Archives For iDOLATRY

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“The assumption that a black man suspected of a robbery is dangerous enough to be shot is the heart of the issue. The inability of the black community to trust that police offers will not see them as immediate threats and act accordingly is the heart of the injustice involved.”

For proof that ordination does not confer upon the priest a shiny, new ontological status, you need look no further than the clergy group pages on Facebook. Over the past hours I’ve had more than a few occasions to do a double-take of the nasty comments and unsubtle racism posted by clergy (as in, vicars of Jesus) about the violence last night in Ferguson.

One Reverend cited recent black-on-black shootings in Chicago and followed with a Rudy-worthy, self-pitying lament:

‘I guess people only care about evil when it has a white face.’ 

What’s called ‘partisanship’ in politics becomes something worse in a Christian forum: tribalism.

Seeing another as Other. Dividing up the perspectives into Us and Them and then quickly looking around for a scapegoat.

What’s all too evident on clergy pages is seen in larger surveys and polls. Generally, white Americans identify with the white police officer who killed a black boy while black Americans identify with the boy who was shot 6 times by a white police officer from a nearly all-white police precinct for a crime(s) for which white kids rarely even get hassled.

Whenever a story like Michael Brown’s hit the news, we choose sides.

Rally behind our tribe.

Keep our feet planted in our shoes’ perspective and see ‘them’ as ‘other.’

In other words, we violate the first commandment.

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Yep, you read that right.

Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, followed Thomas Aquinas in arguing that it’s not so much that God reveals the 10 Commandments to us but rather the 10 Commandments reveal God to us.

McCabe notes how the commandments chief purpose is to distinguish God from the gods.

The gods of the nations in the Old Testament, McCabe argues:                                                   “represents a settling for a partial local identity.”

In giving the first commandment, God identifies himself not as a god but as the God who liberates from the gods: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of slavery in the house of Egypt. You shall have no other gods but me.” McCabe notes the irony of a God who identifies himself as a Liberator but quickly sets about giving us rules. This is because the 10 Commandments also reveal a bitter truth about ourselves:

“One of the peculiar things about humanity is that when we are left to do exactly what we like, we straight away look around for someone to enslave ourselves to, and if we cannot find a master nearby we will invent one.

The true God reveals himself as the One who summons humanity out of this degradation we cling to, who summons us to the painful business of being free.”

It’s only when read against the backdrop of Ferguson and the comment threads it provokes that it becomes clear what McCabe means by the painful business of being free.

For its our own preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, nations, _____________ from which the true God seeks to deliver us.

The avoidance of such gods is, the Old Testament makes clear, the basic distinguishing demand made of God’s People.

timothy-radcliffeSays McCabe:

“The important thing is not just to be religious, to worship something somehow. The important thing is to find, or be found by, the right God and to reject and struggle against the others. The worship of any other god is a form of slavery.

To pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place or people, to a nation or race is to submit to slavery and degradation.

The Old Testament begins by saying to such gods ‘I do not believe and I will not serve.’

The other gods make you feel at home in a place or tribe or group or the country you grew up in and love, with them you know where you are.

But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring.

This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the devotions to your native place and people, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are to have no image of God because the only image of God is humanity.”

When you realize, as McCabe does, that the gods of the Old Testament represent our normal proclivity to root our identity in our preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, or nations, you realize why it was so hard for Israel to journey out of Egypt and why it was so tempting for them to return there.

Far be it from me to lecture my fellow clergy, but, as McCabe points out, whenever you hear a tribalistic comment like ‘I guess people only care about evil when it has a white face’ you’re hearing the rattling of very old chains.

You’re hearing the echo of Israel’s lament to return to Pharaoh.

It’s the sound of exactly the sort of bondage from which the true God frees us, a point Jesus reiterates when he takes bread and wine and declares himself our Passover.

 

images“I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone cold innocent the moment I met him. I am from Northern New Jersey and was a Public Defender with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York, so I have developed a strong “bullshit” meter. I can usually spot a lie better than a polygraph. When I first met Dewayne on Death Row in Livingston, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston, I knew the man was 100% innocent. 

I had absolutely no doubt. When I walked out of Death Row for the first time, I did all I could to fight back tears and keep from being sick because I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I was also scared as hell and worried whether it was too late to save his life and that I was going to be there at the prison watching him die right in front of me.”

- One Big Setup: The Alfred Dewayne Brown Story 

To my mind, other than the Cross itself, the most compelling reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty is that it commits what belongs to God alone (the taking of life) to a system which is vulnerable to human error and moral corruption.

To insist that system is immune to such error risks violating the first commandment, as it places a degree of faith in the criminal process that belongs to God alone.

Or, in Pauline terms, it values our justice system over God’s justice.

What scripture calls ‘idolatry.’

images-1My friend and parishioner, Brian Stolarz, begins his forthcoming memoir with the above confession.

Apparently not everyone’s BS radar is as well-calibrated as Brian’s, for Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured below) was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Even a BS radar half that of Brian’s could’ve sniffed out Alfred’s innocence, or, if not his innocence, at least detected sufficient doubts to give his lynch mob pause on their way to Calvary. brownalfred

Last week Arizona botched the execution of Joseph Wood, who died nearly 2 hours  after the supposed ‘lethal’ injection administered by his executioners.

Joseph Wood gasped and struggled for nearly 2 hours before he finally died. Who’s to say how many seconds or minutes or hours Wood’s killing fell shy of qualifying as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

Wood’s botched execution provoked outrage and incredulity among most of the public, callous, satisfied jeers among some of it and promises of (not independent) ‘review’ among the public’s officials.

What’s truly outrageous and, I believe, sinful is how the chair or the syringe or the noose is only 1 example of how the capital punishment apparatus is fraught with corruption and prone to error.

In Alfred Dewayne Brown’s case, the hold-it-in-your-hands evidence that would’ve supported his alibi all along (a phone record) was- all along- HIDDEN in the garage of a homicide detective.

Before you utter ‘What the…’ to yourself, wait:

Alfred’s IQ, which marks him as mentally retarded, was ginned up by the state’s doctor so as to nudge Alfred a nose past the qualifying line.

BTW:

Let’s not forget the moderately salient point that the grand jury’s foreman, whom transcripts unambiguously identify as leading a pile-on against Alfred’s girlfriend, was a retired cop.

A retired cop.

In a cop killing.

Jury of his peers.

The aforementioned doctor has been censured.

The cop with the garage and the prosecutor who turned the blind eye?

Not sure.

The girlfriend bullied and jailed to induce her to perjure herself?

She’s since changed her testimony.

Back to her original testimony.

Alfred Dewayne Brown?

Still on death row.

Despite consensus of his innocence.

In a twist of irony only Pontius Pilate could appreciate, all-but-exonorated-Alfred sits on death row while Texas decides whether or not it will grant him a ‘new trial.’

Brian shared his story of working for Alfred’s life in a sermon earlier this summer. You can watch it below.

You can read the latest stories about the grand jury’s foreman and its treatment of Alfred’s girlfriend here, here, here and here.

What happened to Joseph Wood on the table in Arizona happens to innocent (usually black) people in interrogation rooms and jury rooms more often than most of us would like to confront.

To turn a blind, blithe eye to such injustice, however, places us under St Paul’s auspicious words:

“I have great sorrow and anguish. For I testify of them that they may have great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own form of justice, they did not submit to the justice of God.

For the Messiah is the aim of all law so that justice may be based on loyalty to him.” 

– Romans 10.3-4

(Theodore Jennings, trans)

The more internet outrage and chatter Alfred’s case generates the quicker Texas will be compelled to give him a new trial or, even better, his freedom.

So leave a comment, ‘like’ it on Facebook, retweet it or forward it on to a friend.

A small gesture towards God’s justice that could go a long way. Do the right thing.

 

 

 

3f22c6cb00087f2649f48006Relax, the post title is just to titillate and get all you bottom feeding voyeurs to click over.

It’s probably beneath me to blog about a story primarily obsessed over by TMZ and the Washington Times, but why put on airs?

If you subscribe to the Washington Times or have been on a treadmill at Gold’s recently (or are a TMZ-watching 7th grade girl) then you likely already know:

George Zimmerman (He Who Stood His Ground or He Who Murdered Trayvon) spent Saturday signing autographs at a Florida gun show.

Signing autographs.

Signing autographs at a gun show.

