Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Reading

Here we are again. We are on the brink of the remembrance of the central event of our faith. Holy Week and Easter shape our understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ more than any other single event. We are, as others have said, Easter people living in a Good Friday world. We are defined by this sacrifice and by this gift of eternity. And it all begins with Palm Sunday.

Well, of course, arguments could be made that it all begins with a baptism and the heavens tearing open that the Spirit might descend like a dove. Or maybe it begins with an announcement in an out of the way synagogue - “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Or does it really begin on a cloud shrouded mountain of light and glory? Or maybe we should look back at an angelic announcement and claim it began with Incarnation in a back alley of a small town. Or, like John, should we recognize that it began at the beginning, the beginning of all that is, all that we see and know. It was at this beginning that the plan was in place that would culminate in death and resurrection.

We could argue where it begins until the cows come home. Since I don’t have room for those cows, maybe we should just let it go. Let me start over. The curtain rises on this final act in the divine drama to a palm strewn parade. Take a look:

Luke 19:29-40 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 34 They said, "The Lord needs it." 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." 40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

On the one hand it might seem like a diversion and not a prologue. This event provides a bright spot in a dark time, a respite from the burdensome journey plaguing the whole company. Maybe this is a Sabbath rest that steels them all for what lies ahead. Maybe it is the calm in the midst of, or on the edge of the storm. Or maybe it is more.

It is a declaration, this diversionary parade. It is a pronouncement. For these three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry he has asked for silence. Don’t tell anyone, he would say, keep your knowledge, your revelation to yourself. There has been and continues to be a lot of speculation as to why he told people not to tell. Some argue that it was reverse psychology. He knew the surest way of getting the word out was to tell people not to tell. That never seemed to be a convincing argument to me. Too devious, too underhanded. Jesus was a up-front kind of person. Which means we have to go by his own explanation - the first one he gave, to his mother no less - “it is not my hour.”

He was concerned about time, about the right time. He was, with his Father, ordering these events in the way that would reach the desired outcome. He had to build the story, he had to design the drama so that we who would come to see and hear would finally understand and accept, so that we would understand that his story is our story. We had to see ourselves lived out in him, we had to find ourselves in him. Too soon and we wouldn’t hear, too late and we would have missed it. He had to wait until it was time.

Now it was time. Jesus had an announcement to make. But rather than sending a memo, rather than posting a thesis on the church doors or writing in fiery letters across the sky, he used the language of the culture. He orchestrated a processional drama, an enthronement scene acted out in the symbols that were a part of the common understanding, and he touched a need or hope that was rising in the hearts of the people. This was why they responded to his announcement so readily.

He arranged for a colt, an unridden donkey symbolizing purity and peace. They waved branches as an acknowledgment of his authority. They threw down their cloaks to cover the road to usher the prince into their midst. They shouted the traditional welcome to a new king: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Given his earlier reticence to declare himself, he was practically shouting now. Here I am, he announced, your king, your prince of peace, your savior. And they heard it, loudly and clearly. Which is why they shouted back “Hosanna!” Which means “save us.” Maybe it was mob psychology, maybe it was desperation, or maybe they had an inkling that this indeed was the one who could save them. So, they shouted, and pulled branches off of trees and threw their clothes into the street as a welcome. They heard.

But the crowd that gathered weren’t the only ones who heard. Some of the Pharisees (and notice Luke’s careful identification of “some” of the Pharisees - like he is preparing the way for the division that was coming), some of the Pharisees heard, and didn’t like what they heard. “Keep it down!” they shouted to the self-professed king on a colt. “Shut them up, or there will be trouble.” They had one eye looking down their noses with contempt at the rabble grasping at their palm straws. And the other was cast over their shoulders in fear of Rome who didn’t like any disturbance that they didn’t cause. “Tell them to stop!”

