Monday, September 28, 2009

Reflection on James 3:14-4:3, 7-8a

“I healed a man’s foot, John; a foot…you know that thing you need to get the necessities of life, work, water, food…I healed that,” James sneers.

“So, you know how to scrape off a little foot fungus…big deal. There’s a guy out there that can see because of me. He can see. The guy was so happy that he gave me a tip of three talents,” retorted John.

“I fed someone.”

“Shut it Tim,” John and James sing in unison. “You tried for bread and got a hand full of Cheerios. We already know how great you are.”

Peter stopped the group of disciples in their tracks with one hand, turn and faced them. “I can’t believe you. Look at you. Listen to you. There is one thing that Jesus said that makes this discussion of greatness idiotic, he called me the rock upon which the church will be build.”

And with that, the group exploded into angry conversation, one-ups-man-ship, and even the occasional fist. As the group fought and walked, fought and walked, the blind along the road heard them, but were not ever seen by the disciples. As the fists started flying, the hungry watched, but clung to their rumbling stomachs which held no hope of restfulness. As the disciples imagined glory for their great works, a little girl stepped out in front of them seeking help for her mother, but she was accidentally tripped over and pushed aside. It was not until they approached Jesus that their helium filled heads started coming out of clouds. Jesus stared at them and they went silent.

“What were you arguing about?” Jesus demanded.

Regressing back to his elementary years James ventured a meek “nothing Lord,” but the silence was too thick. It did not even make it past his larynx.

Jesus ripped the silence apart saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Again, there was an uneasy silence. Their selfish ambition left a metallic taste in their mouth. For the first time in a while, their desires fell from their eyes like scales and they realized that they had no idea how they had gotten to where they were and who they passed by on the way.

If James, Jesus’ brother, had been traveling with them he might have instructed them:

"For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind…Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts."

I would love to say that I am not like these disciples and that I often follow James instruction to wisely make peace, be concerned about others and not oneself, and in his own words to follow the wisdom from above which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." In other words, care for others before yourself.

But, I have been on that playing field at recess and I know what it feel like when the class loser…I’m sorry “socially challenged”…kid is chosen before you. In your mind you are thinking, “isn’t that nice and compassionate.” But in your heart you are seething, “what am I the new class clown? I can kick that ball further than all of you! I’ll show you!” And, the class looser soon discovers that he is still at the bottom as you humiliate him once again to prove your greatness.

There are these desires within us that do not come from above but raise up from below. The need to be right, even when you may be wrong. The need to look good in front of others and prove your worth, even though you may deserve to look bad. The inability to look at your mistakes and the tendency to cover them by pointing out everyone else’s, even though your mistakes are many. The striving for the top, even though you leave everyone else behind. Seeing what you want, and murdering in order to get it. These desires are from below. These are gut desires, and they are powerful.

“Shame on you,” I could yell from the pulpit. “I know what you did,” I could accuse. “I know what you think,” I could venture. But, you would be able to do the same to me, and it would be a worthless waste of energy as we tried to climb our way over one another. Jesus is not interested in wasted energy. Jesus is not interested in wasted anything. Avoiding a fight to the top, Jesus sits down with his disciples and lays out a simple truth, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

This is opposite advice from what I received when I graduated from High School. As I was leaving home to be on my own I was given this advice from a teacher, “make sure you care for yourself, because no one is going to do it for you.”

Jesus disagrees. In the kingdom of God (the kingdom of love that resides right here on earth) you will care not for yourself, but for someone else. You are safe to do this because there will be someone who will be doing the same for you. It is counter intuitive, but does it not somehow feel right? It does not seem logical, but do we not know that it is right. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

In God’s kingdom, each of us are fully gifts to one another. Like the great Redwood trees of California, we depend on each other in order to survive. Our roots are locked together and we hold each other up. If we were to ever sever our roots and care only for our own self, we would surely topple over. The wisdom from above says, care for someone, and you will be cared for also.

I heard of a mother in Africa who was taking in the sickest of people from around. They held communicable diseases that would make most people turn and walk the other way. She was approached by a reporter who informed her that this was not safe, she should not being doing this because it puts her own health at risk. The woman looked and the reporter and replied, “I am careful. Besides, someone needs to care for them. That person is me. And when I get sick, someone will be there to care for me.”

