Posts Tagged Discipleship

Crossing Boundaries

June 23, 2013

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:(22-39)26-39

I’ve always had a naturally very inquisitive mind. Whenever I discover something new, I always have to know what it is, what it’s used for and when do I get a chance to use it. When I was in school and one of my friends would bring something from home … a new toy, a new baseball glove, or anything like that … we would all gather around, full of questions … wanting to see it … wanting to touch it … wanting to take turns playing with it.
One of the earliest memories I have was when I was about five years old. I discovered a green colored, marking pencil somewhere in the house. I had never seen one before – I wanted to know what it was and what it was used for. So, I did what most five year olds would do – I went and asked my mom. Now, what I hadn’t figured out at this early stage of my life was that my mom had an occasional bent towards playful sarcasm whenever she was in the mood. And she just kind of casually and jokingly said to me: “Oh, it’s for marking on walls!”
Well, that kind of sarcasm went right over my head! I was at a stage where I took things literally. The next though that came to my mind as I looked at that pencil was: “Cool! I’m gonna have some fun with this!”
I don’t remember what I subsequently drew later that day when I was alone. Five years old is what I think of as the “cubist period” of my artistic career … I was fascinated by angles and different geometric shapes.

But the most important lesson I learned that day, after mom discovered what I had done, was about boundaries … what you can and can’t do … and how important they are. Boundaries, I learned, are good … they keep you from ruining things or hurting other people … they keep our society orderly and functioning properly … and their purpose is to keep you safe and out of trouble. Boundaries, surprisingly and somewhat paradoxically, give us freedom. Without certain restraints, we would become slaves. There are rules that we all have to follow … some of them unwritten like “you’re not supposed to draw on walls” … and for the most part, they have a good reason for being.

The two scripture readings this morning are about boundaries. But both of the authors, Paul and Luke, want us to understand that not all boundaries are good. There are times when boundaries hurt and don’t protect … times when they enslave and prohibit freedom.
Jesus begins the Gospel story by crossing a very literal boundary … the Sea of Galilee. He had been around the northern part of the lake, near Capernaum. There he healed a Centurion’s servant … he told the Parable of the Sower … and in the Gospel of Matthew he is said to have preached the Sermon on the Mount at that time.

But after he had done all of these things, he gets into a boat with his disciples and tells them, “Let’s go on to the other side” (let’s cross this boundary). And they set out from the very northern tip of the Lake and sail to the very southern tip, landing somewhere near the city of Gadara. Now the Sea of Galilee is considered to be a boundary … it separates the region of Galilee, over which King Herod had authority, from a region known as the Decapolis – a group of ten cities, founded by Alexander the Great during his conquests, and which were very different from Galilee in terms of culture, language and religion. The people of the Decapolis were not Jewish … they were Gentiles. They did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, but probably spoke Greek, and they worshipped the Greek and Roman gods and maybe some other ancient tribal deities.

And the first thing that happens as Jesus sets out to cross cultural, political, and religious boundaries … is, well, he goes to sleep … he doesn’t seem too worried about what he’s about to do. Unlike a lot of people … unlike a lot of us, crossing these kinds of boundaries isn’t upsetting for Jesus. He’s at ease and comfortable with what’s about to happen. He’s so much at ease, as a matter of fact, that a storm comes up … the boat is tossed to and fro and water begins to wash in over the sides … and Jesus continues to lie in the back of the boat, just snoozing away. The disciples have to shake him awake.

I can only wish for that kind of peacefulness in the midst of a storm. And as I read this account in the Gospel, it makes me wonder: Do we, as the church, have that kind of calm assurance whenever we are on the cusp doing something so radically different from anything we’ve ever done before? Or, do we want to give in to the temptation to turn back and return to Galilee … to where we came from (which is probably what the disciples are thinking about in the middle of the lake and a storm) … do we want to go back to where we feel more safe and comfortable because we encounter some resistance or things get a little too stormy? Whenever we come up against cultural, political or religious boundaries, like the disciples, we are filled with fear.

The apostle Paul is concerned about some of these same boundaries. And he tells us in the reading from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). Paul is concerned here with artificial boundaries … boundaries that are a human creation … and that are erected, not only to separate one group of people from another, but to put one group of people over and above another: Jews above Gentiles … masters over slaves … men over women. Race, socioeconomic status, and gender. And Paul tells the church in Galatia – and it’s a good reminder for us today in the 21st Century even, that in the Kingdom of God these boundaries do not exist … and for the church, since it is supposed to be a representative of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth, these boundaries should not exist for us either.