And here is what distinguishes Luke’s memory of this event from the rest. Luke leaves out the Hosanna that the other three record. But he is the only one who records this curious response to the plea of some of the Pharisees to keep quiet. “I tell you,” says Jesus, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out!” The necessity of praise is how one commentator describes it, the absolute necessity of praise. When it is time, it is time. The purposes of God will be fulfilled, the only question is will we join in or get out of the way? It is time, says Jesus as he sits astride the humble little colt. It is time for events to unfold, events that can gather us up and carry us to a new reality, a new way of living, a new hope. Or events that we can let pass us by, if we so choose.

But choose we must. It is time. Palm reading is a delicate enterprise, but this is our story being told in an ancient text. It is your future, your opportunity. What do you see?



Saturday, March 20, 2010

You Shouldn't Have

Have you ever received a gift that left you speechless? I don’t mean the one that you couldn’t figure out. Or the one that made you wonder if the giver even knew who you were! No, I mean the one that took your breath away. The one that seemed beyond the reach of the giver. The one that must have caused an accountant to gasp.

No doubt all sorts of emotions ran through you as you held that precious gift in your hands. You might have felt excited and ashamed at the same time. Perhaps you were embarrassed by the gift, as though you weren’t worthy to receive such extravagance. Maybe you felt bad for the giver, afraid that he had extended himself too far to give this gift, worried that she would suffer because of what it must have cost. And it is also possible that when you did finally find your voice, the only thing you could think to say was “You shouldn’t have!”

We often don’t mean it when we say that. We are excited by the gift, flattered, honored. But we say “you shouldn’t have” out of sense of humility - maybe false, maybe real. But we are glad that they gave it. On the other hand, sometimes we mean it when we say that. We really wish that the giver didn’t give such a gift. Maybe it feels like burden to accept it. “You shouldn’t have,” we think because now I have to live up to your image of me, or live up to the gift itself.

And then sometimes an extravagant gift produces anger. At least that is what happened in our reading for this week. A familiar story, here on the brink of Holy Week, the anointing of Jesus.

John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Six days before the Passover, which means it is five days before Jesus is killed. So, it is no wonder that he makes the connection between Mary’s extravagant gift and his burial. Whether Mary saw it as such is debatable. For her it was a pouring out of self and soul, it was an act of surrender and of giving to the one she came to love so deeply. She didn’t think about the cost, only the giving.

Jesus didn’t think about the cost, only the love behind the giving. John saw this act as a prelude to Jesus’ own act of service and giving at the Last Supper only a few days away. John is less concerned about the meal than the other gospel writers, but he is more concerned with the sacrificial service that Jesus performs for his disciples. Mary shows him that she understands the kind of loving service that Jesus calls for. Even Martha shows she understands this time. The only comment about Martha that appears in this story is the two word phrase: Martha served.

And then there’s Judas. In Matthew’s version of the anointing the complainer is “the disciples.” In Mark’s version it is “some were there.” Only John identifies the complainer as Judas. Now, Mark and Matthew might also be talking about different events. In their versions the woman (also unnamed) pours the ointment on Jesus’ head. Luke has a story about anointing of Jesus, and there it is his feet and wiped with the woman’s hair. But there it is tears that are used to anoint, and Jesus talks about forgiveness and not about his death. So, is it possible that this sort of thing is a regular occurrence?

If that were the case, then Judas’ outburst would be even more incomprehensible. If he had seen this sort of thing many times, if he was used to Jesus accepting such gifts, then it seems he should have simply muttered to himself - “There he goes again!”

Judas was a man who knew the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. He was willing to shout at Mary and say, “you shouldn’t have,” but it wasn’t the false humility of a grateful receiver. No, John says it was the cold look of avarice that was aware of what he was not getting. He wouldn’t be so bold as to say it should have gone to him, so he condemned the whole act as wasteful.

But you can’t help but wonder if John put those words and that parenthetical explanation in the story to cover his own guilt. Maybe he had been the spokesperson earlier, maybe he was one of the “some who were there” and was now looking for someone to blame. Surely, I couldn’t have said that, or thought that. That jealousy, that hunger to have could only have come from someone truly evil, right?

