Monday, March 29, 2010

The King: The Rule of Laughter and Tears

Preached Palm Sunday, March 28

Scripture Readings: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11 (22-27)

The hills of Judea, where Jerusalem stands, rise more than 2,000 feet above sea level, and perhaps the wild grasses were still green on that spring Passover long ago. Some time in the spring, the groves that cover the Mount of Olives bloomed with their small white flowers among the thick green leaves that never fall. Their sweetness is almost overwhelming.

Jesus and his disciples came from the east, up from Jericho, and there was a good, stone, Roman road that would have taken them to Jerusalem. But the villages of Bethany and Bethphage were south of the Roman road. So we don’t know the exact route they took to the crest of the Mount of Olives; or from the Mount into the City.

On the crest, where they looked across the Kidron Valley to the Holy City, they stood more than 200 feet higher than the Temple Mount that rose opposite them. The parapet or cornice at the top of the outer walls that surrounded the Temple rose 400 feet above the floor of the Kidron, but they were still high enough to see over the top of those walls. They could see the worshippers in the courtyards beyond.

The pale, stone-built city stretched before them like the angled facets of the white crown of the top of a giant molar. The city rippled up to the western wall, at the far end of the molar, where the shapely towers of Herod’s palace gleamed, white in the sun.

Nearest them in the city, the Temple also rose like a mountain of marble and gold within its courtyards. The white smoke of incense and the dark smoke of sacrifice surrounded the holy mountain like a veil.

They would plunge down the big stone road, or the little dirt road, down the steep slope through the sweet olives. Stone fences and palm trees lined the way.

The groves sheltered vast huddles of tents. Hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) people came from all over the world to share the feast of Passover in Jerusalem. Every spare room of the city, and every square yard of it (and the fields around it), was rented to strangers; or reserved for family and friends for the holy days.

Jesus and his disciples were being followed by their own families, friends, neighbors, and the other followers of Jesus. They had all walked together from the towns and villages of Galilee almost a hundred miles to the north as the crow flies. And the crowd had grown as people in all the places in between had decided that they, too, wanted to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus.

And crowd merged with crowd. They passed their time and they fed their inspiration by singing as they walked. They sang long songs they all knew by heart, from the book of Psalms.

At the crest of the Mount of Olives, they saw the Holy City. They saw their goal. The singing grew louder. Most of the talking stopped.

They remembered that the King was with them, and the King was coming to his true City. He was coming to cleanse the City of its corruption. The King was coming to restore true repentance and faith to his people. The King was coming to overwhelm the Romans and bring his people a new freedom and peace that could never be taken away. The King was coming to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus was the King of the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to do all these things. They were sure of it. They smelled glory. They tasted victory. They were excited. They were thrilled. They were also a little scared.

They never felt so alive in their lives. Even the presence of the Roman soldiers guarding the gates of the city, and the presence of the Temple guards atop the Eastern Gate of the Temple didn’t phase them, or just barely.

They broke off palm fronds and small branches of olive and myrtle. They waved them in the air like flags, and laid them on the road in front of Jesus. They spread their own cloaks on the road in front of him, as well.

This might seem dangerous. Wouldn’t all those branches and cloaks trip the donkey that was carrying Jesus?

But they were careful how they did it. And donkeys are sure-footed. And their work made the road bright. It made the road before them like a flag; like a banner for the King who was coming into his own.

That was such a full day. There was so much going on that it had to be a confusing day for the disciples, no matter how wonderful it was. There were so many emotions in the people who were present, and so many emotions crossed the face and filled the voice of Jesus.

There was joyful laughter around him, and singing. And surely Jesus wanted that joy around him. Jesus set that parade up himself. He arranged for the donkey himself. He must have smiled and joined in the songs.

There was anger too. There was anger in the authorities of the Temple, when Jesus drove out the Temple franchisers who exchanged the worshipper’s secular money for the holy money required for use in the Temple. There was anger against Jesus when he overturned the tables of the dove franchisers, from whom the poor people bought their doves for sacrifice.

Doves were the least expensive of the animal sacrifices that could be made in the temple. With the dove tables gone, poor people couldn’t offer sacrifices in the Temple. It was an outrage.

Jesus knew he would create anger, but he was angry too. The presence of the money changers and the dove sellers made worship into a business and a routine.

Essentially, worship was being bought and sold. A way for a person to come to God with repentance and thanksgiving was being turned into a business deal.

It became a way to pay something and get something in return. You bought your holy money, you paid for your holy sacrifice, and you gave God what you owed him. Then, naturally, God would give what he owed you.

If God is our Father, and if we are God’s children, this relationship of making deals cannot work. There is no love, no wonder, no thanks, and no change of heart or life in the worship of the deal. Both the sellers and the buyers were robbers alike.

How could any of them come to know God that way? Jesus let his anger out. Jesus took the business deal out of faith in God.

Then there was peace, at least in Jesus’ heart, and the blind and the lame came to him for healing. And children were shouting and singing around him the words of the song from the Psalm: “Hosanna!” “O Lord, save us (“hosanna” in Hebrew); O Lord, grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Psalm 118:25-26; Matthew 21:15)

And there we find joy again: children were shouting and singing around Jesus. This is very important. You don’t find children acting like that in the presence of someone who is angry or weeping.