It defies logic, but it somehow seems right. It is the way of love. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of God.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reflection on Mark 8:27-38

“You are the Messiah.”

The words seem so certain. The words come out so confidently. The words project out of Peter’s firm lips; Peter knows that he is right.

I have seen those lips before, those firm lips that declare confident religious statements. Those lips cross my path a lot. They speak their confidence on the bus. They speak their confidence over coffee. I cannot even take a nice quiet flight without hearing those certain lips.

On a flight from Arizona, I had just settled into my seat, raised the pillow to my head, and closed my eyes to let all around know that I intended to rest and not talk about poodles or how we wish we got more peanuts on this flight. That is when the lips sat down next to me.

“How are you doing?”

“Fine, I’m just trying to rest after a long week.”

The words were out of my mouth, and like watermelon seeds well on their way toward your sibling’s face, I could not suck them back in. A person never says, “after a long week” if they intend to get some rest. Never. Because, the only response to that can be:

“So, you’ve had a busy week, what do you do?”

“I’m a fork lift driver. I’m a toll booth attendant. I take plastic bags of trash out of apartments all day long.” All of these would have been acceptable answers for someone who does not want to hear those confident lips start spurting. Those careers foster no more than a 30 second conversation. But, no...I’m honest. I believe in truth. I believe in love of the neighbor, even annoying airplane seat mates. I believe that I said the worst thing someone who wants sleep should ever say, “I’m a pastor.”

And that is when it started.

“A pastor huh? What do you think about homosexuals? I think they and their homosexual agenda are ruining the moral fabric of our nation. What do you think?”

What I actually was thinking was, “why are homosexuals the first thing anyone talks about with pastors on airplanes?” I am certain all of you would be happy to know that I do not think about homosexuals every minute of my life. For a happily married pastor, I think that this is a good thing. I do think about hungry people. I do think about people struggling to forgive those they love. I do think that Jesus cared much more about these subjects. And mostly, I was thinking at the time that I needed a little sleep. Did I not just say that I needed rest? With that thought in mind, I confidently declared in a pastoral tone, “I don’t…I mean…Uhhhhh.”

This must have been a satisfying answer because he responded, “And, women who get abortions. Don’t they care about life? Don’t they care that they have a life? I think someone should show them just what they are doing and take their life.”

Letting those words fall between us, I looked out the window and saw something that immediately horrified me that he apparently did not see; we were still at the gate. This was a three hour flight.

The guy was confident. The guy was very religious. The man understood a great many things. The man got under my skin because he was so much like me. In the end, you do not want me to get going either. Those firm, confident lips of Peter will form on my mouth and I will declare a great many things to you.

Now, the problem with Peter was not that he spoke confidently. It is much more complicated than that. In fact, what he did say was the truth. This is Peter’s great declaration, “Jesus, you are the Messiah.” He got it right. He spoke the truth. He will be remembered centuries later because of these words.

But, he will also be remembered for Jesus’ words to him, “Get behind me Satan. For you are setting your mind not on Divine things but on human things” when he disagreed with Jesus' plan for the future.

Peter’s problem was not that he spoke confidently, it was that he did not understand what he was saying. Being the Messiah does not mean that Jesus will become a strong king who will set the world straight and create peace with a strong presence and strong commands.

That image is how many churches present Jesus by the way. They own huge lit crosses and place powerful thrones in the front and center of the sanctuary. But, this image is not what it means to be the Messiah.

Instead, being the Messiah means that Christ will suffer and die; and in suffering he will save the world. That looks more like a small bloody cross in the back corner of the church.

Peter was confident, but he did not understand what he was saying. This is the human condition is it not? Are we not constantly getting ourselves into trouble because we are confident in our beliefs, but in the end we really do not understand what we are saying. We really do not stop and think whether or not our confident beliefs line up with God’s vision of love for the other; love to the point of suffering for the other.

Christ’s self-sacrificing love does not make sense. Right and wrong makes sense. Heaven and Hell makes sense. These we can confidently declare. Dying for your enemy is not as easy to understand.

