Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Listening to Jesus

    As I thought about this week’s lesson in relationship to last week’s lesson, I began to wonder what kind of response Jesus would receive on our current social climate.  I mean, if Jesus were to bring a great crowd together and say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it; and if anyone loses their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, they will find it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the entire world but lose his soul?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” what do you think people would do?

    Honestly, I think the reaction would be very, very diverse.  People would have all sorts of reactions.  You would have those who would hear what Jesus said and think He was crazy–they would scratch their heads in bewilderment because they have never been taught that denial of self is a manner of life.  For many in our society have been taught to embrace themselves just the way they are, and there is a strong thread which runs through our society that says, “Do not do anything to crush another person’s ego.  For the crushing of egos is the worst thing we can do to a person.  Let people be free to express themselves and be who they consider themselves to be without fear.”  Another group might hear Jesus’ words and believe they actually are accomplishing them in full.  They will latch on and believe they indeed have denied themselves; they are carrying their crosses; they are following Jesus, and it is the rest of the world with the problem.  Everyone else needs to become just like them or Jesus will be ashamed of those heathen and send them to hell.  Others might hear Jesus and seek clarification from religious authorities.  “What does this man mean?” they would ask.  Then, depending upon how the religious leader interpreted the words, they might agree with Jesus or they might not.  Again, others might simply look at Jesus and say, “That’s just your opinion.  There are others who teach a very different understanding, and if this works for you, fine.  It doesn’t work for me, so I will find someone who teaches me what I think works.  Our current society and culture is so very diverse that the reactions to such a teaching would be just as diverse; just as messy, and no one would agree on the significance of that teaching. 

    I would like to submit to you this morning that it wasn’t all that different in the ancient world when Jesus actually made this proclamation.  For you see, the Roman Empire was a very, very diverse place.  Roads had been built throughout the empire making travel relatively easy for that time and place.  People from various cultures were meeting and coming into contact regularly.  Rome had established a wide list of accepted religions–generally one’s that didn’t cause sedition–embracing religious pluralism.  As long as people submitted to Roman rule, things were okay. 

    Now, let’s bring things down even further to Israel and what was happening amongst the Jews.  The Jews themselves were broken down into different factions.  There were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, the chief priests and the scribes.  All of these constituted different veins of thought within the religion.  Each had particular teachings, and the groups argued amongst themselves.  Not only this: at the time Jesus spoke these words, it was the height of the Rabbinical tradition.  What does that mean?  Well, there were teachers, rabbis, who were teaching all throughout Israel.  These men would gather students and teach those students their understanding of the Law.  The rabbis taught very, very diverse things, and we actually have some of those teachings recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud–a body of Jewish literature interpreting the Jewish Bible.  So, it was not uncommon for people to argue about scripture by saying, “Rabbi so and so said this, but Rabbi so and so said this.  The Pharisees say this.  The Sadducees say this.” and so on and so forth.

    I hope that you can see at this point a very muddy puddle of understanding.  I hope that you can see that things were not clear cut by any means when it came to understanding what religious faith and belief was all about.  While there was indeed some general agreement about certain aspects of faith–as I said last time, those who believed that there was going to be a Messiah had three agreed upon points–there was no such thing as a broad overwhelming consensus.  People were essentially free to choose the teaching that best meshed with their own understandings.

    I think there were those among Jesus’ followers who might have thought to do just this thing.  After Jesus told them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him, I can imagine they very much wondered if they were following the right Rabbi.  After Jesus taught them that He must be handed over to the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, to suffer many things, to die, and on the third day rise, I can imagine them thinking they had hooked up with a crazy man.  For it was unheard of that the Messiah would suffer.  It was unheard of that there would be an individual resurrection apart from the final resurrection, and there were even many Jews who did not believe in a final resurrection!  As one of my commentaries said, the disciples had no categories to even begin to make these things fit!  And so, I think, there was an awful temptation to abandon Jesus and find someone who would make more sense–at least to their ears.

    Which is where our lesson for today comes into play.  Mark chapter 9 begins with the following teaching by Jesus, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  Now, there are some who think that Jesus’ statement here is wrong because obviously, when we look around our world, we do not see the perfect kingdom of God established.  We don’t see peace and harmony and a new heaven and a new earth.  Jesus must have been mistaken because all of those who were around Him when He spoke these words are now dead.  However, you’ve got to put this statement in context.  You have to put it into the midst of what Mark is communicating to us, and Mark is setting us up to see a vision of that Kingdom–a vision that will take place on a high mountain, which is where we are taken.

    Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain, and when they get to the top, Jesus is radically changed before them.  Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white–whiter than any sort of bleach.  Imagine that advertising campaign–Clorox Bleach, not quite like Jesus, but pretty darn close!  Following on the footsteps of Mark’s report that Jesus called Himself the “Son of Man” it is not a stretch to once again see that the Scriptures from Daniel are being fulfilled.  As Craig Evans says in the Word Biblical Commentary, “Mark’s depiction of Jesus is also reminiscent of Daniel’s vision of the “Ancient of Days,” whose “clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool” (Dan 7:9) The one “like a son of man” approaches the Ancient of Days (i.e. God) and receives authority and kingdom.  Perhaps in his transformation we should understand Jesus, as the “son of man” in the presence of the Ancient of Days, has taken on some of God’s characteristics (much as Moses’ face began to shine with God’s glory).”

    We are then told that Moses and Elijah come and stand with Jesus.  These are two momentous figures from the Old Testament.  There is no shortage of disagreement about what they represent.  For our purposes this morning, let’s just leave it at the place of an awestruck experience–the getting to see heroes of the faith.  Peter is overwhelmed.  He doesn’t know what to say because he is so awestruck, so he blurts out, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here.  Let us build three tabernacles.  One for you.  One for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Now, this statement isn’t as dumb as one might expect.  It totally makes sense, but it is the wrong statement.  You see, Peter was still transfixed upon Jesus as the powerful Messiah instead of the suffering servant.  As William Lane says in his commentary, “Peter is anxious to find the fulfillment of the promised glory now, prior to the sufferings Jesus had announced as necessary.”  Peter sees the three booths as God dwelling once again with the people of Israel with Moses, Elijah, and now Jesus.  It makes sense, but it is the wrong thought.

