Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rhythm Guitar

Isaiah 53:4-12
Mark 10:35-45

Have you noticed the guitar theme this morning?  It has everything to do with my own personal frame of reference when I hear this reading from Mark’s gospel.  There was a time in my life when I loved country and western music—and I really loved close harmony groups, especially the Oak Ridge Boys.  They started out as a gospel group.  One of their songs unpacks today’s gospel reading with a modern metaphor.  This is the refrain:
Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus.
It seems like everybody wants to be the lead singer in the band.
I know it's hard to get a bead on what’s divine
when everybody’s pushing for the head of the line.
Things aren’t working out the way he planned.

The disciples can’t seem to stop pushing for the head of the line.  The scriptures don’t tell us what motivated the brothers James and John to ask Jesus if they could sit on Jesus’ right and left hand.  They, along with Peter, had been with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, so they may have believed that they were special friends to Jesus.  After all, they were two of the first disciples that he called to follow him.  From the other disciples’ angry response, the assumption of privilege and favoritism may really have been their intention.  These were people with almost no social status—fishermen, a tax collector, men who followed an itinerant preacher—who were imagining Jesus being anointed as king of the land.  Jesus knew that was not remotely a possibility.  He knew he was on a path that did not lead to glory, but more likely death.  So Jesus asks them if they can drink of the same cup that he will.  Can they face the same hatred for daring to speak for God and against empire?  Can they take the same kind of abuse and scorn? Are they willing to be accused of blasphemy, or worse, treason?  Are they willing to die for their words and actions?  We have a hymn penned by seminary professor Earl Marlatt that asks the same questions:
"Are ye able," said the Master,
"to be crucified with me?"
"Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered,
"to the death we follow thee."
And like the disciples James and John, we sing:
Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.
Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.

I’ve sung that hymn with romantic, idealized zeal, believing that I, like James and John, would be able.  But in reality, I do what I think the sons of Zebedee may really have had in mind.
Maybe I’m projecting my intentions onto James and John, but I wonder if they were trying to manage Jesus, much like a campaign manager attempts to control a candidate.  They could protect Jesus if they could advise and guide him away from his more outrageous and dangerous moves.  They might help Jesus to be less controversial and less threatening to those in power.  They could improve his likeability quotient and protect him from offending with his revolutionary ideas about human dignity and economic justice.
I think we do that all the time.  I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in America, the church has become a business that needs to be attractive in order to stay in business.  We are not at all comfortable with being the kind of radical agents for change that Jesus calls his disciples to be.  We don’t want to offend anyone.  We don’t want to go door to door sharing our faith, much less speak truth to power.  We have privatized and domesticated Jesus.  He is our personal Savior.  We want him to behave as we do, and of course bless our actions.  We are very comfortable with our American lives, with our success, and our faith needs to fit neatly, and quietly, into our customs.  When we read Jesus’ words and parables, we work hard to find the wiggle room.  We substitute what we think for what he said.
Maybe that’s not true for you, but if I am honest, it’s true for me.  I love Jesus and I have dozens of artistic crosses to prove it.  It’s the real cross that I’m afraid of.  A few weeks ago, after our reconciling exploration workshop, one of our members said, “Wouldn’t it be (now here I’m not sure of the word) wonderful (or fun) to be the radical church?!”  That’s our heritage, you know.  John Wesley’s preaching was so unpopular that he was disinvited from speaking in churches.  He had to speak in fields and on hilltops.  He unveiled the devious actions of the British mine owners who sold very cheap gin to miners on credit to keep them indebted to their employers and bound to the mines.  Along with that indebtedness came drunken domestic violence.  Wesley spoke truth to power and urged miners to resist the evil scheme.  He encouraged miners to meet weekly to share their struggles and pray for one another, to practice personal and social holiness.  Wesley was not popular with mine owners or the wealthy establishment.  But Methodism spread like wildfire among the poor.
Personal holiness cannot be separated from social holiness.  Jesus told his disciples plainly that they must be the servants, or slaves, of all.  As disciples, we are to cast our lot with the disempowered, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  We should always stand with the immigrant.  We should always be on the side of the poor and the homeless.  Our doors should always be open with no exclusions—open to everyone—period.  That’s scary.  It means that everyone won’t like us.  It means that everyone won’t agree with us.  We sang another hymn last week asking if we are able:
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
Here’s the deal.  Being afraid of what others will think should not shape our ministry.  Public opinion doesn’t matter as much as being faithful to follow Jesus.  The only One who needs to approve already showed us that dying is only the beginning.  Everything we do should back up the One who turned tables in the temple and announced Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.  Everything we do should be like playing rhythm guitar behind Jesus.  Wouldn’t it be exciting to be the radical church?  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Investing in Peace