These are much harder words to declare confidently to your neighbor on a flight:

“Hey, I think that when you get home you should lay your life down for your enemy. You know, go a die in place of the woman who had an abortion…so that she might have a new chance at a life that she completely messed up.”

That is much harder to declare confidently. But, it is also the way of Christ.

It is not as easy to understand, but it is the type of God we have. Christ lays down his life in love of you, and me, and the annoying neighbor on the plane.

When someone has given up their life for you, life seems to take on a characteristic other than confidence, it seems to take on something that looks more like humility and gratitude. Do not worry. If you keep reading, Peter will get to that point eventually in the story. And eventually, so will we.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Refelction on Mark 7:24-37

This is one of those texts that many preachers would simple like to ignore. It is a gospel lesson that presents Jesus in a very difficult light. In one of my previous congregations of which I was a member, the pastor would mysteriously take the Sunday with this text off ever single year and leave the job of preaching to a seminary Professor. But, here I am. And, there you are. And, here is the text.

It is a text in which Jesus finds himself in the wonderful region of Tyre. As you might have picked up the past few weeks, Jesus has been trying to get a little time off…to get a vacation. But, people keep interrupting him.

In my opinion, Jesus might have made some better choices as he pursued a vacation destination. He might have chosen Jerusalem, a very Holy and Jewish destination. He might have gone to visit Bethlehem, his town of birth. But he does neither one. He chooses the region of Tyre.

He might as well have chosen the extremely Holy Bourbon Street during Marti-Gras; a true celebration of incarnation (a true celebration of being in the flesh). Or he might as well have chosen the border region between Iraq and Iran where he would surely be given a one star hotel for an indefinite number of years. What is Jesus doing in a godforsaken, unclean, unholy, gentile region such as Tyre? And to top it off, as if things did not look bad enough, he chooses to spend this alone time with a Syrophoenician woman who is of the wrong race, wrong religion, wrong social class, wrong gender, and who has a snot nosed brat with a demon. "That is some good company Jesus," I sneer sarcastically.

I know, I know, you are already light years ahead of my rhetorical argument. You are surely thinking that of course Jesus is in such a place. Our loving, forgiving, healing Jesus can be found in all of the forsaken places in the world. Of course he is in Tyre, the land of sinners, the land of the Gentiles, because Jesus is the savior of all sinners. Why would we expect him anywhere else? You are a smart reader, and you think you know where this sermon is going so your brain is just going to wander over to Jesus on the nice sandy beaches of the resort island of Tyre and start your own 12 minute vacation.

Well, your wrong. Not about the nice resort island of Tyre, but about Jesus. Get your head out of Matthew where the nice, friendly, Jesus of peace resides and get your head into Mark where Jesus says bluntly to the woman’s request to heal her child, “no.” “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did he just? Did he really?Yes, he just called the woman and her sick child “dogs.” How is that for a nice sandy beach vacation?

Do you see why I should have just gone on vacation this weekend? I could use a nice sandy beach myself right about now. I could leave this text for some poor retired pulpit supply pastor to type up while I stretch out and get some sun. Tyre, here I come! I could just hang you out to dry and leave you dangling with this text. Let the scholars plumb the riches in the text. I am going on vacation.

But, you might say to me, “but don’t even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs? Please, give us a little food for our souls.”

Could you trust that I would be persuaded and come back to preach? Can the woman trust that Jesus will change his mind and show mercy on her child? Who can you trust in this cold world? Insurance companies, government, corporations, friends, spouses, presidents; who can you trust in this cold, unclean, unholy world? Who will not turn their back even when you have done the worst? Who will change their mind and show you a little mercy? Who will change their mind and show a desperate mom who is of the wrong race, wrong religion, wrong social status, and wrong gender a little mercy and love? Who can be persuaded to love me too?

Probably, the same one whose mind was changed when the Israelites were wandering and hatefully complaining against God in the desert, and saved them anyway. Probably, the same one whose mind was changed when the Israelites forgot about the poor and the widows and were punished for such ungodliness, and gave them back their land anyway.

Probably, the same God who became flesh and changed his mind, and healed the woman’s daughter despite the fact that she was the wrong everything.

Who can we trust to change his mind about us, and save us on the cross? Who can we trust to change his mind and show grace? Jesus of course. I guess this story was worth sticking around for after-all.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.