    And that thought is rebuked by the arrival of another party.  We are told that a cloud envelopes the mountaintop.  Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says about this because it is extremely helpful.  “According to Mark, the cloud “enveloped” or overshadowed (Gk episkiazein) them.  This verb occurs only rarely in the Greek Bible, but it is used in Exod. 40:35 to describe the cloud that filled the tabernacle with the glory of God and in 1 Kings 8:10-11 to describe the cloud filling Solomon’s temple...The cloud is the impregnating presence of God, symbolizing that in Jesus, even more than in the tabernacle of old, God dwells bodily with humanity.”

    This affirmation that God dwells bodily with humanity is solidified with the statement from the cloud, “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM!”  Suddenly, when the disciples looked around after this statement, they saw only Jesus.  Twofold thing here: God affirms that the disciples should listen to Jesus.  The absence of Moses and Elijah passes along the message: don’t listen to Moses.  Don’t listen to Elijah.  Listen to Jesus.  The focus is on Jesus.  The message issues forth from Jesus.  The message is Jesus.  Listen to Him!  Period.  Drop the mic and leave.  Listen to Jesus.

    Now, I could go further with this text and go through the remaining teaching by Jesus, but let me simply say two things before addressing what I started my sermon off with.  First, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone with a qualifier: until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.  Jesus didn’t want Peter, James and John caught up in the moment proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah when they still didn’t understand fully what that meant.  Peter already showed once again that he had no clue about the suffering servant and the cross.  Jesus still needed to open their eyes.  Secondly, Jesus then teaches them and clarifies Elijah’s role and links John the Baptist to Elijah.  This is a teaching moment by Jesus, and I apologize for giving it only a cursory comment.  However, we need to move on to some very weighty things–things of massive importance in our culture and society.

    For the transfiguration of Jesus brings out two very important things that we have to grasp as the church.  First, God’s instruction from the cloud.  “Listen to Him!”  Listen to Jesus.  Keep your focus on Jesus.  It almost pains me to say this to you, but I have to.  When it comes to the Christian faith; when it comes to trying to figure out what things are all about, do not listen to me.  I wish I didn’t have to say that, but it’s true.  Don’t listen to me.  Don’t listen to Joel Osteen or Ed Young.  Don’t listen to the Pope or the Bishop.  We are not the ones you are following.  We are not the ones who understand God most fully.  We are not the ones who understand Christianity most fully.  We are all sinful, broken, people who are deeply affected by our own assumptions and biases.  When we preach and teach, our own sinfulness clouds our ability to grasp and to proclaim the Law and the Gospel.  It is my job, and the job of anyone who preaches and teaches to get you to Jesus.  It is the job of the Church to proclaim Jesus and Him crucified.  It is the job of the Church to say, “Listen to Jesus!” 

    Ah, but that raises another important point.  How do I know what Jesus says?  We don’t have clouds enveloping us with God’s voice telling us to listen to Jesus.  We don’t have Jesus walking next to us bodily explaining Scripture to us and helping us understand the world around us.  We don’t have the luxury of having Jesus videotaped or audiotaped.  We have a book.  A very old book.  A book that we do not have any of the original copies of the text.  A book that is written in two “dead” languages.  A book that some say is embellished–that has undergone much editing and is more the stuff of legend than it is reality.  How can we be certain Jesus said and did what is recorded in this book? 

    The question really is one of credibility.  Do you trust the accounts written in the Bible?  Do you trust the witnesses who first recorded what is included in Scripture, and do you trust the process of how things were handed down?  You see, the Christian faith is a historical faith.  It is built upon historical events.  Historical events aren’t like scientific experiments.  You cannot replicate them.  You are literally forced to choose whether or not you believe the witness of those who report them.  For instance, I can report to you this morning that Wednesday night, there was a small group of us who gathered to hear a presentation of what it was like to care for an aging parent given by James and Karen Tiner.  Now, you weren’t there.  You don’t know if it happened or not.  You have my report.  Am I trustworthy?  That is the question.  There were other witnesses to the event.  You could talk to them as well.  You have to judge if they are trustworthy.  If things fit in a coherent picture, and they help explain why there were cars up here at the church on Wednesday, why the lights were on from 6 to about 8, and so on and so forth, you can conclude that, yes, I am a credible witness.  Yes, this makes sense.  Yes, indeed there was a group that met to hear a presentation by James and Karen Tiner.  You didn’t scientifically prove it.  You relied upon eyewitness testimony that you deemed credible.

    There are some very good arguments that indeed present the Bible as such credible testimony.  There are some very good historical reasons to accept the Bible as credible testimony like: the Bible is written closer to the events surrounding Jesus than is the histories we have written about Alexander the Great.  Did you know that one?  It’s true.  There are others as well.  I do not have time to go into them this morning, but the question still comes down to you this morning.  Do you trust the witness of Scripture?  Do you trust this witness that has been handed down to you through the generations?

    And if you trust this witness, then you can indeed listen to Jesus.  You can indeed hear His words.  You can indeed know of His actions.  You can indeed come to know Him and what He teaches.  And you can know why you should listen to Him.  In the myriads of voices that swirl around our culture, that try to tell you how to live and what to do, His voice will stand alone.  His voice will carry more weight because as you come to know Him, you will see that His is the only voice who truly knows who you are.  His is the only voice who truly knows deep down your true identity–all of the good things about you, and all of the bad.  He alone knows the recess of your heart where your fear and anxiety and selfishness dwell.  He knows your motives and motivations.  He knows your flaws and failings, and He doesn’t let you try to hide them or escape them.  He forces you to stand before Him fully known and fully vulnerable.  And if you know yourself as you should, this should terrify you.

