Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Putting Things Right

Putting Things Right--September 19, 2018

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 5:10]

It's not just aiming for the right goal--it's also pursuing the right path to get there.

So being "pro-righteousness" was hardly a new idea or a novel suggestion from Jesus.  But Jesus clarifies something about his kind of justice, which is the same Greek word we sometimes translate "righteousness." As Jesus says it here, the crux of the matter is our willingness to endure suffering as we seek justice, rather than to inflict suffering on others.  For Jesus, the way to go after justice is to be willing to suffer for it, to be persecuted for it, and to endure rejection for it, rather than to use violence and coercion to get it.  Because whatever you end up achieving or getting with violence and coercion and bullying and manipulating, it ain't justice or righteousness.

That really gets at the point of this beatitude, as well, and really, the whole logic of the Sermon on the Mount.  God's kind of "justice" turns out to be a beloved community (to borrow a phrase of Dr. King's) in which the hungry are filled, the lowly are lifted up, the arrogant proud are deflated, no one abuses power or treats another human being as a mere object for their gratification, and where the brokenhearted are comforted.  That is because "justice," for all the ways we may throw that word around to mean anything we want, is really about putting things right, putting things back to together, and relationships being in balance.  It is not merely about doling out punishments in order to get a pound of flesh, but has to do with repairing what is broken, restoring what has been lost or damaged, and renewing relationships--and so, from the Bible's perspective, "justice" is at the heart of what Jesus' message and kingdom are all about--the renewal and restoration of all things in him, so that one day wolves and lambs may lie down, swords may be beaten into plowshares, and all mouths be fed with bread for the day, where they "will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," as the old dreamer Isaiah once put it.  

Justice--or, if you prefer its synonym "righteousness," or the rightness of relationships--really is that big... and that beautiful.  And it is indeed something that Jesus values highly, just like the prophet Micah before him had famously said that the top three things God values from us are "to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).  Justice truly is a big deal to Jesus, and Jesus also seems to think that a just world would be good news.

But, to be clear, Jesus is not satisfied to have us just wish for justice, or hope while twiddling our thumbs for righteousness, or to talk about setting things right that are out of whack.  Jesus says that the way we go about pursuing justice and righteousness are to be willing to suffer for them.

Tellingly, Jesus doesn't just say, "Blessed are those who think about righteousness in their inner beliefs,"  or "Blessed are those who post memes on Facebook or Twitter saying that they are 'pro-justice', whatever they might think that means," or even "Blessed are those who are willing to use any means necessary to get their justice."  Jesus knows that the way to go about getting righteousness in the world is to practice it ourselves, and to practice it on Jesus' terms: neither to take revenge on others, nor to stay comfortably snuggled up inside our own complacency, but to be willing to endure being wronged, to be called a "bad guy," or to risk your reputation, your safety, or your social respectability, in order to break the cycle of violence and vengeance.  

Jesus teaches us not just to be "in favor of" justice rather than injustice generically like it is the latest trend and we are jumping on the bandwagon of a popular new catch-phrase, but that the way to seek after justice is to be willing to suffer for it, rather than to get a mob together or to reload our guns. In other words, to hear Jesus tell it, we know going in that living in the Kingdom way may mean suffering-love.  We don't actively try to get ourselves into trouble, but we don't stumble into it unwittingly, either--we know, if we are going to be followers of Jesus, that following after him may well get us into trouble, or make us unpopular, or lead us to stand and speak up for those who are being stepped on. And if we do dare to stand up and speak up for others in those circumstances, we should be prepared that others will not want to have to come face to face with any of it.  We should be prepared that we will be called--as the prophets regularly were, Jesus notes--troublemakers and feather-rufflers.  We are not masochists looks for pain or heartache or suffering, but we step into those possibilities with our eyes wide open.  That's what it means to be a part of the blessed way of life that knowingly risks being "persecuted for righteousness' sake."

Walter Wink offers a helpful distinction, just so that we are clear that we Christians aren't worshipping suffering or trying to keep the afflicted down and pacified.  "To have to suffer is different from choosing to suffer," Wink writes in his book Engaging the Powers, and then he continues after a piece, "Martyrs are not victims, overtaken by evil, but hunters who stalk evil into the open by offering as bait their own bodies."  There is a certain willingness to steer into the skid--to head into the face of danger as the only way of containing and absorbing the danger, rather than spreading it around further.  That's what it means to be willing to suffer for righteousness' sake--it is a conscious, chosen act to enter into suffering for the sake of what is right, what is just, what is good, and what will help put things right that are "out of whack."  Tripping and falling on the sidewalk because I am clumsy and didn't notice the pothole is not being persecuted for righteousness' sake, after all, and neither is the wasted heartache of just being lonely or depressed.  But to be willing to be made alone by being imprisoned, like Paul and Silas or like Dr. King, or Nelson Mandela, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for the sake of what is right--that's what we're after.  To be willing to hide persecuted Jewish families like Corrie ten Boom, knowing you will get thrown into a concentration camp for it if you are caught, or being willing to wear a yellow-six-pointed star on your clothes like her father Caspar did, in solidarity with those who were being rounded up.  To be willing to lose your fortune and your career, to lose your health or your limbs, or to have your reputation and character assailed.  Being willing to take the hit for someone else, or in solidarity with someone else--that's what Jesus announces blessing on here.

