Monday, March 19, 2012

The Grain Must Die

John 12: 20-36, page 106
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 thy name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
The crowd standing there heard it and said 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.
On more than one occasion, I must confess, I’ve made fun of the great 20th Century governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson. Though she was a college graduate in a time when so many women were left uneducated, was the second female governor in United States history and the first female governor of the great state of Texas, was by most accounts, a great leader, a populist, a fiscal conservative, and a great opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, is perhaps most famous for saying, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.”
Jesus, you see, did not speak English. He spoke a language called Aramaic.
But seminary students, trained to read scripture, in the language scripture was first uttered in, learn to read, not Aramaic but Hebrew and Greek.
I knew why I was supposed to learn Hebrew, but on my first day of Greek class I had no idea why we were being forced to learn Greek and I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t learning Aramaic.
I was too embarrassed to ask anyone why we were learning Greek however, so I just went on learning it, not knowing why I was learning it, until one day I overheard a conversation on the subject: “Greek was the universal written language of Jesus’ world.” So the Gospels were not written in Aramaic as it was not a written language, not Hebrew as only Jews learned to read it, but Greek, the language of Asia Minor, Ethiopia, and Spain. It was at the time of Jesus, the written language of the Roman Empire, what Latin was to the world for much of the Common Era during the great expansions of the Roman Catholic Church, and what English is to the world today.
From our own Central High School to schools in Tokyo and Paris, even rock bands in Kabul, Afghanistan, English is the closest thing the world has today to a universal written language.
It is the language of the most powerful nation on earth. It is the language used in the most exciting movies anyone can see; it is the language of President Barak Obama, William Shakespeare, and Wall Street.
People who have something to say to the world today are saying it in English, just as people who had something that was worth saying in the ancient world wrote it in Greek. It was the language that people who were educated enough to be literate learned to read, it was the language of Homer and Plato, the language of democracy, power, empire, and influence.
So these Greeks go to Philip, we assume that something about living in Bethsaida in Galilee meant that he could understand their Greek or that they all could speak Hebrew, these Greeks go to Philip in the hope of seeing Jesus but it’s important to think about why.
With so many centers of education, Nashville has been called the Athens of the South. Athens was the peak of culture and wisdom that many societies, like ours, hope to emulate, so these Greeks didn’t need Jesus the teacher – they were Greek and they had the greatest philosophers of the time – and as we still learn of them today you might argue that these Greeks had the best philosophers of any time. They had Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Diogenes who said that life was best lived impulsively, follow your desires he said – and should you take the opposite slant the Greeks also had the philosophy of the Stoics, suppressing passion, living life to the fullest by avoiding emotional investment.
Unlike so many I assume that these Greeks also did not need Jesus the healer to deliver a miraculous healing as they had Hippocrates and the most modern medicine available to help them avoid suffering, illness, and disease.
Nor did these Greeks need Jesus the Prince of Peace as they already had democracy, they trusted the voice of the people, and were able to avoid the tyranny of leaders too powerful through election.
They didn’t need any of the things that people often go to Jesus looking for, so maybe we should wonder why they went up saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Like the Greeks, you could say that we don’t need Jesus to teach us anything, anything worth knowing is already in English.
Like those Greeks who went to see him, you could say that we don’t need Jesus to heal common ailments necessarily, we have doctors and hospitals.
And you could say that we don’t need Jesus the Prince of Peace to deliver us from tyranny as we have the right to vote and can deliver ourselves from tyranny.
But maybe like us, this group of Greeks still knew that something was missing.
That despite all their wisdom there were still some questions left unanswered.
That despite all their medicine there was still something that plagued them.
That despite all their democracy there was still some power they could not touch.
That despite all they had to enhance life something was wrong.
So Christ gives them death: “I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.”
Everything in Greek culture, and possibly even more so in our culture, is focused, not on embracing this truth but on avoiding it – avoiding this one reality that we cannot do anything about.
