Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Who Gets To Use Jesus' Name?

In the passages for this coming Sunday: Mark 9:38-49, Jesus continues to confront the disciples-and us-with radically different perspectives about the Kingdom of God than they-or we-were expecting.

The disciples start off by telling Jesus that they saw someone "casting out demons in your name" and they told him to stop because he wasn't one of them.  My guess is that they expected Jesus was going to tell them what a good job they'd done.  After all, they were protecting the 'purity' of their group and the honor of their leader's name.

What they get instead is some of the harshest warnings in all of the Gospels.  Not only does Jesus say not to stop such people because "whoever is not against us is for us," but He goes on to utter the famous passage about, "whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward."

We could probably handle that.  But then Jesus says, "if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck..." and then goes on to talk about cutting off parts of your body (hands, feet, etc.) that cause you to stumble.

The comment about "little ones" is often taken to be referring to the children from verses 36-37, and that may well be....but it also appears to clearly refer to the one that the disciples had forbidden to cast out demons and others like him....a 'little one' who was not part of their "in group."

Duane Priebe, professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, is quoted as saying, "every time you draw a line between who's in and who's out, you'll find Jesus on the other side."  Jesus' comments in this passage would seem to support that. 

Jesus does not seem terribly concerned with this stranger's creditials or their status.......things that the disciples-and we-appear to have put great emphasis on.  Jesus didn't appear to be concerned at all with whether or not this man was theologically correct, or lived a particularly upright life, or even whether he was a Jew or not.  The phrase "did not follow us" that the disciples used to justify their ordering this man to stop is interesting....did they mean 'because he's not one of the followers of Jesus' or because 'he doesn't do things the way the disciples do?'  Is the issue for them that this man isn't a regular follower?  Or that he isn't someone who does what the inner circle of the disciples approves of?

We live in a time when all too many of us are willing to pass judgement on what others do in Jesus' name.  I'm terribly prone to this.  As a moderate theologically, and a psychotherapist, I often cringe at the advice given on Christian Talk Radio to people calling in with their life problems.  The 'demons' of addiction, or difficult marriages, or mental illness, or unresolved grief, or trauma are addressed in ways that I would never talk about them.  And yet, I know that there is healing that takes place, that there is help that is given, and that many of those offering this care are doing so from a genuine care offered in Jesus' name.

It's much easier for me to use this passage to rant at those who have drawn a line that put me on the other side than it is for me to turn this scripture's spotlight on myself and see where I have been the one who has drawn the line-and in so doing put Jesus on the other side.

There are days and days of reflection there for me; and maybe for you as well.  The other bits about cutting off things that cause us to stumble....I'm hoping I'll be ready to address those on Sunday.  Maybe you can join us at Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, MD when we look at them.
http://broadviewchurch.net/about/ will give you directions.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Honor Turned On It's Head

This week's lectionary scripture is Mark 9:30-37.  Even after all that's happened, or maybe because of all that's happened, the disciples are bickering over who's going to be a Big Shot when Jesus establishes His kingdom.

In the sections immediately preceeding this one Jesus had told them that He is going to suffer and die (remember the screaming match between Jesus and Peter); Jesus has had to do a healing that the disciples couldn't pull off; and He's taken Peter, James and John up on a mountain where they've had this extra ordinary experience in which Jesus is transfigured and Moses and Elijah show up.  Then, at the beginning of this passage, Jesus tells them again that He's going to die.

So as they're walking down the road, what are they talking about?  They're arguing about which one of them was the greatest. 

Now before we get too down on the disciples, we need to remember that in their culture and time this would not be an unusual discussion among members of a social group.  This is an "Honor-Shame Society" in which ones status, based on honor, is the most important thing.  Listen to Bruce J. Malina's description of "aquired honor":

"By contrast, acquired honor is the result of skill in the never-ending game of challenge and response.  Not only must one win to gain it, one must do so in public because the whole community must acknowledge the gain.  To claim honor the community does not recognize is to play the fool, since honor is a limited good, meaning that if one person wins honor, someone else loses.   Envy is thus institutionalized and subjects anyone seeking to outdo his neighbors to hostile gossip and the pressure to share."

