Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Matzo Ball Love: Weird Sayings Continued…

“‘Go!  I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’” Luke 10:3  

“These were his instructions:  ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff- no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.  Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.  Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.  And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.’” Mark 6:8-11

There are few animals more endearingly stupid than sheep.  A couple years ago, my husband and I were in Scotland celebrating our tenth year anniversary.  The sheep were everywhere.  In just about every strange configuration.  I even saw one sheep literally standing on all fours on the back of another sheep who was herself standing on all fours.  No joke.  If there were a sheep circus, those two would have been in it.

I tried to make friends with the sheep but could never get quite close enough to pet one.  They were skiddish.  It was like they were always running off to another more important engagement, when in fact all they ever really seemed to do was eat, sleep and poop.  (But then again, I guess food, rest and regularity are pretty important in the scheme of things.)

The thing about sheep is that they stick together.  It is rare to find a sheep meandering on its own.  And the wee ones, the lambs, are especially timid.  They stick close to their mothers.  

In addition to being a bit dim, scared and skittish, sheep do not have a very good sense of direction.  Have you ever heard of a sheep that takes directions well?  I mean, while my directional sense is poor, (and I mean really poor), try telling a sheep how to get from point A to point B.  At least I can ask for directions.  Sheep have to be herded with a big stick and even then they bleat and bump into each other like bumbling, blathering fools.  Endearingly stupid at best.

Which is why Jesus’ declaration here, just when he is sending out his disciples on a  dangerous mission into potentially hostile territory, is just plain weird.  Even a bit  insulting really.  Hardly the kind of phrase that the U.S. army would use to recruit new  soldiers, for instance- unless they were kamikazes.

But, is Jesus ordering his disciples to be like sheep here? Is he telling them to be bumbling,  blathering fools running all over the place eating, sleeping, and pooping and having to  be herded with great, big sticks?  Is he charging them to be timid babies sticking close  to their mothers?  I don’t think so.

More likely Jesus is describing a reality.  The reality that anyone who believes in Jesus  above all else and seeks to answer God’s call to go into the world with the message that  God is here and on the way is going to face obstacles.  Is going to be near the bottom of  the food chain.  Is going to appear naive and powerless by all external appearances.  Is  going to look like the next good meal for those who would cynically prey on the poor  and vulnerable.

Because by virtue of our being sent into the world with a message that God is here redeeming lives, we are making ourselves vulnerable.  We are putting ourselves “out there,” by telling people God loves them.  And, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, if we don’t “get a return” on our words, “that’s a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.”

To tell our world that God is here and that God loves us and cares about how we treat one another and is intimately invested in our lives is a claim that can seem silly and downright outrageous.  And it can require a whole lot of humility and courage- especially when we ourselves are not the message.  And just to drive this point home, Jesus instructs his disciples to “take nothing for the journey.”  “No bread, no bag, no money in your belts.”  As if by virtue of having these things we might mistaken ourselves and our resources for the message itself.  A message we’re bringing about One who saves.

These instructions that we travel light are, I suspect, especially hard to hear for those of us who have spent our lives justifying our existence through our possessions. The best education.  The highest accolades.  The well-paying job.  Like money and clothes, these are stamps of worldly success.  They can send a message about who we are.  Or at least who we would like to think we are.

But Jesus won’t let us take refuge in these petty minutiae.  Because at the end of the day they really are like “chaff that the wind blows away.”  When the world as we know it falls apart, when chronic illness strikes, or we lose a loved one, or all of our life’s savings dissolve with one swing in the stock market, we can quickly be left with nothing.  We can feel lost, like a pathetic, helpless sheep bleating on a hillside.

And this is where God shows up.  In that nexus between our desperate inadequacy and a cruel world that scorns the weak, God issues the assurance that God’s sheep will never be lost and will never perish (John 10).  Because a Shepherd came and laid down his life for the sheep and pointed them in the direction of Love.  He was God’s own great, big matzo ball hanging out there, broken for us.

I call that naked love.

Playing Host to Our Demons: Weird Sayings Continued…

“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.  Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’  When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order.  Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there.  And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.’”  Luke 11:24-26  

Jesus healed many demon-possessed persons.  Take Mary Magdalene, for instance, a woman whom Jesus healed “from seven demons” (Mk. 16:9, Lk. 8:2), often defined by tradition as the “seven deadly sins” of pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, and sloth. Mary was the first to encounter Jesus after his resurrection and to fulfill his charge to go share what she had seen with the other disciples.

But, weirdly, Jesus’ remark here could be understood to call into question the permanence and authenticity of Mary’s and others’ exorcisms in Jesus’ time- and in turn to encourage a level of complacency or even despair about the demons we face.  Why fight them if the battle in the end is hopeless? Why not let them take up shop in our souls rather than seek their banishment, if in the end they will only come back to haunt us even more?  But is this what Jesus was really trying to say?

Demons are not a common staple of conversation these days.  When we speak of demons, we tend to attach them to, for instance, the celebrities who end up on newspaper pages dead from overdoses or who unleash maniacal tirades on YouTube videos when they’re off their meds.  Or, we associate them with movies like “The Exorcist”- as merely the stuff of horror flicks.

But Jesus speaks very matter-of-factly about demons, as if they are a reality to which all of us by virtue of our humanity are susceptible. Even Jesus had to confront his demons in the wilderness.  Pride.  Fame.  Kingship apart from God.  Worldly power and wealth.