Jesus saw the praise in those children and it gave him joy. The children saw what many of the grownups could not see. The children could see God at work in the things that Jesus did. This made Jesus happy.

There were tears in the story too. You can read that detail in Luke’s gospel.
Look at what Jesus brought to Jerusalem. Jesus brought his joy, his tears, his anger, and his joy. Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem serves as a picture for his coming to us, coming to our church, coming to our neighbors, coming to our world.

It shows the wealth of what his love contains for us in his becoming human on our behalf: in his life, and his sacrifice and death on the cross, and in his resurrection. It shows us who God is because Jesus is God made flesh; God made human, God taking humanity up into himself.

What impressed me most this past week, as I was studying, was the joy of Palm Sunday. Jesus was angry with his own people for their thick-headedness. Jesus knew that he was going to die for them and for us, to set us all free from sin and death. He did not enjoy the prospect of the suffering and the dying that were ahead of him; but coming to Jerusalem and coming to us, with that intention, also gave him joy.
It is easy for us to grieve God. It is easy for us to hold close to ourselves the things that make God so mad. And yet he loves us, and his love for us gives him joy. Is this hard to understand?

Following Jesus is serious business. Nothing is more serious, yet we owe it to him to rejoice and laugh and give thanks. That is why children made Jesus happy.

Children are versatile. Children can be awfully serious, and it is easy for them to be angry and to cry; but it is just as easy for them to forget it and laugh.

When we have the life of Jesus in us, as we trust in his dying and his rising, then we have a new life in us where we have this great wealth of love; so that we can be joyful, and cry, and be mad, and forget it and laugh all over again.

The reason for this is that (most of all) this love has to do with salvation (which is not just about going to heaven but about being new and free in Christ). Salvation is like relief, and rescue, and healing, all rolled up in one. It is what students feel when the teacher cancels a test they haven’t studied for. It is like a scary medical test that turns out in your favor. It is like having done something that could have made someone you love awfully angry, and yet they smile at you and laugh it off.

That is just a taste of the love of God in Christ. And when you know the joy of that saving grace you try to give the same kind of saving grace to those around you.

There is power in the way that Jesus comes to us, as he came to Jerusalem that Sunday of the Palms, with the freedom to be joyful even in the face of anger and sorrow. Jesus rules within us to give us the power to bring to that joy to others.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The King: The Rule of the Unseen

Scripture readings: Psalm 27; Matthew 17:1-9

There is that song we sing in worship: “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” I like that song a lot. There is one funny thing about it though, and I was reminded of it while I was studying this week; and that is that Jesus never shines in any of the gospels, except for here; in what we call the transfiguration, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke repeat it in their gospels.

The gospels call Jesus light, but he only shines for the disciples (and for us) here; in the transfiguration. He didn’t shine during what the gospels tell us about his birth. He didn’t shine when he rose from the dead, on Easter Dawn. He didn’t shine when he rose into heaven.

And this is really just a long way of saying that what we read here is truly exceptional, even for Jesus. And this is just more evidence of how common the gospels are; how down to earth and unexcitable they are. The gospels are full of miracles, but they never go wild and crazy about them, and they are very reserved in the way they report them.

The gospels are calm and careful in the way they lead us to Jesus. And that is a lesson for us, in the way we come to Jesus, in our own lives, and in the way we bring others to him.

What we have here is a miracle; a miracle of seeing. We call it the transfiguration, and that is an awfully fancy word. The Greek word for what happened is the root of our word “metamorphosis”: another very fancy word.

Metamorphosis means big change. It means transformation. Metamorphosis is what happens when a caterpillar spins a cocoon around itself and changes into a butterfly. A caterpillar and a butterfly are the exact same creature, only at earlier and later stages of its development.

What the disciples saw on the mountain was not Jesus moving into a later stage of his development. For one thing he changed right back again into the normal Jesus, as his friends had always known him.

The voice from the cloud of light should tell us who this new Jesus is, but it doesn’t. The voice says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (17:5)

These are the exact same words that came from heaven the moment Jesus was baptized, at the beginning of his ministry. The Jesus who was shining bright as the sun was the same old Jesus his disciples had always known. In fact the Jesus who was bright as the sun was the same Jesus who was the baby in Bethlehem, and the boy asking questions in the Temple; and the same Jesus who would hang dying on the cross, and be buried in the tomb, and rise from the dead. And they were seeing the same Jesus who will return to earth when this universe is over and a new heaven and earth are made. And when the light faded from his face, the disciples saw the same Jesus as all of that.

The light they had never seen before drew attention to what was always right there before their eyes and right under their noses.

The voice from the cloud of light said a few more words, “Listen to him.” It said “listen to him” because sometimes they didn’t and they needed to know who it was that they were not listening to; someone whose face was really brighter than the sun, even when they didn’t see the light.