Believe it or not, I do my best to avoid commenting directly on politics here on the blog, trying instead to reflect on such things from a theological vantage.

I realize all too well how sensitive and partisan guns are as political issue, and I have no problem with say my father-in-law who owns guns, makes his own ammunition, shoots at a target range and sometimes hunts. I’ve no desire to join him in any of those endeavors but neither do I do any woodworking with him. To each his own.

While I’ve got no beef with my wife’s papa, it doesn’t change the fact that guns are a theological issue for Christians.

In the same way liberals can’t pretend they don’t understand how abortion is such a big issue for Christians, conservatives shouldn’t feign surprise that unlimited access to weapons could also be considered a theological concern.

Specifically, I have in mind the (idolatrous?) culture of guns in our country which values unfettered gun rights above any and all other rights and concerns for the common good.

I’ve written about the above before so I’ll stop there.

Back to the titillating title:

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture delivered by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

In true post-liberal fashion, Hauerwas insisted on how one of the Church’s primary vocations is to demand truthful speech about our tradition and use it (not the language given to us by politics) to narrate the world around us.

During the Crusades, for example, the Church required returning warriors from the Holy Land to confess, do penance and seek absolution before they were allowed to return to the eucharistic celebration.

Why?

Because even in the Church that had sent them to war there was the recognition that, despite the ‘justness’ of their cause, the crusaders had committed sin. Had been asked to commit sin. By the taking of another’s life.

The Ten Commandments, which so many Christians seem to want to post on public walls, put it simply, even primally in the Hebrew:

‘You no kill.’

And the bottom 9 commandments, as the Jews always understood, were but elaborations on the first commandment about how we love (or don’t) God alone. Coveting your neighbor’s wife, for example, is really at bottom about idolatry. As the adulterer David puts it, otherwise awkwardly: Against you alone, God, have I sinned.

Even when we can debate the justness or necessity of an act of killing, killing is nonetheless a sin.

And with all sin God is the ultimate victim.

I’m not so naive as to think we can persuade Christians to back reasonable gun control  or to repeal laws like SYG any time soon.

It does seem reasonable, however, to ask that Christians remember that God calls killing- regardless of the context- a sin.

Indeed God calls it such so clearly God gives it a number- God doesn’t often make things so plain (see: Revelation, Book of).

Christians, it seems to me, can rightly debate gun laws and matters of the constitution.

What should not be a matter of debate is our expectation that those who’ve stood their ground confess their sin and seek absolution.

Or at the very least, since we can’t presume someone like George Zimmerman is a follower of Christ, we should expect that our fellow Christians should adopt a posture of contrition and not celebrate what is, just or not, a sin.

Our inability to name killing a sin, however, reveals how the sort of moral honesty demanded by truthful Christian speech is exactly the sort of truthfulness our political culture would rather avoid.

I can’t help but wonder if we’ve become captive to our particular partisan tribes because we no longer have any idea what it would be like to belong, firstly, to the tribe called Christian.

The killing of Trayvon Martin (again: justified or not) should be cause for mourning not applause and if George Zimmermann is a Christian, having stood his ground, he should seek absolution not autographs.

 

SHOOT1-articleLargeI’m assuming (ie, hoping you’ve been paying attention) to the story of Renisha Marie McBride, a 19 year old black girl who knocked on the front door of a white family to ask for help.

They assumed she wanted to rob them.

They shot her in the face with a shotgun.

And despite any other causal sequence of logic in those preceding sentences, we’re to believe race played no part.

Recalling the Trayvon Martin case almost a year ago, this story from Detroit provokes questions not only about America’s continued idolatry of guns but also its inability to deal frankly with its racial past and the present problems presented by that past.

I’ve got to confess I’m not nearly as sensitive or self-aware on these issues as I’d like to think I am, but I do at least realize and respect that those who are not in my position (white, well-off, men) have a different and compelling perspective on these issues.

993436_1472586196300558_1645231763_nI asked a friend of mine, Adrian Hill, to reflect theologically on the Renisha McBride story. I hope you will receive it with the sincerity in which it was written:

I admit I first struggled when Jason asked me to write this because I didn’t really “see God” when I first heard of this situation.

I saw anger and frustration, and leftover issues from Trayvon Martin. Another Black human, deemed a threat even though unarmed, was shot dead.

Like Martin.

And like Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player who was shot to death by police while seeking help after escaping a car crash.

Like Jordan Davis, a young kid who was shot to death after he and a man disagreed over the volume level of his music at a gas station.

Like Darius Simmons, shot to death by his elderly neighbor over a theft accusation.

All Black, all perceived to be threats, all unarmed… and all dead.

Now, those who shot all of the aforementioned people are White.

But, statistically, people are more likely to be killed by people of their own race. Blacks mostly kill Blacks. Whites mostly kill Whites, and so on. So a narrative that one race is killing another at an alarming rate is false.

But emotionally?

This feels like an epidemic to the Black community.

Why does it feel like we are threats? Why are we not given the benefit of the doubt BEFORE we are shot? It doesn’t feel like, in 2013, any Black person should die under these types of circumstances. And we can’t help but feel there is something more to this than isolated incidents or accidents.

So when I was asked to think theologically about this, the one thing that popped into my mind was Galatians 3:28

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is a wonderful passage that speaks to equality in the Kingdom of God. In a country with a history of gross inequality towards natives, minorities, immigrants, and women, this verse has proved to be liberating in the face of social ills like slavery and segregation. It is a powerful passage.

However, there has also been a sort of, unintended consequence, of this general kind of thinking. The consequence of assuming we have all truly reached equality. Us recognizing that human beings still have different experiences disappears. In our hope for equality, sometimes we assume we have already reached Dr. King’s dreamland and eschew the difficult task that still lies ahead – the task of ensuring that, in America, a reality that “all of you are one” in this great nation.

Sometimes the experiences of inequality experienced by others are dismissed because we really really want to finally all be equal. But ultimately, we are not yet there

It is absurd to think that there is no difference between a Black man and White woman. Or between a gay White man and a Hispanic female. It is silly to deny the glass ceiling women STILL face in the workplace. Or the difference in the quality of public education in neighborhoods across the country.

We all have our different experiences.

We are NOT all the same And if we are concerned with this Kingdom of God, where there is neither Jew, Greek, male, female, gay, straight, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, and so, we still have work to do.

That work involves being honest about our differences and our experiences.

I believe Renisha’s story is evidence that the work remains.

There still remains a climate where we all perceive anyone deemed “other” as a threat. Renisha was deemed an “other.” It is hard for me as a Black man, to not believe her skin color played a role in her designation as “other.“

As I have listed the other names of unarmed, innocent Blacks who were unfairly targeted as threats, it makes me question why deadly force was used so quickly. Or why the shooters were so hostile to their presence. Is it something about Black faces that strike fear into others? Why? What can we – Black people and non-Blacks alike – do about this? Can we have a dialogue where we recognize our differences and not just default to “everyone is equal now?”

I think this is vital for Christians today to speak to the continued notion of the “other.”

In Biblical times, if a stranger came to your home, you were obligated to do all you could to take care of the stranger.

Times have changed, but America could benefit from recovering some common sense notion of that practice.

How can we protect ourselves AND still be helpful to our fellow humans? We don’t have to let everyone inside our homes or even let our guard down, but we can figure out a way that deadly force isn’t the default initial reaction.

In Christ, there may be no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; but in America?

Unfortunately, there still is.

Shudder – to tremble with a sudden convulsive movement, as from horror, fear, or cold. 

That moment when you want to find the nearest cave and just stay there awhile – or maybe longer….

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1Do you ever have those moments when realizations hit you like a brick and send a chill through your body?

Not a good kind of chill – a shudder.

That horror.  That fear.

That recognition that leaves you cold.

That moment when it feels like nothing will ever be ok again.

Oprah helped bring the watered down version into our vocabulary – the AHA moment.  But I’m talking about the shudder moment.

Isaiah talks about it:

 “The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of man humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.  Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the LORD…In that day men will throw away to the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship.  They will flee to caverns in the rocks and to the overhanging crags from dread of the LORD”

James talks about it:

“You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not recieve, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  You adulterous people, don’t you know that a friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”

It is spiritual adultery when we worship anything or anyone other than God.  James has a way of putting things doesn’t he?

Too often I have felt that shudder to my very core when the Holy Spirit helps me uncover some hidden agenda, fear, pattern or habit in my life that is totally missing the Christian mark.  I mean way off!

