Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sermon: News So Good It's Scary

Mark 16:1-8

1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"
4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Everyone seems to be making speeches these days. I suppose it’s always like that, but in an election year it’s even worse. Some of the best speeches in history are the inaugural addresses, when most of the political posturing of the election season is over and presidents start talking about what they really want to do. As strange as it sounds, I was reading some inaugural addresses last week.

In George Washington’s first inaugural he declined to take a salary—he asked only to be paid the necessary expenses of his office.

William Henry Harrison complained that the vicious way parties treated each other—the ‘violence of spirit’, he called it—was doing harm to the nation. He said that in 1841. Incidentally, Harrison’s speech was the longest in history—about two hours long—and was delivered on a very cold, wet day. He got a severe cold and died 30 days later—the shortest presidency in American history.

One of the most famous inaugural addresses came at one of the more frightening times in modern history. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt addressed a nation in economic chaos, threatened by war and internal unrest. In the very first paragraph of the speech he said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ That became one of the most memorable lines in American history. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’

Of the four gospel stories of that first Easter morning, I’ve always liked the one we read today the best. Mark’s gospel is my favorite for a handful of reasons: for the emphasis on the Kingdom of God, for the clear call to discipleship that matters, and for the pace. Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry moves so quickly you can hardly catch your breath, and yet just when it almost becomes too much, he downshifts and tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with a great eye for detail.

But maybe what I love most about Mark’s gospel is the way he ends the story of the resurrection: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’ Isn’t that great? The best news anyone in the world has ever heard, and what was their response? They’re so scared they can’t even tell anyone about it.

Now there’s something about the text here that I should point out. Most of your Bibles will have another 11 verses to the story, separated by a line and some sort of explanation like: ‘The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.’ That should be a source of encouragement to all of us. The texts of the Bible work on the principle that older is better, and as older copies of the original texts are found, they correct some of the additions or errors of later copies.

That’s encouraging because it illustrates just how hard some men and women have worked to give us the most accurate and faithful translations of the Bible. Clearly some monk, working away to make copies of Mark’s gospel before the days of the printing press, was uncomfortable with the ending. He probably didn’t think it was fitting that the good news of Jesus Christ as told by Mark should end with people running scared out into the darkness.

But I like it like this. It feels more human to me—maybe more like I’d react to the miracle of the empty tomb. And regardless of how we feel about it, this is the more accurate reflection of what the original text looked like. So how did we get here?

We saw last week that Jesus entered the city being praised as a king, but that instead of leading an army to overthrow the Romans, he goes to the Temple and starts to challenge the Jewish leadership. Remember that part of Jesus’ message once he got to the city was to take on himself the symbolic meaning of the Temple. Instead of being able to say ‘That’s where my God lives,’ now they could say ‘That’s what my God is like.’ In Christ God made good on his promise to live with his people in a tangible way.

But it didn’t work out very well for him. Once his fans realized that he wasn’t going to overthrow Rome and take over as an earthly King, they turned on him and the same people who shouted Hosanna on Sunday were shouting ‘crucify him’ by Friday. Jesus was tried, beaten and executed, and his followers scattered. Their leader was gone. The one they thought would be God’s Messiah—the Deliverer—was dead and buried.

And so some of the faithful women among Jesus’ followers decided to take care of his body in the traditional way. It was the custom then to pour perfume and spices over a body just after burial—frankly, it didn’t have any ceremonial meaning apart from making the tomb smell better as nature took its course.

As they got closer the women started wondering about how they were going to get into the tomb—they’d seen the large stone rolled in front of the door, and they knew they couldn’t do it themselves. ‘Who would help’, they wondered as they chatted on the way. But when they got to the tomb they saw that the stone was gone, and when they went in they saw that it was empty—no body, no smell, no Jesus. Someone was there, though, dressed in white and waiting to explain what they were seeing. He said: ‘Don’t be alarmed.’ Right. ‘You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth—the one who was crucified.’ Again the detail just so that we’re sure they haven’t gone to the wrong place. ‘He has risen. He’s not here.’

Can you imagine the shock? It’s impossible for us to grasp what that moment must have felt like. The years of following Jesus and listening to his teaching. The personal cost of leaving families and businesses and homes. The danger of following someone who was preaching about a new kingdom in an occupied territory. The disastrous visit to Jerusalem and the horrible death on a cross. All of that must have come back into their minds as they confronted one more catastrophe: Someone had stolen Jesus’ body.

But just to make sure they understood what had happened, the messenger told them to find Peter, to tell him and the other disciples what they had seen. Their response was completely understandable. You can’t really blame them. They ran away from the tomb—they didn’t tell anyone what they saw, because they were afraid.

We all have things we’re afraid of: War—Terrorism—Maybe the financial crisis? We have all kinds of fears—Julie will wilt at the sight of a spider—some people can’t stand the sound of thunder and lightning.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—known as the DSM to psychologists and therapists—arranges phobias into three main categories: agoraphobia (fear of open places), social phobias (or, anxiety disorders) and specific phobias (where a particular creature or thing causes a wave of panic and fear)—about 15% of adults suffer from some form of clinically recognized fear.

