  I impose those beliefs on others because they should do what I do and be like me.  Oh, but if I am confronted by another’s beliefs in God or in what they think I should do, I will respond, “No one can know for certain God’s will or mind.”  At the heart of this problem is a hardened heart–a closed heart–a heart that is closed in on itself. 

    How does Jesus open such a heart?  How does Jesus change such a heart?  What language does He speak to us to help us see our problem?

    First, He speaks by living the life we were supposed to live.  He reveals to us our own failure to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.  Jesus reveals to us our inability to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Jesus does all these things well.  He does them perfectly.  He shows us the depths of our own sin.  Just like last week with the Syrophonecian woman, Jesus challenges us and shows us we deserve nothing for our selfish behavior.  Jesus becomes perfectly righteous, putting us all to shame.

    And then, revealing to us that He knows our condition–He knows our selfishness; He knows our shame; He knows our separation from God–He understands our inability to reconcile ourselves unto God, it is He who stretches out His hands and allows nails to be placed in them.  He sheds His precious blood as He hangs from the cross.  He looks heavenward and with a deep breath cries aloud, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”  In that moment, Jesus experienced the wrath and separation from God that you and I were meant to feel.  He experienced God’s silence as He suffered.  He bore the weight of our sin when we least deserved it.  He poured out His love while we were sinners restoring us to God.

    And because of Jesus’ actions, we have complete certainty about two things: number one we are sinful and unrighteous on our own.  We cannot look down our nose at anyone because we all fall short of the glory of God.  We cannot look at another with contempt and hatred because we deserve contempt and hatred.  We cannot kill another for a lack of believing because we lacked faith and trust in God ourselves as we trusted in our own works.  This should make us hang our heads in shame.  But that leads us to the second thing we can be certain about: that God loves us more than we can imagine.  For the Author and creator of the universe was willing to die on our behalf.  He was willing to die for us when we least deserved it.  He was willing to give of Himself to pay for our transgressions. 

    And when you hold onto these two certainties. When you hold them in dynamic tension: that you are undeserving and loved; when you are a failure yet accepted, then your heart is opened too.  Not because of what you do, but because of sheer grace.  A grace rooted in the Gospel:

    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 may be saved through Him.  This is most certainly true.  Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Why Would Jesus Call a Woman a Dog?

    Don’t you just love people who talk about Jesus as such a wonderful, inclusive teacher who broke down all sorts of barriers.  He embodied love and showed love to everyone regardless of their status.  He never turned anyone away but welcomed everyone unconditionally without a second thought.  Don’t you love it when people talk about Jesus in this manner?  You may.  I don’t because it shows that they really aren’t talking about the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible.  Instead, they are talking about a Jesus of their own creation.  And while people are perfectly free to construct their own personal Jesus, doing so is a far cry from coming into contact with the Savior and Lord of the World.  In fact, I would submit to you this morning, if you build your own personal Jesus, you will never be challenged, never grow, and never truly enter into a relationship with the God who created this universe.

    Let’s turn to this rather interesting snippet from the Gospel of Mark found in chapter seven.  Here, Jesus encounters a woman; a Greek; a Gentile, and the encounter doesn’t go as we might expect.  In fact, some argue that Jesus is taught a lesson by this woman, and His notion of what His ministry is supposed to be about is changed.  I don’t think so.  Jesus does what He does all throughout Scripture.  He challenges and then bestows grace.

    The text begins in rather innocuous fashion.  After Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and scribes and teaching that it is not what comes from outside that defiles, but what comes from inside, Jesus takes His disciples to Tyre for a period of rest.  Jesus’ choice of Tyre is rather interesting.  How so?  Well, let me read to you this snippet from one of the commentaries I consulted this week.  I don’t think I could say this any better:

    Tyre (modern Lebanon), which lay directly west and north of Galilee, was a Gentile region with a long history of antagonism to Israel.  The region of Tyre (formerly Phoenicia) had been the home of Jezebel, who in Elijah’s day had nearly subverted the Northern Kingdom with her pagan prophets and practices.  During the Maccabean Revolt in the second century B.C., Tyre, along with Ptolemais and Sidon, fought on the side of the Seleucids against the Jews.  The prophets decried the wealth and terror of Tyre.  Josephus concludes opprobriously [scornfully, don’t you love the wordiness of commentaries?] that the inhabitants of Tyre were “notoriously our bitterest enemies.”

    Now, this is an important detail that we should not overlook because it has a direct link to what happened right before this and what will happen momentarily.  Remember, and again, I stress, Jesus had just taught that it was not anything from outside that defiled a person, but what came out of the heart that defiles.  After teaching this, He takes His disciples into Gentile territory–a taboo for the Pharisees and scribes; and not just any Gentile territory–into Tyre where resided some of the Jews’ bitterest enemies.

    Why would Jesus do such a thing?  Well, we do know that He was purposely trying to get away.  We do know He entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know that He was there.  Perhaps by heading into “enemy” territory, He knew that all the crowds would not follow Him.  He knew they didn’t want to go into enemy territory.  He knew He could sit with His disciples and instruct them while recovering from all the work that they had done.   But it was not to be so.  Word of Jesus’ miracles had even spread into Tyre.

