“Crowdsourcing and the Carnivalesque” Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012 on Mark 11:1-11

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to

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them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mobile, Alabama lays claim to being the place were Mardi Gas was first celebrated in America, even though New Orleans has the greater reputation.  Everybody seems to love a good parade.  Almost everyone loves event-crowds.  Something happens to people when they come together in large crowds.  The crowd can start acting like a swarm.  And a parade, even more than a crowd at a ball game, is eager to be swept up in the moment.

Parades and “TAZ”s

Parade time may be one of those “Temporary Autonomous Zones” in which normal social barriers are suspended.  People lose some of their inhibitions in crowds.  In a crowd at a Mardi Gras parade you find yourself doing what you would never otherwise do, like getting excited again and again about catching another gaudy-colored plastic-beaded necklace.

There is something carnivalesque in the parade that Jesus enacted.  There seemed to be a lot of advance planning, even covert preparations – a donkey

colt in a village, a password, no proper names used, “just tell them ‘the Master needs it.’

Tight Quarters

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How should we picture it?  We don’t know what the ancient city of Jerusalem looked like – it has been built up and destroyed so many times!   But if it was like almost any other ancient city the streets would have been narrow.  If you have ever had to drive in Europe were streets were made long before cars or trucks were invented, you know that the width of a donkey cart seemed to be the universal standard the civil engineers of their day were using.

So picture it: narrow, twisting lanes, full of people in normal times – people selling produce and animals, clothing and tools.  People shopping, haggling over prices, looking for better deals.  But this was Passover time, the great annual remembrance of liberation from slavery in Egypt, so there were thousands of pilgrims who had come to the city from all over the place.   It’s a national holiday.  Spirits are high.

The First Ride

So on the hill facing the city, here comes Jesus, riding a donkey colt.  He is its first rider.  In my experience as a kid in Kansas, animals do not like people sitting on them.  At least not at first.  That’s why cowboys talk about “breaking” a horse; breaking it of its normal displeasure at having to carry somebody.

Animals do not come with an understanding of steering either.  That has to be taught as well.  Picture trying to get a donkey to carry an adult person for the first time.  It could not have been cooperative.  It must have been almost comical.  Maybe that was part of the well-planned plan – a comic mockery; a send up of a triumphal entry of the king, fresh back from conquering some foreign land.

Street Theater: Satire

The crowds are in the mood for a good parade, and all the more so if it’s political satire.  Maybe if they treat it like comedy they will be able to get away with things in the crowd that they could never otherwise do.  Maybe if they ham it up, exaggerate it for effect, start throwing coats on the road and waving branches, it will be taken as street-theater.  Even with all the extra Roman troops in town for this most potentially explosive of all national holidays, watching nervously, they can get away with a mocking salute to a king other than Caesar.

It works.  They start chanting together things the Romans might crucify them for saying in a serious speech:

 9 “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

It’s Late

It’s all in good humor, and, amazingly no one gets arrested.  The point has been made, the actors in the drama get to the end, the temple, and call it a day.  As Mark recounts,

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late

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Already late.”  Late for whom?  We will soon find out.

Why, at this “late” moment in the story, would Jesus decide to organize a play in which he takes the lead role as chief jester?  This is not a time for jokes.  Three times already he has told his disciples that going to Jerusalem is where he is going to die.  This must be more than simple gallows humor.

The King has Returned

It is more.  There are some things, some very serious things, that only a jester can say.  And now, at this late hour, this one thing needed to be said, publicly and clearly.  Jesus did indeed understand himself as the long-awaited king, returning at last to Zion.  This carefully constructed scene was the best way to send out the message: the King has come!

But will he be swept up in the swarm’s common agenda?  Will he start the great Jewish war with Rome, the one that ends in the triumphal parade given for Roman General Titus?  No!  Someone else will do that, a bit later.

Jesus did understand himself as king, and he did understand that he had a battle of liberation to fight, but he did not identify the enemy as Rome; for Jesus, the enemy was evil itself.  And very soon, it would be a battle to the death.

Party Over

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The very next day is the day he returned back into the city, not with an army to confront Roman soldiers, but with a whip to drive animals out of the temple and with the intention of shutting the whole place down, at least for one symbolic moment.  The battle against evil was on.

We all know the story; we know that Jesus will stay in that area for several more days, teaching publicly in the temple.  We know that opposition will grow and that finally he will be arrested, tried, condemned for being what the crowd wanted him to be, but what he refused to be: a nationalist freedom-fighting kind of king.

We know as well that Easter is coming. We know that in resurrection, God vindicated Jesus and validated his message.

What Kind of King?

Palm Sunday, which begins with a carnivalesque parade, presents us with a serious question: Why did the crowd not want the kind of king that Jesus actually was?

A psychologist might tell us that we all want to project the evil within us onto some external subject whom we can then blame and hold responsible for our own darkness.  It’s easier to hate Romans than to deal with the evil in my own heart.

