Sunday, December 16, 2018

Jesus Doing Politics

Once upon a time there was a nation at war.  They killed many children and many others were injured with disabilities that they would suffer from all of their lives.  Some would have cancer, some were physically disabled, others were to live with trauma haunting their memories, others would commit suicide because of all they have lost.  Tired of living this way, the children banded together and held a protest. Masses and masses of them, so many one could not count them all. They filled the capital city with broken limbs, broken minds, broken lives, all because of the tragedy visited upon them by their leaders.

Although they blocked traffic and stopped the everyday commerce, they were ignored by almost everyone.  One news station filmed them and placed them at the end of their evening report as a “human interest” story.  In this story, one line was offered as comment: “Poor kids. They just don’t understand politics.”

Mark 3:21-34—
And He came home, and the crowd gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, “He has lost His senses.” The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.” And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.
“Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then His mother and His brothers arrived, and standing outside they sent word to Him and called Him. A crowd was sitting around Him, and they said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are outside looking for You.” Answering them, He said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?”  Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.”

Our story thus far:
Jesus looked at the politics of his day and so proposed and established a new nation, because there was no redeeming the old one.
Baptism is the ceremony of immigration from the nation of birth to the nation of Jesus
This means that if we are following Jesus, we no longer belong to the nations of this world, but to the kingdom of God.   

Jesus, however, participated in the politics of his day.  Paul declared himself a Roman citizen and James, the brother of Jesus was considered a Judean in high standing.  How do we be a good citizen of the kingdom of God and involve ourselves in politics?
First, we need to understand how Jesus did NOT do politics:
Jesus did not become a Sadduccee.  If he had done this, he could have made changes within the contemporary system, supporting the power system and encouraging it to make positive changes.  He did not choose that path of politics.
Jesus did not become a Pharisee.  He did not try to obtain popular support for his ideas and interpretations of law.  He did not support the current synagogue system, attached to the temple in Jerusalem.  He used this system, but he did not build onto it.
Jesus did not become an Essene.  He did not form a separatist community, which kept themselves pure apart from the corrupt world.  Instead, he was deeply involved in the world.
Jesus did not become a Herodian or support Herod’s regime.  He didn’t choose to unify the Jewish people through power. He didn’t choose to unify people under one political entity at all.
Jesus did not choose to be a Zealot.  He did not choose to create a violent insurrection against all doers of oppression and corruption.
In general, Jesus’ plan to do politics was to establish a new nation and invite all to participate in it, not by force, but by a welcome invitation.  He explained the new law that the kingdom would have, the new people and a new power by which it would rule the world. He lived and taught a new politics of the kingdom.  

Jesus’ politics wasn’t to keep the system going.  Rather, he was proposing a revolution. A complete dismantling of “politics as usual” and starting all over again.  And his people are not to be proponents of “politics as usual”, but starting over again.

How Jesus decided to do politics is a huge subject, and quite complicated.  But I think this passage in Mark 3 can give us an outline of his general plan of how WE should do politics, even today.
1 Jesus began his politics with radical acts of life-saving mercy
The subject being discussed is Jesus freeing people from severe mental illness.  Yes, they are talking about demonization, which is how the ancient world understood and communicated about mental illness.  The story about people who acted in inappropriate social ways was that they were being judged for their sin by being attacked by a demon, who was ruled by Satan, which is the title of the great prosecutor of the spirit world.  Satan is a title, which means Accuser, the official name of the one who condemns humans before God. In some concpts, he is also the one who carried out the punishments against humans who did evil. He is the agent of Karma, giving evil for those who do evil and mental illness, it was said, is the result of that attack.  We can see a clear story of this in the story of Saul in the book of I Samuel. He disobeyed God and so he was given an evil spirit to attack him and he became more and more insane.

But Jesus would deliver the mentally ill by exiling or “driving out” spirits that punish humans.  He gives them freedom from the punishment that was visited upon them. He is freeing them from oppression.  Giving them another chance to live.

This is a political stand.  Because society believes in karma.  They believe in punishing people who do wrong, even if they can’t prove wrong was done.  They believe that homeless people should suffer some because there must be a good reason for them to be on the street.  They believe that people with AIDS should suffer for their acts. They believe that mental illness is just a weakness, and they deserve to suffer.  So giving people release from oppression who “deserve” to be oppressed is an act of rebellion.
2. Be attacked
So here come these officials “from Jerusalem”-- these aren’t just local people, but people who are the official word, giving an official judgment on Jesus’ work.  And their judgement is that Jesus is under control of the evil forces, and that his actions are not good, as they seem on the surface, but evil. Why are they evil?  Because he is speaking against them and their acts of oppression and insisting on too much authority for himself.

The one who does good in a way that is not accepted by society will be attacked by society.  Jesus said this, not as a possibility, but as a promise. He promised his disciples that for their good work, they would be officially condemned and arrested and hated by their own families and churches.  

Even so, the very people who should see Jesus as a force for good, instead labels him as the force of evil.  And this is typical of “politics as usual”. Good will be painted as evil by those who should embrace it.

3. Speak out against corruption
Then Jesus moves into political discourse.  First, he belittles the arguments of his opponent.