Today, it might not be that you are required to make a life-and-death choice for the sake of righteousness.  But as Elaine Puckett so wisely says it, "When we think about laying down a life for another we usually think in terms of a single event. But it is possible for us to lay down our lives over the course of a lifetime, minute by minute and day by day.” Today, you and I will have opportunities to lay down our lives and to consciously choose to risk suffering for the sake of doing what is right.  It will mean risking that profits could be lower because you refuse to cheat someone or cut corners, and that you know you could get the heat from your boss.  It will mean being a voice for people around who you who get no voice.  It will mean that you value justice--things being put right--more than your own comfort. It will mean steering into the skid in some sense.  But as counter-intuitive as it might seem to do that, it is a blessed way of living, because in it we get glimpses of how God has loved us, by choosing to suffer for our sakes to put the world right and redeem us.  That is the kind of life that is not only worth living, but also dying for, and even worth laying down in little ways, minute by minute each day today.

Because you and billions of others made in the image of God are of infinite value to Jesus, then right relationships among all of us are also of great value to Jesus.  That, in a word, is what justice is all about.  And that is what is worth giving our lives for, whether in one fell swoop or an ounce of life at a time.

Lord God, give to us the courage today to risk suffering for the sake of justice, the vision to see when those moments of sacrifice are called for, and the compassion to love those who need us to stand alongside them.  This we ask in Jesus' name, who gave all he had for our sakes.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Preciousness of Tears

The Preciousness of Tears--September 18, 2018
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." [Matthew 5:4]

You know what is of great value to Jesus?  Your tears.  They are infinitely precious in the sight of God.  

The wounds in your heart and mine, the grief from losses, from defeats, from failures, and from regrets, these things are of great worth to the living God.  Enough that even the ancient poets of Israel imagined that God keeps bottle full of our tears and writes down the stories of our pains in a diary, treasuring them because God loves us, and because that means God chooses to share even our heartaches.

Now, that is a powerful and beautiful statement to make about God.  But I should warn you, you can only dare to say such things about how God values our tears if you grant, too, that God is vulnerable to tears, too.  An impersonal force, a la Star Wars, will not care about your suffering, because it cannot.  A stoic picture of the almighty who cannot be hurt is incapable of empathizing. If we dare to believe Jesus' promise that God comforts the brokenhearted, there will be a cost for faith in such a God--a cost to God, and the loss of all of our idolatrous mental pictures of an invulnerable, impassive, unfeeling deity.

A God who comforts the mourning has to be capable of mourning, too.  A God who tenderly wipes away the tears from our faces and puts them in a bottle must be capable of weeping as well.  A God who knows the weight and worth of our sorrows must know what it is to have your heart laid bare to the raw sadness of this world.

A God who promises to bind up the broken-hearted must have a breakable heart, too.  The only way Jesus' words can hold any water is if the God for whom Jesus speaks is vulnerable, too.

That may make us uncomfortable, because many of us have been taught to idolize the stoic stiff-upper-lip routine.  We imagine that if our God is really a respectable deity, then nothing should be able to get through God's armor--God should be the toughest and biggest thing around.  The medieval theologians got it in their heads (and I had plenty of theology professors in college who nodded in approval) that God couldn't be vulnerable, that in fact, God could not feel anything at all, because (they said) feelings are susceptible to change, and God cannot change, since God is eternally perfect and timeless.  Well, that wrapped their picture of God up in a neat and tidy little bow of logic, but it also tied the hands of the actual God we meet in the Scriptures.  Never mind, of course, that the idea of a God that cannot bleed owes more to the Greek philosophers and their idea of an "Unmoved Mover" than to the covenant-making God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Call it whatever you like--the "Unmoved Mover," the "Invisible Hand," or "the Force"--if it is an it in the first place (rather than a who), and if your Ultimate Whatever is invulnerable to rejection, to heartache, to suffering, and to unrequited love, then it cannot offer comfort to anybody else who mourns.  And such a "force" cannot treasure our tears or share our sorrows. Such a force cannot see the use in comforting those who mourning.

