Archives For Lent

This Sunday we continued our Lenten series, 7 Deadlies, with #5: Greed. For the scripture text, I chose a parable (Luke 16.1-9) in which Jesus actually praises cheating, stealing and lying, which forced it to be an atypical sermon on the deadly sins.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app.

 

     “He’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

     When Diane said that to me, she was standing in her Florida-orange kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis or Diana or Frank Sinatra on them.

     I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen because that was the only place to sit.

     Diane’s new house was an unfinished, messy maze of boxes, sheet rock and plastic drop cloths.

Her yard outside wasn’t even unfinished. It was unbegun: no driveway, no grass- just a swampy stretch of mud from the road to the front porch (which was also unfinished).

Their mailbox hung over loosely in the mud like a pickup stick.

The mailbox had a blue and green mountain scape painted on it, along with their names: Tim and Diane.

Tim and Diane were members of the first church I pastored.

Diane was one of the ones who, after my first Sunday there, told me how much better she preferred the previous pastor’s preaching.

Nonetheless, they were good people and good church members, and, in the way of small towns and small churches, they were related to nearly one-third of the names in the church directory.

Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Pete to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town.

Pete who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church; Pete who was friends with Tim and Diane and whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation; Pete whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching.

Diane had missed church for several weeks of Sundays so on one afternoon I decided I’d drive out to their new, unfinished home.

In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. Because her front yard was a sea of mud, I’d had to take off my shoes.

Sitting in Diane’s kitchen, I quickly discovered how hard it is to strike an authoritative posture when you’re wearing nothing but socks and when those socks have holes in them and when your exposed feet are dangling above the floor like a toddler’s.

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As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper: that Pete had taken their money for their home and used it to pay off other debts and business endeavors, and now Tim and Diane’s savings were drained, their retirement postponed, their nerves frayed and their home unfinished.

I said something foolish about needing to hear Pete’s side of the story, and Diane pointed out to her young pastor that she’d been conned, cheated and swindled. There was no “other” side to the story.

If it’s true that contractors have a vocabulary all their own, then it’s axiomatic that those who’ve been cheated by contractors have an even more vivid vocabulary at their disposal.

Diane said a lot of things about Pete, mostly along the lines of what he resembled and where he could go and what he could stick where before he got there.

By way of conclusion she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to her pastor: “All I know is, when he meets the Lord, he’ll get what he has coming to him.”

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I said a lot of things about Pete too, mostly boring, predictable preacher things: that Pete needed to make restitution, do penance, seek forgiveness.

I said a lot of things about Pete, but it never occurred to me…it would’ve violated everything I learned in Kindergarten, my Mom would’ve grounded me…

     Diane would’ve cold-cocked me if I’d said something like:

     ‘Sure Diane, I know Pete’s a 2-faced, crooked SOB but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.’

     I never would’ve said something that offensive.

     Of course, that’s just what Jesus does.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus gets accused of consorting with tax collectors, who were no better than extortionists. Jesus gets accused of hanging out with easy women, and drinking with sinners.

They accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.

     And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.

He tells all the good, rule-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep too stupid to stay with the shepherd than he cares about those who never wandered far from the flock.

And then Jesus watches his stock drop further when he actually praises lying and cheating and stealing.

With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story just for them:

      An executive at Goldman Sachs gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company. 

     The boss calls him into his office, confronts him, tells him to clean out his desk by the end of the day. 

     As the manager is about to leave the office, the boss adds “And I’ll be coming soon to take a look at your books.”

     Riding back down the elevator, the manager thinks to himself: “I’m too old to start over again. I don’t have any other marketable skills and unemployment won’t cover the family budget.” 

     And before the elevator doors open, the manager has come up with his own severance package. 

     He’s still got the firm’s credit card so he invites some his best clients to a pricey dinner in the district, and over drinks and foie gras he tells them that he’s canceling the balance of what they owe his firm. 

     ‘Just write it off, and we’ll call it even’ he says. 

     He may not have a job but at least when the pink slip comes he’ll have a group of wealthy, grateful people to help him land on his feet instead of on food stamps. 

Jesus tells his huddled disciples this story and he doesn’t end it with a word of warning, a woe. He doesn’t tell them they are to give up their dishonest ways and follow him.

Instead Jesus says:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

     And all of God’s People say: ‘What the_______________?’

You know, I watched you all while the scripture was read this morning. You all sat there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense.

It troubles me that not one of you looked even a little bit tight-sphinctered with the idea of Jesus pointing to the crooked little liar in the police lineup and saying: ‘Way to go! Thumbs up!’

At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.

Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Anthony Wiener seem reserved, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”

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     Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity, which Julian argued taught its followers to be liars and thieves.

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      And St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable because Luke tacks all these other sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable.

      Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money.

True, but beside the point when it comes this parable.

Luke also warns us how the person who is not faithful in a little will not be faithful in much.

Again, it’s true but it’s not faithful to the scandal in Jesus’ parable.

