Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

From Disciples to Fisher People: Weird Sayings Continued…

"Halo there, let's go fish for some people." The Calling of the First Disciples, Ghirlandaio, 1481

“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.  They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’”  At once they left their nets and followed him.”  Matthew 4:18-20

Fishers of people?  What in the world is Jesus talking about here?  So often when I hear this passage preached, the emphasis is on how God calls the disciples and how they respond.  How they seem there and then to stop what they’re doing and follow, because they can’t do otherwise.  Jesus is enough.

And while this is all good and true, it has always stopped short of unpacking the expression, “fishers of people.”  What does Jesus really mean when he employs it? If there were a job description for a fisher of people, what would it be?  The image can bring to mind unsavory associations, like loud street evangelists with bull horns calling the world to repentance, or politicians who in fishing for votes wear their Christian faith on their sleeve.

But what does it really mean to fish for people?

I have never liked fishing.  It demands way too much patience.  For that reason, I tend to place fishing in the same category as golf.  They’re occupations that if I had all the time in the world I might try some day; but because I don’t have all the time in the world, I prefer to spend it doing things I find more, well, adventuresome and exhilarating, like paragliding in the Alps, for instance.

But maybe that is precisely why discipleship is so hard, too.  It demands a whole lot of the patience I don’t have.  You have to have just the right bait for the fish so they come swimming to it, but you also have to wait for them to bite first.  If they don’t bite, you’re out of luck.  There’s no sense forcing those tasty morsels down their throats. They eat when they are hungry.  They come when their stomachs feel empty, or when they see a worm that looks especially appetizing.  And in the sea there are lots of distractions competing for the fishes’ attention.  So fisher people have to be patient.  They have to be willing to hold their line out for a while until they feel a tug, and then they need to be careful when they pull their catch in.

Because I don’t fish, it is disingenuous to feign knowledge about fishing as a sport or livelihood. But I am married to a man who comes from a long line of North Sea fishermen (and in this case they all are men) who make their living on the deep seas catching big fish.  These men are tough, hard-working, no-nonsense sorts of people who have been weathered by many a storm.  They risk their lives doing what they do.  Many a spouse or sibling has watched them go off to work never to return.

I suspect that this suspense-laden existence is closer to the reality of fishing in Jesus’ time.  Simon Peter and Andrew weren’t regularly shooting the breeze on a sunny day over a couple of beers while waiting blissfully for their lunch to turn up.  They were living on dinghies, watching the skies and the currents for the next big catch to reel in so that they could pay the bills.  Sometimes business was good; other days it wasn’t.

So when Jesus uses the expression “fisher of people,” I imagine he has in mind a certain set of qualifications: he is looking for strong, patient, risk-taking people with both a penchant for adventure and a tolerance for the tedious.  Not just anyone can be a fisher of people then- in the same way that not just anyone can fish for tuna.

In reality, nobody starts out as a fisher of people.  The occupation takes time following Jesus first.  Peter and Andrew, when they first throw down their nets and follow Jesus are not fishers of people.  It is in the process of following Jesus that they become fishers of people.

The good news is that for starters any one of us can be a disciple, because anyone of us can follow Jesus. If you’re unsure as to whether you qualify, just check out this list of twelve characteristics of disciples (the first eight characteristics come compliments of Don Miller, and the last four are my additions):

1. You think Jesus wants to take over the government so you cut off a soldier’s ear in order to get the fighting started. (The neo cons are definitely disciples!)

2. You keep pestering Jesus about who he will give more power to in heaven.

3. You have no theological training but own a small fishing business which somehow makes you qualified because you “get it.”

4. The Holy Spirit crashes into one of your mini sermons so everybody can speak different languages and outsiders think you’re drunk.

5. People ask you if you know Jesus and you freak out and say “no” and run away.

6. You hear they killed Jesus on a cross and you figure the whole thing was a wash and you got duped.

7. You choose other disciples by playing rock, paper, scissors.

8. You teach bad theology and have to have somebody else come over and correct you.

9. You’re “undomesticated,” in that you find children a bit annoying, get stressed out when in charge of dinner for large crowds and only visit your mother when she’s sick.

10. You think you can walk on water even when you can’t.

11.  You find it hard to say “no” to good wine, especially when there’s lots of it.

12.  You would have no trouble quitting your day job if Someone gave you an offer you couldn’t refuse.

If you see yourself in here, then you’ve got a future following Jesus.  And the fishing of people?  That will come along the way, so relax.