The miracle of seeing, which lasted no more than a few minutes (at the most), helped them know how to live in the presence of the unseen. The presence of the unseen is about faith. Paul says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7) And the Letter to the Hebrews says (in the King James Version), “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
The New International Version says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Most modern translations have something similar to that; making faith a matter of inner assurance instead of something substantial and objective. But that is because modern people, who make the modern translations, have trouble with the concept of faith being more than an attitude or a way of thinking.

Faith is not an attitude. Faith is not a way of thinking or seeing things. Faith is a strange way of knowing something that you cannot properly do justice to in words. Faith is a form of belonging. Faith is being connected to a reality that is beyond you, a reality that you cannot see with your eyes. Faith is the rule of the unseen.

In the sixteenth Chapter of Matthew, Jesus asked the disciples to put his identity in their own words, and in their own voice. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17) By “flesh and blood” Jesus meant that Peter’s understanding of who Jesus really was didn’t come from his own figuring it out. It didn’t even come from some place in Peter’s heart. It came from God. There is a leap of inspiration that is not our own leap.

We may talk about a leap of faith, but usually we are pushed. It is like being a child who is afraid of the water and who has a father or mother who will not accept your fear. They put you in the water, and they make you do things you are afraid to do because you don’t really believe that your body can float on top of the water. Swimming is something you simply have to do. At least you have to try.

Even though faith has to be a kind of decision we make and stick to; even though faith may be the hardest choice we make; even if we make it kicking and screaming; faith usually comes down to being a kind of necessity. Faith may be a choice; but real faith, in the end, turns out to be the only choice.

Faith always comes from some action, or from the memories of some action, like of the time your father or mother taught you to swim. (Or maybe it was the nice life guards at the town pool.) Faith is being connected to something or someone beyond you.

One way or another, for better or for worse, that connection shaped part of your life. It shaped, and may continue to shape, the person you are. It is the work of the connection, the work of the unseen.

Another example of being ruled by the unseen is one that I know nothing about, personally. It is how a mother-to-be is ruled and shaped by the unseen life within her. When things are the way they should be, a personal relationship begins with that baby within. It is not entirely unseen, of course, but it is a relationship that goes far beyond what you can see. I imagine that faith, hope, and love go into it. I imagine that a woman’s emotions and personality adapt to accept this coming new person before that person becomes visible.

Love itself is an unseen thing. You have to choose to make love seen, and visible, and felt, and heard. But love in many ways is an unseen thing that changes your priorities, and your direction in life. It changes who you are, even though it goes unseen. It is the rule under which you live your life. It’s true that love, like faith, is also a leap, but it is also a push.

The transfiguration only lasted for a few moments, and that is all that was needed. But it was needed. It was given to them because it was desperately needed. It was needed because the friends of Jesus would need the experience of a shining Jesus to hold them together when they began to experience terrible things.

Jesus had begun to show disturbing changes in his thought. Jesus had begun to hammer his disciples with the thought that they were going to Jerusalem where he would be arrested, and mistreated, and killed, and rise from the dead. Because they loved Jesus, and had such strong hopes for him and for themselves, they couldn’t listen to this. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t accept it.

Essentially they were beginning to be afraid. And then this moment or two of Jesus (as they had never seen him before) made a strange statement to their fear. For a brief moment they saw that Jesus was someone who could talk about dying and rising from the dead. This moment quickly passed, but the memory of seeing the un-seeable glory of Jesus did not leave them.

It stayed with them all their lives. But it was also part of the wonder of seeing Jesus again, when he had risen from the dead with the wounds of the nails in his hands and feet.

They saw their wounded and miraculously living and victorious friend coming to them out of an empty grave. As they held Jesus in their arms, they also saw, in their memory, the glory that had been able to achieve this. They saw how everything that Jesus promised was able to come true. They saw how Jesus was the one who could meet the evil, and violence, and injustice of this world and overcome it and offer them a new world, a new life.

The transfiguration was a gift both to help Jesus on his way to the cross, and to help his friends through the way to the cross, and to the risen Jesus, and beyond. The transfiguration was the gift of what we sometimes call a “mountaintop experience”. The friends of Jesus saw something that is normally unseen, and for the rest of their lives they were ruled by it.

We have to know that being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus, means living under the rule and influence of the unseen. We do some funny things here. We talk to someone with our eyes closed, and with our hands folded or raised. We sing odd songs together.

But it is all related to a reality that we have experienced; or we are supposed to have experienced it. All our strange words and actions are related to a reality that we cannot make others see, but we are called to make that reality known, with the help of the unseen.

We know the Jesus who shines. We are the work projects of the Holy Spirit, who has no real shape to be seen, but is the power, and presence, and love of God the Father, and God the Son, meeting and embracing and working together.

There is some mountain top in our lives where we have met this Jesus and received this Spirit and heard the voice of this Father telling us to listen. And we take the road down from the mountaintop, into the ordinary world of everything that we can see and touch. But we go down this road under the rule of having seen the un-seeable.

There are doubts on this road. There are fears. There is injustice and evil. There is hard work. There are crosses to carry. There is fellowship and partnership with others. There is communion, and there are wonders. There is singing and joy. There is fun and play. There is hope and life. There is love. And there is heaven and the resurrection. And Jesus will take us there.

