Monday, March 29, 2010

When Darkness Reigns

Luke 22: 47-53, page 747
While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Everyday I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns.”
People who ask questions are not always looking for answers.
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who you know is not listening to you? They’re nodding their head as you’re talking, but you can tell that they’re not paying any attention at all – when my wife Sara thinks that’s what I might be doing she’ll stop talking, and ask me a question – not because she wants to know the answer, but because she wants to know whether I’m paying attention or not. I’ll have to scramble for something to say and I’ll just hope I’ve said something that’s close enough: “I’m so sorry your boss is acting that way,” or “I just think Lily is doing great.”
Something else that’s sometimes hard to deal with are those questions that aren’t really questions, but an accusation: “Joe, have you had a chance to sweep the floor?” my wife Sara might ask, knowing full well that I haven’t given all the dust and dog hair on Lily’s knees that she’s accumulated crawling all over the house, but wanting to say something more kind than, “Joe, you’ve had all day to sweep the floor so why on earth are my baby girl’s knees so dirty, it looks like she’s been crawling all over a supermarket!”
But worst of all is that question that won’t wait for an answer because the people who ask it have already decided what they’re going to do: “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” If you look closely at this sentence I suppose you do have to call it a question as it ends in a question mark, but verse 49 doesn’t say that the disciples asked Jesus this question. Instead, “they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”
And not waiting for answer, one of them struck the servant of the high priest with his sword, cutting off his right ear.
The disciples’ rashness shouldn’t be surprising. They are defending Christ – and all of us who know the love that he has for us can imagine doing the same thing – wanting to show that same love he has for us by defending him from the arrest and execution that they now know is waiting for him.
They knew what they were going to do before they asked; so they weren’t really asking at all as they weren’t listening for an answer.
The approaching gang armed with swords and clubs isn’t interested in listening to anything either. They had not gone out to find Jesus for a nice conversation, but to silence him before he went and did something that might catch the Roman’s attention.
As he marched into Jerusalem the Pharisees were there and one said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
These religious authorities knew that this crowd celebrating Jesus was going a little too far, that Jesus wasn’t just a teacher, but was one that threatened stability, who was pressing for things to change, and who had captured the imagination of the people to such a degree that they cheered for him in the street, welcoming him into the city with shouts of:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
With those words, most especially that dangerous word “king,” the Pharisees knew what they had to do – they had to stop this man before he tried to take the power that the people seemed to want him to have.
The Pharisees’ concern sounds strange to those of us who know that Jesus wasn’t interested in political power. We know that Jesus could have explained to them how he wasn’t interested in becoming the Prince of Jerusalem; he was the Prince of Peace. That he didn’t care about gaining power, he already had the power of God at his command. But the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders had not gone out to find Jesus to straighten this misunderstanding out or to hear what he had to say, and after some impulsive disciple attacked the very thing used for hearing had been cut off.
What we have in this scripture lesson are two groups bent on facing each other head on – not in a discussion, not to find some compromise, but with minds made up, one group bent on defending Jesus, the other bent on maintaining the order that Christ threatened by arresting him and keeping him quiet, there is no peaceful solution left.
Neither group was interested in hearing anything, but both had already made up their minds.
A situation not too unlike rallies I’ve seen recently outside the White House – two opposing sides, both having already made up their minds, and certainly not interested in hearing what the other side has to say.
Judging from the placards, protestors are shooting to offend their opponents, not dialogue with them:
“If socialized medicine is best then why didn’t Ted Kennedy go to Canada?”
Or “what moron wouldn’t want free health care?”
It would seem as though everyone has already decided what it is that they believe, what they believe the other side believes, and they are no more interested in working together or hearing what the other side has to say than Jesus was in picking which side he would like to be on.
What so captivates me about our scripture lesson for today is that I bet both sides also thought they knew what Jesus would be doing – that the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, the elders, and their servants assumed that Jesus would be putting up a fight, that they had better come armed, poised to defend themselves and to bring down this band of disciples with a strong hand.
The disciples may have assumed the same thing – that Jesus would be ordering them to defend themselves, that he would stand behind them and pray that God would deliver them from their enemies and support them in their triumphant assault on the corrupt religious establishment.
But Jesus defies both groups’ expectations. He doesn’t even side with his disciples, but as the two groups face each other we see that Christ is present to the injured man, touching his wound and healing his ear.
Like a rally outside the white house, no one went out to hear what the other side had to say, those banners and chants aren’t for educating the other side but for rallying supporters, the disciples had decided they would be fighting, the chief priests, guards, servants and elders had already decided that they would be arresting, but Christ is not for or against either of these groups, he is not on one of those two sides, he is serving the wounded man.
I believe this wounded man was the only one who truly heard something that night, that night when people stopped listening and started fighting, that night when darkness reigned. It is so ironic that the man without an ear would be the only one who heard the good news but it is this man who is changed, it is this man who knew in that moment of chaos who Christ truly was and what Christ came to earth to do.
In that moment, that moment when darkness reigned, the light that shown in the darkness was a sign of kindness when all around was hate, a moment of seeing not two sides but two people with a common humanity, it was just a flicker there, but when darkness reigned all around, when the disciples stopped listening, when the religious authorities had already made up their mind, there was one man who saw Christ plainly.
In a world where issues divide us, where the news would keep you worried and threatened, in a world perfectly happy to keep you from listening to anyone who thinks differently – it would seem that we too live in a world where darkness reigns.
Hold fast then to this truth – Christ doesn’t care about your issues – Christ cares about you.
Christ sides, not with the Democrats or the Republicans, but with the hurt, the afflicted, and the lost – and if you follow him you will most certainly never be lost.
Listen then; hear his voice – and trust that when darkness reigns there is a light that will never go out.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Another Chance

