Archives For Jesus

Jesus Doesn’t Exist

Jason Micheli —  December 5, 2014 — 1 Comment

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I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

3. Is Jesus a Human Being?

No.

Not like you or me even though he’s every bit like you or me.

Jesus is the union of humanity and divinity.

He is the ‘God-Man’ as the early Christians put it; in other words, the two natures- human and divine- share, in Jesus, one substance. The two natures are not discrete properties which for a time share the same real estate in Jesus. They share same existence.

To bring the distinction into still greater focus:

Jesus has no existence of his own apart from his existence in the Word.

There is no mortal, historical person called Jesus of Nazareth who still would have existed had there been no incarnation. Apart from his existence in the Word, Jesus has no existence as a human being. The human Jesus exists only also as the eternal Son.

So, yes, Jesus has an authentic human existence, as human as you or me, but Jesus’ human existence is only by virtue of his existence in God.

Unlike you and me.

Whereas we get our human existence from God, the human Jesus exists in God. The very existence of the human Jesus is God’s existence.

So, no, Jesus is not just a human being because Jesus is never not of one Being with the Father.

“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” 

– Hebrews 1.3

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

1. Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the One for whom a ‘Who?’ question can never sufficiently identify him.

To answer fully ‘Who is Jesus?’ requires asking ‘What is Jesus?’

Most obviously ‘Jesus’ names the son of Mary and Joseph, but ‘Jesus’ also designates the human who is the embodiment- literally so- of the eternal God.

On the one hand, Jesus is but another ordinary child named Yeshua in 1st century Galilee. On the other hand, this Yeshua is the Word of the ineffable God made flesh in 1st century Galilee.

This is but a way of answering the ‘Who is Jesus?’ question with the response ‘Jesus is the incarnate God.’ Jesus was (and is) a human person; however, this same identical human person was (and is) God. While the adjectives ‘divine’ and ‘human’ answer the question ‘What is Jesus?’ (his nature) question, the name ‘Jesus’ refers to who (which person) he is.

For example, ‘Who’ Jesus is is the Messiah, the oft-promised, long-awaited King of Israel to whom God promised to give dominion over the Earth. ‘What’ Jesus is is the union of humanity with the divine which brings our human lives, through the Holy Spirit, into the life of God.

Who Jesus is is the 2nd Adam, the first fully human person, who lives a life of love and fidelity even though ‘humanity’ responds to such human a life by killing it. As such, what Jesus is is the ‘Faithful One’ whom the righteousness of God vindicates by raising him from the dead.

Who Jesus is is the 2nd Abraham, the child of Israel through whom the redemptive blessing of God comes to the whole world, which makes ‘what’ Jesus is…salvation.

Who Jesus is is the One in whom our rejection of God and our rejection of authentic humanity coincide; therefore, what Jesus is is our original sin.

Jesus is our Fall and our forgiveness.

“You, who are marked out for vengeance, may take our present life, but the King of the universe for whose laws we die will resurrect us faithful ones again to eternal life.” – 2 Macc 7:9).

2. Why Do We Say Jesus was Born from a Virgin?

In order to confess that Jesus is the beginning, the first fruit, of God’s New Creation.

Just as the Word brought forth creation from nothing, brought into existence all that is without needing any previously existing materials, the Word takes flesh in a virgin’s womb.

Takes flesh from nothing.

Takes flesh, that is, apart from Joseph, sex and the normal, necessary means of human creating.

To confess the virgin birth is to profess that the incarnation is what Matthew calls it at the beginning of his Gospel: a Genesis.

A new beginning.

Which makes Mary the New Eve and Jesus the 2nd Adam and each of us, in Christ, a new creation.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away.”

– 2 Corinthians 5.17

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

postcardHere’s a Christmas Eve sermon on John 1.1-16 from several years ago.

If you’re in the area, then come to our Bluegrass Christmas Eve Service at 5:00. 

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight. Christmas Eve.

My mother made us go, my sister and me. We’d never gone to church before so we didn’t know on Christmas Eve you have to come early. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left.

I was a teenager then, 16 or 17 years old. And I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to sit in a hard, uncomfortable pew and listen to a minister preach. Or tell lame jokes.

I mean- why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church?

I didn’t believe. Better still, I disbelieved more strongly than I believed in anything.

I was convinced you Christians just turn God into whatever and whom ever you want God to be. If you’re a Republican then so is God. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat then, surprise, God agrees with you on most essential things.

You put God in a box. You wrap him in whatever flag you’re already flying. You put him on your side of this or that issue.

And what better example of that could there be than tonight? I thought. Christmas Eve, the night when, you Christians say, God Almighty swapped heaven for a trough, when God took flesh and became a baby: a sweet, passive, docile, wordless, dependant baby.

You know…if you want a god that can be used by us, then Christmas Eve is made to order. A baby? That’s a god that lets us be in charge. That’s a god we can worship and celebrate without having to be changed or challenged. I thought.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach said that when Christians say “God” they’re really just talking about themselves in a loud voice. When I was 16 or 17, I was a lot like Feurbach- except I also like Super Mario Brothers and Professional Wrestling.

I didn’t believe. And I knew all the arguments why I didn’t.

The thing is, back then, I didn’t know much about babies.

My first son, Gabriel, was already 15 months old when I got to hold him for the first time. My wife and I, we held him for the first time not in a hospital or maternity ward but in a hotel.

That’s where our adoption worker brought him to us. Instead of pinks and blues, the “delivery” room was decorated with tropical plants and Mayan art.

Technically speaking, he wasn’t still a baby. He was no longer a newborn but his toddler’s eyes still looked out at the world with innocence and wonder. His fingers were still small and fragile beneath their soft, pudgy skin, and they still clutched onto my fingers for protection. And even though he knew a handful of words already, he still most often spoke in shrieks and cries that demanded care.

We spent our first few days as a new family in that little hotel in Guatemala while we completed the paperwork for Gabriel’s adoption.

The wrought-iron table in the hotel courtyard was where I first sat him on my lap and learned how to feed him and wipe his mouth and clean up after his spills.

The slate patio outside our hotel room, where we sat down on the ground opposite each other, pushing plastic cars back and forth, that’s where I learned to earn his trust.

The hotel garden had a tall, thin palm tree growing in it. That’s the tree I pulled on and swayed back and forth, pretending to be an angry gorilla. That’s where I made Gabriel laugh for the first time. That’s where I made him laugh away his fears.

And then there was the old burgundy armchair in our room- that’s where I held him against me and, for the first time in my life, let my too-cool, cynical voice sing soothing and silly songs to him.

When I was 16 or 17, I didn’t know much about babies. I thought that just because they’re wordless and dependant then they must be passive, harmless. I didn’t know then that babies alter lives. They clutch and grab and pull on us when we’d like to get on to something else.