      It’s like Luke’s obfuscating to get Jesus off the hook for violating our moral sensibilities.

And maybe getting Jesus off the hook is what you’re expecting from me.

Maybe you expect me to tell you not to worry, in the original Greek the dishonest manager is more like Robin Hood, ripping off the wicked rich to give the money back to the righteous poor.’

Yeah, not so much.

If someone like St Augustine didn’t figure out a way to short sell this parable then there simply isn’t one.

      What the manager did was to lie, cheat, steal, and lie some more.

      And Jesus points to him and says: ‘Gold star.’

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     “All I know is when he meets the Lord he’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Pete and Jane and the church lay leader.

The Book of Common Prayer contains an ancient worship service in it called the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and if I’m honest with myself that’s what I envisioned would happen.

With my keen powers of spiritual persuasion, Pete would repent. As a group we would draft steps towards penance. I would urge Tim and Diane to begin the process of forgiveness. It would all end, I thought, without permanent animosity or legal fees. Instead Pete some Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and without a dry eye in the house we’d end the service singing ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.’

And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtue, the sort of church you read about in the religion page of the Washington Post. And I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever.

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the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy.

What went down, though, was more Kramer vs Kramer than Doogie Howser.

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     We gathered in the church parlor. Tim and Diane sat in front of a dusty chalk board with half-erased prayer requests written on it.

Pete sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally tacky painting of the Smiling Jesus hung in a frame right above his head.

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I opened with what probably sounded to everyone like a condescending prayer. No one said ‘Amen.’ Instead Tim and Diane exploded with unbridled anger and unleashed a torrent of expletives that could’ve peeled the varnish off the church parlor china cabinet.

And Pete, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate- even boring- church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. There was suddenly an urgency to him.

With surprising creativity, Pete had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge.

I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Pete tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say: ‘I know Pete bled you dry and lied to your face and robbed you blind but there’s just something…wonderful…about the way he did it.’

No.

No instead, in the middle of Pete’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him:

‘It’s like from the get-go you just expected us to forgive you?!‘

Then they stormed out of the church parlor.

And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good.

Meanwhile Pete just sat there with a blank, guilt-less expression on his face and that offensively tacky picture of Jesus smiling right above him.

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     After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Pete: ‘I guess you’re probably wondering if we’re going to make you leave the church?’

He squinted at me, like I’d just uttered a complete non sequitur: ‘No, why would I be wondering that?’

‘Well, obviously, because of everything you’ve done. Lying and cheating and robbing your neighbors. It’s immoral.

     We’re supposed to be light to the world not just like the world.

     We can’t have someone like you be of the part of the church.’

I said in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.

And Pete nodded and then leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another shady business deal.

‘You’re seminary educated right?’ he asked. I nodded.

‘And of course you know you’re bible a lot better than me.’ And I feigned humility and nodded.

‘I could be wrong’ he said, ‘but wouldn’t you say that the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the scribes and the Pharisees?’

‘Yeah’ I nodded, not liking where this was going.

‘And back then weren’t they the professional clergy?’ Pete asked. ‘You know…like you?’

‘Uh-huh’ I grumbled.

‘And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but:

Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on?

Someone like me for what I’ve done?

Or someone like you for saying I’m not good enough to belong with Jesus?’

‘You slippery son of a…’ I thought to myself.

I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively tacky picture on the wall.

Maybe his smile gotten bigger because Pete was smiling too. And I wasn’t.

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     Look-

Stealing is a sin. It’s the 7th Commandment.

Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment.

Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments and the 5th Deadliest Sin.

It’s all there in scripture: it’s wrong.

The bible says so. Sometimes Jesus even says so.

So I don’t why Jesus says ‘well done’ to the creep in this parable.

Did Jesus want to puncture our flattering self-images? Maybe.

Did Jesus want to point out out how the energy we expend for him is nothing compared to the lengths we’ll go to save our own skin? Possibly.

Did Jesus want us to notice in the story not the crook’s crookedness but the Master’s mercifulness?

Could be. I don’t know.

Truth is, I can’t answer the question: Why did Jesus tell this offensive story? And I’ve been preaching long enough now that I don’t trust anyone who tells you they can.

I can’t answer the question ‘Why did Jesus tell such an offensive story?’ but the fact that that is always the question we ask when it comes to this parable I think proves that there’s another, better question we should be asking:

‘When Jesus says he’s come to seek and save sinners, why is it that we always imagine Jesus is talking about someone other than us?’

Other than me.

I honestly can’t tell you why Jesus told a story like this.

But if there’s any silver lining to a story like this it’s that Jesus is willing to make someone like you the hero.

 

 

I just love Jesus’ annoying habit of spinning parables so obviously designed to wipe the s#@$-eating grin off our faces.

Example:

In Luke 16, Jesus serves up a story that contradicts all the pious niceties we perpetuate at church, a story in which, despite everything we teach our children in Sunday School, Jesus sides with Gordon Gecko and says in essence: ‘Greed is good.’