It is tempting to fight our demons.  To declare war on these dissolute, frightening parts of ourselves.  Because demons force us to behold our own fragility, and in turn, to cause us to fear our weakness and our capacity to fall apart at the seams.  They threaten our perceived sense of control and the orderly identity we create for ourselves.

Anxiety.  Depression.  Perfectionism.  Regret.  Addiction.  A lust for power and significance.  Fear of failure.  A desire to impose my will on the world.  When these things rear their ugly heads, my first inclination is to go to war.  To take out my metaphorical AK-47 (or at least my four-year-old son’s imaginary “fart blaster”) and blow those nasty suckers out with every form of self-directed intervention I can think of.  Self-help strategies.  The therapist.  Confession to a good friend.  Or, in prayer, ordering my demons out “in Jesus’ name.”

But so often these efforts, if effective for a time, fail to rid me of my demons over the longer haul.  My demons know me well.  They know my Achilles’ heels, and so they’ll come back every so often and take up residence.  And sometimes, when they return having been gone for a while, their clamor can sound like an uninvited heavy metal band playing loudly in my living room.

Suzanne Guthrie, a sister of the Community of the Holy Spirit in New York, shares the story of the Buddhist saint Milarepa.  (You can find Guthrie’s article, “Teatime with my demons,” in the September 6, 2011 issue of The Christian Century.)  When demons came to torment him, Milarepa said to them, “How kind of you to come.  You must come again tomorrow.  And from time to time we must converse.”  And Milarepa invited the demons in for tea.

Guthrie’s story makes a point:  our demons are our worst internal enemies, and Jesus tells us to “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you.”  There is a sense in which aggressive all-out-war on these unloveable parts of ourselves has the potential to give our demons more power than they really have.  Or, to feed the cycle of violence in our hearts using prayer as our weapon.

Which is not to say that we should not pray about our demons.  Only to suggest that when we pray, aggressive prayers for banishment in Jesus’ name may not always be the best way to go about it.  Instead of praying against them, so that we only reinforce our enmity with these parts of ourselves, what if we were to pray for them and for all of the deep psychological wounds and unmet needs they represent? What if we were to converse with them, much like Jesus did in the wilderness, using Scripture to reply?

Or, if we don’t know Scripture as well as Jesus, what if we like Martin Luther were simply to laugh?  “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn,” Luther said.  (Luther also said that sex with a spouse works well, too.)

Jesus heals the man from Gadarenes.

What, then, about those many places in Scripture where Jesus does in fact heal demon-possessed people?  Are these healings for real? The evidence suggests they are.  We don’t hear of Mary Magdalene running back to a life of prostitution, for instance, or, the demon-possessed man of Gadarenes (Mark 5:1-9) jumping off a cliff.  (His demons end up drowned along with a herd of swine, and I always feel a bit sorry for the pigs in the story.)

These are probably miracles in every sense of the word.  But as miracles, they are also exceptions. Because for every miraculous healing, there are dozens more people like me, whose demons may not seem as dramatic and over-the-top but are there just the same, and who keep on keeping on without the miracle.  Despite our prayers for miraculous deliverance. This is the reality in our time, and it was the reality in Jesus’ time, too.

Which is why I take assurance from Jesus’ words here.  Because maybe the point is not to be declaring all-out war in hopes of a miraculous victory in this life.  Maybe it is to recognize that these demons, like everything in this sad, beautiful world, including ourselves, are passing away.  That their hold on us will not be forever.  That within the framework of a God who loves us and whose power to love defeats even death itself, our lives and their messiness are but a blip on the screen of a huge salvation story that does indeed end with a new heaven and a new earth.

In that place beyond time, Scripture tells us, “God himself will be with [us] and be our God,” and “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  There, in that place, maybe we will one day not just argue with our demons but fellowship with them.  Maybe one day we’ll not just laugh at them but laugh with them.

Jesus as Renaissance Man: Weird Sayings Continued…

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth onto an old coat.  The patch will simply pull away from the coat, and you’ll have a worse hole than you started with. People don’t put new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the skins will be split; then the wine will be lost, and the skins will be ruined.  They put new wine into new skins, and then both are fine.”  Matthew 9:16,17

Maybe this passage seems intimidating because of the traumatic experience I had in an eighth grade home survival class: my teacher, Ms. Gibson, (who, by the way, contrary to any stereotypes about women in home economics, drove a red convertible, had her own tanning bed and looked like Barbie), made me sew pockets for my final project.  I got a “D,” with the result being that I now avoid most things sewing-related.

Personal hang-ups aside, this passage is still a bit weird.  In the previous verses, Jesus has just called Matthew (presumably the same Matthew as the writer of this Gospel) out of a dubious profession of tax collecting and into a life of discipleship. Now we find Jesus taking questions first from the Pharisees and then from John the Baptist’s disciples.  The Pharisees want to know why it is that Jesus spends his time with sinners like tax collectors, today’s equivalent maybe being Wall Street traders, to which Jesus replies that his job “isn’t to call upright people, but sinners.”  John the Baptist’s people want to know why Jesus and his disciples don’t practice the discipline of fasting, (which in their time was a way of remembering all of the tragic things in Israel’s history), to which Jesus replies that wedding guests can’t fast when the party is going on.

And then we get these two analogies from the two very different worlds of sewing and viticulture.  Which, by the way, suggests that Jesus was appealing to a very broad audience of men and women when he said this, since I cannot imagine that men in Jesus’ time did much sewing.  But what is Jesus really trying to say here?

