Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hosanna-Save Us

This Sunday is celebrated in the Christian church as "Palm Sunday."  Many of us who grew up in the church can remember parading around the sanctuary waving palm branches to the delight of the adults (and the occasional distain of some sour individual who thought that children needed to be 'seen and not heard').  What few of us learned as children was what was actually going on.

It's Passover in Jerusalem.  The religious holiday of the Jews that reminds them that God overthrows tyrants.....that "Pharoah's army got drowned"....that they have been promised a messiah who will come and restore Israel.

 So each year, even as they allowed the Jews to celebrate their holiday, Pilate would come from the sea side city west of Jerusalem with his soldiers, his horses, his chariots.  Through the western gate they would come; the triumphant army displaying its power just in case anyone got any fancy ideas.  They would house in the garrison that sat right next to the temple...that stood just a little higher than the temple walls, so that the guards could look down into the temple courtyard.  Make no mistake about who is in power here.  The message is clear, "Hold your celebration.  We'll tolerate a little religious high drama. But don't even begin to imagine that you can change where the real power lies.  This is the 'real world' and there will be no king but Caesar." In traditional entries, when the victorious army marched into a city following battle, the prisoners of war were executed shortly there after-or sometimes sold as slaves. Those watching Pilate's entrance would need little reminding of how that worked. They could hold their Passover, but next week....everything would be the same again.

In contrast (and many scholars believe it a well thought out, well planned contrast), in through the east gate, down from the Mount of Olives, comes Jesus.....riding on a donkey.  No war horse, no chariot, now army.  Just a handful of disciples and a rag-tag bunch of desperate folks shouting "Hosanna!" This is a Hebrew word which means "Save us" or "Save us now."  And the palm branches they're waving are usually a symbol of a military victory.  Jesus creates a parody of Pilate's entrance. 

And remember how we talked a few weeks ago about at "ransom for many"?  How Jesus talked about how he would "redeem"?  Prisoners of war could...sometimes....be redeemed.  Who will be the "prisoner of war" executed here?  Who will so identify Himself with the plight of humanity that His life becomes a "ransom for many"?  Whose kingship will be marked by such a radically different entry into the Holy City that you'd have to be near blind not to see it?  And they were.  So tuned in to what they thought was happening that they couldn't see what really was happening.

I don't know that we're that different.  We'll wave our palm branches this Sunday; attend some Holy Week services; celebrate Easter Sunday....but on Monday?  Will we go back to Caesar's world just like always?  Oh we wish things could be different, we really do.  But this is the 'real world' you know.  And the 'garrison' of the powerful rises just a little bit taller than the wall of the temple.

But what if...........

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What Happened At The Cross?

My focus in my sermons during Lent has been to attempt to answer that question: "What happened at the cross?"  Now, as I've said before, many folks would say, "Jesus died to save me from my sins."  And while I would agree, the next question I would ask is, "What does that mean?"

All too often Christians respond that the only thing that can mean is that 'Jesus took on the punishment that I deserved from God and in doing so satisfied God's need for some sort of satisfaction for the things I (and the rest of humanity) have done wrong.'  It is this answer (formally known as 'Substitutionary Penal Atonement') that I believe is not only wrong, but runs contrary to both Jesus' life and teachings.  It maintains that God was so angry at human sin that somebody had to be punished...so God's son, Jesus, came to die in our place.  And many Christians incorrectly believe that this is the theory of the atonement that the Christian church has held throughout history.

The fact of the matter is that the earliest church didn't put a lot of time into figuring out this question.  They were more concerned with the resurrection.  They believed God had acted and that something had happened in Jesus' death....but their big point was that in raising Christ, God had shown for ever and ever that Jesus' way of life, the one He called others to follow, was the way.

Over the centuries the church has looked at a variety of ways of looking at the cross and at atonement ("atonement" being the theological phrase for how Jesus' life and death and resurrection bring us back together with God, bridging the gap between God and us).  If you'd like a look at the history of these discussions, I'd recommend a look at Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.  It's well worth the read.

What I'd like to do is to look at two passages from the Gospel of Luke: one of Jesus' parables and Luke's account of Jesus' death on the cross and see what they may have to tell us.  As a lead in, can we agree that Jesus came to show us what God is like?  That Jesus' life and teaching is the ultimate reflection we have of the nature of God?  When, in the Gospel of John, the disciples ask, "show us the Father and we'll be satisfied," Jesus respond, "those who have seen Me have seen the Father."  If we can agree to this, then our Lukan passages will make much more sense as atonement theology.