He says, “How can the force of judgment relase people from judgment?  That is the Prosecutor acting against his own goals. The jailer doesn’t set people free.  The executioner doesn’t let people go. Satan has a purpose, and to free people is the opposite of that purpose.  That is an act of civil war. So it is just silly to say that my work is the work of Satan.”

Then Jesus speaks to their judgment of him:
“If you look at good work and call it evil because of your political views, you will never know what good or evil is.  You can look at me and point out my deficiencies. You can call me names and say evil things about me-- that’s fine. But this work of the Holy Spirit is good.  It is the work of God among people who are cruelling suffering. If you call the good work of God an evil work there is no hope for you. You are hopelessly blinded by your point of view and you will never change.”

Today there are so many people who look at good and call it evil.  There are so many people acting out of judgment instead of love. We may not be a part of this world, but we must speak and act in this world.  We need to act for people who are oppressed and free them. We will act in any way we can, as long as it does not harm another. We must act by votes, we must act by good will, we must act by our speech, both private and public.  And we must not just love, but we must speak out against forces of hate. Forces that want to oppress, want to harm the innocent, want to block the ways in which people can be freed. Yes, our family may oppose us. Our church may oppose us.  The people we love may oppose us. But we must stand for doing good, and do good, no matter what the cost. Even if it is illegal. Even if we will be rejected by everyone. We must do what will save the lives of the oppressed.

4. Build Community
Jesus did a number of other things to change the politics of this world, but there is one more thing I want to mention from this passage.  Earlier in the passage, we have a description of Jesus’ “own” who were standing outside, determining that he was insane and needed to take him home and lock him in a closet.  After this showdown with the officials from Jerusalem, someone is finally able to get Jesus a message from his family, telling him to come outside, where they plan to do a Gaston and lock him up as a crazy person.

Jesus ignores their request, however.  This is because he knew that his family wants to obstruct his work, even as the scribes from Jerusalem does.  He instead points to his disciples around him and says, “These are my real family. The people who do the work of God are my true family.”

What is Jesus doing?  A family is one’s base community, out of which everything else is formed.  Jesus is saying that his family-- his physical brothers and mother-- are not his base community.  Who is his real community? Those who have chosen to learn from him the path of doing good. The people who are standing up for the oppressed.  The people who will deliver others. Who will forgive, who will set them free from the punishment that society thinks they deserve. These who will deliver the mentally ill, restore people to good standing, who will feed the hungry, shelter those out in the cold, deliver people from prison, make the sick well.  These are the community of Jesus. They may have different beliefs, different opinions of how the world works, they have different radical acts of freedom they do, but they have this: they stand together with Jesus to change the world, by freeing one person at a time from their suffering.

One of Jesus’ most powerful acts of politics is to create a community that can do more good together than they can separately.  And these people aren’t just Jesus’ friends, they aren’t just Jesus’ buds-- they are Jesus’ family. They are his real community.  This family is the outgrowth of Jesus’ kingdom. It starts with him-- setting people free in every town he goes in. And then it expands to all his disciples, each of them freeing people from suffering, just as Jesus did.

So how do we do politics?  Again, it can be complicated, but here’s a starting point for all of us:

1. We work to set free the suffering and oppressed
2. We are targeted by those who want people to suffer for their own political motives
3. We deny their explanation, by labeling good works as good and evil works as evil.
4. We build communities that can release more people from suffering than they could separately

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Politics of Baptism

Nelson Mandela of South Africa spent 18 years in prison on Robben Island.  Robben, isn’t Dutch for Robbers, but for “seal” because before they built a prison there, the island was covered with seals.  When Mandela was released from that prison, that meant a new opportunity for himself and for South Africa, a new future. To symbolize that event, there is a swim that happens every year from the island in the sea to the mainland, that takes a good swimmer about 2 hours and a professional swimmer 23 minutes.  It is called the Freedom Swim, and it symbolizes the deliverance of an entire nation. Of course, taking a dip in the ocean doesn’t make a nation free. But participating in it makes one feel that they are participating in the freedom the new nation brings.

This is baptism.

Is anyone familiar with the story of Moses and the mass baptism?  What about the time that Noah baptized his family? No? Smh. What are pastors teaching these days?

Paul, in I Corinthians 10, talks about Moses taking the children of Israel through a baptism  What baptism? That in the Red Sea. Peter speaks about Noah going through a baptism. Going across the flood with his family.  And John baptized in the Jordan River. Why? To remember the baptism of Joshua and the children of Israel, crossing the Jordan River centuries before.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, let’s talk about what the Bible considers baptism.

First of all, the word “baptise” comes from the Greek, “baptidzo”, which doesn’t mean “to dunk” but “to give a thorough soaking”, either through dunking or pouring or whatever means.  It absolutely does not mean cleaning.

The pattern of baptism, whether Noah, Moses, Joshua, John or Jesus-- or the entire world in creation-- is this:

-A group of people are trapped in a horrible nation or world, trapped by oppression
-God promises to deliver these people
-God leads the people to a body of water, which threatens suffering or death
-God delivers the people across the dangerous body of water
-On the other side is a new world, a new opportunity for freedom without oppression

We can see this as crossing water and delivering a nation to freedom, like Moses or Nelson Mandela.  But it is more likely seen as immigration to a new nation of God.