I was reminded of this truth recently by our church’s directory. A new directory of our church has just been produced, which prompted our church secretary, Debbie Sherman, and our Maury County historian, Bob Duncan, to pull out church directories from many years ago. Bob was able to find a pamphlet produced by our church from the 1920’s – various reports were included. So many of the names listed are familiar – Dale, Fleming, Jewel, Borum, Frierson – while other things I’m thankful are quite different - pastor’s annual salary was listed at $3,000. The same is true of the directory from 1976 – much is the same – the church organist for example – only her hairstyle has changed; many of you are pictured also – Hal Landers for example, but he’s smaller – in fact in 1976 his head is smaller than the bow tie that he’s wearing.
These differences are noticeable, and they’re fun to notice, and that made me realize that 10 years from now, Annie Laura Hill, whom we just baptized will be big, and we’ll remark on how much she’s grown. We’ll all be looking at my picture on the first page of the directory from 2012 saying, “Look, back then he still had his hair.”
But more than that, the hard part about a directory is that it preserves who was there then, making plain who isn’t with us anymore.
Already our directory from 2012 is out of date – all ready there are those pictured who are no longer with us – and this is the great struggle for humanity – not how to live, but how to deal with the reality of death, a reality that every facet of our culture wants to avoid.
Our medicine preserves life at all costs, compromising quality of life for length of life, our government’s purpose is to provide for the means of attaining life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and we all are conditioned to want to look younger, taking great pains to hide what might give our true age away.
So what Jesus has to offer these Greeks is not only foreign, it is completely different from anything else their culture and ours has to offer.
The way of Christ is not the way of our culture, as Christ does not fear death!
What Christ offered those Greeks must have seemed foolishness then, but Paul would say, “The message of the cross is foolishness… but the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
What we have in Christ is foolishness to much of the world – that life is to be lived, not by fearing suffering, hardship, and death, but that life is to be lived with all of these things in plain view for death is not to be feared as death is not the end but the pathway to the new beginning.
On this, the Fourth Sunday of the Season of Lent, we embrace a truth that few in our culture know anything about – that death is not to be feared – and so we prepare ourselves to observe the most important death of human history attempting to understand who Christ is and what he did for us.
The Greeks, those masters of preserving and enjoying life, came to see Jesus, and in him they found something they had not seen before.
In him may you find the truth, that out of hardship comes new life, that hope bursts forth from shadow, and that not death, but life streams forth from the tomb.
May you see Jesus, the light, and become sons and daughters of the light.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cleansing the Temple

John 2: 13-22, page 93
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
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. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place!”
His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 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.
Among other things, today is “Selection Sunday,” the day when the teams competing in the NCAA basketball tournament will be finalized. After today the brackets are set and men and women across the country will spend their time between now and the championship game on April 2nd obsessing over the rise and fall of basketball teams comprised of 18-21 year old college students.
Interestingly, this is the first year since 1946 that Harvard University will make an appearance.
It’s an amazing achievement I think – because we all know that at Harvard, no one gets to graduate majoring in something like “social sciences,” or “multi-disciplinary studies,” or “pottery,” or “badminton.” Growing up a Georgia Tech fan, I was raised to dull the pain of a loss to the University of Georgia by saying something like, “Georgia Tech players have a harder time – they don’t go to school just to play – they also have to go to class.”
I’ve heard a similar sentiment from Vanderbilt fans – and whether it’s true or just an excuse for not doing as well as Georgia or UT – there certainly is a concern that college sports hold too prominent a place in the academy.
Some would say that there are two kinds of colleges today – there are colleges who relentlessly pursue academic excellence, and others who relentlessly pursue athletic titles. Of course, only one of these pursuits really makes any sense. Colleges were created for education, not sports, but when there is money involved the line gets blurry.
There are rules put in place to set the two things apart, to stop student athletes from focusing solely on their sport to the detriment of their education. The problem is, it’s difficult to stop one from taking over the other.
In Jerusalem, the problem was different but it was also the same.