Faith is not truly blind. The transfiguration tells us about the power and rule of the unseen. It tells us about a reality that is hard to put into words, but it is a reality that we can experience for ourselves, a reality that changes us, and that connects us to the living God in Christ.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The King: The Rule of Self-Giving

Preached Sunday March 14, 2010

Scripture Readings: Psalm 61; Matthew 16:21-28

A husband gave a lot of thought to find some way to tell his wife how much he loved her. One night, after dinner, he got down on his knee and recited a poem he had written especially for her. He told her how he would climb high mountains to be near her, swim wide rivers, cross burning deserts, and sing love songs to her in the moonlight. She smiled all through this, and when he finished his poem, she asked, “Does this mean you’ll do the dishes for me tonight?” (#789, “1001 More Humorous Illustrations”, Michael Hodgin, ed.)

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself.” (Matthew 16:24) It needs to be remembered, right away, that denying oneself does not mean that it is an inherently good thing to go around looking for ways to make your life hard and make yourself unhappy.

In a way, self-denial is a requirement for love; and love is the thing we all believe will make us happy. When Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself,” it was as if he said, “If anyone would truly love me, he must deny himself.” Self-denial, self-giving, has to do with being committed to love.

I’ve told you about an old friend of mine who gave me the secret of how his marriage has lasted. He told me that he had learned to always ask himself this question, “What do I need to do to make this work?” He didn’t ask himself, “What does my wife need to do to make this work?” He asked himself the question.

Knowing them both, I would say that the both of them have asked this question and shaped their lives accordingly.

They are like the unity candles in a wedding: their individual candles continue to burn, and the unity candle (that stands for their becoming one) still burns. I think that the repeated pattern, year after year, after year, after year, of a husband and wife self-giving together, creates patterns of thankfulness, and patterns of surprise and amazement, and patterns of strength.

In Christ, God gives us his own pattern of self-giving. By the time I was a teenager, when there were things that I agonized over, things that made me frustrated, or angry, or ashamed, I would think about these things in the night. As I went over, and over, and over them in my mind, it seemed as though the Lord would show me his wounds, and his dying for me, and his rising from the dead.

He denied himself for me so that I could deny myself by realizing my need for his forgiveness. I could deny myself by not feeding on the things that ate at me. I could deny myself by facing things that were hard, and by committing myself to do things that I didn’t know how to do yet, and without knowing where those things would take me. The Lord seemed to offer me a pattern of his self-giving for me and my self-giving for him.

Even though the life of Jesus on earth and his death on the cross are way back in history, they are not just history. They are not really passed. They are not over. Every day, every year, if you can look at Jesus, and his, cross and his rising, you will see more and more of it. It will seem to grow. It will have more and more to do with you, and your life, and the world around you.

If self-giving is a matter of love, you ask, “How can I live my love for Jesus in this life he has given me?” Then you look at your life. You look at your family, your community, your church, your neighbors, your world. You look at the problems, the needs, the potential; in people, and in this world we live in. Self-denial or self-giving is a matter of looking at all of this, or at one part in particular, and asking, “What must I do to make this work?”

Remember the story I told you at the start. If you honestly pray to know how to give of yourself the answer may surprise you. You may find that washing the dishes is harder than climbing a mountain (after all, you may like climbing mountains), and that the dishes are the real place of self-giving. The hardest thing of all may be to say the words “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” The hardest thing may be to stand for something that no one else around you is willing to stand for. It may be to plug away at something that no one else seems to care about.

We have hardly begun to think about what this self-giving means. Jesus’ words are shocking words. Jesus’ words are about death, and about where true life comes from. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

One reason why it is particularly hard for Christians to take in these words and really face them is that we take them for granted. They are too familiar to us. In our own strange way we have turned Jesus and the cross into a story, instead of remembering that they are real.

The disciples knew Jesus as a real person. And they had watched people die on real crosses.

On one hand they didn’t hear Jesus say that he would rise again. They were too shocked to hear. And, if they did hear him, it didn’t matter because they wouldn’t know what he meant. They just heard the word “killed.”

To them, Jesus was saying that he would be defeated and killed. He would fail and die, and they would fail with him. If they wanted to follow him they could expect crosses of their own to die on.

It is true, even today, in many parts of the world, that if you decide to follow Jesus, if you are open about it, if you are truly faithful, you may be killed for your faith. This is true in Iran, and Iraq, and Pakistan, and India, and Laos, and North Korea, and many other parts of the world.

If following Jesus is about love, then it is about a love so passionate that you are willing to die for it. You are willing to die for Jesus, even though you live under conditions that make dying for Jesus highly unlikely. And, you know, if you are willing to die for Jesus, why not be willing to be self-giving out of love for him for and others, in a hundred smaller ways every day? What’s holding you back?
This is why Jesus talked about the judgment and how to save your life by losing it, or save your soul by losing it. (Soul and life are the exact, same word, in the Greek, in these verses.) Jesus brought this up in the context of his laying down his own life, and our being willing to lay down our own.