    But instead of condemning you, He loves you.  He stretches out His arms and dies for you when you don’t deserve it.  He does not falsely tell you you are okay just the way you are.  He doesn’t mandate that you change to satisfy Him.  Instead, He dies for you and invites you to die to yourself.  He invites you to take up your cross and meet Him at the place where He poured out Himself for you.  He invites you to look at the cross where He showed the greatest love possible.

    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.

    Jesus did not come into the world to condemn you, but to save you.  And He did.  On the cross.  As he died for you.  Certainly a good reason to listen to Him.  Amen.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Beginning to See

    It seems like an eternity since I last stood before you and left you hanging in the middle of Mark Chapter 8.  I began a sermon on the blindness that each and every one of us has, and I finished by describing a healing that Jesus performed on a blind man.  This healing is unlike any other recorded healing in scripture.  It is a healing performed in stages.  First the blind man is touched, and he sees, but not clearly.  The second time Jesus lays hands on the man and looks intently at him, the man is healed.  This healing was not only historical, but it was metaphorical.  It was meant to teach a lesson not only to the disciples, but to you and to me.  As we finish Mark Chapter 8, I hope that we will see the significance of our blindness, our need for healing, and how we too are healed in stages.

    In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus and His disciples are traveling toward Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”  It was very uncommon for rabbis to ask their followers things.  Usually, it was the other way around.  Usually, the rabbis students were constantly asking questions, but Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. Like a master teacher, Jesus has a point to draw the disciples toward.

    The disciples begin spouting off all the things they have heard.  “You are John the Baptist returned from the dead.  You are Elijah who was taken bodily up into heaven who has returned to prepare the way for the Messiah.  You are a prophet, perhaps the promised prophet Moses spoke about before he died.”  It is an interesting list.  One thing is for sure, all of these agree that Jesus is from God, and that He is in the prophetic line.  Of this there is no dispute.  Of course, these answers are not adequate.  Jesus knows this.  The disciples do too.  How so?

    Jesus continues, “Ah, but who do you say that I am?”  Jesus is now putting the screws to His disciples.  One of my commentaries said it best, “Who do you, my most intimate and trusted friends–in contrast to the other people who neither know me nor understand me–think I am?”  There is no beating around the bush.  There is no hemming and hawing.  This is laying it all on the line right here.  “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.  The answer to this question is the most important answer that the disciples–and that we could ever give.

    Peter speaks for them all, “You are the Messiah.” 

    Now, you need to know that this statement is quite loaded.  Today, we unhesitatingly say that Jesus is the Messiah, and we think about the cross and the salvation of the world.  Not so with the ancient Jews.  Not so with the disciples.  Such matters would have been very far from their minds.  Let me quote biblical scholar N.T. Wright in this matter:

    By no means all Jews wanted or expected a Messiah.  But those who did were clear (not least from their readings of scripture) that he had to do three things.  He had to rebuild, or cleanse the Temple.  He had to defeat the enemy that was threatening God’s people.  And he had to bring God’s justice–that rich, restoring, purging, healing power–to bear both in Israel and out into the world...The Messiah would be God’s agent in bringing in the kingdom [of God] in sorting out the mess and muddle Israel was in, in putting the Gentiles in their place. (Mark for Everyone)

    This is what the disciples would have thought about Jesus.  They would have thought that He was going to cleanse the Temple; defeat the enemy that was threatening them–which at the present time was the Romans; and then bring God’s justice to bear on Israel and the world which meant cleaning up Israel and then putting the Gentiles into their place.  This was the expectations of the Messiah.  Every Jew that believed in the arrival of the Messiah believed these three things, and Jesus would accomplish all three–just not in the manner everyone thought.  And as Jesus begins to tell the disciples about what Messiahship entails, we see that even though the disciples have begun to see, they cannot yet see clearly.

    Jesus first tells everyone to keep silent about these matters.  Some folks wonder why, I don’t any longer.  Jesus doesn’t want them to give everyone the idea that He will be their Messiah.  Jesus doesn’t want everyone in the surrounding countryside to think He is going to lead some sort of rebellion and religious/societal cleansing by force of arms.  Jesus needs to open the disciples’ eyes.  He needs to help them see clearly before they began to proclaim His rule.  And Jesus begins to do that immediately.

    Mark records, “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.”  The Greek word for openly is “parrasia” which carries the connotations of someone who is completely free who speaks without restraint, who hides nothing.  (Kittel–Theological Dict. of the N.T.)  Jesus is being perfectly clear with His disciples about what will happen to Him–what will happen to the Messiah.  But there are two fascinating things in what Jesus says. First, Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man.  Jesus doesn’t use “Messiah” in reference to Himself.  In fact, Jesus much prefers “Son of Man” instead of Messiah.  Why?  For two reasons: Messiah, as I said before was a loaded term which connotes military conquest.  Jesus wasn’t about that.  Secondly, there is a much broader scope with tying Messiah and Son of Man.  Jews would have tied Jesus’ words with Daniel chapter 7 where the following is written:

    13As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages  should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

    The reign of the Son of Man extends much, much further than the much smaller scope of the Jewish understanding of the Messiah.  Jesus is trying to expand the disciples’ vision so that they see Jesus’ purpose for the whole world.  Let me repeat that: Jesus is here for the whole world, not simply the Jews, and the salvation of the world will not be brought about by military conquest and purification, but by Jesus’ death.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes...”

