Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Other Neverending Story

Mark 11: 1-11

There’s a tradition about the palms that so many of us had last Sunday that says that these provide the ashes we use for next years’ Ash Wednesday.  Now, my ashes are store bought, and in my little pyxis (the clay jar I keep them in) is enough to last me the rest of my career, unless they get spilled sometime in the next 30 years.

I tried once to burn the palms I needed for Ash Wednesday.  Once.  It was in Trenton, TX, my second year, and I had no idea what techniques there were to do it properly.  I tried to do it in my barbeque, it seemed safer that inside.  But they burned incompletely, and I didn’t catch them properly, so I neded up scooping them out with some of the ash alkready in the bottom of the barbeque.  So my Ashes that year looked suspiciously too white, and smelled suspiciously like hickory and KC Masterpiece.

Store bought ashes are just fine, thank you!

We have now almost come full circle. Wednesdays’ ashes have become Sunday’s Palms.  We celebrate today the day that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, riding a donkey colt, and the people shouting Hosanna!  It is also the week in which popular sentiment will turn against Jesus So quickly, and there are many factors that go into why.

1.  He wasn’t the Messiah they were thinking of; and
2.  The crowd listened to their leaders’ whispers, and began to think that Jesus needed to be dead.

 I’m not going to talk about the reason for Jesus’ birth, or death, or how these events freed us and saved us-that is a sermon on it’s own, and perhaps several.  Or you can just look at this article, written by a friend of mine: 

It is our place, today, to meditate on these scriptures we have heard-where do we put ourselves in this crowd?  How do we feel when we see the latest Messiah come into our city with confusing images, like on a donkey, instead of a grand warhorse?

 And then, how do we feel when we go home, and already there is gossip swirling around about the things that this latest Messiah might have said, like wanting to destroy the temple, and that he may have upset all the folks in the outer courts by destroying their tables, where they keep their money exchange businesses?

 The opinions begin to turn.  And you may be there thinking “well, I would have known it was Jesus, and I would have seen him for who he was.”

 Probably not.  Public opinion can turn so fast.  While not comparing them to Christ, may I remind you how many front runners the Republican party had just last summer? 5?  6?

 The same human characteristics are at work then as are at work now.  Public opinion can be fickle, and when it’s told to you by someone in authority, it carries even more weight.

 It’s hard for this sermon to have one point, because in the story, we are in the middle.    The last supper is coming in the story, the prayers in the garden, the arrest, the trial.  We’ve been telling the story of the last 24 Hours all during let, but in holy week, we have to be aware of the story that comes before.

We know the end to this story.  We know that Jesus is killed.  We know that Jesus is resurrected, and stays with the disciples another 50 days, and then ascends to heaven, after telling the people that they will have the power to tell the story, to teach and to love.

 But then we really don’t know the story in its entirety, do we?  We really don’t know how it ends. 

 That’s because the story winds down the centuries, through the early church fathers, the church in Rome, and Constantinople, The Crusades, the birth of Protestantism, the colonization of the Americas and Africa, down to us right here right now.

 The story isn’t finished.  You and I are writing the newest chapters now.  We are entrusted with the story.  Our faith tells us how it ends, but it takes our actions to continue it-to write the new episodes.

 We carry the story forward.  May God give you the strength to tell the story, of Christs’ choice for us, and our choice for God.








Saturday, March 23, 2013

Our Best Work

Mark 15b-23

You start to get a sense, by the fifth week of this story of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, that humans aren’t all that strong. Time after time after time, when humans are confronted with the choice of what they know or the unknown love of God, they choose what they know. Call it fear, call it peer pressure, call it whatever, we3 do not hold to our principles.

Think of Peter. He was So strong, so insistent in saying to Jesus “I will never deny you!” Jesus looks at him and tells him “not only will you deny me, Jack, you’ll do it three time by dawn tomorrow.”

So the soldiers come for Jesus, and it could be considered a failure that Peter whips out his sword and cuts off the ear of that servant. This is NOT what Jesus had told them to do! And yet Peter let his impulsiveness control his actions.