The problem wasn’t sports taking over schools, but the marketplace taking over the temple.
To provide a suitable sacrifice for those who didn’t bring one from home, ancient believers were able to honor God by buying an animal as meager as a dove or as grand as cattle right outside the temple. This industry emerged out of convenience, but grew into a problem.
There were rules and a bureaucratic structure to keep the two things separate. Regular money wasn’t allowed and had to be exchanged for coinadge free from any graven image. A suitable sacrifice was provided for purchase no matter how poor. But as is always the case, purpose and priorities blur especially when money is involved, and the industry that emerged to enable suitable worship began to take over.
It’s a problem you’re probably all too familiar with.
You’ve spent plenty on taking your children to the circus, but the show takes on a supporting role to the gift shop you are forced to walk through on your way out. Suddenly the fact that you took them to the circus doesn’t matter at all, while the fact that you wouldn’t buy them a glow in the dark sword brings them to tears.
Of course, it’s not that buying and selling is necessarily a problem. Jesus doesn’t go from toppling the vendor’s tables in the temple to knocking over stalls in the marketplace – it’s that he is for preserving the sanctity of the sanctuary and against the rules and standards of commerce invading every aspect of our lives.
There is always a need to control, a need for laws that limit and commandments that enforce to stop the tail from wagging the dog.
The job that serves as a means to provide for your family can become, not the means to an end but the end in and of itself. Hours spent at work longing to be home change to hours spent at home preoccupied with work.
The beer you drink to enhance your life, to relax, to better enjoy the party, so easily becomes the party itself – no longer a way to make life better but the reason to live.
The tables set up to enhance worship by providing a suitable sacrifice crept in slowly to overtake worship itself – the temple no longer a temple but a marketplace, like a college no longer a college but a football program.
This is just the way we work – that which can take us over, we hold it at arm’s length while it creeps in closer.
These weeks of the Season of Lent call us to examine ourselves, to give something up, to remember that we can live without in a culture that conditions us to long for more.
While this time of Lent calls you to work less and to value your family more, the world makes you feel guilty, for by the standards of the world you are only as valuable as the work that you do.
While this time of Lent calls you to give up the rich food and drink that you know you don’t really need to survive, the world tempts you back to old habits living as one who lives to eat and not one who eats to live.
And while this time of Lent calls you to examine your life, to rethink how things are, know that one of the great evils of our world is the temptation to value money over all else – to make it using any means necessary, to take all that you can, while viewing your neighbors not as brothers and sisters but as clients, employees, or customers to take advantage of.
Christ stands in the midst of all of this saying, “Stop! Stop making my Father’s house a market place!”
Know instead that the Holy One of God calls you to a new way of life, where there is living water that brings satisfaction, where you are seen for who you are and called beloved, where what can be bought and sold has no value for everything good is poured out abundantly.
Come to the table today and taste how your life could be if you only lived according to the limits rather than constantly stepping over the line.
Come to the table and drink deeply from the cup of salvation and know that all God’s greatest gifts are poured out abundantly for you.
Come to the table and remember the one who died for you, the one who three days later rose again so that you might truly live.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Follow Me?

Mark 8: 31-38, page 44
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 you 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 adulteress 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.”
The Oscars were on last week, and I think it was when Angelina Jolie debuted her right leg that I realized celebrities are different from ordinary people.
No one, or no one I know, really dresses like that, but more than that, no one I know possesses such confidence, is so universally recognizable, and lives such a foreign lifestyle.
On the other hand, while no one I know has ever been attacked by flash photography just for getting out of a limousine, there is a lot to remind us that really, celebrities are still just like us.
Hearing acceptance speeches I realized that just like most of us, most celebrities aspire to modesty and graciousness, at least when they know people are looking.
Like most of us, they long for acceptance, bask in affirmation, and look ugly when they cry.
And just like us, they make mistakes and disappoint the people who care about them.
They worry about the future and cling tightly to the present.
They strive to be better while at the same time compromising their values and losing themselves to the world around them.