Then the realization hits me about just how much time I have wasted or how many people I have hurt in the meantime.

The wreckage that needs to be dealt with as well as the sin.

I have told myself what I have wanted to hear too many times so I could keep safe in my little life.  So I wouldn’t have to go through the agony of the shudder moment that has to change everything for me.  Too many things that I have served keep me from being the woman that God created me to be.

The thing is, that once I feel it, name it, deal with it, and ask for forgiveness I must give it over to the cross.

It isn’t easy to give up the regret or shame that those moments can bring.

I fee like if I don’t carry it around for months or years then I am somehow diminishing the suffering that I must feel because of it.

Christ suffered for that sin as well.

If His forgiveness is not for me – then it isn’t for you – and I know it is.

 

 

Jesus’ Politics

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1This weekend we continued our Counterfeit Gods sermon series by exploring how partisan politics can be an idol, taking away from our ultimate allegiance to Christ. Here’s a great post from Darrell Dow on that same theme:

American politics is religious in its fervor. American religion is political in its function.

No matter how tall the wall that our Constitution has built between the church and the state, you’ll find some people from every political persuasion who will invoke Christian thought as the basis of their convictions. Every agenda has its religious texts and scriptural narratives informed by biblical images. An embattled union is David to the corporate giant’s Goliath. Those seeking social change cast themselves in the role of prophet or Apostle by turns speaking uncomfortable truths to the powerful and spreading the gospel of equality and justice. Most of all, Jesus gets quoted by everybody.

Who doesn’t own Jesus in an election year? Jesus is a Democrat. Jesus is a Republican. Jesus would want more social programs for the poor. Jesus would strike abortion providers dead in their tracks. Jesus would outlaw assault rifles. Jesus would institute the death penalty. Jesus has a seat on every side of every issue. It’s a good thing he’s got divinity on his side because anyone else would likely crack under the strain.

During the last election cycle I even began noticing Vote for Jesus as a slogan on bumper stickers and signs. This campaign to elect the Lord is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m pretty sure Christ doesn’t have a US birth certificate. I can only imagine what Donald Trump would have to say about that.

I’ll have to confess that I’ve never voted for Republican Jesus but I did admire him as I pictured the muscular man who favored free enterprise, led an ear-chopping posse of swordsmen, and taught the poor that the path to happiness was hard work as a cog in the capitalist machine. I imagined that someday he would lead troops into a bloody final battle against the forces of Communism, atheism, and pretty much anybody else that didn’t go to my church. This image of a conquering right-wing Christ was very satisfying stuff in my youth but I’m happy to say that my Jesus isn’t like that anymore and hasn’t been for many years.

Even though my Christ had grown kinder and gentler over the years, however, he was still pretty darn conservative so when I started a new project last month that I’m callingMy Obama Year, I realized that spending twelve months of listening, empathizing, and trying to understand those who live to my political left would mean understanding their Jesus as well. That takes a good deal of doing. Jesus is pretty personal.

The process of rediscovering Jesus comes with a warning: It’s good to be cautious when you start to reconstruct Christ. It would be easy to slip into the path of simply switching out Jesus the Iron-Jawed General for a Jesus that drinks free trade coffee, carries a union card (Carpenters Local 316, perhaps?), and has a Free Tibet sticker on the guitar case he carries to protests. Unfortunately, a liberal caricature of Christ is no more helpful than the extreme right-wing version because it robs us of the main focus of his teachings which were largely personal not political.

Jesus was not a general nor was he an activist. Not only did he never run for election, he never even voted in one. Other than some cutting words about the spiritual conditions of some of the Jewish leadership, his largest political statement was a martyrdom during which he didn’t even bother launching a defense at his own trial. As politics goes, that’s not exactly a great way to have a career.

Maybe Jesus isn’t really anything like the political images painted of him. Perhaps the time has come for all parties and political persuasions to stop claiming to have exclusive rights to Jesus and instead think about what he did teach us — lessons that are bigger than our issues or agendas. He taught outlandish love for our enemies. He taught unthinkable grace toward our neighbors. He told us that the kingdom of heaven is now here. It’s here! It’s here in publicans and in Pharisees; in prostitutes and in preachers; in Democrats, in Republicans, in you, and in me.

What would happen in our country if the kingdom were right now fully realized and grace and graciousness ruled our politics? What if the greatest commandment in our law was love? I can’t really imagine it — which I suppose just means that there is a lot of work still left to do for all of us.

In the meantime should we vote for Jesus? Why would anyone need to? I think that to do so would be as superfluous as it is insulting.

When you live in a kingdom there’s no vote need to vote for the King.

The Politics of Jesus

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2013 — 3 Comments

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1Here’s this weekend’s sermon for our Counterfeit Gods series on idolatry. You can download the sermon here or in the iTunes Library under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

You can listen to it on this blog, to the right under ‘Listen’ widget.  

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We’ve been doing a sermon series during Lent on idolatry; that is, giving to earthly things what we should give to God alone. Wednesday afternoon Dennis told me he wasn’t going to be able to preach this weekend as planned.

    I said, ‘No problem.’

He said, ‘Thanks.’ 

I said, ‘Remind me again what idol we’re talking about this weekend.’

He said, ‘Partisan Politics.’ 

I said, ‘Oh___________.’

And Dennis nodded ruefully and then he said, ‘Well, at least not many people in the congregation are politically active.’ And then, like Satan himself, he laughed diabolically and disappeared in a cloud of sulfur.

So there it is.

I think we can all agree that our fearless leader has given me a poopy-flavored lollipop. I mean, Jesus gets crucified right after today’s passage. If I can just do better than Jesus, I’ll be happy.

Given our hyper-partisan culture, if we can all just take a deep breath, if you can just trust me for the next few minutes, and if we can make it, in Jesus’ name, to the end of the sermon together- if we can just do that then Aldersgate Church will be like a light to the nation, like a city shining on a hill. 

To insure I don’t end up on that (the cross) at the end of the service, I want to be as simple and straightforward as I can today. No jokes, no inspiring stories and absolutely no personal opinions- you have my word on that.

     I just want to open up today’s scripture passage, unpack it for you and then offer you one clear, bipartisan recommendation that I believe comes out of this scripture.

So open up your bibles to Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12. For you liberals out there, the Gospel of Mark is in the New Testament. Just kidding…That’s the last joke.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we or shouldn’t we? Yes or no?” 

      The first thing this passage makes unavoidable is that Jesus is political. It’s not that he’s not.

I know some of you have a Joel Osteen notion of Christianity: that Christianity is a private religion of the heart, and Jesus is about spiritual things. The only problem with that kind of Christianity is that it requires a bible other than the one God has given us.

Mary’s pregnancy begins with her singing of how her in-utero Messiah will one day topple rulers from their thrones and send the rich away with nothing.

Jesus kicks off his ministry by declaring the Year of Jubilee: the forgiveness of all monetary debt owed by the poor.

And for 3 years, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and, because Jesus was a Jew, he didn’t have pearly gates in mind. He was talking about the here and now.

Jesus is political.

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar. 

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.

So it’s not that the tax was onerous.

It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: ‘Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.’ Carrying the coin broke the first and most important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ 

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

You see how it works?

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies. On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome. On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus has a temper tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip.

And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history.

 

200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer.

The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.” 

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

     Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before Judas the Sledgehammer becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean- he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax.

With an armed band he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he cleansed the Temple

And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King.

Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

 

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers.

The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax: 

Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? is the real question. 

Come down off the fence Jesus.

Which side are you on? 

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan co-sponsoring a budget bill.

And that’s not even an exaggeration because the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus.

But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties.

The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options.

And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

 

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to Israel. The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in. 

 

The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. The Pharisees were bible-believing observers of God’s commandments.They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and ‘Son of God’ printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions. 

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down. 

 And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff, and they’ll write him off and walk away. 

 That’s the trap.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’ 

If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.

If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

 

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?

Which is it going to be? The Sword or the Sledgehammer?

Which party do you belong to?

You’ve got to choose one or the other.

What are your politics Jesus?

 

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’ 

And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is ‘eikon,’ the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be ‘eikons of God.’

Eikons of Caesar, the coin. Eikons of God, you.

 

Jesus looks at the coin and he says ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.’ 

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for ‘give’ isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question.

When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means ‘give,’ as in ‘to present a gift.’

 

But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word. 

Instead Jesus the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier. Jesus says: ‘Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.’ 