That is the double cost our God pays to keep the promise Jesus makes here.  It costs God to comfort those who mourn, first because it requires God to be strong in our weakness as the One who will wipe away our tears.  But second, it cost God because the ability to comfort is possible only if God's own heart can be broken for the love of us.  This statement of blessing, "Blessed are those who mourn," is particularly precious and expensive to the God who stands behind Jesus' words.

But if the Bible is to be believed, God is willing to pay that price.  Look at Jesus, moments before he raises Lazarus from the dead (a sure comfort to Mary and Martha, who were literally mourning for their dead brother)--there is the life-giving Messiah, who claims to be "the Resurrection and the Life," weeping himself even while he knows what he is about to do.  There is that same Jesus, weeping over Jerusalem in an earnest offer of unrequited love to the city and the people who kept rejecting him. And again, there he is in the garden, weeping tears and sweating under the pressure of what is before him on the night of his betrayal.

Ours is the God who casts himself as the broken-hearted lover when faithless Israel went astray trusting in their wealth and armies, running after other gods and foreign alliances.  Ours is the God who tells a prophet to go out a marry a cheating spouse so that the people will have a clear picture of the heartache that they have put their Lord through.  Ours is the God who said, "I taught my people how to walk and took them in my arms and healed them, but they did not know that it was me, and the more I called to them, the more they kept turning away" (see Hosea 11:1-3).

To hear the Scriptures themselves tell it, our God has mourned over us.  And our God knows what it is both to bleed for us, dying on the cross in the human life of Jesus, and at the same time, what it is to grieve over a lost Son.  And none of us stuck around to comfort God on that fateful Friday.  Nevertheless, Jesus says, God was never in the business of returning volleys we served first.  God is always the One to risk loving without being loved back, and who follows through even when we are fickle.  So you can take it to the bank when Jesus promises that there is comfort for those who mourn, and you can count on it that the God for whom Jesus speaks will ultimately bring such comfort, because this same God has mourned over this sin-sick world and over the Son lost and raised to redeem it.

Do you want to know what is of infinite value to God?  You and your tears--because the living God knows what it is to weep, too.

O Lord our God, let us dare to trust that you are mindful of our sorrow, that you have shared it with us, and that you will be both strong for us and willing to suffer for us, so that we might be comforted.

The Spoons in Hell

“The Spoons in Hell”—September 17, 2018

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4]

It has everything to do with a change of direction in your spoon.

You have probably heard the old story.  A man has a dream, a vision, and in it, an angel takes him on a tour of hell, and it is subtly cruel.  In hell, all the damned are seated at a great banquet table, laid out with the finest linens, gleaming silver candelabras, and elegant place settings.  And fastened permanently at each person’s place is a bowl of delicious, steaming hot soup, whose rich, intense aroma makes their mouths water.  And beside each soup bowl is a metal spoon… that is six feet long—far too long for anyone to grip properly and be able to hold in hand at the end and still get the soup into their mouths. They cannot lift the bowls from the table, and they cannot get a spoon full of the soup (I like to imagine it is a lobster and tomato bisque) into their own mouths.  So all the people in hell are famished, dying of hunger with the most delicious food right in front of them, while the spoons are longer than their arms.  It seems the design of a terrible genius.

Well, then the angel leads the man to another dining hall and says, “Welcome to heaven!”  But as they peer into the room from a distance, this second banquet table appears almost identical at first.  There are the same elegant place settings, the same bowls of delicious soup, and they are still bolted to the table in front of each guest’s place.  And to top it all off, there are the same outlandish spoons—the man can see that even from a distance.  But there is no wailing and moaning from hunger.  There are no anguished looks on the faces of the guests.  In fact, the man hears… can it be, laughter?  And he sees expressions of delight and satisfaction on their faces.  The people are eating the soup somehow—but their bowls are just as fixed to the table and their spoons are just as long.  And yet, these people are satisfied and enjoying the gourmet food in ecstasy.

“How can this be?”  asks the man of his angelic tour-guide.  “What is the difference between this wonderful feast and the torments at the table in hell?”

The angel replies, “Can’t you see? The guests here at the heavenly banquet have learned to feed each other.”

There just might be the difference between the glorious joy of heaven and the sad, isolated self-centered suffering of hell.  It has everything to do with the direction of the spoon. 

Try to feed yourself and you will fail at it every time, spilling the soup out or smacking someone nearby with the end of your spoon and provoking them to hit you back.  Ah, but take your spoon and use it to ladle soup for the person across the table from you—while someone else at the table does the same for you—and now you have a feast.  Everybody gets to eat at the Kingdom table.  And yet nobody feeds him or herself.  You empty your bowl so that someone else can eat and enjoy, while they do the same for you.  And all of a sudden, it doesn’t matter how long the spoons are. 

