Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B 2009

04 Lent B 09
March 22, 2009

Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." 6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
17 Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
20 he sent out his word and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
21 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

Ephesians 2:1-10
1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ --by grace you have been saved-- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

The Cost of Leaving Home

It’s a beautiful place we live in isn’t it? Did anyone see the sky these last few nights? You can’t get that sky in the city. I know. That amazing canopy of stars. Someone was saying they could see the space station up there, it’s so clear. And what about those open fields and those proud forests and that gorgeous water?

And it’s a congenial place we live isn’t it? The people are friendly, the taxes are low, the roads are pretty good, some of us can even get high-speed internet.

What would it take for you to walk out of your house here in beautiful Middlesex County, and go to a faraway land full of terrible dangers, where no one speaks English and everyone hates America?

Of course, our armed forces do that all the time, but I’m not talking about going armed. I’m talking about going alone, with nothing, and no one else. No money, no suitcase, just the clothes on your back.

The risks would be very great. Indeed if anyone even found out where you were really from, you might well end up dead. What would it take for you to leave? And why wouldn’t you?

Of course, those are two different questions. What would it take for you to leave? Maybe some big reward might tempt you. How much money, do you think, might tempt you to go to such a place? A million dollars? A billion? Maybe we’d risk it for the money. Or maybe you’d do it for some powerful position. Power over thousands or millions of people, a chance to really change the world.

Another reason you might leave is if Middlesex suddenly changed for the worse. Maybe if the East Coast was invaded by some murderous hoard from some foreign land, maybe then you’d leave. You probably wouldn’t head for another dangerous place, though.

Or maybe you’d leave if your life here would stop working. Maybe you’d do something or be accused of something that made living here unbearable. All your friends turned against you, lawsuits, loneliness, gossip. Maybe then you’d leave, and maybe you’d want to find a place where no one knew you. Still, you probably wouldn’t go to a dangerous place.

A much easier question to answer is “Why wouldn’t you?”

I don’t even need to tell you the answers to this question. A lot of you have worked your whole life for the home you have, the circle of friends, the business you own. Maybe a few of you are just starting out, you’ve got a foothold here, a good job, a nice place to live, family all around you, some savings.

And family would be another reason. Why would you leave your spouse, your children? Why would you deprive them of your income, your support, your love?

But probably the most important reason you wouldn’t want to leave is the loss you’d experience. You’d lose everything you worked for. You’d lose all your familiar friends and family. You’d lose your job or your savings, your means of feeding yourself. And you’d be greeted by a lot of hostile people at the other end, people who either don’t know you at all, or hate you without even knowing you. You’d lose the capacity to even speak to them, since they wouldn’t understand your language. And even if you lived long enough to learn it, you’d have nothing in common with them. We’re talking about a place where murder and corruption and injustice and oppression is the norm, where poor people are enslaved and brutalized, where the bad guys always win.

So if you can, just for a moment, imagine that, you can probably see yourself walking down a street and suddenly being surrounded by a murderous bunch of thugs with knives, with no pity in their hearts, or being kidnapped and videotaped with a bag over your head just before being executed, or just getting shot down by a passing car or blown up in some explosion. You can imagine yourself dying there.

What kind of lunatic would leave a safe and secure home surrounded by familiar friends and family, and go to a hostile, alien place full of madness and violence?

The speech we heard this morning from Jesus was delivered to a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a well-to-do member of the Jewish council that ruled over Roman-occupied Israel. The Romans were very well-organized and savvy. They knew that if they set up a privileged class of leaders from among the people they conquered, they were more likely to have a peaceful time of it. The Jewish council didn’t have much real temporal power, but they were delegated to resolve most of the legal issues of their own people.

Nicodemus was presumably a very wise and very accomplished member of Jewish society. He was almost certainly rich. He was almost certainly profoundly religious. He had spent his life mastering the scripture, going to temple at all the right times and for all the right reasons, taught in the synagogue every Saturday. We can be certain he was very much at home, very secure in Israel.

He’d heard about Jesus, heard about Jesus’ miracles, heard about Jesus’ brilliant teaching. And in this scene, he had sneaked over to meet Jesus in the middle of the night. He had greeted Jesus by confessing that he believed in him. Jesus apparently took this to mean that Nicodemus wished to enter the kingdom of heaven, which, as we know, was what Jesus was teaching everyone about.

So Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, Nicodemus had to be born from above, by water and the Spirit. But Nicodemus didn’t understand. This speech we heard this morning is part of Jesus’ explanation.

Nicodemus was willing to secretly believe in Jesus. But Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to publicly believe in him, by being baptized. When Nicodemus says, “Can one enter into a mother’s womb a second time and be born?” he is really saying, “Are you out of your mind? You’re asking me to publicly turn against my nation, my family, my friends; you’re asking me to get thrown out of the synagogue where all my friends go, you’re asking me to get fired from the Jewish council, you’re asking me to make enemies of the Romans, you’re asking me to risk my life and the lives of my family!”

Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man had left heaven, left the most wonderful and beautiful and perfect place of peace and justice and love, to come to a world of darkness and brutality that wanted no part of heaven or its light, a world that had become alien and strange, a world that would almost certainly kill him.

What kind of lunatic would leave a safe and secure home surrounded by familiar friends and family, and go to a hostile, alien place full of madness and violence?

A lunatic like Jesus.

The most important question I have ever been asked was “Mike, what stands between you and loving God with all your heart and soul and mind and every single human being in the world?” The answers to that question have been the root of whatever growth, wisdom or goodness I have ever been privileged to have. And yet that question is the one question I sometimes think Christians have the hardest time approaching. In my experience, many Christians are so busy justifying their behavior that such a question comes as a profound shock and even sometimes an offense.

For me, the first answers to that question included my desires for things beyond the scope of my true entitlement. I wanted more than my share. I felt entitled to more. And so I did things against God’s will in order to get and keep those things.

As my journey continued I have learned that my desire for security and certainty and safety reaches deep into my soul and often trumps my desire to do God’s will. What would doing God’s will cost me? What will telling the truth cost me? What will confessing Jesus as the Christ do to my position in society? Who will it take me to? What alien world, what hostile people, what terrible losses, what pain?

The execution of Jesus was a public event. He was lifted up for all to see in the plain light of day. But Nicodemus came to him by night, the council arrested Jesus at night, and tried him at night.

Why don’t I want to leave my home and journey to a hostile, murderous land? Why don’t I want to love God with all my heart and all my soul? What stops me from loving every human being in the world as I love myself? The answer is the cross. I don’t want the cross.

But there is one thing that can heal me of my true disease, this disease that bars me from the life that God wants to give me, one thing that enables me to ask that terrible question. The lifting up of Jesus didn’t end with the cross. It continued in the resurrection and came to completion in his glorification at the right hand of God.

You might leave the place you love, and the home that is so safe and familiar, if you knew that God went with you, if you knew that God would never abandon you, if you knew that God would save you, no matter what the world did. You might love a stranger or an enemy and risk the rejection and the grief and the vulnerability that comes with that, if you knew that God would rescue you, even from the very worst the world could dish out. You might tirelessly work for reconciliation and peace if you knew that God was working with you.

God loves the whole world, a world that doesn’t want his light or his peace. Can I let his word take on my flesh? Can I reach out to the alien, the unfamiliar, the cruel, as he did, not secretly, but in the plain light of day? Can I offer love to hatred, forgiveness to injury, heaven to earth, no matter what the cost?

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved though him.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Sunday in Lent Year B 2009

03 Lent B 09
March 15, 2009

Exodus 20:1-7
1 Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Psalm 19
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." 18 The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" 19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


Philippi is developing buzz.

Do you know what buzz is? Buzz is the word that publicists use for the chatter that develops about something they are publicizing. The idea is that a well-placed ad or a well-organized event will get people talking, and all that talking does a whole lot more advertizing than the ad or the event.

We, the people of God, are in a sense God’s publicists. Our purity of intention and action in serving God and our neighbors is the chief means we have for generating buzz about God. Whenever our motives or actions are out of keeping with that mission, negative buzz is created. God’s name is dishonored.

This is what is making Jesus angry today. It’s not the world that makes him angry. Jesus loves the world God has created, because God has called it good. It’s the people of God that have made him angry. They’ve made him angry because they have created negative buzz about God. God’s house has become a marketplace, a trading post with the world. The purity of the motives and actions of God’s people has been poisoned. Their motives are about protecting themselves at other people’s expense. They’re collaborating with the powers of the world to generate wealth and security. They have forgotten their mission. They’re running on fear.