N.T. Wright, in Matthew for Everyone, affirms that Jesus is drawing our attention to the new things Jesus is doing. In this sense, these three different pictures (of a wedding celebration, sewing project and wine-making) are meant to convey how impossible it is to mix the new with the old:  they “have in common…Jesus’ insistence that the new and the old won’t mix.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that the old was bad.  Jesus came, Matthew insists, not to destroy, but to fulfill.  It simply means that morning has broken on a new day, God’s new day, and the practices that were appropriate for the night time are now no longer needed.”

Wright doesn’t recommend reading too much into the details of each picture for what they might imply about Jesus in relation to the Judaism of his day.  I won’t.  But I am obliged to conclude here that Jesus was indeed a “Renaissance Man” in the two senses of the term. First, as an educated carpenter well-versed in the Scriptures, Jesus clearly also had at least some basic, working knowledge of two very different skill sets (sewing and wine-making).  We know that he later turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana, for example.  Who is not to say that he didn’t occasionally sew his own clothes, too?

Then there is also the “renascence” or “rebirth” to which Jesus is gesturing.  The entrance of this God-man onto the stage of human affairs represents a whole new way of “being” for human beings.  Yes, it is the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest yearnings for a Messiah who will redeem their tragic history, so long, sad faces and the dabbing away of tears with our Kleenexes really won’t work at the wedding celebration.  Just like it probably won’t work to put rusty hub caps on a brand new Saab convertible, or to ask a really geriatric model to wear Dolce & Gabbana’s newest line of clothing on a runway in Milan.

Can anybody see my legs in this?

But Jesus’ debut also represents more than the fulfillment of Israel’s longings for a Messiah.  It represents healing, restoration, and abundant life.  Not just for Israel but for the whole world in the form of “a new heaven and a new earth.”

God’s new world is “being born,” and from now on everything will be different, as Wright describes it.  “The question for us is whether we are living in that new world ourselves, or whether we keep sneaking back to the old one where we feel more at home,” he writes.

Are we?

Was Jesus Racist? Weird Sayings Continued…

“A Canaanite woman from [Tyre and Sidon] came out and shouted,  ‘Have pity on me, son of David!  My daughter is demon-possessed!  She’s  in a bad way!’  Jesus, however, said nothing at all to her.

 His disciples came up.

 ‘Please send her away!,’ they asked.  ‘She’s shouting after us.’

 ‘I was only sent,’ replied Jesus, ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

 The woman, however, came and threw herself down at his feet.

 ‘Master,’ she said, ‘please help me!’

 ‘It isn’t right,’ replied Jesus, ‘to take the children’s bread and throw it to  the dogs.’

 ‘I know, Master.  But even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their  master’s table.’

‘You’ve got great faith, haven’t you, my friend!  All right; let it be as you wish.’

 And her daughter was healed from that moment.”

 Matthew 15:21-28

(Translation from N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)

I love Jesus, but if I were her (the Canaanite woman) I think I would’ve  slapped him!  When Jesus indirectly calls her a “dog,” he is using a common racial slur used by Jews for Gentiles in his time.  What is going on here?

Of course the larger context is that this woman is desperately seeking help for her daughter.  She has probably exhausted her options. She has heard about Jesus and his healing power and will endure even the most humiliating of interactions if it can secure her daughter’s deliverance.

What I have a whole lot more trouble wrapping my mind around is Jesus’ behavior in this passage.  First he ignores her when she throws herself on his good will.  Then he drops the grenades: first, the comment that he was “only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” followed by the rather racist analogy that “it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

This passage is a tough nut to crack.  Which is why I solicited some help.  I put the question, “Was Jesus racist?,” before my now-retired New Testament professor, Christopher Bryan.  Chris has written a number of books, having most recently published with Oxford University Press The Resurrection of the Messiah.  He also sports a dignified English accent, which makes him even more authoritative on the subject.

Chris gives an answer with which I would have to concur: yes.  At one time Jesus was racist, and in Bryan’s words, “there is no sense in getting around it.”

Now that the angry outcry has died down and the pitch forks have been momentarily lowered, I’ll attempt an explanation.  Which begins with a few assumptions- the first being that we are holding in tension here the great mystery of faith that in the “Incarnation” Jesus Christ is both “fully God” and “fully man” (as elucidated most famously at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.).  This mystery can feed all kinds of fun speculation about what “fully God” and “fully man” in union looks like in practice.

What this does not look like is  “God dressed up” as a man, as Chris is quick to point out.  As a human being, Jesus would have been to a great extent the product of his times.  He would have been born into a particular culture and steeped in its idioms.  He, like us, would have always been learning and growing.  In fact, Luke tells us this twice to make the point:  “Jesus grew in stature and increased in wisdom in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:40) and “increased in wisdom and in age” (Luke 2:52).

What does this mean?   The fact that Jesus was once a fully human child, with a fully human mother, Mary, suggests- contrary to those spooky, early Renaissance pictures that portray the baby Jesus with the face of a grown man- that Jesus like everybody else had to “grow up.”  He had to learn things and could be wrong or in error at times and in need of correction.  To grow in wisdom is to learn from life’s experiences.  Wisdom requires real-life exchanges that chasten and transform us.

“The difference [between Jesus and us]…is that it took one encounter with one Gentile woman who looked him in the eye, and our Lord got it…he saw it immediately.  That was the perfection of his humanity,” Chris says.