That isn’t a bad way to describe what heaven is like.  As I recently heard a colleague put it, that story may not be true, but it isn’t false.  The difference between heavenly glory and a damned shame is the direction of your spoon.  When we get to glory, to the heavenly banquet, we will no longer be so focused on ourselves that we starve with a six-foot spoon in hand.  There will be abundance… and it will be shared, as each person puts the one across the table ahead of him or herself.

But now here is the really amazing thing:  Paul tells us that we can live that way… right now.  We get to be people who feed each other soup and who get fed by others at the table, in an ongoing, never-ending circle of care, one for another.  If I decide to break from that loop and look out only for myself, it will turn out that I am the one who goes hungry.  But the moment I turn my spoon around to feed someone else, to give from my abundance for their need, I find that there is space for someone else to feed me with theirs.  As I put the others around the circle before myself, they are doing the same for me, and everybody gets to eat.  Everybody is filled in fact, by the very act of giving their food away.  Everybody at that table finds their own empty places refilled as someone else at the banquet fills them with what was theirs.  

This is what it looks like to live with the values of Jesus--where each of us values the interests of the other before our own, and where another person in the circle does the same for us. That kind of sharing and feeding is only possible if we dare to trust that the living God really does provide enough for all, and that I can risk that giving you the soup that's in my spoon will not mean that I don't get any.  It means trusting the God we have come to know in Christ really does provide enough for all.

Today, you and I have the opportunity to practice that kind of life together.  In the Christian community, we learn—maybe over a lifetime—how to trust that we will not go hungry as we feed someone else, as they feed us in turn.  You can spend your energy looking out only for yourself and still be starving, still feel empty, at the end of the day.  Or you can embrace the wonderfully upside-down, surprising logic of the Kingdom.  It all begins today as we dare to turn our spoons around.

Lord Jesus, give us the fullness of life that comes from giving ourselves away and putting the person across the table first today.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

On Not Needing To Be Right

On Not Needing to Be Right--September 14, 2018

"When Mary came and saw where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'" [John 11:32-36]

Sometimes, when you love someone very much, you let them be mad at you.

Sometimes, in fact, you realize that you value the other person even more than you value being "right" or being declared the "winner" of an argument. And when that happens, you stop looking for ways to squirm out of responsibility, you stop looking for ways to pass the buck or make excuses, and you stop yelling back at the other person.  Maybe, in fact, the love is great enough--and your courage is great enough as well--that you don't ever start up with yelling or excuse-making or buck-passing in the first place.  You just let the other person be mad at you, whether you truly deserve it or not, and you never even try to argue your "rightness" in the first place.

It takes great love and great bravery to dare not to insist on "rightness," and honestly, most of the time we are not up for the task.  I know I am too much of a coward most days, and I have to fight off that impulse to argue back all the reasons I am "right" rather than simply letting someone I care about be mad because they need to be mad.

But I am learning from Jesus, because here in this scene from John's Gospel, mere minutes before Jesus actually raises Mary and Martha's brother Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows me that it is possible to value other people even more than "being right."  And that is hard for me, at least at first, to bear hearing.  It is hard because so much of me wants to shout sometimes, or to argue, or to post that scathing and damning comment on social media, or to lash out with vitriol and righteous indignation.  It is hard because we are increasingly living in a time when our gut reaction is to making ourselves look good, to find ways to shrug off responsibility when things go wrong, to throw someone else under the bus in order to protect our own illusions of competence, and to find scapegoats when we know we really have messed up but don't want to face it.  We live in a time surrounded by loud and insecure voices who never model for us the grace, the humility, and the courage, to say, "I was wrong," or even to be strong enough to bear criticism and anger.  And that means we are lacking in good contemporary role models for how to bear the anger of others in love.

But there is still the compelling--and convicting--presence of Jesus.  Here is this Jesus--Jesus who knows two powerful facts: first, that it is true he could have prevented Lazarus' death if he had acted more quickly and raced back to Mary and Martha's house when he first got the news; and second, that he is mere moments away from raising Lazarus from the dead.  He could have avoided this whole scene in the first place with a quicker response to the danger, and he could have silenced the angry and disappointed words from both Mary and Martha, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died," by just cutting them off mid-sentence with a divine, "Abracadabra" and a wave of a messianic finger.  

Instead, Jesus bears their anger.  He is courageous enough to let Mary unleash her fury, her outrage, her grief, and her brokenheartedness on him, and Jesus does not defend himself or blame someone else.  He doesn't deny the fact, the undisputable fact, that their brother is dead because of Jesus' slow response.  He does not protest that it is an unfair accusation, or that those Pharisees must be up to some sort of smear campaign.  Jesus simply absorbs all of Mary's righteous, furious anger, weeping with her and bearing her sorrow as she lobs it at him, and loves her enough not to argue about why he is right.  Instead, he lets her be angry, tacitly conceding her point that if he had left right away he could have prevented Lazarus' death.  And then... after bearing all the weight of that anger and sorrow, only then does Jesus call Lazarus back to life.