In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Sons (yes, that's plural, the older son was prodigal in his own way as well).  The story is of a younger son who comes to his father and asks for his inheritance....in essence, saying to his father, "I wish you were dead.  I can't wait for you to be dead, so give me my share now and I'm outa here."  The father give it to him.  This, by the way would have meant selling off land etc. since most wealth in Palestine in that day was in land...not bank accounts like our culture.  This taking of his share would have created a hardship on those who worked for his father and made their living caring for the crops and herds there.  So the son's behavior had a negative social impact beyond just tearing at the fabric of his own family.

Things didn't work out well for this young man.  He went away into a 'far country' where he spent his money unwisely; and when famine came he was reduced to feeding pigs (unclean animals, unclean work) which leaves him now not only seperated from his family and his community-but also from the practice of his faith.  He decides to go home and offer himself as his father's servant.  After all, at least he'd be able to avoid starvation.

His father sees him coming down the road.  So do the others in the village around the estate.  They would have lined the road to throw things, to spit, to shame this boy who had so damaged their lives and the honor of the village as well as that of his family.

But his father runs down the road to meet him.  Now you have to understand that a Middle-eastern man of importance never runs anywhere.   He walks in a stately fashion as befits one of his position.  Besides, running means you have to raise your robe...and that will show your legs...highly improper.
Nevertheless, run he does.  He throws his arms around his son, placing himself between the son and the village.  Then he throws a party...a party.....REALLY a party?  The party is to celebrate the coming home of one "who was dead, but now is alive;" but it's also meant to bridge the gulf between the son and the village.....who would have been the ones invited to the celebration.

Now look at Luke's account of Jesus' death on the cross.  Luke 23:32-43 is the particular set of verses I'm most concerned with right now.

Jesus has already been tortured, mocked, forced to carry his cross til he can't move anymore-then they grab a guy out of the crowd and force him to carry it.  Now he's been hoisted up, naked, to die in shame and agony.  At a time when one can easily imagine the ones being crucified to either be pleading in agony or cursing those who are executing them....Jesus says, "Father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing."  And when a criminal who is also being tortured to death beside Him asked to be remembered when Jesus comes into His kingdom, Jesus replies, "today with me in paradise."

Jesus came, lived and died, identified with human kind.  On the cross, Jesus identified himself with us at our worst....at the rock bottom of where we can go.  And His response was forgiveness and welcome.  Forgiveness for those who killed him, welcome for the criminal dying beside Him.  Jesus is living out the parable He taught about the prodigal and his father. 

If Jesus is God (and as Christians, we believe He is) does this look to you like a God who is seeking to satisfy some sense of holiness that our sin has sullied?  Absolutely not.  What God is satisfying here is God's fidelity to God's beloved creation (meaning you and me).

God in Jesus Christ redeems us from the places our sins have taken us; welcomes us...not because of our goodness, but because of God's love (note that this criminal hadn't done squat to earn a welcome); reconciles us to God's self and to our neighbor; and embraces us in the love that will not let us go.

If you want to see what God is like; if you want to know what happened at the cross; if you want a theory of atonement true to scripture.....look at the father running down the road....throwing pride and everything to the wind to embrace and protect this wayward son stumbling up the road.  Look at that father, there you will see the Face of God.

I do not care where you've been.  I do not care what you've done.  Turn.  Take one stumbling step in the direction of home....and the Father will run to meet you.....cause that's what happened at the cross.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Musings During Lent

I'm not preaching this Sunday.  Commonwealth will be listening to a very interesting couple from Baltimore who will be candidating to become Commonwealth's co-pastors.  I hope you will join me in holding both the congregation and the candidates in your prayers this weekend.

Not preparing a sermon, however, has given me time for some other Lenten musings.  Add to this the fact that a couple of my clients have had rather unfortunate encounters with Immigration (ICE) this week.

Let's begin with the fact that Jesus, in both His life and His death, identified with the marginalized and the criminal (we really avoid that passage in Mark 15:28, "he was counted among the lawless").  The fact that you and I see Him as innocent does not do away with the fact that those who killed Him thought that they were engaged in justice and moves toward protecting the larger populace.

Then let's go to the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, in which we find over and over again that one of the things that identifies faithful worship and obedience to God is how one treats widows, orphans, and 'the sojourner in the land.' 

I am not saying that the issues are not complicated.  In fact, I am saying just the opposite.  They are far more complicated than many folks would like to imagine them to be.  What I am saying is that our faith calls us to explore and examine and struggle with what it means to live out that faith in relation to those who are powerless and at the edges of community.

My Lenten question-for myself as well as for those reading this blog-is "What would happen if we focused less on the prohabitions, the 'rules against stuff', that we find in scripture (especially since we tend to aim those at other people instead of ourselves); and focused more on those directives about how we are to behave toward others in our relationships?"