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We continue our Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies, this weekend by looking at Greed.

The text will be the story of the ‘dishonest manager,’ a parable that, while it does come up in the lectionary, most preachers treat it like was the latest Joel Osteen book.

Here it is:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  

In case you’re a Methodist and just skipped over the scripture, here it is in a nutshell:

Manager gets fired with cause.

Decides to save his own skin.

Knows he can’t do X, Y or Z so he criminally halves his Boss’ debtors’ debts to win their favor.

Jesus says: ‘Well done.’

Actually Jesus says: ‘Make friends for yourselves through dishonesty.’

And all the church people said: ‘What the_________?’

Jesus praises the bad guy, the cheating little blank, and tells us to mimic him?

Jesus’ point and how it jives with our picture of Jesus has long been the cause of head-scratching for preachers.

Here’s one thing, though, that hit me this week.

The chapter divisions in our bibles weren’t there until the 4th/5th century.

Meaning, in Luke’s original Gospel (the ‘Director’s Cut so to speak) this parable followed immediately after, without division, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

What changes in the reading of the parable, I wonder, when its read as a companion to the Prodigal Father who had two sons?

This is from Janet LaisCh~
Lent is about reconciling through Christ as seen in the Calling of St. Matthew.

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This Church, San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, proclaims a message– not from its monochrome façade but rather from the art inside. Cardinal Matteo Contarelli saved money for years to pay for the decoration of a chapel inside this church with scenes from the life of Saint Matthew. Once inside, enter the last chapel just before the high altar and see for yourself how Christ called Matthew to follow him. Jesus never said worship me, but rather he said follow me. Christ initiates reconciliation of us and the world here and now on earth.

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Caravaggio planned three paintings of Saint Matthew, starting with the moment Saint Matthew’s life began as God intended–the moment Matthew understood Christ’s calling. These three images moving left to right represent the Calling of Saint Matthew, the Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and together they tell a story about the relationship between Christ and all mankind as found in Matthew chapter 9.
“And when Jesus passed on from thence, he saw a man sitting in the custom house, named Matthew; and he said to him: Follow me. And he arose up and followed him.” As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
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Caravaggio layered oil paints with all the realism and drama true to Baroque art from 1600 AD to involve the viewer and to inspire a spiritual awakening in us. Like a director, Caravaggio constructed meaning through setting, lighting, character, costume, and gesture.  Caravaggio depicted this room and these men as a microcosm for the whole world and us in it–where filth and grime and elaborate outward costumes symbolize sin. Soot and grit cover the walls and even the window appears impenetrable to light of what may be the backroom of a seedy pub.  To some it may seem an unlikely place to meet Christ, but the Bible says that he came for the sick and the broken so any place, any time offers opportunity for Christ’s presence. Light enters the room from the upper right corner, perhaps from an open door, as Christ enters this dark room.  Caravaggio used the technique of tenebrism whereby he painted a stark and sudden contrast between light and dark colors– to communicate Christ’s ultimate power in this room and throughout all the world through reconciliation. Christ’s outstretched arm points gracefully calling Matthew to follow him. Matthew perched as one of five males, like peacocks– suited in lavish velvet, crimillion, leather and feathers– around a wooden table counting their day’s earnings. Armed with swords to defend their greed and vanity, they represent how far man has fallen.
Caravaggio used line to direct our attention to the main idea: Christ is calling Matthew despite his sin. Trace a diagonal line from Christ’s graceful, outstretched hand, to the redhead male pointing to himself.
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Pointing to himself, Matthew (see above) communicates recognition that Christ calls him, and his eyes fill with hope. Despite his sin when Christ arrives, Matthew meets Christ’s gaze, wide eyed, transfixed in a spiritual awakening. Christ sees Matthew for who he is: everything he lacks and everything he will become.

Michelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew_(detail)_-_WGA04118 The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio

A golden coin rests on Matthew’s hat (see image above) to betray his mind’s obsession with money as a Roman tax collector for Herod. During the Roman occupation, Matthew accumulated wealth by oppressing his own people, paying handsomely himself and the Roman infedels who conquered the Hebrews at Capernaum.  We know from reading the Bible and from looking at the next image in Caravaggio’s Contarelli chapel cycle that Matthew follows Christ without hesitation.  Christ transforms Matthew so that his outward appearance matches his inner faith: Matthews like Christ wears a robe and tunic and a golden halo gleaming divine inspiration (see above) like Christ rather than a coin over his head during his days as a tax collector.

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Two of the five individuals seated at the table do not notice Christ’s call. They instead greedily count their money. As voyeurs of this scene, we know their spiritual blindness prevents them from seeing Christ who has entered their very space.

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Caravaggio painted the old man (image above) with closed eyelids as he adjusts his glasses to symbolize the depth of his spiritual blindness. His near sightedness will only allow him to focus on finite pursuits rather than the infinite gifts offered through Christ.