Where does that leave us, today?  What kind of king are we looking for?  What if Jesus refuses to be my personal Superman, available to get me off the hook of every bad situation?  What if Jesus doesn’t want to be my Captain America or my personal E. F. Hutton?

The King’s Agenda

What if the kind of King he is means that he wants instead to take on the evil in me:  my arrogance, my stinginess, my refusal to forgive, my apathy, my cynicism, my materialism and my self-centeredness?

What if the kind of King he is means that he wants to disguise himself as the poor, the hungry, the ill housed, the sick, the wrongfully imprisoned, and see how I treat him?

What if, in his kingdom, the values held in highest esteem are poverty of spirit, mourning over the destructive effects of evil, humble meekness, hunger and thirst for justice, purity of heart, peacemaking, and willingness to suffer for what is right and good?

What if that is the kind of king he came to be?  Would that be enough to make me want to turn my “Hosanna” in to a cry of “Crucify him?”  It was enough for some.

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The Right Life Plan, Sermon on John 12:20-33 for Lent 5B, March 25, 2012

 John 12:20-33

 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told

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Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

I heard a song a long time ago – I guess it was a song –  by the Talking Heads.  It had music in the background, but mainly you heard a voice speaking, not wrap; not even rhyme, but a voice telling a strange story.  The story was about a boy who imagined that all of us get to choose how our faces look.  We do this by selecting a face that we want to look like when we are young, and over the years, by concentrating on it, we eventually look like that.  This is why, the boy imagines, first impressions are so often correct.

But then the story introduces a complication.  What if you realize, sometime after that childhood choice, that the face you selected was a mistake; really not right for you at all?

The Life Plan Question

It’s a rather absurd story, but it brings up a frightening question.  Most of us have had some idea of the life we wanted to live.  Of course lots of things happen that bend and shape our ideal life plan in ways we didn’t intend, but we make adjustments and keep pressing on.

What if the composition of our life plan had some basic errors?  What if the elements of our plan that we were sure were going to give us meaning and joy turned out to be ineffective, or even harmful?

If our life plan included having a big thick juicy stake at every dinner followed by a huge bowl of ice cream for dessert, probably we have not thought it through sufficiently.

Life Plans that Loose Life

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This kind of confusion is exactly what Jesus was talking about in this text from John.  There are life plans that lead to loosing life – in ways that go far deeper than health.  On the other hand, there are life plans that lead to keeping life as it was meant to be lived.

It is tricky though, because it turns out that the path to finding life and the path to loosing life are counter-intuitive.  Loving life leads to loosing it, and hating life leads to finding it.  Jesus says:

25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The Dying Seed Metaphor

What in the world is he talking about?  The best way to think of it, is to think of a garden.  It starts with a seed.  The hope is that it will end with a fruitful crop.  If you love the seed and keep it in a protective container on the shelf, you will harvest nothing.

But if you “hate” the seed, in a manner of speaking, and “kill it” by burying it in the ground, then the magic happens, and it grows up and produces a fruitful plant.

24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

The seed has to be sacrificed, so to speak, in order to produce fruit.  Sacrifice turns out to be the key.

Loving and Loosing Life

Is it possible for us to love our lives in a way that ends up loosing them?  This is exactly what happens all the time, on all kinds of levels, from the deeply personal to the level of families, to communities, even nations.

If we indulge ourselves in easy lives in which we never break a sweat or that get  out of breath, then chances are, we will end up with broken health long before our time.  But for most of us, exercise is never what we would prefer to be doing.

It turns out that self-indulgence is at the root of a lot of the mistakes we make and the problems we have.  We know that we shouldn’t eat that, but we want it badly.  We know that that drink is one too many, but we take it anyway.  We know that indulging our impulse to say it that way, with that tone, with those words will poison the relationship, but we let loose because they deserve to hear it.

Unforeseen Errors of Indulgence

Sometimes we are aware of the stupidity of our choices even while we are making them, but other times, we don’t see the consequences, and our life plan seems to be working for our benefit, and only later do we see its errors.

People who study such things tell us that all kinds of ways in which our culture has defined the good life end up contributing to our pain.  We get what we always wanted and in the end, it makes us miserable.

We thought that by having more and more income, conveniences and entertainments we would have happy, stress-free lives, but it turns out that

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wealth and possessions is not a predictor of happiness and meaning.

The truth is that the more selfish and self-indulgent we are, the more miserable we become.  The more we love our lives, as Jesus said, the more we lose them.

There is an alternative, however, that leads to fruitfulness, but it is found, counter-intuitively, in sacrifice.  When you sacrifice the seed in the soil, it flourishes.  Sacrifice comfort and time everyday for physical exercise, and we become healthier.  Sacrifice time and energy serving people in need, sacrifice money on worthwhile causes, and we find our lives have meaning and joy.

The Jesus Way

This is the Jesus way.  Jesus invites us to be his followers, even though following is going to include sacrifice.  But it precisely that sacrifice that is going to produce life for us.