Acts 2:36-38 For this reason the whole House of Israel can be certain that the Lord and Christ whom God has made is this Jesus whom you crucified.’
Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, brothers?’   ‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Here is Peter preaching to the crowds, months after Jesus’ crucifixion.  He is telling them that their leaders crucified Jesus, even though Jesus was an innocent man.  He tells them “you crucified him”, because in a sense, this is true. They are part of a system in which crucifying innocent people, even the son of God, can happen.  They all know this. They don’t see any way out.

But Peter offers them a way out.  If they are baptized in Jesus’ name, they are doing two things: they are renouncing or “repenting of” the evil system they are a part of.  And they join the kingdom of Jesus, a completely separate political entity. They leave the old, corrupt, oppressive, evil world behind. In their case, this world was the temple and priestly and Roman systems they were a part of.  They knew that this system was oppressive, but they couldn’t do anything about it.

Peter’s answer is, “leave it and join Jesus’ kingdom.”  The sins that Peter was telling them they get forgiveness of, are the sins of the system-- the actions of oppression and anti-love they are participating in.  Once they are baptized, they are free to live in accord with the love and surrender of Jesus.

This is the same answer John the baptist gave.  He pointed at the corruption of Judea and the high priest and Pharisees and Sadducees and he baptized to get everyone out of that system.  He was pointing to a new nation, but he didn’t know what that kingdom looked like.

Jesus also had the same answer.  But he showed us and explained to us what that new nation looked like.  Who would be a part of it, and how it would operate. And he had people baptized so they would know that they were no longer in the old, corrupt system, but in a new world.

We need to recognize that we too are in a corrupt place, a corrupt nation.  Our nation was built on the backs of slaves, of Natives whose land our ancestors stole, that they refused a living to the poor people they forced here.  This nation continues to forfeit the rights and equal opportunities to African Americans, to Native Americans, to people who suffered from sexual abuse, to LGBTQ, to the homeless, to the mentally ill, to people whose only crime is to try their best to be a good citizen.  This nation kills innocent people around the world. This nation is corrupt.

And Jesus offers us a way out.  Baptism isn’t just a religious ceremony.  It is a way of turning our backs on the corruption of this age and to live a life free from that corruption, if only we would take it.  Jesus shows us not only a way to be free from our sin, but to be free from our nation’s sins.

To do this, we have to be involved in politics, the way Jesus was.  The first way is to join Jesus’ nation-- his kingdom whose only law is love, which is not bound up by the corruption of humanity, which breaks the oppression of all evil systems, including the evil systems of the churches built in Jesus’ name.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Jesus' Political Theory (in Context)

After John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:14-15

I just want to let you know, before I begin on this story, that I’m not really a fan of sports and especially not boxing.  But here goes, anyway.

In the 18th century, boxing had a much more open field than it does today. The boxing ring used to be a circle, which is why it is called a “ring” and the crowds, almost all men, would crowd around to see the series of bouts.  A single boxer would come out the winner at the end of the night. At this point, anyone who wanted to challenge the winner from the crowd was welcome to come up and take their chances. But instead of a number of people shouting, the challenger would take off their hat and throw it into the ring to declare their challenge.  This is why Teddy Roosevelt used the phrase, “I am throwing my hat into the ring” when he was stepping forward to run for president. And that’s the source of this saying.

When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand, believe in the gospel,” Jesus was making a religious statement, but even more than that, he was throwing his hat into the ring— in the sense of Teddy Roosevelt, not like a boxer.  Because there already was a kingdom of God that almost every Jew recognized. And Jesus was saying something decidedly political here. That a new kingdom is coming. A new king is coming. And he is set to take over. This was Jesus’ political speech.
In the ancient world, all the way until the time of the Protestant reformation, there was no separation of religion and state.  They were constantly and continuously united. If you were talking about politics, you were certainly talking about a religion. They weren’t separated.  Every king had their own god, sometimes their god was themselves— like Pharoah or Alexander the Great. A political leader was also the head priest of the nation and they led the worship of the nation.  A battle is an act of evangelism— a war is the battle between two gods and the general that wins the battle declares their god as more powerful than the god who lost. And the loser must acknowledge that the winner’s god is more powerful than the loser’s god.  The loser might still worship their own god, but they also have to worship the victor’s god.

Except for one group, the Jews.

A hundred and sixty some years before the birth of Jesus, there’s this Greek ruler called Antiochus Epiphanes. “Epiphanies” meant that he was calling himself “god on earth”.  But his main God was Zeus, and so he decided that that every national temple under his control had to be dedicated to Zeus, including the temple to Yahweh in Judea. After all, the Jews were the losers, they lost to the Greeks.  So they should properly dedicate their main temple to the winner, Zeus. So he sent his soldiers to Judea, gathered some faithful Jewish servants of the Greek overlords and sacrificed a pig to Zeus in the Temple of Yahweh.
Not everyone was okay with this.  One of them was a old guy named Matthias and his sons.  He was a descendent of Aaron, so in line to be the high priest of Yahweh.  When the soldiers came to sacrifice a pig on his altar, he sacrificed them, instead and called his sons and anyone else to stand up and fight against these Greek savages that desecrated the Temple of Yahweh.  You see, because Jews were taught that no matter who won a battle or war, Yahweh was always in charge, always ruling the whole earth and all the nations. So they weren’t going to accept someone disrespecting Yahweh.