    There are two comments to be made here.  First from N.T. Wright again who pricelessly says, “Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities.  A Messiah who did that would be shown up precisely as a false Messiah.”  And secondly from James Edwards in the Pillar New Testament Commentary on the book of Mark:

    The prediction of Jesus passion conceals a great irony, for the suffering and death of the Son of Man will not come, as we would expect, at the hands of godless and wicked people.  The suffering of the Son of Man comes rather at the hands of “the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law.”  It is not humanity at its worst that will crucify the Son of God but humanity at its absolute best.  The death of Jesus will not be the result of a momentary lapse or aberration of human nature, but rather the result of careful deliberations from respected religious leaders who will justify their actions by the highest standards of the law and morality, even believing them to render service to God (John 16:2).  Jesus will not be lynched by an enraged mob or beaten to death in a criminal act.  He will be arrested with official warrants, and tried and executed by the world’s envy of jurisprudence–the Jewish Sanhedrin and the principia iuris Romanorum.

    These things are just too much for the disciples.  They contradict everything they had ever been taught.  They contradict everything they had ever thought for themselves.  They believed such things to be absolutely, totally wrong.  Hence, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him.  Now, mind you, the same word that Mark uses for Peter rebuking Jesus is the same word Mark uses when Jesus rebukes the demons.  It’s that strong a reaction from Peter.

    But Jesus is just as strong.  Jesus is just as harsh, perhaps harsher.  “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus retorts, “For you are setting your things on human things and not the things of God.”

    And now, we come to the crux of this whole passage–indeed one might say this is the crux of the Christian message itself.  Jesus calls the crowd together.  Jesus wants to make sure that everyone understands this, not simply the disciples.  This teaching is for everyone–not simply those closest to Him.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

    Oh my.  Oh my.  Oh my.  Jesus plainly, openly, clearly teaches that if we want to see clearly; if we want to know clearly; if we want to understand clearly–we must die.  At this point, let me ask you, do you still want to be a Christian?  Do you still want to even consider following Jesus?  Do you still want to be a disciple if He says, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”  “For if you want to save your life, you will lose it, and if you lose it for Jesus sake and the sake of the Gospel, you will find it.”  How can this be?

    The Christian worldview starts with a very basic assumption about humanity.  We were created to be good, but that goodness became warped.  That goodness was over ridden by a deep selfishness which sought its own good; its own power; its own prestige; its own satisfaction; its own survival above its dependency upon God.  To this day, our selfishness reigns.  To this day, our ego tries to claim superiority.  To this day, we do a lot to establish and preserve our identity and our self.  I am who I am, and I will change for no one.  And the world around us encourages this.  And many churches do too.

    I mean, I can tell you many, many churches who lead with the following sayings: Be yourself.  Rejoice in your identity.  Claim your heritage.  God loves you just the way you are.  All are welcome just as they are.  I don’t know of a single church that leads and invites people with the following: deny who you are, come and die.  It’s not a very popular advertising campaign.  But it is Jesus.  It is His call.  And it is because He knows that if we spend our lives trying to maintain our identity and preserve ourselves, we will die a thousand deaths; never find fulfillment; and be searching for affirmation over and over and over again.

    You know this as well as I do.  Deep down you know this is the way the world works–that we are constantly taught to look out for ourselves, and we are constantly worried and burdened that we haven’t done enough.  We tell our kids over and over, and you were probably told, “Work hard.  Do well in school so that...what?”  “You can get a good job and make enough money to live.”  “Work hard, save your money, invest wisely so that...what?”  You can retire and enjoy the years you have left.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we repeat to ourselves striving to put off the pain of rejection when someone insults us.  We try to preserve ourselves because we find our value and worth in ourselves.

    And Jesus says, deny it.  Deny yourself and find your value in me.  For the world around you will strive to cut you down.  The world around you will take every advantage of you it can. The world around you will try to drain your wealth and leave you poverty stricken.  The world around you will demean your skin color and your heritage.  The world around you will bash your gender and your sexuality.  The world around you will cut you down at the knees because it will find your faults.  It will find your weakness, and it will exploit them.

    Now, here’s a question for you: how can the world exploit your faults if you no longer try to hide them but openly profess them?  How can the world bash your gender and sexuality if you have denied them?  How can the world trash your skin color or heritage if you say they don’t matter?  How can the world harm you if you don’t find your value in what the world thinks of you?

    Deny yourself.  Die to yourself.  See yourself as a dead person walking–for that is what carrying the cross means.  Ah, but it doesn’t just mean death.  No for whoever loses their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will find it.  Find it?  Yes.  You will find it.  For in Christianity, death is followed by resurrection.  The cross is followed by the empty tomb.  Denying one’s self is followed by finding one’s true self; true identity; true value and worth in the Savior who willingly died for you when you least deserved it.

    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.

    Find your self in Jesus.  Understand what He did for you as He stretched out His arms and died for you.  Grasp the power of the resurrection as it removes your fear of death.  You will cease being caught up in the daily battle for self-preservation, you will find freedom, and you will truly see.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Perfect Church?

   I had a dream in which the Lord appeared to me and asked, “Preacher, do you want to lead the perfect church?”

    I responded, “O Lord, you know all things.  You know I want to lead the perfect church.”

    He said, “O mortal, let us journey together to see if such a thing exists.”

    We traveled some distance, and we happened upon a beautiful church building filled with worshipers.  At a glance, the Lord showed me years of congregational life.  People always got along.  The pews were always full.  Offering exceeded budget every year.  No one argued.  All believed exactly the same.  It seemed a picture of peace and harmony.

    The Lord asked, “Mortal, would you like to lead this church?”

    I replied, “Who would not like to lead this church?”

    The Lord responded, “Perhaps your eyes see a perfect church, but what would happen if you challenged this group?  Do you think they would be receptive?  All agree in all matters.  If you were to challenge them to grow deeper, do you think they would respond?  If you challenged them to see something from a different perspective, do you think they would embrace you?  If you broke one of their deep traditions, do you think they are capable of forgiveness given that they all agree on everything?”

    I hung my head in shame, for this was the dream I had of the church.  It was the church I had dreamed of leading, but I now knew it was not the perfect church.