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Mark 10:17-31     

I officiated at a memorial service this week for Mark McKay who spent his life in service to others and convinced other people to join him in the work.  The mayor of Kent spoke about his contributions to the common good of his city through the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary International chapter that he co-founded.  A number of community leaders, business men and women and a priest spoke in honor of his dedication to making his world a better place.  One of the men remembered the day the Mark called him to say that he was going to inoculate children against polio in Ethiopia and Mark wanted him to come along.  The man made some excuse, but Mark said, “Listen, you’re between jobs.  You’re not doing anything.  I’m taking my vacation to do this.  Come with me!”  And he did.  And it was a transformative experience.  The other theme of the sharing was Mark’s generosity.  He was an extraordinarily generous man.  He served his church in just about every capacity of leadership.  When we die, we cannot take anything with us; we leave everything behind.  Mark chose to leave a legacy of generosity and service.
In the gospel this morning we meet a man who has the same potential.  He is wealthy and he is an observant Jew.  He simply wants to secure eternal life for himself.  So he comes to Jesus with his question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The word “inherit” is important.  It is a clue that this man most probably inherited his wealth.  Jesus reminds him to keep the laws of God.  The man has kept the law, but even he feels that something is missing.  Jesus looks at him with love—not with judgment, but with love—and tells him there is one thing more.  If he wants to live an abundant life, he should sell his possessions and invest in abundant life for the poor.  The man is shocked by Jesus’ words, and he turns and walks away grieving because he has many possessions.  He is caught between the Jewish belief that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing for leading a righteous life and God’s requirement for economic justice in both the law and the prophets.  That’s the world we live in too.  
Note that Jesus does not debate him, compromise, or run after him.  Jesus tells the man the truth about his life and lets him choose his course of action.  But the exchange was confusing to the disciples, who were also caught between the belief in wealth as God’s blessing and God’s requirement for economic justice.  If it’s not wealth and it’s not eternal life, what is the reward for righteous living or following Jesus?
So let’s start with what we can’t earn no matter how hard we try.  Eternal life has already begun for all of us.  It’s not something that we have to earn.  It’s not something that we can earn.  It is God’s gift to us, given in love.  Eternal life is impossible for us to earn, because it is already ours.  However, we can choose how we live in this life.  We can do things our way and create a world of haves and have nots, of those who are in and those who are out, of greed, acquisition, anger, resentment, fear, and conflict.  Or we can choose to live under God’s rule and invest our time and what we can earn, our financial resources, in equity, freedom, peace, and joy.  You’ve seen the bumper stickers:  If you want peace, work for justice.  Live simply so that others may simply live.  This is not rocket science.   We love our stuff and we save stuff because we might need it in the future.  We all have garages full of stuff we may need someday, right?  But because we love our stuff, and because we feel that it is a blessing that we have earned by being righteous, we too often look at the state of the world and walk away grieving.  

But Jesus tells us that if we invest our lives in the Kingdom of God, in generosity and service to others, we will have more than we can imagine.  Our community will grow around us with neighbors and strangers who have become like family.  We don’t need to be afraid of letting go of our possessions because God will provide for us—and we will provide for each other.  The happiest people I know are the most generous.  They invest in the well-being of others.  I think changing our belief about financial security and generosity, from scarcity to abundance, is the part that is like a camel going through the eye of a needle.  We are so afraid of scarcity that we cling to our stuff.  If we can let go of that fear and get to the other side, the whole world changes and we are free.  And we can begin to set the world free from poverty, disease, violence, and please God, even war.  Because with God, all things are possible.