After seven years of battle, Matthias and his sons, the Maccabees, gained freedom from the Greek oppressors and rededicated the temple to Yahweh, which is what the holiday Haunakah is about.  Matthias passed away and one of his surviving sons, John, became ruler of Judea. He was primarily the High Priest, but he was also the king, in charge of the nation of Judea. This nation was going to go back to Moses’ law and that would be the law of the nation. He set up a council of elders called the Sanhedrin, and they would meet together regularly to discuss how to interpret the law and apply it to all Jews.  John was not only the king of Judea, but to all who would come to the Temple to worship, to all Jews throughout the world— in Babylon, in Persia, in Egypt, in Turkey— everywhere. This was a remarkably powerful position. John was the king of the Jews, the anointed one, the Messiah, both priest and king,

But even if you agree on the god and agree on the law and agree on the priest and king, there is still a lot of room for interpretation.  Thus, political parties were born. There were three main ones:

The Sadducees.  They were kind of like the ancient Jewish Republicans.  They were very conservative in their interpretation of the law, and they also had the ear of the wealthy. They were generally the favorite of the high priests, and so stayed around Jerusalem and Judea, near their patrons.

The Pharisees.  They were kind of like the ancient Jewish Democrats.  They were more flexible with their understanding of the law, bringing in new ideas.  They were the populists, and many more people appreciated the Pharisees as leaders. They were seen as strict purists by some, but they just had a long tradition.

The Essenes— They were the rebels.  They saw that Matthias and John’s line to be the wrong line of high priests and they had stepped in front of the true line.  So they preferred not to worship with the other Jews, and had their own compounds in which they would bathe and clean themselves.  They were the real purists, much more than the Pharisees.
And we may see these groups as just arguing about legal or religious matters.  Not true. John’s son, Alexander Jonathan became king after him, and he openly sided with the Sadducees, so that really ticked off the Pharisees.  So the Pharisees invited the Greek king to come and take over Jerusalem. He said, “Great! I’ll be right over” and he brought all his troops to take out Alexander the High Priest and to take over Judea.  The Pharisees realized that he was pretty much overstepping their request, so they joined Alexander and the Sadducees to take out the Greeks. Thousands of people died, but they pushed the Greeks back. When it was all done, Alexander decided to punish the Pharisees by crucifying 800 of them.  About a decade later when Alexander’s wife, Salome had taken over as queen after his death, the Pharisees convinced her to kill of a number of Sadducees in revenge for the crucifixions. Politics was terrible and bloody in those days.

After about a hundred years of this infighting, some Jews invited the Roman general Pompeii to help them.  He came in and never left, taking control of Jerusalem and the Romans from that point on appointed the office of High Priest, ruler of the Jews.  Herod the Great came up later and, with Roman permission, took over Judea, Galilee, Idumea and Syria. He called himself “King of the Jews,” but since he was not of the nation of Judea, many Jews didn’t accept him as a real king.  The High Priest was still the real political ruler of the Jews.

And then comes Jesus in this complicated political situation. You have Pharisees, Sadducees, Herods and Roman governors and you also have Essenes in the countryside, stirring up trouble.

All this is essential, because everyone thinks that in their action, in their party, in their communities, in their temple, in their battles— this is all, they think, building the kingdom of God.  Sure, some people get killed, some people are exiled or destroyed. But that is all part of the work of God.

And Jesus is saying, “Listen to the gospel: the kingdom of God is here, repent and believe in the good news.”
When Jesus said, “gospel” he used the Greek word, “Euangelidzo” from which we get the word “evangelism”.  This is the word that Greeks and Romans used when they were proclaiming a new king or emperor was coming up.  He was proclaiming a new king.
For most people, they think that this is the last thing they need.  There have been so many kings and governors and upstarts and rebels all trying to rule, all trying to tell everyone what to do.  The last thing they need is another one.
But Jesus also said something else, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  

This means two things, right off the bat.  First, that all these priests and kings and parties— everyone thought they were working in the kingdom of God, but they weren’t.  Jesus is saying, “All the politics and religious action and building of the Temple and setting up compounds and battles and fighting— none of this, none of it is the kingdom of God.”
Jesus rejects all the political parties, all the battles, all the maneuverings, all the arguments, all the legal battles— none of it represents God or his will.

Secondly, Jesus is saying that at his voice, at his speaking, it is time for God’s kingdom, God’s will, God’s politics to begin.  Now is the time. It begins right now. Not in a little bit, not in a few years, not in 40 years, not in 1000 years, but now.
When Jesus was saying this, what was he talking about?

He is talking about all the healing.  All the uplifting of the poor. All the changed lives.  The deliverance of the mentally ill. The offering hope and love to people who have had nothing.  A politics of giving, not of taking. A politics of love, not of demands. A politics of listening to the impoverished and not the wealthy, or even the middle class. A bottom-up politics.  
This is the kingdom Jesus demonstrated early on.  His first actions were healing and restoring the mentally ill.  His first teaching was, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of god.”  He spoke to the Jews no one listened to in Galilee, instead of the important ones in Jerusalem.  This is the politics of God— the kingdom of God. Start with love. Start with the weakest. Start with offering hope, real, practical hope.  That’s the kingdom of God.