In other words, this is a rare interaction- (in fact the only one we have recorded in our canonized Scriptures)- in which Jesus is brought up short and recognizes his own error.  He makes a mistake and corrects himself by honoring the woman’s faith and healing her daughter.  As Chris used to say in his New Testament Intro class, it is notable here that “the only time Jesus loses an argument” is “with a woman and a foreigner.”

Of course the evil of racism comes in many gradations, from sheer ignorance or error  to entrenched, willful violations of other human beings’ personhood.  In no way do we find any suggestion in Scripture or elsewhere that Jesus’ racism belonged to the latter category. He should not be confused with the few who in my time and place still put Confederate flags on their porches.

And a mistake is different from sin- or so it can be argued.  Augustine does so in his Enchiridion, for instance.  Sin in many instances involves an act of the will, as a willful disregard for what is known to be right.  In this sense, sin is like a child or subject’s rebellion against the known rules of the parents or established authority.

But what about racism as a systemic evil?  Can we reduce its impact on individuals to a matter of mere ignorance? I’m not so sure.  Isn’t sin by definition in the original Greek (hamartia) a broader notion of “missing the mark?” If so, isn’t Jesus “missing the mark” in this passage?  Maybe.  In which case we are left to wrestle with the idea that Jesus was “like us in every way only without sin,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it.  But if Jesus was truly one without sin, then to what degree was he subject to systemic evils like racism, such that he had to, in a sense, relearn how to be perfectly human?  This passage would suggest that at the very least, Jesus made a mistake and had the humility and courage to correct it more quickly than most of us could.

So…was Jesus a racist?  What do you think?  Leave a comment below to prove that there are other people reading this besides my mother.  (I love you, Mom!)  If you’re too shy to post a comment, send me a note (kristinarobbdover@gmail.com) or post a remark on Facebook and I will post these at the end of the week.  This is after all a “fellowship of saints and sinners.”

Was Jesus a Macho Kind of Guy? Weird Sayings Continued…

Photos by artist Stephen Sawyer

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”  Matthew 10:34-36

Was Jesus a macho kind of guy?

I mean, any man who turns over tables in the temple would have to have rippling biceps and an Alpha male temper, right? And then there is that whole handyman mystique: as a carpenter, Jesus would have spent a lot of time in the sun building things, like those tan, rippling abs and tight body.

“Macho Jesus” is gaining popularity in certain circles, apparently (or, at least according to a recent article inThe Guardian).  Jesus is a man’s man- or, so the theory can go. He is the raw, uncensored embodiment of ultra-masculinity.  That rare combination of GQ’s “Man of the Year” and the red-meat-eating, beer-guzzling guy next door- if such ever existed.

But is this depiction of Jesus really a fair and accurate interpretation of the man we meet in the Gospels?  Or, is he the product of our own culturally influenced self-projections?

The other day a large, gas-guzzling truck drove by with two bumper stickers on its rear.  (One day I will write the book on bumper-sticker theology.)  They read back to back, “Jesus is Lord” and “We buy guns.”  It hadn’t occurred to me until then that Jesus and guns could be such a well, “natural,” fit.  Macho Jesus…or macho Christian?

How is this for another example?  Just today a friend shared the relatively recent news story about New Welcome Baptist Church in St. Elmo, Alabama. Apparently the music minister, upon dismissal from his post and receipt of his last paycheck, tased the pastor- at which point a deacon stepped in with his pocket knife and stabbed the music minister’s mother (who by this time had stepped into the fray to protect her son).  Macho Jesus…or macho Christians?

But then there is this weird saying from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  A lot of talk about wielding swords and war mongering.  None of those feel-good, “all the people, living in harmony” lyrics of John Lennon.

So what is Jesus really saying here?  Is he making a case for the right to bear arms, especially in dangerous places like church?  Is he flexing his proverbial muscles for us?  

A helpful clue in deciphering Jesus’ intended meaning here is the reference to the Old Testament book of Micah:  “I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Micah 7:6).

Have you ever heard someone say, “I have a word from the Lord for you?” When I do, my first inclination is to duck.  There is a sense in which in this passage the prophet Micah is preparing the people of Israel to duck- or at least to brace themselves for what will happen when God does do something new in their midst.  Something that departs from the old script of gloom and doom that they have been reading.  And this new something will not make everyone happy.  It will cause conflict for the reason that there will be those who liked the old status quo, which in this case was a skin-deep religiosity and a disregard for God’s hard call to justice and mercy.

So Jesus by quoting Micah is really drawing his hearers (the disciples) back to an old, familiar passage from their Scriptures, with a view to preparing them for the new thing He is doing. This new thing will involve a disruption of the same old, same old.   The empty salutes to the “form” of God’s law, with sheer disregard for the “spirit” of that law? The perpetuation of injustices against society’s most poor and vulnerable?  God’s way will put an end to all of this “business as usual.”

And this divine way of doing things will not please everybody- especially when embodied in the person of God Himself, Jesus is saying here.  A death on the cross for the sins of the whole world and a rising to new life and all of the implications contained therein?  They mean that something really new and beautiful is taking place.  A new creation is underway, little by little, one person at a time.  In the person of Jesus and through relationship with Him, God will write God’s “law” on people’s hearts.

And this new creation will make some people turn away in violence.  Because they had liked the way things were.  The rich guy with the great big bonuses and the luxury everything who cannot share even his table scraps with the poor man.  The woman who spends all of her time hording her money and possessions, so that she has a great, big storehouse of plenty all to herself.  The religious keepers of the law (often ministers like myself) whose status and self-justification are now threatened.  They all have reasons to dislike and even fight against this new order.  They all have their excuses for chafing against God’s justice and for violently rebelling against God’s mercy. They- we- like to brandish our swords and wave our guns in the air.  Now who’s being macho?