This text began with that odd story of the Greeks who want to see Jesus.  John’s gospel goes into great detail about the process – first they meet Phillip then Andrew who go together to arrange the meeting with Jesus.  Why does John tell it this way?

This story is about the harvest that Jesus’ sacrifice is going to produce.  It is about the whole world being drawn to Jesus when he is lifted up, as he will be soon, on a cross on which he sacrificed his life for us.

Is this a good thing that these Greeks want to see Jesus?  Well of course it is, we would say, but let’s think of this a bit further.  For Jewish people in Jesus’ day, the vision of the good life was all of Abraham’s descendants living peacefully and securely without anyone being bothered by Greek – that is by gentiles, by the other guys.

That vision of the good life may have been common, but it was going to have to be sacrificed.  Jesus had the goal of drawing all people into the circle of his life-giving  family.

The ideal of the good life surrounded by people who look like us, speak our language, eat our cuisine, and have the same life goals of a home in the suburbs with a well-kept lawn for our grandkids to play on was going to have to be sacrificed.  The door was going to be open now to Greeks – different people.

Jesus’ Invitation to Finding Life

Jesus is inviting all of us to be his followers.  He is inviting us to find life by means of sacrificially loosing our lives.

The question is how?  How might God be calling us to loose our lives on behalf of others?

Some of us still have the health and energy to invest our time in ministries of compassion.  Some of us can sacrifice some of our hours at the Christian Service Center or building a Habitat for Humanity house.

Some of us can work on justice issues like affordable homeowners insurance.  Others can go play bingo at Golden Living.   Some can tutor children after school.  Some can help us work with children in the new Kids night out program and VBS.

Some of us can be actively involved in addressing structural issues like poverty, hunger, health care, mental health issues, homelessness.

All of us are able to give funds to enable ministries of care and compassion, rehabilitation, literacy, and evangelism.

All of us are able to sacrifice time to pray for people in need and for the people who serve them.

Come, Jesus is calling us; loose your life.  Sacrifice your seeds; plant them all.  And then watch God fill your life with joy and meaning.  Follow Jesus, as St. Francis came to learn:

“for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Location and Timing, Sermon on John 12:20-33 for 5th Lent B, March 25, 2012

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Real Estate people used to say that the three most important things about a house are, in order of priority: location, location, and location.  Now we

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know that’s only half true.  Now we know that most important are the combination of location and timing, location and timing, location and timing.

Those who bought great homes in great locations just before the housing price-bubble burst have learned the hard way the lesson of timing.

Location and timing are central to this text from John that we just read.  We will look at this text together, and as we do, we are going to come to the question of our  location and timing.  Where are we, right now on the map of our lives, and where are we on the time-line of our lives?  Are we where we want to be?

John will be John

Before we start, let’s just remember one thing: John’s gospel is different from the other three.  It was written perhaps sixty years after Jesus earthly ministry, so there has been a long time to think through the meaning and significance of his life and teaching.  John loves to embed symbols in his telling of the story, and he is quite comfortable with time-shifting events, like a lot of modern films do.

For example, there is only one time a voice from heaven is heard in John’s gospel, and it is here, not at Jesus’ baptism nor at the transfiguration as in the other gospels.  Why?  Because this moment is the tipping moment: the dramatic, decisive turn in events that lead to the conclusion.  The voice from heaven is all about making the timing of this moment utterly unique.

The Greeks are Coming

But let’s start where the story begins, with these Greek people who want to see Jesus.  Who are these people?  They are the rest of the world.  To Jews in those days, the world had two kinds of people: Jews and non-Jews.  Sometimes non-Jews were called gentiles, sometimes, “the nations” or, because everyone in the world back then spoke Greek, they were simply called “the Greeks.”

Now, the Greeks they have changed locations.  Now, they are not living in some no-go zone of gentile foreign-ness.    Now they have come to Jesus.

It’s Passover time in Jerusalem.  Lots of people come to celebrate the change of location that started the whole story of the Jews: the movement from Egypt and slavery to freedom across the Red Sea.  Now a new change of location is happening, a new exodus: from not being with Jesus to being with Jesus.  And the whole world is involved.

Jesus had predicted that he had sheep to bring into his care who were “not of this fold” – meaning non-Jews (John 10:16).  Now it’s finally coming true.  Here is how it goes:

 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 

Why all the attention to the way these non-Jews come to Jesus?  John is symbolically representing the perfect scenario.  Disciples are there to help people get to Jesus.  We are here to help people get to Jesus.  All kinds of people.  People like us, and people not like us.

The Greeks are here: the time has come

When the world starts coming to Jesus, the dramatic moment has arrived.  Jesus says to Andrew and Philip,

23 “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Again we have a time-shift.  The Greeks come now, but Jesus says the moment at which he will “draw all people” to himself is when he is lifted up – meaning on the cross, a few days in the future.  But looking at this moment from sixty years afterwards, this was only a blink away.