 

You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is?

What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him.

But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?

Everything.

Everything.

 

Jesus is saying is: ‘You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.’ 

 

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation- you can’t give to those things, what they ask of you: your ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.

The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.

They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now.

Or another kingdom not too different.

They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise.

He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides.

Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.

A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.

But with a cross.

 

    Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

Because his movement wasn’t about defeating his opponents.

His movement was about dying for his opponents.

 

And that’s a politics that qualifies and complicates every other politics.

 

If you were to ask me: ‘Jason, what’s your absolute, A#1, favorite part of ministry?’ then I think I’d have to say it’s: getting email forwards.

Who doesn’t love email forwards?

Some of you only get email forwards from your family or your circle of friends. I pity you. I’m blessed to have an entire congregation thoughtful enough to send me email forwards. How awesome is that?

And much like you, I’m sure, my favorite email forwards are the political ones. Seriously, I don’t know what Christians did prior to the internet. They must’ve had to ask questions and engage in civil conversation and listen patiently.

I can’t even imagine.

Here’s one that has a special place in my heart:

 “Jesus said his disciples were to be as wise as serpents. So how can any Christian with a brain be so stupid as to vote for __________ candidate? If you’re a Christian with a brain please forward this to a Christian without one.’ 

I sent that one to Dennis :)

But see, aren’t you jealous? Just imagine what your life could be like- getting a dozen forwards like that a day from people who pay your salary?

It’s awesome.

Seriously, I could filibuster my way past Pentecost just reading the political email forwards I get from you.

On every imaginable issue, I get emails. Emails asserting that God is on this side, not that side.

Emails demanding:

that bible-believing Christians check this box, not that box,

that Jesus is with this party and against that party,

that to support this agenda instead of that agenda is simply to do what Jesus Christ himself would do.

 

    The Bible has a word for rhetoric like that.

      Idolatry.

     And for some of you, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

 

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan recommendation. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

I wanted to get you all plastic bracelets with the acronym on it but the shipping was too expensive.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Don’t put Jesus in a box. Don’t make Jesus choose sides. Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this or that agenda.

Because we all know it’s more complicated than that. And so is the Gospel.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

I mean, this might be an epiphany newsflash for some of you, but you can find good, faithful, sincere, bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians everywhere all along the political spectrum.

You know how I know that? You’re sitting in front of me.

    But what you must not do is insist that Jesus is for this or that politics. 

    Jesus wouldn’t do that to himself so why are you doing it to him? 

     You’re mixing up God and Caesar.  

     You’re making Jesus fit your politics instead of conforming your politics to Jesus. 

      You’re committing idolatry, using your ultimate allegiance to bless and baptize your earthly opinions. 

    Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Because when you do-

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes too easy to believe that the problems in the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what the Gospel says: that the problem in the world is what’s in here (the heart) in all of us.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes harder and harder to like your neighbor and it becomes impossible to love your enemy.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection kicked off isn’t a Kingdom that any political party can ever create.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom launched by Jesus’ death and resurrection is a Kingdom 

where trespasses are forgiven, gratis; 

where grace is offered, free of charge; 

where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis; 

where peace isn’t won and isn’t a soundbite it’s a practice; 

where money is shared without debate so that the poor would be filled; where our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this Table together. 

     When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus brings is you. When the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit doesn’t cast a vote for Emperor. The Holy Spirit creates the Church. 

Us. You and me. The Church. 

We’re Jesus’ politics.

Mumford_ChurchWe’re talking the idol of politics this weekend for our sermon series, Counterfeit Gods. Politics is often one of the reasons people leave the church.

In doing so, people frequently give me some version of the cliche:

‘I like Jesus just not the Church.’

On first blush that sounds like a defensible statement. After all, organized religion, the institutional Church, is the easiest straw man of them all to beat up. Like most cliches, it can’t hold much more water than that.

What ‘I like Jesus just not the Church’ usually means is ‘I’m tired of the Church and/or other Christians not wanting to think, worship or vote just like me.’

Or, it means the Church is full of hypocrites (translation: the Church is made up of people who are no more perfect and just as sinful as I am). 

And no ever stops to consider that the guys who knew Jesus the best, the disciples, couldn’t like him enough to stick by him when the going got tough. So how in the world could you ever expect to follow him on your own?

I would never, for example, on my own pray for those who speak ill of me, much less try to love them, if I wasn’t called upon to serve the Body and Blood of Christ every week. 

Leaving the Church is often just a way for people to turn the volume down on Jesus.

Without the Church, it’s easier to fit Jesus into your lifestyle or politics rather than conforming your lifestyle or politics to Jesus.

And before you accuse me of making a self-interested, need-people-in-the-pews-to-pay-the-preacher, argument, stop to consider:

No one has a better reason to be cynical, jaded, beat up and exhausted by the limitations of the Church and its sinners than does a pastor. 

Lilian Daniel says this better than me (jealous) in a piece from Relevant Magazine:

It seems to be a growing trend—people who claim to love Jesus but don’t want to call themselves Christians. The latest to stake a claim for not staking a claim is Marcus Mumford, the front man of the wildly popular Mumford & Sons, whose Christian-themed lyrics have been a source of fascination to believers and nonbelievers alike.

In Rolling Stone’s upcoming cover story, Mumford demurred when asked if he considered himself a Christian, as a teaser on the magazine’s website revealed. “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage,” he said, in terms that many fans will relate to. “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.”

IN OUR “HAVE IT YOUR WAY” SPIRITUAL MARKETPLACE, RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY THAT IS RIGOROUS, REASONABLE AND REAL IS STILL THE MOST NUTRITIOUS ITEM ON THE MENU.

Mumford, the son of the U.K. founders of the evangelical Vineyard movement is hardly the first church kid to question or reject the faith tradition he was raised in. In fact, the words he uses to describe himself inRolling Stone will resonate with the fast growing group within Millennial culture—the “nones.” As the Pew Research Center reported last year, 32 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds listed “none” as their religious affiliation.

Mumford’s remarks certainly aren’t a rarity, but they may disappoint the multitude of Christian fans who have seen in Mumford & Sons an intelligent and artistic articulation of their faith.

After all, Marcus Mumford’s faith as evidenced through his music is much like many of ours: his spiritual journey is a “work in progress,” he’s never doubted the existence of God, but he asks nonetheless not to be associated with any religion. “I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity,” he told Rolling Stone.

A cursory glance at Christians in the headlines will tell you why. Why do the looniest Christians get quoted after every natural disaster? Why does the pistol-packing pastor who wants to burn the Koran get all the airtime?

I know what it feels like to want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word.

A few years ago, I grew tired of people claiming to be “spiritual—but not religious,” because I do not believe this is enough. In a culture of narcissism, religious community matters. In our “have it your way” spiritual marketplace, religious community that is rigorous, reasonable and real is still the most nutritious item on the menu.

NO ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE CAN CARRY THE BLAME FOR ALL THE WORST THAT PERVADES SOCIETY. I AM NOT APOLOGIZING FOR A CHURCH I AM NOT A MEMBER OF.

Yet often when I say this, as a minister myself, it is received with howls of complaint from people who want to do the God thing solo.

Their argument goes something like this: I like the idea of Jesus but I can’t stand the Church. Therefore, I want to identify directly with the primary source, Jesus, rather than with the annoyingly fallible human beings who have tried to follow Him but failed.

They describe to me a personal privatized journey free of the sins of the historical Church but with a direct hook-up to the guy who got it all started. What all of this implies, however, is that the person who loves Jesus privately is somehow better at it than those who try to do it with other people.

As Mumford went on to explain about such people who call themselves “Christian,” “I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who He was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, ‘Jesus was awesome’—they’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus.”

So, let’s recap. Jesus is awesome. Muslims are awesome for thinking that Jesus is awesome. But Christians? Not so awesome.

When people tell me they can’t stand Christianity, they are usually describing a Church that bears very little resemblance to the open-minded church I serve. They describe judgmental hypocrites who hate people of other faiths and are only after your money. They attribute all the world’s problems to the Church, from sexism to sexual abuse to warfare.

In very few arenas would we tolerate a similar discussion about another group of people. And yet open-minded people listen to such meandering musings with a sympathetic ear, as if they are hearing something wise, brave or original. When in reality, they are hearing something uninformed and insulting.

No one group of people can carry the blame for all the worst that pervades society. We call that stereotyping. I am not apologizing for a church I am not a member of.