 

 

 

 

 

The One, Unforgivable Thing: Weird Sayings Continued

"Letting God do the work and then stealing the credit? An ingenious idea!" -Beelzebub (a.k.a. Satan)

“If anyone speaks a word against the son of man, it will be forgiven.  But if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it won’t be forgiven, either in the present age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). 

Every once in a while when my son expresses his dissatisfaction with the Dover Management by throwing a full-blown temper tantrum, my husband gives him a stern and rather menacing warning: that while my son might get some clemency for hitting and throwing things at his father, he will get no such thing in the case that he hits and throws things at his mother.

And there is a sense in which at least on the surface Jesus is doing something similar here. Like one parent looking out for the other, He is issuing a foreboding warning to wayward, misbehaving children.  It is as if he is saying, “You can mess with me- you may even crucify me- but if you mess with my partner, you’re in for it.”

But if this kind of parental defense line-up were the only dynamic at play here, then this statement would not be so cryptic or foreboding.  Because Jesus is also equating “speaking against the Holy Spirit” as the one, unforgivable thing.  The one thing that will land you in a very hopeless “time out,” not just in the here and now but forever. The question, then, is really this: what does it mean to speak against the Holy Spirit, and how does this differ from speaking against the son of man (Jesus)?

To answer this question we need to return to the context in which this weird saying appears.  Only verses earlier, Jesus’ interlocutors, the Pharisees, have been murmuring about Jesus’ ability to exorcise demons, attributing it to the devil. Only someone in league with “Beelzebul” (a jokey slang term for Satan) could drive out demons the way Jesus does.  Or so goes their whining.

To which Jesus gives a long, sensible retort that puts an end to their convoluted reasoning.  Why would Beelzebub undermine himself by driving himself out of people? And, for that matter, what power was at play behind the Pharisee’s own successful efforts to exorcise demons?  Beelzebub, or God’s Spirit?

In this context, “to speak against the Holy Spirit” is to deny the power by which God is at work in the world turning around lives and restoring wholeness and shalom. Sure, one can say mean things about Jesus, but to attribute the new, abundant life that Jesus brings to the devil will leave you out in the dark, gnashing your teeth at reality.

N.T. Wright puts it well:  “Jesus is warning against looking at the work of the spirit and declaring that it must be the devil’s doing.  If you do that, it’s not just that you won’t be forgiven; you can’t be, because you have just cut off the very channel along which forgiveness could come.  Once you declare that the only remaining bottle of water is poisoned, you condemn yourself to dying of thirst” (Matthew for Everyone).  

Chances are that if you have read this verse and wondered a bit worriedly whether you’ve been guilty of doing this sort of thing, then you haven’t done what Jesus is talking about here.  Because what Jesus is talking about here signifies a pretty dramatic affront to God’s Person.  The same Spirit of God that empowers Jesus to cast out demons and points the way in the direction of God’s “promised land,” a place of rescue, hope, restoration and abundant life, is at work in the world all around us…

Whenever peace comes to war-torn hearts. Or, forgiveness to broken relationships. Or, healing to sick bodies and souls.  When this kind of thing happens, we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we attribute this miraculous new life to the devil- or, to our own best efforts alone.  And when we do this, we cut off our access to that life-giving source of power.

The scenario reminds me of the old joke about the guy who, when the floods come, keeps all potential rescue parties at bay by exclaiming that God will save him.  The only problem is that he hasn’t recognized that God has been trying to save him all along in the form of the row boat, speed boat and helicopter.  Until finally it’s too late and the man drowns.

Here Jesus puts an end to this stupidity.  If you like what you see about a God who does unexplainably beautiful, life-giving things in people’s lives, don’t cut yourself off from being part of the redemptive drama underway and in league with the goodness. Let God do as God does and be open to what God might do in your life.  The best place to start is by being at least open to the idea that the One sending the lifeboats- the same One who sent Jesus- is really God Himself and nobody else.

 

A Sabbath from Seriousness

The following religion-related typos on the final exam papers that my husband is currently grading made me chuckle.  Here they are for your edification, accompanied by our editorial remarks:

“Jesus made the long walk to Calgary.”  (Did he cross the Polar Ice Cap to reach it?)