So when we see politics today, arguing about which wealthy person will be in charge.  Or which army will win. Or which god is more important than the other god. We who stand with Jesus— this is not the politics of God.  This is not the kingdom. The kingdom is with the lowest, with the poor and we know what it looks like, not by who is beaten, but by who is healed.
That is the only politics that counts.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Lepers: Jesus the Outreach Worker

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?
Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Today we get to read Leviticus!  “Is this the kind of preacher that reads Leviticus to us?”  No, I am the kind of preacher that reads Leviticus for you so you don’t have to! (Sometimes— I guess today is your lucky day!)
  1. Leprosy: The True Story
    Leprosy was a series of ailments.  What used to be called leprosy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and often today has nothing to do with the ancient ailments called leprosy.  What we used to call “leprosy” is now called Hanson’s Disease, but that is not what the Bible talks about. Perhaps leprosy was a long term infection, or eczema or even mold or fungus (because it could be seen on clothes and walls).  Today, if a doctor saw the specific and detailed symptoms in Leviticus 13 and 14, he would label the various symptoms as different ailments or not an ailment at all, just something that looked bad.

    Leprosy was not a disease.  It was an indication of impurity.  And impurity had nothing to do with sin, or with evil, it was an uncleanness.  And what is uncleanness mean? It is something that disgusts a community.

    Many lepers had nothing that would infect anyone else.  They just gave the impression to the community that they did, and so they were rejected.  They were separated from their family, from their society, from their friends, from their God, because, through no fault of their own, they were suddenly declared to be a target of disgust to the community.

    Did you know that disgust has to be learned?  When we are infants, we have no problem eating our poop.  Someone had to teach us that poop wasn’t okay to play with or to taste. Seems hard to believe, at this point. We have to learn that Tellytubbies is really, really weird.  We have to learn that we can’t trust a person with a darker shade of skin than we. (This is sarcasm. My sarcasm font is out of comission, otherwise you’d know that I wasn’t saying that a person of a darker shade of skin isn’t less trustworthy. Unless they use a tanning bed too often. Can’t trust those people. This is also humor.)
Well, it’s a good thing that we are past that.  (Note: Sarcasm button is still not working.) We don’t have anyone in our communities that we consider disgusting just because of an opinion they hold or because they belong to a certain group.  We don’t have any trouble with someone because they said they voted for Trump or because they belong to Antifa. Of course, that’s not true. We are disgusted and separate from people just the same as the ancients did. Some things never change.

So if I brought a Nazi flag here, who is ready to hold it up for everyone to see?  Who wants to have a picture taken with it? Why not? There’s nothing wrong with it.  It’s just a piece of cloth. It doesn’t mean anything. If I brought you a coat that was worn by Hitler, who would be willing to try it on for size?  That study has been done and found that very few people would wear Hitler’s coat, because there is something inherently wrong with it. It’s disgusting.

Even so, we see certain people as inherently disgusting, through no fault of their own.  Dr. Susan Fiske-- one of those nasty sociologists (I actually secretly adore her)-- tested people’s instinctive reactions to different social groups.  She put people in a noisy MRI machine and told them to look at people while she examined their brains. Sociologists like things like that. She found that certain groups were considered automatically disgusting, horrible, ready to reject with a strong rejection.  Undocumented immigrants. Women supported by welfare. Felons. Addicts.
But one group, she found, far in a way had a stronger reaction than any other.  So much, she said, that she couldn’t put the measure of disgust on the chart she made up, because the data was so extreme compared to others. That was the homeless.  Dr. Fiske said that when the average American saw a homeless person, they saw a pile of garbage. Which makes sense, considering how we treat them. As something to dispose of.  To move along. To get out of our sight. This shouldn’t be.
That is how lepers were treated.  People who weren’t really infectious, but who were so offensive to the community that they were driven out. Not just unwelcome, but given bus tickets to the next town over.  Their children were separated from them so they would know that they weren’t acceptable. Kinda like how immigrants are (mis)treated.
2. Jesus teaches us how to clean up our act
So along comes Jesus into our society, filled with disgust for people who did nothing wrong.  A man approaches him who has been labeled and isolated, rejected by society. He comes up to Jesus and says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

What was he saying?  “Jesus, I know I’m disgusting.  Frankly, you shouldn’t even look at me.  I am a horrible piece of work. But I come to you to stand at a reasonable distance from you in order to beg you for help.  Because if there is anyone who can take this horrible mark off of me, it is you. You can make me a person acceptable to others again.

And so Jesus touches him.  And cleanses him. His mark is removed.  And Jesus tells him to follow the law and go to the priest and get officially diagnosed as clean.

But Jesus is a hypocrite in this passage.  I know, I shouldn’t be saying things like “Jesus is a hypocrite”, but he commanded the man to follow the law.  And Jesus just broke the law:
He, on purpose, touched an unclean human.

According to Leviticus 5, if you accidentally touch an unclean human and realize it after, then you have to make an offering to the Lord because you have just sinned and you need the guilt cleansed from you.  But there is no sacrifice for intentional sin. And Jesus intentionally sinned. He touched an unclean, disgusting person. On purpose.