But do they? Do we let them? Martin Luther King Jr., made the remark many times throughout his ministry in several different speeches and sermons that the most segregated hour in America is the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning. Is not this one of the boundaries Paul was talking about? The 70’s and 80’s saw the growth of the “megachurch” movement – big box churches that attracted thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of members. One of the things the churches that were (and are) a part of this movement shared was the philosophy that, in order to grow, it was best for the members to be alike each other in some way … similar in terms of race, culture, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation … and the reason they gave for doing this was so that everyone in the congregation would be more comfortable. Is that what we want out of church? A place where we can be comfortable while the world we are called to minister to crumbles around us?

It would have been much more comfortable for Jesus to have remained in Capernaum, with his own people … people who were like him … but he got into the boat and he tells his disciples to come with him. Jesus finds a way to be comfortable – not safely within the bounds of cultural, economic or political segregation – but rather in challenging those boundaries.

And after they crossed that hazardous boundary … after they make it across the sea, more boundaries come into play. They meet a man who is forced out to the boundaries of his own society. He has no home, he has no clothes, he is kept chained and locked up, and a guard is posted over him day and night. He doesn’t seem to know his own identity, for when Jesus asks him his name, he says, “My name is Legion.”

Now, some might diagnose his condition a little differently today. Some people might say he suffered from a form of epilepsy … some might say he suffered from some form of mental illness … and some might even say he was, indeed, possessed by demons. But some might argue: “What’s the difference?”

One thing is for certain: He may have forgotten who he is, but we know him … we see him everyday. He’s the person we encounter on the street that we walk away from as far as we possibly can because they seem a little strange to us. He is the woman who shows up in the hospital emergency room with her children seeking medical attention, and everyone automatically assumes she’s illegal for no reason other than she is Hispanic. He is the African and/or Arab American who is racially profiled at every traffic stop, airport and department store in America. He is every man, woman and child we push to the margins of our own society, even here in the supposedly enlightened time of the 21st Century.

But he is also like the rest of us in one way. The demons that inhabit his mind and have robbed him of life have become such a part of him that he is no longer able to envision life without them. The ideological boundaries that keep him on the margins … that keep him bound and chained … that make him the victim of prejudice and abuse are what really possess him … they’re the real demons in this story.

And the people who keep him on the margins … who keep him under lock and key … who have no vision of their own community where he can somehow be a part of it … they’re as equally possessed as he ever was. They think this is natural … they think this is the way things should be.

So, Jesus does more than just a simple exorcism in this story. The real miracle that happens here … the real healing … is he gives the man back his identity … he gives him a place and a role in the community. Jesus tears down the walls and ideological boundaries that segregate him from his neighbors. And that’s scary for the people who had kept him locked up – they have to deal with him now … they can no longer ignore him. We are told the town’s people are filled with fear when they come out and find this man, fully clothed and in his right mind.

As well they should be, for the kingdom of God has broken on them … there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. The kingdom of God crosses all political, cultural, economic, and gender boundaries, annihilating walls of hierarchy and oppression.

If we are Christ’s followers, remember that Jesus commands us – not to remain safe within the bounds of Galilee – but to get in the boat with him. Crossing boundaries will be stormy … there will be demons waiting for us on the other side … but we bring with us a precious cargo … the good news of the kingdom … the good news we are called to bring to the poor, that proclaims the release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, that lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1, 58:6, 61:2).

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Being Easter People

Sunday, April 7, 2013

2nd Sunday of Easter

Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church

Rev. Michael Woods

 

Acts 5:27-32

John 20:19-31

 

When I was in seminary, one of my fellow students told me a joke about Simon Peter and his fellow disciples. On Easter morning, before Jesus had appeared to them, the disciples were all hiding out in a house, deeply ashamed of what had happened the previous week and remembering how they all, one by one, had abandoned Jesus. Then suddenly Peter, who had been out, came running back into the room where they all were … he’s out of breath and all excited. “I have some good news and some bad news,” he tells his companions. “The good news is: Jesus is alive! He has risen from the dead and I have seen him with my own eyes, and he spoke to me. It is the most wonderful thing!” And the disciples are all like: “Peter that’s so marvelous! So what’s the bad news?” Peter’s face turned beet red, he said: “Well, the bad news is: he wants to talk to us all about last Friday!”

Good Friday, you recall, was not the most shinning moment for the apostles – they had been at their best. I can understand then, why they might be a little nervous in this morning’s scripture when Jesus suddenly and mysteriously appears inside the room with them, even though the door to the room and the house has been locked and secured. He appears amidst locked doors and locked minds that are not sufficient to keep out the implications and the repercussions of the miracle of Easter Sunday.