32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

So the story continues: the moment that the world comes to Jesus is so dramatic that it means Jesus, the Son of Man, is being glorified, and this is exactly what that mysterious voice dramatically asserts.   Some may have heard it as thunder, but Jesus heard in it a confirmation.  God was at work, and the world was becoming aware of it.

The Darker Side 

But here is where the story takes a turn.  Perhaps those thunder-clouds darkened the whole sky.  Jesus now teaches what it means to come to him, as the Greeks of the world have just started to do.  It’s quite serious business.

In the black-and-white, all-or-nothing way in which John reports Jesus’ words,  we hear about loving and hating our lives.

Jesus, as John tells it, begins with a stripped down, short parable of a seed:

24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much

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fruit. 

What is the point?  Each of us are like seeds.  Each of us has the capacity to produce huge amounts of fruit, but only under the right conditions.  A seed sitting on the couch all day produces nothing.  A burial is required if you want new life.  Planting the seed in the soil, symbolic death, is step one.

Hating the Dead-Zones in us

What does this mean?  There are parts of our lives that we should hate so much we should wish them dead.  If instead we love these parts of our lives and keep them above ground, no harvest will come next spring.

25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 

This sounds like a call to be a Taliban suicide bomber – but it’s not.  The Taliban  path is utterly destructive; the opposite of what Jesus wants for us.  The starkness of these words are exaggeration for the effect of emphasizing the importance of their meaning.  And what in the world could it mean to hate life in order to “keep it for eternal life?”  The very next line is the explanation:

26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 

Notice this is about location too; being in Jesus’ location.  The whole point is that following Jesus leads to life.  Not following him leads to death.

Where are we on the map of our lives?  What is our inner location?   Well we have come to a place where we have accumulated a lot of baggage.  We are now in familiar territory and comfortable with our surroundings – even though, by the standards of Jesus, we ought to hate it.

What kinds of things are hate-able?  Anything that is contrary to following Jesus.  Anything that represent a way of living or a perspective contrary to the Jesus-way.  Anything that is a barrier to being a “red-letter Christian;” a follower of Jesus in thought, word and deed.

Just like doctors hate cancer cells and bacteria, and like judges hate violent crime, like coaches hate sloth and disunity, so there are parts of our lives that we should hate.

Lenten Self-Examination and Renunciation

In lent we practice self-examination and renunciation.  There are things to give up, things in our lives to give up, to hate, that go way beyond desserts and steaks.   I started with myself, and I came up with these things to hate.

Even though we are used to it, we should hate our natural selfishness.

Even though we think that we are in good company feeling this way, we should hate our fear of people who are different; that is, people who look differently, like Trayvon Martin did, people vote differently, who worship differently, who speak differently, even who love and couple differently.

Even though we are a lot like our culture here, we should actually hate our:

Trayvon Martin
  • apathy towards suffering,
  • our tolerance of injustice,
  • our complicity with discrimination,
  • our materialism,
  • our addictions
  • and our compulsions.

We should hate how soft we are on ourselves, how willing we are to believe our own excuses, how much comfort we feel we deserve.

Jesus says, rather,

25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  

The Benefit

This is the good side: there is eternal life on offer here.  Not just life in the sky by-and-by, in some post-death future, but starting now.  In John’s gospel, “eternal life” is often the way he speaks of the thing the other gospels call the “kingdom of God.”  It starts now.  Timing is crucial.

It starts were Jesus is.

26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

Where is Jesus?  Following him inevitably leads to pain.  It lead him to pain as he was “lifted up” on the cross, in total solidarity with all who suffer the effects of evil.  All through his life he led his followers to places of pain, showing them what he expected his servants to do.

He led them to a well where a marginalized, shunned woman showed up and he offered the living water of forgiveness.  He led them to places of scarcity and hunger and showed his followers how seriously God takes human need.  He led them to an impending execution of a caught-red-handed-adulteress and shut it down.  He challenged entire systems of oppression as he cleared the temple.

We began by discussing location and timing.  Where are we in relation to Jesus?  And what time is it in our lives?   It’s almost Holy Week – time is short.  And for most of us, we are far closer to the end of our lives than the beginning.  Time is short.

“Basic to Who We Are” Sermon on John 3:14-21 for 4th Lent B, March 18, 2012

John 3:14-21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have

eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

I just introduced my Thursday Bible Study group to the amazing world of TED videos.  “TED” stands for “Technology Entertainment and Design.”  It’s a

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conference in which experts in their fields give short talks before a live audience.  They are fascinating.  You can go to the TED web-sight on the internet and watch videos of  talks on everything from new discoveries in science and medicine to the latest ways of making digital books, and including talks on philosophy, psychology,  and poetry.

I just watched a TED talk given by social scientist Jonathan Haidt on the question: could the spiritual impulse that most humans seem to experience have its roots in our biology?  He strongly implied a ‘yes’ answer.  Haidt suggests that we survive best as a species when we transcend our own selfish interests and work together in a common cause.