We can be afraid of so many things. What were they afraid of when they found the empty tomb?

They may have thought that the body had been stolen. There was some talk of this at the end of Matthew’s gospel—no one wanted anything to happen to the body—everyone just wanted it to stay put.

They may have thought they were all still in danger for having been his followers. Jesus’ death had pretty much ended the hostility toward his followers—there was really nothing to do to them if their leader was dead and gone.

Both of these first two options presume that Jesus was dead…for good.

But maybe, just maybe, they were afraid that it had all been true.

We don’t usually explore this part of the story, but it’s possible that the people around Jesus felt a little bit of relief at the loss of Jesus. The loss just made them like any other misguided person who thought they’d found the Messiah—sad but safe.

And that explains why they may have felt a wave of fear at his resurrection. The resurrection meant that the rest of Jesus’ teaching also had to be confronted and dealt with, and that was made them afraid. They go to the tomb to dress Jesus’ body, only to have the messenger say: “You’re looking for a dead guy. He’s not here. There’s no one here who fits that description.”

The news is so good, it’s terrifying.

What’s so scary about the empty tomb? For the last stage of his ministry Jesus had tried to explain to his followers that he was the Messiah, sent from God to offer grace and forgiveness to anyone who would listen and believe. He also said that in order to accomplish that he would have to suffer and die, but also that he would rise again on the third day.

I don’t think they ever fully believed him. I don’t think they could even begin to conceive that God would do that—ask his son to give his life so that others could fully live. We struggle with that, too, don’t we? People ask me pretty regularly why Jesus had to die. Now there are some classical answers to that question that have to do with God’s holiness and perfection, and the need for someone to pay the price for the sin of all people. That’s the ‘A’ answer on the theology exam, and I believe in some mysterious way that it’s true.

But I also think that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is meant to teach us something about who God is and how much he loves us—that there is something we’re supposed to learn and live from that image of someone taking on pain and punishment that didn’t belong to him. Stories of sacrifice mean something to us—they affect us and impress us and stir up our hearts as we plow through our days.

David Landsborough was a medical missionary to Taiwan in the early 1900s. He and his son built one of the first teaching hospitals in that part of the world—they trained hundreds of medical doctors who saved countless lives—the hospital is still there.

In 1928 a young country boy came to the hospital with an infection on his leg. No matter what they tried they couldn’t stop it, and so they decided to try what was then a new treatment—a skin graft. The problem was that there wasn’t anyone there who was willing to be the donor—the treatment was new enough for the doctors, it sounded bizarre and extreme to the local people. In the end Dr. Landsborough’s wife Marjorie offered to be the donor, and in the end she gave four grafts which saved the boy’s life. He went on to become a Presbyterian minister and leader in Taiwan.

That story resonates with us, doesn’t it? It was a selfless, sacrificial act—literally giving of herself—that saved someone’s life. Christ’s death on the cross was a selfless, sacrificial act that offers salvation to the entire world. He gave himself so that we could be reconciled to God in a meaningful way—that’s it, that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.

And yet I know that’s so hard to swallow in our contemporary culture. How did all of this happen? And does it really mean what Jesus says it means?

This Easter I want to invite you to think about this in a different way. Instead of getting hung up on what we know or think we know about science, and on what our modern minds say about the idea of a resurrection, let try something different.

If we, just for a moment, let ourselves focus not so much on how this happened, but on why, we might find a side door into the life of faith.

From the very beginning of the Bible God has shown us that he loves us and wants nothing more than to have us close to him. But the bonus is that it’s not just so we can know him, but also that we become the kind of people who would share his blessings with the rest of the world. God’s gift of life comes with a calling attached, a calling to be Christ-like people in a world that doesn’t see much of that happening at all.

But why did God do all of that? Why go through it? The answer is simply because he loves us. We can complicate it all we want, but the truly amazing—truly frightening answer to the question of why God acted so dramatically in the cross and the resurrection is that he loved us too much to do anything less. I think that’s what scared those first few followers who saw the empty tomb. I think that’s what scares most of us about being disciples of Jesus today.

Isn’t it possible that we’re more scared that the Gospel might be true, than we are that it might not? If it’s true then there’s an amazing gift with our name on it—the gift of new life in Jesus Christ. If it’s true, there’s a calling on our lives to live as people who have received a gift of love that we can barely comprehend.

John 3:16 sums it up in one glorious sentence: God loved us so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes will never die, but have everlasting life. In the midst of the flowers and chocolate bunnies and eggs, never forget that this is God’s real Happy Easter card to us.

Sometimes parts of the Christian faith are too much for us to understand or hold on to. In those times it’s often the music that does the heavy-lifting of helping us grasp and feel the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. In the song we’re about to hear, it’s God’s love for us that comes out. God’s love that experiences death so that we can have life.