I say this because I think that this passage – which is in three parts – is about belief, belief in the resurrection of the body in particular, belief that Jesus – even though the disciples had seen him raise Lazarus from the dead just a few weeks earlier – has defeated death yet again, this time on a substantially deeper level. This time, a victory over death has been achieved that goes far beyond anything that may have been accomplished with the raising of Lazarus. That news is staggering to try and understand! It’s even a little bit frightening!

In the first part of this passage, Jesus enters the disciples’ hide out. He comes into a room where people are already afraid for their lives. And he comes to a group of people who have already received the witness of someone who has seen the risen Christ and has told them about it. And that person was Mary Magdalene, a woman, but the men in the crowd aren’t so sure they want to take her word for it. The good news of the resurrection has been delivered to them by a person who is one of the oppressed classes of people in the world. I think it is significant that when Jesus chose to reveal himself following his rising from the dead, he did not first appear before Peter or John or James. He did not first appear before any of the men who were in authority in that part of the world, such as Pilate or Herod. The Gospels all tell us that he appeared first to the women who were his followers, and all four Gospels are all in agreement that Mary Magdalene is was part of that group. In John’s Gospel, in fact, she is the only one to whom he appears initially and she is the first person Christ commands to tell everyone else the good news, making her the first evangelist. But no one is ready to believe her because she is just a woman.

There is a lot of resistance to the witness of the miracle of resurrection in the room where the disciples have gathered. They’re not Easter people yet. Because to be Easter people means you have to be willing to listen to the voices of people like Mary Magdalene, a woman. You have to be willing to hear what they have to say to you about God. To be Easter people you have to go beyond being willing to merely give equal weight to the voices of men and women, rich and poor, Whites and minorities, alike … it means you even have to go to the extent that you are willing to give a preferential ear to those who have suffered oppression, been victimized by violence, and who have had their voices silenced by the society we live in for decades, generations, centuries, even millennia.

It is every bit as hard to be a Easter person, in this day and age, as it was to be on that day, that first Easter morning. Maybe we don’t hide behind physical, locked doors like the disciples did. But we hide behind locked minds. Many hide behind a safer form of Christianity that is more socially acceptable – a form of Christianity that conforms to what authorities deem permissible. Some hide behind a tamer version of the gospel where the Sermon on the Mount is nothing more than a very beautiful speech – it may suggest some things that people ought to strive for – but has no real authority over how everyone should live their lives. Some hide behind a tamer version of God, who is only concerned about people’s spiritual lives and not about things like poverty or economic justice. Some people hide behind a tamer theology of Creation that sees the world and its natural resources as opportunities for plunder to create wealth for a few. But most disastrously, many hid behind a tamer version of Easter where there is no resurrection of the body, where there is no redemption of this the physical world. They hide their faith behind a safer belief that Jesus’ promise of eternal life means only that the human soul will live forever … that God’s promise of salvation does not extend to our physical bodies or even the planet we live on. So they look at the physical world … the environment, the air that we breathe, the water we drink, and the land upon which we live that gives us food and shelter … and they come to the erroneous conclusion that these things don’t matter, that God’s plan for salvation doesn’t include the physical world … redemption is only for the human soul. They do not even care for their own physical bodies.

But the Apostles’ Creed and Gospels of the New Testament give us a very different message. Our faith does not speak of a transcendence of the human soul from this plane of existence to another … our faith speaks of a belief in something called the resurrection of the body.

We cannot be Easter people without the hope and the promise of the resurrection of the body – because without the resurrection of the body, the tomb is not empty on Easter morning, its door is still sealed by a heavy stone. This  morning’s passage does not tell us of a disembodied soul that stands before the disciples on Easter morning. It doesn’t talk about a ghost or a spirit. It talks about the resurrected body of Jesus Christ … the disciples can see the wounds in his hands and feet, the bloody gash in his side … wounds that had been fatal. It’s the body of Christ that says to  them and to us: “Look at these! See how I died! See how I now live!” Jesus offers verifiable, tangible proof of the resurrection of the body – proof we can see, proof we can literally put our fingers into!

The good news that Christ brings to us on Easter morning is that God plans to redeem everything. Not just our souls, but our bodies too! Not just heaven, but Earth as well.

Imagine a resurrection of the physical body, if you will. Easter people are called to do this. At the very least, imagine the end of physical hurts and pains. Imagine an end to disease and sickness. Imagine our bodies in full health for eternity.

But don’t stop there. Imagine an end to hunger and disease … imagine an end to poverty, homelessness, warfare, and pollution. That’s what God’s plan of redemption calls for … that’s the good news Jesus is trying to bring to us on Easter morning. These are the implications and repercussions of resurrection.

In the book of Revelation, John the elder tells where all this is headed. He tells us of a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Out of heaven, the holy city, a new Jerusalem, descends, and he hears a load voice saying: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for these things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

And there is justice in this resurrected earth: there is no poverty, there is no hunger, warfare and violence are not tolerated.