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The young man’s near sightedness allows him only to see the coins on the table rather than look up to see Christ entering from across the room. The money or debt they count is their own sin; they cannot forgive others or themselves to recognize that Christ has already forgiven them. Counting money prevents them from realizing that reconciliation occurs now here on earth as God does not count our sins against us.
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Caravaggio portrayed the boys faces (see image above) lit up from the divine light. Their expressions and actions connote open minds and hearts as they turn away from the money on the table and gaze up at Christ instead. These two young men act as foils to the two money counters’ spiritual blindness.The boy on the right looks at Christ with his mouth slightly parted; he swings one leg over the bench and leans his body toward Christ as he begins to stand up. Caravaggio painted these boys again in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew where still dressed in their finery they use their swords to try to defend Saint Matthew from the Roman soldiers who will eventually crucify him. A self portrait of Caravaggio is also included in this image as the story continues. We might see ourselves in these two boys and with our own free will to make a decision regarding our own next step whether or not to follow Christ.

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Christ and Saint Peter look out of place, like time travelers, with bare feet wearing robes and tunics from ancient Rome whereas the tax collectors wear seventeenth century finery. Christ’s entry into this pub imposes radical change on the whole world. A bulky, stalwart Saint Peter acts as an ambassador to Christ, helping Christ gather disciples. He holds a staff to indicate that following Christ won’t be easy and standing next to Christ, we are reminded that Christ will never leave either.

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Up close, we notice that Caravaggio accentuated Christ’s bone structure and humanness using the same technique of tenebrism–stark white paints next to bold blacks hues. The beautiful angle of his high cheekbone, his nose and lips reinforces that Christ became fully human and lived on earth among us. Though Caravaggio depicted Christ differently than the other figures; his movements epitomize grace and a halo glows above his head.  Unlike us, Christ is also fully divine. Christ’s expression and movements capture his decisive nature that unlike us, he does not waver. He knows exactly his ministry, and he calls his disciples to follow.

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Above Christ’s hand, the windowpane forms a cross, reminding us of Christ’s actions for us. Reconciliation is an accomplished fact through this cross and a continuing process here and now on earth. Christ doesn’t just save Matthew for eternal life but also saves Matthew in this life. Christ wants to do the same for all of us.

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Looking at this Creation painting by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel, we see that Caravaggio has borrowed the graceful lines of Christ’s arm and hand from another master for great purpose. Caravaggio communicates through line and pose that Christ is the second Adam who redeems man. The transference of reconciliation takes place from God to Jesus to us. Reconciliation takes place now here on earth. Jesus accomplished reconciliation through the cross and continues this work now here on earth through each of us. If we pray to hear the next step, knowing that if only Christ invades our space like he did with Matthew, we would get up and follow…follow absolutely anywhere… without question. Then we must also stop and listen. Only then can we realize that Christ already does.

 

1551602_768095979874489_1306517654_nIs the Cross our means of forgiveness or salvation? Is it some form of cosmic child abuse? Is it just another example of what we do when God gets too close?

While the Cross is at the center of all four Gospels and, very often, at the center of all our sanctuaries, the meaning of the Cross is far from self-evident or obvious. What Jesus accomplishes on the Cross- or rather what God accomplishes through him- is not spelled out in any of the creeds. Jesus gives one answer to what his death means, but Paul gives another answer. The Gospels themselves narrate the events but, like all good dramatists, leave the reasons and results opaque, leaving the audience to chew on it after the story is over.

For Pub Theology next Tuesday: We’ll talk through questions about the Cross.

Here’s how it will (hopefully) work:

YOU submit a question via the Speakpipe.

It’s the little widget icon on the right of your screen that looks like an old timey microphone and says ‘Send Voicemail.’

Click on it.

Don’t worry you won’t get charged anything or receive any porn.

Click it and you can then use your computer/phone’s microphone to submit an audio question. Any sort of question about the Cross, Lent, the Passion, Christ’s Suffering, Sin, Atonement etc is up for grabs.

And let us know who you are and where you’re at too.

Your voice message will be sent via email to my underling, Teer Hardy.

Teer will collect all the voicemail questions, curate them, and then pose them to me next Tuesday for Pub Theology.

I’ll take a blind stab and then we’ll open it up to Q/A and Pushback.

We’ll record it so if you can’t be there you can at least hear your question tackled.

If you haven’t been before this is good, laid-back space to ask honest questions about things that matter. So, if you know someone who’s not into church invite them.

Here’s the details:

Once again, we’re meeting at Forge Brew WorksForgeHeader-258x210-1

You can find them on Facebook too, here.

It’s just off the Fairfax County Parkway on Terminal Road. You can find directions here.

 

 

Fasting with Christ

Jason Micheli —  March 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

By Janet Laisch~

Each Ash Wednesday, I try to prolong the ephemeral cross on my forehead from fading, praying to absorb its meaning before it washes away.

Jesus never said worship me but rather He said follow me.