    The Lord and I traveled further, and we happened upon a run down church facility.  Sloppy attempts had been made to fix things up.  Some things were simply patched together.  The Lord again showed me the history of the church in a moment.  The people here were much different.  They fought constantly.  They were back-biters.  They remained angry with each other.  The church was less than half-full every week.  The offering coffers barely had enough to pay the bills–if that.

    “Mortal,” the Lord said, “Would you like to lead this church?”

    “Who would?” I asked.

    The Lord replied, “No one would like to lead this church, it is true.  And it is not the perfect church.  However, these people, I love too.  These people need a change of heart for they do not know of my great love for them.  They do not know the cost I paid to redeem them.  Their hearts are hardened, but this place needs the Gospel.  Judge them harshly if you must, but I hold out hope that one day they may hear the good news and learn to forgive.”

    Once again, I hung my head in shame for I would never have considered leading such a church.  I could not have seen this as an opportunity for grace.  I only saw the difficulty and stress.

    The Lord and I traveled once again.  We came upon another church.  It wasn’t immaculate or run down.  It was nice, but still needed some repair.  The Lord showed me the history of the church in a moment, and this is what I saw: it was a congregation of various people of many backgrounds.  They did not always agree.  At times, they fought and were openly hostile.  At other times, they worked together brilliantly.  There was still back-biting and gossip.  People still got angry.  Yet, they managed to pull together for worship each week.  Despite hard feelings among some, there was a willingness to forgive and give second, third, and fourth chances.  It was not perfect by my standards, but I had learned enough to wait upon the Lord, and He did not disappoint.

    “Mortal, would you like to lead this church?”

    “It’s not a perfect church.”

    “No,” the Lord responded, “it is not.  The only perfect church is the one in heaven above, but look at this church and you will see something absent from the others.  In this church, people do not always agree.  They argue about Me and the nature of the Truth, but they are humble enough to know no one grasps it fully.   They argue about how best to run the church and respond to the world around them–they know the world is ever changing, and the unchanging Gospel must be proclaimed to it in different ways.  They know deep down that none are righteous–none are perfect–and forgiveness must be a staple even with those who have hurt them deeply.  They understand that imperfect people must proclaim my perfection, and they do not point to themselves, they point to Me.  At the center of this church is the cross of Christ.  This church is in a constant battle to die to itself and focus on that cross–to live in Me.  Until I make all things new, this is where the church must stand.  It will never be perfected.  It must struggle to die to itself and find itself in Me.  Will you lead this church?”

    “I will, and I ask you to help and guide me.”

    The Lord replied, “I will, and I will guide that church for in such a church, I can truly transform lives and make people holy.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Are We Naturally Born Racists?

This title in the July/August "Reader's Digest" was timely given the events that took place in Charleston, SC when Dylann Roof murdered nine men and women because of the color of their skin.
There has been much discussion and reaction to this event--much of it particularly misguided in my estimation.   I mean, some have used this shooting as a platform to rid the nation of symbols of the Confederacy.  But removing the Confederate flag from public grounds will do very little to address the real, underlying issue regarding racism and prejudice.  There is much more to this issue--much which is not being discussed.

I am going to take just a moment to deal with particular definitions in this subject.  I think it is important to do so because if we cannot agree on terminology, then we cannot agree on solutions.  Therefore, in this post, I will define

Racism as prejudice with power.  (A definition I was exposed to in college.)

Prejudice as an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics. (from Merriam-Webster's third definition)

It is important, I think, to deal with prejudice.  The appropriation of power, history shows, changes over time.  It rises and falls among groups over and over and over again.  If prejudice is combined with that power, racism occurs.  

The Nature of Power

The philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche penned many influential writings which actually underpin much of our surrounding culture these days.  Philosophically, Nietzsche removed transcendence from reality.  Essentially what he said was: human reason cannot prove any sort of reality above and beyond this world.  Therefore, what is our motivation for doing things?  What is our reason for engaging in whatever activity we engage in?

Nietzsche's answer was: will to power.  Essentially, we strive to put ourselves in the most advantageous position possible.  We strive to get our own way; to make our own lives easier; to put ourselves in a position of power and authority so that we do not answer to anyone.

One might argue Nietzsche's basic postulates; however, I don't think he is far from the truth.  For Christianity also says that humankind tends to act with its own self-interests in mind.  Christianity states that humankind tends to seek autonomous authority where we answer to no one and make our own decisions without regard to anyone else--but with regard to our own well-being.  This is the original sin of the garden of Eden where humankind wanted the knowledge of good and evil so that it no longer needed reference to the One who created them.

"What does this have to do with racism?" you might ask.  Everything, I think.

The Nature of Prejudice

I personally do not believe we are naturally racist or prejudice, but we become prejudice very, very fast.  In the July/August issue of Reader's Digest an article caught my eye.  It was titled "Are We Naturally Born Racists?"  I encourage you to read the article in its entirety to see the research that the following quotes are based upon.  [The research is based on the IAT, and if you would like to take the test you can find it here.] I found the following one particularly fascinating:

"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."  Reader's Digest, July/August 2015 "Are We Naturally-Born Racists?" Pp. 113-114.

Let that sink in just a moment before reading 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."  Reader's Digest, July/August 2015 "Are We Naturally-Born Racists?" P.114.

We only need the slightest push to begin drawing lines in the sand and acting tribally.

It Should Seem Obvious, but...

In my Sunday School adult class we have spoken at length about race issues and whether or not racism is on the decline.  Racist behavior I think is significantly less because of the Civil Right's Movement; however racist attitudes, I think, have not abated.  The above research perhaps gives us an insight as to why.

One of the gentlemen in my class who is over seventy recalled in the early days in the Cat Spring, TX community how Germans and Czechs drew sharp lines of distinction.  Intermarriage was "verboten".  Drinking beer socially was acceptable, but that was about it.  The two groups sought to be distinct and separate.  They clung to their differences.  Over time, those barriers faded, and the cultural distinction is almost gone.