It is telling, I believe, that John the narrator doesn't skip this part of the story.  We all know that sometimes the biblical writers give the Readers' Digest version of the episodes they recount, but here John gives us this story in painfully slow real-time.  And I am convinced that is an intentional choice on the Gospel-writer's part.  He wants us to see the love and the courage of Jesus, which allows him to bear such angry words without protesting his own innocence or shouting his own rightness, because Jesus loves these people more than he values looking "right" in the eyes of strangers.

Could we dare such love ourselves?  Seriously--we need to ask this question as we face this day.  Despite the fact that so many public voices around us seem incapable of just shutting their mouths long enough to allow the sorrows and cries of others to be heard, Jesus compels us to ask of ourselves, too, whether we dare to value other people more than our own reputations and "rightness."  

And if we think we dare to love others so fiercely, well, it will mean that sometimes we don't yell back even when we want to... it will mean we refrain from the biting remark or the withering comeback... it will mean we sometimes let others be mad at us, even if they don't really have a good reason to be mad.   And we will be done once and for all with scapegoating and bus-throwing to keep our own track records clean.  

Yes, Jesus has the power to raise the dead.  Christian hope is indeed grounded in our conviction that the living God in Christ is victorious even over death and has promised us life beyond its grip.  Yes, yes, indeed.

But even before we get to the miracle, there is a wonder to behold in the strength of Jesus' love, and the clarity of Jesus' values, that he knows that loving us--us angry, ugly-crying Marys and Marthas, is more important than the immediate recognition of his "rightness." He loves us--he loves you--more than winning an argument.  He loves a whole world full of us hot messes, all of us righteously angry about the terrible things that happen in this world, and he doesn't deny that they happen or that he could wave them all away with a snap of a messianic finger, either.  He lets us be mad at him when that is what we need to be... and then, after we have said all our worst, angriest, things and shaken our fists at the sky, and even moved him to tears, this same Jesus rolls up his sleeves, wipes away the tears from his own face, and calls Lazarus back to life.

And if Jesus has such clarity about what (and who) matters most that he can put the love of us before the need to appear "right", then maybe we may just dare the same kind of courageous love, too, in this day.

Because, it's true: sometimes when you love people very much, you let them be mad at you for a while.

Lord Jesus, you who have borne our angriest accusations and our most despairing cries, thank you for loving us enough to let us be mad at you when we feel we have no other choice.  Thank you for valuing us more than rightness... and thank you for inviting us into such love for the world as well.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Blessedly Funny Dressers

The Blessedly Funny Dressers--September 13, 2018

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." [Matthew 5:9]

Here is a hard truth that I have to stare down:  being a peacemaker is not the same as being a pleaser, the same way that peace is not merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of wholeness, of right-relationship, and of justice.  Being a pleaser is about trying to blend in with the goal of being liked.  It's a way of pretending you don't have opinions or wants, or at least silencing them, in a trade-off so that the people you are trying to please will like you or accept you or think better of you.  In other words, even though being a pleaser looks like it is about being focused on other people, it is really a roundabout way of trying to take care of yourself and your own insecurity.  It's about blending in with the crowd so that you can be accepted as one of the crowed.

Being a peacemaker, on the other hand, is not about winning friends for yourself or your own sake, so much as it is about offering yourself up to mend what is broken elsewhere. And, by contrast to being a pleaser, being a peacemaker just might make you stand out with a holy peculiarity.  "People notice peacemakers because they dress funny," writes Walter Brueggemann, "We know how the people who make war dress--in uniforms and medals, or in computers and clipboards, or in absoluteness, severity, greed, and cynicism.  But the peacemaker is dressed in righteousness, justice, and faithfulness--dressed for the work that is to be done."

All of this might seem contrary to our intuition and against the grain of common sense.  We say someone is "being diplomatic"--a sort of peace-making term, you'd think--when he is using a soft-touch with his words and make everybody feel happy and no one feel offended.  We say that someone is trying to "keep the peace" in her family if she tries to placate the angry ones around the table by pleasing everybody.  But maybe peacemaking isn't about blending in or getting people to put on fake smiles and make compromises.  Maybe peacemaking isn't the same as having a "go-along-to-get-along" attitude.  After all, an awful lot of violence in history has been perpetrated by people who were "just going along" with what someone else directed them to do.  It is nearly unspeakable how many lives have been snuffed out by people who were convinced at the time that they were "just following orders" or "complying with the law" and who were willing to please the people around them without so much as a word of protest.  