During Lent, we have 40 days to contemplate his life so that we may incorporate it more wholly into our own being. During Lent in 1308, a grand ceremony processed through the streets carrying Duccio’s Maesta, an altarpiece, to the Siena Cathedral and placed it, all 7 x 13 feet, gleaming in gold and tempera paint, at the crossing square –the very heart of the Cathedral– where the vertical and horizontal axes meet of this cruciform building plan. Entering this Cathedral, and walking to the crossing square, we begin our Lenten journey by looking at images of Christ’s life. 

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Today the Maesta has been dismantled, cut up and sold to the highest bidder. Scenes from Christ’s life that once decorated the back are now housed in museums and private collections, but we can at least view the majority of these scenes at the Siena museum. 
Originally placed in the center of the Cathedral, like sculpture, the believer could walk around it to encounter snapshots from Mary’s life and Christ’s infancy on the front and Christ’s adulthood on the back. Snapshots of the very stories as told in the Gospels.  The Maesta, the Italian word for majesty, shows the Virgin enthroned holding the infant Christ and surrounded by saints. The predella, or stand, on which the altarpiece rests, depicts the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt, to name a few of the other major events on the front.

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Walking around to view the back of the painting,  it depicts major events of Christ’s adulthood–not a single moment — but instead many acts to observe during Lent.  The Passion is told in thirty-four scenes, beginning on the bottom left with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Using gold leaf in each scene, Duccio unified these images of Christ’s life so we can consider them together.

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Drop your eyes to the left side of the predella (image below) where a scene depicts the Temptation of Christ, now at the Frick Musuem in NYC. The scenes that follow show Christ calling his followers, the wedding at Cana, the Transfiguration and the raising of Lazurus to name a few.
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Duccio_-_The_Temptation_on_the_Mount

 

In this Temptation of Christ, Duccio paints the moment when Christ commands Satan away. The space surrounding Christ shows how Christ through fasting becomes vulnerable to the temptations of Satan and also more open to God. The angels stand to Christ’s right ready to direct Christ out of the desert to begin his ministry. It is the perfect image to study at the beginning of Lent as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. 
 
Duccio used artistic elements to emphasize Christ’s resolve against sin. Satan first tempted Christ, who had been fasting, to turn the stones surrounding him into bread. Duccio represented these stones as the very rock that supports Christ’s feet in the center of the painting. 
Satan next tempted Christ to test God. Rather than give into sin, Christ stands on a rock that looks more like a hill than a mountain. Duccio used scale to emphasize that Christ conquered sin and could easily step down from the mountain without testing God as the devil commanded.
Lastly, Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only Christ would worship him. Duccio manipulated scale to emphasize Christ’s power over this temptation as well; in the foreground, the towns should appear larger than Christ as they are closer to our view; however, the kingdoms in the foreground are just as small as those in the background. Scale then communicates power and here clearly Christ is most powerful as he is largest.  
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 Duccio used line to communicate Christ’s power and resolve against sin. If you were to draw a diagram of this painting, you would draw smooth continuous lines, lines without agitation. 
Christ’s right arm gracefully extends from his body sending Satan away to the shadowy background. The devil in response to Christ raises his hand to communicate that he has given up and then turns and steps away. These graceful, continuous lines do not  depict a battle scene or struggle between the two main characters, but rather Christ has drawn a line to separate himself from sin.
Duccio divided the panel into two halves through color; notice the contrast in color between the background and foreground– Duccio painted the background using browns and grays whereas Duccio painted the foreground using pinks and blues. Christ directs Satan back to darkness whereas Christ inhabits the lit space. Also the artist used color to communicate Christ’s superiority to the devil and all temptations. 
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Our eyes first notice Christ who stands slightly off center because Duccio has painted Christ wearing red, the highest saturation of color anywhere in the painting.
If instead Christ were wearing black like Satan, we would view the scene very differently. We would sense Christ’s struggle. If Duccio reversed the colors, painting Satan red and Christ gray, we would interpret Satan as the dominant figure. Through color choice, Duccio communicates that Christ dominates the scene–a metaphor for Christ’s actual resolve to conquer these temptations.
Duccio juxtaposed Satan and Christ; their bare feet next to each other as well. Duccio depicted Satan as a dark monster with webbed feet, large pointed ears, and  wings; whereas Christ has a beautiful face surrounded by a gold halo. Duccio applies decorative punching around Christ’s face and outlines him in greater attention and detail than Satan. The halo reminds us of Christ’s divinity; He is Lord on earth.
As Lord, Christ humbles himself hence the bare feet. Looking closely at this image, it like so many earlier Byznatine icons, has been touched by human hands. Visible scratch marks cover Satan, as an attempt to mulitate him believeing the image had magic power. 
Despite all of our sins, we are made in Christ’s image not in Satan’s image.
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Throughout Art History, artists have portrayed this story. Artists in Northern Europe depicted The Temptation of Christ less frequently than artists in Greece and Italy. Artists in Greece and Italy also depicted this subject most frequently in early Christian history and during the Renaissance. In Greece, it is more often portrayed as an icon (above), and in Italy, it is more often portrayed as part of a larger sculptural program on doors (above) or painted as one of many scenes on altarpieces like Duccio’s.
When it is painted independently it is rare. 
In modern art, Christ is more typically shown contemplating, alone in the desert rather than tempted by Satan (below).  
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Lent begins Christ’s forty-day fast and temptations in the desert.