Love crucified, arose
The One who lived and died for me
Was Satan's nail-pierced casualty
Now He's breathing once again
Love crucified, arose
And the grave became a place of hope
For the heart that sin and sorrow broke
Is beating once again.

Listen for the good news. And try not to let it scare you. Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A County London

I've been a little wrapped up in prepping for Easter, and I never got to post these pictures. We went to a part of London called Spittalfields to see a gathering of local farm displays...fruits and vegetables, baked things, some interesting meat products. Here are some shots of our visit.

Ian met some very tall chefs.
Some amazing things on display.
This is a selection of rabbits and wood pigeons ready to cook. We decided to pass.
This looked so good, but we had just eaten a roast beef sandwich.
This looked, well, less than good. It was much easier to pass on this.
The biggest pile of brownies I've ever seen. No further comment needed.
Ian learned how to spin yarn (as opposed to yarns), out of raw wool.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Palm Sunday: ‘Le Temple, c’est moi’

Mark 11:1-11 and 12:28-34

ACL's Kids on Palm Sunday

On Thursday I taught the Religious Education component on Christianity for three different Year 3 classes at my son’s school. They gave me a copy of the curriculum for the Christianity unit, and I went in prepared to talk about how Jesus was the founder of Christianity, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and some of the popular stories from the Bible that I thought they would like. I talked about how Jesus had a group of friends called disciples, who were also his students. I talked about how he loved everyone, even his enemies, and how he loved to eat. Have you noticed how many stories about Jesus take place around a meal? I finished by talking about how much Jesus liked kids—how he let them talk—how he let them help with his miracles—how he said that kids understood best how to have faith.

Mostly I wanted to present an honest image of Christianity without offending anyone or embarrassing Ian in front of his schoolmates.

I started by introducing myself, and because I knew they’d already had some teaching on Jesus and Christianity, I asked if they had any questions to start off with. Almost every kid raised their hand. I started calling on kids…

The first one asked: What does it mean to be the Light of the World?
The second asked: How is Jesus the son of God?
A little girl looked me in the eye and asked: Did it hurt when Jesus was crucified?

Did I say these were the first three questions they asked me?

I pretty much disregarded most of my notes from that point on and we dealt with some of the deeper questions about the Christian faith. What these kids were asking for was a way to understand what they’d learned in their Religious Education unit in their class. What they were really asking was a crucially important question: Who is this Jesus?

Mark 12:28-34

28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
29"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
32"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
34When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Just to put our story in context: We’ve been talking about the pace of Mark’s gospel, how Jesus seems to move so quickly from place to place. That’s the way it was for the first 10 chapters of this book, but now that we’ve come to Jerusalem, the last six chapters slow down quite a bit—there’s so much detail here about Jesus’ teaching and ministry and time with his friends. One writer talked about the first 10 chapters as an extended introduction or prologue for the real story Mark wanted to tell—the Passion story that takes us from Palm Sunday to the Garden of Gesthemane to the Cross and finally to the empty tomb.

In the chapter and a half before our text this morning Jesus has been very busy. We saw last week how Jesus healed Bartimaeus, how he gave him a new sense of vision both physically and spiritually. Right after that Jesus entered Jerusalem and the crowd went wild: they were cheering, waving branches around and singing lines from the Psalms. Hosanna—blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! The people were convinced that Jesus had come to overthrow Rome, to drive the corruption away and let them enjoy the Promised Land again.

In the very next paragraph Jesus is in the Temple, overturning tables and throwing the merchants out. In fact, almost all of his teaching in Jerusalem was aimed at the people of Israel, not at Rome—at the ones who were supposed to know better, the ones who had forgotten their first love. Within 5 days many of the same people who were cheering Jesus when he entered the city—in just 5 days many of them were calling for his crucifixion.

So what’s happening in our story?

Jesus entered the city and after roughing up the businesses in the Temple courts, he started teaching there; he fielded questions on all kinds of things:

about his own authority,
about politics and taxes,
about the nature of marriage

One of the teachers of the Law liked what he heard from Jesus, so he threw in one of his own questions; the teacher appreciated Jesus’ answers, and Jesus liked his response. Jesus ended the exchange: ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God’, meaning, ‘you’re close to understanding the limitless nature of me.’

I love it that Jesus enjoyed the conversation with the guy who was asking the questions. Like the kids at Ian’s school, he was probing and working and searching for the answer to one big question: Who is this Jesus?

Every so often it’s good for us to stop and think about that same question: Who is Jesus? We call him the Promised One, the Son of God. In some of our worship language we refer to him as The Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. At a deeper level we believe that Jesus represents The very presence of God with us, side by side with us, the Word made flesh. We talk about all of those titles and identities of Jesus, but what do they mean?