I’ll leave it to you to watch the video and learn how this relates to spirituality, but here is why I brought it up:  To describe his conclusion, he had to use well-worn phrases like: “we are all in the same boat” and, “we succeed best when we all pull together.”  He admitted that these are now old clichés, but that nevertheless, they were completely true.

Hearing clichés, thinking we “get it”

The problem of needing to use clichés is the problem we have when we come to this text from the gospel of John.  Everybody who knows anything at all about Christianity, certainly everyone who has been to Sunday School or Confirmation knows the story of Jesus and his night-time conversation with Nicodemus about being born again, which culminates in John 3:16.  If you only know one verse by heart, probably it is John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ”

We know it so well, we stop hearing it.  But I want to challenge the notion that we all understand this as well as we think we do.  There is a huge

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difference between hearing something often and understanding it well.  Most of us know that Einstein’s theory of relativity is summed up in the equation E=Mc2 without a clue about what that means.

We will look at this familiar text today and notice the ways in which it has been misunderstood, but we should take comfort first in this:  Our failure to understand the meaning of lines we can quote from memory, in the case of John 3:16 is, not a tragedy.  If this text means anything, it means that the basis for our relationship with God is not our understanding.  Rather, it is based on love.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Being Loved: basic to who we are

As Joe Small, one of our great Reformed thinkers today says, this is “basic to who we are.”  We know ourselves as people whom God loves.  This is fact number one.  This is foundational.  This is so important, that it is, for us, the basis on which we know anything else about God.  (Joe Small in “Feasting On the Word” for today)

This is not just theoretical.  God actually acted; in fact, he acted dramatically, out of his love for the world; that is, for us; as Jesus says,

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ”

The whole point of God sending his Son is that his purpose for us is a loving purpose.  He wants to save us:

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. ”

Being Condemned Already

Now here is why I said we may not understand this familiar text as well as we think we do.  People often think that being saved here means being saved from hell in the future, but that is not what Jesus says.

The way John recounts Jesus’ words here, being condemned is not about the future, but the present.  Being condemned in this text, is the experience of a life lived under the destructive power of evil.

“18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, 

Already” means now.  In fact, in the book of John, “eternal life” also starts now; it means knowing God, in this moment, as Jesus says later (John 17:3).

In the same way, right now, people who embrace evil are already experiencing its destructive effects.    They are condemned already.  Evil tears apart

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relationships; it breaks down social order; it causes suffering for individuals and for groups of people; it’s horrible.

Either-Or Categories

John uses a lot of either-or categories here: light vs. darkness; saved vs. condemned; evil vs. good; love vs. hate.  He is trying to draw the sharpest distinction he can between the power of God’s love and the destructiveness of the power of evil.

God’s will has been to thwart the power of evil by the power of love. Self-giving, self-sacrificing love.

“Believing In” vs. “faith that…”

Now, as I said, we have heard this so often we think we know everything about it, but I believe there is another common mistake that people often make here.  We think that “believing in the Son of God” is about having faith that a set of facts about God and Jesus are true.

This notion that believing is about the facts is reinforced when we repeat creeds like the Apostles Creed that basically list facts about God we are supposed to have faith enough to think are true.

John’s gospel uses the verb “believe in” many times, but never uses the noun “faith.”  This is not about us having “faith that…” something is true.  It is about believing in a person.

The Josephus story

I can best explain it by recalling for us a story that the Jewish historian Josephus tells.

Josephus was a commander in the army in a time of revolution.  To make a complicated story short, one day he came upon some rebel troops.  He wanted them to give up their rebel cause, as he himself had done.  He wanted them to know which side was going to be vindicated in the end – which was his side.  So he said to them, “change your minds and believe in me.”

“Believe in me” were the same words Jesus used when he encouraged people to follow him.  “Believe in me” is what our surgeons ask of us.  “Believe in

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me” is what we told our children when they woke up afraid in the middle of the night.  “Believe in me” is what all the political candidates try to get us to do. (as told by NT Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God, 324)

Believing in = rely upon

This kind of believing is not at all about reciting a set of facts about a person’s biography.  It means relying on them to know the way ahead; having confident trust that their way is right and good.

We believe in democracy; we believe in freedom; we believe in the rule of law, and we believe in a loving God; it is basic to who we are.

This is basic to who we are: we have staked everything on God’s love.  And yes, it does save us from a world of dark, destructive evil.  We believe in, or rely on Jesus to have defeated the power of evil for us when he was lifted up on the cross.

Sent by the Sent-One: to Love

In fact, God’s love does more than merely rescue us from the destructiveness of evil, it motivates us to become lovers too.  Later John will show us Jesus giving a mission-charge to his disciples just before leaving them, saying:

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)

As Jesus was sent because of God’s love, so he sends us.  Just as God’s love for the world motivated him to send his Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it, so now we are sent by the same power of love, into the same world, not to be agents of condemnation, but to be conduits of salvation.   We are sent to love people back from the brink of evil’s destruction.