    As Jesus is in the house, a woman comes to see Him.  This is not just any woman.  Verse 26 describes what kind of woman this is: “26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.”  I’ve got to once again read a quote from one of the commentaries.  It’s very enlightening and somewhat entertaining.  Verse 26 “reads like a crescendo of demerit.”  You may ask how this is so?  Read this with first century Jewish eyes instead of our Western Enlightenment eyes.  For you see, this was first a woman–a second class citizen in the eyes of the Jews; she was Gentile–unclean and defiled; she was Syrophonenician–an enemy of the Jews.  Three strikes, and you are out.  This woman is beyond contemptuous to most any Jew.  She’s low on the Jewish totem pole–really not even worthy of a spot in it.  And she has the audacity to interrupt Jesus’ time of rest because her daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit.

    Now, again, because we look at this with Western eyes, we see a desperate mother with great concern for her daughter.  We see a mother willing to risk herself to get care for her child.  But we need to keep looking with first century eyes.  Remember, children in that day were not seen like they are today.  Children were basically considered chattel.  They were property.  They were your insurance policy.  They were your elderly care.  Sure, people loved their kids, don’t get me wrong.  But there was not the same attitude toward children in that day that we have in this day.  Don’t let yourself be too carried away by this mother’s desperation.  There’s quite possibly other things at work here.  Yet, there is no denying this woman’s persistence.  She wants to have her daughter healed.

    Jesus responds in a way that is quite shocking to most of us.  I’m going to re-work His statement just a little bit to add some of the connotations of the original Greek.  Jesus says to her, “Let the children first have their fill (or be satisfied), for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little puppies.”  It is no coincidence that the same word for be filled or satisfied is the same word that Mark uses to talk about the multitude that was fed on the hillside after Jesus fed them with five loaves and two fish.  It is also no coincidence that Jesus refers to this woman, and her people as little puppies.  For our ears, it is harsh.  For our ears, this seems to contradict what Jesus’ purpose is in redeeming the world.  For our ears, this doesn’t seem to loving or grace filled.  But, as I said earlier, this isn’t our own personal Jesus, this IS the Jesus of scripture.  So why does He say these things to her?  Why does He say the children should be fed first and then compare her to a little puppy dog?

    I think there are a couple of things going on here.  First, Scripture is very clear that salvation comes through the Jews.  Jesus’ mission first was to the Jewish people.  They were to be the ones who received it first.  That doesn’t mean that the Gentiles wouldn’t be included later, but the Jews, as per the covenant with Abraham would first receive the blessings of God, and then they would take that blessing into the Gentile world.  These are the children who must first receive their fill.

    But why talk to this woman and compare her to a little puppy dog?  Why be so condescending?  Maybe you have pets.  Maybe you have had to deal with puppies.  What do they do when they get around food?  What do they do when they sense that there is something good to eat at the table?  The camp out and wait for a bite.  Their puppy minds are solely focused on getting a morsel of food.  All they care about is the food.  All they want is the food.  Do they give a flying flip about you as the owner, as the care-taker?  No.  Not at all.  And if you drop a piece of food, they will go all postal making sure they get to keep it.  They will even bite you to keep you from taking the food away from them.  They have ceased to care about you as the owner and are totally focused on the food.

    Do you get where I am going here?  Jesus is confronting this woman with something deep within human nature.  Jesus is confronting her with her own selfishness.  “Are you coming to me just to get what you can out of me?  Are you coming to me for your own benefit?  Are you simply like a puppy dog that is consumed with getting food instead of caring about the master’s provision?”

    You see, embodied in Jesus’ confrontation is a confrontation of all of our selfishness.  How many times do you know of people who are suddenly confronted with a tough situation in life?  They haven’t gone to church in forever or maybe ever.  Suddenly, they show up to worship hoping that God will somehow intervene and make everything in their lives better.  Are they there for God, or are they there to receive the things God can provide.  Which is more important to them?  Or, how often do we cease to find time to pray, and then suddenly something about ourselves or our property comes in danger.  Oh how our knees get worn out during the crisis.  But once the crisis is gone, do we continue in fervent prayer?  Or if the crisis consumes our property or our being, how do we think of God then?  We get angry because we didn’t want God.  We wanted the things God could give us.  Were not interested in pleasing our master.  We’re more interested in the things our master can give us.  We’re like little puppies waiting for crumbs.  Jesus will have none of it.  He is not interested in a heart that is consumed by our wants and our desires.  He is interested in a heart that thirsts for Him.

    And the Syrophonecian woman gets it.  She does not argue with Jesus.  She accepts His condemnation of her state.  And she submits to His will with her response.  Again, I need to do a bit of work with the translation here because it’s important.  For, in the Greek, the woman does not say, “Sir.”  In the Greek, the woman says, “Lord.”  This is the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark who calls Jesus Lord.  She is the only person who is willing to give this title to Him.  She realizes that she is completely and totally at His mercy.  She realizes He is to be the object of her attention.  She realizes He is the only one who can save not only her daughter but her as well.  And she furthermore shows her understanding of His mission to Israel.  It’s rather amazing.  “Lord, even the puppies under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Lord, even we who are consumed with other things, other wants, other desires, are meant to receive blessing from the children.

    Remember last week when I said that the Pharisees and scribes had nullified the commands of God through their insistence on being pure?  Remember how I said they had nullified God’s original intent of the covenant–that they were blessed to be a blessing?  The Pharisees and scribes forgot they were blessed to be a blessing.  This woman–this Gentile–this enemy of the Jews understood that she was meant to be blessed through them.  She got it. She understood.  She grasped God’s intent.  She could only be blessed through the promise of the covenant.  She knew she didn’t deserve it. She knew she didn’t warrant it.  She knew she was solely at Jesus’ mercy.