The English word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. We think of passion as an all-consuming love, and it really can be; can’t it? Passion can be a love that nothing can stop; a love that is willing to give anything and everything.

The disciples were afraid of Jesus being vulnerable. They were afraid of Jesus failing because the price of pursuing his calling would be too high. It would cost too much.

They expected a Messiah who would bring about the kingdom of God on earth by means of the successful use and management of power. The kingdom of God would be the product of God’s power. Power would overcome their enemies.

They were forgetting a way that the kingdom could work without power as human beings understand it. By the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, the people of Israel were taught that a life (in the form of a lamb or some other animal) offered in their behalf, represented healing and mercy, the grace of God, and a new life from God.

They did not realize that this was the most important law of the kingdom of God: the law of sacrifice or self-giving. The animal in the sacrifice was not self-giving, but the animal represented the God who is self-giving. (Imagine that! Imagine God as a lamb who took away the sins of the world!)

The self-giving of Jesus was the plan that would launch the kingdom of God. The self-giving of Jesus on the cross was the way that God would rule his people and remake the world.

Sin is anything in life that builds barriers against God, and others, and the goodness of this world, and life itself. Sin takes us out of God and out of real life. Sin plants death in our nature. God, in his passionate love, gave himself to death for our sins on the cross, to take sin and death away from us. He rose from the dead to give us a new life; and this life comes from him and from his sacrifice for us, so that sin and death have no hold over us if we receive him.

What has happened is that the self-giving of God has become our life. There is no other way for us to live anymore. And this is the way the kingdom of God works.

The self-giving of Jesus, on the cross, was not suffering imposed on Jesus. The self-giving of Jesus was absolutely natural for him, as God incarnate. This is the life of God. It was what our life was supposed to be like when we were first created in Adam and Eve, in God’s image. It is what we become again in Jesus.

But it really has always been this way. No one has ever been able to live without passion. No one has ever been able to live well without self-giving. To pour yourself into music of your own playing and singing; to play a sport; to marry with a marrying kind of love; to commit yourself to some ministry in the service of others, to raise children who face life with eagerness requires the forgetting of yourself and the surrender of your life. You have to die to yourself to live and give life to others.

Jesus said that there were some people standing by, and hearing him, who would live to see this kingdom of God succeed. They would see the Son of Man come in his kingdom.

And they did. They saw Jesus come in his kingdom when they saw him alive after he died on the cross and was buried. Jesus rose from the dead because the rule of the kingdom of God is self-giving.

When we come to the Lord’s Table, we come to the feast of self-giving. We see that this is where our life comes from, in Christ. We eat the food of self-giving because this is the food Jesus gives us to eat. He gives us himself.

We can go forth and live, even if it looks like it might kill us. And that would not be a failure even if it did.

That is life abundant, and that is the life that will never end. It is how we belong to Jesus who died, and rose for us, and brought us into his kingdom by the rule of self-giving.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The King: The Rule of Humility

Preached Sunday, March 7
Scripture Readings: Psalm 145; Matthew 15:21-28

One of the great points of the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is that woman’s faith. In the end, Jesus told her, “Woman, you have great faith.” (15:28)

The strange thing about this story is that Jesus seemed to deliberately go out of his way to make it hard for her to have faith. At first he ignored her and gave her the silent treatment.

Next he told her that it wasn’t his mission to heal Gentiles, even though he had done it before. For instance, he had healed the servant of the Roman army officer. (8:5-13)

He talked to her about Gentiles being like dogs compared to the children of Israel. Were this mother and her little girl dogs? This was serious.

Not only was “dog” a common slur that the Jews used for non-Jews (at least for the ones who had invaded them, and lived among them where they didn’t belong). The word dog, when applied to a female of the human species, meant exactly what it means in English. In polite society it is an unspeakable word.

The truth is that something else was going on with that word dog: the “D” word. I’ll tell you about that later.

I would say that Jesus made this woman jump over some hurtles before he answered her prayer. But that image of jumping doesn’t fit, because you have to rise in order to leap hurtles.

Here it looks like Jesus was making the woman crawl. But she doesn’t crawl, either, because she seems to take to it, like to a battle of wits, and she wins that battle; or else Jesus lets her win. It is more like a limbo dance, like they did in the early 1960’s, bending over backwards to dance under a horizontal pole. The woman danced really low.

So, if Jesus was impressed by the Canaanite woman’s faith, it was a faith with a special quality. The quality of her faith was lowness. The special quality of her faith was humility.

In the Bible, faith is down to earth. It is honest. It is real. Faith is often very, very needy. Faith is humble.

And just as Jesus’ answer came as a result of some sort of conversation with the woman; faith is conversational. Faith is a conversation (communicating, listening, watching) with Jesus.

The woman started out shouting at Jesus. She wound up conversing with Jesus.

Faith is humble because, as with love, it is very much like Jesus. Jesus lived by a kind of faith on our behalf, in order to give us that faith as we receive newness of life from him. We can be faithful because Jesus was faithful, and because now he lives in us. And Jesus’ faith was a humble faith.

Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew from the land of Israel for a little while. He went up into the non-Jewish territory (pagan territory) to the north, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, in what is now Lebanon.

Mark, in his retelling of the same story, tells us that Jesus, while he was up there, stayed in a house where he hoped to be undetected. (Mark 7:24) Mark also comments on Jesus’ attempt to be undetected as a failed attempt because, as Mark observes, “he could not be hid.”

Matthew tells us that “Jesus withdrew”, and this is something that Jesus simply did from time to time. (Matthew 14:13; Mark 1:35; 6:31) He would take off and disappear. He did this for his own renewal and his own recovery of strength and energy. He taught his disciples that they also needed to learn how to withdraw; how to rest and be renewed. We need rest and renewal, and faith needs to accept this need. This is how we let humility rule our faith.

Withdrawal is part of the life of faith. It is why faith is humble. Faith is honest, realistic, transparent. Faith includes having self-understanding (knowing oneself as one truly is, and being honest about what one needs) just as much as it is about understanding who God is: because faith is about the relationship between us; our relationship with the Lord and his relationship with us. Faith includes trusting that rest, and our need for rest, is a gift from God.

For Jesus withdrawing was a time for looking toward his Father and taking time for love. Jesus would surely think the thoughts we read in Psalm 145: “The Lord is faithful to all his promises, and loving toward all he has made. The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you and you give them their food at the proper time.” (Psalm 145:13-15)

The proper time: there is a proper time for everything and so faith is not in a hurry. Faith can rest because it trusts God. Faith has enough self-knowledge to know that we are not indispensable. Or, if we are indispensable, faith puts even that in God’s hands. Faith knows how to rest. Faith plans to rest. It is like a taking a vacation.

The interesting thing about Jesus’ vacations is that they were almost never successful. Jesus was always found out and put to use. For Jesus to say, “Let’s go off by ourselves,” must have become something of a joke to the disciples (or at least to Jesus).

Our faith needs to be humble enough to rest, any way we can, when we need it. We need to take the time to be renewed, unless we think that we are better than Jesus who needed to rest.

The Psalm says, “I will meditate on your wonderful works.” (Psalm 145:5) Sometimes we do this, as Jesus did with his disciples, in the presence of those we love. Sometimes a place in the wilderness is best for enjoying God’s wonderful works (as when Jesus crossed to the far side of Galilee). Even a city (like the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, on that particular failed vacation of Jesus) could be a place to rest.

Faith is humble because it knows how to come to the place where we end and where God begins.

This is the kind of faith that the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus had. At first all we see her doing is shouting, and shouting, and shouting; “Have mercy, have mercy!” This woman had no dignity, because she had come to the end of herself. She had forgotten herself, because she was full of love and full of fear for her little girl. She had been completely humbled by the experience of her daughter’s possession.

And this woman was raised, and was expected, to be dignified. Mark tells us that she was “a Greek born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (7:26) I think this is a way of saying that she was a member of the elite.

The common people in that part of the Roman Empire still spoke a Syrian dialect of Aramaic. It was a language similar to Hebrew, and not very different from the Galilean Aramaic dialect of Jesus and the disciples.

But this woman was no commoner. There was an upper class in that part of the world that was born speaking Greek and belonged to the culture of Athens and Rome. This woman was part of that upper class. In Tyre and Sidon, she could have gone to the theatre and to the gladiatorial games. She was one of those people, and Jesus was a Jewish peasant (albeit a very important peasant, because he had the potential of helping her daughter).

This woman knew the puzzling stories that were told in the eastern part of the Classical world, about the predictions that there would be a King of the Jews who would rule the world. He would be called “the Son of David” after the greatest Jewish king in history. She also had heard about Jesus, and what Jesus was able to do. She knew that Jesus could heal her daughter.

She also knew that Jesus was Jewish, and that the Jews were very picky about whom they associated with. She was afraid she might need to be very careful how she approached Jesus, if she wanted him to listen to her and do what she begged him to do. She would be very careful to call him “the Son of David”.

At the same time, the woman knew the strangest of the rumors about Jesus. She knew that this Jesus would talk to absolutely anyone, touch anyone, visit anyone, heal anyone. And this is why she went to him.

Knowing all of this went into her plan, and it worked. Jesus said: “Let it be done for you as you wish.” (15:28)

Her daughter was healed. But she was only able to get through it all because, in her love for her daughter, and in what she knew about Jesus, she came to the end of herself and the beginning of the Lord.

We are like children in a classroom where the lesson is going above our heads, and we are afraid to ask a question. That would be a loss of dignity. Faith means knowing that you must care about something, or you must be the advocate for someone; and (like the Canaanite woman) you can’t let silence, or rejection, or the loss of dignity stop you. You must come to the end of yourself and carry out your task; in work, or in service to others, or in prayer, or in ministry. That is faith under the rule of humility.

Now for the “D” word: the word dog was a vicious slur. The dogs in Jewish towns were vicious animals. They were nobody’s pets. They were wild scavengers that ate the garbage in the streets and in the dumps. They were ugly, nasty, dirty, and dangerous. To compare a person to a dog was an ultimate insult.