Jesus points out, to all of them and to us as well, that no gift is wasteful when it is given in love, no matter how extravagant. No act of service can be demeaning when it is given in love, no matter how humble.

What about that last verse, though? Aren’t we in danger of misinterpretation here? Luke thought so. Luke has a consistent call toward solidarity with the poor in his Gospel. And while his story, particularly in the last days of Jesus earthly ministry, mirrors Mark’s version in many ways, Luke leaves out this story completely. It is as if he was sure that we would seize these words as permission to let up in our ministry to and with the poor. He was afraid that we would claim this loophole in the clear command to share and give and help.

“The always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” What does that mean? Give to Jesus more extravagantly, give to the poor out of duty? Give to Jesus everything, give to the poor some things? Give to Jesus always, give to the poor when you can?

I don’t know. Honestly, I am puzzled and troubled by this verse. But I find it hard to believe that Jesus would ask us to back off of giving wholeheartedly. What I wonder is whether Jesus is once again speaking to our experience, giving us a warning about how our lives are lived out sometimes. I mean, I am sure that at the time, he was trying to get across to his followers - even the slow ones - that his earthly life was coming to an end very soon. But at the same time, I wonder if he was saying to us that sometimes when we give to the poor, we will see his face and sometimes we won’t. Sometimes we will know his will and feel his presence and other times we will wonder what he would have us do and wonder why he seems so far from us. But that no matter what, we should give and serve out of love, with extravagance.

We should give so that those who receive might be moved to say “You shouldn’t have.” Even though we know we should.


A Maskil Edition

A what? “A Maskil.” You’ve noticed, I am sure, the odd little headings in front of many of the Psalms. There are all sorts of them and many of them have caused some confusion and debate in biblical scholarship. Even something as simple as “Of David” causes considerable debate. Some argue that a Psalm with the heading “Of David” or “a Psalm of David” means that David wrote it. Duh. But wait, say others. It would be that it is in the style of David. Or that it means in honor of David. Or that someone had what they thought was a hit on their hands but since they were relatively unknown they put David’s name on it so that it would get more airplay by the Temple D Js. (Or should that “Priest Jockeys” since they didn’t actually have Disks to spin - but then no one would take them seriously if we called them P Js, now would they?)

Where was I? As you can see, debate and disagreement is not confined to Congress. Biblical scholars have made it a spectator sport. Even where there is general agreement, the nuance continues. One heading says “The Lilies” or “To the Lilies.” Most agree this is a musical notation of some sort, a tune by which the psalm would have been sung or chanted. But was this fast or slow? Happy or sad? No one knows. And most of us don’t care all that much, to be honest. You’re probably wondering why I am taking even this much space to bring it up.

Well, because I learned something this week and just had to share it. The heading on the Psalm I have chosen as our scripture for this week’s worship says “A Maskil.” Well, it actually says “Of David. A Maskil.” But we’ve already covered the “Of David” meme here. So, I slid over to the other one. A Maskil, it says. If you’re like me then you just bleep over that and get on to the verse. How many times have I seen that word and never really bothered to figure out what it means? Well, lots. And the truth is I get tired of the “we don’t really know” kind of response that biblical scholars give all the time. So, I usually ignore it, and was all set to do so again this week.

But then I had a short course of writer’s block and needed to get this done today (more on that later). So, I started to panic and scan around for a straw to grasp. And my eyes landed on “a maskil” sitting there at the top of the page. So, I started to work. Got out the old seminary texts, even dusted off the Hebrew Old Testament text for a look see. Even looked it up in a dictionary. I know, amazing.

The first thing I saw was this: “a maskil is a member or adherent of the haskalah.” Helpful. Don’t you just love dictionaries? Haskalah is a European Jewish intellectual movement in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Wait. What? A word that appears in the Old Testament is a reference to18th Century Judaism? Call Tim LaHaye, I feel a book coming on.