Unfortunately, when it comes to all those horrors, the one common denominator is not organized religion, but a more frightening answer: people. It is the presence and participation of human beings. If we could just kick all the people out, we might actually be able to do this Christian community thing.

In a culture of narcissism, the easiest way to follow Jesus is from a distance on a solo stroll to the beat of the same drummer you have listened to your whole life: your own personal preferences and already held beliefs. From a distance, you are safe from the assault of community.

People will explain to me that without the Church, they are traveling light, without all that Christian baggage. But what exactly is this baggage? It’s people—who might actually be some of the best road companions there are.

Certainly, Marcus Mumford got one thing right—the Church is something you enter at your own risk.

Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you, and realize how small you are standing before such a legacy. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.

 

This weekend for our Counterfeit Gods sermon series we’re tackling the idol of politics. Sigh.  I can already imagine what my inbox will be like on Monday morning. 121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1

As a pastor, I frequently hear from Christians:

‘I think Christianity is private, personal. Politics should be kept out of the Church.’

I certainly get the fatigue behind the question. Fatigue over our hyper partisan culture and how the Church has dirt all over its hands by participating and encouraging that culture.

And yet when someone makes a statement like that I often ask, in love:

‘Just what bible are you reading?

Because you’ve obviously never read the Old Testament prophets.

Or the Exodus story.

Or any of the Gospels.

Or the Book of James.

Or Revelation.’ 

Like Judaism before it, Christianity has always been a public faith. The first Christians were called an “ekklessia,” meaning they were ‘God’s called-out people.’ Christians, it was believed, lived their faith publicly with very public consequences. Questioners in the gospels asked Jesus about everything from adultery and divorce to poverty, taxes, war and patriotism. St. Paul, on the other hand, wrote most of his letters to churches to help new Christians with the difficulties that came with balancing their faith and their worldly commitments.

Christianity is not, and never has been,

simply an interior faith.

It is not limited to my own inner spirituality or my own personal relationship with God. Nor are the concerns of Christianity limited to the Church sanctuary. Christianity places expectations on its followers that follow them from worship to the church parking lot on Sunday morning and, from there, all through the week.

The way of Jesus offers a particular way for us to be in and view the world, and that the Christian tradition has a needful witness to help us make sense of our lives and the issues that confront us.

Claiming Jesus is Lord meant for the first Christians that Caesar was not. It was a big, bold confession that had implications on every part of their lives.

Even if we don’t like it, confessing the Lordship of Christ should still impact every square inch of our lives too.

But before we can figure out those implications, we need to learn what the first Christians didn’t have to learn; they had the benefit of a unity brought on by mutual suffering under the Empire.

In America, we are, for all intents and purposes, the Empire. In America, Christians first need to learn how to get along.

And listen.

Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor says:

People who are shouting at each other are constitutionally incapable of seeing the image of God in someone else.

 

Our culture is characterized by much shouting. Given the divisive nature of our contemporary culture, how we talk about politics, as Christians, is nearly as important as the conclusions that we draw.

 

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1

Yesterday afternoon, Dennis (my associate pastor for those of you outside the congregation) let me know he couldn’t preach this weekend after all.

So I’m up at the plate this weekend as we continue our Lenten sermon series on idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. And what absolute, crap, spit-ball of a topic do I get?

The idol of…

Politics and Political Partisanship.

Fun.

At least, you know, church people aren’t known to get their panties in a bunch over preachers mentioning politics.

The text for this weekend is the question put to Jesus about taxes. They crucify him right after he answers.

Let’s hope I fare better but I suppose if I’m faithful to the text, I shouldn’t expect to get treated any better than Jesus. 

Here’s a video with some bona fide Jesus truth from Tim Keller on how our poisonous partisan culture is a faith issue and how CIVILITY IS A CHRISTIAN VIRTUE.

If you think being right on an issue is more important than how you speak to or about someone who disagrees with you, then you’re wrong.

At least as it concerns your faith.

And which is the more important? Your faith or your issue?

Don’t believe me, check out Jesus’ brother:

The tongue is placed among Christians as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 

10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters. 

This ought not to be so.

– Book of James, chapter 3

Scroll ahead to 4:40 for the bit on Civility and Politics:

 

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1I feel a little bit like Esau – betrayed and with a score to settle.

I know she didn’t mean to do it, but my sister pulled a Jacob.

A very difficult family situation feels like a tragedy and a tragedy for me can become an idol.

I am in the middle of it right now, and I know how I need to act, but I don’t want to!

I want to act like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and stomp my feet and scream “I want it now daddy!  I want it now!”  

But I can’t.  I am a Christian.  That epic realization trumps it all.  It just does.

I have to do it; sooner rather than later, because it is impossible for me to live this way.   As Keller puts it, it is a bloodthirsty deity and hard to appease.  Unforgiveness is a vice-grip that changes how I see everything every day.   I’m still not there yet though.  I woke up with the vice grip around my heart.

She is my only sister.  There are hundreds of reasons and ways in which I can justify my anger and never forgive her.  The only one on the other side of the tally sheet is that I am called to forgive without her even asking; To forgive because I am forgiven.

I am naturally inclined to want justice instead – to make sure that it is fair before I can move to forgive.  Several years ago I recall hearing someone on television talking about how they had been able to forgive the drunk driver that killed their child.  All those around her and even I were shocked and amazed that she would even want to let alone find the path.  It seems like forgiveness on that scale is seen as weakness not strength from the Divine.

Then during my walk Max Lucado spoke to me this morning on the radio.  He reminded me

“relationships do not survive because the guilty are punished but because the innocent are merciful.” 

I’m not all high and mighty sitting up here on my throne of innocence, I’m still trying to figure my part out, but until I forgive and get past this, nothing else is possible.

I feel betrayed by her.  I feel like she destroyed a dream I have had for many, many years.  I believed that God was granting me one of the “desires or my heart.”  I believed that God was bringing the desire of my heart and his will for me together.

I remember when Dennis preached about that and how sweet it is when those two worlds collide.  By her actions she took it away from me.  I wanted it so much. 

Maybe that was the idol – the wanting?

I just know that I must forfeit this idol.

I know that I can do all things through Christ.  I know because God tells me and if it were not so, he would not have told me.  It is the Word of God.  I have faith that He will be there every step of the way with me as I work through this.  I know this because He has accompanied me on this journey before.

My Savior is not unfamiliar with betrayal.

  “Be kind and compassionate to one another. Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32. 

If I do not, I dishonor Him and I can’t bear to do that again.

 

 

 

 

By the Book

Jason Micheli —  March 11, 2013 — 8 Comments

Here’s my sermon on ‘Forgiveness’ for our Lenten Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. You can listen to the sermon in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download for free in the iTunes Library, under Tamed Cynic.

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This isn’t the sermon I thought I was going to preach when my week began.

I started out on Monday writing a sermon about the prophet Elisha and a leper named Namaan, but then, because of a decision I made weeks ago, I had an encounter this week that provoked a much different sermon.

If you read my blog, then you know that a few weeks ago I made a Lenten commitment that once or twice a week I would strap a clergy collar around my neck, which I usually only wear to weddings and graveside burials.

I made a commitment that I’d strap a collar on and go to some public space, like a coffee shop or pub or cafe, and just see what conversations came my way by exposing my faith and vocation in plain sight.

 

Since then I’ve worn it to Starbucks a couple of times.

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble.

This past week I went to Whole Foods to eat lunch in the cafe and sketch what I had planned on being a very different sermon.

I sat down in a booth with my food and a few books about the prophet Elisha. And aside from the check-out guy asking me who I was going to vote for- for Pope- it was an uneventful day.

And I was about to call it a day, when a woman pushing a grocery cart crept up to my booth and said:

‘Um, excuse me Father….could I?’ 

 

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me.

 

‘Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______’ I started to say but she just looked confused.

 

‘Never mind’ I said. ‘Sit down.’ 

 

She looked to be somewhere in her 40’s. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red.

 

No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts.

 

‘Maybe this is a mistake. I feel ridiculous and I just interrupted you. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…’ 

 

She fussed with the zipper on her coat while she rambled, embarrassed.

 

     ‘It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.’ 

 

‘Put what down?’ I asked.

 

‘Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.’ She laughed and wiped the corner of her eye.

 

‘Beginning at the beginning usually works’ I said.

 

‘Yeah,’ she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head.

