Thursday, May 21, 2009

Psalm Sunday 2009: Where were you?

Mark 15: 1-15, page 721

Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.
The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”
But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.
“Crucify him!” they shouted.
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Where were you on September 11, 2001?
I remember where I was, and this week I was reminded where John Walker Lindh was by a magazine article.[1]
John Walker Lindh was captured just months after the September 11th attacks fighting alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan. While the nation united against the Taliban, this young white man from California was on the other side, a bearded convert to a fundamentalist version of Islam, and so became one of the most despised men in America. For siding with our nation’s enemy, for fighting for, and not against the people known to be responsible for attacking the United States on 9/11, he was beaten, vilified, and sentenced to twenty years in a Federal Prison.
How his mother felt when he took his first steps, how his father’s face lit up the first time his son smiled, his grades in school, his devotion to a foreign culture, and his quest for religious fulfillment are all wiped away, replaced by the words of Hilary Clinton who called him a traitor, or Ann Coulter, who called for his execution.
For any person tied to the United States, it is natural to think of smoke rising from the Twin Towers, airplanes flying where they shouldn’t, fear, death, and worry whenever John Walker Lindh is mentioned.
Like Pontius Pilate his identity is inextricably tied to one event – nothing else in his life could ever define him so completely.
Those buildings that he built, all other criminals who he attempted to try fairly, the justice that he sought, and the fairness that he asked of an unruly crowd are all forgotten – only the words: “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, dead, and buried” remain.
That was his defining moment.
Just as there are defining moments in all of our lives, those moments that change everything – categorize our lives into before and after - Pilate stood before the roaring crowd, Jesus, a huddled mass, silent and seemingly indifferent behind him, was living the moment that would define him forever; forever associating him with Christ’s crucifixion.
But the great theologian, Tertullian, gave verse two of our scripture passage an interesting reading – he saw something substantial in the conversation between Pilate and Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate. ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.”
Tertullian saw a confession of faith in this verse – as though Jesus were saying to Pilate – you have already said it, you know who I am and have confessed that truth so why are you asking? Tertullian saw a “quiet faith that lived in [Pilate’s] heart.” Unfortunately, we modern readers say, that quiet faith never turned into loud words or strong actions – instead his faith was small, insubstantial, and quiet compared to the shouts of the crowd.
He won’t be remembered for this quiet faith – it’s his lack of action that matters – it’s his lack of action that makes his legacy the suffering represented by this symbol.
We look to the cross and blame him. We say the words of the Apostle’s Creed and let Christ’s suffering rest on his shoulders.
But he only played his small part in this tragedy.
He is judged more harshly, maybe because of where he was, but what about Peter, James and John; Mary and Martha, where were they?
We focus our aggression on Pilate, but here in Mark we know that at least he tried to defend Christ before the Crowd while the disciples hid – we know of Pilate’s quiet faith, but isn’t the disciple’s silent, absent, non-existent faith all the more appalling.
The truth of the crucifixion is that Christ suffered, not only under Pontius Pilate, but also by the cowardice of the disciples who feared for their own life.
And the crowd who had celebrated his entry into Jerusalem only days before, now so persuadable that they call for this same man’s death – we remember Pilate’s role in Christ’s crucifixion, but Christ suffered under a crowd of men and women of loose convictions, too easily swayed by the whims of religious authority.
The truth is that Christ suffered, not only under Pontius Pilate, but also under the jealously of the religious men who could not comprehend how this untrained man could outsmart the most educated, doing the miracles they weren’t able to do, healing the people they weren’t able to heal – to them he was a sign of what they should be - so they called for his death.
We know where Pilate was when they crucified my Lord, but where were his friends who knew who he was, where was the crowd who celebrated his entrance into the city only days before, and where were the educated who should have recognized him for his fulfillment of the scripture.
It’s easier to gravitate towards one figure, to let him bear the guilt that we all carry – so, we humans point our fingers in judgment, speak harsh words to the obvious targets so we can evade the question that really matters.
We know where Pilate was, but the question that really counts has nothing to do with Pilate. The question that really matters is: “Where were you when they crucified my Lord?”
Where were you when the crowds called for one thing and the quiet faith of your heart demanded another – did the quiet faith of your heart turn into words from your mouth, actions, or were you too afraid?
Where were you when worry surrounded you, bills pilled up, but your children needed you at home – did you obey the quiet faith that called you to your family, or did you stay at work giving up on the faith that told you all is in God’s hands?
Where were you when vengeance boiled up, fear trumped justice, and the call to war drowned out everything but the quiet faith of your heart calling you to patience and peace?
Where were you?
Here is the sign that reminds us all of the result of our sin – like a scar to remind us – we look to the cross as the sign of our condition, it is the result of our actions – but; if we are not afraid to see it now, to die to our ways of sin and death – we will be raised to new life.
[1] John Rico, “Can John Walker Lindh Go Home Now?” (GQ April, 2009) 126.