So the God of Israel is seen by the Romans as a quaint set of harmless beliefs. The God of Israel is seen by the poorer Jews of Israel as a weak and powerless God or worse, a judging and unforgiving God who only wants to see them suffer, and who holds every jot or tittle of their disobedience against them. This is negative buzz. These are lies about God. This makes Jesus angry.

Jesus was sent to purify God’s people, so that good buzz would be created, buzz about God.

Let’s think about this for a minute. What kinds of things generate buzz?

Well, we all know about gossip. Gossip is buzz, I suppose, negative buzz. What generates it is someone’s bad behavior, which makes the people who see it uncomfortable. I’ve heard a lot of people criticize gossip as the attempt to make oneself superior to another by listing off another’s faults, but I think gossip plays another role; it is a sinful society’s way of dealing with its own temptations. Most of the bad behavior we see is behavior we’re capable of ourselves, things in ourselves we don’t like. I’ve found it axiomatic that the things that most deeply irritate me in other people are the things of which I am usually most guilty. By rejecting the other person I am really acting out the rejection of myself.
If I am insecure about my social graces, I will be particularly irritated by rudeness. If I struggle with egotism and arrogance, I will loudly condemn it in others. If I am lustful and possessive, I will really go to town on adulterers.

But another thing that generates buzz is unusual goodness. Yes, people sometimes buzz about routine goodness, the kind of goodness we show to those we love, the kind of decency we manifest in everyday life. But really that’s more rare. You don’t hear people say, “Did you hear about Harry? He obeyed the law all week!” Or “Did you hear about Betty? She gave her children some food yesterday!” or “Did you hear about Bob? He went to work for forty hours last week!”

Now you might hear about these things if Harry or Betty or Bob had been particularly unkind or indecent or lazy or uncaring in the past, and now are showing improvement. But even that is rare. People rarely pat us on the back for things we should have been doing all along. In Twelve Step fellowships, people in early sobriety often expect everyone in the world to forgive them everything because they aren’t drinking like pigs or shooting heroin in their arms anymore. They’re a little surprised that no one particularly cares.

Of course, some folks work hard at generating positive buzz for themselves. This they do for lots of reasons: to develop business opportunities, to have status in the community, to gain power. But most people can tell when the motives are mixed.
But then there’s the kind of wondering buzz that develops when someone’s actions are so beautiful, so right, so beyond what we expect of ordinary people, that we are forced to think of God.

Jesus shows us the way to become that kind of person.

We were talking at Unbinding the Gospel about people we think of as saints. The amazing reality is that Jesus offers all of us the opportunity to become saints. A saint is nothing more or less than a “holy one,” one who clearly and completely belongs to God in a way that is somehow undeniable.

When we meditate on the Ten Commandments, we should avoid thinking about them as rules. They are not about what we do, but about who we truly worship. If we truly worship, if we look to God above and apart from any other power in the world, we become holy. We don’t need to worry about our actions. Our chief motive will be to generate positive buzz about God.

Philippi is getting some buzz. People are hearing about what’s going on here. People are talking about a culture, a community that is happening here, one that seems to be free of the kinds of judgment and self-righteousness and backbiting and gossip churches are often known for, one that gives generously to the poor and the outcast, one who shows compassion for the least and the worst of society, one that actually helps people to transform and grow.

Our regional minister has heard about the good things that are going on here, and he wants to come and see. We’ve been mentioned in national publications about the church. Now, you know me, and you know that my only concern is that God gets the credit. I hope that’s your concern as well.

I hear people congratulating me on giving a kidney to our member Betty. But I told Betty and I tell most of the people that compliment me that, in a very real sense, it is God in Jesus Christ who is giving this to her. If I were not a follower of Jesus I wouldn’t have considered it. If the congregation hadn’t voted to support me in giving it, I might not be able to. One of the best things I’ve heard yet is a member of the church who had been on the list of potential donors asking himself, “If I’m willing to give a kidney for someone I know, why wouldn’t I be willing to give one to a stranger?”

Now that would create some buzz.

The ten commandments are not about rules for living that generate success or happiness. They are a vision of a community that generates good buzz about a God the world doesn’t know, a community that’s like the stars and the forests and the clouds in the sky, beautifully obeying, beautifully interacting, beautifully testifying to their creator, who don’t need any of the things other nations need to keep them safe and whole, who have everything they really need and feel joyfully grateful and thankful, even though what they have may be far less than their neighboring nations with tall towers and rich palaces and terrifying armies.