Dig a little deeper and you discover that the “maskilim” (the plural form of maskil) chose that descriptor because of the references it held in Jewish tradition. The Hashalah movement was designed to reclaim the Jewish culture and tradition, but not so much in terms of artifacts or even of rituals, but in philosophy or theology. It was an intellectual movement, remember. It was a way of thinking, and thinking deeply about what it meant to be Jewish, to be a part of the chosen people, the beloved of God.

A way of thinking. We tend to separate thinking and doing into separate categories of human existence. And that makes sense on some levels. But followers of God know that believing (which is a way of thinking) is only effective when the thinking comes out in living. We understand that to claim certain intellectual certainties without concurrent behavioral responses is to live an inauthentic life.

But since we are all prone to such living, to acting in ways that are often contrary to our beliefs, to living in ways that deny our commitment to our faith, we need reminders from time to time. We need an intellectual kick in the pants to get us back on track. A Maskil psalm is just such a kick in the pants. It is a reminder that we live in certain ways. A psalm that teaches you something, is one definition. I would extend it to a psalm that reminds you of something. There may not be an “aha” moment in the reading for this week, but is certainly an “oh, yeah, I knew that” moment.

Psalm 32:1-11 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah 8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. 10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD. 11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

But then, you knew that, didn’t you? You knew, maybe from experience, maybe from observation, that sin has a way of messing with you. You knew that guilt erodes any sense of self confidence we might have, makes us feel unworthy even of love, and love from the God who wants to love everyone. You knew that carrying around a burden of brokenness becomes a weight that destroys rather than builds up.

More than that, you knew that confession is good for the soul! And not just in a cliche sort of way. In a real way. In a finally able to breathe, weight of the world off of your shoulders kind of way. You knew that, because you have been there and felt that release. You knew that because you have lived through broken relationships that have been healed through confession and you know the joy of that healing.

We know it. So why don’t we do it more often? The confessing and healing thing I mean. Why do we need a kick in the pants, a maskil to come around every now and then and remind us? Because we’re human? No, because it is hard. It is hard to forgive and hard to be forgiven. We have to swallow some pride, we have to acknowledge that we’ve hurt someone, we have to live with the consequences. It’s hard. Which is why we need teachers. We need mentors in the faith who will show us what a life of graciousness looks like.

Which brings me to why I am doing this epistle now instead of tomorrow like usual. Saturday and Sunday I am going to participate in a Memorial Service for one of my mentors in the faith. On Saturday, I will teach in the morning and then head to Bloomington for the first service. And then on Sunday after church here in Fort Wayne, La Donna and I will travel to Elkhart where I served alongside this amazing man. Jack Pavy was my Senior Pastor when I came back from Scotland with a PhD and a lot of stuff in my head, but still pretty green on how to live in the real world of the church. Jack was patient and supportive and encouraging. He put me in situations that an associate doesn’t normally get to experience. But it revealed a trust and a confidence in me and my abilities that I so wanted to live up to. And sometimes he was a maskil, a kick in the pants kind of reminder that I needed. In short, I am where I am and who I am because of Jack Pavy. It was my honor to be asked to preach at the services being held on opposite ends of the state to honor him, and to celebrate this faith that we shared.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Picking a Fight

You're touching me!" "No, you're touching me, this is my space!" "Mom, he's touching me." Or "Mom she's looking at me!!" Or even worse, "Mom, he's breathing my air!!!"

OK, my kids have grown past the sharing a backseat stage. Of course bucket seats and a third row helped considerably. But those days of squabbling over real estate haven't completely disappeared. "I was sitting there!" "You got up." ... "Get out of my room!" "Keep your stuff on your side of the sink, would ya?"

Life seems full of ample opportunities to pick a fight. Chances to shift blame or point fingers. Maybe it is a product of our post-modern malaise. It seems worse than ever. And it goes beyond families into communities, or nations. How do we conduct our political conversations these days? Town Hall meetings that are mere shouting matches, Tea Party rallies designed to inflame a sense of panic and frustration and the discovery of a political party's talking points program focused on increasing fear of the other. The enemy. It's their fault. They don't play fair. They aren't like us, they don't value what we value. We are all weaker because of them. "Mom, they're touching me!"