 

And then she told it to me. She confessed.

 

About her husband and their marriage.

About his drinking, the years of it.

About his lies, the years of it.

About her making every effort to help him, to stick by him, to do whatever it

took to keep their marriage together.

She told me about how he’s sober now.

And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never receive what she spent.

 

Then she bit her lip and paused- like she was mentally censoring a part of it.

 

And so I asked her: ‘Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’ 

 

‘No, I know I’m supposed to forgive him’ she said. ‘My priest told me that years ago- that’s when I stopped going to church. I know I’m supposed to forgive.’ 

 

‘What’s your question then?’ I asked.

 

‘I’ve sacrificed enough. He’s the one who owes me. Why does forgiving him just make me feel like a victim all over again?’

 

     ‘Why can’t I just wipe this from my ledger….and move on?’ 

 

And when she said that, I knew I had to write a different sermon.

When Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness, when Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone 7 times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. Peter’s a brown-noser, a butt-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have raised his hand and volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer.

After all Moses had said an eye for an eye, do in turn what was done to you but no more. So 7 times must have struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness.

I mean, think about that. Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as an illustration.

Imagine someone gossips about you. And you confront them about it. 

     1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. Fool 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

 

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

 

And Peter suggests drawing the line at 7 times.

7 is a good, biblical number and, whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery, 7 is a whole lot of forgiveness.

So Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer; Peter must’ve expected a pat on the back, gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one.

 

     Instead Jesus says: ‘You’re off by about 483.’ Not 7 times but 70 times 7. 

 

     490 times. And- it’s even worse than it sounds.

     490 was a Jewish way of expressing perfection. Infinity.

 

So Jesus is saying there is no limit to forgiveness, that forgiving someone is something we never get done with. It’s something that goes on forever.

That forgiveness is not a favor we offer 490 times but when we finally get to 491 we can stop.

     No, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is a way of life that never ends.

 

And as he likes to do, Jesus goes straight from answer to illustration and tells a story that starts with grace and ends with hell.

 

‘And oh, by the way,’ Jesus tacks on, ‘that’s exactly what God will do with you unless you forgive in your heart.’ 

 

On the surface that’s a really crappy story. 

     You must forgive or else. You must forgive or else your heavenly father will lock you in hell and throw away the key? You must forgive…out of fear? 

     That doesn’t sound like Jesus- at all. 

     So, there’s got to be more going on in this story than you can hear the first time through. 

     In fact, what we need is a couple more takes to notice what’s going on in Jesus’ parable. 

So what I need is a few volunteers…

The story revolves around 3 main characters: a King, a servant and a fellow servant.

     Take One: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

    So in the beginning, the king opens his ledger to settle accounts, and he finds a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.

The amount of the debt is key to the whole logic of Jesus’ story. In case you’re rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

     This servant owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 60 million days’ wages or 164 years and 3 months of labor. 

So when Jesus tells the story, Peter and the other disciples would’ve known instantly that this man owes a debt he could never possibly repay. It’s not just a large debt; its an un-repayable debt.

But no sooner is the man forgiven his debt and set free than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about 3 months wages. No small amount but small potatoes compared to the debt he owed the king.

So even though he’s been forgiven and set free he grabs the man, chokes him, demands what’s owed him and sends the man to prison, ignoring the very same plea he’d pled: ‘be patient with me…’

And when the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received,  the King has him thrown in jail to be tortured until all his debt is repaid, to be tortured.

To be tortured for 10,000 talents worth of time. 60 million days.

     Take Two: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s a question:

Why does the king cancel the debt?

Because of the servant’s plea? Because he promises to pay back everything he owes? 60 million days worth of wages?

He can’t ever pay that back.

So if the king forgives the servant because the servant promises to make it up to him, then the king is stupid.

The king just forgives him. Gratuitously. The king offers him grace.

And how does the servant respond?

Immediately he leaves the king and then turns to a fellow servant and demands from his peer what he has coming to him.

Somehow this servant has managed to receive the king’s forgiveness yet he’s remained completely unchanged by it. 

     He’s been forgiven something he could never repay. 

     He’s been spared a punishment that should have been his. 

    He’s been offered grace and somehow its not converted his heart or his character. 

     He’s still the same person he was before. 

     The king’s grace has not made him a person of grace. 

     Take Three: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s another question: what happens to the debt? In the story?

The king examines his ledger and sees what’s owed him. But when he forgives the servant, what happens to the debt?

Where does that debt go? What’s the king do with his ledger?

Because the debt doesn’t just disappear. Someone has to pay the debt- that’s the way the world works, that’s the way accounting works.

And this servant can never pay what is owed. So who eats the debt?

The king.

     The king pays the debt.

     The king will have to suffer the cost of this un-payable debt because forgiveness always costs someone something.

But notice, it’s not just that the king pays the debt.

Because the king can’t forgive the servant without in some way tossing the ledger book aside once and for all.

Because there’s nothing this servant can ever do to bring his relationship with the king back in the black.

So when the king forgives the servant, the king also sacrifices the ledger.

Keeping tally of what’s been earned and what’s still owed goes by the wayside for good.

The whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of positive and negative, of + and -, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is owed- the king DIES to that way of life.

He gets rid of the ledger, so that a servant can have new life.

But notice.

After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score? Who’s still keeping track of what people owe him? Who’s still recording what he’s earned? Who’s still tallying what he deserves from others but still hasn’t gotten?

     You see, the king throws his ledger away. Gone for good.

     But the servant clings to his ledger. 

     And he takes his ledger with him, willingly, all the way to hell. 

     In other words, Jesus says, if you insist on treating other people by the book then God will give you exactly what you want. And treat you by the book. 

‘Why can’t I just wipe the ledger clean and move on? Why does forgiving him make me feel like a victim all over again?’ the woman at WF asked me.

I sipped the last of my coffee.

And I said: ‘That’s kinda the way it’s supposed to feel.’ 

I could tell from her face she didn’t follow.

So I tried to explain:

‘The way we forgive is just a small-scale version of how God forgives. There’s no way to reconciliation that doesn’t first go through pain and suffering. Jesus is the pattern. Forgiveness means you bear the cost instead of making the other person pay what they owe you.’

‘That’s a sucky answer’ she said.

‘Sure it sucks’ I said. ‘It sucked for Jesus too, remember.’ 

‘Do you talk like this in church?’ she asked. ‘No, never.’ 

‘Look, the debt your husband owes you is real, but forgiveness means you absorb that debt. And, yes, it’s painful and, sure, it’s hard, but that’s the only way to resurrection.’ 

‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘it’d be a lot better if I could just wipe the ledger clean and move on.’ 

     ‘Yeah, but if you wipe that part of it clean it won’t be long before some other part of it shows red. It’s not about wiping the ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the ledger altogether.’ 

 

Pay Attention:

No more pretending. That woman at Whole Foods, and that servant in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Some of you carry around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you.

Names of people who’ve taken something from you.

Names of people who’ve wronged you.

People who’ve cheated you or cheated on you.

Who’ve lied to you or who’ve lied about you.

People who refuse to listen to you, or to understand you, or to accept you.

People who’ve betrayed you, who’ve rubbed you the wrong the way, or who’ve just let you down one too many times.

And in many of your ledgers, you have a whole other list of names, people that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book.

Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you.

Some of you cling to marriage ledgers, tallying the precise daily cash flow of what each person brings to the marriage, which person is costing the marriage more and which person is sacrificing more, working more, contributing more. To the marriage.

And some of you cling to ledgers that look more like a list of accomplishments:

How much you’ve done for others.

How much you’ve given to your church.

How much you attend worship.

All the reasons why you think, assume, God should love you.

While others of you can’t let of go.

Can’t let go of ledgers that list all the sinful things you’ve ever done. All the things you’re ashamed of. All the things you wish you could change about yourself. All the things you wish you could take back.

Ledgers filled with all the reasons why you’re secretly convinced God can never love you.

This sanctuary should not be a place where we lie: there are as many ledgers in this room as there are people.

And, hell, I have my own.

But Jesus wants us to know that we’ve got to put them down. 

     To get rid of them. Toss them aside. Die to that whole way of living. 

     Because clinging to this (the ledger) makes an idol out of that (the cross). Because if you’re still holding on to this, that’s just a symbol from a story that happened once upon a time to someone else. 

I mean, let’s be honest. Some of you have gone to church your whole lives and you’re no different than you were before. The grace of the King has not made you a grace-filled person.

