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.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Discarded Bottle

This is the first morning I awoke in my new community.  I am in the process of moving from Portland Oregon to Eugene Oregon, to be pastor in a new congregation.  I'm nervous, because for the last twenty years I've been the pastor of a homeless congregation with middle class people in it and now I am a pastor of a middle class congregation that will (hopefully) have homeless folks in it.  Class shift is difficult and takes time.  I hope this congregation will be patient with me as I make the transition.

Meanwhile, I am a minister in a new city. I am supposed to minister.  But how do I start?  I start this morning by walking.

I walked a mile around the apartment I am temporarily staying in.  It is early Sunday morning, so the streets are pretty much empty of souls, just the way I like it.  But it is a good time to begin ministering.  How does one do this?

I need to see the city for what it is.  This is not just a "little Portland" or a community that I can treat the same as my old one.  I have to look carefully to see what the city really is.  At times I will do this by comparison/contrast to the city I lived in for thirty years.  But I also just need to look at it.  Look at the butte (hey now, don't misread), look at the traffic, look at the vegetation, look at the... ah, the trash.  Some things don't change. 

If I am going to minister to a person, I need to hear clearly what they are telling me.  Who are they, what are their passions, what are their concerns?  As I walk, I am passing a woman with headphones walking the opposite way.  She moves away from me and looks to the ground.  Perhaps she isn't feeling social.  Or perhaps she is nervous about the older white guy walking opposite to her.  I look away and give her the space she requires.  Sometimes staying away is the best way of serving another.

In my walk I saw an empty bottle in the middle of the street. I picked it up, figuring I could place it in recycling when I get back to the apartment.  Then I noticed an empty bag.  Ah ha.  So I picked up the bag and as I went on I slowly began filling it with trash.  It was about half full when I came back to my residence and I dropped it in the trash, putting the recycling in its proper place.  I have fed thousands of people before, but this morning my best act of love was picking up trash.  That's enough.

The most important thing is to remember that I am not here to change this city, to change this congregation or to change this or that person.  I do not know what I can do.  This new path is a blank slate to me and I cannot impose my ideals or hopes onto it.  It is time for the path to lead me.  I am not just going to fit in a place that someone else has dictated to me.  But I am going to wait for God to show me my place.  That will probably stir up some dust, because that is what happens when God acts.  In the meantime, it is just me.  I need to stand aside and observe the bold actions, the coping mechanisms, the open wounds and the ill-fitting bandages. And then, eventually, I pray and seek my place.