The biblical witness at least is very clear about the implications and the repercussions of the resurrection of the body. Anything else is a tame gospel that has been domesticated to conform to the value system of this fallen world.

Jesus comes to his disciples through physically locked doors and minds. He shows his disciples his hands and his side. They could touch him. And he gives them a charge: “As the Father sent me, so I send you. To free the rest of humankind from sinfulness, from its fallenness.” And he gives them the Holy Spirit to do this, the Spirit which comes from his own breath, the Spirit which is his own resurrected life. If we are willing to be Easter people, then Christ breathes this Spirit into us and gives us this charge.

I think Thomas, in the second part of this passage, is like a lot of us today. He wasn’t there on Easter Sunday. He didn’t get a chance to see Jesus walk through a locked door. He didn’t get to see the wounds in Christ’s body. He’s asked by the other disciples to take their word for this incredible story.

And we are being asked to believe all this and to become Easter people on the basis of the oral testimony of some witnesses who lived long ago … an oral testimony that began with Mary Magdalene, a woman.

Are we like Thomas? Do we really want to see the wounds? Do we want to be able to see and touch the risen body of Christ and know that it’s something real? Doesn’t the whole world want that? Doesn’t the whole world need that?

Friends, is not the church the body of Christ?  Is not this congregation the closest some people will ever be able to come and witness the risen Savior … to know that he is real? What wounds do we offer the world as proof of our love for them … and how we are willing to suffer on their behalf?

 

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Scandalous Grace

Scandalous Grace

Rev. Michael Woods

Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church

March 10, 2013

4th Sunday in Lent

 

 

Luke 15:1-10

Luke 15:11-32

 

One of my favorite television shows is a little half hour sit-com called The Middle, which comes on Wednesday nights on ABC. It involves the middle-class family of Frankie and Michael Heck and their three children who live in the state of Indiana (the Mid-West). The middle-child is named Sue; and when the series first began airing a few years ago she was in middle school, although she’s gotten a little bit older now. Sue has a problem gaining recognition for who she is in the show. Her teachers never remember her name, she is snubbed by her fellow students, and one year her picture was left out of the yearbook even though she had her pictured taken three times!

Sue’s life is pretty typical for most middle school girls in that she spends most of her waking moments strategizing different plots and schemes to climb up the middle school social ladder. And nowhere is the social stratification of middle school more evident than in the cafeteria, where all the students congregate into different groups based on their degree of popularity. There are the A-tables, the B-tables, the C-tables, the D-tables and the F-tables. Sue (as you would expect) is right in the middle – she is definitely a C-table person, … but she aspires to be a B-table!

In one episode Sue had won a contest or had gained some sort of notoriety for something she had done, and she hoped that would translate into increased popularity for her so she could finally make her move to one of the B-tables. But, at the very next lunch period, she encountered a problem. As she and her friend got their lunch trays, they quickly began to scan the all the B-tables, all excited about getting to sit with a higher level group of students. But they couldn’t find any place to sit down! All of the chairs at the B-tables were taken! And they dared not go back to the C-table; because if they went back to the C-table, they were going to get stuck there! They would miss the chance to move up a rung. So, she and her friend ended up eating their entire lunch standing up in the middle of the cafeteria!

I’m sure you remember what going to school and trying to fit in with the right group, and all that, was like for you when you went to school. If you’re like me, you’d probably like to forget about it! You were judged by your peers according to who you hung out with … who you sat with in class … and who you ate with. And you probably remember the different social gradations, too. A-tables … B-tables … all the way down to F. And you probably remember where it was you fit in on that ladder.

Here’s a question to think about: If Jesus were to have come to the cafeteria of your school, what table do you think he would sit down to eat at? Would he sit at the table with all the jocks and cheerleaders … next to the president of the Beta Club?

The scriptures actually give us something of an answer to that question. And it’s not just this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke … we see an answer to this question spread throughout all of the Gospels. Jesus seems to have a reputation of associating the kind of people that the “good” people of society want to have nothing to do with. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50), Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee and they are sharing a meal together. We gather that this Pharisee was one of the fine, upstanding citizens of the community. But in the middle of their meal, a woman enters the home – a woman who is described as a notorious sinner – and she stands immediately behind Jesus and begins weeping. And with her tears she begins to wash his feet and dries them with her hair … kissing them and anointing them with oil. And the Pharisee is scandalized! And he tells Jesus, “If you knew who this woman was, you wouldn’t be letting her do this.”

This story is recorded in each of the four Gospels – each with a slightly different version and sometimes with different characters. In John, it’s Mary of Bethany who does the anointing, but here it’s an unnamed woman.

