Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jesus Wept

Today's readings: Psalms 54; 146, Proverbs 4:1-27, 1 John 4:7-21, John 11:30-44

When Sunday school students are assigned to memorize Bible verses, John 11:35 is especially popular because in many translations it is the Bible’s shortest verse: “Jesus wept.” Generally it’s chosen more for novelty than theological significance, but pound-for-pound it may be the most profound statement about God’s love for us in all of scripture.

Why did Jesus weep? We must understand the context of the verse to know. Jesus was returning to Bethany because his dear friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, had died. Jesus was greatly disturbed when Mary said if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. As she showed him to the tomb, others made similar comments that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’s death. At this point Jesus became greatly disturbed again and wept. 

We might think Jesus was grieving over his friend, but he had known for days that Lazarus was dead – and would be rising again. We might think he was weeping in sympathy for Mary, Martha and others. This particular interpretation may be comforting, but the original Greek phrasing suggests something else. When we read Jesus was “greatly disturbed in Spirit and deeply moved” (v 33), we need to understand the original Greek points not to sadness, but to indignation or chagrin. Jesus was upset that even those closest to him still understand neither who he was, nor the life God offered through him.

The weeping of an angry Jesus may at first seem disappointing or even unsettling. On reflection, what seemed like a humanizing, relatable moment may begin to feel like condemnation. Upon further consideration though, how can we not be touched by the idea that God deeply desires a relationship with us on a level that is so primal our inability to conceive of it frustrates Christ to tears? At one time or another all of us have been frustrated, also sometimes to tears, by a loved one who just seems lost. We want them to be whole and well. Christ loves us so much that he doesn’t just want to cry with us, but to help us understand how God’s love can lift us from this vale of tears to a place of peace.

Evening reading: Evening Psalms 28; 99

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Building up or tearing down?

Today's readings: Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 29:1-20, Romans 14:1-23, John 8:47-59

What do we think when we hear someone described as “religious?” Even if we consider ourselves religious, hearing someone else described that way does not automatically mean we assume that person is similar to ourselves. Increasing numbers of Americans—even those who regularly attend Christian churches—identify as “spiritual but not religious” to avoid the stigma of religion. For their book unChristian, David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons surveyed a group of young Americans—including Christians— and found that 85% or more describe Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. 70% describe them as insensitive to others. Of course we need to be skeptical about statistics, and some of the authors’ conclusions about how the church needs to respond are debatable, but are the results surprising? Not really.

As the church, let’s follow Paul’s advice to the Romans and spend less time denouncing the world—and each other—and more time building each other up. When people hear “Christian” they should think of people who share with anyone in need, who visit the sick and imprisoned, and who love God with “gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46). If Christianity defines itself by things Christians won’t do and people they won’t embrace, whose fault is that? If our main concern is moralizing when we are as prone to sin as anyone, why wouldn’t the world see us as hypocrites? Certainly some people are intractably bigoted against the religious, but we must take responsibility for our reputation. Christians can only change the perception of the world by building up each other and the world. The world is broken, but we need to be a people who participate in mending it, not grinding it into irrecoverable pieces.

Early Christians stumbled and lost track of the Good News when they began judging each other. Maybe we can avoid the same mistakes by asking not who is sinning, but who is hungry, ill, poor or unloved.
Evening readings: Psalms 138; 98

Friday, February 14, 2014

Authority? Figures.

Today's readings: Psalms 51; 148, Genesis 27:46-28:4, 28:10-22, Romans 13:1-14, Reading John 8:33-47

In Romans 13 Paul presents us with a very challenging idea. He tells us that earthly authorities are appointed by God, therefore we should submit to them. He asserts that anyone who has good conduct has no reason to fear the authority (v 3).  He claims “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” (v 4) – that is, it does not punish people without good cause. Paul goes so far as to say resisting them is equivalent to resisting God, a behavior worthy of wrath.

Does this accurately reflect our experience of authority?

Paul wrote this letter during a time when Jewish political and civil unrest threatened their status in the Roman empire. He wanted to prevent them from committing acts that would invite retaliation. This attitude must have been a divisive one, since so many of Jesus’ teachings and actions were aimed directly against the abuses of the Roman government. How could Paul bring himself to defend the empire that crucified his Savior?

