Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Christianity Just Doesn’t Make Sense

Christianity just doesn’t make sense sometimes. You can take that in several ways. The most obvious is to say that what we do does not always match up to what Jesus commands us to do. Abuses of power and privilege are just as evident in the past and present church as they are in any social grouping. We often remain silent on political realities for fear of ripping ourselves apart. When certain groups or denominations within the Body of Christ do take a definitive stance, you can bet they will be excluding some element of society – and it is rarely those with any power to do anything about it.

Nope. Christianity just does not make sense. It does not make sense because it is based on a concept that is simply counter productive – at least by all logical means – the concept of grace. Nestled in between the last phrase of the Prophet Micah’s answer from God is the word “hesed,” which we often translate as “kindness.” The command to “love kindness” is not as simple as it seems. To our ears it sounds like, “You should really like being nice to people. Love kindness. Love it!”

To Micah’s audience, it may have been downright offensive. Micah spoke for God to the powers of Israel during the same time as Isaiah. The difference is that Micah was an outsider. He was a common man. As Israel began to fall to foreign powers and those with wealth and power fought over the scraps of land and the political power they held, you can bet that the laborers, the farmers, and the shepherds got caught in the squeeze. Micah mocked the wealthy who were willing to give up even their first born children to keep from losing any more ground.

“What do we do? How can we be saved?” they cried. Micah reminds them of Balaam, a name of a cursed prophet who tried to manipulate God by tempting the people to infidelity. He tells them to remember that God is God and they are not. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good.” Then he lowers the boom and tells them that it is not about what they do. It is about who they are. Of course, what you do flows from who you are, so he has effectively said, “Unless you become someone new, you are lost. You are lost because you are not working for justice.”

The Lord requires justice. Over and over again the prophets tell us that the Lord requires justice. But justice is not simply retribution. If it was, the whole Bible would read like the Book of Judges. The people sin. They are conquered. A judge rises to kill the bad guys because God will only let God’s people suffer just so much. In the end, justice that is limited to bad people getting their due is just vengeance. That is why justice is always tempered with righteousness – the work of God to make things right, to bring into union, to recreate the state of blessing and love that we were created for in the first place.

Viewed this way, justice means that the powerless are cared for. Righteousness means that the humanity and dignity of each person is respected and understood, although I doubt there are any who would disagree with the idea that we need to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and that those who are looked down on should be lifted up. Our nation declared its independence by stating that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The trouble comes with the way we distribute justice and kindness. Kindness, righteousness, mercy – these are all in the same bag with the concept of “hesed.” Mercy is the place that Christianity makes the least sense. Mercy seems to be the opposite of justice. Mercy is the setting free of the one who is condemned. 

I recently read a comment from someone who said that she has no problem receiving mercy, but she hates to give it. Offering mercy means being in a position of power. It means that you have the chance to make sure that justice happens. Offering mercy means letting go of that power. It feels like a great weakness. It feels like giving permission to bad behavior – to pain and suffering.

And that is why Christianity really does not make sense. Because we are telling the world that there is a God, that God is loving, active, and present, and that God is not going to punish you for being terrible. Instead, God is going to love you. God is going to forgive you. God is going to be merciful to you.

For the Corinthians, this was absolutely ridiculous. It was laughable. People said, “So you’re telling me that a radical Rabi who got himself killed is going to overthrow Rome…right.” So, Paul writes to encourage them, and because there are so many divisions he starts with the one thing that unifies them – the cross. Yes, we proclaim Christ crucified! Yes, we claim the symbol of death and power as the symbol of hope and life. We claim the cross of Jesus as life giving.

Now, I recognize that for some the crucifix is vital to their faith because of the constant reminder of the suffering of Jesus. It reminds us that God has suffered and will suffer with us and for us. It is a symbol for the pain and suffering that we cause in the world. Personally, I grew up in the tradition of empty crosses. I used to wear one on a necklace, and I have to admit that I was a little taken aback when a coworker in a restaurant once said, “I’m glad to see there’s not a dead guy on your cross.” I must have looked confused. She continued, “My Christ is alive.” Suddenly I moved from confusion to understanding. Suddenly I understood what Paul calls, “the folly of the cross.”  