In fact, Jesus action was so radical that a gospel that didn’t make it into our canon, declared that Jesus didn’t touch the leper.  But the leper touched a bunch of other lepers, which is how he became sick. And Jesus conclusion to the matter was to tell him to sin no more.  Some Christians aren’t comfortable when Jesus sins.

At the time, there was an argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Suppose there was a dead animal and a trickle of water passed under the animal and then into the street.  If a person accidentally stepped in it, would they be required to make a sacrifice or not? This was a huge argument.

We have no record of Jesus making a comment on this argument.  But I think that Jesus would have a completely different point of view on the matter.  “It is not” Jesus says in Mark 7, “what goes in you, or what touches you that makes you unclean.  It is what comes out of you-- your words, your evil actions.”

Even so, when Jesus touched this leper, he showed that he didn’t expect to be made unclean.  Because love can’t be made impure.

Jesus did an act of love by touching a man who hasn’t been touched in years.  He loved him and that pure act of love, without selfishness-- in fact, an act that could have got him in a lot of trouble-- did not make Jesus unclean.  Jesus did not become disgusting because of love. Instead, love cleans. Love makes the disgusting person acceptable, whole, even wonderful. This leper was no longer an object of scorn, but of amazement and admiration.  Just because Jesus loved him.

Jesus is teaching us the same thing.  If we love the “disgusting” people around us, we can transform them.  Perhaps we can’t change them. Perhaps they don’t need to change. But we can transform who they are in the eyes of society.  Love makes “disgusting” people lovable.
That is how we deal with uncleanness.  We battle it with open, clear acceptance and love.  Not just from afar. But by touching, and treating the disgusting person like family.

There is no such thing as disgusting people. Disgust is learned and it is awful if we learn that some people are “disgusting”. But almost all of us have learned that habit. We can unlearn it. In the meantime the disgust that is applied to people can be erased if we love. That’s the point. It’s a good point, I think. Of course I think it. It’s important enough for me to write it. Anyway, perhaps we should move on to the next point.

3. Generosity is a Lonely Business
One last thing I want to point out from Jesus’ interactions with lepers

Jesus told this leper to not tell anyone what happened to him.  What did he do? Tell everyone.
Jesus told the ten lepers to go to the priest.  Did they? We don’t know.
However, only one out of ten came back to even say “Thank you.”  

Look, helping people is a thankless business.  Literally.

Occasionally we get a thank you.  Sometimes years later. And almost no one takes the good counsel we give them and straightens up their lives and lives happily ever after.  They will often have to come back to be healed and helped again and again. And sometimes they will even attack us for not giving them more than what we did.

When you sacrifice for others, don’t expect them to do the same for you.  They might, but more likely they won’t. Giving is, more often than not, a one way street. That’s part of the task.

That’s a depressing way to end the sermon.  So let’s leave it on this note: Love transforms the world.  If we show welcome and mercy and family intimacy with the people that others find disgusting, then the world will see them differently.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Jesus the Outreach Worker

If we are going to understand something, we have to know the context.

If we use the word "bear" does it mean "to carry" or does it mean "a large hairy beast that wants to eat your face off"? It's important to understand which meaning.  And we understand by the context around the word.

In the ancient world there was a group of proto-monks called "the desert fathers and mothers" who lived in the desert to follow Jesus strictly, better than most people, anyway.  There was one monk who wandered off every week and his brothers wondered where he went.  They got curious enough that they followed him and found out that he visited a brothel every week.  That is not good.  Not at all.

So they held a tribunal to judge him.  They got a bishop, told him the circumstance and told the bishop to excommunicate the wandering brother.  The bishop said, "Wait.  We first need to listen to our brother and find out what he was doing."  

"But we KNOW what he was doing.  He doesn't need to spell it out."


When the brother spoke, he said, "It is true.  I visited a brothel every week.  I am guilty of that.  But I visited the brothel because my sister is in there and I went every week to beg her to leave and to become a nun instead."

Context is important.

When we read the gospels, it is important to know the context.  We need to know the point.  Sure, we know that Jesus was teaching about the kingdom, but what was the kingdom?  We know that Jesus died, but what did he die for?

Some want us to focus on the truth that Jesus was divine, that this is the context of the gospels, that every story is to point to that truth.  Some want us to focus on the truth that Jesus died for our sins, that this is the point of every story and teaching.  Some want us to focus on forgiveness.  Some want us to focus on God's grace.  All good things.

But like the brother, sometimes it is good just to ask the person who is the focus.  It just so happens someone did ask.  It was John the Baptist.

John was sitting in prison, freaking out because the person he handed the mantle to is causing a bunch of strange controversy.  John is a law and order man and it sounds like Jesus is breaking the law.  Saying some strange, unorthodox statements.  So John wanted to double check and sent a couple followers to check Jesus out.

Jesus told John's followers, "Sure, look what I'm doing for a few hours."  After the day passed, Jesus said, "Go and tell John what you saw: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.”  Matthew 11:5

The context of what Jesus was doing was his loving, merciful work.  When he taught, when he confronted others, when he challenged, when he quoted the Bible, it was all with this intention: to provide assistance for those in the greatest need. 