How could I have known at 16 or 17 how babies disturb schedules, how they force us to think about someone other than ourselves? They jumble and reorient priorities. They call out of us a tenderness and compassion we didn’t know we possessed.

Babies give us a glimpse at the person we could be if everything else in our lives was wiped clean or made new.

I didn’t know it when I was 16 or 17, but if you really want to invade someone’s life, if you want to mess with their priorities and preconceptions, if you want to change them or draw out them love and mercy- then you send them a baby.

If the Gospels were college courses, then John’s Gospel would be a 400-level class. John’s Gospel is the course with all the prerequisites because John presumes you’ve already heard the Nativity story before.

John expects you to know that, when the story opens, Caesar rules the world by the sword and that he needs a census to pay for it.

John expects you to remember that this “king” is born to a poor, unwed, 15 year old Jewish girl, whose unlikely pregnancy few will believe is a sign of anything more than what you could read on the bathroom wall about her.

John expects that by the time you get to his Gospel you should be able to write a short answer essay on the paradox of this cosmic news being delivered not to the press or priests, not to the wealthy or the wise, but to shepherds, who in first century eyes were about as smart and savory as the sheep they kept.

You need to know that the news the shepherds hear from angels is an answer to a prayer so old it had almost been forgotten.

John expects you to know all that because John doesn’t just want to tell you the story of Christmas. He wants to interpret it for you.

He wants you to be able do more than point at tonight’s scene and say ‘the manger goes here, the wise men go over there.’

John instead wants you to be able to creep up to the manger and look down upon the baby it holds and say to whoever will hear your awed whisper: ‘This is what it means. This is why this birth, this night, is more holy than any other.’

Holy because the baby Mary holds is, inexplicably, God- made flesh.

His cooing voice is the same voice that long ago said: ‘Let there be light.’ His tiny fingers that hold onto Mary’s are somehow the hands that first hung the stars in the sky, and the light in his half-open eyes is the same unquenchable fire that once met Moses in a burning bush.

Tonight, his skin is still splotchy. It feels new and warm, but the truth is he is timeless. Eternal. And in his small, gently rising lungs is the power to make worlds.

John wants you to know that tonight.

John wants you to look down into the manger and know that God’s plan to finally disarm us of everything but our love is to send a baby.

And not just any- but Himself, made weak and wordless and wrapped in strips of cloth. Made flesh.

Made every bit like one of us so that every one of us might be made more like God.

Our first night with Gabriel was Easter night, a year and a half ago. My wife was asleep on top of the bed still in all her clothes. The television played softly in Spanish and showed pictures of Easter parades from earlier that day. Gabriel stirred awake next to my wife, crying and fearful.

At that point in my life I’d been a Christian for 11 years. I’d been a minister for 5. And it was Easter. But it was the first time in my life that I really understood tonight.

I sat Gabriel in the burgundy armchair with me. He curled up in my arms and I sang him back to sleep. I saw pictures of the Easter Jesus play across the TV screen and I looked down at Gabriel: tiny, trusting and unknowing. And I thought to myself: ‘This could be God.  In my arms. Breathing against me.’

That’s when the strangeness and mystery of what John tells us tonight really hit me for the first time. Thinking about how much Gabriel had already changed me in just a few hours, I realized for the first time what a powerful thing it is that God does tonight.

I used to scoff at Christmas because I thought a baby was just a safe idol that could be used by us, could be made into whatever and whomever we wanted. But it’s actually the opposite. Babies have within them the power to remake us. What God does tonight is actually more powerful than a hundred floods or a thousand armies.

I mean- go ahead and ask a baby about what you’ve done or not done in the past. Ask a baby about that relationship you’ve yet to reconcile. Ask them about the expectations you’ve not met or about the sins you’ve committed or that thing you’re afraid to tell your spouse or your children or your parents.

You’re not going to get an answer. Babies don’t give answers. They just give light. With babies all that matters is that they are present, that they are there, that they are with you.

I mean- try telling a baby you’re not completely convinced they exist. Try telling a baby: ‘I don’t think believing in you really works in a modern world.’ It’s not going to get you off the hook. With a baby all our questions are relativized.

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

The calendar and the TV said it was Easter, but to me that first night with Gabriel was like Christmas. Holding him in my arms I could sense a new life that he opened up to me. He had neither the words nor the power to absolve me, but, holding him, I felt that everything had been forgiven. Who I’d been before he came into the world no longer mattered.

It only mattered who I would be from that moment on.

Tonight, the baby Mary holds in her arms, the baby breathing against her, IS God. Maybe you’ve heard the story before. Maybe you know where the manger and the wise men should be placed.

But I don’t want you to leave her tonight without knowing that- without knowing that because God takes on a life that means your life is sacred, without knowing that God is new and warm and cooing tonight in order to disarm you of everything but love, without knowing that God is born tonight in order to draw out of you the person you no longer thought could be.

Tonight, Mary holds him in her arms: the Word made flesh.

Tomorrow, Mary’s reputation will still be suspect in the eyes of her community. Tomorrow, she and her fiancé will still be homeless. They’ll still be poor. Tomorrow, their lives will be in danger. Tomorrow Mary won’t know what the future holds or if she’s strong enough to get there.

Tomorrow, her questions and fears and doubts will still be there. And so will yours.

But tonight none of that matters. Tonight, all that matters is he is with us. Tonight, that’s enough.

So listen to John’s invitation and creep up to the manger. Look at the light in his eternal, newborn eyes and know that everything you’ve done or been before tonight is forgiven. Know that all matters is who you are from this moment on, the moment he comes into the world.

Because I can speak from personal experience- this child, he has the power to make you new again.

Merry Christmas.

 

StJosephbyGerritVanHonthorst1620As promised, here’s the audio and video from the weekend’s sermon on Joseph. You can also download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Better yet, download the FREE Tamed Cynic mobile app linked in the sidebar.

Here’s the audio:

      1. There’s Something About Joseph

And here’s the video:

 

jules-hr-600x300It’s a Wonderful-But-Also-Cliched-And Moralizing Life

This time of year, with Gabriel’s ‘Do not be afraids’ and the heavenly host’s ‘glorias,’people tend to have questions about angels.

Much like the devil, pop culture’s assumptions about angels run far afield of what we actually find in scripture.

And as with the devil, the ubiquity of pop culture stereotypes on angels often makes people reluctant to jettison their Touched By An Angel/Highway to Heaven/Fat Cherub Baby Calendar images of angels.

So, if you’re like all the other people who’ve ever asked me about angels and devils then you’ll read my sober, scripturally based response and decide you like Michael Landon better.