By this definition, being taken up the mountain with Jesus would be a source of honor; not being able to heal the epeleptic boy (Mark 9:14-29) would have been a negative challenge to the disciple's honor due to their inability to exercise a skill they claimed to have.  You can see how the discussion might have gone.....and you can see the kinds of parallels one might find in today's communities of faith.

Here's where it gets interesting.  Jesus is going to tell them that if they want true greatness, greatness in the Kingdom, they're going to need to become servants.  But not just any servants.  One could establish honor by being the servant of someone great.  Jesus is going to challenge them to become the servant of the 'least.'  He's going to take a child and make that the focus of His description of who they should serve.

We will miss a huge piece of the meaning here if we put this picture in 21st century thought.  We elevate children (at least some children) and we get all dewy eyed about them (at least I do-I'm a grandpa, what do you expect).  But childhood in Jesus' day is a time of terror.  Children were always the first to suffer from disasters, the mortality rate was extreme, and most of the children who were brought to Jesus would have been sick and dying.....their mothers begging Jesus to touch them and heal them.  It was probably one of these that Jesus pulled into the middle of the group and wrapped His arms around.

Servanthood without hope of status.  Making ourselves humble in the care of those who have no social value whatsoever.  There are no "deserving poor" no "people brimming with promise who just need a hand up" in this commandment.

Jesus is gonna take a sick child-one who may well be dead before the season is over-wrap His arms around it and say, "whoever welcomes one of these, welcomes me."  Honor turned on it's head.  Honor bestowed in secret.  We think of Mother Teresa and her work in Calcutta;  but how many are there who rock babies dying with AIDS in Africa, who give pedicures to homeless men so that they can walk without pain; who teach school in slums......these are the nameless ones Jesus says have recieved Him.

Our culture, though radically different in many ways, shows many of the signs of the Honor-Shame Society.  We chose our jobs, our partners in life, and often-God forgive us-our ministries...based on the status and honor that they will bring us.

This is finally a judgement story.  But it is a judgement with the opportunity to correct ourselves.  We can begin to see Jesus in the face of those who are 'least.'  We can learn to correct our vision.  But to do so will mean that we have to live and work from an alternative vision of what is truly important in our world.  Learning to do this is part of what it means to "follow Jesus," to be "on the Way." 

Asking ourselves the question, "just for today, what would it mean, what would it concretely look like if I followed this teaching?" is a dramatic beginning.  What would happen if we did?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Protecting Jesus

If I wanted to be a real wise guy (well more than usual) I'd keep this week's blog really short by writing something like "Protecting Jesus-Don't Even Try," and end it right there.  But I think that this week's passage from Mark 8:27-38 deserves a little more commentary than that....though the sentence I suggest is totally true.

In verses 31-33 we have a screaming match between Jesus and Peter (I also thought about titling the blog this week "Screaming Jesus").  Jesus has begun talking about what He thinks is going to happen to Him.  He will, by the way, have three major conversations about this in Mark in which He outlines His expectation of suffering and death.  This doesn't sit well with Peter at all.  Peter has just said that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, who will rescue Israel.  In Peter's mind (probably) and that of many at this time, the Messiah is going to come with an aggressive counter to Rome.  The Anointed One will drive out all those who oppress Israel and restore Israel's independence and prestige. 

To hear Jesus talking about suffering and death is more than Peter can take.  He pulls Jesus aside and begins to scream at Him (that's what the word means.  When Jesus "rebukes the demons" He screams at them).  Jesus, who is clearly not in the mood for Peter's attitude, screams back.

The next lines are the ones that we'll spend most of Sunday's sermon on....about 'denying ones self and taking up our cross.'  But right now, I want to focus on what's going on here.

Peter seems to have the idea that he needs to protect Jesus from Himself; or to instruct Jesus about how the Kingdom really is supposed to come in.  Peter isn't that different from me and you at this point.  All too often we think that our job is to somehow handle, manage, protect, guide, or defend Jesus' work in the world (particularly as it comes through the Church).  Jesus' response to Peter should give us a pretty good idea where Jesus thinks we can put our condescending, patronizing attitude.