“The religion of Islam has several different types of Muslin within it.” (So apparently one-quarter of the world’s population is a kind of fabric?)

“Moses, under the direction of YHWH, takes the Hebrews into the dessert for forty years until they emerge to see the promised land of Canaan.”  (That’s what I call a a serious sweet tooth.)

“Another difference in Christianity is their belief in the ‘Hole Trinity.’”  (So Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not “three-in-one” but rather “three-in-a-hole.”  There’s some theological potential in the metaphor, yes?)

“Those who believed in [Jesus'] teachings, and that he was the messier, the Son of God.”  (The more I think about it, a God-in-the-flesh Messiah has to be a bit, well, “messier” than God the Father or God the Spirit, don’t you think?)

“What is interesting about the monotheism in Judaism is that they have a special convent with God.”  (A convent…really?)

 

 

 

 

You Know It’s a Bad Day When You’re Giving a Blow Job to a Stranger for $5

Magdalene is a residential recovery program for women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution and addiction.

Fellow saints and sinners, today was to feature a weird Jesus saying, but something profound happened yesterday that I have to tell you about. Because it is not every day that I get propositioned by a prostitute.  In fact, yesterday evening at the Citgo gas station in inner-city Atlanta was a first.

I didn’t see her until she was standing a few yards away. By then she had me cornered, my hand on the gas pump, my back against the fuel dispenser.  When I saw her, I knew there was no escape from what would probably be the common line I got these days in our neighborhood: “Mam, could you spare some money for the bus?,” or “Mam, I’m really hungry and I’m just looking for another dollar.”

This time, though, she preceded her proposition with an introduction. “Mam, My sister and I are standing on the corner over there trying to get $5 each for candles and dinner, but I just got out of prison for prostitution and I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m pregnant.  I know you think I’m trash, and I am- but would you let me wash your windows for $5?”

An interesting proposition.  This was also the first time that anyone had introduced themself to me as “trash.”  The admission elicited a sharp pang of pity.  Regardless of whether this woman was telling the truth about her situation, I couldn’t let her claim go unchallenged. “Mam, you’re not trash,” I protested. “God loves you!”

“I know God loves me,” she said. “He’s about the only one who loves me these days.”

“So you’re a prostitute and you’re four months’ pregnant?,” I asked.

“Yes,” with a grudging nod, then lifting up her baggy shirt to show me the protruding bulge. “I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m pregnant now.  And I’m HIV positive.  But sometimes I have to.  Sometimes when I explain I’m pregnant, they’ll say, ‘Well you still have a mouth.’  She gave me a knowing look.  (Apparently blow jobs were still not off limits.)

She went on. “My sister is over there trying to get a client. But she’s menstruating.  I know that’s gross, but…,” she trailed off. “We’re just trying to get candles, because we’re staying in a vacant apartment across the street right now.”

Her story was becoming frighteningly believable now.  My heart was starting to hurt for her and for me and this sorry lot that we human beings can be. So little ultimately separated me from this woman in her tragic predicament.  She was just another sinner born into a different family and a poorer neighborhood with less education.

“I don’t have any cash but I can drive you to the food mart down the street and buy you dinner and candles,” I said.

“Thank you, Mam,” she stammered, “but I’m really smelly.  I try to clean myself up but I don’t want to stink up your car. And I don’t want your daughter to see me.  (My two-year-old, Sam, was watching the strange proceedings from her car seat.)

“What’s your name?,” I asked.

“Nikki,” she said.

I insisted Nikki get in my car.  She finally agreed.  She was smelly, her hair greasy, her clothes soiled, as probably anyone obliged to do cheap sex tricks for a fast food meal would be.

I asked her if she wanted to keep her baby.  She said she had prayed and asked others to pray that God would remove “it” from her, but God hadn’t.  So now she was going to the local clinic and seeing a “Ms. So-and-So” who was helping her prepare for putting her baby up for adoption.

“There are so many couples out there who can’t have babies and want to,” she had been told.  And so she was going to have her baby. This twenty-eight-year-old, just out of jail having served a one-year sentence for prostitution and now jobless, homeless and HIV-positive, was going to have her baby. And here we were driving her to the mini mart to get her some basic groceries.

When our shopping run was over, Nikki asked to be dropped off at the apartment across the street- the one that she was not supposed to be staying in but at least was a safe place to lay her head, even if it didn’t have water or electricity.