They’re different from us, but at the same time they’re not.
Jesus can give the same impression.
He’s the Son of God but calls himself the Son of Man.
He’s holy, divine, and yet he’s still flesh and blood.
In our first scripture lesson he silenced the storm with his words, something none of us can do, while in the second scripture lesson his words cut his friend deeply, something all of us have done and can do.
“Get behind me Satan,” he says to Peter, as though in a state of frustration he overreacts, or in a struggle to go through with what he knows he must do, he silences the only one with the power to talk him out of it.
It’s amazing that when he is tempted by Satan himself in the desert for 40 days the author of the Gospel of Mark barely mentions it. You would think that the Gospel writer would spend more time describing this event, something that few can say they’ve experienced firsthand. However, while describing something that we’ve all experienced, an honest argument between friends, the Gospel of Mark goes into detail.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, like a friend concerned that Jesus had gone too far, had shared too much, or had presented a self-destructive plan when there must be an alternative. “Surely there must be a way to avoid all this, Jesus. Be rejected, suffer, and then be crucified? There must be another way.”
Like Jesus, you know what this is like.
You know what you have to do, but your resolve is thin, and a friend who can talk you out of it is the most dangerous enemy you can face.
You’ve eaten your last slice of pie, resolved to live better – but all it would take to fall back into bad habits is a visit from an old friend.
You’ve made the decision to go off to school, to pursue your dreams, but your high school boyfriend could keep you home. It would only take the right words.
Seeing clearly right and wrong is easy if the devil is dressed in red with horns and a pointy tail, if all you need to do to stay on the straight and narrow is avoid people who lurk in shadows and alley ways. But the truth is that doing what is right isn’t nearly so easy. Temptation creeps into boardrooms disguised in a suit and tie, and the greatest struggle isn’t persevering down the path of righteousness alone but persevering when the ones who love you the most are sure there could be another way.
What we learn from this conversation between Jesus and Peter is the truth – that temptation is the most powerful, not when it comes in the form of the Devil himself, but when incarnate in what we least expect – that’s when doing what is right is the most difficult.
Drugs exist without posing any threat until they’re offered by a friend.
Doing what you believe is right is hard enough, but when standing up for the one everyone else is ridiculing means disappointing people whose acceptance you want, it’s nearly impossible.
We all strive to be better, but when opening the door to the future means breaking relationships we’ve held dear in the past it’s easier to just keep things as they are.
So when Peter rebukes Jesus is when the Christ faces his most difficult challenge.
Like you and me, he faces a choice – stick with Peter or go on alone.
It must have been a similar situation for Delores Heart, who after staring in a movie, one in which she had the opportunity to kiss Elvis Presley himself, left Hollywood to become a Benedictine Nun. Can you imagine how her friends rebuked her? Why would she leave now, when she’s on her way to the top? “Do you have any idea what I would give to be in your shoes, and you’re going to throw it all away?” Some good hearted friend must have suggested counseling, assuming that Deloris had lost her mind.
She returned to the red carpet for her first Academy Awards since 1959, dressed in the monastic colors of black and white. I wonder what her friends say about her now.
That Christ knows this temptation makes him human. That he struggles with it makes him just like you and me.
It’s conformity that he breaks with, and while conformity is such a value of the Empire just as it is now, conformity has never been a value for those who choose to follow him.
He is just like you in that he knows how hard it is to stand up and do what is right, and while Christ is the only one who gets it right the very first time, like Peter you are invited to follow though you’ve fallen short before.
Even though you’ve gone along with the crowd before – today he invites you to stand up for the ones who no one else will defend.
Even though you’ve accepted behavior that you know is wrong before – today he invites you to follow him down a path of righteousness.
Even though you’ve let them hold you back – today he invites you to grab hold of your destiny, to follow him, giving up the life that you have so that you might truly live.
The road of the righteous is hard, but those who give up their lives for the greater good will never die. And of them the Son of Man will never be ashamed.