As we think about the meaning of Jesus we need to remember the meaning of the Temple, of God’s gift of his presence. The Temple was God’s way of giving his people a visible, tangible way of experiencing him on a regular basis. It was where people worshipped, where they went to offer sacrifices for forgiveness, where they went to share in the journey of faith with other fellow travelers.

Last week the New York Times ran a story about The Global Seed Vault in Norway. More than 150 meters under the permafrost is a huge storage vault where seeds for food crops are stored—just in case some natural or human-made disaster destroys the world’s food supply. The vault is designed to survive earthquakes, and bomb blasts. It has a state-of-the-art temperature control system so everything is perfectly preserved. No one person has all of the codes needed to get in or out. It’s an amazing place—the article called it a massive backup hard drive, in case some event causes the world to forget how to feed itself.

The Temple in Jerusalem functioned in a similar way from the people of Israel. It had evolved from a place where God’s people could worship and learn and share, into a place where God was kept frozen, protected and hidden from the rest of the world.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem and confronted the moneychangers and the temple leadership and anyone else in that holy place who detracted from his message, he was shifting the focus of an entire community of faith from a building to himself.

NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, said that “when Jesus came to Jerusalem there was bound to be a confrontation between himself and the Temple. The city was simply not big enough for the two of them to coexist.” It was Jesus’ destiny, not the Temple’s, “to sum up Israel’s long history in himself.”

If the Temple was God’s way of giving his people a place that they could point to and say ‘My God lives right there,’ then Jesus took it one huge step further and became the person we can point to and say ‘That’s what my God is like.’

But what was he like? Or, more importantly, what did he want from his people?

I mean, the people back then sure didn’t seem to be all that happy with them. They seemed pretty disappointed in him—like God had tricked them with a little bait and switch maneuver. He promised them a King, and what they got was, well, nothing like any king they’d ever known.

But the Jesus they got was the only one who could help them complete the mission God had for them in the beginning. I know I’ve said this a handful of times, but it needs to be repeated whenever we talk about the people of Israel. God called them not because they had earned some special place, but because God wanted to do something special through them. And what was that special job?

To be a blessing to all nations. To communicate God’s blessing to all the people of the world.

And how were they supposed to accomplish the task of being that blessing? By doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Or as the teacher of the Law answered Jesus: To love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as our self.

Israel had let itself get blinded by the fact that they had the Temple—God’s dwelling place—right in their neighborhood. They treated it like that deep freeze seed vault—a place where life was to be locked away and secured—a place where the seeds of life were to be kept hidden and safe and protected. They forgot that they were supposed to take that message to the rest of the world. They forgot that they were supposed to live that message where they were. And since Rome was occupying their country, they started thinking of the Messiah as a military leader who would throw Rome out so they could enjoy the Temple for themselves again.

Jesus took the focus off of the building and put it on himself. The good news was transformed from being about a place to being about a person. That’s what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Jesus becoming human, flesh and blood, and a way for us to experience God in person.

What does that mean for us? What are we supposed to understand now about the meaning of Jesus:

First, we should understand that Jesus’ earthly ministry was a part of a plan, a long process of God wanting to live with his people so that they could know him and worship him and serve him in faith.

Second, we can never get away from the calling on each of us to be a blessing to other people because of the gift of God’s presence in our lives. Being a blessing to all the nations means helping the poor, taking care of the sick, looking out for widows and orphans. In short, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

But most importantly, grasping some part of the meaning of Jesus leads naturally to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ freely and honestly, struggles and all, with the people with know and love and encounter in our lives. The meaning of Jesus isn’t supposed to be locked away, like those seeds in that frozen vault. The point of Jesus’ ministry once he entered Jerusalem was to teach us that God’s presence wasn’t locked in one place—that the message of the gospel wasn’t limited by a building or ethnicity or gender or national boundary. In this community of faith every single person has the full message of the gospel in their hands.

As we move into this final week before the celebration of the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, my prayer for this church is that we’ll step out in faith, ask hard questions, listen for God’s answers, and share the message of life with the people we know.

For Christ’s sake, and in his name. Amen.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Vision Thing

Mark 10:46-52

‘Watch where you’re going!’ is a familiar phrase to parents, to drivers, and to anyone else who has to negotiate this busy city. ‘Watch where you’re going’ is what we say to our kids, to people on the Tube or sidewalks or anywhere else we try to squeeze too many bodies into too little space. It’s a phrase we use for people who are moving but not paying attention to where they’re going.

Last week I read that in Brick Lane, one of the narrowest busy streets in London, thousands of people each year are injured by walking into lampposts while texting. Apparently the situation is so serious that the local government was asked to come up with a solution, so here’s what they decided to do.

They put pads on the lampposts.

Really. The solution to this problem of inattention—of people not watching where they’re going—wasn’t to remind them to pay attention, or to let them whack their heads until they learned, or even to tax them for each attention-deficit-impact. They decided to cushion the obstacles so that people wouldn’t have to change their behavior at all.

46Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
48Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
49Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they called to the blind man, "Cheer up! On your feet! He's calling you." 50Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, "Rabbi, I want to see."
52"Go," said Jesus, "your faith has healed you." Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

So Mark is continuing his rapid fire story of Jesus’ ministry—Jesus is going places, constantly, moving from town to town as he taught and healed and announced the message of the Kingdom of God. Our story today wraps up a transitional section just before Jesus enters Jerusalem. He’s been preparing his disciples for his death, and typically they haven’t done a very good job of understanding what it means to be a disciple. Just before our story, James and John sparked a full-scale argument among the Twelve over who would get to sit next to Jesus in heaven. Think about that. And yes, you’re right, that’s just about the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard.

Jesus' response was to remind them being great in the values of the Kingdom meant being, well, small. The way of the slave was the way of greatness in the Kingdom, and just to make his point, Jesus told them that even he came not to be served but to serve and to be a ransom for many.

In our story Jesus is moving in and out of Jericho with his disciples and the crowds. Bartimaeus would have been a familiar sight back then—blind, poor, begging by the side of a busy road. He was truly helpless and vulnerable—I looked up services for the blind just here in the Greater London area, and found more than I could count. But there was nothing for Bartimaeus back then—the only way he could survive was to beg, and so that’s where we find him in our text.

Bartimaeus uses some important code language in our text. He calls Jesus the ‘Son of David’, showing that he believed Jesus to be the promised Messiah. He says ‘Have mercy on me’, which was a line lifted right out of the Psalms, and he calls Jesus ‘Rabboni’ instead of simply ‘Rabbi’. It was the difference between calling him ‘teacher’ and calling him ‘Lord and master’.

The crowd in our story plays a part here as well. They must have thought they were pretty important—led by the disciples who were still quibbling about who got to sit next to Jesus, they were on their way to take over Jerusalem, they thought, and they didn’t have time for any beggars—for any people in need. Even after Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come, the crowd taunts him and basically dares him to go and meet Jesus.

But still, Bartimaeus isn’t going to be denied his chance to meet Jesus. And when he comes face-to-face with the one who he believes to be the Messiah, he makes a simple request: ‘Master’, he said, ‘I want to see.’

Now this may sound strange, but Bartimaeus has a few things in common with Indiana Jones. Jones is the hero of a series of movies where a dashing archaeologist (there’s a combination of words you don’t hear very often)—an archaeologist goes off in search of various artifacts and treasures. Now I realize this is an unlikely comparison—Indiana Jones is strong while Bartimaeus is the very essence of weakness and vulnerability. Jones is an action hero, while the man in our story is sitting by the side of the road.

But there are some similarities that matter for us today. In the third film Jones is looking for the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, because it was supposed to have healing powers. Like most people on a quest, he was devoted to finding what he was looking for. He also had a book of clues to guide him along the way. Finally, in order to find what he was looking for he had to make a leap of faith—at one point he comes to a steep cliff and has to step out in faith to make a bridge appear.

Bartimaeus—blind or not—had spent his life looking for the Messiah. The Hebrew scriptures, with their prophecies and promises, acted as his book of clues. And in the end, in order to meet the one he’d been waiting for, he had to stand up and push his way through an angry crowd he couldn’t see—a true leap of faith.

The key point in our text is found in the two phrases that act as bookends here. First we see Bartimaeus ‘sitting by the side of the way’, and at the end he joins Jesus ‘on the way.’ What made the difference?

The difference was vision, both literally and in a deeper, more important sense.

Being able and willing to see Jesus and his call on our lives is a turning point for each one of us. Seeing who Christ is and where we’re going because of that is one of the most important things we can do—the most important gift we can receive.

That’s where Brick Lane has it backwards. Putting cushions on lampposts doesn’t help anyone do a better job of seeing where they’re going. It just masks the problem without offering anything in the way of a solution. The life of discipleship is about seeing: about seeing who we serve, and about seeing where we’re going because of him.

So what does this mean for us?

For individuals and for churches, true vision—focusing on Christ and on the calling he puts on our lives—true vision is the engine of faithful discipleship. That’s the meaning of Jesus in this passage. It was more than just a physical healing, which was great just by itself, especially for Bartimaeus. But it was more than that. It was about seeing Jesus for who he really is, and being willing to let that change the way we live: the way we treat people, the way we spend our money, the way we pray, and the way we give our time. Faithful discipleship is driven by clear vision—that’s the point of this message today.

How do we get that vision, or improve our sense of vision both as individuals and as a community of faith?

First, there’s no getting around the value of study and reflection here. Spending time reading, studying, and talking about the Bible is an important part of growing into spiritual maturity. Learning to see Christ in the Scriptures, in each other, and working in our lives is how we grow as disciples. At this church we have been wrestling with important questions about how our faith interacts with other religion in our adult Sunday School class every morning at 9:45. This Thursday we’ll complete a four-week study of what the Bible has to say about social justice. There are some great resources available on the church’s website to help in the process of deepening our knowledge and our experience of the Christian faith.