    And Jesus says, “For saying this word, you may go.  The demon has left your daughter.”

    So many times, we are unwilling to be as humble as this woman.  So many times we are so convinced of our righteousness.  So many times we are convinced that we don’t need to change a thing about ourselves.  We are okay just the way we are.  God made us this way and we don’t need to change a blasted thing about ourselves.  And we simply cannot see that we try to get things out of God without having a humble heart and a humble spirit. 

    Then we encounter Jesus who, instead of giving us what we want, confronts us with our sin.  He confronts us with our selfishness.  He confronts us with our desire to grasp the things of God instead of wanting to grasp God Himself.  And we get mad at Jesus.  We get mad that He won’t give us what we want or do what we want Him to do.
We get mad because we lack humility–a humility that comes from submitting to Jesus and calling Him, Lord.

    But here is the kicker.  You can’t just say, “I’m going to be humble.  I’m going to submit to Jesus.”  Here you are trying to do it all on your own again.  You are trying to seize control of your own life.  It doesn’t work that way.  The true submission of a heart only comes in response to someone giving you something you don’t deserve.  True humility comes when you receive something you don’t deserve.  True humility comes when you realize you are unworthy of any sort of gift, but it is given to you anyway.

    And that’s exactly what Jesus does for each and every one of us on the cross.  That’s exactly what Jesus does when He takes our sin upon Himself and dies in our place.  That’s exactly what Jesus does by reconciling us unto God when we were far from Him.  He confronts us with our brokenness and refuses to be the Jesus we want Him to be, and then He loves us with a love that surpasses our wildest imaginations.

    Do you know how broken you are?
    Do you know how unworthy you are?
    Do you know how undeserving you are?
    And do you know how loved you are?
    Do you know how accepted you are?
    Do you know the healing that is already there for you?

    When your heart comes to know the Gospel; when your heart gets captured by what Jesus accomplished for you; you grow in true humility; you submit to Him as Lord; and you find more than crumbs–you find satisfaction.  This is God’s desire for you.  This is why He sent Jesus:

    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 save through Him.  Amen.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Who Do You Hang Out With?

    Today, we return to deal with Jesus second point included in Mark 7:1-23.  Last week, I spoke about how the Pharisees and Scribes were making human traditions that nullified the commands of God.  Today, I want to talk about why those traditions were being made, how this is a problem for all of humanity, and what the solution is.  I know that sounds like a big order, and it is.  Hopefully it shouldn’t take too long.

    Last week, I spoke about how the Pharisees and scribes were asking Jesus about why some of the disciples were eating with defiled hands–or unclean hands.  I spoke of how the Pharisees were trying to make the entire nation of Israel holy–just like the priests were to be holy.  I talked about how Jesus called the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites because they were actually breaking God’s commandments by following those human traditions.  I used the example of the practice of dedicating possessions to God while refusing to take care of parents which is in violation of one of the 10 Commandments: Honor your father and your mother.  All of this is contained in the first 13 verses of Mark chapter seven.  Now, we need to move forward and deal with the root cause of this hypocrisy. 

    Jesus calls the crowd together and says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  Let me repeat this.  It’s crucial.  “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 

    Apparently, the disciples needed a bit more explanation regarding this teaching because a few short verses later, Jesus has to explain it to them, and He says this, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

    I am going to take a quick tangent here to deal with something important–the issue of biblical interpretation.  In our Old Testament reading this morning, we see a list of foods that are forbidden to eat.  Among those foods are some favorites of at least a few of you here this morning: shellfish and pork.  Shrimp and bacon.  These were not kosher for the Jews to eat.  Some folks say, “Well, the Bible says that you aren’t supposed to eat bacon or shrimp.  It also says you shouldn’t get tattoos or body piercings.  Yet, you do it, and no one blinks an eye.  Aren’t you being hypocritical when you say that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry?  Aren’t you being hypocritical by calling homosexuality a sin?” 

    There is a huge failure here to understand the interpretation of scripture.  If Jesus is who the Gospel writers proclaim Him to be, He is no mere human standing up and giving out a particular philosophy.  Jesus is fully human, but He is also fully divine.  This is God on earth teaching and proclaiming and fulfilling the Law.  And Jesus says right here, “Nothing from outside can come into a person and defile, but it is what comes out of a person that defiles.”  This is God telling us something very important about the nature of sin: it’s not an external thing that causes us to sin.  Sin comes from the depths of our hearts.  It comes from hearts that are not tuned correctly.  Tattoos don’t cause sin.  Body piercings don’t cause sin.  Bacon doesn’t cause sin.  Shrimp doesn’t cause sin.  Nothing from outside causes sin.  It is the heart chasing after false gods that causes sin.  So, we have God changing the purity code of scripture right here.  We have the Word made flesh nullifying His own commands.  Only God can change God’s commands, and that’s exactly what is going on right here.  The question is: why?  Why is Jesus, God incarnate, changing the purity code?

    Remember last week, when I called your attention to Jesus’ quoting of Isaiah?  Remember I asked you to pay particular attention to the place where Isaiah says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”?  I told you this verse was important.  It is important because it reveals the true problem with the Pharisees and scribes.  It is important because it reveals the true problem with all of us.  How so?