And it’s because you’re still holding on to this.

     When it comes to you, you want the King to throw the book away. But when it comes to everyone else in your life, you insist on going by the book.

But clinging to this, going through your life going by the book, needing to keep score, needing to tally and balance the accounts, it makes that (the cross) an idol. 

      It makes it nothing more than an object- because you’re worshipping the object and not its meaning and power. 

Because the good news of the cross is that you’re more sinful than you’ll ever admit but you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.

The good news of the cross is that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, you can do to earn God’s love.

And there’s nothing you can do to lose it.

God doesn’t keep score. God doesn’t go by the book.

Because the King has tossed his ledger in the trash.

And despite the cost, he’s paid every debt. Every debt. And that includes, by the way, the debts that everyone in your life owe to you.

     So put the ledger down. Put it down. Get rid of it. Die to it.

And instead tit-for-tat, instead of quid pro quo, instead 1 for 1, you do this and I’ll do that, eye for an eye, try 70 x 7.

Show mercy.

Every time.

Just as the King has shown mercy to you.

 

I would rather die than go back to being the person that I was.

I taught my children to lie.

Of course I told them to tell the truth, but I taught them how to lie.

I had to.

I was protecting my way of life by lying to myself and everyone around me.

Keller says that money (and I submit a whole host of other idols) can be a spiritual addiction and like all addictions they hide their true proportions from their victims.  They do what they have to do to feed and perpetuate the addiction.

The heart always wants to justify itself

My precious paradigm cannot be intruded upon when I am living for something other than my God.

When I am not following the Holy Spirit, I tell myself what I have to in order to maintain my way of life.  Self -deception is key if I am to continue to stay comfortable doing what I’m doing.   And, let’s face it, everyone likes to be able to go to sleep at night.

Keller says we look to our idols for significance and security and because we HAVE to have them, we do what we have to do to protect our head from really seeing the desires of our heart – we deceive ourselves.  

That is why I can continue to go to church and bible study week after week, year after year and still be in the same spiritual pits and ruts.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expect different results.

 If I am tired of the same spiritual gerbil wheel, I need to jump off and do something different…”this time, I will praise the LORD.“

This time I will put my trust in God.  Find my honor in God.  Find mercy at His feet.  Everything short of that will leave me bankrupt once again.  This time…..

If Leah had continued to resist the simple act of letting go and praising God, still praying to God for answers to the wrong questions, she would never have had the beautiful breakthrough that allowed her heart to be changed – that allowed her to love God and be loved by him.  She could finally praise God.  Her circumstance hadn’t changed – her husband still didn’t love her.  She was still the same rejected and unloved woman she had always been.  But she finally broke the cycle.

“Anyone who listens to the word, but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it.  He will be blessed in what he does. James 1:23-24

This time I have to tell the truth to protect my way of life, my life with Christ.

I have to be responsible for my spiritual growth.  I have to want to be the person that God created me to be badly enough that I am willing to look at those spiritual worms inside me and call them what they are.

Lies.

I would rather die than go back to being who I was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I waited patiently for Jason to post his last sermon – the one with the glasses of water.  I immediately sent it to my son and his fiancé who are recently engaged.  While their relationship is amazing and beautiful and their commitment solid, I want to make sure they have the Great Bridegroom right in there with them.

Not unlike many of us, as they begin to plan the wedding, they start with the easy stuff.  Choosing flowers and a menu is so much more pleasant than dealing with the expectations and questions of where and by whom they should be married.

It seems they are both bringing some pretty complicated religious baggage and like many of us don’t fit neatly into a denominational box.

I was moved to tears by an email that I received from him recently asking me how I felt and if I had any advice about finding someone to marry them.  (Most priests and many ministers won’t marry couples unless they go through some sort of pre-marital counseling process, which makes complete sense to me.)

But, with all the demands of life, school, work and family, they are just as comfortable going to a Justice of the Peace.

Wow….where do I start on that one?  

You see he grew up as a Methodist….kind of….with a father who is Catholic and a mother who grew up Mormon.  I say kind of because it wasn’t until he was older that I decided that making the effort to go to church was worth it.  That helping him learn about a loving and merciful God might be important.  (The consequences of which is an entirely different post).  By then I had to compete with hockey practice, all sports, girls and any number of things I already had working against me in the get to church department.

I walk a fine line here not wanting him to regret asking. I want to look him in the eye and beg him to bring in Jesus NOW in any and every way possible. He is your Hope. He will hold you together as a couple and as a man.

If I tell him less than that I dishonor Christ.

I have to give him an answer that has some meat.

The Answerer.

None of us need one more thing in our lives to let us down, to disappoint.  If we come to Christ with less than all of our hearts, we will get less of Him.

And less just isn’t enough.

Less will always bring us to our knees.

I love it anytime Jesus offered truth so simply.

“If it were not so I would have told you”

“I tell you the truth”

As Keller put it so beautifully, “His are the only arms that will give you all your heart desires”.

Not your beautiful, wise and loving girl.

She will have her bridegroom Christ as well!

I know his beloved as a wise woman already:  She listens to her mother.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeHere is the manuscript of this weekend’s sermon for our Lenten Series, Counterfeit Gods. Unfortunately the text itself doesn’t convey the sermon and the video recording didn’t work out. You can listen to the sermon here, in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download it in the iTunes library

The sermon began with a flash-mob style rendition of ‘All You Need is Love’ sung by the Men of Note. In the middle of the sermon, I retold the story of Jacob and Leah using glasses and a whole lot of water. 

Choir:

Love, love, love.

Love, love, love.

Love, love, love.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.

Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.

It’s easy.

 

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.

No one you can save that can’t be saved.

Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.

It’s easy.

 

All you need is love.

All you need is love.

All you need is love, love.

Love is all you need.

 

Nothing you can know that isn’t known.

Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.

Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.

It’s easy.

 

image

Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but you all know that’s a lie right?

 

It’s a nice sentiment for a pop song or a rom-com, but as biblical truth it’s what theologians call ‘complete crap.’

 

Far be it from me to be cynical, but that song is a lie. It’s not true.

 

Love, whether we’re talking about your love for your spouse or your love for your children or their love for you, is NOT all you need.

 

We live in a culture that tells us love is what gives our lives meaning and value. We live in a culture that tells us you’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you; consequently, some of us will let any body love us.

 

We live in a culture that tells us if we just find the perfect person- or have the perfect child- then everything else that’s empty in our lives will be filled.

 

Love is all we need to live happily ever after.

 

Those are all lies.

You can call me cranky if you like, but you know I’m right.

 

Anyone who’s ever been married or had children knows love isn’t all you need.

On your wedding day you say with a twinkle in your eye: ‘Of all the people in the world, I choose you.’

 

But after the day you say ‘I do’ there are other days when you just want to pull your hair out and scream: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you?!’

 

     So, no. Love is not all you need to live happily ever after.

     It wasn’t enough to keep the Beatles together.

     It wasn’t enough to rescue some of your relationships.

     And it wasn’t enough to keep Jacob’s life from unraveling and damaging everyone in it.

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Speaking of Jacob, just as an aside, you need to appreciate the degree of difficulty I’m dealing with today. A few of you may have noticed that I have a certain affinity for those silly, salacious, crude and even offensive parts of the Bible. So you should know that today’s scripture passage contains the Hebrew equivalent of the F-word, as when Jacob says to Laban: ‘I want to ___________ your daughter.’

In Hebrew, Rachel is described as having a ‘hot body’ while her older sister, Leah, whose name means ‘cow’ in Hebrew, is said to have ‘nice eyes,’ which is a Jewish colloquialism for ‘she has a nice personality.’

And then, to top it off, Jacob, the hero for whom the People of Israel are named, gets completely wasted and has sex with the wrong sister.

Can you even begin to appreciate how difficult it is for me not run wild with this story and offend you all in the process? It was all I could do not to title my sermon ‘Beer Goggles.’

 

As tempting as the silly parts of this story might be for me on other days, today I want to take the story straight up. I want to be serious.

 

Because once you push aside the preposterous Jerry Springer parts of the story, this story is more common and more relevant for this community than you could possibly guess.

 

By my conservative estimate, I’ve done about 1500 hours of counseling with couples during my ministry: couples jumping into marriage, couples struggling through their marriage, couples jumping into parenthood in order to fix what’s broken in their marriage, couples getting out of their marriage- after a long time or not long at all.