As my son says before I smack him, ‘whatever’ (just joking).

First, what are angels?

Simply put, angels are messengers.

That’s what the word ‘angel’ literally means.

And you should notice how similar it is to the word ‘evangel’ or ‘proclamation.’

Angels do evangelism.

That, with few not contradictory examples, is what they do.

Angels are creatures of God and thus subordinate to God. They’re creatures given over to a specific purpose: the mediation of heavenly revelation or messages.

They’re God’s tweets in other words.

Because they’re creatures given for a specific purpose, they have no free will.

Because they are without free will, they are subordinate in creation to human beings- and if you’re about to push back on that it’s because you’ve got Milton’s Paradise Lost in your head not the bible.

Check.

Mate.

Now, this heavenly revelation bit is key.

The message angels deliver is straight from the presence of Yahweh.

Think of the Holy of Holies and how risky it was for Israel’s priests to venture close to it.

Angels bring the holiness of God near into the present. Therefore, they’re scary. In a fear of God kind of way.

There’s a reason Gabriel is constantly having to say ‘Do not be afraid.’

Just like Jewels in Pulp Fiction, Gabriel is a ‘Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(’

And Clarence, no matter how we might feel about the Jimmy Stewart movie, could never ever be mistaken for a Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(

An angel as sweet and reassuring as Clarence is not an angel sent from the holy presence of Yahweh, the God who is, as Hebrews says, ‘a consuming fire.’ clarence

Back to the Christmas story or just the Gospels in general. What makes the Gospels take an angels distinct (especially compared to some of the Jewish writings in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth) is how the Gospels take on angels is thoroughly Christocentric (Jesus centered).

You’ve got angels, most notably Gabriel, at the beginning of the Gospel in the Nativity story.

You’ve got angels at the end, in the form of the strangers at the tomb, when Jesus is raised from the dead.

In the middle, you’ve got Jesus.

Why no angels? Because, back to the top, angels mediate God’s revelation.

And Jesus Christ is himself the perfect, complete revelation of God.

No other messengers necessary.

Which leads to a theological question I don’t have time for now but you can feel free to weigh in on:

Since God has sent us Jesus, the complete revelation of God’s message….

And since Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit….

Do we need

and/or

does God continue to send angels?

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The following is a small group reflection written for our church planting planning team. 

“I would rather be with someone who is real than someone who is good.”

– Philip Yancey

During the 2006 campaign, ‘political correspondents’ for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart purported to provide election coverage from locations all over the state of Ohio. You can see a clip here.

From different towns and cities and polling places.

Every correspondent though reported their story while standing in front of an Applebee’s restaurant.

Each exactly like the other.

As usual, the Daily Show skewered something very true about our culture.

Just think of the homogeneity of our shopping centers. When there is a combination of Barnes and Noble, Home Depot, Target and Panera everywhere, it begins to feel as though every place is the same, or that no place is unique. Or real.

What we experience in shopping centers isn’t that different in kind from the fake reality we see on television.

What we see on television isn’t that much different from the abundance of fake foods sold in our supermarkets.

What we find in our supermarkets is but another example of the digitally altered and perfected music we hear on the radio or the false sounds we hear from politicians.

On many levels, ours is an inauthentic culture:

the artificial is everywhere and everywhere it is promised to trump the real thing.

In such a culture, Christians are called to be a People who are honest, genuine and real.

There’s a story in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s the last in a series of 3 ‘Kingdom moments’ in which Jesus non-violently upends the status quo. Jesus calls Simon, who is a tax collector and, as such, is a Jew who makes his living by colluding with the Roman Empire.

Tax collectors were sinners. Outcasts. And even among the ‘ochlos’ (the despised and outcast poor) tax collectors were the most loathed of people.

Not only does Jesus call Simon to follow him, Jesus promptly eats and drinks with Simon and other sinners. Mark’s telling of Jesus eating and drinking with sinners includes the curious phrase “on his left elbow.”

That is, Jesus is reclining at the dinner table on his left elbow.

The left elbow was a 1st century colloquialism for being casual with another.

For being real.

Authentic.

Not a high and mighty Messiah, Jesus was authentically himself with sinners.

And by giving them his left elbow, Jesus gave sinners the right signal to be authentic themselves.

Incidentally, it’s when Jesus and his followers are being real around a table that Mark uses the word ‘disciple’ for the first time.

The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, commenting on the fake reality of contemporary culture, writes that what is needed is a “substituting the signs of the real for the real.”

There’s both a need and a hunger, he argues, for a reality that’s really real. He’s right. From farmers’ markets to home-brewed beer to handmade clothes sold on Etsy, people crave the authentic.

What’s more, today people are so numbed to the artificiality marketed to us from every angle that increasingly they have what Ernest Hemingway called a “a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector.”

[What things in or about church would set off Hemingway’s BS Detector?]

Missiologist Michael Frost says this is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.

On the one hand, more and more people long for authentic relationships and experiences, communities of truthfulness and vulnerability.

On the other hand, this is exactly what many churches tend to avoid.

Churches too, Frost points out, peddle the artificial and inauthentic. Often churches are not places where folks recline on their left elbow with each other, sharing what’s really going on in their lives.

Churches are sometimes guilty, Frost says, of painting the Christian life in the sweet, sentimental glow of a Norman Rockwell painting. When Norman Rockwell fails to match people’s reality (because, admit it, it does for all of us), churches can end up alienating people.

Which leads to an interesting question:

[What are the things you can’t do, say or express in Church that you do in other everyday activities in your life?]

Which is just another way of asking:

[Why do Christians so often value respectability over authenticity?]

It’s important that we have an answer to that last question.

As Frost writes, in our increasingly post-Christendom culture Christians need to earn the right to be reheard:

“Is it too simplistic to say that we earn that right through our authentic lifestyles?

In a culture yearning for authenticity- the real- the pressure is on us in the Christian community now more than ever to put our time and our money where our mouth is and live what we preach.”

We’re called, in other words, not to be perfect Christians.

We’re called to be genuine people.

Who are trying to follow Jesus.

Which is good news.

Because if authenticity is what more and more people hunger after, then they’re searching not for the former but for the latter.

[What does a community of authenticity look like?

What’s the congregational equivalent of a farmers’ market?]

[What might it mean to practice an organic, homebrewed faith?]

 

 

 

reza-aslan-muslim-zealot-book-author-slams-Jesus-christianity

This past weekend we concluded our sermon series on Reza Aslan’s best-selling book, Zealot.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, brought the homiletical thunder.

Or at least a couple of sermonic sparks.

Here’s Dennis’ sermon:

      1. Whose Jesus, Reza Aslan?

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‘A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Snorting with indignation, Jesus dispatched him, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

On Facebook this week I shared an article I found on the Daily Beast with the amusing title, ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God.’