There is no such thing as loving without forgiving: we are sent to be forgivers.

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There is no such thing as loving without caring: we are sent to be people who care.

There is no such thing as loving apathetically; we are sent to be people of passionate personal involvement.

There is no such thing as love that despises, or shuns, or rejects, or excludes; we are sent to be people of radical, inclusive welcoming, which is open as broadly as the love that motivates it:

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son”

This is what we understand: and it is indeed “basic to who we are.”

Hearing a Witness to Love

How do we come to understand ourselves as people loved by God?  Everyone of us could tell our own story, and each would be unique.   We are encouraged and helped to understand God’s love reaching us as we hear a witness of how God’s love reached someone else.  Today, we will hear a witness to God’s love from Russell.

“Jesus and the Original Occupy Movement” Sermon for Lent 3B, March 11, 2012 on John 2:13-22

John 2:13-22

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and

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doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

My sermon title is actually wrong.  An Occupy movement, like Occupy Wall Street  has some similarities to Jesus’ temple-action (the motivation of protesting a system that hurts a lot of people economically and benefits a tiny few) but one major difference: timing.  I should have entitled this sermon, “Jesus and the Original Flash Mob.”

Have you seen videos or TV news reports about a group of people who suddenly show up in a public place to do something organized, to the surprise of everyone else there?   Like a choir that comes to a shopping mall, all dressed in normal street clothes, not gathered together, but mingled in, among the shoppers out in the main square, who suddenly burst out into song, to the shock and delight of everyone.  It’s called a “flash mob.”

That is how we should picture Jesus’ temple-action that day.  If he had stayed too long, he may not have made it out alive.  He certainly would have been arrested on the spot.

How it Happened

Probably it happened something like this.  Picture a rather large outdoor space, surrounded by a high stone wall – perhaps you been to, or have seen

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photos of the wailing wall area in Jerusalem – that would be like the outer court of the temple.  It would be a busy place, full of pilgrims, people selling animals, people working at currency-exchange benches, lots of traffic.

Suddenly, Jesus sweeps in, presumably accompanied by some disciples who may or may not have know what he was planning.  He picks up some sticks, braids them together, and starts running, swinging the switch, maybe yelling at the animals, scattering them in confusion; their shocked owners start chasing them and yelling after them and yelling at Jesus.

As he passes the benches of the currency exchangers he knocks them down, sending coins flying.  They scramble for their cash, probably also yelling things  not normally heard in the temple courtyard.

The Human Shield

The crowd is first shocked then starts reacting – how?  Yelling?  Are they supportive?  Are they alarmed and angry?  Maybe some of both.  Jesus stops, maybe stands on a bench or an pigeon crate and starts to speak in a loud voice, so the crowd forms around him – his human shield – protecting him from the arriving priests and temple guards.

He is yelling:

“Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2:16)

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It’s going to be hard to shut him down.  A crowd has formed around him, and everybody recognizes that he is quoting from the prophets, reprising the message of several at once (as we learn from the other gospel accounts).

Jeremiah had asked, in a sharp rebuke:

“Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”  (Jer 7:11)

Zechariah had predicted,

“there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.”  (Zech. 14:21)

Isaiah spoke of a future day on which, (says the Lord):

“my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  (Isa 56:7)

So finally things calm down enough for the temple authorities to confront Jesus.  They demand a sign that would demonstrate that Jesus is a bona fide prophet of God.

18 The[y] said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  

Jesus answers them instead, with a riddle.

19“Jesus answered them,“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

In retrospect, and only in retrospect, after the resurrection on Easter, they figured out what in the world Jesus meant by this.

What does all of this mean?  Why would Jesus make a chaotic flash mob?  What was he hoping to accomplish?  And what does it mean for us today?

Jesus’ Symbolic Prophetic Act

Jesus did not go around naked and barefoot for three years, as Isaiah did, at the Lord’s command (Isa 20:1-6).  He did not break jugs at the potter’s house, as Jeremiah did (Jer 19:1-15),  nor did he lie on his side facing a besieged model city  for 390 days as Ezekiel had done (Ezek 4:1-17), but, like the other prophets of Israel, he was capable of symbolic action.  This temple-action was exactly that: symbolic action.

If you were an Israelite believer, you came to the temple because you wanted to repair and maintain your relationship with God.  You came to make sacrifices.  You had to buy animals for the sacrifice.  But first you had to change your normal Roman coins which have a graven-image on them, for temple currency.

So buying and selling animals and currency-exchange were necessary and normal.  Price gouging and price fixing were certainly part of what was happening, but not the main point.

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By stopping the business of buying animals and changing money, Jesus was temporarily shutting down the whole temple.  Just as our small piece of bread and small cup at Communion symbolize a whole feast, so Jesus’ action of temporarily, momentarily shutting down the temple was symbolic of a permanent shutdown.