Second, after the service today we’re going to elect a new group of Council members. The Council here is tasked with working with me to develop and implement a vision for ministry at this church. It’s a very challenging and important job, because it provides the administrative foundation for the work we do together in this place. The outgoing Council members deserve an enormous debt of gratitude from all of us for managing this church during several years of transition, and the new Council members coming in will build on that to set the course for what the American Church can be going forward.

Finally, as we all enter into this adventure of developing a sense of vision for our individual lives and as a community of faith, I believe that we find that most clearly and deeply through service. We get a sense of who Christ is when we act as his Body in small ways and large ways. This church is the Body of Christ for this time and place, and we experience that through learning new ways to serve each other and this community.

Just to close: As we develop our ability to see the world and our place in it through Christ’s eyes, some things become clear.

First, a new sense of focus on Christ will change some things. Having a new vision without letting it change how we plan and what we do wouldn’t be worth the effort. I’m looking forward to seeing how a new sense of focus on Christ will set a new direction for us as individuals and as a church.

Second, it’ll be important to remember that in the real world there aren’t any pads on the lampposts—you have to watch where you’re going. We’re going to step out in faith and try some new things over the coming year, but they’re not all going to work. Sometimes we’ll bump into things, but the answer to that is not to strap little pillows to things so we can avoid any pain. The answer is to learn from our mistakes and move on with faith and wisdom and do it better the next time.

Finally, as we continue the process of trying to be Christ’s church, with Christ’s vision for what that can be, we can always fall back on Micah 6:8 if we’re at a loss for what to do. People came to Micah and asked him what they should be doing to demonstrate their faith and sense of vision, and he gave them three things to focus on: the do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Stalin, Calvin, Pope Benedict and the Cross

Joseph Stalin said that a single death was a tragedy, but the death of millions was a statistic. There are a lot of ways to describe that comment—cynical, evil, sobering, and all the worse because it’s true. We hear a story about a single death from illness or accident and our humanity feels the pain. We react as people who value life, who empathize with those who grieve, and who mourn the loss of an individual person, never to be repeated. But when something huge happens that causes death in quantity, we will see it as an abstraction—a trend, a catastrophe, or something we can’t begin to comprehend. I say all of that because I read something in the paper today that shook me up.

A hundred Palestinians have died in the last five days.

Hamas-led individuals have been firing rockets into Israeli communities from Gaza, and Israel has counterattacked with airstrikes. I can sympathize with them. Those rocket attacks are cowardly and cynical acts themselves—painted as defensive actions from otherwise peace-loving freedom fighters, they are really attempts to provoke Israel into doing something stupid and further eroding the world’s support for their right to exist. Unfortunately the attacks have worked precisely as planned. Israel has overreacted and—taking one of the darker pages from the Hamas playbook—disregarded the distinction between terrorist and civilian targets.

Now I have friends and family members who read this blog who are supporters of Israel, some so strongly that nothing Israel does can ever be seen as wrong or in error. That’s too bad, because the inability to criticize your friends (or yourself) functions as a rather large fan on the flames of too many conflicts in the world right now. Israel had a reasonable right to defend itself, but exercised that right poorly and indiscriminately. And so in retaliation for sporadic (and inexcusable) rocket attacks, a hundred Palestinians, among them many children, have been killed.

John Calvin wrote that when conducting military action, leaders were to “guard against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree.” They should not, he continued, “be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity. (Bk. 4, Ch. 20:12)” Now it’s important to remember here that Calvin was no pacifist. This teaching on restraint, very honestly, comes within a longer section devoted to making the case for war when necessary. But the call to restraint is critical—Calvin set the bar very high for validating the use of force. In the same essay Calvin warns against allowing “private affection,” our personal dislikes and prejudices, to start or guide the prosecution of war. Leaders who allow their personal biases to dehumanize their enemies will “wickedly abuse their power, which has been given them not for their own advantage, but for the benefit and service of others.” Indeed they will.

I write this because on Sunday, as various condemnations of Israel were flying in from all over the world, Pope Benedict made this statement in a sermon: “Only by showing absolute respect for human life, even if it is that of your enemy, can one hope to give a future of peace and coexistence to both of those peoples who have their roots in the Holy Land.”

It simply can’t be said any better than that.

While governments threw around official statements which made it clear which side they supported in the present conflict, the Pope reminded us that there’s a higher value, a better way than that. Christ called us to love our enemies, as much as I wish he hadn’t, and if that’s the case then we have to take seriously the call to show “absolute respect for human life.” The irony here (that’s what we call contradictions when we’re trying to be polite), is that the people who are most likely to champion the rights of the unborn are also the least likely to value the lives of those born into cultures we now call enemies. That’s too bad, because there’s an opportunity here to model and teach Christ’s way, to show the world that forgiven people behave differently toward one another, born or not, and also toward their enemies.