The commandments won’t make you rich unless you are meant to share. They won’t make you famous unless you are meant to testify. They won’t make you beautiful unless you are meant to attract people to God. They won’t make you eloquent unless you are meant to preach and teach. They won’t make you strong unless you are meant to suffer for the sake of the gospel. They won’t make you pure unless you are meant for eternal life.

And this is the good news: you are meant for all these things. Some for one and some for another, and all for purity and holiness and eternal life.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Second Sunday in Lent Year B 2009

02 Lent B 09
March 8, 2009

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."

Psalm 22:23-31
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD.
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

Romans 4:13-25
13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations")--in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." 23 Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Mark 8:31-36
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?


I have to say I am struggling with this passage. It seems so unrealistic, so idealistic. It’s as impossible as peace in the Middle East. It’s as impossible as having twenty black people join Philippi. It’s as impossible as a chronic drunk making a full recovery and being sober all his life. It’s as impossible as having a big gay wedding at a Southern Baptist Church. It seems as impossible to me, well, as a ninety-year old couple having a child.


I’m wondering if all the real evil in the world is not done in the distance between what is right and what is wrong but in the distance between what is possible and what is impossible. It is possible to be less selfish, but it is impossible to love one’s enemy. It is possible to be obedient to human rules, but it is impossible to obey God when God’s will countermands those rules. It is possible to help some people, but impossible to help them all. It is possible to believe in a God limited to our personal lives and problems, impossible to believe in a God that condemns our global culture.

Let me tell you a parable. A certain woman who was a popular TV guru with a huge audience went to the National Cathedral during an Easter service, tore the American flag off the altar and started beating the pastor with the flagpole in the middle of his Easter message. She then knocked over the altar and threw the offering in the trash.

She then stood before a cheering crowd in front of the Washington Monument and preached that it would soon be destroyed, and then invited everyone to give up on the United States and join her newly forming nation.

How do you feel about this woman? What do you think would happen to her?

I’m not suggesting anyone do such a thing. But I want to help you get a sense of the effect Jesus had when he marched into Jerusalem and started whipping people in the temple and knocking things over and announcing that the temple would be demolished. He wasn’t teaching about personal morality; he was teaching about public life.

When Jesus predicted he would die on a cross, it wasn’t because he had some mystical or supernatural insight. It was because he knew exactly what rules he was going to break and he knew exactly what the punishment would be. He knew exactly who he was going to offend and what they would do about it.

He knew when he healed and forgave the diseased and the sinful, particularly on the Sabbath day, he would offend the priesthood who depended on sin offerings for their income, and he would offend the Pharisees who depended on the law for their status in the community. He knew when he condemned the religious leaders that ran the temple for collaborating with the Romans and predicted the destruction of the temple, he would be signing his own confession of blasphemy. He knew that when crowds of people called him Messiah that Herod, duly appointed Messiah by the Roman Empire and the priests, would want him dead.

But he also believed that, if he did these things, if he renounced every possible institution, every realistic solution, every reasonable option and trusted in God’s unreasonable, impossible and unrealistic promise, God would not allow his death to be the end of the story. He believed God would raise him from the dead. He believed God would vindicate his faith. And he believed that because God would raise him from the dead and glorify him, others would follow him, give up on the possible, and embrace the impossible. He believed we would take up our crosses and follow.


Is it possible that I could come to believe in this God? Could I believe in a God that really can transform not only me but many other people into something much greater than they are? Can I believe that God can really bring about a kingdom among the broken and struggling nations of the world that would stand as a light and an inspiration to them all? Can I renounce my culture for the sake of something as unreal and impossible as a culture of love and grace and peace ruled only by God?
And would I die rather than back down?


There was a stretch there when a bunch of new members joined Philippi, and almost immediately were invited to join the Lions’ Club. We ran into the problem of asking people to come to Bible study or a committee meeting and being told, “I can’t. I have a Lions’ club meeting.” I started saying, “The Christians are being eaten by the Lions.”

Christians being eaten by lions is one of the iconic images we have of the early church. It is in fact true that one of the ways Christians were executed were in the Roman version of reality TV. They were led into an arena where lions and other carnivorous wild beasts who had been starved for days, were set loose upon them. The Romans were apparently entertained by violence.