But the Romans and the Greeks were different. They had pet dogs: dogs for work, for hunting, and for pleasure. Popular writers of the day made fun of upper class women who owned little lap dogs and pampered them like children. Families owned dogs as pets and playmates for their children.

In Greek there was a word for dog, but that same word could be changed, just a little, and refer to a whole other kind of dog. It worked the same as our words for “dog” and “doggie”.

There is a world of difference between a dog and a doggie. This story of Jesus, the Canaanite woman, and the dog word is about the “doggies”. You might even say “puppies”.

All of a sudden Jesus the Jewish Messiah was talking about a dinner table in the casual part of a Greek home, where the children are present and their puppies are under the table. Of course the puppies belong. Of course they are part of the family. Of course they can be blest and fed.

“Jesus, I am so different from you. You are so much more than I am. I was afraid you might have called me a dog, but am I only your puppy after all?” I think it could have made that woman laugh when she joined in the joke: “Yes, Lord, but even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (15:27)

Faith is humble because the Lord has disarmed our old nature on the cross and given us a new name and nature. We have been changed from junkyard dogs to puppies at the table. The change is even funny, so the best we can do is to be able to laugh at ourselves. It is the Lord’s joke and ours.

The Psalm says: “The Lord is faithful to all his promises, and loving toward all he has made…The eyes of all look to you and you give them their food in due season.”
When we come to the end of ourselves, and to the beginning of God, we find ourselves again made new, and with a new name. Jesus was prepared to die on the cross to change our name and our nature so that we could come to his table and eat; sometimes as his puppies, but also as so much more; as real children of the kingdom of God.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The King: The Rule of Patience

SERMON: Preached February 28, 2010

Scripture readings – Psalm 139:1-24; Matthew 13:24-30 and 13:36-43

There is a saying that the Bible teaches us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies because they are often the very same people. This is what the parable of Jesus is about. The story of the wheat and the weeds is told from the point of view of any farmer and of anyone else who eats food. From the point of view of the farmer and the intelligent eater wheat and weeds are neighbors and enemies.

The weed in question is called “tares” in the King James Version of the Bible. I looked it up, and my books tell me that it is better known as “darnel” or “cockle”. It is apparently a grass that looks just like wheat until it heads out. Then it is very different.

And this weed is actually poisonous. Eating it will give you a sick, drunken feeling and, after eating enough of it, you may die.

This weed is common in the Middle East, and it was the common wisdom of traditional farmers there to let it alone until harvest. They collected and bundled it first, carried it out of the fields, stacked it up and burned it. Then they would harvest the wheat.

There are at least two threats posed by this weed. The first threat is competition. The more weeds you have, the less wheat you get. The issue is productivity and fruitfulness. The other threat is contamination. If you didn’t separate the two grains, the wheat would be contaminated with noxious, poisonous grain. It would hurt. It would sicken those who ate it during the year. And it would make next year’s crop much worse. This was serious.

The story Jesus told of the weeds in the field is a very simple story telling the common farming wisdom of the day. But the story was difficult for the disciples because Jesus used the simple story to tell them something that confused them. They knew that Jesus was telling them something that went against the common wisdom of how to relate to the people who might be considered the noxious weeds of the human race, or the weeds among God’s own people.

Jesus had called Matthew to be a disciple, and Matthew had been one of the noxious weeds of the human race. He had been a traitor, working for the hated Romans and their flunkies. It was hard for the others disciples to accept Matthew. In the beginning it made them sick, just seeing him there by their side. And they were the kind of people that Matthew had taught himself to hate. They had been weeds to Matthew just as he had been a weed to them. They really wanted to uproot each other.

The Jewish faith used the lessons of purity, and cleanness, and separateness to understand what it meant to have integrity as faithful people of God. In fact the scriptures taught them to do this. (Leviticus 15:31; 19:2; 20:22-24; and others) The Old Testament book of Leviticus says, “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.” (19:19)

Jesus didn’t seem to take this separation seriously enough. Jesus deliberately touched a man with leprosy in order to heal him (Matthew 8:1-4) even though you were supposed to avoid touching a person with leprosy and would have to bathe if you did.

Well that was at least compassionate; except that if you knew someone who hadthe habit of touching contaminated and yucky people, you might not want to touch that person yourself. How could you know where Jesus had been? Jesus could have touched anyone or anything. He was just that way. By doing this he made himself contaminated to the righteous people around him.

And then Jesus had healed the servant of a centurion, a Roman army officer, and declared that this Roman had more faith than Jesus had seen among his own people. (Matthew 8:5-13) Jesus respected and praised a Roman dog for his faith. But Jesus’ people, and even the disciples, would have viewed the Romans as the noxious weeds of the human race.

The problem was much deeper than the disciples knew at the time, because (right under their noses) there was the problem of Judas Iscariot. Jesus had chosen Judas Iscariot to follow him as a disciple, just as he had chosen the rest of them. In the end, Judas was going to betray Jesus to the authorities, and make it easy for them to arrest Jesus, and crucify him.