For God so Loved the World

John 3: 14-21, page 752
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave the one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he or she has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his or her deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what has been done has been done through God.”
John 3: 16 may be the most familiar verse of the Bible – and In a society of increasing Biblical illiteracy, I think it’s important to take notice of one verse that most people actually know.
In many ways that familiarity is a good thing – this is the verse that Martin Luther, the man who laid the foundation for the Protestant reformation, a movement of which our Presbyterian tradition is an important part, called John 3: 16 the gospel in miniature; and a few hundred years later, Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish thinker who has influenced the modern church as much as anyone else would write that this passage actually tells you everything you need to know, and that it would be to the church’s benefit to save money by printing only this. All you need to know he said is that – Christ is God – he came into the world to save you – but we put him on the cross – that’s something that had to happen, and after three days he rose again.
These great minds inspired many people to take John 3: 16 out into the street, the baseball field, the football stadium, showing some very big audiences that the key to salvation is actually here in one simple verse: “For God so loved the world.”
Hear these words, and be saved, they say.
But what if someone doesn’t only read John 3: 16, what if they decide to start reading in verse 14 – “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” Now here is a verse that I had to look up in a couple of books because I had no idea what it was talking about.
I think it’s amazing that the most familiar verse in the whole Bible, John 3: 16 comes right after a verse that virtually no one understands: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
Here the author of John’s gospel takes you back to the book of Numbers – one of those books we all know is there but we never take the time to read – the snake is not Moses’ staff that he turned into a snake to amaze the Pharaoh, that story is in the book of Exodus, this one is a bronze snake God told Moses to make and to lift up before the people to heal them from the venomous serpents that God sent on them after they complained about leaving Egypt for the hundredth time.
There is a way of thinking now – that we shouldn’t really get into the hard questions with people who are just getting into Christianity, that we should take it slow and stick to “For God so loved the world” before we get into, God sent venomous snakes on the Israelites, but that’s obviously not how the author of John’s mind worked because right before we read the most simplified version of our religion, we come face to face with one of the most challenging concepts of our religion.
The passage in Numbers is one of those passages where we don’t really understand this God who we worship – as we don’t really worship a God who sends venomous snakes do we? We worship the God who saves us – right?
Don’t we worship the God who brings salvation – who answers our prayers by sparing us hardship, by delivering us from oppression, by saving us from those venomous snakes of life – and not the force that puts that suffering into our lives?
It is a strange thing to realize that in Numbers our God is both in the same – the God who saves the Israelites from the snakes is also the God who sent the snakes there in the first place.
If we think about this Numbers passage for too long then the next thing you know you start to wonder if you really know what on earth John 3: 16 means, as in light of John 3: 14 it doesn’t quite mean what we thought it did – thinking about God from the perspective of Numbers makes God different – and next thing I know I start to wonder if salvation means what I think it does.
I think that is how my father-in-law must have felt walking down the street in Knoxville, TN back when he was in graduate school. He moved to Knoxville from Colombia, South America to study architecture at the University of Tennessee. He’s a brilliant guy really, so he hit the English books hard before he went, and certainly had a book knowledge of English; but a book knowledge of English is not the same thing as a street knowledge of English, especially in Knoxville, TN.
As he was walking down the street a couple of women walked up to him. They asked him, very plainly and right off the bat, “Have you been saved?” Like I said, he had a book knowledge of English and not a street knowledge of English, so after considering the word “saved” he responded, “Yes, I have a checking, and a savings account at the bank.”
This story is funny because we think of “being saved” as an issue completely different from our savings accounts, especially when our savings accounts may be having a particularly hard time. We separate our lives out, looking for God in church and in the miracles of life, but our eyes have to be open to the fullness of God, the fullness of salvation that is a work in progress encompassing our entire existence.
We see God in good things, but isn’t our God at work in all things?
Following John 3: 16 we read the words, “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
In light of the passage from Numbers we might well read, “For God did not send the snakes on the Israelites to kill them there in the desert, but to save them from turning around and going back to Egypt.”
And today, we might examine our own lives and hear the words, “For God did not send the United States into a financial melt-down to condemn the United States, but to save us all from a way of life that is unsustainable.”
We want to know how God could let it happen, or where God went: How could God have sent those snakes, where was God when the stock market fell – we ask these kinds of questions all the time – where was God on 9/11, where was God when Pearl Harbor was attacked – we ask these questions whenever tragedy strikes and the God who is supposed to watch out for us seems no where to be seen - but these questions also bring us right to the central symbol of our faith – where was God when Jesus was lifted up on the cross?
The ones who don’t believe see punishment, suffering, or condemnation. The ones who believe in a cosmic struggle between the god of good and the god of evil see one battle lost in the war for eternity, but those of us who believe hear familiar words and know that even in the worst of times their deliverer is working – for God so loved the world.
These are the words that make us different. These are the words that count, they say it all, and they make all the difference – John 3: 16, for God so loved the world, God took the greatest tragedy of human history and made it the sign of our salvation.
We are a the children of the God who works for good in all things – and whether we are rich or we are poor – you can take heart in the truth that God is at work in your life that you might be saved through him.