It seems worse. Surely there was a level of civility that we've lost these days. Didn't we used to talk about "the loyal opposition" with respect for the political systems in place? Weren't public debates designed to help make decisions based on ideas and vision and not on making the other guy look bad? Or did we imagine that too?

And what does all this have to do with anything? Or at least with our scripture text for this week? Surely Luke doesn't present us with a political hornet's nest designed to pick a fight. Does he? Take a look:

Luke 13:1-9 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them-- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." 6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

Oh, great, an obscure historical reference and an even more obscure agricultural parable. Just what we need here in the season of Lent. Maybe we should leave these fields behind and move to the text of the spiritual for the week. That might move this conversation along a little bit. So, what is it this time? "Keep your hand on the plow / Hold on." Uh.

So, Luke introduces this chapter by saying that "some present" came to tell Jesus about an event. We don't have a clue who these "some present" folks were. Were they just your average Joe's and Jane's going about their daily business and trying to get by who wanted to make sure that Jesus had been reading the newspapers? Remember how in school you learned that there were all sorts of speeches that you could learn to give, the persuasive, the informative, the acceptance, the demonstrative, etc. But what they never told you was that there was really no such thing as an informative speech. At least in our cynical age. Everyone has an agenda. One of the questions we have to ask is "why did they tell Jesus this story?" Did they really think he hadn't heard that one yet?

The truth is we don't know for sure about the event referred to here. Either one, for that matter. We don't know anything about a Tower of Siloam and its falling. And we don't know anything about the Galileans who were killed making sacrifices. None of the other gospel writers mention this event and there isn't any real historical account that identifies what happened.

There is speculation and rumor. Pilate, despite the Gospel accounts that make him out as helpless at best or wishy-washy at worst, is depicted elsewhere as a pretty nasty piece of work. Some say that he was exiled to this little backwater of the Roman Empire and he proceeded to take it out on the natives at regular intervals. He was always rubbing the official divine status of the emperor in the faces of the Jews, who considered it blasphemy. He was constantly revoking the "special status" of the temple treasury and claiming funds for his own purposes. He was frequently spoiling the religious festivals and feast days by making onerous public decrees that prohibited or limited their celebrations.

The story was that there were rumors of an uprising coming to Jerusalem, so Pilate sent undercover soldiers into the temple to find and dispatch the ring-leaders. Which they proceeded to do with frightening Roman efficiency. Right in the courtyards of the temple. Spilling human blood to mingle with the animal sacrifices, which immediately profaned all the worship that day and made the temple - the temple mind you - unclean for a period of days, until the proper rituals could be performed.

Most likely, these "some present" in verse one were there trying to get Jesus to take a side in a political debate. They might have been zealots who wanted Jesus to come out for their revolutionary agenda. They might have been the establishment who would hoping he would say something that would get Rome interested enough to take care of their problem. Or they might have been people appalled that such a thing could take place and wanted someone to answer the ubiquitous question: "Why?"

True to form, Jesus doesn't do any of that. He refuses to engage in political finger pointing and name calling. At the same time he side steps the theological issue of whether they somehow deserved their fate - because if they didn't then the world is suddenly less safe, and terrible things happen to innocent people. He does weigh in on this, but only to deny its reality. Were they worse sinners than you to deserve such a fate? "No, I tell you." Pretty definitive there. But then he goes on with that repent stuff. Wait a minute, Jesus, you just said that sinfulness is not the reason they died so horribly. So, why do we need to repent? It won't save us from dying!

Ah, Jesus would reply, salvation is not about dying. It is about living. Then he tells the parable that essentially asks us how we intend to live. Do you want to be one of those who simply takes up space? One of those who is a waste of dirt? Or do you want to be one that produces fruit? Do you want your life to amount to something or for your death to be simply another statistic?

Makes all the energy we spend casting blame and picking fights seem kind of pointless, doesn't it? Jesus' question in the thirteenth chapter of Luke is nothing less than: "What are you living for?"