Luke 13: 1-9, page 738

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Then he told this parable:
“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“’Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
You have to be careful with people, because if they don’t know the answer, they may well just make something up.
About two years ago a group of us were flying over Haiti in a little propeller plane driven by a Cuban Pilate.
The turbulence was horrible and we were all thankful to finally be on solid ground again, and Jane Carney, I think it was, says to someone else from our congregation, “I wasn’t worried. Our pastor was head bowed in prayer the whole flight.”
And I’m glad that when she saw me with my head bowed on that turbulent flight that’s what she thought I was doing – that description paints me in a much holier light than what I was actually doing – putting my head down between my legs because I thought doing that would keep me from throwing up.
Sometimes we make up what we need to hear in the moment – and whether what we make up is the truth or not may not matter because what we make up may be more comforting than the truth.
There was a group of Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices – this phrase isn’t as descriptive as it could be, but what we may assume is that they were murdered, perhaps unjustly, by Pilate while on pilgrimage to make a sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.
And then there were the 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them.
When confronted with such bad things we want an answer, and whether the answer is true or not may not matter because having an answer feels better than not knowing.
Why do bad things happen?
Why did Pilate murder those people?
Why did that tower fall?
Any answer to these questions will do, just so long as there is a reason, an answer, because living with the reality that stuff just happens isn’t very comfortable.
An answer that the masses seemed to cling to was that of retribution for sin – that bad things happen to bad people – that suffering is deserved – that when people suffer, when they are punished, you need not worry about falling to the same fate as long as you keep your nose clean and mind your own business.
This is a Biblical enough answer – we read from Deuteronomy that disobedience results in punishment laid out, not only on the disobedient, but the children, even unto the grandchildren.
Experience would testify to this truth – as my mom has said, when there is an alcoholic in the family no one leaves unscathed, even when only one member of the family embodies that alcoholism.
But when the crowd comes to Jesus pointing fingers – first at Pilate – though poised in a campaign for King of the Jews, Jesus does not seize an opportunity for mud-slinging, but calls the crowd to account for their own infractions.
“But unless you repent,” he says.
“Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
So Christ calls us to focus not on what lies outside of our control because what does judgment of our neighbors serve but to build up our self-righteousness? Christ calls us to focus on what we are in control of.
Something that I love are nights when sleep comes so easy I realize I am dreaming before I’ve put my book down. On those nights I place my book on my bedside table, turn out my lamp, kiss my wife – on the lips or the cheek, but if I can’t find her lips or her cheek I’ll settle for her shoulder. Then I’ll close my eyes and rest sweeps over me.
Something that I hate are nights when worry about tomorrow preoccupies me, thoughts flashing back in forth about things I need to do, that I’m worried about doing, and I don’t have enough time to do it all before the day has even started.
But who really knows about tomorrow?
“Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” The vineyard owner says to the gardener.
“Sir, the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
The scripture lesson ends with that – an ambiguous ending if ever there was one.
But if we have today we can all assume we have been spared the ax, unlike the men, women, and children victim to the tragedies of life.
So what will you do with today?
Our church has surely been spared the ax having bounced back from a huge deficit. We’ve been given another year thanks be to God – but should we use God’s blessing as an opportunity to return to old ways that got us into trouble in the first place?
Whatever yesterday was like, disappointments, mistakes, we have all been given the gift of today – and today the gardener is ready to work through you, nourishing you by his Spirit, forgiving you your sins by his almighty grace – that you might bear fruit.
In this time of lent – you are called to give thanks to the one who has spared you from the ax and given you the gift of today.
Do not squander this gift by returning to the ways of sin, but be about the practice of examination – not to the examination of your neighbors to fuel self-righteousness – but to examine something you can actually change.
Do not waste this gift.
You have been given today – so turn away from your own sin and live into the new life that our Lord Jesus Christ has provided you.
No you do not deserve it.
No you could never earn it.
But here it is – here today is – a chance for new life.