Monday, October 5, 2015

When Everything Goes Wrong

Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Mark 10:2-16

The book of Job is probably the oldest writing in our Bible.  It is a wisdom writing; a fable or parable that poses the oldest question among humans:  why do bad things happen to good people?  How can everything go terribly wrong when we have done nothing to deserve it?  Some early cultures answered that question by telling stories of capricious gods who played with human lives for their amusement.  The book of Job argues with that premise.  Remember, this is a story, a parable, which holds a theological discourse.  Let’s start with the character Satan.  In Hebrew, the word is ha-satan, meaning the accuser.  He is a member of God’s heavenly court or government.  Satan is the chief prosecutor.  When God brags a bit about good and righteous man, Job, Satan counters that Job is only righteous because everything is going his way.  If he were to be miserable, he would curse God to God’s face.  
So God gives Satan permission to test his theory and Job’s woes begin.  The rest of the book describes Job asking the question “Why” and his friends trying to find the cause for the effect.  Surely Job has done something to deserve his suffering.  There is a contrived ending that was tacked onto the book many centuries later, in which God restores Job’s health and fortunes and gives him new children ostensibly to replace the children who died at the beginning of the book.  We all know that nothing replaces children we have lost.  The original writing does not include the beautiful and powerful soliloquy, “Where were you when I created the universe?” attributed to God.  The original simply ends with the unanswered question, “Why?”  The implied answer is, “Not because of anything you have done.  It’s not your fault.”  For most people, that is not a very satisfying answer.  It is hard for human beings to accept ambiguity and randomness.  We want to make meaning.  We need to make meaning.  We want a satisfying answer to why bad things happen to good people.  The book of Job takes the blame away from God and places it on a heavenly accuser trying to make a theological point.  God is not exactly guiltless here, but blame shifts to ha-satan.
Sometimes accidents happen.  Sometimes other human beings are negligent or for reasons we don’t understand cause mayhem as the shooter at Umpqua Community College.  Sometimes disease strikes.  Sometimes the economy collapses.  Some things happen to us that are beyond our control and everything goes wrong, everything falls apart.  And there is no satisfactory answer to our “Why?”
And sometimes we have a hand in what goes wrong and we still can’t say why.  Why do relationships that once were loving and tender fall apart?   Who is to blame?  
One of my pastors once told about a couple, after he had pronounced that they were one in the eyes of God, leaving the church arguing over which one they would be.
    Happily-ever-after happens more in fairy tales than in real life.  Sometimes things don’t work out the way we hope and pray that they will.  In spite of our best intentions and our hard work we can’t make a marriage work.  I want us to bring compassionate and educated eyes to today’s gospel text.  Jesus had a way of hearing the motive behind the question.  He was less interested in the letter of the law than on its real effects on human lives.  A man could divorce his wife over not bearing children, or insulting her in-laws, or over-salting his food.  Jesus always takes the letter of the law to the level of relationship.  When two people marry, he says, they become one flesh.  The dissolving of that relationship tears at real human hearts in a way that is as painful and traumatic as tearing flesh.  I know that to be true from personal experience.  Yes, Jesus says, the law provides for divorce, but it will hurt.  And it does.  And I think we abuse this teaching if we use it to shame abused and/or battered spouses in relationships that are life threatening or soul killing.  The bottom line is that none of us gets to see into the heart of anyone else’s marriage.  Divorce is no one’s first choice, or second, or third.  It’s a last resort and it is terribly painful for everyone involved.  Sometimes everything just goes wrong and we can’t seem to make it right again.
What then?  Jesus doesn’t give an answer other than that we are hard to teach.  What kind of answer is that?!  Does my relationship fall apart because I haven’t learned life’s lessons?  If I was smart enough, could I survive an abusive relationship?  No!  If I was smart enough could I change another person’s behavior?  No!  So what’s the answer?!  There isn’t one.  There is often no satisfactory answer to the question why.

What we can answer is how.  How do I move forward?  How do I live?  And Jesus demonstrates by taking a child on his lap.  This is how you are loved and cherished, no matter what has happened to you.  This is how you begin to love again.  Where is God when everything goes wrong?  Whether you can feel it or not, God is holding you and loving you.  There is no promise that everything will be made right.  Only that you will be loved and held.  It’s not an answer.  But it is a promise.