Weird Jesus Sayings Continued: “Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead.”

Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Matthew 8:21,22

"Who's your Daddy?"

This is politically incorrect Jesus at, arguably, His best.  The one thing that every good Jew knew must take precedence even before daily morning prayers was to bury one’s father.  Only something earth-shattering, something like the long-awaited Jewish Messiah whose entrance would mean healing and restoration not just for Israel but for the world, could trump the primacy and urgency of this important ritual.

Which may be one reason why Matthew took such careful note of Jesus’ words.  He is drawing attention to the fact that the Messiah Himself is here in the flesh.  With that dawning reality, life as we once knew it will never be the same again.

But, what if, in the spirit of the whole “What would Jesus do?” thing, we were to try out Jesus’ words for size?  What if we were to apply a similar disregard for the many excuses we have heard for not following God’s call?  “My children really need me these days.”  Or, “my spouse has cancer and really depends on me for support.”  Or, “it is my responsibility to take on the family business.”

What if we were to say, in response, “Follow me, and let your kids take care of themselves,” or “Follow me, and let your spouse find support elsewhere,” or “Follow me, and let your family business find someone else to run it”?  We ministers like myself might be fired. Others of us might lose a friend or two.  We might even make it into a future edition of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People- only as an example of what not to do.

And I think Matthew would say that this is the whole point.  Because we don’t have Jesus’ authority.  We never will.

Only One who is either totally crazy or has a whole lot of authority, or both, can say something like this.  Could Jesus have been just a deranged, raving lunatic? I’m sure there are those who think so.  I prefer to rule that theory out on the basis of Scriptural witness and more than two thousand years of church tradition.

Which leaves me grappling with the other piece: authority.  Only One whose purpose is to heal and restore the world and who has the power to do this very thing can get away with this sort of language.  Only One on an urgent, life-saving mission, who has the much-needed vaccine in His back pocket in answer to the virus that is on the loose killing people, can talk this way.

These days most of us don’t like to talk about authority, unless it is our own and we are asserting it.  The idea that God in the person of Jesus Christ had a prior claim on our lives before we came along is, therefore, not very chic.  But there it is, anyway:  “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”  It is shocking and unsettling- the way that only God can be.

Lust

“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right eye causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”  Matthew 5:29,30

Some years back, when I was newly married, a dear friend phoned to say she wanted me to be the first to know her news, and that she needed to tell me in person.  Over a cup of coffee in my dining room she shared that she and another friend from seminary were running away together.  The plans were well underway. They were to leave that same week, each from unhappy marriages with children (she to an “abusive” second husband, and he, to a woman with a chronic medical condition for whom he had been caring for years on end).  They both had been on track to ordination and were ready to risk potential fall-out- all because they were in love.

At the time, I had done almost everything to keep my jaw from dropping; but after listening to my friend’s happy, breathless revelations and then asking whether she was sure she was doing the “right thing,” I had scrabbled together a few hollow, confused statements of congratulation and condolence.  What was there to say, really?  Their train had departed.  They were on their way and there was no stopping them.

Since then, time and experience have only deepened an appreciation for the complexities and challenges that most marriages face. Bitterness can leaven the sweetness of even the happiest of marital relationships.  Tragedy can hit in a marriage just as it can anywhere else, and we, being broken people, can “fall away” in the face of it (be it a love affair, an addiction, the death of a child, or a chronic illness, for example).  Few of us have been untouched by the ravages of broken marital trust and divorce.

Which is why I confess that I have been procrastinating a bit on this saying as it pertains to marriage and adultery.  Because there is something harsh and uncompromising-sounding about Jesus’ words here.  Gouged-out eyes and severed limbs are hyperbole.  They are not meant as literal commands.  Still, the intentional force of Jesus’ language hits hard and close to home, especially in a time when the prevailing mantra governing sexual ethics is “do what feels good.”

So if Jesus is not speaking literally, what is he referring to when he uses this powerful imagery?

The previous verses (vv. 27,28) give an indication.  There Jesus begins with a reminder of the law against adultery only to subvert and amplify our understanding of adultery:  “You heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you: everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The problem?  Lust.  And, Jesus is talking about the kind of lust that lingers and takes root in a person’s heart, so that it gradually corrodes a person’s soul and relationships.  So that it eventually lands them in “hell,” and this “hell” was an actual place called “Gehenna,” which was a big garbage dump just outside Jerusalem where people sent their refuse and trash to be burned.

It would be better to do whatever it takes to avoid the fate of those who, like “the chaff that the wind blows away” (Psalm 1), self-combust (and in some cases take others with them).

It would be better to lose an eye or an arm than to watch your life go up in flames.

It would be better to live among the walking wounded than to become a casualty to lust.

This fact does not change the reality that letting go of or putting an end to the thing that is causing us to lust can hurt a whole lot.  It may even feel a bit like severing a limb. Or, gouging out an eye.  But Jesus’ words are as unmistakably discomfiting today as they were in Jesus’ time.  They raise our moral horizons from a mere “getting by” with what is lawful, to a living more abundantly in a way that best reflects God’s glory in us.