Jesus was announcing God’s judgment.  If the people persisted in their current path, then judgment would come, and the operation of the temple would cease.    It wasn’t just price-gouging at the temple, their whole economic system was unjust and oppressive, and under judgment.

Also under judgment was their violent, head-long rush into armed conflict.  Jesus’ symbolic prediction of the temple’s demise came true within a generation of that moment as an armed Jewish revolt against Rome ended with the Roman destruction of the temple  (in 70 AD).

Jesus as [A] The Prophet

But the point was that Jesus understood himself not only as a prophet, but as the one who God would use to bring about the climax of Israel’s long story.  God was finally becoming king.

Just as the people had returned once from Babylonian exile to rebuild the temple, so now again, the end of the exile of Roman occupation and the rebuilding of a proper “temple” was about to happen.

What is a temple, after all?  It is the location of the dwelling of God among the people.   It was the place of sacrifice where the relationship between God and his people was made possible.  This, Jesus was symbolically announcing, was all coming true, in himself.

20 The[y] said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

Jesus, the Temple-presence of God among us

To cut to the punch line: Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh.  God is present where Jesus is present.  Our relationship to God is made possible and maintained through Jesus. The sacrificing of animals is over; Jesus’ death and resurrection means that God has broken the power of evil, has vindicated Jesus, and now he is enthroned as King.   The

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Kingdom of God has begun.

For us this is powerful.   Where is Jesus present?  He is present at the table as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  He is present when two or three are gathered in his name, in the church, the “body of Christ.”  He is present by his Spirit in us, right now.  He is present in the people we serve with compassion and mercy, the homeless, the poor, the excluded, the marginalized, the hurting.

The presence of Jesus is the presence of God among us.  Jesus does for us exactly and everything that the temple had done.  Our relationship with God is established and maintained through Jesus.

This means that God is with us here and now, and with us when we go home.  He is with us on the golf course and at the kitchen table.  He is with us when we shop and when we do our banking.  He is with us when we are healthy and when health breaks down.  He is with us as we draw our last breath in this life.

Could the people of Jesus‘ times see God at work in Jesus?  Some could, others couldn’t.  God’s presence is discerned through the eyes of faith: trust that our lives are not just the result of accidents and chance, but that God is present and working.

We are helped to understand how God is working in our lives as we hear a witness to how God has worked in other lives.  Today we will hear such a witness from Delphine.

The Bible’s Worst Word: “If” and what follows, Sermon for March 4, 2012, 2nd Lent, Year B on Mark 8:31-38

The Bible’s Worst Word: “If” and what follows

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 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.”

Xenophon was a Greek writer, historian, and friend of Socrates in the fifth century BC.  He was also a soldier; in fact a commander.  He wrote about his own speeches to encourage the troops before a battle:

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 “If you desire victory, stand and fight…. anyone who wishes to live would be a fool if he tried to run away when he knows that it is the victors who save their lives.” (Cyropaedia 3.3.45 in Marcus, Mark 8-16, p. 626)

Whoever wishes to save his life, let him strive for victory…” (Anabasis 3.2.39, ibid).

Like a commander encouraging his troops before battle, in words that almost echo Xenophon’s Jesus says,

34“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 

This is the season of Lent: I believe this text is exactly what we need to hear.  We need to start with the utter seriousness with which a speech is given to soldiers before they go into the life-threatening situation of battle

 Lenten Fasting: Good, but…

Typically, Christians give-up something they enjoy as a form of fasting in this season.  It used to be that people gave up meat.  Some even gave up all animal-based products including cheese and eggs.  But we live in more self-indulgent times.  It is more common to find us giving up pleasures rather than dietary essentials.

I am persuaded that all kinds of fasting can be spiritually helpful because fasting confronts us with the strength of our desires – and with the blatant fact of the extent  of our habits of self-indulgence.  It is hard to say “no” to pleasures; failure in Lent is common.  In this way, fasting is like spiritual push-ups and sit-ups; it is training that strengthens us.

But it is a long way from the self-denial of desserts, or alcohol, or whatever other kind of pleasure we have given up for Lent, to a battlefield, where human bodies will soon lie in the dust of death.   Fasting in Lent is valuable, but let us guard against trivializing this text.

In Defense of Peter

Peter and the others who joined Jesus cannot be faulted for believing that his long-term goal was to raise a real army and go to war against their Roman oppressors, to liberate the Promised Land in final fulfillment of the promise God had made to Abraham.  That’s what many people believed that God’s Messiah, his anointed one, was going to do.

Almost no one seemed to believe that Messiah would be caught, tortured and executed by the Romans.  The literature of the period simply does not include that expectation.

But Jesus announced that he was leading his followers to Jerusalem, the capital, not to get himself enthroned in Herod’s place, but rather, he said, the “Son of Man,” as he called himself,

31 “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

It is no wonder that Peter was scandalized. Probably he was thinking that Jesus was succumbing to some dark, Satanic temptation to despair.  The ending bit in which Jesus spoke about rising on the third day seems to have gone by unnoticed in the dust storm kicked up by all the unexpected talk about suffering and death.