In other parts of the Gospels, Jesus eats at the houses of tax collectors, Matthew and Zaccheus (and tax collectors, as you know were one type of outcasts) … in another episode Jesus is at the house of someone called, Simon the Leper (lepers were all outcasts) … and who can forget the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman considered racially impure by the Jews and who had unorthodox views on the practice of religion, and who had been married five different times and currently living with a man who was not her husband and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.

Jesus likes to disturb artificial social boundaries in all four of the Gospels. I say “artificial,” meaning these are social boundaries created by human beings and not by God … boundaries that divide one group of people from another and set us up in hierarchical relationships to one another, creating artificial categories of one group better than another, one group having more privileges, better opportunities. Human beings have done this throughout our history. We divide people along the lines of race, income, education, language, familial lineage, political affiliation.

We’re really not very different from wolves in that respect. Zoologists tell has that wolves have their own social hierarchy. At the top are the alpha wolves – usually one male and one female, who are the strongest physically and have the strongest personalities, and they enjoy special privileges. They get to eat first ahead of the rest of the pack. They’re the only two in the pack that mate and produce offspring, and all the other wolves have to take care of their pups. After the alpha wolves are the betas and the gammas … all the way down to the very last wolf on the scale – the omega wolf. And the poor omega wolf is lucky to have anything to eat at all after the rest of the pack has finished and had their fill, and it’s always being nipped at and driven off by the other wolves. So, you see, wolves have A-tables, B-tables, … and so on just like we do.

Coming from the South, I remember a time when I was young and the schools were divided along racial lines. I was lucky enough to have been born into the group that the State of Alabama decided should be the alpha group and have the better schools, the better education, the better cafeterias and football fields. But all that changed one day in 1970 when the Supreme Court ordered the state to integrate the schools. And the first day of the next school year, I went to a different school … one that previously had only been for African American students. So technically, we were integrated – whites and Blacks went to the same school and shared the same classrooms with one another. But in reality – the boundaries that separated the races were still there – they were just invisible. We sat in class grouped along racial lines … we congregated at recess along racial lines … and at lunch period, we sat at different tables separated by racial barriers. It took years for us to get over the invisible social constraints that were always feeding us the lie the State had been telling us for ages: that it was wrong and sinful for the races to mix. I don’t think the South has entirely gotten over all that.

But Jesus likes to break down these artificial social barriers because he knows they feed us a lie – they feed us the lie that one group of people is better than another and always will be and there’s nothing that can be done to change that. He does this by defying those social constraints and consorting with the “wrong” people that the “good” people want nothing to do with. He eats with tax collectors, lepers, sinners and prostitutes. If Jesus were to come here today, what group of people would he consort with in order to challenge the artificial social barriers we have constructed in our society? Whose table would he eat at?

Let me answer that question in this way: What group of people do you most despise, look down upon, think are not as “good” as you are because they are the worst kind of sinner you can possibly imagine – and that’s probably the first table Jesus would go to. Jesus would walk right past a lot of us – the “good” people of this society – and then be completely unconcerned by how scandalized we are by the grace he has chosen to show and to give.

And when Jesus finally at some point does come by our table to sit with us, I’m sure the first thing he will do is address our concerns about his scandalous grace. And he would probably do so in the same way he does in this morning’s scripture and the way he does in most other instances throughout the Gospels when this topic comes up: he tells us some parables.

Now, the first two parables (The Parable of the Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Lost Coin) are very similar to one another: something is lost … the person who looses it goes to great lengths to try and find it, even defying social conventions to do so … and when it is finally found, there is great rejoicing and celebration by the person and their friends and neighbors. But then Jesus tells a third parable … and this parable starts out exactly like the other two, but then Jesus adds a little twist to the ending: something was lost and then was found, … but not everyone is rejoicing.

Jesus tells us that when the prodigal son was returning, and he was still far off, the father sees him in the distance, and he does something quite uncommon for parents of that time – he runs out to meet his son. He runs out to welcome the son who, earlier in the story, had told him essentially that he wished the father were already dead … that he couldn’t wait for the father to die so he could have his inheritance … he wanted it now. The father runs out to welcome this son who had brought shame and disgrace upon the family, who had dishonored the father violating one of the Ten Commandments, and who according to the Law of Moses the father could demand be taken outside the gates of the city and stoned to death. And he welcomes this son – not as a servant, but as his beloved son who was lost and now is found. This son is given a robe, brand new sandals, … a fatted calf is slain, and the father throws a big barbeque for the whole neighborhood.