Jesus doesn't need our protection.  Jesus doesn't need us to help keep the Church on solid ground.  Suprising as it may seem, the major thing Jesus calls us to do is very simple:  follow Him.  Jesus doesn't ask us if we're "saved," or tell us to believe a particular creed, or any of the hundreds of other ways that we build fences around Jesus' work in the world.  He just says "follow me." 

Oh yeah, and He says, 'pack your own lynching rope and be ready for them to treat you the way they do Me.'  No wonder we're happier sometimes defending doctrine. 

Please don't get me wrong.  This is not me thundering down on anyone from some lofty height of personal discipleship.  I'm not in the judging business.  Got too much stuff of my own to condemn anyone else's discipleship.  I'm just saying that here, at this point in Jesus' ministry; when He's getting clearer and clearer about what bringing about the New Creation is going to cost; He doesn't have time for petty arguments....it's follow or get out of the way.

I need to hear this.  I need to hear it every day.  I need to hear it every time I am tempted to focus on doctrine rather than relationship, interpretation vs. action.  Jesus can set His own direction just fine without any help from me at all.  In fact, He has.  My job is to follow.  Follow to the places out on the edge where Jesus spent most of His time.  Follow to the people who were hurting the most, at the point of their pain...again, where Jesus spent most of His time.  Follow because I am called (as are we all) to root my identity in who He is, not who I am.  Follow to the point of crucifixion if necessary.

I don't do it well.  Most days I probably don't do it at all.....I can make a good showing, but I am way too concerned with how it looks and who is in control.  Learning to follow is hard stuff.  Self denial is often a real drag.  And this crucifixion thing....But, if that's the Way that Jesus is going, it's a pretty good bet that there isn't any other Way to go.

Friday, September 7, 2012

When Scriptures Turn Snarly

This has not been a good morning!  Driving into my office this morning I realize that, though I had already written two blogs on the scripture passage and my sermon-I thought-was safely finished, this passage of scripture wasn't done with me yet.

If you've been reading the last two blogs, you'll know that I've been wrestling with the encounter that Jesus has with the Syrophonician woman in Mark 7:24-30.  And while my thoughts haven't changed in terms of what I think is happening, I think I let it go too early.  Here is why:

Dealing with the stark nastiness of this story is really hard. As much as I tried to deal with it head on, I still (like a lot of the commentators) don't want to face how downright vicious the language Jesus uses is.  It's not okay with me.  I think I know the reason and I agree with confronting folks with what their bigotry looks like....but that's another human being He's talking to. 

Imagine that you're gay, or black, or Muslim...and that we're friends.  We're hanging out with some people that I want to confront about their soft core bigotry, so I begin to talk to you using the worst racial, ethnic, or sexual slurs I know.  Are you going to be feeling okay that I'm talking to you that way....even if you know what I'm doing?

Not only that, Jesus did this to her on her home turf.  She didn't come to Galilee...Jesus is in Tyre-Gentile territory.  This would be like my going into a gay bar to use my conversation with you to confront my other friend's bigotry!

Am I still impressed with this woman's handling of the situation?  Absolutely.  Do I think Jesus was making a point to His disciples about their own bigotry?  Yes.  Do I think the later verses about healing a deaf man and feeding the 4000 say something really important about Jesus bringing the Kingdom to the Gentiles?  Sure, no doubt about it.  But the truth is that if we deal with what we have in this story....all those other things being true....Jesus still comes across like a Class A Jerk and I don't like it....it creeps me out.  I understand why Luke and John didn't want to talk about this incident.

I believe that this woman impacted Jesus.....a lot.  I believe, as I said in my last blog, that her fingerprints are all over Jesus' parable in Luke about the Widow and the Unjust Judge.  Maybe Jesus even saw a bit of injustice in the way that He treated this woman....we don't know.  I also stand by my thought that when Jesus thought about her dealing with all this in later time, He smiled.  What bothers me is the question: when the Syrophonician woman thought about Jesus later, what did she do?  That question bothers me, it bothers me a lot.