The Jewish faith, which is the cultural foundation of the modern Israeli state, lacks a central story of sacrificial love for the enemy. The promised Messiah has typically been seen as one who would wield power, crush enemies, and re-establish Israel’s place at the top of the cultural food chain. The day we celebrate as Palm Sunday is the marker for the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity on this specific point. More than Christmas, Good Friday and Easter put together, Palm Sunday, when Jesus marched into Jerusalem and decided not to take over, is when Judaism decided to reject Jesus as the Messiah. The lack of a sacrificial story means that modern Israel continues to be driven by the need to extract an eye for an eye, to avenge every wrong no matter what.

I suppose that’s what struck me about what Calvin and the Pope had to say about the current situation. Calvin set the bar so high that only the most careful and even-tempered among us would ever presume to wage war—the vast majority of us are far too prone to “headlong anger” and “implacable severity.” The Pope, though, recognizing the difficulty of waging war with restraint, set the bar—as Jesus did—out of sight. Showing “absolute respect for human life, even if it is that of your enemy,” is the radical inheritance we have received because of the sacrificial love story we tell every year at this time.

Christ on the cross changes everything, from how we live and spend and worship, to how we treat our enemies. Christ on the cross was meant for the handful of Israelis who died from Hamas rockets, and also for the hundred or so Palestinians who died as a result. Christ on the cross—one tragic death—calls us to keep from seeing deaths by the batch as abstractions.

Christ on the cross changes everything.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Meaning of Jesus: Apprentices for the Kingdom

Mark 8:34-35

Last week the records of British soldiers who had earned medals in WWI went online. You can pay a small fee and search the names of thousands of soldiers who distinguished themselves somehow in that terrible war. You can see scanned images of field reports, official citations, and sometimes even pictures of the actual ribbons and medals.

Military history has always been a hobby of mine. I love the detail of the photographs and documents. I wonder what it would have been like to serve during those times. When I stop to think about it I’ll usually offer a quiet prayer of thanks that I never had to fight or kill or die in one of the wars we’ve seen over the last century.

One of the things you notice in the records of military bravery is the ordinariness of the people who distinguish themselves. They come from all walks of life—all kinds of backgrounds. Most are young—in their teens or twenties. They left their farms and factories and families and went off to serve in places with names they may not have known before they landed there with a gun. But somehow, with the burden of their duties and orders on their backs, these soldiers showed courage and made sacrifices that most of us will never know.

With that in mind, and as we continue to explore the meaning of Jesus in these weeks before Easter, our text for this morning is from Mark’s gospel, 8:34-35.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

This story comes at a crucial point in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been traveling through the countryside, preaching and healing and trying to prepare his disciples for the ministry they’ve taken on. Typically for Mark’s gospel, the pace has been frantic—Jesus goes somewhere immediately, then suddenly moves to another place, only to do something else immediately again. Mark has Jesus running around Galilee from place to place for chapters at a time, so when he stops to teach them something you know it’s important.

Right before our story, though, Jesus starts a very important conversation with his disciples. Naturally, they’re walking to get someplace at the same time—the text says “on the way Jesus asked them: ‘Who do people say that I am?’” The disciples fumble around for an answer until Peter looks Jesus in the eye and says “You are the Christ.”

Now 2000 years later we tend to think of ‘Christ’ as Jesus last name, right? His name is Jesus Christ, that’s what we read in the Scriptures. It’s important to clarify the translation here just a bit. ‘Christ’ is simply the Greek word for ‘Messiah.’ When Peter calls Jesus the Christ, he’s naming him as the Messiah, the promised one of God, the focus of Israel’s hope for centuries. That’s different than just tagging Jesus with a new surname. Peter is confessing that this Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for all along.

That’s important because once Jesus knows that the disciples understand who he really is, Jesus starts to prepare them for his suffering and death. When he starts teaching them these things, Peter takes him aside—literally, that’s what it says. Peter interrupted Jesus, pulls him over to the side of the room and—brace yourself—argues with Jesus about whether or not this needed to happen. You gotta love Peter. One minute he recognizes that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the savior of the universe, God himself, and in the next paragraph Jesus calls Peter Satan and tells him to shut up.

That’s when Jesus called the whole crowd to him—this wasn’t just for the twelve leaders, what he was about to say was for everyone, great and small, young and old—for the everyday soldiers—the ordinary people. He calls them around and says: “If anyone would come after me, that person must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

Now there are a couple of things to notice in this text.

First, some people make a big deal about the fact that Mark has Jesus using the image of the Cross before the crucifixion. But you have to understand the context of this story. Jesus is moving around with his twelve disciples and thousands of followers in a country that was being occupied by the Roman army. The entire region was under the domination of Rome, and the punishment for resisting that power was death on a cross. For Jesus to use that image—even before it became a reality for him—was his way of saying that following him meant giving up your allegiance to anyone else—to any other power. They’d seen the crucifixions by the side of the road—the Romans were good at getting the maximum out of a public execution—they’d seen crucifixions before, and they knew what Jesus was saying.