So far this sounds just like the other two parables before it. But then Jesus throws in that little unexpected twist at the end of the story, and the father’s scandalous grace doesn’t stop there … it keeps on giving. When he learns his older son is outside, sulking and refusing to take part in the celebration, the father leaves the party (it is a breach of etiquette for a host to abandon his party) and just as he reached out to the prodigal, he reaches out to the older son and reminds him: “You are always with me, and all I have is yours. But let us celebrate, because your brother was lost but now he has been found. Don’t you be lost to me, as well, by refusing to join in this celebration.”

And then Jesus does something he doesn’t often do in his parables – he doesn’t really give us an ending … we never know how the older son responds to the father’s invitation. And I think the reason Jesus does that is because he wants to leave it up to us to fill in the ending. Do we accept his invitation to us to come sit with him at the F-table … to not be afraid to be among the misfits … to not be afraid of what someone else might say about us … maybe to even be misfits ourselves?

 

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Sticking to Plan A

Rev. Michael Woods

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Second Sunday in Lent

Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Luke 13:31-35

 

We have to give the Pharisees their due! A lot of times in the Gospels and the Book of Acts they’re presented as the bad guys – you might as well dress them in black hats and give them a name like “Black Bart” or something like that. If you were to make a movie of the Gospels, a good actor you might want to ask to play the part of a Pharisee, I think, would be Christopher Lee. You probably remember Christopher Lee – he’s a British actor who’s made a very comfortable living playing bad guys in movies. Back in the 60’s and 70’s he gained notoriety by playing the part of Count Dracula in a series of movies about that character. Later he did a number of Westerns where he always played the villain. In a James Bond movie, he was The Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, he’s been in movies like the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, where he plays an evil wizard. So, whenever you watch a movie and you see Christopher Lee in it, you automatically think, “Oh, we’d better watch out for this guy – this has got to be one of the villains!”

But – you know what – in real life, I understand he’s probably one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met … the perfect English gentleman … you probably couldn’t meet anyone nicer and less villainous. You would think it amazing that not only could he ever play a bad guy in a movie, but that he could do it so well!

Likewise, the Gospels occasionally present us with another side  – a better side – to the Pharisees – the quintessential bad guys of the New Testament. There’s Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, for instance, who both seem to be followers of Jesus and support him in his ministry. And Jesus seems to have some kind of special connection with the Pharisees. Not all of them agree totally with the message he is teaching – a lot of them want to argue with him about it – but overall, they see Jesus as one of them. He’s doing a lot of the same things they are doing – carrying out his ministry outside the bounds of the Temple – he teaches in the synagogues, as they do, and the people call him rabbi, as the Pharisees are called. And although they may have some differences of opinion with Jesus about particular points of theology, the Pharisees do seem to be very interested in his message and they go out of their way to engage him in conversation and most of them seem to consider what he has to say very seriously.

And we have to give the Pharisees their due, because I believe without them the religion of Judaism would not have survived – it would have perished in the First Century about forty years after the time of Christ when the Roman army lay siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple built by Herod the Great. So, I want to resist painting the Pharisees with too broad a paint brush. They have to tendency to be far more complex than we want to give them credit for sometimes and can surprise us in different ways.

In this morning’s story, they give us one such surprise. Jesus has begun a journey … probably the last of his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus was going through one town and village after another, teaching the people about the Kingdom of Heaven, as he makes his way toward Jerusalem. Now, Jesus has begun this journey fully aware of what awaits him there: suffering and crucifixion. If you recall, over these last few weeks we’ve talked about the fact that he’s been trying to warn all of his disciples about this very thing!

Now, the Pharisees, who’ve had their differences of opinion with Jesus in the past, put aside those differences and try to warn him to stay away from Jerusalem … his life is in great peril if he were to set foot in there. They are concerned about him. But Jesus essentially tells him that they’re not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.

But it’s one thing to talk about danger and peril in theory, when it’s all so far and distant. You might feel a sense of false bravado, as if you were Superman – there’s nothing for you to be afraid of; you can face anything, even death, in the eye. But when it gets up close, it starts to look a lot more ominous and you can find a lot of reason to be afraid. It’s a lot like this fiscal cliff thing that keeps coming up in the government. When its still a few months off, it doesn’t seem all that bad, but as it gets closer and closer, and the news media starts to describe what programs are going to be cut and who will loose jobs and whose benefits are going to be reduced, you start to feel anxious and you’re filled with this overwhelming sense of dread. At least, I know I am … especially when I think about how all this will affect programs that help the poor and how it will have negative consequences on our economy’s struggling recovery. You hope that somebody finds another way and they find it fast.

 

I think Abram is at the end of a similar rope in the passage from Genesis. God has made a great promise to him and his wife Sarai. They were promised they would dwell in a new land and that they would be the ancestors of a great nation, and their descendants would be as numerous as the dust that covered the Earth.  Well, Abram can see the new land – he’s already living in it. But at this point in the tale, he’s approaching 90 years of age … he and Sarai are yet to see the second part of God’s promise be fulfilled.