    Martin Luther in his Large Catechism wrote the following, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart.  That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your God.”  I think Luther hits the nail on the head with this definition.  No one is truly an atheist.  Everyone trusts in something.  Everyone believes that some particular belief system; some material possession; some person will bring about all good.  Everyone takes refuge in some thing be it science, family, government, their own selves, philosophy, the law, the earth, money, or what have you.  Each person’s heart is captured by this particular thing.  No heart escapes being captured by something.  It is a human condition. 

    I want to use this as our starting point because I think it’s important to realize what had captured the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes.  If you read through scripture, I think you will see that the Pharisees’ hearts were captured by the Kingdom of God.  You might wonder: what is wrong with that?  Shouldn’t we want the Kingdom of God?  Doesn’t Jesus even say in the book of Matthew, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be added unto you.”?  Yes, Jesus says that, but the question is how you define the Kingdom of God?  For you see, the Pharisees and scribes believed the Kingdom of God was equivalent to the Kingdom of Israel.  They believed that the Kingdom of God meant the rule of Israel over the world.  The Romans would be overthrown.  The rest of the world would be overthrown.  A new king would ascend who would be God’s representative, and Israel would be a place of might and peace and prosperity.  The Pharisees’ and scribes’ hearts were captured by this vision, and they believed they knew exactly how they could bring about this kingdom–by becoming very, very holy–very, very clean, very, very pure.

    Remember last week how I said the Pharisees began demanding that everyone become just like the priests?  Remember how I said the Pharisees made up the human tradition that every Jew should be as holy and as undefiled as the priests?  I hope you do.  If you weren’t here, I will happily give you the web address to my blog where you can catch up. :-) If you don’t remember, I am reminding you now.  The Pharisees and scribes thought every Jew should be holy and pure and upright.  The Pharisees and scribes thought that every Jew should be exactly like the priests who worked in the temple and were close to God.  All the commands of scripture that were given to the priests should be given to all the Jews.  It’s not actually a bad thing, right?

    Wrong.  Why?  Well, let’s push this holiness thing to the extreme.  If I have to be holy and undefiled, then I must stay away from anything–or anyone that might defile me.  I can’t come into contact with any type of animal or person who has been defiled.  If someone has eaten an unclean animal, then they are unclean.  I must maintain my purity so I cannot associate with them.  I can’t be near them lest they rub off on me.  I have to maintain my holiness.  I have to maintain my purity lest I fail and the Kingdom of God not be established.

    Can you see what is wrong with this logic?  Maybe not.  Let me say two things here.  First, if you
think that the establishment of the Kingdom of God depends upon your actions, then you will run yourself ragged trying to be perfect and do all the right things.  You will eventually wear yourself out as you hold onto that burden.  Second, and perhaps most important to this particular text, if the Pharisees and scribes cut themselves off from anyone who is defiled and impure–which by definition means cutting themselves off from all the other nations of the world; all the Gentiles; all of those who are deformed or sick or ill; how will they fulfill the covenant God made with Abraham; which was reaffirmed through Moses?  You may ask, what is that covenant?  Just this: God said He would bless the Israelites THAT THEY MAY BE A BLESSING TO OTHERS.  Let that sink in a moment as I ask: how can you be a blessing to others if you will not associate with them because you view them as defiled and unclean?  How can you pass on the blessing of God if you isolate yourself from others?  And by isolating yourself are you not being inherently selfish by grabbing onto the blessing and refusing to pass it on?  Can you see why Jesus says, “8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”?  And they are doing it because their hearts are not centered on God–their hearts are centered on an idol–their own idea of what the Kingdom of God is and how to bring about that kingdom.  If we were to really, really push it, we could say that the Pharisees are centered upon themselves.  They want the blessings of the Kingdom of God.  They want the blessings of bringing about the Kingdom of God, but they don’t want God.  Their hearts are not in the right place.  Their hearts are far from God.

    But as I have said numerous times, so I say again. This isn’t just a Pharisee problem.  This is our problem as well.  You see, we still have our own purity codes that we abide by today.  We still have our own thoughts on how to bring about utopia or the Kingdom of God on earth today.  And if everyone were just as holy as I am...  If everyone just believed just like me... If everyone put their trust in science, or government, or capitalism, or socialism, or the Republicans, or Democrats, or the Church, then everything would work out perfectly.  And if you don’t believe what I believe... If you don’t trust what I trust... then I cannot associate with you.  I can’t be your true friend.  I will unfriend you on Facebook.  Oh my.  How our hearts are far from God.  We are modern day Pharisees.  Doesn’t matter if we are believers or not.  We have written our own set of purity codes, and we are loathe to think that our hearts are the ones that need changing–it’s always that person out there, never me.

    But Jesus calls each and every one of us to account.  He says, “It is not the things from the outside that defile, but it is the status of the heart that defiles.”  And show me a heart that is not corrupted.  Show me a heart that has not come under the influence of sin.  Show me a heart that does not chase after false gods–seeking to put its trust in something other than the God who created the heaven and the earth.  All of our hearts are broken.  All of our hearts need fixing.  All of our hearts’ imaginations need to be captured by the true God so that we cease blaming others for the world’s problems; cease being selfish; and cease making division.

    But the question is: how does a heart change?  How does a heart turn away from all of these false Gods?  How does a heart turn away from all the things that the world says will bring you happiness, peace, joy, comfort, safety, and stability? 