"Why?" one might ask.  These groups were  divided based upon clinging to a particular culture and language that kept them distinct.  As time passed and generations lost many cultural practices and children learned English only, the differences evaporated.  There were no longer lines that caused divisions.  Remember, the brain needs only a slight push to draw the boundaries and become tribal. When language and cultural distinctions evaporated, tribalism vanished.

That's not easily done with physical attributes, is it?

One cannot simply wait 60 years for skin color to change.  It won't.  Intermarriage will not produce a "greying" of color anytime soon.  This distinction will remain regardless of our best efforts to become colorblind.  You cannot help but see the differences.  And if our brains just need the slightest push...

We will become tribal.  Not we will, we are tribal.

This is not just a "white" problem.  This is not just a "black" problem.  This is not just a "brown" problem.  This is a human problem that demands a radical answer.

Society's Answers

Society over and over again has tried to teach us that no matter what is outside, we all bleed red.  This is most certainly true.

Society has taught us since the overthrow of the Jim Crow laws that skin color is irrelevant compared to our identity as human beings.  This is most certainly true.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech resounds with words that touch many of us to our very core--the dream of a nation where we are judged by the content of our character instead of the color of our skin.

If these truths are embraced by many and believed by many, why do we still find such division?  Why do we still see so few integrated neighborhoods?  Why is Sunday morning still the most segregated morning of the week?  Why do kids congregate among kids of their same color?

We only need the slightest push toward tribalism.

Do we naturally disregard these ideals and continue to cling to our respective culture of color?

I think we do.  And no matter how much you point to the ideal, human nature has a tendency of taking over--whether we want it to or not!


Because of two things: 1) In the deepest recesses of our hearts we want to be with others who are just like us.  Our brains make distinctions and cling to them, so nothing less than a total restructuring of our brain's natural state needs to occur.  2) Our Western, enlightenment society still tells us to cling to our racial identity!  Embrace the color of your skin!  Let no one tell you, your skin color is bad or wrong or ugly!  This is central and core to your being!

And in one way it is, but in another way, it perpetuates the problem.  For if I cling to my skin color and if my skin color is central to my being, then those who do not share my skin color are categorized as different by my brain--whether I want my brain to do this or not.  And we only need a slight nudge toward tribalism...

The Gospel's Answer

Christianity proposes another answer--one that is much more difficult, but much more liberating and all encompassing.

The Christian answer begins with dying to self.  That's a hard thing to swallow because we love ourselves.  We do everything we can to preserve ourselves.  Evolution has bred us to look out for ourselves and protect everything about us--not only my physical self, but also my identity.  I am who I am, and no one is going to tell me to be otherwise!

Yet, Jesus says, "Find your identity in me.  Don't look to your race, gender, ethnicity, or social status.  Don't look to your wallet or your possessions.  Don't find your sense of self-worth in how many Facebook likes you get or in how many degrees you possess.  Find your worth, value, and identity in me."

St. Paul articulated this in brilliant fashion when he penned the words of Galatians 3:27-28, "For as many of you as are baptized in Christ Jesus have clothed yourself with Christ.  For there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  All of you are one in Christ Jesus."

The White Privilege Accusation

When my wife and I adopted our first daughter (who is bi-racial), I sat down to fill out my parochial report for my congregation.  As I contemplated the report, I became very uncomfortable.  You see, my denomination wants me (on the basis of my best judgement) to write down the racial/ethnic composition of my congregation.  As I looked at the places to fill in such categories, I unequivocally thought about my own family.  Do I look at my daughter and think, "Oh, she is bi-racial.  Her skin tone is black."?  NO.  UNEQUIVOCALLY, NO!!!!  I simply see her as my daughter.

The human brain only needs the slightest nudge to draw lines and act tribally...

I filled in the blank under "other" for the entire congregation.  I wrote in "Children of God."

I ended up in a heated discussion with someone in Chicago, IL where our church offices are located.  I was accused of having viewing the topic with white privilege and that "with all deference to St. Paul's theology, the Division for such and such requires these numbers."

So you are putting the Division for such and such ahead of the clear biblical witness?  Which one do you think I am going to listen to?

"You are speaking from a position of white privilege."

Now, I am going to go back to Nietzsche because Nietzsche was remarkable in his assessment of human nature.  He says we all seek our own will to power.  We don't, by default, seek the greater good.  We don't, by default, seek the betterment of society.  Nietzsche argues (and rather successfully since much of philosophy has been trying to deal with him for the last 100+ years) that we only seek things that have some direct benefit to ourselves.  It's a great understanding of original sin.

The claim that folks like myself are speaking from a position of white privilege is nothing more than a power play to lessen the force of a particular segment of society and increase the power of other voices within that same society.  In this case, the claim of white privilege places a priority on the voices of people of color (putting them into ascendance of power) while making secondary (putting them in a lower position) the voices of people labeled as "white."  It's a power play, plain and simple.

I expect to be soundly bashed for that comment, but I think I am on solid ground with my assertion.  The claim of white privilege allows society to continue to draw lines based upon skin color, and:

The human brain only needs the slightest nudge to draw lines and act tribally.

Toward a Solution

Christianity offers a pathway forward because of the nature of the Gospel.

The Gospel does not allow anyone to take the moral high road.  It does not allow anyone to place his or her race in a position of moral superiority or authority.  For Jesus died for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.

The Gospel also does not allow anyone to wallow in victim hood.  For the GOD OF THE UNIVERSE BOUGHT YOU WITH GREAT PRICE showing your immense value to Him.

These two things try to address something that society cannot touch: the heart.  For it is the heart which seeks power and privilege.  It is the heart which has selfish intentions, and it is these selfish intentions and desires for self-preservation that lead us to isolate ourselves from others and draw our boundaries.

The human brain only needs the slightest nudge to draw lines and act tribally...

But if those lines are destroyed because all have sinned.
And if those lines are destroyed because God's desire is to redeem all.