As Christians we don’t observe the temptations of Christ from a safe distance. We have been baptized into Christ, and so throughout Lent, we participate in the mysteries of Christ knowing that His Resurrection is a reality as well.

The root of temptation is the same–to work apart from God.  Jesus knew the force of temptation better than we do, because He resisted temptation fully whereas we do not. This artwork with its many images of Christ’s life is a perfect place to start our Lenten journey. It is not what we give up for Lent that is most important, it is whether or not we can become vulnerable to absorb more of Christ into us.

 

Untitled2Today is Ash Wednesday the day when Christians defy every lie sold to us by Madison Avenue and the American healthcare system:

We’re not getting out of this life alive.

Not a one.

Heaven may be but Death definitely is for real.

With dismal colored ashes, today Christians confront the stark, counter-cultural truth:

from אֲדָמָה adamah (‘earth’) we were made and to the adamah we shall with 100% certainty return.

Ash Wednesday is about our mortality and all our finitude, shortcomings and contingencies wrapped up in that time-bound word. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the Latin word for 40th, recalling Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the wilderness before his ministry led him inexorably to the cross.

Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 years Israel was tested in the wilderness after their Exodus from slavery into Egypt. Whereas Jesus squares off against the devil without a hitch (‘man does not live by bread alone’ says the starving Jesus), Israel fared a bit worse (see: calf, golden).

Jesus does what Israel could not do for itself.

Jesus, it seems quite obvious to the Gospel writers, represents all the people of Israel in his own person.

And that’s no small point to note as we begin a season in which many Christians will begin their own ‘testing’ by forsaking chocolate, booze or social media. There’s nothing wrong with fasting and discipline to anticipate the Easter feast. The Church has been doing so for centuries, and, as for myself, I will be giving up both beverages of the fermented variety and furry animals on my dinner plate. And if previous Lenten fasts are any indication, I will probably be successful at this modest undertaking.

But, however good they be, modest Lenten goals that, truthfully, only intrude upon my daily life as ‘annoyances’ miss the larger point of the season:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

Jesus represents all of us in his flesh.

It’s true that in Jesus, God became one of us, was every bit as human as each one of us, experienced everything entailed by our humanity.

But it’s also true that while being 100% Human, Jesus remains, simultaneously, 100% God.

Though one of us, Jesus is not just one of us at all.

Quick history lesson:

Beginning in the 18th century, Christians began to take their cues from the Enlightenment. Now, only that which was rationally demonstrable and confirmed by our own private experience was considered ‘true.’ Rather than conforming their definitions of truth to scripture, Christians looked to scripture to confirm their a priori presumptions about what was ‘true.’ Where it did not, scripture was now considered ‘myth.’ 

So, for example, the story of Jesus’ 40 Day testing by Satan in the wilderness is no longer a ‘true’ or realistic story about what Jesus has done. Instead Christians turned to the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness and saw in it a parable for their own times of trial and temptation.

Rather than being a unique story about Jesus’ absolutely singular vocation, it became a generalized story about our common human experience. 

If you’re in a church that follows the lectionary, just listen to the sermon tackle Jesus’ wilderness testing.

Is the sermon about how Jesus’ trials are examples of trials that come to all of us in life (cue personal- probably sports- illustration from the pastor).

Or is the sermon about how in the wilderness Jesus begins his work of doing what neither Israel nor we can do for ourselves?

The Gospels tell not the story of generalized human experience found in the person of Jesus; the Gospels tell how God in Christ frees human experience from what binds it.

And because Christians ever since the Enlightenment have been so bad at remembering that perhaps this Lenten season we should forget our modest, achievable fasts and spiritual disciplines.

Instead this Lent maybe we should go balls to the wall and take on a test we know we have no hope of ever keeping. Maybe by choosing a fast we know will end in certain failure we’ll remember the hard but good news with which this season ends:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

For us.

I figured this was a better picture than a slab a meat, the other culinary delight we’re forsaking for the wilderness season.

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Pharoah and his army he cast into the sea, they went down, down, down like a stone. By your right hand, by your mighty right hand they were shattered; Lord, you shattered them all. Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.  Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.

- Exodus 15

Moses is referred to as a servant thirty-six times in the scripture Jesus learned on Mary’s lap.

Only, there’s another understanding of servant that courses through the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a memory of one God has sent to his People. It’s the promise of a servant God will send to rescue his People.