And as we read the scripture, it seems like to me that Abram gets a little testy with God. What we read in this passage sounds like a bitter lament: “You have not given us any offspring, so now I have no other choice maybe but to adopt one of the children of my servants and let them inherit the estate you have given me.” Abram has given up and is making other plans. He’s already started work on Plan B.

The journey of Lent, in a lot of ways, mimics the journey we go through in our individual lives. We start off with a lot of promises … a lot of high hopes and dreams! Do you remember what it was like the day you graduated from high school? Or the day you graduated from college? The day you finished your last day of military service? You had the whole world in your hands, didn’t you. There was nothing you couldn’t accomplish, you believed, if you just put your mind to it … no challenge you couldn’t face head on … you had such dreams … such aspirations!  Then one day we all woke up and discovered we were a lot older than we used to be. I discovered I didn’t have as much hair as I used to and what I had left was turning gray … so, I could no longer get by on just my good looks. There is so much left undone! So much that we never were able to get around to! We started out thinking we were going to make our mark on the world. We started out hoping (at least, I pray that we all were hoping) we would make this world a better place … that somehow our lives would touch the lives of other people in a positive way … we would leave some sort of legacy for the world. How do you find faith and not loose hope when your plans for the future never worked out?

Even Jesus seems to voice some disappointment things didn’t turn out the way he had hoped they would: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, yet you were not willing.”

You know, Christianity began its own journey over two thousand years ago. The Faith started out with a lot of high hopes and aspirations! But it’s now the 21st Century. We still have war, crime, violence. People are still abused and oppressed. There is still poverty, neglect and illness. And even more shameful is the fact that the Christian church has not only been complacent in that, but has even been the cause of it at times! Jesus preached a gospel of love and forgiveness, and everyone agrees that it’s a wonderful message, but no one seems willing to take it to heart. People seem like they’ve all given up.

I see a trend in movies and art these days. There are a lot of movies and novels coming out with apocalyptic themes … stories about the end of the world. Movies like: The Book of Eli, 2012, Contagion, or The Road. Books like: The Left Behind series.  These are a sign, I think, that a lot of people are giving up. They want an asteroid to come – like the one that blew up over Russia last week – or a super flu virus and wipe off everything on the planet so we can start over. They’ve given up on the good news that Jesus preached … they’re starting to make other plans – they’re working on Plan B.

But if there’s a common message in today’s two passages, it’s that God doesn’t give up! God is sticking with Plan A. God hasn’t lost the hopes, dreams, and the aspirations that God began with. God still believes in the cause! God still believes it can work and it’s not too late! That’s good news for the human race, I believe. You know why?

Because Plan A – that’s us, the human race. God hasn’t given up on us! The entire witness of the Holy Bible is that God has not given up, is not giving up, and will not give up on you, me, and everybody else who has ever dared to hope and dream that this world can be a better place. God has faith in us! God’s faith will sustain us even when ours has fled the scene! God’s faith is enough to keep hope alive!

 

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No Shortcuts Through The Desert

No Shortcuts Through the Desert

Rev. Michael Woods

Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday in Lent

Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church

 

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Luke 4:1-13

 

Last week saw witness to one of those rare confluence of self-contradictory holidays – the Season of Lent, when most people give up chocolate, began on Wednesday and then was followed immediately on Thursday by (of all things!) Valentine’s Day! If I didn’t love chocolate so much, I would have thought that was funny! And I note that both of these are religious holidays of the Christian calendar – you would think the church would do a little better job of planning these things out ahead of time!

And if that in and of itself wasn’t bad enough, and as those of you who have children or grandchildren in Girl Scouts know, this is the time of year the Scouts begin to deliver the cookie orders they took a few weeks ago!

Lent – it looks like – is  off to a very trying start!

Why do we have the tradition of giving up something for Lent? What is Lent supposed to be about anyway? For myself, I think of Lent as a journey.

Throughout the scriptures – in both the Old and the New Testament – we see references made to journeys. In the Book of Genesis, we read of the Great Flood that lasted 40 days and 40 nights, while Noah and his family traveled in the ark. In the rest of the Torah, we read of the story of how the children of Israel wandered through the desert for 40 years. And in the New Testament, we read that our Lord and savior fasted in the wilderness for 40 days.

What would it be like, I wonder, to start out on a journey knowing it will last for forty days – over a month! And knowing that – not only is it going to last 40 days – but every one of those days is going to be a hard day! Another day of nothing to eat but manna … another day of hearing the rain pound relentlessly on the decks … another day of being on a journey that has been going on for so long you’ve started to forget where it was you were going or why you were going there in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’d be tempted to take a short cut.