    Jesus says to each and every one of us, “Look to me.” 

    Well, why?  Why should I look to you, Jesus?

    Here’s why.  Look at all the things that tend to capture your heart’s imagination.  Think about how they view you.  Think about how they see you in the big picture of things.  Think about how many of those things will never disappoint you.  Think about how many of those things will never let you down or make you feel small.  Money doesn’t love you.  Your possessions can’t care for you.  The government only sees you as a number that pays taxes or votes to give it power.  Your family loves you, but they will die–and they aren’t perfect by any stretch.  Your friends will only go so far with you.  The Church is full of broken people who can be just as mean as they are nice.  Science doesn’t care one whit about you as you are only a passing collection of atoms that will one day be incinerated by the sun.  None of the things that vie for our heart’s attention will love you with a lasting love. 

    But Jesus says, “I can.  I will, and I did.”

    “Where is the proof?” you might ask.

    Jesus says, “Look at my hands.  Look at my feet.  Place your hands in my side.  These scars are there because I was willing to die for you when your heart was far away from me.  I was willing to go to the cross to pay for your sins.  I was willing to endure separation from my Father so that you never have to.  I was willing to be pushed to the outside so that you could be let inside.  Nothing else in the world will ever be able to give you that kind of 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 by Him.

    Oh, and when this captures your heart–when Jesus becomes the God that you trust, you view the world oh so differently!  You view others oh so differently!  No longer do you see them as “those people over there.”  You see others as made in the image of God–who are just as broken as you are broken.  Who see things differently–but who still need the love and grace of God.  You realize what Jesus did for you.  You realize the tremendous blessing that has been poured out when you least deserved it, and there is nothing that will get in your way of seeking to share that blessing with others.  You know that it is not your job to make people be like you, but it is your job to help them connect with the One who transforms them into His image and likeness.  And it doesn’t matter if that person is Republican or Democrat; gay or straight; male or female; black or white or any shade in between; all have sinned.  All need grace.  All need Jesus.  When your heart is captured by Him, you will go to anyone and everyone.  Because you have been loved, you now seek to help others know that love.  Because of Jesus, your heart is no longer far from God, you know that you have been blessed, and you now seek to be a blessing. Amen.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Gay Marriage, the Law and the Church

When the Supreme Court struck down bans on gay marriage several weeks ago, I wrung my hands for exactly zero seconds.  The outcome was expected, and it was the correct legal outcome.

I do not believe it was the correct moral outcome, but it was the correct legal outcome.

I am purposely making that distinction because it is an important one.  A very important one.

I am not like some within the Christian Church.

I do not believe the U.S. is the new Israel or new Jerusalem.

I do not believe the U.S. is a Christian nation.  It could be argued well that it never has been.

I do not believe we can transform the U.S. into the kingdom of God.

I do not believe it is the Church's job to impose morality through the use of the law.

I believe that well-meaning Christians have tried to impose morality and justice and other such things by the use of the law; however, while managing to get laws passed, it has simply driven certain behaviors into hiding where they lurk until striking out.  (See, Roof, Dyllan and racism)  The changing of laws do not change human hearts.

The Civil Rights Movement

 I do want to take a moment to talk about the importance of the Church working in society for its betterment.  I am the father of two bi-racial girls.  I hazard to think about what their lives would have been like 60 years ago or so.  I hazard to imagine them being required to drink out of separate water fountains and sit apart from the rest of our family because of asinine laws like Jim Crow.  I am most certainly glad those things are outlawed!!

And I am thankful that the thrust of power that came to overturn those unjust laws came through the Black Churches in our nation.  For certain, there were many involved in the process of other religious faiths and traditions, but those represented a minority.  The public figures of the Civil Rights Movement were pastors, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was, of course, the chief figurehead.

King's genius was not simply his passion for non-violence, but also his willingness to call a nation that considered itself Christian to account.  In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King basically said, "You know, you say that you are Christian.  You say that you follow the Bible.  Why are you not following its basic principles of justice, fairness, and equality?"  It was and is a fantastic letter.

An appeal to such a collective conscience is a master-stroke of genius, and it worked!   It worked brilliantly!!!  To change the laws.  And to change behaviors.

But it did not change the hearts and minds of many.  Perhaps this is where the Civil Right's Movement failed.  For the prejudice that was overtly embodied in Jim Crow Laws and segregation was now driven deep into people's hearts.  And it hasn't gone away at all.

So, should another similar movement be staged today?  Do more laws need to be changed to prevent covert racism?  Should the Church strive for such a thing in this current climate?

I am highly suspect of trying to accomplish such a thing, because the climate of the U.S. has changed and changed dramatically.

A View Backward to Go Forward

The Christian Church is one of the more unique institutions in the global scheme.  90% of Muslims live in the Middle East and Africa.  90% of Hindus live in India.  90% of Buddhists live in Asia.  Only Christianity is evenly distributed throughout the globe.  Christianity has been able to survive under all sorts of governments and rulers--even those that severely persecuted the Church.  In a rather head scratching note, the more the Church is persecuted, the more it seems to grow and thrive.

Part of the reason for this, I am convinced, is that Christianity grew up in a hostile culture.  It clashed with its parent religion of Judaism and also with the surrounding Roman Empire.  It proclaimed that Jesus was God--anathema to Jews and subversive to Romans.  In both cases, the death penalty could be sought for adherents (for blasphemy or for subverting the rule of Caesar).