And it raises a question about we as Christians and mission/ministry stuff.  We may feel really great about what we do; we may learn boatloads from folks, be blessed by the contact, see the world in new ways.  But do the people we're trying to share God's care with have that same feeling?  Or do they walk away feeling like they had to trade some piece of their soul, some piece of their self respect to get what they needed?  Is that what bothers me most?  Do I see in Jesus' treatment of this woman the expression of my own, hopefully softer, version of bigotry and biase toward some of the desperate people who come to me?

Thanks for listening and struggling through this passage with me.  I'm sure it'll follow us around for a long time.....kinda like I think it followed Jesus.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jesus And A Gentile Woman-Part 2

So...if you've been following the blog, you know that this week I'm struggling with the story from Mark 7:24-30 of Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman who came to Him asking Him to heal her daughter; and Jesus' response was (to but it mildly) not very nice.

Over the last couple of days, I've been looking at various ways that different commentators have explored what is happening here.  Here is the short version of where I've landed.

There is no way to soften the words that Jesus uses.  Even though some of the commentators try to say that Jesus was teasing, that his using a word that can be translated "puppies" or "little dogs" in reference to the daughter-it just won't work.  Imagine the most ugly, dispicable thing you could call a woman...now imagine calling her that, and calling her daughter a "little (what ever you came up with)."  Does this feel like teasing?

Nor do I think this was a "turning point" in Jesus' own attitude toward gentiles.  Now I don't have a problem with the idea that Jesus kept growing in His understanding of what God had called Him to do and be (that growing understanding may well be part of what it meant that Jesus was human as well as God).  But Jesus has already healed an insane gentile man in Mark 5.  And He treated him with compassion and care.

So what is happening here?

To answer that question, I think we need to look a few verses earlier to the argument that Jesus had with some Pharisees who attacked Jesus because He and his disciples did not follow the "Traditions of the Elders."  Now the Traditions of the Elders were the ways in which particular groups had interpreted the Torah.  They had parsed the Law into extreme demands-particularly about ritual purity.  In their defense, they believed that keeping this ritual purity would help to hasten the coming of the Messiah and God's Kingdom.  But their picture of that Kingdom was one in which everyone looked like them: culturally, religiously, ethnically.  They had become spiritual bigots.

I also, in viewing this story, have come to believe that Jesus' disciples-who were present when Jesus clashed with the Pharisees-were present as silent witnesses to Jesus' encounter with this woman. I believe that because it's the only way the story makes sense to me, and because they are present in the next things that happen while Jesus is in this gentile territory.

What the disciples witness is Jesus acting out the bigotry that the Pharisees had wrapped in pious language.  Jesus is saying to them, to the ones He will trust to spread the news about what He came to teach, "if you buy into the kind of pious crap that they made sound so holy, this is what it looks like when it's lived out in the street where people hurt and need and bleed and die."

Some of you who are closer to my age have seen this in our own time.  I can remember people who would never have used a racial slur for black persons, who still refused to believe that they were equals culturally, politically, or spiritually.  They would never strike someone because of their race; but they stood by while police turned dogs and fire hoses on peaceful marchers and refused to integrate schools, and resturants, and (especially) churches-all the time wrapping this hatred and bigotry in the pious language of religion....often quoting the Bible to do so.

So the lesson Jesus is trying to teach is close to our own issues now as well as there's then.  Perhaps the question we need to be asking is 'who are our Syrophoenicians?' Who are we blocking out of the New Creation, the New Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim has come among us?  Maybe we (and I include myself in this question with a lot of shame) need to ask ourselves what our own bigotries look like when stripped of their 'niceness' and carried to their logical conclusions.

A final word about this woman.  I believe she showed incredible tenacity on behalf of her daughter.  She managed to find just the culturally proper way of responding to Jesus' questions.  I believe that she partnered with Jesus in this moment to teach the disciples.  This took an incredible amount of trust that Jesus would, finally, treat her with the same care that He had already treated other gentiles she had heard of.