And it is this Jesus who is the Christ that bridges the gap between our inability to make up for our mistakes and the movement of God that brings about justice. It is this Jesus who describes a kingdom where the poor and hungry, the meek and merciful, the pure in heart and the persecuted are blessed. 

The thing is, Jesus is not simply telling us that we should act a certain way. He is telling us what will be in the end. He is telling us what God is working on and moving us to become. The Israelites asked Micah what could be done to save their nation. The Jews asked Jesus how the Romans could be overcome. But God answered a different question. God told them how to be faithful and how to live as God’s people. 

And so God tells us: “I am God and you are not. Just take care of people – help them. Don’t enable them to hurt themselves by offering kindness that does not require a relationship. Think about the forgiveness that I have given you. Realize the power you can demonstrate by setting someone free! Realize that all of this comes from me, and don’t expect yourself to know it all or to do it all. Seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me. That’s how you can live as a member of my family.”

The key to all of this, I maintain, is “hesed” loving kindness. I want to share with you an image. This is Isaac Theil. He’s Jewish. On his ride home on the subway, a young black man fell asleep on him. A fellow traveler asked if she should wake him. He said, “No. He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We've all been there, right?” Well, she took a picture, posted it online, and it went viral.

Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, president of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, was moved by Theil's recollection of his own fatigue as an explanation for his kindness, and said that it was a perfect demonstration of human empathy. Hirschfield said, "To be able to draw on past hardship to soften our hearts towards others is one of the most repeated commandments to the Jewish people, and is the core of many spiritual traditions."

Jesus, a Jewish Rabi, came to demonstrate the deep and abiding hospitality of God. Today we will celebrate the compassion of God for each of us through Holy Communion. Today we will give thanks that Christianity just doesn’t make sense. Today we will receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet as members of the family of God who live in the kingdom of grace and mercy that is both present and yet to come. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Trust Walk

Have you ever been on a trust walk? You either have a line of blindfolded people being led by one person who can see really well, or you have people in pairs taking turns as blindfolded or leading. This is an activity that is most suited for a camp. For the young, the idea of a trust walk is scary because you do not know what could happen. For the old, the idea of a trust walk is scary because you know exactly what could happen, and it usually involves a trip to the emergency room!

Although it is usually designed to be a safe experience – affirming one’s ability to trust – mistakes can happen, even at a camp with trained facilitators. Like the year I saw a leader (no it wasn’t me) lead a line of blindfolded kids under a sign that had a bee’s nest inside the post. We got lucky on that one. No one was allergic and the stings were minimal. What we learned was that it is possible to trust, even when trusting gets you hurt. It is possible to forgive, even when someone else’s choice might cause you to suffer.

Of course, these are easy things to say about a bee sting and an adrenaline fed rush of panic. It gets harder when the stakes are higher like when she says, “I love you. I’m just not in love with you.” Like they are when doctors use words like “inoperable”. Like they are when the jobs just aren’t available and the bills keep coming in. Like they are when you lose what you love. Like they are when someone you love gets hurt. Yes, it is harder to trust when the only outcome you can see looks nothing like anything you can imagine wanting it to be.

I guess that makes me think about poor old Zebulon. I’ve always wondered how that went. Was fishing that bad? Was he that terrible to live with? Was he really OK with both of his sons just wandering off with this stranger from Capernaum? We don’t know. The text doesn’t say. It just says that Jesus calls them and they go. 

It’s interesting to me that the story moves from a certain place (Jesus made Capernaum his home) to no certain place (Jesus went throughout Galilee). So much of what we do in the church is about securing, maintaining, and protecting this place in which we come together, and yet everything that Jesus did involved uprooting, moving, and challenging the status quo. Of course, it is hardly fair to expect our actions to parallel those of an itinerate Jewish Rabi.

