Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The King of the Jews

Luke 23: 33-43, page 748
When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: This is the King of the Jews.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?” We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s a strange lesson for someone’s last sermon I know, but the decision was made for me – today is a great day for the church calendar, before we begin preparing for Christ’s birth, we celebrate his Lordship on what is today, Christ the King Sunday.
On this Sunday then, in a world of uncertainty where we wonder who or what is in control, we come to terms with the truth – that Christ is King.
I say we live in a world of uncertainty and I think you know that I’m not just talking about how upside down the world seems to Georgia Tech basketball fans in the wake of their defeat to Kennesaw State or how there seems to be no justice in a world where Bristol Palin continues on to the finals in Dancing with the Stars – I’m talking about a nation’s too long season of unemployment where too many don’t know where their next paycheck will come from and wonder if it will come in time to pay the heating bill or the mortgage.
A world of injustice where too many go without water, and where oil has become so valuable we risk the wellbeing of our oceans to mine for more.
A world where the Nation of Haiti, besieged by earthquake is now ravaged by disease, people striking out against each other - rioting in the street.
I’m talking about a world where we wonder just who it is that’s in control.
That’s why Christ the King Sunday means something – we remember this day who is in control – but it’s also my last Sunday, which got me thinking.
During my time with you, we’ve been through difficult times. The economy has caused hardship in many of our lives and in the life of our church. We’ve also lost loved ones. We’ve faced personal struggles. We’ve asked hard questions, we’ve been given hard answers, but in all these things I’ve been amazed by you – for despite all the challenges of our time together, you have shown me what it means to be faithful – you made the choice, that in a world of uncertainty where so much lies out of your control, you have chosen to be faithful, you have chosen life.
To choose life in the midst of a victim’s situation is a bold choice, as in doing so you did not allow the most obvious interpretation of events to go unchallenged.
You have stood in storms of uncertainty, as people too often are, and while all arrows seemed to be pointing in one direction and you’ve acted as though the meaning of devastating events - cancer, loss, divorce, unemployment – events interpreted by so many in our world as hopeless - as though meaning were yet undetermined, as though you still had a choice in how to respond.
There’s a lesson here then for the world – in the midst of confusing news, tragedy that we don’t understand occurring in a world that we don’t seem to have any control over as though we were the victims of chance – we still have a choice in how we understand.
This is profoundly important because defining what the circumstances of our world mean and what we should do about them is a constant battle fought by those who know, as Rome knew, that not just events, but the meaning assigned to events, matters.
In our scripture lesson for today, they didn’t just kill Jesus, you see, they gave this event meaning.
They harassed and humiliated him. They hung him there for everyone to see, killing him slowly, painfully, so that in his dying his weakness would speak volumes to all those who considered him powerful, his helplessness would be proclaimed to any who thought him divine, and the severity of his execution would silence his disciples and any others who might think of following in his footsteps.
Rome didn’t just kill him – his death was a warning to any who might doubt Roman power.
Rome didn’t just kill him – they made sure that any faith in him was rendered pointless.
Rome didn’t just kill him – they called him the King of the Jews – mocking any threat to Roman authority, making sure that everyone knew any challenge to Caesar was nothing more than a joke.
He can’t even save himself they said – what kind of a king can’t even save himself?
As though saving yourself were a sign of power.
While they mocked him and doubted him, as Rome utilized his death to communicate their power, Christ makes two statements that must have seemed like a whisper compared to the media campaign of the Roman Empire: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And to the criminal, the only one who sees what this event truly means, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In all of it, we see that true power is in choosing not to believe according to the scare tactics of this present evil age, where meaning is assigned by those who seek to control you.
True power is in choosing to forgive those who persecute you in our world of revenge and terror. True power lies with those who choose not to save themselves, but die to selfishness that paradise be attained together.
Our world of milestones, current events, and non-stop news cycles is one where meaning is assigned, power is managed, and death seems to have the final word.
There is no point in challenging it, they say.
There is no power greater than the one that seems to rule our world.
But just as Peter had, we still have a choice. The question, “who do they say I am?” is not nearly as important as “who do you say I am?”
The choice to see that there is no King besides the King of the Jews.
In following him we choose life over death.
In choosing to forgive rather than blame and rant, we model a different way that those in power too often seem to know nothing about.
And in serving our neighbors as Christ saved that criminal there on the cross, we defy cycles of selfishness that destroy communities, worlds, and leave individuals alone and afraid – just where Death wants us.
So my charge to you is this – just as you chose life, chose hope – go on choosing to believe that the God of hope will not disappoint you.
Just as you chose Christ over Rome before – go on holding him close though the world would pull you apart.
And just as you, by your actions, have defied the powers of sin and death, go on doubting their power in this world which defy God’s righteousness and love.
Choose to follow the King of the Jews – and I tell you the truth – paradise awaits.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The God of the Living

Luke 20: 27-40, page 745
Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children.
Finally the woman died too.
Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”
Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Our house is on the market now, so keeping things clean for prospective buyers has taken on particular importance. Our dogs, we have three dogs and if you take no other moral lesson from this sermon than a warning that three dogs is too many dogs I will have done my job well enough, our dogs have gotten into the habit of kidnapping Lily’s stuffed animals and tearing them apart in the back yard. Sara sent me into the backyard the other day to pick up the remnants of one of my poor daughter’s less fortunate stuffed animals.