I asked her if she had a phone. (Duh.) “No” was the obvious answer.

I asked her if she would like my phone number- that I could put her in touch with some friends who run a really successful residential recovery program for women just like her.  (The Magdalene House, in Nashville, Tennessee, would be just the right fit, even if it meant paying Nikki’s bus fare to Nashville; and if not the Magdalene House, there were other programs here in Atlanta; there was always hope.) She said, “Sure,” a bit happily surprised that I’d even offer to stay in touch.

After some unsuccessful rummaging through my purse, we were out of luck in our search of a pen.

“How shall we stay in touch?,” I finally asked.

“I’m always on the corner at the gas station,” she said.  “You can always find me there.”  (Only minutes earlier when we were pulling out of the mini mart parking lot, she had said under her breath, “I don’t want to go back there again.”  I hadn’t blamed her. I wouldn’t either.)

By now she was out of the car.  After thanking me again for the groceries, she was turning to go.

“Nikki,” I said, realizing this might be the last time I’d see her, “I know it’s hard to believe right now, but God is going to take care of you and your baby.  God bless you, and I’ll be praying for you!” And, maybe I was saying this for both of us, because somehow I had to believe that the God I worship was looking out for Nikki and wouldn’t let her and her unborn child slip through the cracks.  Somehow I needed to believe this, because the alternative- that this woman and her baby were on a dead-end road with no hope and no future- was too hard to bear.

Nikki’s eyes lit up for the very first time and the faint edges of a smile appeared.

“Thank you,” she said.

This morning I can’t stop thinking about Nikki.  I can’t stop thinking about how she got to where she was- in such a desperate place that her only meaning is putting out for a few bucks and a hot meal.  And I can’t stop thinking about what it takes to help Nikki get back on her feet, so that one day she can say with conviction that she is a child of God.  So that one day she can hold down a respectable job and her own apartment and have a new lease on life.  What combination of government and church-run social services need to be in place to give women like Nikki hope and a future?

It is a bit strange to think that I’ve been driving past that gas station every morning and every afternoon when I take my son to and from school, having never known that a young woman named Nikki was standing there fighting just to survive.  Now when we pass that run-down corner, I’ll be looking for her. I’ll be wondering how she and her little one are, and whether today they have managed to get by just washing windows.

 

 

 

 

“I Want Jesus!”

Does it get any more kitsch than this?

“I want Jesus!,” my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter exclaimed the other day, as she grasped for the ceramic baby Jesus in the nativity scene on our kitchen table. These days when advertisers prostitute themselves for our dollars and every manner of holiday festivity competes for our time, my daughter’s un-self-conscious exclamation reminds me of what I really want, too, when I am obliged to stand still and face my inner neediness.

A friend has reminded me of theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ words: “It’s all about Jesus and the rest is bull shit.”  Hauerwas’ sentiments, I suspect, could not ring more true than around this time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of a Savior in a manger, because there was no place for Him at the inn.  We don’t have to worship God in an actual feeding trow at the nearest farm (or in our case, the local petting zoo) to appreciate the full significance of the imagery:  that we (or at least most of us, I suspect) relinquish only the rough-shod, unkempt, least-valued margins of our existence to One who has come into the world to indwell all of us and our world with His Holy Spirit.  Like a Lover who wants all of us but gets only a small part of us because our lives are too crowded and our hearts too restless, God waits for us to return to Him.

A friend recently lamented her forgetfulness of God of late- that she over the years had grown distant in a relationship that she knew was important.  I told her what my spiritual director once told me not long ago when I voiced a similar concern.  She said that my thirst for God would tell me when “to drink.”  I have found this to be true.

Somewhere, in the midst of the endless commercial bustle and incessant demands on our time, I suspect that there is a voice in every one of us which exclaims, “I want Jesus!”  Or, “God, where are you?”  Or, “God, will you show up?  I need you.”  Or, “God, is this holiday bullshit all there is? Because I want more.”

And the One who put that thirst there will lead us to water.

Don’t miss the next in our series, “Weird Jesus Sayings”:  “If anyone speaks a word against the son of man, it will be forgiven.  But if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it won’t be forgiven, either in the present age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).

 

 

The Minister and The Little, Black Dress

"Yes, I am waiting for a flood."