I only glanced through the article but I read enough to catch a whiff of the author’s condescension, subtly mocking the (often vague and contradictory) religious beliefs of porn stars and their (often equally vague and contradictory) justifications for their work in light of their faith.

What came across in the article is exactly what the headline was meant to pique: Surprise.

Surprise that ‘those people’ would believe in God.

I don’t know why it would surprise.

Many porn stars apparently believe in a personal God who bears a slight familial resemblance to the God of the Bible but not enough to be overbearing.

Just like many plenty of church do.

I confess I shared the story on Facebook with a little added snark about the possibilities for creating a niche, micro-targeted church just for porn star Christians.

Having shared it on Facebook, I immediately wondered what exactly would be wrong with a community of porn stars following Jesus.

Why is it, for example, that a Daily Beast article with the title ‘I Coordinate Drone Attacks and I Believe in God’ or ‘I’m a Corporate Lawyer and I Believe in God’ or, to be above board, ‘I’m a Pastor in an Affluent Denomination and I Believe in God’ wouldn’t register the same tone of surprise, if any, as a ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God?’

Because any honest read of the Gospels would lead you to bet that Jesus would have a thing or two to say about those other vocations too.

And there’s no question in mind as to who Jesus would be hanging out with if he had to choose.

This is hardly a defense of pornography, quite the opposite. It is, however, an honest pondering about why the word ‘purity’ carries only connotations of sex.

Why do sexual sins triumph over other ones? And why do we assume those sins disqualify from discipleship while others do not?

What prompted me to reconsider the Daily Beast story this week was my reading of Mark’s Gospel, the story of the leper in 1.40-45.

The purity regulations about leprosy are found in Leviticus 13.2-14.57 and revolved around 2 basic considerations: Leprosy is a communicable disease and a priest must preside over any ritual cleansing

The verb (katharizein) translated ‘to cleanse’ actually means ‘to declare clean.’ Jesus, as he does with ritually proscribed food, announces the man clean.

‘To declare clean’ shows how the point isn’t Jesus’ miracle-working per se but his claiming authority that belongs to the guild of priests, who would consign the leper to the margins where ‘sinners’ belong.

Jesus defies Torah by usurping the priestly prerogative.

Mark makes a point of emphasizing- remember every last detail in Mark is important and intentional- that Jesus touched the leper first before he healed him.

Where Jesus should’ve become contagious from leprosy, the leper becomes contagious with Jesus.

The exchange here between the leper and Jesus symbolically illustrates how the order of power has been overturned: Jesus is attacking and infecting the status quo.

Many translations give the impression in Vs. 43-45 that Jesus instructed the man to follow the priestly ritual: “go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

But if that’s the case then the above is just, only, a miracle story. To read it that way, misses the tone of the story: the leper himself recognizes that approaching Jesus, a nonpriest, for healing violates the social order: “…if you dare…”

And why would Jesus then be angry and indignant?

The emotions attributed to Jesus only make sense if the leper has already gone to the priests for healing, and the priests for some reason rejected his petition.

Having been healed, the leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an unjust system: Note how in V44 the object changes from ‘priest’ to ‘them’

It’s about more than what 1 priest did or failed to do. It’s about the whole system.

Jesus’ anger is against the whole purity system that make people victims twice over, first by stigmatizing them and then by barring their religious participation if demands, which are not exerted on others, are not met.

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ reaction to a condescending story like ‘I’m a Porn Star…’ wouldn’t be surprise but anger.

And I also wonder if after Jesus declared those porn stars ‘clean’ we religious folk wouldn’t be a little PO’d with Jesus.

Angry enough to kill him.

 

 

Borg, Bras and Clergy Collars

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2013 — 5 Comments

In my sermon this weekend I tried to approach the question of Resurrection by putting the onus on the person who disbelieves the Church’s historic claim.

‘Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?’

It’s a damn good, table-turning question I think.

And it wasn’t originally my question. I thought giving credit where credit is due would not only be appropriate but illuminating.

Back in 2007, I went to the National Cathedral to listen to a panel discussion that the Cathedral was hosting.

The theme of the event was “The Church in the 21st Century” and for the event the Cathedral had gathered well-known speakers and scholars like Tony Jones, Diana Butler Bass, and, someone dear to my own heart, Marcus Borg.

Actually, I think Marcus Borg is a unimaginative, knee-jerk, liberal fundamentalist hack. Bless his heart.

Like Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot, Marcus Borg has made a career out of regurgitating old Aryan arguments and outdated, hackneyed scholarship to make the claim that the Jesus of the Gospels bears little resemblance to the “real” Jesus of history.

The Gospels, Borg argues, are not stories grounded in real history; they are instead myths and metaphors which convey deeper spiritual truths and universal existential principles.

dc-Marcus-Borg-speaking-to-a-group-300x160In other words, the “real” Jesus never really said: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 x 7, get rid of all your stuff and give it to the poor, a rich man’s getting into heaven is about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded camel through the eye of a needle.

According to Borg, the “real” Jesus never really said those things and thus the “real” Jesus never really expected us to do them. Not surprisingly, Marcus Borg is wildly popular in denominations like the United Methodist Church.

At the National Cathedral, Marcus Borg was the rock star of the panel, and by the time I arrived there was already a horde of Episcopal priests gathered up front staring at Borg so ecstatically I thought they might start to swoon or throw their bras and clergy collars at him.

Not wanting to be mistaken for one of Borg’s fanboys, I sat in the back with the civilians, scooting into a pew next to a tiny, old man who was wearing a knit suit.

Because the theme was ‘the Church in the 21st Century” and because we were surrounded by Episcopalians, it didn’t take long for the panel to steer the discussion toward which Christian beliefs were outdated and needed to be rethought and reinterpreted for the modern world.

And it didn’t take long for that discussion to get around to the resurrection.

With an air of enlightened self-importance, Marcus Borg droned on about how what matters is not that God raised Jesus from the dead; what matters is that the disciples experienced resurrection in their hearts.

For that matter, Borg continued doling out his koan-like nonsense, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was never actually crucified. It’s doesn’t matter if Jesus never said or taught any of the words attributed to him by the Gospels. It doesn’t matter if someone named ‘Jesus’ from Nazareth was never born- virgin or not, we can suppose.

It doesn’t matter because what matters is that it’s experienced as true in us.

It struck me then that it’s appropriate Borg deems the Gospels myth since his entire theology revolves around another myth: Narcissus.

The panel continued on that nonsensical line for a while.

Finally, during the Q/A the old man next to me got up and shuffled up to the microphone. He was small and had white hair and must’ve been in his 80’s I guessed.