 

Confidentiality means I can’t tell you who those couples are. I can’t point to them or tell you if you’re sitting next to one of them, though some of you are.

 

     But that doesn’t matter because I can tell you: whenever those couples come to my office, there’s a better than even chance their names are Jacob and Leah.

 

So, I think it’s important you know their story.

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[Pull out two glasses. ‘Leah’ is half empty and ‘Jacob’ is full] 

 

Jacob and Leah’s story- it has everything to do with the stories they brought with them to their marriage. It almost always does.

 

The story starts with Jacob.

 

Jacob has an older brother.

Jacob’s Dad always preferred his brother to him. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

When you get past all the drama and bad decisions in Jacob’s life, that’s what it boils down to.

 

His Dad always insisted ‘I love you both the same.’

But even when you’re a child, you know better. You notice. You notice if your parent’s really listening, really paying attention to you, really enjoying you.

 

So Jacob grows up in his brother’s shadow, and the anger and hurt Jacob feels because of his Father gets expressed as resentment towards his brother. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

And Jacob’s Mom, she deals with it the way all abusive families cope. She tries to compensate for what her husband won’t do. She turns a blind eye. She pretends the problem doesn’t exist. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

But that never works.

 

Eventually it comes to a head. It always comes to a head.

 

So when Jacob is older, he hurts his brother- in a way that can’t be taken back. And, if he’s honest, he does it to spite his Father.

 

In just one self-destructive moment: his brother hates him, his relationship with his Father is ruined forever, and his Mother is forced to take sides. She doesn’t choose his. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Jacob’s never had his Father’s love. He’s lost his Mother and brother’s love. He has no sense of God’s love. He has no one in his life. He has no direction to his life. He has no meaning for his life.

 

He leaves home, completely empty inside. [EMPTY his glass]

 

The next part of Jacob’s story starts at a well.

 

But it just as easily could’ve taken place at a college or a club. In an office or at a party. Or over the computer.

 

He meets a woman. [Leah’s CUP]

He takes one look at her and he convinces himself:

 

She can fix what’s broken in my life.

She can give me what I’m missing.

She can fill the emptiness inside me, he says.

 

And he calls that love.

 

He’s like an addict, using the idea of this person to escape the pain in his own life, which makes him vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

Maybe he doesn’t realize it, but Jacob’s not looking for a soulmate. He’s looking for a salve. Or a savior.

Jacob marries this woman, hoping she can fill what’s missing in him.

His need keeps him from seeing who she really is. He doesn’t see that she has an emptiness insider her too. [hold up her glass] and that she can’t possibly fill what’s empty in his life. 

[pour her water into his so that he’s only half-filled].

So after they get married, he finds that emptiness is still there inside him.

And that brings conflict. It’s not long before he’s shouting at her:

‘You’re not the person I thought you were.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

‘You’re not the person I married.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

‘Why can’t you be more like this….’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

Eventually he stops speaking to her much at all. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

Until finally Jacob’s married with children and discovers he’s even emptier on the inside than he was before and he’s long way from happily ever after. [EMPTY his glass]

 

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Then there’s Leah’s story. [FILL her glass]

 

On the one hand, she’s the causality of Jacob’s need, but on the other hand, she does to him exactly what he did to her.

 

Leah grew up in the shadow of her little sister.

 

Her sister was a knockout, always the center of attention. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

Compared to her, Leah was unlovely. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

Or at least that’s how Leah saw herself; such that, she didn’t believe anyone would ever love her because she didn’t believe she was worth loving. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

And one day she meets a man, whose heart has an emptiness every bit as big as her own.

 

She meets him at a well, but they could’ve met anywhere.

 

Even though she knows he doesn’t really know her, doesn’t really see her for who she is, she marries him.

 

She marries him because she thinks he’s the only one who will ever marry her.

 

So she pins her hopes for happiness on this man, only to find one day that her emptiness is still there.

 

And that he can’t fill what’s missing in her life. [pour his empty glass into hers]

 

It’s not long before the marriage starts to suffer and strain from the emptiness both of them bring to it. [empty her glass completely]

 

So what’s Leah do?

 

She thinks children are the solution.

 

She thinks kids will fix her marriage and win her husband’s love.

 

So she has a little boy. She names him Reuben, and she says to herself: ‘Surely, my husband will love now.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But no, it doesn’t work that way. Never does. Though you’d be surprised how many think it will.

 

She tries again. She has another little boy. She names him Simeon. And this time she says to herself, ‘Surely my husband will pay attention to me now, will listen to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But with each child she’s pushed further into unhappiness.

 

She has another boy. She names him Levi. And she says to herself: ‘With three kids, now my husband will become attached to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

     But kids can never fix what was broken before they were born.

 

Three kids later, Leah finds herself still empty on the inside.

 

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It’s not in the story today, but I can tell you how the rest of it goes because I’ve heard it too many times.

 

Leah turns to her children to bring her the happiness her husband hasn’t, to fill what’s missing in her life, to give her life meaning and purpose.

 

But no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life. [EMPTY the shot glasses into Leah’s glass, should only fill her 1/4 of the way]

And no kid should have to bear such a burden. They’ll only get crushed underneath your expectations. Because if you look to your children for validation, to fill an emptiness inside you, you’ll need them to be perfect.

 

And when they’re not-because no child is- there will be conflict. [EMPTY Leah’s glass completely]

 

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

 

And a long way from happily ever after.

 

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Love is NOT all you need.

 

Psychologists call this a lack of differentiation, a lack of the ability to be a complete, fulfilled individual within the context of a relationship.

 

But Christians- Christians call this idolatry: Looking to others to give you what only God can give. Let’s not beat around the bush. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been married or whether your kids are young or grown.

     For most of you, this is the primary way you break the first commandment.

     Scripture says God is love; it doesn’t say love is God.

     You can’t replace God with your spouse.

     And you can’t replace God with your child.

     No spouse should have to love you that much and no kid can.

Until you realize that, you’ll always be frustrated with your kids and you’ll never stop complaining that you thought you were marrying Rachel only to discover you’re living with Leah.

 

For some of you, your marriage or your children play too big a role in your life precisely because God plays too small a role.

 

I mean, we forget that the first vows a bride and groom make aren’t to each other but to God.

 

If we make too much of our marriage and our children, we make too little of God. And when we put too much pressure on our marriage and children, we depend too little on God.

 

I’m not saying you should love your spouse or your kids less. I’m saying you should love God more. Because the bitter irony is that when we make too little of God in our relationships, we cut ourselves off from the source of Love.

 

Trust me, this is just on-the-job knowledge: focusing too much on your marriage or your relationship or your children is the best way to undermine them.

 

     I mean, some of you need Jesus Christ to come in to your hearts not so you can go to heaven when you die but so your relationships here and now will stop being a living hell.

Because you can only be generous with what you’ve got in the bank to give. If your only source of meaning and love and purpose and happiness and validation and affirmation and worth is another person, then you can never really love them.

 

The only way to say ‘I do’ and keep on saying ‘I do’ day after day is to first be able to say: ‘I’m a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.’

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can let you down, and sure it upsets you but it doesn’t undo you. Because you know God will never let you down.

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can speak the ugliest truths about you, and you don’t have to run away. Because that (the cross) has already spoken the deepest, darkest truth about who you really are and from that God said: ‘I forgive you because you have no idea what you’re doing.’

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- You can have patience with the flaws and sins in someone else. Because you know God has been gracious to you.

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can take you for granted, and yes it will disappoint you, but it won’t demolish your self-image. Because you know to God you are infinitely precious and worth dying for.

     [Pull out another glass and baptismal pitcher.]

 

There’s another story.

Jesus was on his way to Galilee, and along the way he stopped in Samaria.

At a well.

Jacob’s Well.

Jesus meets a woman there. She’s carrying an empty bucket.

But it’s the emptiness insider her that Jesus notices. The emptiness has carried her from man to man to man to man to man…

And Jesus says to her: [Pour water into glass, let it fill up and then overflow out on to the floor until pitcher is empty.]

I am Living Water.

What I can give you is a spring of water that never stops gushing, never stops flowing, never dries up.

    I can fill you, Jesus says.

With love. With meaning. With purpose. With value and healing and worth and validation.

I can fill you, Jesus says.

So that you can give love, not need it.

And she left that day, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.

She learned that day what the Beatles never did.

     The only way to live happily ever after is to first be happy with who you are in Jesus Christ.