Much has been written about ministry and sex, sexuality, gender and, of most immediate and grave importance here, what to wear when you find yourself young, female and in ordained ministry.  The question has been so well-traversed that it can be tiresome. Those of us who find ourselves “in the business” know the familiar line, for instance, that open-toed shoes or sandals are a bit, well, “gauche” when paired with the standard clerical robe.  But where do we women priests and ministers draw the line when it comes to the clothing we wear out and about?  If the question has been well-traversed, it is because it can lead to a rather breathtaking landscape of potentially angst-ridden, wardrobe decisions.

The other day a friend and I at her suggestion ducked into a boutique consignment store in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.  My friend has nursed a love for New York fashion that, in keeping with a congressional staffer’s salary, is quick to spy the best in hot-off-the-runway deals and name-brand sample sales.  Clothes shopping, which can quickly leave me sapped and a bit depressed, acquires a new novelty when I am watching her shop.

There we were in a hip boutique store browsing the racks when she pulled out the dress and thrust it in my hands. “Try it on!,” she ordered.  If it was not the skimpiest, tightest, slinky little black dress I had ever seen, it was at least the skimpiest, tightest, slinky little black dress I had ever been encouraged to wear. If truth be told, my first impression was, “this looks slutty.”

I hemmed and hawed, but my friend insisted. “Humor me,” she said in her no-nonsense way.

And so I did.  I tried the dress on, and to my great astonishment, the dress fit in a skimpy, tight, revealing and flattering way.  It fit perfectly, so perfectly that my next knee-jerk protest to my friend’s offer to buy it for me (because I would never buy it for myself)- that maybe the dress made me look fat- fell on flat ears.  I kept protesting that I didn’t need it, that $35 was still too much to spend on something I might rarely wear when the money could feed a whole family in Africa for months.

“And because you would never buy it for those reasons,” my friend said, “I’m going to buy it for you.”

My vanity couldn’t argue.  The dress looked great in the mirror.  And no, it didn’t make me look fat.

I was in a quandary.  First there was the question of what we, as Christian feminists- (maybe not of the typical card-carrying sort, but feminists all the same)- were to do when it came to wearing something that made us feel sexually empowered but potentially objectified, too.  And then there was the overhanging dilemma of my priestly identity.  Within my Reformed understanding of the ordained minister as one called to a particular function, that of preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments, there was not a whole lot of help for discerning issues of what to wear on the job when performing this function- not to mention, when these duties were over. Sure, there was that good old book, the Bible, that we Christians hold dear, and passages like 1 Peter 3:3 (instructing women that our beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as “elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes”).  But where in there is there mention of what to do about the simple but suggestive designer dress at a rock-bottom price?

In the end, I let my friend buy me the dress on the condition that I only wear the dress for my husband on a night out and that I send her a picture per her request.  These days, when most of my “nights out” are to the tune of tomorrow’s spaghetti dinner fundraiser for my son’s school, fulfilling my friend’s request will demand a bit of creativity.  Or, I could do as my stand-up-comedian friend suggested and wear the dress to the spaghetti dinner.  We both chuckled at the scenario.

Still, now that I am beholden to fulfill my friend’s request, I find myself asking all Christians, feminists and/or ministers, male or female, in whatever combination, what they would have done in the circumstances.  To be or not to be…in the dress. That is the question.  Cast your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote here.

Spiritual Dissonances: Ground Zero and the W Hotel Bar

9/11 Memorial

Today is the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Probably the closest thing for my generation to that surprise attack by Japanese planes on Pearl Harbor in the year 1941 is 9/11.  On Saturday evening a friend and I visited the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero.

When the taxi dropped us off at the entrance, we had to follow a quarter-mile of signs through a maze of temporarily erected dividers that cordoned off the site from the rest of downtown New York.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts to walk the long passageway: security guards peppered the path, ushering us through after checking our passes, followed by a baggage inspection line and then more walking, until finally the long serpentine path opened up into a wide, open space under the night sky.  There, under the city lights we, maybe a bit like medieval mystics having traveled a great distance in search of a meeting place with the sacred, had found our own modern-day shrine.  No, our destination was not the relic of some long-dead saint. But it was, in a sense, holy ground.  Holy ground because here, in the tragic deaths of those who had gone before us, we were reminded of our own fragility.  Our woundedness not just as Americans but as human beings.  Those two dark, gaping holes in the ground, their cavernous mouths drinking in an endless fountain of tears, and all around, inscribed in black marble, the names of nearly 3,000 persons who died when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell in the deadliest terrorist attack in our nation’s history, were a perpetual reminder of both our lostness and our hope for salvific meaning.