Softly into the microphone, he said:

‘Tell me, Dr Borg, was the tomb empty? Or not?’

 

With what sounded like a rehearsed reply, Marcus Borg said:

‘If I had to bet a dollar or my life, I’d bet there was no tomb. And if there was a tomb then it was not empty.’

 The old man’s mouth dropped.

 And Marcus Borg added: ‘Of course there was no physical, literal resurrection. That’s impossible.’

The old man shuffled back to my pew and sat down.

And then he leaned over and with genuine anger in his voice, he asked me:

“Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?

Shouldn’t someone who doesn’t believe the Resurrection have to come up with a better explanation for everything?”

But that wasn’t all.

While the man whispered in my ear, Borg had resumed his condescension:

‘We all know dead bodies DON’T come back to life. The Resurrection violates everything we know about nature.’

And the old man muttered underneath his breath:

‘But that’s exactly the damn point.’

 

zealot_reza_aslanStarting after Labor Day, we’re doing a sermon series that will address some of the questions and claims of Reza Aslan’s meteoric (thanks to Fox News’ embarrassing prejudiced interview) book, Zealot.

You can read some of my reactions to the book, here and here.

Here’s a clever send-up of the interview. It’s funny, though, I don’t know if anything can quite match how ridiculous was the actual interview itself.

 

 

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’– Mark 4

Listen.

There was a man I knew. Andy. And if you had just one sentence to describe him, you would probably say that Andy was a hard man. His eyes were as dark as pavement. His voice and even his bearing were as rough as gravel.

He’d been a cop, and I’ve always wondered if his jaded personality came as a result of his career or if his career had been the perfect fit for his personality. He was a hard man.

I remember one time I was sitting in my office. I was on the phone and I heard Andy’s gravely voice in the foyer- barking in his cop’s voice: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. Move on out of here. You don’t belong here.’ 

I hung up the phone and I walked out to the little foyer to see what the barking was about. A hitchhiker- a homeless man- had stopped into the church earlier that morning, looking not for money but for a meal. And so when Andy had come into the church office that day, he found this hobo sitting on a dirty, green army duffel in the corner of the foyer near a stack of Upper Room devotionals. The man was eating ham and sweet potatoes from a church luncheon the day before.

The door to the church office had a little electric bell that went off whenever someone entered the building. That morning, before the bell even stopped ringing, Andy had appraised this stranger and was ordering him away: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. You don’t belong here.’ 

For Andy, ‘church’ was just another word for wishful thinking. For Andy, the ‘real’ world was the world he’d retired from- a world where people will do anything to get ahead and where scores are settled certainly not forgiven. For Andy, that was the real world not the world as it’s described in stained glass places.

He’d grown up in the church. But he’d never really become a Christian.

In his moments of need- when his dad had died, when he’d lost his job, when he’d struggled with alcoholism- God had not been the one he’d turned to. He had two daughters, a wife and a house. Andy was happy with his life but not grateful. And he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes in his life, but he’d never call those mistakes sins.

If you asked Andy if he was a Christian, without thinking, he’d say: ‘Yes, of course.’ But if you asked his friends or his neighbors, they’d have no idea. They wouldn’t know.

Andy came to worship not regularly but often enough- whenever one of his girls was singing. Every time he came he looked distracted and inattentive- like he was restless to get to the main event, which for him never came.

When I preached, Andy would squint at me suspiciously, searching for the agenda hidden beneath my words. And whenever I saw Andy sitting in the pews, I would preach straight at him. I’d throw the Gospel at him every which way like he was target practice, hoping that some Word would take root in him. Nothing ever did.

When I heard Andy barking ‘Get up. You don’t belong here.’ I got up and walked out to the foyer and, in my pastoral tone of voice, I asked Andy: ‘What are you doing?’ 

And Andy smiled at me like I was the most naïve child in the world and he said: ‘He doesn’t need to be here. He’ll only bother the old folks for a handout or scare the kids.’ Meanwhile, the hitchhiker was looking up at the two of us unsure of what to do.

And I said: ‘This is a church. We can’t treat him like that. Whether he bothers the old folks or not, whether he scares the kids or not, we’ve got to treat him like he’s Jesus.’ 

My words just bounced off him like seeds on a sidewalk. Andy just responded with a blank face.

As Andy went to leave he mumbled: ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.’ 

You know it’s not that he was a bad person because he wasn’t. It’s just that he had let the world harden him so that the Word never had much chance to take root in him.

Listen.

There was a family I knew for a short time. I met them at the hospital in Charlottesville back when I worked there as a chaplain. The husband and wife were maybe in their early forties. They had three boys. Their oldest boy, Chad, was 12 or 13.

Chad was in the hospital with leukemia. Except for occasional respites at home, Chad was in the hospital for almost a year. And during that time I saw him and his family once or twice a week.

Ministering to strangers in a hospital can be more than a bit awkward. Not knowing the people or their religious background can make conversation both more delicate and unduly forward.

When I first met Chad’s family the first thing I did was survey the hospital room, glancing at their stuff, hoping to get a sense of them. There were newspapers on the floor, movies on the window sill and a Play-Station controller on Chad’s bedside table.

Chad’s mom, I noticed, had a silver cross around her neck and, even, a symbol for the Trinity tattooed on her ankle.

The afternoon I first met them they welcomed me with…joy. We talked about what they did, where they lived, the friends Chad was anxious to get home to, how the Cavaliers were forecast to do that season. And when I asked to pray with them, they said yes, even though they were visibly uncomfortable about it.

That first afternoon I met them, when I’d told them I was a Methodist pastor they told me that they were Methodists too. So I asked them if I should contact their pastor for them. They said: ‘No, he probably doesn’t know who we are.’

I asked if they had a small group or friends from church that I could call for support and again they said ‘No.’

They blushed and then told me that they’d gone to church a few years ago. ‘We wanted to expose our kids to it’ they said, ‘but we never went any deeper than that. We never made it a regular part of our lives.’ 

I didn’t really say anything. Then Chad’s father added: ‘We believe in God though. We’re good people. That’s enough isn’t it?’ 

And because of where we were and the situation they were in, I said yes. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

I spoke with Chad and his family countless times after that first afternoon. Every time I tried to do what a pastor’s supposed to do. I tried to model the presence of Christ. I tried to get them to articulate their feelings and name their fears. I encouraged them to affirm their faith and to identify where they felt God was in their struggle.

I tried, but I could never get past the surface things with them. And I think it’s because they never let their faith get any deeper than the surface of their lives.

One of the last conversations I had with Chad’s parents happened one winter morning. They’d just been given some bad news, a setback in Chad’s treatment. We talked about it for a while and when I asked if I could pray with them they said: ‘No. We’ve lost our faith.’ 