The martyrs had families and jobs. They had mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and spouses and children. They were ordinary people who were living lives not much different, though perhaps somewhat harder, than we are living today. But they were disciples of Jesus, born anew into the kingdom of God the Father, but the Roman authorities believed their nation was divinely founded and that its emperors and dead heroes were themselves gods. So they demanded everyone under their power acknowledge Rome as the real Kingdom of God. The disciples of Jesus refused, even when it would cost them the grief and financial ruin of their families and their own lives.

Those Christians who were thrown to the lions were known to kneel and loudly praise and thank God for the opportunity to give their lives for the kingdom. The made a point of forgiving the Romans before they were killed. This sounds crazy, suicidal. But for every one that so died, ten more were reborn. The more the Romans killed, the larger the church grew. Someone said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The church has not fallen yet, but Rome has.

They believed, truly believed that the path of renunciation even unto death was the path to eternal life in the coming kingdom of God. They went to their deaths believing the impossible, that God really could build his kingdom without a shot being fired, without a prison being built, without a single judge or courtroom, and with no government save the Messiah Jesus and no law but love. They loved their enemies even though it was impossible. They forgave their executioners, even though it was impossible. They were the true children of Abraham, believing God could do what God promised, even if it was impossible.

The church is far from perfect. It is in fact badly compromised. The chief mistake the church has made has been in trying to baptize the empire, trying to somehow make violence and oppression fit into the message of Jesus. It was a terrible mistake and it continues to plague us to this day. The good news for us in North America is that we have the freedom to assemble, the freedom to practice our religion of choice and the freedom to speak our minds. Even my TV guru would probably not get end up getting tortured to death as Jesus did, however many people might want her to be. She might just die in the ratings.

But there is a cost, even in our free society, to going against the flow of your family or your community or your culture. And if you don’t have any weapons with which to fight back except love and forgiveness, you will be vulnerable to those who freely use whatever weapons they can find. You could lose customers for you business. You could get cut out of the will. You could be socially ostracized and isolated. You could be demonized, all your personal faults and shortcomings publicly trotted out to discredit you.

The cross is the uncrossable chasm between the ways of the world and the ways of the kingdom of God. The biggest mistake the church ever made was trying to cross that chasm. Whenever the values of the kingdom are backed by violence of any kind, however seemingly legitimate, whether it be the violence of warfare or of economic oppression, the cross of Christ has been abandoned.

Many in the world-wide church would still be happy to accept the poor, non-violent, forgiving Jesus as long as he stays out of politics and the economy. They’d be happy to limit his importance to heaven and keep him out of this world. They’d be happy to make him a private matter and keep him out of issues like warfare and business where his impossible demands are truly ridiculous. They’d be grateful if he had the good grace to stay in the tomb, and not keep coming back to confront us with the insanity we call reason, the injustice we call workable, the oppression we call fair trade, the violence we call peace-keeping.

But he won’t. He hasn’t. He’s alive.



Wednesday, March 4, 2009

First Sunday in Lent Year B 2009

01 Lent B 09
March 1, 2009

Genesis 9:8-17
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." 12 God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." 17 God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."

Psalm 25:1-10
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness' sake, O LORD!
8 Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9 He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

1 Peter 3:18-22
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

The Wild Beasts

I would like to take you to the wilderness this morning.

We’re going to leave Deltaville. We’re going to leave Virginia. We’re going to leave our homes and families. We’re going to leave our parents and our sisters and brothers, our children and our grandchildren. We’re not going to tell them where we’re going. We’re not even going to say goodbye. It might take a few days for them to even know we’ve disappeared. We’re going where they can’t possibly find us.

We’re going to leave the United States of America, with its armies and roads and hospitals and churches and conveniences stores. We’re going to leave the sheriff’s department behind. They won’t even know where we are. We’re going to leave the ground beef and the vegetables and the TV dinners in our refrigerators. We’re going to leave the milk and the water and the orange juice behind. We’re going to leave our medicine in the bathroom cabinet. We’re going to leave the shotgun in the safe. We’re going to walk, and we’re going to walk, and we’re going to walk, until we are so far away from everything that we couldn’t walk back without starving to death on the way.

We’re going into a desert. It’s blistering hot in the day time and the cold at night gets into your bones. Nothing you can eat grows here.