“I have come so that [you] may have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus says (John 10:10).  There is a sense in which when we are tempted to lust, we must simply trust His words.  We must believe that His way is really best for us- even as we acknowledge where we may have fallen short.  To do this, we may have to put to bed our postmodern misconception that what makes us feel good is actually abundant life.

Thankfully, too, the One who issues this warning is the very same One who judges and redeems.  When we fail, and many of us have and will, we also have the promise of One who has himself descended into that place called “hell”- that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).  That is a promise to cling to, like an unbreakable vow from the One who is wedded to us forever and loves us most.

Stay tuned for the next in our series, “Weird Jesus Sayings.”


“Get Behind Me, Satan!”

“But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!,’ he said.  ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mark 8:33)

The bumper sticker at the interminably long red light in front of me this morning, as I was driving the kids to school read:  “I get along fine with God.  It’s his fan club that I can’t stand.”

Jesus will have to suffer and die? "N'yuk, n'yuk, n'yuk."

Peter was one of Jesus’ biggest fans.  As a regular guy who dropped everything to follow Jesus with almost reckless abandon, he was always stepping into scenes with the bold, swaggering faith of an idealistic convert, only to get it wrong- but in a winning way that actually makes him the likeable leader of the bunch, a bit like Moe in the old comedy, “The Three Stooges.”

There is the time that Peter tries to walk on water, only to fall flat on his face.  Or, the resolute declaration that he will never forsake his Lord, followed by not one but three denials that he even knows Jesus.  Or, the episode in the Garden of Gethsemane, when in Chuck Norris fashion Peter pulls out his sword to protect Jesus from arrest, only to be told like an over-eager boy playing cops and robbers to put his weapon away.

Peter is likeable.  He is also, in the end, loyal until death.  Jesus’ prophetic reference to Peter as “the rock” on which Jesus will build His church and against which the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:13-20), while saturated with humor in light of Peter’s frequent blundering, does indeed come true.  Peter goes on to found the church in Jerusalem and Antioch, write several epistles (two of which were canonized in the form of 1 and 2 Peter), and, like Jesus, suffer death by crucifixion.  Peter’s life hardly resembles the way in which, most of us modern-day Christians “gallop with due moderation to martyrdom,” as the nineteenth century thinker Léon Bloy, quoted by Gustav Thibon in the foreword to theologian Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, put it.

So why, then, this harsh rebuke?  Even Satan, “the Accuser” himself, receives kinder words for tempting Jesus in the wilderness.  What is it about Peter’s “scolding” of Jesus (v.32), only moments following his declaration that Jesus is the Christ, that elicits this dramatic response?

Here Weil lends insight:  “To say to Christ as Saint Peter did: ‘I will always be faithful to thee,’ is to deny him already, for it is to suppose that the source of fidelity is in ourselves and not in grace,” she writes in Gravity and Grace.

In other words, any time we locate the source of God’s goodness in ourselves, any time we try to direct or re-direct God’s course of redemption, any time we find ourselves defending God and who we think our God should be, we are rejecting God’s grace and denying our need for a Savior. Even when we do these things with the best of intentions, we are still claiming our self and our own merits in place of the cross.  We are seeking to bring in God’s kingdom by force on our own terms.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and a death by crucifixion when this exchange took place. He would have been well aware of the hard necessity of the sacrifice before him.  A sacrifice for the sins of the world, we learn later (John 1:29).  And it is precisely in and through this costly self-giving, this total humiliation on a cross by which God is “one with us” in the anguish and suffering of the human condition, that God’s greatness and glory shine brightest.  Karl Barth is right when he locates God’s ultimate glorification in this scandalous act on the cross.

Peter could not understand these “things of God” quite yet.  Later he would.  But, Jesus knew:  in the preceding verses he “spoke plainly” about how “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected…and killed and after three days rise again” (vv.31,32).

Maybe, then, in this outburst to a clueless friend, we find Jesus reconsidering for one quavering moment whether things really had to go this way.  Maybe we find him toying with the possibility of trading in his fate for something far less glorious but a whole lot easier.  Maybe the Son of Man would not have to suffer or die on a cross, after all…

I am so grateful He did.

Got any insights or suggestions for weird Jesus sayings?  I want to hear them.  Leave your comments below.   Tune in for the next weird Jesus saying: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away…”

Weird Jesus Sayings: A Series of Investigations

Stained glass at St. John the Baptist's Anglican Church

The Bible attributes some pretty odd sayings to Jesus.  Over the next days and weeks I will be looking at the strange, sometimes bizarre, often politically incorrect things Jesus reportedly said in the Gospels with a view to understanding a bit more of who He was and how He might be speaking into our lives today.  Will you join me in the exploration by checking back periodically and lending your voice to the conversation?

This week, we’ll look at Jesus’ rebuke of his beloved disciple, Peter:  “Get behind me, Satan,” he said to the man who would later become known as “the Rock” of the early church.  Stay tuned.

Who God Is, Who We Are, and Why That Matters

(A sermon delivered to the good people of Stockbridge Presbyterian during the season of Easter…)

Today we’ll spend some time in the book of Acts looking at the apostle Paul’s missionary visit to the great ancient city of Athens, Greece and his famous speech there.  But before we do that, let’s recall that up until this point, Paul and his companions in the early church are carrying out the instructions that Jesus has left prior to his departure.  They have received the Good News that God is alive and intimately invested in their lives and this world; and now, in the light of the resurrection of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they have been sharing this Good News with new-found zeal, not just in Jerusalem but beyond to the farthest corners of their world- and this has gotten them (especially Paul) into some nail-bitingly suspenseful close calls.