What was Jesus doing?  He was walking down the street in town after town and finding people who were hopeless and sick and impoverished and in need of desperate help, and he provided them with just what they needed.  What they needed at the moment, and what they needed to turn their lives around.

In Oregon there are many teams of people who just go around with life-saving supplies and provided them for people on the street—socks, food, blankets, sleeping bags, tents.  Whatever they need so they can survive for another night or week or for the winter.  These people are called outreach workers.  They go to where the need is and try to provide it.  This is what Jesus did.  He was an outreach worker.  He saw needs and met them.  And this is the heart of his teaching, his miracles, his focus on the kingdom, his forgiveness.  It is all about practical acts of mercy.

In one of these works, healing a blind person, Jesus said,

As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.  Night is coming when no one can work.”

I want you to notice a slight grammatical point—the first person plural.  Jesus didn’t say “I” must work, but “we”.  The healing and provision and great acts aren’t supposed to just be gazed at us in wonder.  We are supposed to figure out how we will do these deeds ourselves.  This is a ministry that is supposed to be characteristic of the whole kingdom of God, by all who participate in it, not just Jesus.

Some might say, Jesus is speaking to his apostles, not to all of us today.  To that I’d say look at the speech Jesus gives to his disciples in John 14-17.  We certainly accept that passage.  It is full of basics, such as “Love one another” and “I prepare a place for you.”  But it also says, “The works I have done, you will do as well. And greater works than these you shall do.”  Even as we are commanded to love, we are commanded to do the kind of work that Jesus did.

We could ask the question about how to do miracles… but that’s not the focus.  Jesus said that if we give a cup of cold water we've done a great work.  Or if we've housed a homeless person.  Or if we've visited people in prison.  Let's not get caught up in the supernatural element.  Rather, we should learn some of the principles that Jesus taught us about how to help people in general.  Let’s not get caught up by focusing on the supernatural aspect of Jesus’ work.  Rather, let’s focus on the acts of mercy Jesus wants us to do and why we should do them.

Some want to say that social action is separate from the gospel.  Jesus says that social action is all that the gospel is about.  If you preach "good news" without giving food to the hungry, then your news isn't good at all. 

And if you don't act out the mercy and love of God, then your faith is dead.  I heard that before.  I probably read it in a meme or something. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Saving the Bible

1. Don't Break the Sabbath

Once upon a time there were people who took the ten commandments really seriously.  So seriously, in fact, they not only didn't want people to disobey these laws, they didn't want them to get close to breaking these laws.  So they created laws which made the laws bigger.  And they created laws around those so they wouldn't break those laws, just in case.  They called this process "placing a fence around the Torah."  And in their nation, everyone had to obey the ten and the laws around the ten and the laws around them or they would be rejected from society.

 So they made laws for people not working on the Sabbath.  They defined what work was.  And they defined what a "long walk" was.  And they defined what a person could and could not do on the Sabbath.

In 30 AD, however, they heard that there was this one guy who wasn’t paying attention to the correct interpretation.  That he was teaching something different. So they sent teachers of one of their political parties, the Pharisees, to check out his orthodoxy.  They hang out with Jesus and his disciples and they see the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. They look at Jesus and, sure enough, he was not rebuking his disciples to give them the orthodox interpretation.  He seemed to think that it was no big deal. But they were Harvesting. Plucking grain is harvesting. Harvesting. On the Sabbath. One does not harvest on the Sabbath. This is opposed to the word of God.

It was serious because if, for instance, everyone obeyed the restriction of not working on the Sabbath, for instance, the final days would happen and their nation would rule the world.  So the leaders insisted that everyone would do this.  Without exception. 

And so they correct Jesus.  Get on his case because his disciples aren’t being lawful.  And to be “unlawful” or “lawless” is akin to being godless or immoral.  

Looks like David is getting away with something...
2. Who's Not Reading the Bible? Jesus heard their question and decided to answer it honestly and fully.  By telling a story about David. A story that didn’t have anything to do with the Sabbath. Or harvesting.  

Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

Jesus begins by asking them, “Don’t you ever read your Bibles?”  Of course, he knew that they did. Frankly, that was almost all they did.  Read and study their bibles. They had most of the Torah memorized and knew it inside and out.  But he decided that they didn’t know it well enough, so he recited a story to them.

The story is found in 1 Samuel 21.  David is the shepherd turned warrior for God and the current king, Saul, is frightened that David is trying to take over the kingdom, so he chases David with his armies to kill him.  David and his men become homeless because of this persecution and are on the run. They happen to stop by the high priests and the ark of the covenant and the high priest, *Ahimalech meets David. (*Side note: Jesus says the priest was Abiathar. Samuel says the priest was Ahimalech, Abiathar's father. Interesting. I wonder if Jesus got this wrong on purpose to piss the Pharisees off?)

So David comes up and says, “We’re hungry.  Do you have any bread?” Ahimalech says, “No, I’m sorry.  We’ve got no bread. Well, except for the bread which the law says I can’t give you.”  And it was probably for this very situation that the law was established.