It’s strange what happens sometimes in the midst of such a project. As I was picking up stuffed animal stuffing from the backyard I started noticing other projects that needed doing – that there were also bibs in the backyard that the dogs had taken outside, leaves on the patio chairs, pine straw that needed raking, and the gutters were clogged. Then I noticed parts of the house that could use a fresh coat of paint, fence rails that could stand to be replaced, and on and on and on until the whole house suddenly seemed to be in such disrepair that I came to the hopeless conclusion that no one would ever want to buy it.
It all started with my focus, and while most people don’t go from picking up stuffed animal stuffing to thinking that their perfectly fine house is a junk heap, what we focus on has a big impact on how we understand ourselves and the world – an eye for stuffed animal stuffing can snowball – we go from seeing a paint chip on the car and a perfectly fine automobile starts to look like a jalopy – the sight of a pimple turns the prom queen’s self image from beauty to the beast.
What we focus on matters, so while we don’t learn much about the Sadducees just by reading our scripture lesson for the day, we do learn their focus. Our lesson begins: “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.”
Luke doesn’t tell us much here, but I’m willing to bet that the author of Luke is telling us all he thinks we need to know, that the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.
I’m sure that there was much more to the Sadducees than just that, but by Luke they are defined according to what they focused on, where they stood on the great debate of the day, whether or not there was a resurrection of the dead.
Luke doesn’t tell us more any more than that, but the Sadducees’ belief spanned many more issues than this one – they focused on the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In so many ways they were like the Pharisees, except the Pharisees broadened their focus beyond the first five books of the Bible into nearly the whole of what we now have as the Old Testament, and based on these additional books the Pharisees came to believe that there was scriptural evidence for life after death.
These two groups, similar in so many ways, defined themselves according to this small difference. For the Sadducees, in order to know who they were they had to know who they weren’t, and so they defined themselves according to how they were different from the Pharisees on the great divisive topic of the day.
Jesus steps into the room, and like so many of us who are on one side of a debate or another, the Sadducees wanted to know if Jesus was with us or them.
This is what we all do to some degree or another – we want to know, are you with us or are you with them. When I went up to Tennessee last week folks wanted to know whether I was a UT fan or a Vanderbilt fan.
My response was, “Vanderbilt has a football team?”
More important than which college football team I cheer for is where Jesus stands on the great issues of the day – so the Sadducees want to know what Jesus thinks, and like so many groups who have spent too much time focusing on one particular issue, the Sadducees have reached the point of asking hypothetical questions so ridiculous that they make people feel like they either have to be with them or must be an idiot.
Seven men married to one woman – whose wife will she be?
If there is a resurrection from the dead – how can this poor woman be married to seven men? See – there can’t be a resurrection from the dead. Think about how ridiculous that would be.
But it’s not so different from the ways certain groups portray each other today. Wouldn’t you stop a woman from murdering her child? Then how can you let her murder her fetus?
Don’t you believe that women have a right to decide for themselves what they do with their bodies, or would you have them wear burkas and get their husbands permission before they do anything?
We would like to know what Jesus would do, where he would stand regarding the great debates of our day – but in a way it’s like asking what James Madison would say about video games if you’ve been following the Supreme Court hearings this week – he’s a man of another time who responded to his generation’s hot topics and not ours.
But in another way, asking Jesus to side with you or with them is even more impossible because Jesus isn’t ever on one side or the other.
Yes, Jesus takes a stand, he isn’t wishy-washy or appealing to both groups at the same time, but what’s different about Jesus is that he takes a stand by bridging differences rather than deepening the divide between the two groups.
To the Sadducees who focused solely on the books of Moses Jesus says, “Even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”
Not only is this appeal to Moses important for the sake of Jesus beating the Sadducees at their own game claiming that even Moses believed in a resurrection of the dead, but this last phrase, for to God all are alive, speaks of unity in the midst of division. For to God, all are alive.
Jesus doesn’t stand in one camp and not the other – Pharisee or Sadducee, for to God, all are alive – not just opposite camps whose focus on difference convinces them that they are more different than they are alike, but the whole of creation, and even beyond it – from the living to the dead – all are alive to God.
Unlike us, Jesus’ focus is not on what divides, knowing that if our focus is on what makes us different we will forever be divided. Jesus focus is on what makes us one - and in the eyes of God, we are all alive.
Ours is a time of intense division. Battle lines are drawn and heightened attention has been drawn to them in these midterm elections, but if our focus as a nation is on how we are different, who is right and who is wrong, who is for freedom and who is not, then the terrorists have won – you haven’t heard it lately but it’s still true: united we stand or divided we fall.
The same is true for our church – if our focus is on what divides us, then we are just where Satan wants us to be: weak, fragmented, going nowhere because we can’t agree on where to go.
So we’ve got to remember Jesus words: For to God, all are alive – and in the eyes of God there is so much that makes us one.
Unfortunately, the Sadducees did eventually come together with the Pharisees. Unified they cried out to crucify the one who called them together.
May we not be so blind.
Open your eyes to the truth. Open your eyes to the reality, that you are surrounded by your brothers and sisters.
Thanks be to God, the God who makes us one.