Just prior to where we pick up today, Paul is in Athens preparing to catch up with his pals Timothy and Silas after being essentially chased out of Macedonia.  And while he’s there, Paul begins touring Athens and, we’re told in v. 16 that he discovers to great distress “a city full of idols.”  Now, we might think that at this juncture in his journey Paul would be licking his wounds and planning retirement to some quiet Grecian villa, but instead we find him right back in the middle of things, literally- first in the synagogue with the Jews and in the marketplace of Athens, and then eventually in the Areopagus, where we meet him today.  The Areopagus was a large, open-air amphitheatre perched on a hill top overlooking the city and it was the place where the Athens city council publically debated new political and religious ideas.  It was essentially a great big public forum presided over by the city’s leaders.

And here we pick up with Paul’s speech (Acts 17:22-34)…

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

This is the Word of the Lord…Let’s pray.

Last weekend some of you may have caught the NPR interview of the Endeavor space shuttle commander, astronaut Mark Kelly.  Kelly, you may recall, is the husband of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from gunshot wounds to the head from an attack this past January, and he was interviewed while commanding the space shuttle program’s final mission into space.

From his perch at the International Space Station, looking down on the great big, blue orb of planet Earth serenely floating in space, Kelly had a one-of-a-kind perspective.  A perspective that few people will get to experience.  And it was that perspective that led Kelly to exclaim how hard it was to understand all the conflict and violence on “such an incredibly beautiful planet.”

Perspective.  The right perspective puts everything into focus: it’s a bit like being able to see clearly in a room after fumbling for and finally finding a light switch.  And in today’s passage the apostle Paul is speaking from a resurrection perspective.  In fact, you could say that the whole book of Acts, including the story of Paul’s own dramatic conversion, hinges on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that by the time we meet Paul here in the Areopagus, the resurrection of Jesus Christ had become an indisputable fact for first-century believers.  The church of Paul’s time, to be sure, had as many disputes as the church of our day- but the resurrection of Jesus Christ and whether it really happened were not one of them.

So Paul had a resurrection perspective.  He was looking at the earth and, in this case, the people of Athens, through resurrection-colored lenses, with the result being a whole new reality, a whole new mode of existence grounded in who God  is, who we are, and why that matters.  And this whole new way of being and perceiving and experiencing is “good news”- hence, the title of this sermon:  “Who God Really Is, Who We Really Are, and Why That Really Matters.”

Paul knew that the good news begins with who God is.  And so that is where he begins, too.  Sure, Paul is quick, rhetorically speaking, to meet the Athenians where they are, and he does this by drawing attention to one of their objects of worship.  But in no time, this object of worship, – (which in this case is an altar with the inscription, “To an Unknown God,”)-  this object of worship becomes a pointer to Paul’s first big piece of headline-grabbing news about who God really is.  Did you know, Paul essentially says, that this God you have been worshipping unknowingly is really the God who made the world and everything in it (v. 24)?  Did you know that this God doesn’t live in temples made by human hands (v. 24)?

This God, Paul goes on to say, doesn’t need to be looked after as though he needed something, since He is the One who gives life and breath to everyone (v. 25).  This God made all of us: he made from one stock every race of humans to live on the whole face of the earth, allotting them their properly ordained times and boundaries for their dwellings (v. 26), so that they would search for God and perhaps find him (v. 27).  And this same God is not far from us, Paul says in v. 28.  So in essence Paul is making a dramatic, “this just in” statement about who God is here:  he’s saying that the real God, as the Creator of the world, is living and alive, and while untamable by human beings is also near and available to us when we seek Him.

And from where we sit today, as 21st century Christians, it may be easy to initially miss the full import of Paul’s message. So it’s helpful to remember who Paul’s audience was.  These were people steeped in the various philosophies of their day.  Athens in Paul’s day, not unlike America in ours, was a “melting pot” of world views and religions.  There were the Epicureans, for instance, who viewed the gods as distant and disinterested in human affairs, with the implication being that human life was meant to be enjoyed and nothing more.  And then in contrast there were the Stoics who believed that an impersonal, divine spirit infused all of nature (along the lines of what we today call “pantheism”), and that it was the job of human beings to live in harmony with nature, according to the guiding principles of reason and duty.

Into this mix were thrown the many Greek gods that many of us studied in elementary school, Zeus, Hermes, Athena and Aphrodite, for example. These were gods made in the image of human beings: their images and stories, graven on marble temple walls and columns and in statues, had been, as Paul puts it (v. 29) “formed by human skill and ingenuity.”

Some of you are familiar with the Mini-Me character of the Austin Powers movies.  If you are not, please don’t run out and get the movie- this is in no way an endorsement; but the movies, as some of you may recall, are about the ridiculous rivalry between a James Bond-like knock-off, Austin Powers, and his arch enemy Dr. Evil. In the second and third movies, Dr. Evil and his minions, in their plot to take over the world, make a clone of Dr. Evil that is identical in every way but size.  “Mini-Me,” as he’s called, is one-eighth the size of Dr. Evil, and in the film, he’s silent most of the time, except for when he’s lip synching to a rap song or laughing along with Dr. Evil.