The question is not whether or not we are able to follow in the same way as the first disciples. The question is “How do we follow as disciples of Jesus here and now, today?” Asking that question leads me to the brink of looking for a simple solution or a step by step process. Somehow, I think discipleship is messier than that.
The author of Mathew’s Gospel knew that. He knew that there is scandal and incredulity in the gospel. Things in the Jesus story just do not happen the way we want them to. Matthew was writing to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile God-fearers – or so we believe. Just as Luke knew that it mattered to highlight Bethlehem as a contrast with seats of power, Mathew knew how important it was to connect Jesus with the ancient scandal of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Do you know their story? They were two of the original twelve tribes. During the conquest of Canna they chose to intermarry with foreigners and were never considered pure. In the time of Judges they would not fight the Philistines unless Debra, the Prophet and Judge, went with them, and their victory was never counted as their own. During the Babylonian conquest they were some of the first to be enslaved. The land marked with the shame of Zebulun and Naphtali was not a place to expect blessing to come from.

So in walks Jesus from a place representing people who get what comes to them for not trusting God. And he is telling people to repent – to stop denying God and to deny themselves instead – because the Kingdom of heaven has come near!

Then he comes to Peter and Andrew, and they drop their nets and follow him to “fish for people.” So it seems we do have some things that we can do to follow Jesus as disciples today. The first is to expect him to come out of places of pain and suffering and ask us – no, he will demand of us – that we consider the part that we play in the suffering of this world. He calls us to repent – not just to say that we are sorry, but to truly make a change of heart that truly results in a different way of living.

Many of us get to certain points in our lives where we just don’t want to make any more changes. The reality is that change is upon us, and the issue is not whether we will change but how. And for that the Gospel asks us to consider what nets we need to let go of. What good and purposeful tasks of maintenance and basic survival are getting in the way of living, proclaiming, and connecting with God through our relationships with others? What are the nets we must drop in order to go fishing?
This congregation has been wrestling with questions like these for over a year now. Many of us were involved in small group studies under the New Beginnings program, and we came to a decision to redefine our mission – even though a lot of us did not fully understand what that meant. As we have struggled with this question in church councils and parking lot conversations, it has become apparent that we are essentially saying that we need to be “Reformed and Always Reforming”. 

These are words easily said, but they carry with them the weight of making changes in our character that are very real and very significant. Redefining our mission has been described as making a course correction – changes that are as small as a few degrees that will eventually move us in an entirely new direction. That does not mean that we are going to stop being and doing who and what we are. It means that we have to bring the best of who we are as followers of Jesus into a new future that we have no way of seeing.

Unless forced by some disastrous event, cultural change can take 4-7 years or more. Actually, it can still take years even when it is forced by some disastrous event. Our church council – the Session – witnessed this yesterday at Northwood United Methodist Church where we held our annual retreat. About 5 years ago their sanctuary and education space burned to the ground. The pain of rebuilding was too difficult for some of their membership, and yet they stand today as a congregation that is more unified than ever through a particular experience of death and resurrection. 

As I looked at the cross made from timbers salvaged from the old building, I was reminded of a symposium on art and faith featuring Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, photographer and widow of Arthur Ashe – the pioneer of African American tennis players who died tragically after receiving AIDS through a medical procedure. In reflecting on their struggles, she said, “It is remarkable how an image [this was before digital photography of course] that is absolutely dependent on light must be created in an environment of complete darkness – and so it was on Calvary in the cross of Jesus.”

So, I want to assure you that all of the work we have done in darkened rooms toward a New Beginning is not in vain, and also tell you that it has only just begun. Of course, ideally, we will always be evaluating how we can follow Jesus more closely. We will always be redefining our mission. If we ever stop, or if we ever decide that we know exactly how to do church and be the Body of Christ, then we will probably find that we are actually back in the boat with Ol’ Zeb.

As we grow in faithfulness, and as God adds to our numbers, let us remember Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Paul goes on to talk about divisions in the church based on allegiances. I love his disclaimer on baptisms. It seems to me that the point he is making is that our “church family” relationships are only blessed if they move us into greater unity. And the point of unity is not simply to bring others in, but to be sent out – to proclaim the Gospel!

As our Session wrestled this weekend with the idea of getting any number of Presbyterians to agree on any form of change, we seemed to agree that the issue is not simply “Who do we reach out to and how?” or even “What do we do to engage the community?” The issue at hand is the opportunity to internalize the Gospel more fully – to engage the community of our own souls – so that who we are and what we do flows through our sanctuary doors and out into the world like life giving waters.
In the mean time, let us always pursue greater unity so that people who never even thought that light could come from this place can be lifted from the darkness into the light of Christ.  And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.