So let us be perfectly clear--the ones who keep silent when others are being stepped on are not "the peacemakers."  The ones who are so afraid of not being accepted themselves that they will not speak up and cause trouble when others are being kept out in the cold, they are not "peacemakers," either.  The ones who appear calm because they are indifferent, who appear to stay on an even keel because they have found a way to block out the suffering of others around them and keep it from rocking their boat, these are not "peacemakers."  This is not the blessed life, because peace, even "inner peace" is not the same as numbness.

To be a peacemaker is not a way out of the world's conflicts, or a way to avoid sharing the heartaches of those around us. It is not about being a "rock" that "feels no pain," or an "island" that "never cries," like in the Simon & Garfunkel song.  If we are going to be Jesus' kind of peaceable people, we will not purchase calm in our own lives at the cost of apathy toward everyone else's.  Rather, for us, being peacemakers will lead us into the turmoil around us, into the places where someone needs to speak up for those who are being stepped on to stand with them, and into the moments where others' hearts are troubled.  "The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod," says the old hymn, before concluding, "But let us pray for but one thing--the marv'lous peace of God, the marv'lous peace of God."

And that will make us stand out.  Like the firefighters headed into the burning building while the fearful crowds are running out of it to save themselves, we will be sent back into the troubled places to be presences of peace, to be comfort for the sorrowful and courage for the fearful.  We will be sent to be the presence of the God of peace for others.  And in so many words, that is exactly what Jesus says himself:  peacemakers will be called "children of God," because people will be able to see in us a peculiar family resemblance to the God who stands in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to bring them through it, whole, safe, sound, and at peace.  People will call us "children of God" as we do the strange, self-giving work of peacemaking, because people will recognize the character of God in us.  Peacemakers look funny, Walter Brueggemann says--and he is right.  In a world where so many others are trying to dress to fit in, we are called to look like our peculiar God and his particular Messiah, who ran into the fire for our sake on a cross, and who dresses us in his kind of work-clothes to follow after him.

O God of peace, keep us odd and standing out from the crowd by our peculiar calling to be a peaceable people--people who have learned from our God how to be presences of shalom in troubled places, people who share a family resemblance with you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

God of the Nobodies

God of the Nobodies--September 12, 2018

“Then [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” [Mark 9:36-37]

This isn't a scene for sentimentalism about the cute innocence of children.  This is a moment to see clearly that Jesus values the people deemed as worthless by everyone else around.

We need to get that much straight from the outset, or we are going to sentimentalize this moment from the Gospels.  We'll assume that Jesus posed for this scene, like in so many vaguely religious ceramic figurine sets and schmaltzy "inspirational" paintings of this episode, with everyone else nodding approvingly and fawning over the cuteness of children.  

But it just ain't so.  In Jesus' world, at least the world of the Roman empire under which Jesus' homeland was ruled, children weren't cute... they were nobodies.  And that meant Jesus wasn't uplifting the inherently adorable nature of smiling cherubs; Jesus was saying that God's agenda puts the "nobodies" ahead of the Big Name "somebodies."

The crux of it is this: in the Greek and Roman world which stands as the backdrop for the New Testament world, children were not held in high esteem at all. I remember coming across a book on the shelves of the bookstore at the seminary where I worked in my last year of studies, a book whose title caught me completely off guard when I saw it.  It was called When Children Became People.  And while I never had the chance to read it in full, the author, O. M. Bakke, makes the case that in the ancient Greco-Roman world, children were treated as non-persons, and that it really was a radical thing that the early Christian community put any value at all on children.  (Consider, for a moment, that the Empire was comfortable with infanticide, while the early church was well-known for its refusal to leave children exposed to the elements to die like the ethic of the Empire allowed.)

We have a hard time getting a feel for how bizarre and upside-down Jesus’ teaching here was, because we do not view children this way anymore.  (That, by and large, of course, is a good thing—we do not treat children like property in our culture, and in fact we place a high premium on keeping our children safe.  But in the Greco-Roman culture, children were thought of more as property than as full persons, until adulthood.)  You might almost say that our culture is child-obsessed and youth-driven, since young people are the target demographic of marketing departments, movie studios, television producers, advertisers, and the like.  

We might have a hard time hearing what was so surprising about Jesus taking a child and saying, “The way you treat this person is the way you are treating me,” because we get sentimental about children.  In our culture, it is an honor to get to have a role in a child’s life.  In our culture, children are seen as cute and funny and innocent and pure, and we are delighted to hear a child speak, because he or she might say something that is absolutely hilarious and absolutely profound all at the same time.  So, in one sense, we have already taken to heart Jesus’ saying about welcoming children.  We would all surely nod our heads in agreement with Jesus and would all gladly obey Jesus’ teaching to welcome children.