We stayed there for a while listening to a guide rattle off some trivia about the site. He pointed to the new World Trade Center buildings now under construction.  1 World Trade Center would be America’s tallest building.   “Was it a tribute to the indefatigable nature of the human spirit or a sign that in our hard-headed pride we never learn?,” I wondered.  Maybe both.

Then after paying our respects we were back retracing our steps through the labyrinth to the gift store where we watched a short video narrated in the words of 9/11 survivors.  The fountains of tears were distilled here in these few very personal accounts of loss- the sudden, violent tearing away of of siblings, children and lovers. These were the rivers of grief magnified in their parts as drops of tears.  The words that Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov puts in the mouth of his character, Ivan, a hardened skeptic in matters of faith, now come to mind: that Ivan would have to “return his ticket” to paradise if it required the tears of even one child. Evil after all seems perhaps most cruel and unacceptable when distilled in the tragedy of just one person, one child of God.

Our pilgrimage had come to an end.  Now we were looking for a bathroom.  The one closest to the memorial seemed to be at the W Hotel next door, which meant that we had to take an elevator up to the hotel bar.  We stepped out of the elevator directly into another kind of darkness, this time the swanky black lines of a club, heaving to the loud, electronic beats of dance music.  The waiters with their trays of cocktails passed by in black like shadowy muses, their offer much more than that of just drinks. Here was the promise of human sophistication in the form of whatever I would like it to be in the moment.  The siren calls of wealth, power, style and unending youthfulness.

The dissonance between this concocted, artificial paradise and the picture we had beheld only minutes earlier in the lights under an open sky was striking.  I had again been transported into another world, one that pretended that human fragility and loss and the pervasiveness of evil and our passing away were mere phantoms. Here in the dim light of a W hotel bar the only thing that seemed real was our own self-importance.  Still, I couldn’t put away the images we had just seen.  Images that told another part of the human story.  They had made their impact.

 

 

“I Gotta Have Faith”

"I gotta have faith." - George Michael

When gay singer George Michael recently put off his tour because of a bad case of pneumonia that landed him in the intensive care unit at the hospital and drew family and long-time partner Fadi Fawaz to his sick bed, members of the group, “Christians for a Moral America,” reportedly prayed for Michael to die as God’s judgment on his “satanic lifestyle” (The Huffington Post).

The latest reports suggest that Michael is “steadily recovering,” and contrary to rumors circulated by the above-mentioned group that Michael has AIDS, Michael has “no other underlying condition” besides pneumonia.  Which I guess means God isn’t answering their prayers quite as they would have liked.  Maybe if they put their petitions to a beat, something edgy, with a sprinkle of the “religious” in its lyrics, something like “Faith,” or “Like Jesus To A Child,” they’ll do better at persuading God to strike George dead with AIDS.  Or, if not AIDS, maybe a thunderbolt?

I suspect this is just another example of how we Christians are obsessed with sexual sin over all else. I wonder what would happen if we used our voices just as loudly to decry the evils of war or economic injustice or human degradation, and did so with a view to fanning the flames of God’s new life as it springs forth. New life in war-torn streets and for families who have lost their homes to foreclosure. Rebirth in places where oppression has crushed the human spirit. Recovery for people who find themselves on dead-end roads. Hope and healing for the sick regardless of their circumstances, no matter how they ended up there, because we worship a God who is God not of the dead but of the living (Matthew 22:32).

 

Backhanded Compliments: Weird Sayings Continued

"Can I take this off yet? It's starting to itch." -John the Baptist

“I’m telling you the truth: John the Baptist is the greatest mother’s son there ever was.  But even the least significant person in heaven’s kingdom is greater than he is.”  Matthew 11:11 (translation is N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)

It can almost sound like Jesus is paying his buddy from birth a backhanded compliment here.  Sure, John may be an exceptional prophet.  He may even be an Elijah (11:14).  As one who gestures to the coming kingdom of God, calling on God’s people to repent from his post in the wilderness, John stands in a long line of Jewish truth tellers; and like any good prophet, he is about to be killed for his message.  In only a short time his head will be served on a platter to Herod Antipas in exchange for a stripper’s cheap tricks.