This is a question I need to struggle with.  I invite you this week to join me in that struggle.

Shalom,
Stephen

Friday, March 2, 2012

Reflections on the "Markan Sandwich"

The scripture I'm preaching on this week often gives people fits.  If you'd like to look at it, it's Mark 11:12-25. 

If you read the passage you'll understand a little bit about what is meant by the "Markan Sandwich."  Mark tends to "sandwich" one account between two piece of another story.  In this case, he's put the story of Jesus' actions in the Temple between the cursing of the fig tree and the disciples noticing that the tree is dying.

One of the reasons that this passage gives people fits is because if you don't understand the context of these behaviors it looks like Jesus is having a huge tantrum.  First of all he goes to a tree looking for food and when there is none, he cursed the tree (this is made even stranger by the fact that the description of the tree lets us know that this wasn't the season for figs anyway)......next he starts throwing over tables in the Temple and screaming about "my house shall be a house of prayer and you've made it a den of thieves".....the the disciples notice that the tree is dead.  Pretty weird if you ask me.

BUT....if we take a look at the context, and the understanding that those who observed these behaviors would have had of what Jesus did, then things make much better sense.  In fact, we can understand why these behaviors would make people want Jesus dead.

Let's start with the fig tree.  Jesus believed (as do Christians now) that he was ushering in the Messianic Age, the New Creation, the Kingdom of God.  He said over and over that "the Kingdom of God has come among you."  One of the signs of the Kingdom was that the trees would Always bear fruit......so hold that thought.

Now to the Temple.  The money changers were fullfilling a necessary role at the Temple.  Because Roman coins had Ceasar's picture on them (a graven image forbidden by Jewish law) they couldn't be used to purchase the offerings needed for making sacrifice in the Temple.  No mention is made that the money changers are overcharging (though this is often the story we heard growing up).  No, by overturning the tables and blocking folks from carrying things into the Temple area, Jesus is, in effect, shutting the Temple down!

Now He doesn't do this for long.  It is a symbolic act; and that is important.  Jesus (there is reason to believe) saw Himself as standing within the long line of prophets who spoke God's word to Israel.  Many of these prophets engaged in symbolic behaviors, acted out parables if you will, to drive their point home.  With His actions temporarily shutting down the Temple, He is saying, "the Temple has come to an end."  As He does this, He quotes from both Jeremiah and Isaiah passages that were leveled at the religious leaders of their day.  The quote from Jeremiah accused them of going after other gods, engaging in injustice, and then running back to hide behind the Temple as though their religion would protect them....like a den where thieves go to hide after robbing folks.

Now back to the fig tree.  The reason why the trees would always be in bloom in the New Creation (you can find later expressions of this in Revelation) is that the things they stood for: healing, justice, equity among all people; these thing are never out of season.  So if the fig tree is a symbol for the way that the religous leaders (those who ran the Temple) are supposed to be ushering in the Kingdom-but aren't.....then cursing it makes sense.....as does the symbolic shutting down of the Temple.

So what has all this got to do with us?  Here are my beginning thoughts:

Those of us who are Christians have committed ourselves to living in the New Creation in the here-and-now.  Yet how many of us (to the left and to the right politically) have engaged in behaviors that do not promote justice, or mercy, or equity among all peoples.....only to run hide behind our faith as an excuse for our behavior?  I see myself very uncomfortably reflected in the judgement that Jesus makes.  It isn't that we, or the religious leaders of Jesus' day, set out to oppose the Kingdom of God.  In fact, both we and they would probably say that we're doing the best that we can.

The Temple leaders made peace with Rome as a means of preserving the nation; the Zealots (who wanted strict legalism and promoted violent overthrow of Rome) were willing to force their view on those around them.  Does it remind you of anything in our day that there were those who wanted to force their religious beliefs on those around them and that they were squared off against a group that was more concerned with keeping the peace and not rocking the boat?

Jesus came bringing a whole different way.  It included living in a way that did not exclude anyone.  It included living in a way that promoted healing and acceptance and forgiveness on an individual basis as a means toward transforming the entire world around us.  These things are never out of season

Jesus' actions (both in cursing the fig tree and in shutting down the Temple) were meant to warn and to invite people to change.  They were 'lived parables' about what God was saying to Israel-especially it's religious/political leaders about what God wanted.  They still carry weight for us if we'll let them.  They invite us to examine ourselves and the ways in which we live out our faith over against the vision of the Kingdom, the New Creation, that Jesus came to demonstrate.

Like all good parables and prophetic actions, these actions by Jesus invite us to reflect and repent and change what we're doing.  Which means the next step is up to us..........