Then Jesus is led away, and throughout the night, he is spit on my people who really should know better, people of decorum and status in the daylight. In the dark, away from prying eyes, they become animals, just like the people they consider themselves above.

The first line of today’s scripture was “and Jesus was flogged”. Mark skips right over that, in order to get to the crucifixion. But it’s worth noting that the penal code of that time required a flogging. Another example of man’s inhumanity to man, and man’s inhumanity to the messenger of God’s love.

When we talk about flogging, most folks will remember the flogging scene from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The movie overall was definitely problematic, but the flogging scene was probably accurate. Hamilton talks about the whip used having pieces of glass or metal in the tips to strip pieces of flesh from the victim. And then the victim is required to carry the crossbar of his own cross, which Hamilton says is about 100 lbs, at least the one he is carrying in the video, probably a third of a mile to Golgotha.

How do we do these things? We may think that we can’t do this to each other; we have evolved, we have progressed. We are Christian, or English, or Irish, or German, or Japanese, or Chinese, we are Hutu, or Tutsi, or Zulu. We are Christian. We can’t do this anymore.

How many people stood by, of many nations, including Americans, as 6 million Jews were exterminated?

Hamilton writes about an experiment at Stanford in the 70’s in which students were either chosen to be guards or prisoners, and put into an improvised prison setting in the basement of the psychology building. The experiment was scheduled for 14 days, but it has be cancelled after six, because of the level of abuse and oppression that the “guards” had begun to inflict on the “prisoners”.

Another experiment that Hamilton writes about happened at Yale, where people were picked randomly off the sidewalk and told they would be paid four dollars for one hours’ work (in 1963, I guess this was a lot!). the work was to sit in a room without windows and which had a console of dials and gauges. Each time someone in another room answered a question wrong, they were to push a button which they were told administered an electric shock to the person who answered incorrectly. Upon command by a person off authority, they were to increase the voltage the subject. No one was being shocked, no one was answering questions. Before the experiment started, according to Hamilton, the estimate was that about 1 percent would be capable of administering a lethal dose of electricity, about 450 volts.

They found that 65% were not only capable, but did so, even with piped in screams of pain in their ears.

It’s troubling to think that, when we are given the permission, the tools and the power to oppress each other, we will. There was nothing mentioned in either experiment about what percentage of guards or prisoners or button pushers were Christian. It doesn’t say whether they filtered Christians out, or paid no attention to it at all, but what I do know is that, if we are truly followers of Christ, in the way that Christ is described in the Bible; if our discipleship in this world is to imitate Christ, there is no other choice for us, than to be the other 35%.

Scripture is crystal clear; all of the justifications that people have used throughout history to justify slavery, or the secondary status of women, or any of a number of other statements, where people point to passages in the Bible to justify their opinions, this is called proof texting. It’s taking the line you like, and saying that the Bible says it. And we all know that’s wrong. The bible’s whole atmosphere, it’s whole direction, it’s whole point, is to point us toward peace. Toward showing us, and us showing to others, the love of God.
And what it also shows is, is that, in these last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, how far short people can fall. Yes, there are a million individual reasons. Anger, fear, the need to earn a living, the need to not get killed yourself, the need to go along to get along, each show the truth that when put under these pressures, we will more often than not, conform.

But that is not the Christian way. Our way is peace. Our way is grace. Our way is trust, and truth, and passion, and forgiveness.

So let’s exert our own peer pressure. Let us say to each other; “I know you will act with Christ’s best interests in mind; I know you will act with Christ’s Conscience; I know that you will forgive family members for the pain they have caused; I know you will forgive the person who stole your 401K" (like Abramoff).

Yes, sometimes it takes something out of us to forgive. Sometimes it takes a lot out of us. But it is what we are called to do. For us, there is no place for revenge. There is every opportunity for repentance, there is every opportunity for forgiveness.