But “if you think John is great, you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet,’ now that I’m here,” Jesus seems to be saying.  And there is a sense in which our impression is true. Jesus is paying his quirky cousin with the hair shirt and a palate for locusts and honey a very big compliment with a twist. He is dispensing high praise with a curve ball at the end of it.

Because for as much as John has faithfully lived out a life under God’s rule, he has yet to see the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.  John’s career is ending just as Jesus’ has begun.  John has caught glimpses of that kingdom, a divine order in which the blind see, the lame walk and those in bondage are set free, but he has yet to see the full implications of a “God with us.”  He has yet to catch the full meaning of a God who dwells with God’s people in the person of Jesus Christ.  He will not live to see Jesus crucified as one “high and lifted up,” parodied as “the King of the Jews;” nor will he witness the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ.

And now it is as if Jesus is saying that all that John has pointed to is here in the flesh. So that all that John represents, in the way of the prophets and the law and centuries of talking and dreaming about a time when God will dwell among God’s people, is incredibly important and meaningful because it has anticipated this “God-with-us” moment in Jesus.  Apart from Jesus, John, the prophets and the law are not inconsequential; they represent the greatest human efforts to incarnate God’s love and care for creation; but in the god-man Jesus their truth finds its greatest, fullest, realest embodiment.

And in this new divine order that God is unleashing in the person of Jesus, the “least” of those who see what God is doing and join God there are “greater” than John the Baptist.  The “least” of those who meet Jesus and get to know Him- and in doing so fall in love with and hitch their lives to a God who never gives up on us and loves us to the end and beyond- will be “greater” in the kingdom than John the Baptist.

What a wild, unfathomable mystery- that in Jesus the kingdom of God is fulfilled, that in Jesus, we discover God’s kingdom over and over again, that in Jesus, we can be there with each new moment, as if being reborn again and again to the Spirit-breathed reality around us.  My gratitude for this gift is beyond words.  Even so I still can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy in the hair shirt.

The Advent Conspiracy: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

Black Friday shoppers line up at Macy's in Manhattan.

“Foxes have their dens and the birds in the air have their nests.  But the son of man has nowhere he can lay his head.”  Matthew 8:20

“Black Friday” has come and gone, but the staggering figures remain.  Americans spent a whopping $11.4 billion, averaging $400 per consumer- the most ever spent on a single day, according to an NPR report.  The pictures corroborate this: 9,000 people lined up outside Macy’s in Herald Square, New York to be the first to get in on the deals.

And here Jesus offers a strikingly discordant reality.  Which is really a claim on the lives of those who would follow Him.  One that is truly peculiar.  Peculiar for a peculiar people.

If even foxes and birds have their homes, Jesus is as one even poorer- or freer- than they.  He- “the son of man”- has “no place to lay his head.”  A bit weird and a bit cryptic, don’t you think?

Because whereas we, or a great number of us, as the statistics would suggest, enrich ourselves with an extravagance of things, Jesus travels lightly, making his home along the way with the poor and the forgotten of our world.  While we, many of us, captivate ourselves with more and more stuff, Jesus invites us to leave our captivity for a free stretch of highway, our windswept hair and the thrill of the ride keeping us alive more than any new set of shoes or the latest piece of technology will.

The adventure is full of pain and glory, Jesus seems to be saying. But when we join Him we add our names to an undercover party of “co-conspirators” with an important job to do.  A job that involves being “on the move” in the world around us. We are “peripatetic” insofar as we make ourselves available to God’s mission of healing and restoration rather than let ourselves be weighed down by our possessions. We are “refugees” to the degree that we find ourselves out of place in a mall at midnight the day after Thanksgiving, camping out to shop as if our lives depended on it, and instead go where Jesus roams.  To the places where Jesus finds welcome. Among the poor, the sick, the afflicted and those who wish to “see.”  In a smelly stable just outside the outskirts of town on the margins of power.

When we go to those places we will hear God’s voice.  We will hear God speaking to us.  A bit like the tender sounds of a small baby nursing at his mother’s breast.  It is even possible that then we will drop our bags- all of those material things that weigh us down and have told us who we are- and worship God.

To learn more about how you can join the Advent Conspiracy, go to www.adventconspiracy.org.

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