After all, isn’t that kind of our natural inclination? To take the shortest route that will get us there quicker? Find the quick, easy solution to our problems? And for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. When you travel from home to work, you usually take the shortest or quickest route to get there … you want to get there on time … you don’t want to be late.

But Lent is not a typical kind of journey – it’s not a journey that our bodies take, it’s a journey of the soul. It’s not a journey where the greatest hazards we are going to face will be tired feet or a flat tire or running out of gas, but nevertheless if we are not careful and we do not attend properly to the things we ought to attend to, it’s a journey that can leave us tired, exhausted or stranded in different kinds of ways.

The message that I take from this morning’s scripture readings – both the Old and the New Testament readings, and every other scripture in the Bible that is about a journey or about some kind of transition – is that when it comes to (what I want to call) “soul journeys” there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts will lead you astray … shortcuts promise to get you where you want to go a lot quicker with a lot less fuss, but they always take you in the wrong direction and where you end up is not where you thought you would be.

Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry. Every temptation that he faces during that time is a temptation to take a shortcut. He faces the temptation to use his power to satisfy his own physical hunger … he faces the temptation to accomplish his mission of spreading the kingdom of heaven here on Earth through the grab of political power … and he faces the temptation to attract people to follow him by the use of cheap, easy tricks. Shortcuts – all of them.

Many of us in the church or in our own individual lives face the same temptations that Christ did. We waste what resources and power we have on satisfying our own needs and ignore the needs of others … we advocate legislating our own brand of morality so everybody else has to follow it whether they want to or not because trying to convince them to change their hearts or minds is just too long a process and we don’t want to have to bother with that … or we think that if we could just find some program that would that would make the church more prominent in the community, or if we were just famous enough or rich enough ourselves, people would like us better and be attracted to us more – we value popularity over truth.

But none of these are inherently bad for us or the church. But when you stop and think about it: out of all of the things that Jesus gave up during his soul journey, none of them were inherently bad for him – not bread, not power, not fame and fortune. In reasonable quantities, none of these things can destroy you. In reasonable quantities, some of these things can even be good for you! The temptation Jesus faced – and the temptation we all face in our individual lives and in the life of our church – is to take some kind of shortcut without knowing where it is we’re going to end up … where is all this going to lead? I have a tendency to do that sometimes when I’m driving – I see a street going to off to the side, and I think, “Now, that must be a quicker way!” And then in a couple of blocks, the street dead ends or curls back around in the wrong direction. But if I have a map with me in the car and it’s up to date – and these days you don’t even have to have a paper map … there’s a map on my iPhone – and it can show me where I am on it and where I need to go. I can see where all these side streets end and begin … I can see what street dead ends … which ones curl around … and you know what, with the technology we have today, the application on my phone will even tell me which roads are closed for construction! If you’ve tried to navigate through downtown Columbus with all of the construction on the Interstates, that’s helpful information to have.

Having a map of some sort gives you the big picture. And I think that’s the reason Jesus is able to resist the temptation he faces – he stays focused on the big picture. He doesn’t allow his vision to be clouded or restricted … he can see beyond immediate concerns … he can look beyond the shortsightedness of glamor and power and see something that’s far more beautiful and much more rewarding.

And what he sees, friends, is Easter Sunday … because that’s where Lent leads us … to Easter and to resurrection … to sanctification and renewal. And we can get there, but we don’t want to loose our focus. Because there’s a lot that can distract us along the way. There’s the constant barrage of temptations, to take the easy path. Then there’s the kind of temptation that the children of Israel faced in their journey through the wilderness – and that’s the temptation to just give up the journey altogether, to say to ourselves what’s the point? I can’t do this! And before we can even get to Easter, Holy Week is in store for us … the week that our Lord was betrayed, arrested, denied, tortured, and crucified. And on the night of his arrest, he would pray, “Father, if it be your will, may this cup pass from me without my drinking, yet not my will but yours be done.” But there would be no other way, no shortcut, only the road that leads to Calvary.

But Jesus knows that road doesn’t end at Calvary … he can see further than that. He knows this road that he walks will take him on to Easter Sunday! He knows this road doesn’t end on Good Friday with pain and death by crucifixion – Jesus can see all the way to resurrection!

 

During Lent, Christ invites us to share this journey with him. We don’t have to walk this road alone, his Holy Spirit is with us and guides us.

As we begin this journey this Lenten season, we pause for a moment at our Lord’s Table. Here we nourish ourselves with bread and the fruit of the vine. Let the body and the blood of our Lord fortify us for the road ahead.

 

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