Second, like I said before, this is not one of the teachings that were limited to the 12 disciples. Jesus called the crowd to him—this could have been thousands of people. In the chapter right before this he fed 4000 people, so they were probably still hanging around waiting to see what he would serve for his next meal. So by calling the crowd around him Jesus makes it clear that this passage about denying ourselves and taking up the cross is directed at anyone who would call themselves a Christian.

This is really a call to an apprenticeship. There have been apprentices for as long as there have been skilled workers who pass their craft down to the next generation. Historically the apprenticeship process includes several steps.

A skilled craftsman takes someone under their care.
The apprentice follows/watches/learns the work of the master.
Eventually the apprentice becomes a journeyman, taking on
apprentices of his own.

The point of this text is that each of us is called to take on some of the calling, some of the ministry, some of the sacrifice that Christ made for this world and this church.

There’s a story that all ministers tell about a guy in a storm who goes up on his roof to escape the flood. He prays to God in the midst of the storm—he prays to be rescued. While he’s praying a large log bumps into the house, but the guy ignores it. After that another guy in a boat comes up and offers him a ride. He turns him down and goes back to his prayer. Finally a helicopter lowers a rope to him but he waves it off, saying, “God will rescue me, I know he will.” Eventually the man is swept away by the flood. When he gets to heaven he marches up to God and says: “I prayed for you to rescue me—why didn’t you come and help?” God responds by saying: “I sent a log, a boat and a helicopter. What else did you want me to do?”

Now if you take that story and turn it sideways, it illustrates the truth that God uses people to provide his help to other people in need. All of us can be paralyzed by waiting for God to do something out of a Hollywood movie, we can be so blinded by that that we miss the chance not just to receive his help, but also to be the instruments of his help and comfort and rescue to a world that needs it badly. The belief that everything has to come directly from God, from the central authority, is a way of avoiding the call to take up Christ’s cross and get on with the work of being his disciples.

In the Guardian last week Simon Jenkins lamented the lack of help and leadership that people provide for each other in Britain today. Too much depends on the central government, and that has a negative effect on life in this country. “Of all the nationalizations in British history,” Jenkins said, “none has been so corrosive of the public good as the nationalization of social responsibility.”

Christ’s call to take up his cross is a call to be socially and spiritually responsible, to be his present, visible, sacrificial representatives here, in our homes, in our offices and in our neighborhoods and schools. This is a call to be the face of Christ wherever we go and wherever we are. But what does that face look like? What can we do to represent Christ in our lives and to other people? Last week we talked about Micah 6:8, about how the call on each person’s life is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. This week we can look back on another passage from the Old Testament, one that Jesus chose to describe his own ministry: Isaiah 61.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim freedom for the captives,
And release from darkness for the prisoners,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

It’s nice when we get a clear list, isn’t it? These passages are central to what we’ve been talking about in our Thursday evening studies on what the Bible teaches about justice. The focus of the videos we’ve seen and the passages we’ve read together have been on the call God gives to each person to be an agent of God’s justice in the world—the calling on each one of us to be an enemy of injustice and oppression.

When Jesus looks out at the crowd around him and invites them to take up his Cross, this is what he meant.

Know that I have come to bring good news to all people.
Take up my calling to bring justice and peace to the world.
Don’t let Rome, or any part of the culture, take my place as Lord.
Know that this apprenticeship is hard and frightening and dangerous.
As you grow you’ll make apprentices…disciples…of your own in my name.

There’s a lot of talk during Lent about what we’re giving up. I know some have decided to go without bread or sugar or caffeine or wine—often times, if we’re honest, what we choose to go without during Lent is as much about us as it is about reflecting on Christ’s sacrifice—New Year's and Lent are popular times of year to start new diets. That kind of self-denial is very different from what we see in our passage this morning.

To engage in a little self-denial isn’t the same as denying oneself. One is about going without something, and the other is about putting someone else’s needs—someone else’s plan—before our own. That’s what Christ gave to us, and it’s the life he calls us to in response.

One author wrote on this passage that Christ’s call was “that those who wish to follow him must be prepared to shift the center of gravity in their lives from a concern for self to reckless abandon to the will of God.”

That’s not easy—Christ knew that better than anyone even as he made the offer to all of us. It takes courage and sacrifice, like those thousands of soldiers in the database—courage and sacrifice to be the people God made us to be, to make the world into the place he designed it to be, and to serve people with the same selflessness Christ showed us as he faced the Cross.

As we focus on the meaning of Jesus during this season before Easter, we’re faced not only with the Cross of Jesus, but also the cross he calls us to take up. We learned last week what that call includes: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

As we prepare for the Table this morning, my prayer for each one of us is that we will hear Christ’s call and follow him, wherever he leads, with an extra helping of reckless abandon.