The prophet Isaiah was called after the Chosen People had been invaded, defeated and plundered by Babylon. Israel’s best and brightest were exiled into captivity. Those not exiled had it worse; they had to live among ruins, the promises of God reduced to ash and rubble. images

Isaiah looked for a day when God would restore his People by way of another Servant.

And maybe because of all the violence Isaiah had witnessed, maybe because Isaiah knew firsthand that violence doesn’t always end in victory songs, Isaiah anticipated a servant unlike Moses. Isaiah envisioned a deliverance different than the Exodus.

After Jesus enters Jerusalem, on Monday of Holy Week, Jesus goes to the Temple as though he’d been deputized and it’s his jurisdiction.

     Not content to ‘teach’ he drives them out:

The merchants who’ve set up shop in the narthex.

The money changers, looking to make a buck off atonement. The venders who sold doves to those too poor (like Mary and Joseph) to purchase a proper animal for sacrificing.

Jesus drives them out along with all the thousands of sheep and oxen waiting to be sold to the holiday travelers.

Tradition refers to this as Jesus ‘cleansing’ the Temple, but it’s really a stampede. In a city already filled with 200,000 pilgrims and the 20,000 lambs required for their Passover meals Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple creates chaos in the streets. It leaves the crowds spellbound.

     It puts Jesus firmly in control of events.

If he truly is a Messiah like they expect then his coup d’etat is nearly complete: the Temple’s been taken, the crowds are on his side and the Roman fortress is literally just next door.

But Jesus doesn’t take up arms.

Instead, Matthew says that after he’s driven out the merchants and money changers, Jesus welcomes the blind and the lame and the children to come up to him in the Temple, a place where they were forbidden.

     Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple becomes yet another example of how he’s taught all along.  

As though God had sent this messiah to teach.

     As if deliverance could be accomplished with just words.

     Or with the Word.

 

      Patristic theologians, those theologians in the Church’s first generations, understood the work of atonement primarily in battle imagery.

For them, the Son’s work is a dramatic struggle Jesus wages with Sin and Death. Death in this perspective is a malevolent power, synonymous with Sin, which looms over God’s creation and frustrates God’s intentions for us. Paul, in Colossians 2.15, speaks of the Cross in this way and the effects Jesus’ cross have over the natural world in the Gospels suggest it too: the earthquake, the graves exploding open, the sky darkening, the temple veil torn in two. Jesus in Mark 10.45 speaks of his life being a ransom.

The Palm Sunday allusions to a military parade echo such a battle metaphor too. Jesus rides into Jerusalem just like Pilate, the crowds wave palm leaves, a messianic symbol, and Jesus is tried for claiming to be a rival king and he dies a revolutionary’s death. IMG_0593

For the early Church, Easter- much more so than the Cross- is the day that changes everything and the significance of the Cross is that it’s empty.

In the Gospel narrative, Pilate and the chief priests represent the power of Death and Sin in the world. They represent us, who enamored of ‘power’ such that we cannot recognize or accept that Jesus’ self-giving form of love is the true power that moves the universe.

Jesus saves us by breaking Death’s power, by defeating the lure that Sin has over us and by making possible a life lived in anticipation of God’s New Creation. This metaphor sees atonement has happening primarily through Easter’s Empty Tomb.

The strengths of the Victor theory include its recognition of the reality and power of Sin in the world; Jesus comes to defeat Sin on a cosmic level not simply forgive my personal sin and Jesus does this objectively and decisively.

According to this way of thinking, Sin really was defeated by Jesus once and for all. As Paul says in Ephesians, he has brought down the principalities and powers. All that’s left in our world, all the sin and evil we see in our world, is just the last gasp of an enemy that’s already been defeated.

Think of the Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings and how it exercises power and evil long after Sauron had been defeated. It was, in fact, this model of the atonement that informed Tolkien.

Another attribute of the theory is how it understands that God works liberation and reconciliation not through violence but by letting Sin do its worst to him and thus demonstrating its ultimate finitude and weakness.

The Cross, then, shows God exhausting Sin’s power.

There’s literally nothing else Sin can do to him and its still not enough to destroy God’s condescending love. 

The Victor metaphor also pays due attention to Jesus’ life. The content of Jesus’ life, his teaching, is the same power that defeats Sin at the end of the story. His teaching isn’t extraneous or optional for us. It’s Jesus training us to do battle in the world today.

Christians committed to the efficacy of Jesus’ teaching aren’t being naive or idealistic, as critics often charge; in fact, they are being more realistic than anyone else.

Sin has been defeated by Jesus.

We shouldn’t act as though Christians must resort to non-Christians means to do battle. Sin should be taken seriously but the only way to defeat it is through Christ’s way of life.

It may even kill us as it killed him but ultimately Easter shows it to be the only winning strategy.

 

IMG_0593     The biblical concept of ‘salvation’ spans past, present and future.

     Salvation isn’t just what Jesus did; it’s what God does.