But there are some animals around, especially at night. Hungry animals with teeth. Animals that can only live in terrible places like this. Animals with cold and ruthless eyes.

Are you afraid?

Of course you are. You’re alone. Without food you might very well starve to death. Without water you will probably die of thirst. Without protection you might be attacked. Without your family and friends, you might go mad with loneliness. Without shelter you will die of exposure.

So you wait. And while you wait, your fear is joined by other sensations. Your stomach growls. Your throat gets parched and dry. You skin burns in the sun and you shiver uncontrollably in the freezing cold at night. When it gets dark you listen to the small sounds of things scurrying around you. You hear howls and wonder how close the things that are making them are coming. You wonder if they can smell you there, dying. You can’t sleep, you can’t rest, you become weak and exhausted.

I visited a man in jail this week. None of you know him. He is a homeless man who lives a very marginal life. I listened to his story for about an hour. Of course, he reviews again and again the things that led him to be in jail. He can’t find any impure motives in himself. He can’t remember doing anything wrong. Yet he is charged with a serious crime and he will probably end up incarcerated for some time.

The facts of the case don’t really matter. What happened is that this man couldn’t find a way to live in mainstream society. He couldn’t get a job and hold it. He couldn’t amass enough money, with the little fringe jobs he managed to get, to rent an apartment or buy a house. He has trouble getting along with people.

So he was in a kind of wilderness. And loneliness came to him like a hungry animal and he fled it. He searched out other people, because he was lonely. Of course, the only people he could find, living the marginal life he was living, were other people living marginal lives. Other people like him, who couldn’t get along, who couldn’t find their way into the mainstream most of us live in.

But he thought he was doing a good thing. He thought he was befriending someone who was lonely. He felt good about that.

But of course, he and these friends got into conflicts. Various hurtful things were done on both sides, and really, it’s hard for me to say that anything really illegal happened. But there came a time when one of his friends got mad and called the police and made a charge and, largely because this guy is so marginal, so unconnected to anyone or anything, it stuck.

So now this man if is filled with anger. Day and night, all he can think about is how unfair everything is, how sick people are, how little he can depend on anyone. His anger is based in his fear. He is scared of the other people in the jail. He is scared of being locked up and deprived of his humanity. He wants to get out of the jail and run as far away as he can go.

At no time had he ever thought, “I’m going to do something evil. I’m going to hurt someone. I’m going to commit a crime.” No, he thought, “I’m lonely.” Or he thought, “I don’t have anywhere to stay.” Or he thought, “I’m hungry.” But he can’t even look at these motives. They frighten him too much.

When we are in the wilderness, we are really not alone. Besides the dangerous people and animals out there, we are visited by a whole set of wild beasts. These beasts are not rational. They are not moral. They have no conscience. They are hunger, loneliness, vulnerability and exhaustion. These are the wild beasts.

Whether we are in the wilderness or not, these beasts are always circling us. The only difference between the wilderness and civilization is that there we are alone, and here we are together. And whether we are in the wilderness or we are together, the beasts that circle us are just as irrational, just as pitiless, just as amoral.

Even when we form social groups, families, communities, nations, we are no different from that man in jail. We see threats all around us, we have trouble getting along with the rest of the world. And when we think, “We’re hungry” or “We’re vulnerable and exposed,” “We’re too isolated,” or “We can’t get any rest,” we react. We build weapons and walls. We ally ourselves with the wrong people. We steal from our neighbors or we kill them. We’re not thinking, “Let’s do something evil today.” We’re thinking “The beasts are going to get us.”

Those beasts are why a community of good individuals can do horrible and evil things without ever even considering that what they are doing is wrong. They are why a nation made up of deeply moral individuals can brutalize and oppress other nations. When the beasts come, the devil is close at hand.

About a hundred years after Jesus rose from the dead, the very first Christian monks went out into the wilderness alone. I read an interesting article recently that argued that the monks didn’t go into the wilderness to find God. They went into the wilderness to find the devil. One teacher I had in seminary, Philip Krey, said that monks were the Christian equivalent of Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth, spiritual athletes. In the wilderness they faced the forces that cause all the evil in the world. In the wilderness they did battle with the wild beasts. Some of the ancient stories even tell of literal beasts that attacked the saints and were conquered or befriended by them.