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand their feelings or empathize with them. And it’s not like seeing one of my own boys in Chad’s place wouldn’t stretch my faith to the breaking point.

And I would never dream to say it to them but the fact is that had their faith been a deeper part of their lives it might not have been so easily blown away. The fact is they never let their faith take root in their lives. And when they got to a point in their lives when they needed a faith to grab onto, it wouldn’t hold them.

Eventually, Chad returned home.  I don’t know if his parent’s faith ever did.

Listen.

There was a man I knew in the first church I ever served. In New Jersey. Sheldon.

Sheldom reminded me a lot of the fastidious character in the Odd Couple. He had a vaguely aristocratic accent, the kind of voice you can still hear in the parts of New Jersey that you don’t see from the turnpike.

He was seventy or so. He’d been a teacher, a principal and a professor. He’d served on township board and city councils and task forces. He’d coached sport teams and led Boy Scout troops. He’d traveled all over the world. He had a family. His life was a thicket of activity.

In the short time I served as his pastor, Sheldon was always asking me questions: What does the bible say about X? Is it true that Jesus…Y? I’ve always wondered….Z, what do you think? 

Initially I thought the barrage of questions was because he was an educator and, thus, naturally curious. But that was only part of it.

One Sunday morning, well before worship began, I met Sheldon for breakfast at a nearby diner. It was the Advent season and Sheldon was the scripture reader that day.

The passage that Sunday was from the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Sheldon commented on the dense, philosophic language and asked me to unpack the rhetoric for him.  ‘What the heck does it mean?’ he asked. And I just said that it’s John’s poetic way of saying that Jesus is God.

Now that’s a pretty basic concept, I thought, so I just said it kind of quickly, matter-of-factly. But Sheldon said: ‘What?’ like he’d missed the punch-line.

I just repeated it again: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s just a pretentious way of saying that Jesus is God.’ 

Sheldon sipped his tea and he said, softly: ‘I don’t know why I’ve never heard that before.’

By the time he set his tea back down on the table, he was crying.

And I had no idea why.

I waited for him to say something. After a moment he told me how he had a PhD after his name, how he could point to schools he’d built, how he could rattle off the names of children he’d taught- teachers he’d taught, how his savings was flush with the fruit of his life’s work and how his home was filled with pictures and trinkets from all the places he’d been.

And then he confessed to me: ‘I’ve never given my faith a fraction of the time I’ve given to other things. I’ve been a Christian all my life but I don’t know any more about my faith than I did when I was twelve years old. 

     I tell people all the time ‘You’ll be in my prayers’ and that would be true, if I did. But I’ve never learned how to pray, not really. 

      I’ve been a Christian all my life but my faith is the one thing in my life I don’t have anything to show for. 

     I can point to kids who know math because of me, but I can’t point to anyone who knows God more deeply because of me.’ 

The frankness of what he’d said winded him.

A moment passed. He patted my hand and said: ‘It’s not that my faith wasn’t important to me. It’s that so many other things were important too.’ 

Listen.

I’ve known other people. I know some here.

People in whom the faith has grown and flowered; people whose lives are beautiful. And I don’t understand them. It’s like their lives are fertile soil for the Gospel.

I mean…Andy, I get. I meet people like Chad’s parents all the time. Sheldon is me all over.

But genuine, truly humble, serving Christians- they are a mystery to me.

I mean- they live in the same world as Andy. They work in the same places as Chad’s parents, and they have the same sorts of friends as Sheldon does.

But there is something different about them.

They love. They care. They go. They do. They give. They serve. They share. They embody. And if you were to recite all the fruit of their faithfulness they would be embarrassed.

I’ve known people like that. I know some here.

When the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him preaching, I’m sure there were plenty by the lake shore who wanted to hear clear-cut, practical kinds of teaching: Do This, Don’t Do That, Follow These Three Steps.

What Jesus gives them is stories. And Jesus never says it. He never makes it obvious, but what he’s doing is inviting them to consider who they are in the stories- who they really are- and who God would have them become.

 

For the past four months, we’ve been working our way, chunk by chunk, through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Two weeks ago, on the way out of worship and having just heard a reading from Romans 8, a parishioner asked me:

That verse in Romans about all things working out for good for those who love God- I’ve never understood what that’s supposed to mean. Does it really mean everything works out in life for Christians? Because that’s not exactly my experience.

I disarmed the question with a dash of humor and a few sprinkles of theology and sent the questioner on their way. Out of narthex sight, out of pastor’s mind.

I didn’t think about their question again; that is, not until today.

Like many of you, I purchase most of my books through Amazon. Frequently Amazon will provide me with a list of suggested books that I ‘might like,’ titles presumed by the Amazon Borg to live in the same habitat as my previous purchases.

Because many of the books I purchase are theological, the Amazon algorithms apparently have tagged me as a reader of ‘Christian Literature’ and ‘Christian Inspiration.’

Yes, you were right to anticipate a dry-heave gag reflex. It’s hard for me to say, for example, in the case of For Every Season whether my credulity is strained more by the descriptor ‘Christian’ or ‘Literature.’

fes_lgIn fact a quick perusal through the virtual shelves of ‘Christian Fiction’ suggest there is a surprising audience out there for Anabaptist (Amish? Mennonite?) Romance novels.

Book covers abound that feature chaste yet well-endowed disciples who manage to wear their biblically-mandated head covering in a come hither way.

It makes one wonder if there’s likewise a Christian subcategory to torture porn novels?

Fifty Shades of Amish Wool perhaps?

I mean, the Amish are good at tying knots.

(It’s my idea- don’t steal it)

You won’t be surprised to learn that what truly kills me is Amazon suggesting that I ‘might like these books in Christian Inspiration.’

Glancing at these suggested texts, whose titles even my cynical mind couldn’t satirize better, I thought of that parishioner again and her question about that verse.

Does everything in life work out for good for Christians? For those who love God? For those who just pray hard enough?

Because that’s certainly the explicit promise in nearly all these ‘inspirational’ books, and while it may be inspirational to hear that the Bible/Faith/Prayer contains the secret to grant our every market-generated wish, it’s not at all clear that it counts as ‘Christian.’

So many of these ‘inspirational’ books peddle exactly what atheists accuse religion for being underneath the hood. ‘God’ isn’t really a name bound to a very specific historical narrative; ‘God’ is really just the word we use to designate what we want to change in our lives.

It’s the baldest kind of hope fulfillment.

Does everything work out for good if you love God enough and pray? I-DECLARE-428x620

Joel Osteen answers in the affirmative and has taken that ‘yes’ all the way to the bank.

Truth be told, I’ve actually read JO’s bestseller, Your Best Life Now. And in all however many pages, Rev Osteen never gets around to mentioning these essential bits of Christian logic:

If we’re made in the image of God

And Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Then we’re made to bear the image of Jesus, the incarnate God.