Yet, despite the danger, one does not see anywhere in the early Church petitions to the governments to legalize Christianity.  One does not see the apostle Paul standing before governors and asking them to change the law.  No.  Paul seeks to convert.  Paul seeks to bring people to Jesus Christ and then allow the power of God to transform those hearts and minds.

It's a far cry from how the Church tends to operate in the U.S. today.  For a brief time, the U.S. adopted our ethical framework when making decisions.  For a brief time, we could count on people being in and understanding what it meant to have a Christian ethical framework.  At one time most of the U.S. had a Christian worldview, but there has been a divorce.

Ethics are no longer rooted in God.

The source and norm for ethics in the U.S. is the Constitution, and the ethical moorings of the Constitution are...

Who knows?

An Ethical Hodgepodge

Reason according to some.
"Do whatever makes you happy as long as you hurt no one," according to others.
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," according to more.
"Truth is what we make it; truth is relative," according to others.

We have no agreed upon ethical basis for defining truth, justice, happiness, or the like.  We have no system of ethics underpinning our national discussion.  In fact, what very often happens is a clash between ethical systems without folks even aware that such systems are clashing.

The results can be quite confusing and disheartening.  People are quick to hurl insults toward each other.  Oppressed becomes oppressor.  The opposition gets vilified.  We cry out "do unto others as you would have them do unto you!"  But the practice ends up being "do unto others as I think should be done unto them."

Lord, save us.

Thank God, He has.

Which is why I haven't done any hand wringing.

A Christian Ethical Framework

You see, the Christian ethical framework seeks the will of God.  Believing that God has indeed revealed His will to us, we earnestly believe we should seek it out.  However, when we discover what that will is, we know it is impossible to uphold.  We know we can never live up to it.

Think about this in your own life at this point.  Most of us have a certain standard of how we expect others to live.  Do we live up to our own standard?  Recently, in a discussion, I pointed out that a gentleman called out Christians for being judgmental was himself making a judgement against Christians.  Fortunately, he was of the thinking sort and realized exactly what he was doing.  "It must be a condition of humanity," he said.  I heartily agree.  A condition we cannot save ourselves from.  We need a Savior.

That Savior, according to Christianity, is Jesus who lived the life we were supposed to live--loving God and loving neighbor as self completely; and He died the death we deserved upon the cross--paying the penalty for our disobedience and inability to fulfill God's will.  Jesus did this while we were still sinners--undeserving of such radical love.

To understand that we do not fulfill the will of God...
To understand that we do not deserve God's love and acceptance...
To understand that it was given to us at great cost to God...

Humbles a heart.  It takes away pride in any sort of moral accomplishment one may perceive.  It allows one to see one's own brokenness.  One still seeks God's will, but then understand that God's will includes loving others as we were loved--broken people loving other broken people.  This is done no matter what kind of government sits in power--or what kind of ethical framework is embraced by the surrounding culture.

Gay marriage is legal.
Two consenting adults having sexual relations is legal.
Selling a rock as a pet is legal.
Making millions of dollars without sharing is legal.
Consuming alcohol to excess is legal.
Yelling at your spouse is legal.
Calling someone an a$$hole is legal.
Looking at a woman with lust is legal.

Doesn't mean any of those things are moral, but instead of pointing fingers and decrying the immorality of others, I believe Christians are called to roll up their sleeves and do some very hard work--very hard work--seek conversion of others to the Christian worldview.  To seek the change of heart and not simply the change of law.

The Need for Government

There is no doubt that we need government and we need just laws.  Without government and laws, society falls into anarchy.  There is also no doubt that Christians need to be involved in politics.  We have a duty to work for the welfare of our neighbor (How that gets played out is oftentimes a point of contention, granted.).  I cannot imagine the Church standing idly by while injustice is perpetrated upon people.

And the Church is indeed guilty of both standing by and perpetrating injustice upon people.  We have only to look into our history at the times when the Church held power (middle ages) or--for the most part--walked hand in hand with those in power (Nazi Germany).  In both of these cases, great tragedy befell minorities as the vast majority of Christians supported or turned a blind eye to injustice.

I believe this happens when the Church aligns itself with the structures of power within a given nation.  Therefore, the Church must maintain a critical distance without becoming disengaged.  The Church must have a voice within the public square without aligning itself with any group seizing power.  The Church must be a powerful voice without seeking power itself.  And, oh and this is the tricky part--the Church must not be swayed to endorse any seeking power because of a promise of favorable legislation.

It is far too tempting to allow ourselves to endorse certain candidates who promise action on particular issues to win our votes.  An appeal to our own desire of power and getting what we want through legislation can be very, very tempting.  However, I think that this does great damage to our primary calling--to proclaim Jesus and not the Law.

"For the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  It is the smallest of seeds, but when planted it becomes a tree so large the birds of the air long to build their nests within."

The Kingdom of God begins with the seed of the Gospel in our hearts.  It grows as more and more hearts are tuned to God--not to the Laws of a nation.  And the Gospel roots out evil intentions, hatred and prejudice--the very root causes of hatred and division within our species.  But it all begins with the change of heart--the primary focus, I believe of spreading the Gospel--of changing another's worldview.