Then, no racial group can claim to be better than another with these two fundamental understandings.  There is something that cuts us down at the knees while at the same time building us up.  There is something that humbles us in our interactions with God and with one another without making us feel like we are worthless.

I simply cannot look at a person of a different color and see myself as better than him or her when I know that I was and am a sinner.  I cannot look at a person of a different color and see myself as somehow superior when I know that person is made in the image of God and clothed with the righteousness of Christ--the same garment I am clothed in!!!  I cannot see myself belonging to another group based upon ethnicity or skin color when all has been covered by Jesus.

And for those who are not part of the Christian faith, I am not commissioned to see them as anything less than fellow human beings who need to hear the Gospel just as much as I needed to hear it.

For certain the Church has not done a very good job of following through on the implications of the Gospel, but I believe part of this is due to the fact that we've forgotten the nature of that very Gospel.  But that is another topic for a later date.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What Can You See?

    Blindness can oftentimes be something much more than a physical disability.  I do not mean to be insensitive with this comment because there are those who are very near and dear to me who suffer with literal blindness and loss of sight.  I mean this to say that we all, and I mean all, miss things which are right in front of our noses.  These things can be very small and somewhat insignificant, but they can also be very damaging.

    For instance, this past week, I had a meeting scheduled on Wednesday with a representative of a company that sells playground equipment.  We had corresponded by email, and in her initial contact, she relayed to me the contact information she had for me–including the church’s phone number.  I hastily read through the email she sent, and replied setting up a meeting.  She said she would call me when she was arriving.  The appointed meeting time came and went.  No phone call.  After a period of time, I checked my email, and the sales rep said, “I waited for you for 30 minutes.  I tried to call the number I had for you, and all I got was a busy signal.  We can try again sometime later.”  She left her cell phone number, and I scratched my head.  Both Sam and I had been in the office, and no phone call had come.  I scrolled down to the bottom of the email correspondence, and I read the contact number she had for the church 979-854-5444.  Those of you who know the church number know now what the problem was.  The church’s number is 979-865-5444.  How had I missed this obvious mistake?  How had I overlooked it?  How is it that I had eyes but didn’t see?  Fortunately, I made contact with the sales rep.  She hadn’t gone too far, and we were able to meet.  However, my “blindness” almost prevented us from conducting the business we had scheduled and could have led to hard feelings.

    That one is minor.  Unfortunately, not all such blindness is minor.  There are other such things that are major.  When I was on internship in Waco, I remember vividly driving through town one evening.  Dawna and I were heading out to eat when we approached a stoplight.  The light turned red, and a truck ran through the light and hit a motorcycle–at least that’s what I saw.  The motorcyclist lay in the middle of the intersection, and people began rendering aid.  Dawna and I stopped as witnesses to the incident.  Police arrived, and I sought them out and gave a statement.  Then, a guy walks up and says, “What about my truck?”  Not only had the motorcycle been involved, but another vehicle had as well.  I never saw it–even though I saw it.  That added a whole other layer to the situation–which thankfully the police officer worked out. 

    I know I am not the only one this happens to.  I know most of you here this morning have had similar things happen.  You’ve been stopped at an intersection.  You’ve looked both ways.  You start easing off the break and driving forward only to see out of the corner of your eye a car coming.  You wonder, “How did I miss that?”  You work through paperwork on your job.  You glance over it several times, and someone still manages to find an error on it.  You are walking around in the grocery store looking for an item, and you walk by a section ten times.  Suddenly, you finally see it, and you wonder, “Am I going insane?” 

    No.  You and I are not going insane.  We just simply miss things.  Sometimes we are moving too fast or events are happening too fast around us.  Our brains cannot process the information our eyes see fast enough.  Gaps get automatically filled in.  We think we see it all, but in reality, we don’t.  We catch only in part, and our brains fill the rest in.  And it doesn’t just happen when we are at an intersection or in the grocery store or looking at an email or paperwork.  It happens in the rest of our lives as well.  Whenever we see a situation unfolding, our brains take all sorts of information and link them together filling in missing information–and here’s the kicker–based upon a particular set of assumptions that govern the way we view the world.

    Let me repeat that.  Our brains automatically fill in missing information and construct a way of looking at the world based upon a particular set of governing assumptions.  This is why two people can look at the same facts and come up with two very different ways of reading those two sets of facts.  Oh, and here is the icing on the cake–if new information is added that contradicts our original “story” we are more apt to disregard the new evidence and cling to our particular, original story.  Why?  Not because the facts are irrelevant, but because we have to change our assumptions.  We have to change the very foundation of the way we look at the world. 

    I know it may seem like I am talking way up here, but let me pull it into perspective by turning to our lesson this morning from Mark chapter 8.  As we work through this, I hope you will see what I am talking about:

    This text follows Jesus’ feeding of the 4000, an event that the disciples wanted nothing to do with because those gathered were Gentiles.  The disciples had a major assumption that God would restore the Kingdom of Israel through the work of the Messiah, and the Gentiles would kowtow to the Israelites.  The disciples believed that Israel mattered most in the eyes of God, and everyone else were second class citizens.  This is the same thing the Pharisees believed way back in Mark chapter 7 when they had forgotten the basic premise of the covenant that God made with Abraham–that the Jews would be blessed to be a blessing.  Jesus is working to unravel these assumptions, and He is having a difficult time.

    For right after the feeding of the 4000, Jesus and His disciples have another encounter with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees come to challenge Jesus, and they demand a sign.  Now, we need to be very careful here in understanding what is going on.  The Pharisees are not asking for another miracle.  They have witnessed some of Jesus’ miracles.  They have heard eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ miracles.  The Pharisees come up to Jesus and ask for a sameion–the Greek word for sign.  Mark uses the word dunamis in Greek to describe a miracle, so the distinction is very important.  You see the Pharisees wanted to know the source of Jesus’ power.  They wanted to know the source of His miracles, and they were asking for confirmation that God was working through Jesus.  In effect, the Pharisees are saying, “How do we know that you are from God.  Show us that you truly are from God.  Give us a direct signal from God that He is responsible for what you are doing.”