And I think that Jesus not only rewards her by healing her daughter.  I believe that she so impressed Him that she became an ongoing part of His teaching.  Remember how I said in the last blog post that Luke avoids telling this story?  Go look at Luke 18:1-8.  This story about presistence with God....a story that Jesus obviously told more than once for it to be passed down in oral tradition prior to being written....has this Syrophoenician woman's finger prints all over it.  Whenever Jesus told His listeners to pray like a pitbull, to keep banging on the door, to not ever give up; because a loving God would give so much more than an unjust judge....I think He smiled and thought of the woman who wouldn't let go.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

In Praise Of Scriptural Problems And Contradictions

There are those who claim with pride that there are no contradictions in scripture; that the Bible represents a smooth, seamless presentation of God's word.  They often also maintain that should it be found that this is not the case, that every truth of the Bible will crumble like a house of cards.

Let me offer, instead, another view.  It is that those who told the stories that found their way into scripture....stories that survived the test of time in oral tradition and were still found to have lasting meaning for God's people when it came time to gather them in written form....these stories are the attempt of persons across centuries and cultural context to speak of their encounter with the Living God and their attempt to make sense of that encounter-interpreting and sharing it in a meaningful way.

It is a testimony to their trust in that encounter that they-both those who gathered the Old Testament scriptures into canon and those who did so with the New Testament-share so many of the conflicts in viewpoint and the warts on the characters with us.  While there is some visible attempt in scripture to "spin the story" there is much less than one might find in, say, a political campaign.  Those who edited and compiled the canon appear satisfied to let the disagreements stand, trusting that each has something to teach us and that God will speak through it all.

A quick look shows us that there are at least 3 versions of the meaning of Torah (the first five books of the Bible); that the prophets were often in conflict about how the people were to view the experience of exile; and that each of the Gospel writers told the stories from the early church's memory in a manner that was chosen to attempt to speak to a particular community's deep needs.

Rather than believing that this somehow challenges the "truth" of scripture, I believe it speaks to the Truth of the encounter with the Living God, the courage of the writers, and the faith that God will continue to breath through these stories where ever and when ever they are told.  They are a conduit through which the cool, clear word of God's presence and love come to us; but we do not worship the conduit.  The Bible is not the "4th Person of the Trinity" to be worshipped along with God in all of God's manifestations.

Having said this, it means that scripture often presents us with situations that call for us to struggle and sweat.  The story of Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark 7:24-30 is one of these.  Matthew tells the story also in Matthew 15: 21-30.  Luke and John avoid it all together.

It is a difficult story first of all because it is the only time in the Gospel that Jesus refuses (at least initially) to heal someone.  Second, Jesus speaks to this woman in a way that is cruel, rude and demeaning.  It's not a comfortable story.  The commentators on the gospels have twisted themselves in knots trying to deal with it; and the variety of explainations range from 'Jesus was teasing the woman' to 'the woman taught Jesus to include the gentiles in the Kingdom' and everything in between.

The truth is that I don't have an answer to what's going on here.  I have some thoughts, but I'm not ready to land yet.  Hopefully by Sunday I will have a better sense of what I think is happening; but I'm not ready to stake a claim yet. 

This I do know:  I believe it to be a true story from the life of Jesus.  It's too disconcerting to have been invented.  It's one of those stories that you're tempted (as I believe Luke and John were) to leave out.  I believe that it has something important to tell and teach us.  And I believe the context in which it happened is important.

With those things in mind, I'm going to leave it with you for a few days.  I want to invite you to read the story in both Mark and Matthew.  Struggle with it as I'm going to do.  Pray about it, that God will speak to us through it.  And I'll post another blog on it before the end of the week.

You and I may not agree about what the story means.  But that is part of the joy and challenge of being called to faith in a Living God.  Looking forward to where this takes us.  Hoping too that maybe you'll be able to join us at Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach MD this coming Sunday as we look at the story as a community of faith.

Til later, Shalom