The gods of Athens were essentially “Mini-Me’s”- they looked a lot like human beings, were silent most of the time, and were powerful only to the degree that they were ceded that power through image and myth by the human beings who made them.  These false gods were as capable of being in real relationship with human beings as the distant, indifferent god of the Epicureans and the impersonal, pantheistic spirit of the Stoics.  They were, in short, unknown and unknowable, so that the inscription, “To an Unknown God,” sums up what would have been an environment of spiritual chaos and confusion.  The people of Athens were, largely speaking, in the dark and fumbling for a light switch, and Paul, in his speech, was trying to help them find it…

Because if our god is just a “Mini-Me,” then we are ultimately worshipping our own deepest desires. Today we may not bow down to the god of the sea before we get in a boat, but how many of us value security above all else in the storms of life?  We may not have a bust of the goddess of love and beauty in our bathroom, but how many of us spend far too long in the mirror worrying about how we measure up in the looks department?  How many of us lose ourselves in unhealthy relationships?  And yes, we may not light incense before an actual altar to Ares, the god of war, but how many of us pay taxes to a government that far outspends the world in fighting wars around the globe?

You and I- we, all of us- have our “Mini-Me” gods.  Sex, money, youth, health, pleasure, the status quo, an ideology, even virtue, can all become Mini-Me’s.  What is your Mini-Me?

…Because Paul wants us to know that what we’re holding onto today, what we’ve labeled as of greatest value, what we’ve said is the thing that gives us meaning or purpose or makes us feel alive, that thing pales in comparison to a relationship with the Living God who created us.

And in case we’re still unsure, Paul reminds us of who we really are because of who God really is.  Here again Paul turns reality on its head.  He has begun by noting that the Athenians are “extremely religious.” While in Paul’s day this would have probably been heard as a compliment; nowadays a better starter would probably be something along the lines of “very spiritual.”  By illustration I want to conduct a brief survey: how many of you have heard the words, “I don’t care for organized religion, but I’m very spiritual.”  I can’t count the number of times I have.)

But then Paul goes on to expand on this theme of who we really are because of who God really is.  He goes on to declare in v. 28 that it’s “in God that we live and move and exist” and that we are “His offspring.”  Paul here is very skillfully using language that would have been familiar to a largely Stoic audience, but he is reapplying it- because what Paul is talking about here is not pantheism; what Paul is talking about here is what it means to be truly human.  He is saying that what it means to live as human beings is to be totally dependent on God for every thought, movement and breath.  And then he goes on to quote from a Stoic writer: “we are God’s offspring,” he says, which is really another way of saying that we are made in God’s image.

So when Paul draws attention to all of the things that we worship in place of the real God, he is essentially saying, “Don’t you see? When you worship these things in ignorance, you’re not being who God made you to be.  You’re not being your most authentic self.”  If the real God is living, as opposed to something that we carve out of stone or our own imaginations, then those who worship Him above all else will be fully alive also.

The second century church father Irenaeus put it this way: he said “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

If God is really alive and seeks to be in relationship with human beings, then we, as those made in God’s image, are meant to be fully alive and in relationship, too.

But why does any of this really matter?  Paul gets to this in the third section of his speech starting in verse 31.  Who God really is and who we really are matters because God is going to judge the world in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.

Now, when we think of judgment, many of us think of fire and brimstone and a righteous but mostly angry God out to get us for all of the messes we caused.  And while some degree of fear of God’s judgment is probably healthy- “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we’re told in Proverbs- a preoccupation with this one-dimensional understanding of God’s judgment is not healthy and is in fact not biblical.  It misses the fullness and depth of God’s goodness, which is really what Paul is talking about here, because a more accurate way to describe what Paul is talking about has to do with what the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, in interpreting this passage, renders as “full and proper justice.”  This kind of justice is better construed as restorative- it’s the making of rough places smooth (to borrow from the imagery of the prophet Isaiah), or the imparting of wholeness to something that was once broken (shalomin the Jewish vocabulary).

The other day I had the chance to hear someone share in his own words what it was like to have just received a heart transplant after living with congestive heart failure for over ten years.  This man, only in his forties, had been on a long list of people in need of new hearts.  After a long, uncertain wait, he had finally received a new heart, thanks to a 22-year-old donor- of whom this man with a new lease on life had this to say: “He gave me a heart, so I’m still alive, but I gave his heart a life, so it’s still alive.”

Paul is saying here that you and I and all creation are on a waiting list to receive new life.  We, too, have a degenerative condition, and without an operation we will surely die. And in case we’re unsure about where that new, restored life will come from, Paul points us to the donor- Jesus whom God raised from the dead.  When we repent, when we turn away from the idols we erect for ourselves and when we turn and return to Christ, we allow God to do a transplant operation on us, with the result being that we can say, “Jesus gave me His Spirit, so I’m still alive, and I gave His Spirit a life, so His Spirit is alive in me.”

The promise that Jesus leaves his first disciples- that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and will be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and all the world- that same promise is true for us, too.  When we give our lives to the one, true God, seeking after Him with our whole heart, we get to see that promise in action, and we’re given a new lease on life.  We get to see who we really are and why that uniquely matters to the world- all because of who God really is.

Because God is alive and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us, and because we, made in God’s image, were created for real, abiding life and relationships, too…so that you and I and we together matter regardless of where we sit today or what we’ve experienced; we belong to that cosmic purpose and have a unique role to play in sharing with our world the truth about who God is, who we are and why that matters.

Because in Christ there is a rhyme and reason and purpose to the events of our lives and all of history that will one day be summed up in the full and proper justice of God.  How can we be sure of this?  We can be sure of this, Paul says, because God raised Jesus from the dead.  A little perspective can make all the difference in the world.

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