    Jesus sighs deeply.  It’s a sigh of indignation.  It’s a sigh of almost despair.  The Pharisees, who were religious leaders should have gotten it.  They should be able to see plainly that everything Jesus is doing is from God.  There is no need for any sort of sign, and Jesus says exactly that.  The language in the Greek is actually much stronger than the English translation we have before us.  Jesus essentially says, “If any sign is given to you, may I die!”  It’s really an interesting comment given what will eventually happen to Jesus, but I will get there in a little while.

    The Pharisees just don’t get it.  They are incapable of seeing God’s actions.  Their assumptions run too deep.  Their worldview is too entrenched, and they cannot even come close to seeing what Jesus is doing.  One of the commentators said it best, “...the unbeliever despite the evidence will always find grounds for unbelief, especially if believing means abandoning the familiar, the source of security.  For those who had the eyes of faith, Jesus’ ministry provided an ample “sign from heaven” of God’s confirming work.  For those blinded by unbelief no sign could adequately reveal the nature of Jesus words and work.”

    But it isn’t just the Pharisees who are having difficulty.  It isn’t just the Pharisees who are blinded by things.  The disciples are in that boat as well–literally and figuratively.  When Jesus and the disciples leave the Pharisees, Jesus turns to them and says, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod!” 

    The disciples are very dense here.  They fail to grasp what Jesus is trying to get across to them.  In one of those very curious responses, they say, “Oh, it’s because we forgot to bring bread.”  WHAT???

    How in the world does “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod” have anything to do with a lack of bread?  Maybe the disciples had heard just a few too many of Jesus’ teachings.  Maybe they were looking for all sorts of hidden meanings, but this one seems just a little too far fetched.

    Jesus, patiently tries to bring them around.  “You think I am talking about bread?  How many lunch boxes of bread did you take up after I fed 5000?”  The disciples say, “12.”  How many large baskets did you take up after I fed the 4000?  “Seven,” the disciples respond. 

    Jesus says, “And you still don’t get it?”  Mark leaves us hanging right there.  We don’t see the disciples response to this.  Maybe they do get it now.  Maybe they don’t.  One think we can see for certain is that Jesus isn’t talking about bread.  He is talking about something much more important.  Jesus can produce bread out of thin air.  He can take five loaves and provide for 5000.  He can take seven loaves and provide for 4000.  He can take that one loaf and provide for 13.  There is no issue here!!!  But there is an issue with being able to see.  There is an issue with trusting Jesus.  The disciples aren’t there yet.  They may be starting to see.   They are in the boat with Jesus, but they only see dimly!

    Which brings us to this next part of the text.  It is a very, very intriguing story.  It’s almost at the center of Mark’s gospel, and as I have studied it, I think it is a very, very important piece.  It is the healing of a man who is blind, but it is unlike any other healing we find Jesus doing.  No other Gospel has a healing like this, and most of the commentators I read, and I agree with them–is this healing is both a healing and a metaphor exposing the blindness of the Pharisees, the semi-sight of the disciples, and ultimately pointing to what can bring us sight.

    People bring to Jesus a man who is blind, and much like He did with the man who was deaf and tongue tied, Jesus takes the man away from the crowd.  Jesus spits in the man’s eye, lays His hands on him and then asks, “What do you see?”  This is the only time Jesus ever asks this question of someone He is healing.  Nowhere else does He ask such a thing.

    The man replies, “I see people, but they look like trees.”  Now, here is an interesting statement because it implies that the guy once was able to see.  He must have known what trees looked like at one time.  He must have known what people looked like at one time.  This is a restoration miracle, but it isn’t complete.  He cannot see clearly.  Did Jesus mess up?  No.  As I said earlier, there is a metaphor–a teaching taking place.   Why would I say this?  Who would the blind man have seen?  Who would be the men looking like trees?  The disciples.  The disciples must have been the ones the man saw who looked like trees walking around.  The disciples would have been the ones seeing this healing taking place in stages.  Jesus healing in this manner would hopefully be a lesson for them–a lesson about their own stages of belief, unbelief, blindness, and being able to see.

    Jesus then takes the man, lays hands on him once again, and then the man can see clearly.  Jesus doesn’t ask the man whether or not he can see.  Jesus knows He’s completed the task.  Jesus knows what He can do.  Jesus then orders the man to go home and not to tell anyone what has happened–once again to show that Jesus is not simply here to be a miracle worker.  He has a greater purpose.

    And what is that purpose?  We know that Jesus is here to redeem and save the world.  We know that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who has come to reconcile the world unto God by living the life we are supposed to live and dying the death we deserve.  We know Jesus is here to bring about salvation.  The Pharisees can’t see this at all.  They are blind.  The disciples have gotten a glimpse of this, but they don’t grasp it fully.  They are partially blind.  They can’t grasp it either–partially because their assumptions still have not been changed.  Next week, we will see this very clearly–no pun intended. 

    The Pharisees’ blindness, and the disciples’ blindness will not be fully cleared until their basic assumptions about who the Messiah is supposed to be are changed.  They will not be able to see Jesus for who He is until their very worldviews are shaken to the core.

    And we will not be able to see Jesus for who He truly is until our assumptions are shaken as well.  We will not be able to see what Jesus has done until our worldviews crumble and fall.  We will not be able to understand what it is like to see clearly until we take a journey with Jesus to the cross.  Next week is our youth service, so you will have to wait until the following Sunday to see how this is all brought about, but for today, we will have to stop here. 

    Let us pray.  Gracious God, you so loved the world that you sent your only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  You sent Him into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.  We have heard this good news.  We have heard of Jesus’ work, but for some reason, we remain blinded.  We still cannot seem to see but dimly.  We ask that in the next couple of weeks, you will work on our hearts and minds that we may one day see clearly.  Amen.