But in another sense, we are missing some of the punch of Jesus’ words precisely because our culture makes it easy to love and appreciate and welcome children.  Because our country already has laws to protect children from abuse or exploitation, we all grow up in a culture that assumes children have value, and which punishes (or is supposed to punish) those who harm children.  We hear Jesus tell us to welcome children and think, “Of course!—that is what the law and all our cultural norms teach us to do anyway, and that is what a respectable person does!”  To our ears, it sounds like Jesus is simply giving a friendly reminder to his followers to do what society would expect us to do already, which requires no risk or scandal and which is easy to do.  To our ears, it can sound like Jesus is simply reminding us of how cute and adorable and precious children are, so we don't think there's anything provocative about Jesus lifting up children as his--and also God's!--ambassadors.

But for Jesus’ hearers in the first century, his words have more subversive power to them.  If children are "nobodies" (as they were regarded in the culture of the Empire), then Jesus is specifically going out of his way to welcome, to care for, and to honor... nobodies in his arms. He is saying, “Find the nobodies and treat them like you would treat me, your Lord and rabbi—and in fact, treat them like you would treat almighty God…” (That is, after all, what he is implying with the phrase “the one who sent me”.) 

Hear that again: Jesus' taking a little child in arms and saying, "If you welcome this little one, you welcome the One who sent me," is like saying, "God identifies with the helpless, the powerless, the marginalized, and the empty-handed... God identifies with the ones who can't do a thing for you in return."  Jesus is saying, “If you want to be great according to the values of the Reign of God, find the ones who don’t have a voice, don’t have a say, don’t have bank accounts of their own, don’t have political power or favors you can cash in, and don’t get treated as full human beings, and welcome them with the same reception you would give to the Creator of the universe.”  

Well, all of a sudden, Jesus’ words have a little more edge to them.  Who are the folks we would put in those categories?  Dare we open that Pandora’s box and name them?  Welcome the illegal immigrants and asylum seekers? Welcome the addicts going to their first meeting out of rehab and trying to stay clean? Welcome the homeless? Welcome the uneducated and unemployed? Welcome the Palestinian kid with cancer whose one chance at treatment just vanished because we have decided to withdraw millions of dollars of support to a Lutheran hospital in East Jerusalem just to flex some political muscle? Welcome the ones who have been told they are unacceptable sinners?  Welcome the ones who have nothing to offer you back for your trouble, or who have flaked out on the debts they owe you? Welcome the one who got shunned from their family and told not to come back? Welcome the ones who have nothing to offer you but their neediness?  

That is a pretty potent list, don’t you think?  Surely someone on it provokes you?  Surely someone on that list strikes you as going too far?  Well, there’s a good sign you’re paying attention:  Jesus’ teaching is meant to provoke us, and Jesus’ gracious way of welcoming nobodies is meant to sound like it is going “too far.”  

Here's a rule of thumb then: if our picture of Jesus' authorized list of his official ambassadors and divine representatives only includes the members of the Respectable Religious Crowd, we have gotten the wrong Jesus and traded the authentic one for a cardboard cut-out.

If we sentimentalize Jesus’ words here, we are only going to ever hear Jesus asking us politely to do what society would already commend us to do anyway: be nice to cute children, because--aww, shucks--they do say the darnedest things, after all.  And then we lose something of how wonderful radical and upside-down the Kingdom’s values really are.

But if we can dare to hear Jesus’ words with something of the ring they would have had in the first century, where children were not first and foremost cute and innocent bundles of wonder and hope, but needy, hungry, dirty, messy non-persons who didn’t have anything to offer, well, then we can see a glimpse of the values of the Kingdom life Jesus calls us to, a Kingdom that has room for nobodies, and in fact affords the “nobodies” the same love and honor given to the Maker of the universe.  That is going to challenge us, as we recognize that Jesus is calling us to make room for the ones our society regards as the “nobodies.” But it also offers us straight up, undiluted, un-watered-down grace, too—because a Kingdom that offers a welcome for nobodies is a Kingdom where there is a welcome for the likes of you and me.  

Think of it—you and I, in all of our “nobody-ness”—have been received as honored guests in the Kingdom of Jesus.  How can we do any differently for others in our midst?

Lord Jesus, let us be a part of your wonderfully wide embrace that meets us and enfolds us when we have nothing else to offer but our need.

Monday, September 10, 2018

A Good Trade

A Good Trade--September 11, 2018

[Jesus said:] “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” [Mark 8:36-38]

The old cliché is right:  the one who dies with the most toys in the end… still dies. 

If we have come to that realization, then the real question is, What is really of any worth?  What has real value, if all the "stuff" we spend our time and energy is just... stuff?

And, ultimately, what is worth spending our lives on? 