Not an easy task, but the one mission the Church was given straight from the one who died for the world.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Tradition Comes in Second

    The more I studied this particular lesson this week, the more I came to see there are two things Jesus goes after in this text, and they are very much related.  The problem is, if I deal with both of those things today, I will be preaching far too long.  We would not be able to beat the Baptists to Tony’s.  So, I will be breaking this text up into two sermons dealing with both of those points separately.  The first point Jesus highlights is the building up of traditions which supersede God’s commands and the second point–which I will deal with next week–is the reason we build up those traditions.  For those of you who have been in church your entire life, you will have a very easy time understanding this.  For those of you who have not been in church and are wondering about Christianity, you might have a more difficult time, but I am pretty sure you will be able to understand more as I go through the sermon today.

    The text begins today with a group of scribes coming down from Jerusalem to investigate the things they’ve heard about Jesus.  Normally, we paint the scribes and Pharisees in a negative light because that’s the way they come across to us throughout the Gospels.  However, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and scribes were not necessarily seen as bad guys.  They were actually seen as very pious; very religious; very thorough in their understanding about who God is and what God requires.  These guys tried to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; however, their understanding of how to do so was misguided.  How so?

    The text tells us the scribes questioned Jesus and asked, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled hands?”  Now, this question has nothing to do with hygiene.  It has everything to do with ritual cleanliness.  You see, there is a whole section in the Old Testament Law devoted to what it means to be a clean and pure and holy person.  This meant that you could only eat certain foods, associate with certain people, and do certain things.  If you ate pork, for instance, you were considered unclean; impure; not holy.  (Our Old Testament lesson this morning shows some of those laws.)

    Now, if you read through all these Laws in the Old Testament, you will see that there are some laws which only apply to the priests.  These are laws that do not apply to regular, everyday folks.  The reason for this is that the priests were daily working in the Tabernacle or the Temple and were closest to God.  Therefore, they needed to be ritually clean in order to work that close to God.  The Pharisees and scribes thought long and hard about this practice and came to a rather egalitarian conclusion: if it is good for the priests, then it is good for the rest of us.  If the priests need to do this to be holy, then we ought to do this to be holy as well.  We do not need two separate sets of standards of holiness.  If we, the people of God, are to be close to God and be an example to the world, then we all need to be as holy as possible–not simply one group.

    William Lane in his commentary to this text had this great quote, “Its finest intention was the demonstration that all Israel was devoted to God and the Law, and the fulfillment of the injunction: “You shall be holy to me.”  The Pharisees were convinced that the strict discipline of human conduct was the necessary prelude to the true acknowledgment of God as sovereign.”  So, here we have the Pharisees trying to make holiness an entire nation thing–not just a priestly thing.  Here we essentially have the Pharisees saying, “Don’t think that your pastor is the only one who needs to live a pure and holy life–such a life is to be lived by everyone!  No exceptions!”  It was really a radical thought; a leveling of the proverbial playing field thought; everyone was to be treated the same.

    So, they came up with a tradition that everyone should wash their hands like the priests–mind you, this was not the command of scripture.  This was not what God told the people to do.  This was something additional. The disciples therefore, were not breaking God’s commandments; they were just fine doing what they were doing.  However, they were breaking tradition, and that’s what caught the eye of the scribes and Pharisees.

    Jesus was not happy with this criticism.  In fact, He turned it right around on the scribes and Pharisees. “ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  I want you to take note of a couple of things.  First, memorize the first part of that quote from the Prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  This is a crucial, crucial statement–one that we will revisit next week.  And because their hearts are far from God, they abandon the commandments of God and hold to human traditions.  What is wrong with this?  Let me try to explain.

    You see, the scribes and Pharisees were enamored with God’s Law.  They were enamored with the commands found in the Old Testament.  They wanted to be holy and obey those commands, and they wanted to make sure that no one broke those commands either.  Therefore, they set up a bunch of human traditions to guard the Law.  They set up a bunch of human commands to ensure that no one would ever break the Laws of God.  In their writings, they referred to this as building a hedge around God’s Laws so that they could not be broken.  It could kind of be seen like this: The speed limit on I-10 is 75 miles an hour.  To ensure that I don’t break the speed limit, I will drive 70 miles per hour.  Everyone else should too that way no one comes close to breaking the law.  It’s not a bad idea when one looks at it, so what is the problem?

    Just this: let’s say that God came to you one day in the midst of your living room.  Remember, this is just an example, hang with me.  And let’s say God replaced your couch with another one.  He said to you, “My child, you and your family are weary after a long day’s work.  I am giving you this couch.  Sit on it at the end of the day and be refreshed.  However, no one is allowed to jump on this couch.”

    You thank God profusely for this wonderful gift, and you find that you and your family become refreshed by sitting on the couch.  But you are also worried.  You know that God said not to jump on this couch.  How can you prevent this from happening?  How can you ensure that no one breaks this command by doing such a dastardly thing?  You come up with a brilliant idea!!  If no one touches the couch, no one can ever jump on it.  Therefore, you forbid your family from touching the couch.  No one is allowed to set a finger, a toe, or anything else on it.  Therefore, no one will ever jump on it, and no commandment will ever be broken. Right?

    Wrong.  In reality, you are nullifying one command in your zeal to adhere to another one.  What do I mean?  Remember what God originally said, “Sit on this couch and be refreshed.”  That was a direct command from God as was “Don’t jump on the couch.”  You effectively nullified one command by building a hedge around the other.  You nullified the purpose of God giving you the couch to begin with! 