When it comes to Christ specifically, salvation, meaning ‘healing’ or ‘rescue,’ is a word that functions with two complementary but different meanings.

Understood against a large canvas, ‘salvation’ refers to what Jesus does (or did) through his life, death and resurrection. More particularly, ‘salvation’ also refers to what God does today to heal us of Sin; that is, ‘salvation’ refers to how God extends the benefits of Christ’s work to us in the present.

I would argue the only way to avoid such confusion is construing salvation as a work, not of God or Jesus in isolation from one another, of the entire Trinity.

     As Trinity, God worked salvation for us through incarnation, cross and resurrection.

     As Trinity, God works salvation (healing, rescue) for us through the Holy Spirit. 

 

Put in trinitarian terms, salvation is both past and present. It’s a work of both the Son and the Spirit.

As a work of the Son, salvation can be defined in terms of Christ’s act of atonement and refers to the way in which Jesus‘ birth, life, death and resurrection reconciles a sinful humanity to God.

While this work of the Son properly encompasses the breadth of Jesus‘ story, oftentimes atonement more narrowly refers exclusively to the Cross.

When Christians say ‘Jesus saves,‘ for instance, they usually mean ‘Jesus atoned.‘

Atonement is a sacrificial term owing to the Levitical holiness codes in the Old Testament. In Christian terms, it denotes the way in which Jesus (his life or death or both) is an expiation, an expungement, for humanity’s sin. As I tell the confirmation students each year, atonement refers to how Jesus makes us ‘at-one‘ with God, a God we’d estranged through our sin.

Christ achieves this at-onement irrespective of the rest of the course of human history. As the darkening skies, the torn temple veil and the quaking earth in the Gospels‘ Good Friday scenes suggest, there is an objective status to Christ’s work on the Cross. In some real way, the obedience and faithfulness of Jesus all the way to the Cross determines how God henceforth regards humanity.

     That the penalty of humanity’s sin is reconciled, however, does not mean that humanity is fully restored to the life God originally intended.

     It may be the 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4-giveness

but that does not mean you are a transformed person.

Forgiveness alone does not make you who God made you to be. Forgiveness instead makes it possible- it frees you- for the work of the Spirit (grace) to restore you so that, over time, you may resemble Christ.

The work of the Son is objective, true, and perfect. It is continued and perfected in us by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes available in the present the work of the Son in the past.

You can see this Trinitarian flow in the chronology of the Gospels themselves. After Good Friday and Easter, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples (to whom all is clearly forgiven) and breathes his Spirit upon them.

Soon, having received the Spirit, the disciples, heretofore dim-witted, sinful and cowardly, bear a striking resemblance to Jesus himself.

Having been reconciled they’ve been restored to lead Jesus‘ life for themselves.

As a present work of the Spirit, salvation can be defined in the very terms Jesus used the word: as healing, rescue, restoration from sin. This is the way Jesus speaks in Luke 19 when Christ invites himself to Zaccheus‘ house. Jesus‘ hospitality and welcome of a dreaded tax collector and Roman collaborator changes Zaccheus‘ heart such that Zaccheus willingly gives up his ill-gotten fortune. In response, Jesus declares ‘salvation has come to this house today.‘ In other words, Zaccheus right then and there has experienced healing.

Salvation as a work of the Son refers to what Jesus says ‘is accomplished’ on his cross. It’s the work that is true regardless of my own belief or faith. Salvation as a work of the Spirit refers to how I access and appropriate the Son’s work in my present life. If the work of the Son is what is objective about salvation then the work of the Spirit is that part of salvation that requires my response.

 Already you may be asking: If the work of the Son (on the Cross) is definitive, perfect and objective once for all, then what of those who don’t believe? Who never come to the faith or who do not take it with sincerity?

That specific question is best answered later but understanding salvation as a work of the Spirit allows you to answer part of the question now.

Namely, if one does not appropriate salvation in their present life then- no matter the question of how God will ultimately judge them- they are living an impoverished life. They are living (settling for) a life less than what God desires for them.

 

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This weekend for my sermon I answered questions people submitted about the Cross, the Atonement and the Passion Story.

I pulled the questions at random from a bingo tumbler and answered as many as possible.

Dennis Perry, my assistant pastor, joined me at 3 of the services and a friend and divinity student, Andrew DiAntonio joined me at 2 of the services. 

You can listen and/or download them by clicking here or going to ‘Tamed Cynic’ in the iTunes store.

I will add them to the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog by the end of this week.

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

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

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

Not a good kind of chill – a shudder.

That horror.  That fear.

That recognition that leaves you cold.

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

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

Isaiah talks about it:

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

James talks about it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ suffered for that sin as well.

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

 

 

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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?

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

As a pastor, I frequently hear from Christians:

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

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

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

‘Just what bible are you reading?

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

Or the Exodus story.

Or any of the Gospels.

Or the Book of James.

Or Revelation.’ 

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

Christianity is not, and never has been,

simply an interior faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And listen.

Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor says:

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

 

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