See, there’s the hitch:  you can’t help but spend your life on something.  Every moment that ticks past is gone, done, spent, and can’t be gotten back.  You spend your minutes and your days on something.  The question is whether it’s worth the trade: what would you exchange sixty seconds’ worth of breath away for?  How much is a minute of life worth to you?  And what things that you spend your life on will really last or matter in the end?  What things will endure?  What things aren’t even worth the time it takes to buy them, much less the time spent working to pay for them?

There was a movie that came out a few years ago called In Time, that put the question very clearly.  The premise was a future in which people are bio-engineered to stop aging at 25, and then have only 12 more months to live, unless they buy or sell minutes of life, to be added or subtracted through counters embedded under your arm like a digital clock tattoo.  So movie tickets or coffee cost a mere few minutes of your life, and a car costs years and years.  The metaphor is obvious:  time is money.  Or at least, time is something you cannot help but spend.  The open question is what is worth the trade.

Well, the moviemakers clearly didn’t invent the idea that our lives are spent on something.  At best, they are riffing on the point Jesus makes here.  You could spend all of your energy raking in piles of possessions, or even gain the “whole world,” but if it costs you your life, what would be the point?  All of a sudden you can hear the song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” in the background, can’t you, with the well-worn message that if you spend your life at the office, you shouldn’t be surprised if your life is empty later on when the kids are spending their lives at the office, too.  What’s worth the trade of your span of years?  What is worth a life, or part of a life?

In truth, it’s more than just a length of time that Jesus is talking about.  When he talks about forfeiting your “life” or what can be given “in return for their life,” the word he is using means something like, “the self” or “whatever it is that makes you you.”  It is the word we bring into English as “psyche,” and it sometimes is also translated “soul.”  What is worth spending your self--your most essential core--on?  What is worth giving your life for?  What would you be willing to trade your deepest self, your very soul, for?  Not just years of existence, but the pieces that make you you—what are they worth?

Well, it’s a sobering question, because I suspect if we ask it honestly and with our eyes open, an awful lot of the things we do spend time on will seem awfully shallow and hardly worth the cost.  Most of the time spent in front of the television, for example—not just in the sense of the hours we have lost with our eyes glazing over to have background noise on, but also for the way we trade away a part of our selves to become shaped into a new “self” with the likes and dislikes that the advertisers and TV producers want us to have.  We lose a little of ourselves when we submit to those messages—not just minutes or breaths of our lifespan, but we lose a little of what makes us "us" when we let other messages stamp themselves on our minds and hearts. That's selling out--that's selling our "souls" in a manner of speaking. Is that worth the cost?

Of course, it’s easy to beat up on television. and our other little rectangles of technology. Well-respected people have been doing that for decades.  It’s harder to see that a great deal of the rest of our lives is equally shallow, and that maybe even the things we think are the most permanent are the things that matter the least.  Our houses and cars, and the need to have “bigger” in both of those categories, turn out not to last too long in the big scheme of things, especially if we also buy into the belief in our culture that we should never put roots down in a place for very long anyway.  It’s all about making a profit when you sell the house anyway, right?  

Sometimes we religious folk sell out by trading our integrity for access to political power.  We promise not to speak up when people are getting stepped on if someone will make us a deal to keep our own situations comfortable.  We look the other way at hypocrisy and cruelty because it is convenient to, or because naming it out loud might make some waves with the people who have influence and clout.  And let's make no mistake about it: when religious leaders and church folks give our endorsement to voices and agendas that are completely opposed to the character of the Reign of God as we have seen it in Jesus, and we use the excuse, "But look how much we get in return that benefits our interests!" as cover like it is some kind of deal, there is no other way to describe it, but that we have sold our souls for things that do not last.  And that's not artful deal-making--that is simply selling out.

Even the recurring human desire to become permanent by chiseling our legacies in stone, to get our names on towers in big gold letters, or to leave behind a record of your presence in brick and mortar, none of these last much more than a few decades—and even at that, all that gets remembered with words carved in stone are the arrangement of letters we called our names.  These things are not worth spending ourselves on.  

Jesus dares us to be honest about that, so that we can instead see that the only thing we can really do with our lives to secure them is to give them away.  That is not common business sense, and maybe the so-called experts would not consider it very artful deal-making... but that is Kingdom-of-God thinking.  Give your life away—spending it for the sake of others, dedicating it to the love of God and neighbor, offering it up warts and all to the Creator of the universe—and you will find it never really gets lost.  Try to clutch onto it for yourself, and you’ll discover that life is too slippery to stay in our grip for very long.  

What will you and I spend this day on… and when you lay your head down at day’s end, will it have been a good trade?  Ask that question, and in the attempt to answer it honestly, you'll get a decent picture of what really has value.  

Maybe the only way to avoid selling your soul or selling out in this life is to give yourself away for free in love.

O God of all our days, give us the wisdom and courage to use these lives, these selves, on what really matters and endures—the Kingdom you have given us in Christ.