Therefore:

Your ‘best’ life (and mine and anyone else’s) is a life that resembles Jesus.

So when Paul writes to the Romans that “all things work together for good,” Paul’s definition of ‘good’ doesn’t mean a large (or even modest) home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.

‘Good’ in Paul’s equation

=

Like Jesus

That’s what Paul means when he goes on to write in Romans that those God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

The trajectory of scripture, then, is about God fashioning us into Jesus’ image.

That’s what it means for ‘everything’ to ‘work out’ for ‘good.’

Eventually, Paul is saying, those who love God get to resemble Jesus.

We don’t (necessarily) get a nice home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.

Not only did Jesus lack all those things, Jesus was homeless, rejected, betrayed, suffered, and killed. And so was, we should point out, the man who wrote that verse about things working out for God’s people.

So whatever Paul means by things working out for good in our lives, it certainly doesn’t mean a life of empty parking spots, problem-less marriages and in-ground pools.

Therein lies the question in Paul’s memory verse about all things working together for good for those who love God.

If looking and living like Jesus is what Paul means by ‘good’ then just how good is your life?

 

Inner Peace

Jason Micheli —  August 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

photo-300x300This is from Elaine Woods, our Children’s Minister.

“Peace I leave, my peace I give.”  I remember hearing these words repeatedly as a child when I was in church.

When I was younger, I thought the “peace” referred to was in “peace and quiet..”  Noise and talking at a minimal level, or not at all.  Being alone.  A physical kind of peace.

Now my life has become more hectic: raising kids, working and maintaining our household.  It’s no longer a physical peace I crave (although a week in Hawaii sounds great), but an inner peace.  Where everything seems balanced and right.  Where time could stop and I would be fine.

This peace occurs when I’m walking with God.  When all distractions and thoughts are set aside, and I’m focusing on communication with Christ.  When God’s comfort, compassion, wisdom, and hope start as a small spark inside me, and then spread throughout my entire body.

Where God’s love and pure goodness cause me to smile with joy.

God calls us to communicate with him.  Most of the time, this is in the form of prayer.  We bow our heads, close our eyes, and pray to God, praising His name, and listening to His voice.

Nothing in this world can substitute for the inner harmony I feel when I’m earnestly praying to Christ.

But communication with God can also occur at other times.  I find jogging on the GW Parkway trail listening to the lyrics of the Christian music in my headphones keeps my faith alive.

Seeing God work in other peoples’ lives also keeps me connected to Him.   I see how the struggles and joys we face are masterfully weaved into God’s purpose.

The Bible tells us that peace is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  (Galations 5:22-23).  Peace is one of the “fruits” or results of being in a relationship with God.

Peace grows, as we trust in God.  When we are anxious, the Bible tells us to give thanks to God and pray.  Then the “‘peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

Putting this into action can sometimes be difficult.

I woke up at 3am last night because I heard my daughter.  She recently had knee surgery, and was quietly making whimpering sounds while still asleep, like a fragile bird that had fallen.  I listen intently until the sounds stopped, and she returned to a deep sleep.

I, of course, did not.

I lay awake worried about her knee.  Worried about her recovery and worried about finding the cause of her ailment.

I had to consciously put those thoughts aside and focus on prayer.  It wasn’t easy.  My mind kept drifting off to “what ifs?”

But eventually the Holy Spirit reminded me of God’s grace and mercy.

Jesus is our Prince of peace.  These aren’t merely titles and words, but promises.

I fell back asleep, trusting that God loves us enough to provide the peace needed in this world.

John 14:27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

6008952208_80ed84260d_mOver Memorial Day Weekend, I participated as a pilgrim at the Taize gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During part of our time we selected small discussion groups in which to reflect on the intersection of Christian worship and the systemic poverty and injustice of the rez.

Unbeknownst to me until much later, the facilitator of my small group was Ched Myers.

Who? (You might wonder)

Ched Myers is a biblical scholar and a Christian mediator. He’s the author of perhaps the best biblical commentary of the last few decades- and one of my favorites: Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  BSM 20th

One of Myers’ chief critiques is the propensity among believers to spiritualize and thus neuter the message and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus’ Gospel is about the world to come the here and now can breath a sigh of relief. Fortunately, as long as Christians are stuck with the image of state-sponsored torture as our primary symbol we’ll continually be reminded that our Savior, despite our wishes to the contrary, is a thoroughly political figure.

A “spiritualized” interpretation of the references to Jesus’ ministry and gospel as “good news to the poor” misses the ways in which Jesus addressed the concrete, spiritual and material realities of his time and, specifically, of the peasant Jewish community of which he was part.

“Only a real debt-cancellation and land-restoration could represent good news to real poor people,” says Ched Myers.

Many scholars, including Myers, have noted that Jesus seems to have regarded himself as one who proclaimed and brought a new season of jubilee such as that mandated in the ancient Jewish law. The text from Isaiah that Jesus quoted and declared fulfilled at the synagogue in his hometown when he began his ministry is itself a reference to the jubilee year from the ancient Jewish law.

Many have also noted the relationship between the way in which Jesus talked about the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debt. This is seen most clearly in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with its pleas to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”   

“The gospels agree,” says Myers that “Jesus’ first substantive clash with the authorities arose as a result of his practice of ‘unlicensed’ forgiveness of sins, which has clear Jubilee overtones.”

Richard Horsley has offered a helpful account of the relationship between forgiveness of sin and debt in the context of first century rural Galilee.

There are indications …that the people…may have been blaming themselves.  Insofar as they were suffering hunger, disease, and poverty, it was because they had sinned, by breaking the covenant laws.  They were therefore now receiving the curses.  This is surely what Jesus was addressing in this forgiveness of sins in connection with healings (as in Mark 2:1-12).   In addressing the people’s self-blame and despair, therefore, Jesus transforms the blessings and curses into a new declaration of God’s assurance of deliverance for the poor and hungry and condemnation of those who were wealthy, almost certainly because they were expropriating the goods of the peasantry.

To announce forgiveness of sins is truly good news for those who are literally poor.

Jesus not only sought to lift the spiritual burden associated with poverty, but also to transform the material relationships that produced that poverty.

Myers indicates for example that

“Jesus’ Jubilee orientation” is seen not just in his forgiveness of sins/debts but also in: 1) his instructing the disciples to “to help themselves to field produce” justifying it with “his punch line: ‘The Sabbath was created for humanity’” (Mark 2:27); 2) “his efforts to rebuild community between socio-economically- alienated groups” such as tax-collectors (Levi, Zaccheus) and the debtors they exploited; 3) and his call for radical restructuring at all levels, from the household (Mark 3:31-35) to the body politic (Mark 10:35-45).

