Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lent: Kindled into Illumination

Lent 2018
"Kindled into Illumination"
the witness of a Pharisee
Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church
March 11, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:1-21

I am a little ashamed of my name, though not by what it means. Nikodemos – it’s Greek. Nike: victory. Demos: of the people. My name means “victory of the people.” You might wonder, “What’s shameful about that?” It honestly seems more than a little presumptuous – but not more so than someone naming their child “Jesus” – or savior. Nikodemos – for some, it may even seem to imply a lack of obedience to the system. For surely we are part of a domination system that keeps victory and people apart – that assures comfort for some and distress for most. That starts to get at why I might be ashamed of the name.
Advent Illumination
We are and have been under the domination of one empire or another for most of the past thousand years – under Greek speaking domination for one quarter of that time. It would be easy to say that it is the natural order of things – that some are subordinate to others – that it is normal to have the livelihood squeezed out of a people again and again, age after age…. The patriarchs and prophets didn’t think so. Their response to the domination system, whether it was home grown or imposed from afar, was to evoke the jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven every fifty years, all land is returned to the families who once held it, all indentured servants are freed. I’m not sure I believe that ever actually happened, but if it could happen, we might experience God’s shalom.
Over the generations there have been different responses to the injustice of systematic oppression – home-grown or imported. Some have resisted violently and foolishly – the Zealots all too often in collaboration with thugs and thieves. Some, like the elite landowners, in collaboration with the temple hierarchy and foreign rulers, have chosen to participate in the domination system – like the Sadducees. Those are the people I come from, thus my Greek name. I reject that response like I reject the family that has abandoned the right teaching of the law and the prophets. Instead, I have chosen to become a Pharisee – striving to achieve the whole of the covenant – living a life of separation by practice if not by location – to turn my back on my own family who have absorbed the Greek and imperial ways, and tolerated the worship of other gods in the sanctuary of the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Leah and Rachel and Jacob.
That doesn’t mean we Pharisees don’t go to the temple to pray and seek atonement. It pains me to admit that by rejecting my parents’ way I have broken one of the fundamental Laws of Moses – to honor my parents. For our people, family is everything. Without family we are nothing. And so just last week I found myself there in the temple, seeking atonement during the feast of the Passover, when that rabbi from Galilee created such a commotion. He seemed to place himself at odds with the Sadducees. What gall he had to walk right into darkness of the lion’s den and speak with such vigor and confidence – bringing corruption and betrayal to the light – right under the nose of those who have abandoned God’s covenant and betrayed God’s people.
He is the enemy of my enemy – and thus in theory should be my friend. I needed to find out more. But I could not risk being associated with his foolish behavior – could he be a Zealot? Nor did I want to be seen with his bumbling followers who flaunted the Sabbath laws of cleanliness and holiness. So I went – in darkness seeking illumination – at night seeking the light. What I found was a man of astonishing wisdom and compassion. He was a man who spoke with a brilliance that surpassed any Pharisee or rabbi I had known. And that was not all – nor was it the most striking thing about him. Even in the darkness he seemed to see me and know me – as if from my mother’s womb. He seemed to understand my compromised heritage. He spoke not of being devoted to what is right, but of being devoted to what is love. He identified love as the single most defining characteristic of the God of our ancestors – like the love of a parent for a child. Like the love of my parents for me even though I see things in a different light.
The very idea is unsettling to me. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would mean for me to abandon the pursuit of what is right for the pursuit of what is love. It’s as if he holds within himself an opening into the light at the beginning of creation – not the light that is shed by sun and moon and stars and flame – but the light that comes before – the light of self-giving love that pours forth in the words and works of God: let there be…!
It is the light that comes before all things. He made no demand and no promise to me, but showed me that I am not determined by the birth of the flesh – that I can yet be born into the healing, nurturing, restoring light of God’s love. He became the lamp that lights my path – the light of recovery in the darkness of my soul – and I knew our paths would cross again.
As I turned to leave in the darkness of the night, I thought I heard him say, “Follow me.”
Or was that a voice from somewhere deep inside.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lent: Provoked into Action