    Jesus is pointing out something similar with the scribes and Pharisees.  “You are putting human tradition in the place of God’s Law, and in doing so, you are nullifying the very purpose of the Law–and even breaking God’s commandments!

    Then Jesus launches into an illustration.  For those of us who do not live in first century Palestine, this little illustration can be confusing, so let me work through it with you just a little bit.  You see, if you left your family’s house and made your way in the world; and you obtained wealth and property; it was expected that you would take care of your parents.  In fact, it wasn’t just expected.  It was commanded by God in the 10 Commandments.  Honor your father and your mother. 

    But let’s also say that you were a holy, religious sort of person. Let’s say you wanted to honor God with your wealth and property.  You could go to the temple and say, “I want my land and wealth to be Corban.”  Or “I want my land and wealth to go to God.”  This was considered an oath, and God had also commanded that you cannot break an oath. 

    Now, let me make this clear as well: when you dedicated your property to God, you did not have to give it to the temple right then.  You had full use of your property.  You had all your money at your disposal.  You could continue to live off the fruits of your labor, but if your parents needed help; if your parents fell on hard times; you could look at them and say, “Mom, Dad, sorry.  I can’t help you.  I have dedicated all my wealth to God.  You are out of luck.” 

    Mom and dad could say, “Well, could you go to the priests and see if they can renounce this and let you take care of us?”

    If the child was actually wanting to help his parents, he would go to the priests; however, in nearly all circumstances, the response was, “NO!”  The property had been dedicated to God.  It could not be revoked.  The parents were out of luck. 

    Effectively, the establishment of this tradition had created a loophole in the law.  Kids no longer had to take care of their parents.  Kids no longer had to use their wealth and could hold onto it for as long as they lived.  And the religious authorities were laughing all the way to the bank.  Do you see why Jesus became so angry?  Do you see why He called the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites? 

    I think it’s blatantly obvious why!  Those darn scribes and Pharisees were placing human tradition ahead of God’s command.  They were incredibly ignorant!  Their good intentions were so far off base now.  How come they couldn’t see how far they had strayed from God?

    You know, I’m not sure we need to keep pointing at the Pharisees and scribes.  We need to be looking in the mirror.

        Here’s something to chew on: some of you know Adam Smith.  He wrote a tome back in the day titled The Wealth of Nations.  Within this book, he held that there was a guiding principle of the marketplace.  He called it the “invisible hand” which guided the distribution of resources and wealth.  Of course, this is a man-made tradition, and it actually supercedes what Scripture tells us about the redistribution of wealth.  God’s commands are clear and concise: if someone is in need, we help.  We do not wait for an invisible hand to distribute things.  We do it. 

    Yet, how many Christians oftentimes appeal to the free market?  How many Christians appeal to capitalism’s tenets to avoid helping out their fellow man?  How many times to human traditions supersede the command of God.

    Oh, and let me not let anyone else off the hook either.  Every culture in the world has some form of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  If you were down and out and needed help, you would desperately want someone to help you.  You would desperately want someone to give you aid.  But how often do we see this disregarded?  How often do we turn our nose up at those who are in need?  How often do we say they should get to work; get a job; quit being lazy–without even getting to know them or their circumstances?  Are we not hypocrites of the finest magnitude?

    Yes, Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and scribes are His words to us as well.  We are just as guilty.  And don’t get me started about our own hypocrisy in the church.  I mean, how many human traditions get in the way of our primary purpose?  How many human traditions prevent us from pointing only and solely to Jesus who died for the sake of the world?  How many times do we get caught up in the minutia?  I mean, where in the Bible does it tell us what kind of flowers we need on the altar?  Where in the Bible does it say we have to worship to organ music or piano music or guitar music or even music at all?  Where in the Bible does it say that we have to meet at a certain time during the week?  Where in the Bible does it say we are supposed to wear our finest clothes to church?  All of these things are human tradition, and sometimes we hold onto them as though God revealed them on Mount Sinai along with the 10 Commandments!  And in our zeal to adhere to these things, oftentimes we drive away those who also would like to participate in our worship; in our fellowship; in our ministry.  Human tradition overwhelms the commands of Jesus to proclaim Him to the world.

    You see, our hearts are still far from God.  Jesus’ critique still rings true. 

    Now, as I start wrapping this up, I want to say that there is nothing wrong with human traditions–as long as we remember those traditions come secondary to the main reason we are here.  Next week, I will talk about how hearts get changed.  This week, I want to remind us of why we are here.  I want to remind those who may be seeking why the church exists.  I want our attention turned solely to the cross of Jesus Christ.

    For you see, even though we try to nullify the commands of God, even though we act selfishly and without regard for others, Jesus was willing to die for us.  In our brokenness and hypocritical nature, Jesus loved us enough to lay down His life to save us from ourselves. 

    One of the reasons we get so caught up in traditions is that we believe Christianity is primarily about what we do.  We believe we have to follow the commands of Jesus perfectly.  We believe we have to live perfectly obedient lives.  And when we don’t, we seek to justify ourselves.  We seek to interpret the scriptures to give us a break.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, “We seek to justify the sin instead of proclaim the justification of the sinner.” 

    And proclaiming the justification of the sinner is our primary focus.  Proclaiming that we are justified not by our own actions but by the love of Jesus Christ is the reason the Church exists.  We are called to humbly walk through this world announcing the news, “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.”  Our traditions do not save us.  Jesus does.  Let’s not give the world our traditions.  Let’s give the world Jesus.  Amen.