Myers regards “table fellowship” both in Jesus’ practice and in his storytelling as the typical venue chosen by Jesus to illustrate his Jubilee claim that “first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

Meals lay at the heart of ancient society: Where, what, and with whom you ate defined your social identity and status.  Thus the table was the “mirror” of society, with its economic classes and political divisions.

In the extended banquet story of in Luke 14, Jesus systematically undermines prevailing conventions and proprieties which advocating a new “table” of compassion and equality.  The opening episode deals (not surprisingly) with a dispute over the Sabbath practice (Luke 14:1-6).

Next comes Jesus attack on the dominant system of meritocracy, with its hierarchies, prestige posturing, and ladder-climbing, and his invitation to “downward mobility” (verses 7-11).

He then offends his host by criticizing his guest list, rejecting the reciprocal patronage system of the elite and calling for a focus upon “those who cannot repay” (verses 12-14).

The series concludes with Jesus pointed little fable about an exemplary host who finally understands the bankruptcy of meritocracy and decides instead to build a Jubilee community with the poor and outcast (verses 15-24).

In the light of these and other “Jubilee footprints” in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Myers finds it not surprising that the early church practiced what he calls “Sabbath economics” as exemplified in the story of radical sharing of property among believers in the aftermath of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day Pentecost.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved [Acts 2:44-47].

Christian conviction is that God promises a comprehensive fulfillment of human existence in the universe.

Salvation includes our souls and our bodies, our individual and our collective or corporate existence.

Jesus’ primary metaphor for speaking of salvation was a political one, “The Kingdom of God.”

It was an economic metaphor as well.

We are bold to proclaim that among the promises of God to us is this: the situation of mass poverty and gross material inequality that reigns now shall not be when God reigns.   

And where God reigns even now in the world that he so loves, that poverty and inequality is being transformed in justice.

 

joel_osteen_by_bdbros-d4cnmxiSomeone asked me, instead of picking on the ivory-toothed, snake-oil charlatan, Joel Osteen, to explain why I have a problem with him.

Without intending it as such, I will give at least one answer on Saturday night.

I will spend Saturday Night at our annual Confirmation Retreat. In my time at Aldersgate, I’ve confirmed somewhere between 210-350 students. On Saturday Night I will attempt to summarize all the stories and lessons they’ve learned this year, and my summation will take the exact same shape it did for Jesus when he took off his outer robe, put on a servant’s apron and illustrated, hands-on exactly what it’s all meant for his disciples.

By washing their feet. 

The foot washing in John 13, I’ll tell the confirmands, is an illustration of who Jesus is (the God who strips off his glory and puts on our likeness), it’s a summary statement of what it means to follow Jesus (serving others) and it’s a live-art embodiment of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

That’s what it all comes down to for Jesus. Serving. Humbling ourselves. Getting our hands dirty for the sake of another.

For someone like Joel Osteen, with his Prosperity Gospel (which is closer in logic to the original Gospel, i.e. Caesar’s Gospel) you are blessed with a (material, it’s always material) blessing as a sign of God’s favor upon you. mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

For someone like Jesus whose life betrayed a logic altogether at odds with Joel O, you’re blessed (JC makes no mention of material) only to be a blessing to others.

Just like Abraham.

JO vs JC.

Without saying as much, that’s the choice I’ll lay down for the confirmation students. The choice that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

And depending on whose eyes through which you look upon the world, you’re forced to make one of two conclusions:

1. If the sign of God’s favor and love is material blessing, then the poor and forsaken in our world are actively receiving something like the opposite of God’s favor and love.

2. If God blesses us to be a blessing, then we are the means by which the poor and forsaken actively receive God’s favor and love.

joel-osteens-reality-showTragically, many of the world’s poor gravitate toward #1, and I wonder if it’s due to so many of the world’s not-poor losing the plot on #2.

For JO, God’s blessing takes the form a parking spot, providentially open and free just for you- yes, that’s actually an example in his book.

For JC, God’s blessing takes the form of you taking on the sort of life where Christ will never one day have to ask you: ‘When I was hungry and/or thirsty, where the hell were you?’ And yes, that’s literally an example in JC’s book.

So, despite appearances to the contrary, it comes down to much more than me picking on Joel O.

There’s far too much at stake for simple mockery. There’s Amos-like righteous anger behind my sarcastic ridicule.

Indeed that’s exactly why, as some have asked/pointed out, I can have such scorn for someone and still be consistent with ‘Christian love.’

There’s too much at stake. Both in the world in which we live and in the Gospel which JC gave to us.

Because JO would have us believe that if we believe, God will give to us people/services to wash our feet.

Which is backassward from how JC summarizes his entire message and ministry.

For but another of putting this, click here to see a video I’ll show the confirmation students right before I read John 13 and then get down on my creaky knees and bend over with aching back and wash their icky, stinky feet to better immunize them against all but JC’s Gospel.

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I hate Palm-Passion Sunday sermons. Hate. Them.

I know most everyone will never come to Holy Thursday or Good Friday so I feel this pressure to condense a week’s worth of holy week time and what is an easy third of the Gospel into one sermon, which is recipe for bad writing, which I know, which eventuates in bad writing. Argh.

Here’s a Palm Sunday sermon, “The Recipe for Peace,” from 2 years ago. It’s not terribly awful.

Scot McKnight has it posted it over at his Jesus Creed blog.

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At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

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Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

     And establish peace.

     The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

 

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

 

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

     ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

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     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

 

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?

IMG_0593The angel Gabriel in Matthew’s Gospel tells the sleeping Joseph to name ‘his’ boy ‘Jesus’ for that boy will ‘save’ his people from their sin. This is as explicit as the nativity story gets. How Jesus will save his people Gabriel doesn’t mention.

     How Jesus saves…how Jesus saves from Sin is a question the Gospels, the New Testament for that matter, never answers in a singular, definitive, clear, logical or rational way.

      The reticence of the New Testament to explain the mechanics of salvation leaves us with questions. Questions with which the Church has wrestled for centuries under the heading ‘atonement theories’:

     Does Jesus die for us? 

     As in, does Jesus die in our place? 

     As a substitute for you and me?

 

     Or does Jesus die because of us? 

     As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life?

 

     Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? 

     As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it? 

 

     Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin? 

     As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?  

 

    Does Jesus die with us? 

    As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? 

 

    Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh? 

 

    Was it necessary for Jesus to die? 

    Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself? 

 

    Did Jesus have to die on a cross? 

    If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

 

     And how does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

      And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

Such questions are possible, indeed they get asked all the time, because the New Testament never singles an answer to how Mary and Joseph’s son lives up to his name.

 

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.

 

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.