“Every sabbath day he shall set it (the bread) in order before the LORD continually; it is an everlasting covenant for the sons of Israel. 9“It shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the LORD’S offerings by fire, his portion forever.” Leviticus 24:8-9

Frankly, being a priest isn’t a lucrative gig.  You have no land, no way to grow food, and you are dependent on people’s generosity, which isn’t always very generous.  So you serve God and God allows you to have his food. And if someone asks for your food, you say, “Sorry, I can’t give it to you” so the priests still have something to eat.  Makes sense.

But David seems pretty desperate and he told Ahimelech that he was on the king’s business and so Ahimelech allowed him to have the special bread only for priests.  Both the priest and David were breaking the law.

And that is Jesus’ point.  There are times when the law should be broken.  Even the law itself allows the law to be broken.  You hear that Paula White? The Bible says that the Bible must be disobeyed.   But only in specific circumstances. Like, when people are suffering. When they are desperately hungry, or when people are severely oppressed, then the basic laws don’t apply.  Because more important than following the law, Jesus is pointing out, is following mercy. Making sure that people’s needs are met. Mercy is greater than strict adherence to the law. Jesus and David and Ahimelch were on the right side of interpreting the law. Because while the law is supposed to be obeyed, mercy is the greater law. Always.

3. Saving the Bible
So many, many people are using the Bible today, just like in the first century. And they use it for many, many reasons. Some use the Bible to help people. Some use it to teach doctrine. Others use it for their own purposes. Or to force their will on people. Almost always, if someone uses the Bible to say, "Submit," it's for their own nefarious purposes. Or simply because they're right and they want to work against other people's well-being in order to prove they're right.
Jesus came to save humanity.  And in doing this, Jesus came to save the Bible.

Why is this?  Because in order to save humanity, humanity has to change.  We have to stop following our own imaginings and ideals and instead follow the ideals of God, which is love, mercy and grace.  We need to stop being so mathematical and be more relational. We need to work in and for community. Jesus also knows that the primary way that people change is through story.  We need to be a part of a story that means more than just us. We need to be part of the answer to a long narrative. The Bible provides that narrative.

And Jesus said that he came to fulfill the Bible.  Some thinks that means to obey it or to act out the narrative others said he would act out. But the primary meaning Jesus used when he said that he would "fulfill" the Bible is to finish it, to complete it, to provide the proper ending to it. Or at least, to provide a conclusion to one part, the pivot point on which the narrative turns and goes to a different climax than we thought.  

For instance, let’s talk about the original Godfather movie.  All of you know that Marlon Brando is the Godfather and he talks like “I’m going to make you a deal you can’t refuse” and the story is about him and how he takes care of his mafia family, right?  But we get to the end of The Godfather and we find out that the godfather is not Marlon Brando at all, but Al Pacino. And the next two Godfather movies shows how Al Pacino tries to change the empire his father created.  At the point Marlon Brando dies, the whole thrust of the narrative changes to how the mafia must be different than how it was. It must change it's basic nature.

That’s kind of what Jesus means when he says that he has come to “fulfill” the scripture.  He doesn’t want to change the story, but he wants to change the endings of all the stories in the Bible.  And then he invites all of us to participate in those stories.

Jesus says, “Don’t be so hard about the law.  Don’t be like Moses who arranged to have people stoned because they infringed on the Sabbath.  Instead, be like David, be like Ahimelech who is flexible about the law when someone who is hungry is in front of him."  You can chose the story of mercy. The story of love.

We want to participate in the salvation of the Bible.  Jesus does a task, and then invites us to participate with him.  That’s what following Jesus is all about. Not just knowing his words and following them, but also knowing his life and following it.  Jesus saved the Bible through his actions and words. And we want to do the same.

Whenever I teach, I am trying to save the Bible.  Why does the Bible need salvation? Because there are so many people who are trying to save the Bible from itself, to change what it says so it doesn’t seem so human.  Like people who wouldn’t point out that Jesus may have made an error in speaking of the high priest’s son instead of the one in the story. Like people who would say that Jesus couldn’t have broken the law.

We need to save the Bible from people who use the Bible to harm, to separate and to kill.  We need to save the Bible from people who use it to create empire, instead of seeking the kingdom of God.  We need to save the Bible from people who want to shame and harm the poor instead of partnering with them. We want to save the Bible from people who want to create outcast people instead of forming community with them.

In this, we need to take Jesus as our teacher.  In Matthew 23, we read that we have but one teacher, the Christ.  Lots of people can give sermons, lots of people can give the facts of Scripture, many people interpret the Bible and many people can apply it and live it out.  But I trust no one to properly interpret the Word of God, to fully flesh it out and make us realize what the Bible is really about—no one except Jesus.

I love the Bible.  I love all the puns, all the metaphors, all the intense stories, all the hard words of the prophets and all the wisdom. Sometimes I even love the genealogies. But if I wander my own way through the complexity of 31,000 verses, all I will come up with is my own thoughts.  Because the Bible is complicated enough for anyone to make up whatever they want and have enough proof texts to say what they feel.

So I don’t trust myself to guide others through Scripture. I trust Jesus to do that. I trust that what Jesus did and taught in the gospels and the other stories we have about him is enough to train us, to help us be part of the fulfillment of the Bible.  Jesus is the savior of the Bible and we will follow him to save the Bible from those who will use this book to harm.