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But Peter and the others were going to have to learn from Jesus a different version of the climax to Israel’s story.  Jesus rebuked Peter, calling him Satan; a character who would divert Jesus from his God-directed mission.  Jesus says:

32“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

That name-calling sounds like a final verdict, as if there was no more hope for Peter, but that turns out not to be what Jesus meant.  Peter, instead of being an obstacle, a Satan, should get back to where he had been, behind Jesus, as a follower.

“Fall in”

Actually the words, “get behind me” are the same as “come after me” which he tells all of his would-be followers to do.  It is the command to the troops, “fall in.”

34 [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

It sure does sound like a literal battle-charge, but Jesus knows that the battle will be won in a different way.  He himself will be the one, just as Isaiah the prophet described, who would suffer and die on behalf of the nation.  He would allow himself to be humiliated, tortured, and killed, as the powers of evil exhausted themselves on him.

But God would vindicate him, he said, by raising him from the dead on the third day.  His death would actually be the means by which God would defeat Satan and redeem his people.

The Real Battle

So no, there would be no physical battle against Rome, but yes, there would be a battle.  It was against the powers of evil itself.  And this is the key.

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Evil is real; it is powerful, and it is deadly.  “If” anyone wants to follow Jesus – and the “if” is also real – that person must be willing to engage the battle against evil at the risk of life itself.

Decisions had to be made, Jesus said.  Sometimes families would be split over it.   Therefore, Jesus offered his followers a new, alternative family, comprised of people who repented and embraced his vision of the kingdom of God.

Jesus of course did suffer and die, and did rise again on the third day.  And his dire predictions about the self-destructive path of armed resistance to Rome also came true just a few years after Mark wrote his gospel, when the Roman army destroyed and desecrated the temple in Jerusalem.

What then do these strong words have to do with us?

Our “if” 

We are faced with exactly the same “if”.  If we want to be followers of Jesus, if we  believe that following him will lead ultimately to saving our lives, we too must be willing to enter the battle against evil, with the serious resolve of a soldier before battle.

Evil is essentially destructive.  Evil is about causing harm, causing suffering both to people as individuals and to people as groups.  Evil is about ruining things that are good – our bodies, our relationships, our planet, our unity, our humanity.

And this is why self-denial or renunciation of the self is such an essential part of following Jesus.  We come into the world as newborns, pre-loaded with self-interests, and every year that we live we seem to acquire more.  We were born thinking of our own needs, believing that we could cry the world into giving us more food.

I have lived long enough to know that that same demanding selfishness typically grows with our growing sense of self, to include the natural extensions of ourselves:  our family, our race, people of our background, accent, educational level, economic status; – the “good guys.”  People like us.

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Most humans will try to be good to their own people.  Most people will respond to a need by lending a hand.  Most will even be sacrificial in service to their own children or families, or neighbors, or tribes, or nations.

But, most people are willing to be evil.  If I am threatened, or my pride is offended, or if my people are at risk; if our pride feels threatened, we are capable of anything imaginable.  In the name of protecting “my people, the good guys like me,” from those other people, the bad guys, who are not like us, are willing to be destructive, to be harmful, to cause suffering.  Evil is real, and powerful, and seductive.

To me, Lenten self-denial may be about giving up sweets; like all exercise, it is good training.  But it does not stop there.  If it does, it was trivial;  all for nothing.

What I’ve seen

I have lived, as you know, in former Yugoslavia,  where people were willing to fill mass-graves with the bodies of other people who were, in some slight way, different from themselves.

I have also visited the shrines to human evil at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the crematoria at the end of the rail-lines.  I have been watching in these days the slaughter of thousands of Syrians by the brutal Assad regime, Shiite Alawites killing mostly Sunni’s.

Evil is real.  I have seen people destroying themselves and their families with drugs or alcohol. I have seen whole groups suffering because of intolerance of people who are different.  I have seen resentment and the failure to practice the most basic of all Christian virtues, forgiveness, tear apart relationships.  Evil is real.

Because evil is real, we desperately need to hear Jesus’ words of battle-preparation.  Let us re-phrase Jesus’ words this way:  If anyone would be a follower, a disciple of Jesus and so experience the life he came to give, they must fall in behind him, and renounce their destructive self-interests like troops heading for the fray, and practice his way of living.

The Promise

And if we do, what is the promise here?  That we will not have lost our lives, but we will find them, save them!  The path to life, to real life, to fullness of life is not the self-righteous exclusion of others, it is the open-hearted embrace.  It is the beautiful discovery of the fact that we have family, as it turns out, among people who are quite different from ourselves.

The path to life is to forgive instead of seeking vengeance, to heal instead of wounding, to live as Jesus lived.  In the prayer of St. Francis,

“grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”