I don’t me4an cheap forgiveness, like “oh, it’s ok, I didn’t need that $500,000, anyway”. Revenge is not ours to take, and we do not get to set the terms of punishment. Yes they did us wrong. Yes, they owe us the money back. But punitive measures outside of the legal system are not ours to take. When families are having trouble, the pain can go back decades. They have to be forgiven. Not forgotten, that is impossible. But it is a conscious work of ours to say “you are my family, I am still family with you. I trust that you will cease from this behavior, because I have told you how much it has hurt. And yes, they might do it again, and yes, you might need to separate yourself for self-preservations’ sake, but forgiveness can happen in that place, too.

Forgiveness is our call. Compassion is our call. Grace and Love are our call.

My wish is for you all is that you continue to progress toward forgiveness of your hurts. That you overcome the prejudices you were raised with, that in a marriage, 1 Corinthians 13 is your guiding star, not “an eye for an eye.”

Yes, both are Scripture, but one gives life, and ultimately, giving life in Christ’s image is our call.

Preached at Throop United Methodist Church, 3/17/13.

Choosing the Loser

Mark 15: 1-15

Adam Hamilton, in the book that we are following this Lent, seems to have a lot of background about who Barabbas is. He says that Barabbas, a leader of an insurrection, is brought into Jerusalem just like Jesus was, with the waving of palm branches, and the shouting of Hosanna, which means “save us.” Hamilton also states that the palm branch waving tradition goes back 190 years from that period, back to the Maccabees being brought into Jerusalem after defeating the Seleucids. All leaders, Hamilton seems to claim, are bought into the city with the waving of branches and the shouting of Hosanna.

So if Hamilton is correct, then Jesus being brought into Jerusalem as a conquering hero, donkey or not, it may not have even been the only time that had happened that week! Barabbas was the other.

It’s important to remember here, that what people expected to see as the Messiah, was not what Jesus was. It is true, certainly that the chief priests incited the crowd to call for Barabbas over Jesus. But it was not as hard a job as we might think, with hindsight of 2000 years. Barabbas, as a military leader, a soldier, was closer to what the people had been expecting a Messiah to look like, to do. They expected a military leader who would throw off the yoke of oppression, dismiss the Roman Empire, and there would again be self-rule in Judea. Definitely a better fit than Jesus would have provided.

It got me to thinking. When there is a chance for a change, a huge change, a sea change, a way in which culture works differently with the assent of almost everyone, we default into the belief that such changes can be done with force of arms. I don’t think that this is what Christ teachers, I don’t think this is what Christians should believe.

The example Hamilton gives is the difference between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Not necessarily religious differences, thought they were not of the same religion; more, the techniques they advocated to bring about change in American society.

They were advocating for the same sort of change, the full inclusion of all Americans. Their styles were different, though; Malcom X advocated forcing change “by any means necessary”, which included violence. Martin Luther King, however, influenced by Ghandi and Jesus, advocate change by nonviolent means.

In our society, today, we have more change that has been affected by nonviolent means than by violent. More change has happened because of the changing of hearts than by the taking up of arms. Yes, even in the nonviolent movement, people died. But the shock of their dying, unarmed, had the reverse effect occur than those who did the shooting expected. Public sentiment swung away from the ugliness, and toward the beauty of sacrifice.

The lesson here, in our own history as well as in Biblical history, is that change almost ever comes through force of arms. It always seems to come in more substantial and important ways through nonviolence. Even in our own Revolution, we could never of fully defeated the British on our own. The war only truly ended as soon as it did because the British could no longer afford to keep this theater open with a rising French threat worldwide. So they cut their losses here; our independence was cheaper, in the end, than fighting a world war with France.
Force of arms never changes things. The way to change the world is to act on your beliefs, and to live your life in such a way that it is apparent what you believe.

The crowd was scared by what Jesus presented. “What do you mean, turn the other cheek, and that will eventually drive out the Romans?” Barabbas presented a more comfortable and familiar form of resistance, a form that allowed for violence and anger and war.

