Monday, July 25, 2016

An Embarrasing Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

Change Your Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Scholar N.T. Wright helps us here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 11, 2016

A God Sighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Is Christianity Prejudiced?

Being a part of a mostly liberal denomination--The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I get exposed to quite a few interesting thoughts and ideas.

Recently, I was asked to edit a comment I made on Facebook because it came across as "mansplaining."  My first thought was, "What the hell is that?"  Turns out, it is a made up word by those who are combating the "patriarchy" who see certain comments as patronizing--especially if they are coming from a male.  Behind such wordplay is the assumption that we indeed live in a patriarchy where men dominate women; men are the oppressors of women; and where men have engineered a system to keep women oppressed even in their use of language. 

Such thinking is not unique to the third-wave feminist movement.  There are also such undertones in the sphere of race and identity in our culture.  The term "white-privilege" is bantered about quite a bit these days assuming that society is geared to privilege people with less melanin in their skin.  The very fabric of our society: how it is constructed; how it functions; its very foundational thoughts--are imbued to favor whites.  Therefore, as some have concluded, all white people are racist.

I firmly believe that if you think that all people of a certain gender, skin color, or sexuality are racist, sexist or what have you, then you are actually guilty of major prejudice.  Not bothering to get to know people on an individual basis, you have categorically made a "preconceived judgement or opinion."  You have not judged a person by the content of his or her character; rather, you have made your claim based upon that person's gender or skin color.  Such behavior is misguided at the least.  Evil at its worst. 

Such thoughts got me to thinking about the assumptions that govern Christianity.  Does Christianity make prejudicial statements about people?  Does Christianity assume things about others before getting to know those others?

Without a doubt.

Christianity claims "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."  All are infected with the disease of original sin.  (Original sin being an inherent selfishness and desire to be our own god of the universe into which all are born; all struggle with; and all have difficulty overcoming.) 

If I adhere to the historical understanding of the Christian faith, then I definitely pre-judge people in this manner.  Am I misguided at the least?  Evil at worst?

I might be, if I looked at the world through the lens of dichotomy: us/them; oppressor/oppressed; right/wrong.  For if I am a follower of Jesus who is "washed in the blood of the Lamb" and you are not, then I am better off than you are.  I know that I am saved.  I know that I am righteous unlike those who are still wallowing in their sins and condemned to everlasting punishment.

But historical Christianity does not allow me to look at the world this way.  Historical Christianity does not allow me to think of myself as better off than anyone.  For I too am guilty of original sin.  I too am guilty of an inherent selfishness.  I too am guilty of wishing to be god of my own universe.  I cannot set myself against anyone because I am just like the other.

Much of the rhetoric in liberal churches who buy into the oppressor/oppressed lens--translated into male/female; white/black; white/brown; white/insert whatever color you choose; straight/GLBTQ; ad infinatum--draw sharp distinctions between genders, races, and those with differing sexual orientation.  There is a definite dividing line for those who look at the world in this fashion.  One could literally accuse these folks of black/white thinking and be absolutely correct--even though most on this side of the fence claim to see the world in shades of gray.  Actually, they only see shades of gray when it is to their benefit--as do most people, including myself.

Historical Christianity has removed the dividing line.  All have sinned.  All are saved only and solely by grace.  That's the other part generally missing from the rhetoric these days.

Left up to human devices, there is never a leveling of the playing field.  There can only be societal upheaval which seeks to deconstruct systems and institutions and reconstruct them in a more equitable fashion.  Historically speaking, this is never going to happen.  Every single governmental and institutional structure has been shown to be wanting.  Every single governmental and institutional structure has shown to have major flaws.  None have been up to the task of creating a world of equality and egalitarianism.  None.  This is simply a historical fact whether you like it or not.  And all the legal wrangling we try will never get us there.  You cannot legislate a perfect society.  Even God tried that--at least if you take Scripture seriously.  It didn't work because we humans always find the loop holes.  We humans always interpret the law to our advantage.  What is needed is not more law, but complete changes of heart.

That is not accomplished by ourselves--or else we could claim to have an advantage over others.  "I changed myself.  You can too.  You must too.  You'd better too."  Historical Christianity claims that such change comes from God and His action through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Trusting that Jesus saved me means that I cannot claim any sort of superiority.  Trusting that Jesus saved me means that I cannot claim to have an advantage over anyone else.  Trusting that Jesus saved me means that I am incapable of demonizing another; seeing the other as less than human; or condemning the other based upon their actions or physical traits.  Jesus died for the other and saved the other just as He died for and saved me.

In much of liberal Christian thought "salvation" comes by recognizing my privilege and seeking to be in solidarity with those who are oppressed by such privilege.  "Salvation" comes by seeking to become like the other or in solidarity with the other.  In historical Christian thought, salvation comes through Jesus and then seeking to be like Him--dying to myself, my wants, and  my desires and living to the glory of God.  This means loving others including those who treat me wrongly.

Hence, I become prejudiced.  I see people as sinners.  I see them in need of the love of God through Jesus Christ.  But I do not condemn them or hate them because I am also prejudiced in seeing them as children of God and beloved by God. 

This is the prejudice of Christianity, and perhaps it is the prejudice we need more than ever in our society.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Honest Statistics About "Patriarchy"

Women make up only 4% of Fortune 500 CEO's

Women make up only 17% of Directors on Fortune 500 boards

Women make up only 18% of the House of Representatives

Women make up only 20% of the Senate

These statistics are often used to promote the idea of a male dominated society--the patriarchy.

Here are a few more:

Women make up 60+% of those now attending college.

Women make higher grades in college.

Women are twice as likely to be hired as a male when applying for a job in science or mathematics.

Women are likely to earn more than male counterparts in these same jobs.

Someone might like to point out that women make 78 cents for every dollar that men make.  However, this is not a good measure of the "pay gap" between men and women because it does not compare apples to apples.  It compares all jobs across all ages.  A better representation would be to take similar jobs with similarly qualified candidates and compare how each is paid.  When this is done, the "pay gap" shrinks to a minimum.

Here are a few more startling statistics:

Men make up 92% of all work related deaths.

Men make up 95% of the prison population.

Men make up 75% of those who attempt to commit suicide.

Men make up 60-70% of the homeless population.

If these numbers represented women, we would be outraged and be calling for societal change.  We would be declaring that society had declared a war upon women.  There is no societal war on women.  There is no societal war on men. 

There is definitely brokenness and need to dig deep to understand why.  But shrill cries and overlooking broad statistics in society does no one any good.