And this is why people get addicted to drugs and alcohol and food, why married people claw at each other, while children lash out at their parents or disobey them. They are fighting society or they are fighting each other because they have confused the wild beast with the one they are fighting. They have identified the enemy wrongly. The enemy is not society or their spouse or their parents, the enemy is one of those wild beasts, hunger, loneliness, vulnerability, exhaustion.

It does no good to pretend they’re not there, or that only other people are threatened by them. Above all, it is no good to think that by ourselves we can keep them under control. They are far more powerful than we are. The devil’s greatest trick is to convince us we can handle the wild beasts without God’s help. And he laughs with glee when we try. We think we are handling them, but they are handling us.

In the twelve-step fellowships, the first thing the addict or alcoholic does after making a decision to give his life to God is to examine himself for any defects of character that stand in the way of his fully serving God and others. Many who try twelve-step programs flop out on this process. They are unwilling or unable to face the wild beasts. The reason for this is simple. They haven’t really decided to give their lives to God in the first place, and without his help, those wild beasts are just too scary.

The problem with this is that denying the beasts and their power, to pretend that they’re not really a problem, frees them to dominate and consume us. Our only real protection from them is God.

Jerry Dant likes to tell the story of someone in town who had heard about my occasional confessions in the pulpit. He said something like, “I guess it’s good to tell on yourself, but I’ll be darned if I’d tell everything.”

But the power of the beasts is greatest when they are hidden from view. If I tried to base my friendships and my position in society on my moral worth, I would have to hide my history. In order to do this, I would probably have to lie, or at least to refuse to tell the truth. I would live in fear that someone would uncover my secrets. I would be looking over my shoulder all the time. Not only that, but I would have a lot invested in silencing detractors. Anyone who criticized me would have to somehow be silenced or at least discredited. This is how conflict starts. This is how people get hurt.

Jesus came out of the waters of baptism and God said “You are my son. You are the Messiah. You are the Savior of the world.” And the Holy Spirit, the creating power of God, descended from heaven and entered into Jesus. Now, you’d think that after that announcement, after receiving something as powerful as God’s own Spirit, Jesus might have simply launched off on his campaign. The next thing we would normally expect is to read, “And he went into all their synagogues and said, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe this good news!”

But no. The first thing that happened was that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. And Mark gives us this little sentence:

“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

This is what Lent is all about. We are going to spend forty days in the wilderness, and we are going to face the beasts, and the angels are going to wait on us.

Those who do trust in God can fearlessly face the wild beasts and even befriend them, because God’s angels wait on them. In this, Christians differ from Buddhists. I’m no expert on Buddhism, but I think they believe that the goal of spirituality is to eliminate desire, and thereby eliminate suffering. We believe instead that God has given us these instincts, the desire for the society of others, the desire for a mate, the desire for food and drink, the desire for security and protection, the desire for rest. It is not our task to destroy them or eliminate them, but to befriend them, to submit them into God’s guidance and care.

In the psalm we recited this morning, the psalmist, terrified of his enemies, does not ask God to destroy them. He asks instead that God give him God’s own insight and wisdom. He does not ask because he’s better than his enemies, but because he’s not. He doesn’t depend on his own strength and willpower or righteousness, but on God’s. He is seeking the power of God to help him befriend the wild beasts of hunger and loneliness and exhaustion and vulnerability.

If we admit we are powerless over these wild beasts of our nature, and call on God to address them, he will send his angels to wait on us. We will run and not grow weary, we will drink the water that eliminates thirst forever, we will never be alone again, we need fear no threat.

In the second chapter of Hebrews, we learn that Jesus Christ is the friend of those who have been tested because he himself was tested. When we face our wild beasts with God’s help, we see others differently. We are able to see that we have no enemies but those wild beasts. We are able to have compassion even for the most heinous wrongdoer. And just as God has promised never to destroy us, so we can abandon our desires to destroy them.

God is creation’s friend. The wild beasts were made by him and obey him. But without God’s help, the wild beasts become our masters, and we cease to be what we are meant to be. Only when we see how powerful our inner beasts can be, and only when we can see how God can help us befriend them, can we become a friend to those who are driven by them. Without acknowledging their power over us and God’s superior power over them, we can have no hope of being compassionate and forgiving. We cannot see the world as God sees it, not as a world deserving of destruction, but as a flock of frightened sheep without a shepherd.