We are in our churches, this morning, because we believed in the other guy. We don’t believe in force of arms. However you may want to argue about self-protection and “the castle doctrine” and whatever else we hear in our news these days, we are here because we chose the guy who died. This has implications for us as actors in our own society that we chose the loser. We chose the actual son of God, not the “sword” of God.

How does that change the way you see the world? How does that change the way you see our society and how it should work? How does it change your everyday life?

These are your questions to answer.

I pray that my words have been the Lord’s intention this day, AMEN.

Preached at Throop UMC, 3/10/13

Monday, March 04, 2013

What Are You Afraid Of?

Mark 14: 53-72

This is a tough part of the story, and as stated by Adam Hamilton, who is the author of the book that is inspiring my sermons this Lent, this is the most difficult point for self-reflection. If we are to place ourselves as characters in this scripture, we will inevitably place ourselves as either the Sanhedrin, or Peter.

In both of those cases, Christ is denied, Christ is abused, and Christ is handed over to be killed.

This is also who we are.

The Sanhedrin was a group of seventy elders of the Jews, and not just of Jerusalem-for all of Judaism at that time. They were the political descendants of the seventy that Moses gathered at the command of God to help him govern the Israelites in the desert some 200 years before. They are the most holy, the most religious, the most righteous, in the world, so it is believed.

And here they are, spitting on a man.

And here they are, covering up a man’s face and beating him.

It’s as if you gathered every pastor you’ve ever admired, male and female, every Bishop, and gathered them together at midnight to secretly try a mouthy homeless man, then they spit in his face, then put a bag over his head and beat him.

This is exactly how stark a reality we’re talking about. And why are they doing all of this?

Because he threatens their way of life. Their power. Their way of existence; their comfort; their connections to the Romans and to the law. Jesus threatens all of that.

And he’s not even threatening them with a substitute, competitive system. He wants to change EVERYTHING. Completely.

These are the most religious people in their society, and when they are threatened with the dissolution of their system of advantage and privilege, they respond like thugs.

We might want to think at some point; “we could never do that, we are followers of Christ!”

Perhaps, but I invite you to interview any number of women clergy who were the first ones into the churches they serve. I invite you to interview any number of pastors of color, and ask them how they were treated in some of their first appointments. Things haven’t changed all that much. Perhaps we don’t spit anymore, perhaps we don’t punch anymore, maybe we’re more decorous, more polite, but we will still see someone who shares our faith but practices it differently, and we won’t always respond with grace and peace and acceptance.

What was the system that Jesus wanted to bring to his society? What were the Sanhedrin so afraid of? What are we so afraid of?

Adam Hamilton, in his chapter of the book we’re using, quotes a passage from 1 John, one of the tiny little letters right before Revelation in the back of the Christian testament. Here is what he quotes:

God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. 17This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19We love because God first loved us. 20If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. 21This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also. –Common English Bible

This is what people were so afraid of. Perfect love casts out fear. The opposite of fear isn’t confidence or courage. It is isn’t comfort. The Biblical opposite of fear is love. And the Christian life is a constant journey to seek to love those whom we hate. It takes strength, it takes work, it takes attention, to cast our fear. And the first step of that is an honest humble assessment of what it is we are truly afraid of.

So what are you afraid of?

Are you afraid of the people who are moving into town with a different color skin? Are you afraid of family and the scars they have left on you? Are you afraid of change of any kind? Are you afraid of death?

All of these examples, which are surely paltry when compared with the fears of whomever reads this, can be eradicated by love and work. It takes work.

Lent is the time when we begin to do that work. Sometimes, Lent isn’t even the time when we start and finish. Sometimes Lent is merely the time we dedicate to clarifying the problem! Easter, then, begins the real work.

Perfect love casts out fear. We are all afraid of something. My prayer for you all is to have confidence in the truth that God’s love is sufficient for everything you need to fight, to conquer, to overcome. Trust in God’s love, and with honesty, and work, it will be enough.

It will be enough.

I pray that my words have been the Lords’ intention this day, Amen.