Paul placed no qualifiers on which authorities were just, but Biblical commentaries usually advise us his words apply only to just ones. The problem is we can’t all agree on who that is. After the last several presidential elections, whether the winner was a conservative or liberal, many people who supported the opposition claimed the winner was illegitimate. The situation with federal judges is similar. When we agree with their rulings, they are upholding the constitution; when we disagree, they are judicial activists. The lines blur even more when we look at countries that aren’t democratic.

What to do? One option might be to withdraw from the political process altogether, as some denominations do. Yet this option doesn’t seem to reflect the actions of Jesus, the many martyrs, and other advocates of justice who helped found the Christian faith. We might be better off to remember the only authority to whom we owe any allegiance is God. We’re going to disagree about what that means, but each of us is obligated to act as we believe God calls us to. If we have ears to listen, Christ and the Spirit will point us toward true authority.

Evening readings: Psalms 142; 65

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Recycled

Today's readings: Psalms 97, 147:12-20; Genesis 27:30-45, Romans 12:9-21, John 8:21-32

When Esau discovered his brother Jacob had tricked their father into giving Jacob the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, he was overcome with rage. This "blessing" was not a religious one, but a method of passing on rights to the land and possessions of a patriarch to his heir. The lands, wealth, and armies that Esau was sure he would inherit instead would go to the younger brother who had plagued him all his life. Esau would get the leftovers and move to a foreign land. Jacob would continue the line that would lead from Abraham to Jesus.

History unfolds in unexpected, often unwelcome ways. We might expect Jesus would come from a long line of noble, respectable, gracious ancestors. While they included royalty and priests, his family tree was shaky from the roots up. Abraham lied and tried to do an end run around God's plan for him, fathering the Ishmaelites. Isaac, like his father Abraham, lied about his relationship to his wife in order to secure business arraangements. Jacob stole his brother's inheritance and lived in hiding for years. His son Judah sold his own brother into slavery and impregnated a woman he thought was a prostitute. And on, and on, and on ...

The history of Jesus' ancestors isn't just a little suspect - it's out-and-out tawdry.  From one perspective it could undermine his authority and credibility; people are judged by their families all the time. But from another point of view, it could be considered encouraging or even liberating. If God could work through families like these, imagine the potential in boring old us? So many of us waste that potential because we are waiting to feel worthy. We talk about what we could or will do if and when we were better, more organized, more stable, healthier, or "holier" people. We look at others who do the things we wish we could do and assume they are smarter, better connected, and generally "have it together." After considering where Jesus came from ... still think so?

God meets us where we are, warts and all, and offers to lead us beyond where we hoped to be. No one is ever "ready" for that.

Evening readings: Psalms 16, 62

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Trick Or Treat?

Today's readings: Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Genesis 27:1-29, Romans 12:1-8, John 8:12-20

Sometimes the Bible reads like a soap opera. In Genesis 27, Rebekah convinces her son Jacob to wear goat skin to fool his blind father into thinking he is his older, hairier twin brother Esau. He does this to secure his father Isaac's blessing, which will mean he inherits leadership of his clan. Isaac does indeed (and improbably) grant his blessing to the "wrong" son, in an apparently irrevocable act. When the real Esau demands things be made right, all Isaac has left to offer is a meager consolation prize of a blessing that basically promises Esau the things Jacob didn't already get.

To our modern sensibilities, developed in a culture of upward mobility, it seems unfair that deception is rewarded thusly. In Jacob's time, though, people couldn't earn authority based on merit; authority was inherited or taken by force. If Jacob (or his mother on his behalf) wanted equal opportunity without resorting to outright violence, he had no other choices but to scheme his way to it.

Many cultures have a "trickster" figure: Loki in Norse mythology; Raven in Native American lore; Anansi in West African folk tales. Jacob is a similar figure who outwits his brother multiple times, and even outwrestles an angel physically and mentally. Trickster figures, despite having questionable ethics, often bring benefits to mankind despite the will of the gods. This is where Jacob differs: God had already chosen him to continue Isaac's lineage, and the tricks seem to support that.