And apparently Jesus chose Judas knowingly. Fairly early in their time together Jesus said a strange thing to them: “Have I not chosen twelve of you; and one a devil?” (John 6:70) Yet Jesus was gentle and polite to Judas to the every end. (Luke 22:48)

And yet again, if Jesus’ disciples had known this, to begin with, it would have shed a lot of light on this parable telling them that the wheat and the weeds must live together until the time of judgment comes.

All of this shows us the brilliance of the parables. They are very simple stories indeed; but there is nothing easy about them.

Let’s look at some of the lessons of the story of the weeds in the field.
There is the lesson of the enemy who comes by night with his poison seed. There are evil forces at work in the world we live in. There are people, and movements, and organizations, and nations that do dark things. But the very worst of the evil forces in this world is spiritual and invisible; and this power works under cover. This force is the enemy, the evil one, the devil.

It’s true. The Bible tells us that there is the Devil (who is also called Satan), and there are the minor devils, or demons, who serve him. (Revelation 12:9) In my own life I was directly attacked by one of them, one summer night when I was a teenager. Until that happened, I was not one of those people who gave the Devil much thought or took him very seriously. I wasn’t. I didn’t. But I was wrong and I was taken completely by surprise.

Mostly the devils work indirectly; through pride, and hate, and bitterness, and anger, and fear, and contempt, and greed, and jealousy, and laziness, and addiction, and lust, and the desire for control or glory. This indirect and invisible work is more than enough. These things cause war, and injustice, and tyranny, and deceit, and the corruption of innocence and decency, and the destruction of freedom. These things destroy marriages, and families, and churches, and communities, and nations, and civilizations, and perhaps a planet.

These forces even work in good and faithful people. These forces even work in godly people. The Pharisees themselves, who were so opposed to Jesus, loved God passionately.

In the Old Testament, Israel’s King David loved God passionately and, in the 139th Psalm, asked God: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me…” (139:23)

I think David’s anxiety and uncertainty came from the two voices that spoke from within him. There was the clear voice of faith. “You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (139:5-6) And there was the clear voice of hatred. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” (139:21-22) I think this confused David and made him wonder what was going on inside his own heart and mind.

Even in the Old Testament there is a difference between hating sin, and hating the person who sins. David himself did some horrible things, and needed the patient, faithful mercy of God, and of his own people. He needed God’s people to hate what he had done, but he also needed God’s people to not hate him. David’s actions were noxious, and weed-like, and he needed the good wheat of the children of God to grow around him and not uproot him.

This is part of the reason why Jesus’ story warns us against the rooting out of weeds before the harvest, or the rooting out of people before the judgment. Of the many voices that speak within us we do not know which voice will win. We do not know what we will become. This is just the truth. And this is also true of those whom we think of as our enemies, or as the enemies of God.

We are not ripe. We have not completely become our true selves. The people who seem to be different from us, who even seem to be opposite from us, have also not ripened. They have not arrived at their final destination in their hearts and minds. They are not yet completely wheat or weeds.

The servants in the story want to know what to do about the good and the not good being all mixed up together. Should they separate them now?
The master says to wait. Wait till harvest. The master and his harvesters will take charge of sorting out the wheat from the weeds. This teaches us to have faith in the form of patience.

Waiting is sometimes the necessary element of faith. We think our anxiety is faith. Our anxiety and fear sound like the voice of God telling us to do the work of separation and sorting out the wheat and the weeds before it’s time.

Barging in might look bold; but it may not be the ultimate form of faith. And sometimes our drivenness to “do something” is the tempting work of the devil. The need to do something bypasses faith and destroys precious wheat. The need to do something proves to be an action taken without love, and without God.

This applies to our life in the world, but it also applies to the church. During the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther saw it this way. He said “The church cannot be without evil people. Those who don’t want to tolerate any weeds end up with no wheat either.” (WA 38, 560, 33 [1538]) John Calvin said: “Pastors ought to labor strenuously to purify the Church; and all the godly, so far as their respective callings enable them, ought to lend assistance in this matter; but when all shall have devoted their united exertions to the general advantage, they will not succeed in such a manner as to purify the Church entirely from every defilement.” (“Harmony of the Gospels” Matthew 13:39)

There is another problem involved in judging between the wheat and the weeds. One of my favorite Christian authors is Thomas Merton (who was a Trappist monk), and he wrote this: “Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.” (“New Seeds of Contemplation” p 177)

Jesus did not tell us to just let things go, but he warned us to have our faith disciplined by patience and humility. Ultimately it is not the wheat that judges the weeds. The Lord of the harvest judges both.

The one who tells us to be patient and not do the uprooting ourselves is the king who died on the cross for our forgiveness. It is no exaggeration to say that, without that power of God’s love on the cross, we would all be weeds.

It is the love of Christ that makes the difference in us. The love of Jesus makes all the difference in the world between bearing a harvest and simply going to seed.

When weeds have been changed by grace to wheat they are very careful about the other plants that look like weeds, but have not yet borne their harvest. In the patience of faith those who hope to be wheat may even love those weeds with such passion that they will change before their eyes, and they will all shine together like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.