Lent 2018
The Cleansing of the Temple - Sadao Watanabe
"Provoked into Action"
the witness of a temple merchant
Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church
March 4, 2018
Exodus 20:1-21, John 2:13-25
I don’t like conflict. I never have. I come by it naturally. When I was a child, my mother would retreat into the deep corners of our lofty barn whenever there was conflict in the family. She used to say, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. She said conflict upset the birds, and upset birds were not healthy birds, which had a direct impact on our livelihood. You see, our family has sold sacrificial birds in the temple for generations. The animals must be clean and healthy. We were a favored vendor with a prime spot at the entry to the Court of Gentiles – where any God-fearer can come to pray. Of course, the doves we sold were mostly bought by the poorer families or those seeking atonement for lesser sins. But that didn’t make them any less important to us or to the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah.
Our family status had risen over the course of my parents’ lives and mine. My father was just entering adulthood when Herod the Great began his reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple – making it one of the most glorious in all the Roman Empire. It was on higher ground thanks to the construction of an artificial plateau. It was taller than any other temple in the empire, sheathed in the finest marble, and furnished with gilded bronze. We were proud to be favored merchants even though it had been built on the sweaty backs of forced labor and funded by egregious taxes. Herod the Great and his heirs – those that survived his murderous ways – held sway under the subjugation of Judea to Rome, but having the backing of the legions meant that they could reliably extract the heavy taxes paid to both temple and empire. The birds we sold were important for the common people who could barely afford them. Now, it’s all in ruins. What are we to do? Our life, our livelihood, our temple, and our people are crushed and scattered. The empire has won the day. After three years of siege, we are beaten and bereft.

I’m an old man now, at least by the standards of the working people of Jerusalem. I’ll be 59 in a week. But I can still remember the week the rabbi from Nazareth dared to challenge the delicate three-way political balance between temple, nation, and empire. It must have been forty years ago now – I was just entering adulthood, just completing my apprenticeship as a temple merchant – but I remember it like yesterday. It was in the days leading up to the Passover. The temporary population of the city was swelling. We even had pilgrims sleeping with the birds in our barn. On the first day of the week the legion had arrived from Caesarea Maritima on the coast, marching and riding into the city from the northwest with their red capes and feathered helmets fluttering. From the temple mount we could see them arrive at the fortress of Antonia – named after Marc Antony – right next to the temple. They came to keep the peace – or rather to impose and enforce it…. The Zealots could get out of hand at Passover.
Although few witnessed it, some of us also happened to see a pathetic procession enter the opposite side of the city, from the southeast. A Galilean man, by the looks of his clothing, riding a donkey, was leading a motley parade of common people spreading their cloaks on the ground before him and waving branches – a much happier though scrappier reception than the soldiers were getting….
The next day the man turned up at the temple. He walked right past our stall into the middle of the crowded court. Though it was built for the gentiles to pray, the sale of sacrificial animals had grown to overtake the vast enclosed plaza. It would have been hard to pray with the cacophony, dust, and stench of the animals, so at first his presence did not seem to be noticed.
Then he began to upset the moneychangers’ stalls in the middle of the court, to overturn their tables, right under the eye of the centurions and temple guards watching from the roof of the surrounding colonnade.
The place suddenly went quiet.
The dust settled.
The animals calmed.
He turned and saw me – really saw me and my heart leapt. I knew that he knew that even though I was caught up in the inequity and injustice of the sacrificial temple cult, that my concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger were genuine. I have a feeling I was not alone in being seen so deeply that day.
Immediately he began to teach – to lay out a program for change – a roughhewn man with a prophet’s voice. Indeed, the house of God was to be open to all – not restricted by impossible requirements and empty rituals. God’s intention is for all to thrive. He said the whole enterprise – the temple and the cult – would be ruined – impossible though that may seem. But here I am today, standing in the rubble. He said he would raise it up again in three days – and his followers claim that he is the temple – the dwelling place of God – torn down and raised up again. They claim that he is the program to recover from our addiction to sin and death. I doubted it then; and have doubted it these forty years. But as I stand amid the ruins, I realize that I have seen him everywhere, every day in the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
It’s not too late for me, is it?
Do I hear him even now calling to me across the years, saying follow me?
Or is that a voice coming from somewhere deep inside?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Lent: Compressed into Conflict