For the most part we want and expect people to play by the rules. Deception rubs us the wrong way and leads to chaos. But what if the rules are not the same for everyone (as they almost never are, especially the unspoken ones)? The Bible has many stories of oppressed people who use the methods available to them to overcome. Deception is not a virtuous act, but sometimes it takes a trickster to turn oppression around. Someone who, say, subverts Roman and Jewish expectations and leads us to eternal life by sacrificing his own. The difference between a hero and a villain often depends on who writes the history book.

Evening readings: Psalms 1; 33

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dropping Our Stones

Today's readings: Psalms 42; 146, Genesis 26:1-6, 12-33, Hebrews 13:17-25, John 7:53-8:11

Today’s story from John about a woman caught in adultery is the source of the saying: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” One of the best known stories about Jesus, it is ironically considered one of the least authenticated. Early manuscripts of John don’t include it, and in later ones it varies slightly. Perhaps the story persists because its message is so essentially Christ-like.

Under Mosaic law, punishment for women committing adultery was death by stoning. The scribes and Pharisees brought such a woman before Jesus and tested his observance of the law by asking what should be done with her. Jesus initially responded by stooping and writing on the ground. Some apocryphal versions of the text say he was writing the sins of everyone present. Others have theorized it was a stalling tactic. Either way, this action teaches us a valuable lesson: Christ has little interest in hearing us recount the shortcomings of other people.

When he instructed the person without sin to cast the first stone, the crowd of course dispersed. Christ knew an honest examination of our own lives generates humility and mercy. When he and the woman were left alone, he declined to condemn her and instructed her to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Whether this event is historical or not, it illuminates truth that transcends fact: Christ is more interested in freeing us for the future than in chaining us to the past.

“Sin no more” does not excuse past actions – it is a call to repentance. True repentance doesn’t mean feeling guilty and sorry, but going in a new direction. Punishing others through guilt only hitches them to the past, and prevents them from moving in any direction. Allowing ourselves to be punished by guilt – even self-inflicted – is just as counter-productive. Following Jesus’ example means trusting others and ourselves to acknowledge mistakes, change direction, and do our best not to make them again. Jesus loves everyone enough to leave the past in the past, and to let everyone move toward a future of endless possibility. First, everyone needs to put down the stones.

Evening readings: Psalms 102; 133

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Childlike Wealth

Today's readings: Psalms 103; 150, Genesis 24:50-67, 2 Timothy 2:14-21, Mark 10:13-22

The two stories in today’s passage from Mark can be read independently, but taken together they provide a greater lesson. In the first, Jesus rebukes the disciples for preventing children from coming to him. He welcomes and blesses the children, and tells his disciples “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (v 15). In the second, a rich young man who believes himself virtuous because he keeps the law asks Jesus what he lacks to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the man he needs to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The young man leaves in shock and grief.

When Jesus speaks about being like little children, he does not mean we should be naïve or even innocent. Children own nothing, and depend on their parents for everything. To receive as children, we must realize that all we have is from God, and that our lives apart from God are empty. This takes us to the young man, who has many possessions. To abandon them all is unthinkable to him. His body and actions conform to the law, but his heart belongs first to his possessions. Not only does he fail to recognize all he has does not truly belong to him, he has allowed his attachment to wealth to become a barrier between him and God.

Idealism is associated with youth for a reason: as we grow older and establish our lives, it becomes ever more difficult to stand up for principles that may cost us everything, because we have so much more to lose. As we mature, it’s easy to claim experience has made us practical about matters that threaten our livelihoods. Is it possible we are rationalizing a bit? It’s a lot easier to stand up for principles at your job when all you have to lose is a 1998 Ford Fiesta than when your new house and Lexus are on the line. Must we, like the young man, sell everything? At the very least, we must be willing to part with anything in our lives – wealth, reputation, pride – that stands between us and God. Only then will we have room to receive the kingdom of God, and all the gifts which lift us up instead of weigh us down.

Evening readings: Psalms 117; 139