Lent 2018
"Compressed into Conflict"
the witness of a privileged Caesarean Gentile

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church
February 25, 2018
Genesis 17:1-16, Mark 8:27-38

I’m a patient man, though I don’t suffer much foolishness. So it surprises even me that I can’t quite shake that itinerant rabbi’s message that took hold of me a while back. It must have been on the Jewish Sabbath, because the teacher was surrounded by eager listeners of an ilk that I don’t often associate with. To be honest, they don’t much like me and my kind either. They appeared to have the traditional attire of the worshippers of Yahweh…. Yes, I can utter that name, because I am not part of the covenant people – though my people and their people come from the same stock. In fact only an hour’s walk west of this newly named city of Caesarea Philippi – Tetrarch Phillip’s monument to Caesar – is the site of the northern temple. It was the rival to Jerusalem’s claim as the true sanctuary of Yahweh. We all know that the covenant people, who claim to have worshipped only one God since Abraham, were once also worshippers of Yahweh’s wife, Asherah, who the old stories revered as El Shaddai, the many breasted.

My ancestors were left behind when Assyria defeated the northern kingdom, and since then we have been pragmatists. We have reshaped ourselves to suit and serve the ways of whoever is in power. Some would call us Samaritans – though my family has long since given up adherence to the God of Abraham and Jacob. Pragmatism has served us well. Our family land happens to be on top of the nearest source of marble for building. When Herod the Great built his temple to Caesar right here at this ancient shrine to Pan, god of fertility and wine, the marble came from our quarry. That was about thirty years ago, and I have grown up in comfort and convenience, with Greek tutors and time for leisure.
So, as I was saying, I was relaxing in the shade of the trees around the Spring of Pan on the steps of Herod’s temple, when my attention was drawn to the crowd of Jewish peasants gathering to hear the teaching of one of their many itinerant rabbis. This one’s name was Jesus, though that is not unusual these days. The name means “savior” after all, and given the wretched, almost enslaved conditions of most of the population, it’s not surprising that “Jesus” tops the list of popular names for baby Jewish boys these days. Imagine the hopes and disappointments of the mothers and fathers who named their child Jesus hoping they would share in the wealth of a warrior who could topple Rome, or at least oust the empire from Palestine and restore the glory of David and Solomon.
Rumors had been circulating about the marvelous deeds of this particular teacher and healer – giving some to hope that the salvation claim might be true – though his message seemed more about peace and forgiveness than victory and retribution. He seemed unafraid to sit with lepers and engage those possessed by strange spirits. He seemed like a kind man with an easy grace and an easy yoke. Or at least that’s what I had heard. That day though, there was something different. I could tell from the first moment I laid eyes on him. There was a tension among his followers, or maybe between him and his followers. I’m not sure the gathered crowd would have picked up on it until he started to speak. But then, when he did, it was clear that a corner had been turned. He was now headed in a different direction. If before he had been headed away from confrontation with the unholy alliance of Rome and Jerusalem, of empire and temple, he was about to turn the tables. He was about to intervene.
And here is where the paradox comes for me. My family is well situated. Our status has been reinforced by the powers that be, by the system that puts a few of us in comfort and many in distress. Comfort and convenience have been our way for generations – though it hasn’t always been safe or easy. Now, this kind healer was speaking as if directly to me. If you want to truly, deeply live life for all it can be, if you want your whole self, your vitality to thrive, you must give it up. You must give it away. Holding on to what you’ve got, clinging desperately to your privilege, is actually a kind of poverty, an addiction, – a kind of death. You must lose your life to gain it.
Why does this compel me?
What is happening to me that I would choose to leave my comfort and convenience, my safety and my security?
As his gaze turns to me, as he looks deeply into my eyes, knowing me, as if, like Yahweh, he was present at my making in my mother’s womb, I hear his voice though his lips do not move.
He knows what it is that possesses me.
He knows what I truly worship, and it is not God.
Did I hear him say follow me?

Or did that voice come from somewhere deep inside?